Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

don't sleepDon’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, Daniel Everett

In 1977, Daniel Everett and his family went to live with a remote Amazonian tribe to translate the Bible and convert the people. Instead, Everett came out an atheist and challenging all of the standards of linguistic orthodoxy. This is his story.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is part memoir, part scientific explainer, part anthropological study. Everett himself is quite an interesting character. He had an unstable and challenging childhood, but in high school met a girl, Keren, from an Evangelical, and former missionary, family. He fell for her, converted, and the two of them decided to also become missionaries. They joined a group called SIL International with a particular missionary tactic, dedicated to sending missionaries out to stay with uncontacted people, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Everett showed an amazing aptitude for languages, and by all accounts, even those who disagree with his theories, he is a uniquely gifted linguist. SIL noticed this and after their studies were complete he and his family were sent to live with the Pirahã (pronounced “Pee-da-han”), a remote tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, speaking a language that was connected to no known living language and that had stymied other translators they’d sent.


I remember Everett’s work making a bit of a splash when it first came out, even in traditional news sources. Well, okay, nerdy ones like NPR, The New Yorker, and The Economist, but still. Everett became the first outsider to be fluent in Pirahã, and, indeed, fluent in their culture. And here is where he began to challenge both traditional linguistics and, through his immersion in their culture and resistance to conversion, to lose his own Christian faith. It’s the linguistics part that got him the most attention. I am not a linguist, but will try to walk briefly through the debate.

The prevailing theory of linguistics, and practically the only one at the time of Everett’s studies, is that the basic structure of language is something that humans are born with. Looking at the similarities in languages, how all children acquire them automatically with no effort, at roughly the same ages, and how the complexities in our language are unique to humans and not to be found in other species that communicate, there is something specifically human about language and a ‘language center’ in our brain.

So far, this doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. Obviously, there’s something that makes us ‘different’. What starts to be a problem is that this theory, which originated with Noam Chomsky, holds that there are building blocks that will be found in absolutely every language, and that we can understand language best by studying these innate traits in very language. And that there is no need to correspond with culture or the society in which a language developed, because the same tools will be found in each. Like tenses, basic descriptive words, abstractions, and something called recursion, the ability to imbed one thought in another. An example would be, “The girl, who wore a red dress and was drinking coffee, entered the bookstore and browsed the mystery section.” In theory, you can use recursion to imbed almost infinite ideas and write Faulkner length sentences. According to Chomsky, this is one of the building blocks of human languages and must be part of a human language center, every language would have it.

And here is the problem, what made such a splash when Everett started publishing his work. The Pirahã do not have recursion. In their language, there is no way to write the above sentence. Instead, they would say, “There is a girl. She has a red dress. She was drinking coffee. She entered the bookstore. She looked at the mystery section.” Only they wouldn’t really say that, because the other key issue that Everett focused on in his linguistic and cultural studies is that the Pirahã don’t include abstract concepts.  And so they don’t have color words. They would say, “There is a girl. She is wearing a dress the color of ripe passion fruit.”

It seems like this element of recursion is a relatively small thing, but in fact, it was, and still is, controversial. Pirahã is the only language that doesn’t seem to have this. It also, as mentioned, doesn’t include abstract concepts, and so there are not descriptive words, such as colors, that exist unto themselves, only comparisons to other things. They do not have numbers other than one, two, a few, or many, something that they do share with a few other languages. Their tenses are limited, as they place an importance on immediate and personal experience, which is rather unique among culture as well. There are other pieces that make Pirahã a particularly challenging language. Pirahã also has very few phonemes (think the parts of a word that make syllables, every unique sound). Everett counts 11, the smallest known number. It’s also a highly tonal language, that can sound like singing, and indeed, much of the language can be communicated through whistling due to the importance of tones. And it is one of the few languages to have a male and female version—not male and female words like “la casa” and “los banos” the way many Latin languages do, but separate ways that a woman would talk and a man would talk. But while all of these make it a difficult language to learn and translate, it is the lack of recursion or abstraction that challenge existing theories.

The discussions on language were quite interesting. What Everett focused on, and what I was surprised to learn most Chomskyian linguists refuse to consider, is that culture informs language and language informs culture. What comes first can be a chicken of an egg question, but they both work with each other. If there isn’t an importance for something in a language, the people won’t have a word for it. And if there isn’t a word for it, people won’t identify it as important. This seems to me, as someone who’s done a good deal of social science work, as obvious, but apparently Chomsky’s emphasis on the linguistic center of the brain and commonality have suggested that language exists independent of other human experience and has nothing to do with culture. It seems as if it is a lone holdout in the sciences that hasn’t caught up to our post-Skinner world.

This book, however, goes beyond language. Everett focuses on how the lack of numbers, abstraction, tenses, etc. stem from a couple of unique aspects of the Pirahã. One of them is that they are fiercely isolationist. They have no interest in anything from an outside culture, and this includes missionaries. They trade with some individuals along the Amazon for liquor and a few other select items, but for the most part have no interest in anything brought by outsiders, including new languages, clothes, maths and sciences, or religions.

The other, as mentioned above, is their focus on immediate experience. They don’t dry fish or fruit or otherwise plan for the future (something that couldn’t exist in a northern culture, but works out in the tropics), they make planes when one comes to the village but otherwise don’t make art, they don’t have abstract words, such as colors, but would compare one thing to another—the color of a papaya, for instance, instead of pale green, and are one of the few cultures with no origin story. Everett says that when he would try to explain Jesus they would ask if he had seen Him, or if his friends had. When Everett said it was just passed down in books, they lost all interest.

Seeing how the Pirahã had no interest in Jesus or Christianity is what Everett to eventually lose his faith, and his marriage. His former wife Keren still lives in Brazil as a missionary. Everett, however, struggled on how to break through to the Pirahã and was ultimately struck by the simple fact that they didn’t seem to need Christianity, because they were fine without it, and so he turned away as well.

Don’t Sleep was incredibly interesting throughout, but I found that I had far more questions than answers in the anthropology type sections of the book than the linguistics. When describing his life with the Pirahã, Everett repeatedly says that they are the happiest people he’s ever met, which may well be true, and how wonderful their lives are. And he is clearly comfortable and at home in their life and culture, which shines through in the book. Where I think he breaks down is that he is constantly seeming to sell this life, again and again emphasizing how happy they are, how independent, how peaceful. Except that he also recounts how he watched a woman die in childbirth in the river alone because no one went to help her, independence being one of the traits of the tribe. And a harrowing story of how the tribe got drunk one night and talked about killing Everett and his family which was only averted because they didn’t realize how much of their language Everett had understood. Or the tale of one Pirahã woman who had married outside her tribe, and the other Pirahã had killed her husband and she had been forced to return. And again and again and again.

Everett tells us how happy and peaceful and content the Pirahã are, and then shows us the complete opposite. I don’t mean at all to suggest by this that the Pirahã are uniquely terrible or should be converted. Only that he seems to be somewhat blinded by his love of the culture and comfort in their society. A society that is probably on par with others in terms of misery and cruelty and violence—I mean, hey, we all have problems. I’ve since read that Everett has been criticized for being too close with the Pirahã to be truly independent in his field work, and I find that believable in terms of anthropology, although I’m not sure how much it would change his linguistic works or ability to translate.

All in all, though, while I question some of Everett’s conclusions or evaluations of the society, the book itself was fascinating on all levels. Everett is a skilled writer, and the topics here are ones that are incredibly unique and not often covered. He also, as mentioned above, touches on such a wide variety of topics that there is something for everyone, whether looking for linguistics, a travelogue, anthropology, or memoir. It’s stuck with me for a while, and that’s always a good quality in a book.


God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason

God and the PhiliosophersGod and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, ed. Thomas Morris

I really wanted to like this book. Discussing the intersection of faith and reason is a topic I’m intensely interested in, for one thing. For another, I’m interested in philosophy but much of philosophy currently seems to be focused on an atheistic belief system, and disproving faith and free will, so I was interested in reading a different view point, from philosophers who have struggled with this personally and professionally.

Sadly, I was highly disappointed. While the book says it’s about the “Reconciliation of Faith and Reason” it’s really about religion and philosophy, and just the one religion—Christianity—and primarily a more conservative version of it at that. There was, I believe, one essay by an Orthodox Jew, but that’s it. It’s not that it’s a problem that it was really only from the Christian point of view, but people should be up front. I do get irritated when ‘faith’ or ‘interfaith’ or ‘religion’ are used when one only means ‘Christianity.’

The essays, being written largely from the perspective of people from the same faith, and from the same, traditional, branch of that faith, working in similar institutions with similar secular (at best) and anti-theist (at worst) leanings, covered much of the same material. From my perspective, the book became quite repetitive quite quickly. I had highlighted a few passages in the first couple of essays, or found something worth pondering, and then found that same point returned to again and again over the course of the book. It droned on without most essays introducing anything new.

My last complaint is regarding the arguments themselves that were used. The essays largely covered two broad topics: the first, why the author him or herself believed in God and was a practicing Christian and what that meant to them as working philosophers, and the second, why would anyone believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God when there are so many reasons not to, particularly when one considers how many bad things happen to good people? A good question, to be sure, and one about which there have been literally millennia of discussions.

The thing is, almost all of the essays in the book focus on the problem of evil. How and why would evil exist in the world? People are horrible to each other. How, then, can we believe in the Christian God? For me, though, this question is not of very much interest. I understand how it can pose an issue to some, but there is a very obvious answer: God gave us free will, which means that sometimes humans are free to choose terrible things. If one believes in free will, which I do, then of course some people can be evil. And, in fact, I think a belief in free will is a strong argument for a belief in God or gods of some sort. After all, if there is free will it means there is something beyond a deterministic view of the world, something to ‘us’ beyond just chemicals and particles. And if there is some part of us that is beyond our physical, properties, then there is something to everything beyond the physical, measurable properties. In my mind, the concepts of God and of free will are inextricably linked.

So, several essays on why a writer still believes in God when there is evil in the world didn’t interest me as much as it might have interested others. (And even for those who are interested in it, I think this would have been too many essays on the same topic with the same conclusion-that we must believe anyway and remember that Christ is in the suffering. A very Christian answer, and another place where they could have benefited from a variety of theists.) By contrast, there is a question along these lines that interests me: why do bad things that are entirely outside of human control happen? If there is a benevolent, merciful and loving God why are there volcanoes, and tornadoes, and hurricanes, why are there plagues and why does cancer exist and why does anyone ever die in childbirth? This doesn’t have anything to do with free will, and for me has always posed a much larger problem in the ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ question. And I don’t have a great answer, and would have been interested to read one or two philosophers –not all of them—grappling with that. Although perhaps others would have found that boring. I don’t want to criticize a book for not being the book I wish had been written, but I was surprised that this aspect of suffering barely received a mention.

In summary, God and the Philosophers was full of essays that may have been interesting on their own. Each one of them was fine, although I didn’t find any particularly intriguing. However, altogether, these essays became repetitive. I just don’t think it needed to be a book.

The Benedict Option

benedict optionThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher


How can one be a faithful Christian in a world that is hostile to Christianity? That is the premise of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, a premise which has a pretty huge assumption baked into it, as you may notice. Dreher’s answer is to withdraw into our own small faith communities, following the example of St. Benedict and the Benedictine Monasteries. He suggests we support Christian* businesses, pull our kids out of public schools immediately, and create our own culture where we’ll be as cut off as possible from the impacts of the world. He think we need to brace ourselves for further attacks on Christianity*, and see Christians* continue to have to choose between being good Americans and good Christians*, and the continuing decline. The only way to survive, according to Dreher, is to withdraw into our Benedict Communities, a sanctuary, so to speak, to protect our endangered Christianity*.

Let me say upfront that I did not dislike this book as much as I expected to! The general concept of small faith communities is one that I am wholeheartedly in support of, and I think people trying to be good, to be faithful, and to do the right thing do need to support one another. I think that our current culture looks down on community and tends to discard anything that inconveniences us, and this is a problem. And I’m sympathetic to the challenges of raising children in a culture that seems to criticize my own values. I’m a parent, and I’m trying to raise my kids Catholic, raise them to be kind and giving to others, to realize they can’t have everything because its wasteful, to not be violent, and so on and so forth. And I was raised that way as well, and it was difficult! The outside culture tries to get in, and it can’t be avoided altogether. (Mom, Dad, I’m sorry for all of the times that we snuck out to go to Dougie Olson’s place to play Mortal Kombat.) (Also, I’m still not sorry for all the times I watched MTV. I maintain that that ban was unnecessary.) In my own house, we have constant parenting discussions about how much to let the kids pretend to shoot each other, what video games and shows to watch, and on a grown up level what it’s okay for us to invest in, and how much its okay to invest instead of donate.

So I can understand where Dreher is coming from. And I am a fan of the concept of small faith communities, and living intentionally.  Building stronger lay communities is incredibly valuable and important, both to strengthen the Church and for individuals looking for spirituality, friendship, and living out their values. All that said, though, everything about the way Rod Dreher seems to approach this is off. Let us state from the beginning that Christianity, and even Christianity*, is not under threat here in the United States. No one is going to be hauled off to jail for being Christian, there are no pogroms, no one is being fed to the lions. This is not the time of the martyrs (a time that is likely overstated anyway.) There are pressures against Christianity in our society, but threats against Christians—at least in the United States—are far overstated by the Drehers and Chaputs and Grahams of the world.

Then, again, a common theme among the Drehers of the world is that there is really only the one way that Christianity* is under threat, and that’s from the legality of gay marriage. Oh, sure, he makes a couple feints towards the importance of helping people, and of standing up to racism, but these are clearly thrown in. Again and again the horrors of legalizing gay marriage, of teaching respect for transgender individuals, and otherwise going against natural law are held up as the way Christians* will be wiped out.

I don’t understand this. At all. No one is making other people get gay married. And for all the fear that is brought up about this, no one will ever say the Church has to recognize gay marriage. Right now, a religious leader can refuse to officiate the marriage of anyone for any reason—notice how divorce has been legal for a very, very, very long time, but the Catholic Church still won’t remarry someone who’s legally been divorced? There are the constant fears of how religious liberty is being attacked because there may be laws saying that business owners have to serve someone with different religious beliefs, which are being fought over right now, true. But other than that changes to our beliefs, and changes to Church teaching on sexual issues, are for the most part not being forced on us.

And even if the sexual mores of our society have diverged from Catholic teaching (which happened a while ago, really), is this the greatest threat to Christianity? They have often diverged to a certain extent, at least in practice, but we go forward saying what the ideal is and what the Church teaches, and hope that at least the people in the pews will get it right. The Church has survived several societal shifts, major cultural changes, and massive amounts of corruption within our ranks (see, for instance, everything about the Renaissance, Inquisition, etc.).

Meanwhile, nationalism is on the rise, with increased antisemitism and racism. These are sins we have fought before, but there is ample evidence they are infecting our Church, as well as other Christian communities.  And worse, there is a seeming fear of addressing racism within our Church and an absence of clergy in the fight in a way that other social issues do not suffer from. From a religious liberty perspective, there were several bills introduced over the past few years in different states, and even in the US Congress, that would have made it illegal for church workers to assist undocumented migrants in need. To its great credit, the Church has been much stronger in standing up for migrants and refugees, but it was startling to see the conservative voices calling for the religious liberty to ignore this direct affront to our Church’s mission.

A capitalist, individualist society that tells us not to help people we see in need is a danger to our Christian identity. When businesses are penalized for paying workers a living wage, how can a committed Christian treat their workers fairly? Society based on convenience, rather that responsibilities and togetherness, is a great threat to the Church (probably one of the biggest reason people don’t show up in the pews.)  Society that is soaked in violence is a threat to the Church. There are many challenges we face.

And many small groups that have risen to address them! I was surprised that “third orders” didn’t come up at all in the book, basically lay people who have still taken vows and agreed to live by a religious orders rules, since they seem ready made for this discussion. The largest of the Third Orders currently the Lay Franciscans, who are dedicated to social justice principles. There are also lay Benedictines, though, and they don’t even get a mention. I’d think he’d want to give them a boost. Catholic worker houses seem to be relevant to this discussion, but I imagine they don’t conform to his idea of Christianity*. Heck, Amish communities seem to be dedicated on pulling away from society that would damage their religion. This idea of pulling away and creating your own faith community isn’t unique, and it’s a glaring absence that Dreher doesn’t discuss them.

One a broader note, though, pulling away entirely—and I should mention that the Catholic groups above still work within society constantly, they aren’t isolated—is antithetical to what it means to be Christian. Even if I agreed with Dreher on the worst threats facing Christianity* today; even if I agreed that we were facing an existential threat; I still wouldn’t be able to condone his suggestions. Because the fact is that we are called to be part of the world, to minister, to evangelize. And most of all, throughout Catholic teaching, we are taught that we are an Advent people. We are people of hope. We are not allowed to withdraw, to only tend to ourselves, to despair of society. We must live in the world and be a public witness, and do what we can to call others to us. And doing this while holding true to our teachings is a challenge, but it is ours to live. It does not matter the difficulties we may face, we are not called to despair and withdrawal, we are called to be Salt and Light.

*Relevant only for his particular brand of socially conservative Christianity.

Disarming Beauty

Disarming-Beauty-3D_7-1Disarming Beauty, Julián Carrón

Disarming Beauty is a series of essay by Julián Carrón, the current leader of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic organization based in Italy that started in the 1950s. These essays lay out much of the philosophy of Communion and Liberation, primarily the belief in a true encounter with Christ as the foundation of Christianity and the encounter with the perfect human of Jesus Christ as essential in letting us recognize and experience ourselves as human.

After reading some fairly glowing reviews of the book, I had high hopes. I ended up disappointed once I picked it up. For one, this collection of essays reads, well, like it is a collection of essayx. I had trouble finding the through line, how everything connected in the book. Where there was a point that was emphasized, that of the encounter with Christ, it was repeated several times, rather than built upon. The same phrases and arguments were presented again and again, rather than having a book that grew its main thesis.

My other issue is that, given the number of essays here, there were some areas that were lacking. The book hammers on the individual encounter with Christ, with Christ as the perfect human, and the idea that no institutions can be perfect (which I agree with), and that the Enlightenment’s failure was in thinking that laws could be set up to perfect humans with no other internal impetus to be better. It is very much an existential Christianity, that criticized the Western emphasis on individualism while repeatedly saying that it’s up to each individual to recognize Christ and try to be more Christlike, because no one else will do it for you.

For a Catholic organization, this seems off, though. If this is the case, where does the Church come in? Where does community and Communion come in? How do Church doctrines fit into this? I understand from my other readings that Communion and Liberation very much believes in building a community and in encountering Christ through the Church, but that did not come out in this book. It was almost, dare I say, Protestant, in its assistance that we each have an individual—which could also be described as personal—encounter—or relationship, one might say—with Christ. I do truly believe that a personal encounter and acceptance is essential, and that it does come from within, but that a key part of being a Christian is being within community as well. And especially when writing on Catholicism, this community and Church teaching is a key part of our faith, I would have liked to have read how, in his view, that interacts with the individual.

Fr. Carrón is an excellent writer, and I think most of the individual essays (although not all) are quite good, and I’d probably enjoy reading one in a magazine or some such. And, as a friend put it, it’s easy to get caught up in the “loftiness of the language” in the essays and feel you’re really being pulled along towards something. In the end, though, I didn’t find the end of what I was being pulled towards, only another repetition of what I’d read earlier. Each essay on its own is fine, but for me, this book seemed less than the sum of its parts.

Strangers in a Strange Land

strangers in a strange land

Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput

The problem with any critique that compares current society to past society, from an ethical and moral perspective, is that it is indisputable that most people are not only doing better but are treated far, far better today than they were even 30, 40 60 years ago or more. This isn’t to say that there are not critiques to be made of modern society, but those critiques lose almost all meaning when they are meant to show how progressives, or anyone else, have ruined society compared to years ago, rather than addressing these complaints as unique problems of our own time.

Chaput’s book, Strangers in a Strange Land, is full of these sort of nostalgic complaints, and joins the rank of others, such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and all of Fox news, in asserting that gay marriage is the final evidence that society and religious liberty are broken today in ways that they never have been before. This book doesn’t just assert that there are challenges in society, just as there have been in every generation. No, the issues is that feminists, gay activists, and progressives are pushing an expanding of respect to include LGBT individuals and thus destroying society, especially compared to how civics worked back at the founding of the country. And this attack on tradition—although he calls it religious liberty, ignoring the liberty of the United Church of Christ, Unitarians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and others who allow for LGBT inclusion—is undermining our respect for one another and for the civic glue that holds the country together, threatening the democratic underpinnings of our society.

The problem, again, is that most categories of people have far more respect today than they did at the country’s founding—Catholics included! There is not only the obvious, such as that slavery does not exist today, although this should not be glossed over lightly. In almost every category outside of Protestant White Male, there is a level of respect, inclusion, and extension of humanity that didn’t exist before. It is only 40 years ago that in the US women couldn’t even have a credit card on their own. Religious minorities are more accepted today than ever before.  It is only a few decades ago that many clubs would still not allow Jews, and in the 30s the German American Bund, a Nazi sympathizer group, had great support. John F. Kennedy may have won the presidency, but his Catholicism was a point of actual debate in the country. And, a category that is far too often overlooked, those with cognitive or physical disabilities are included in society now, deemed worthy of respect. And it is the forces of progressivism that have made that possible.

It is not so long ago that anyone with a mental challenge or deviance of any kind would have been condemned to a likely horrific institution, with no health or decency standards, subject to rampant abuse and forced sterilization. Those with physical deformities would be outcast, perhaps gawked at. The Americans With Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990. Providing ways for those with learning disabilities to attend school and participate in society has only happened within the last 20-30 years. In Strangers Chaput rails against the throwaway culture that encourages the abortion of a baby shown to have Down syndrome or other cognitive disabilities, which I agree is an ethical and moral outrage. But would anyone really argue that abandoning them to institutions was not throwing these people away? That there is not more respect and options for those with challenges today than a generation ago?

And instead of critiquing the attack on life represented by aborting a baby who would be a challenge in life on on its own, he wraps it into a wider critique of a progressive culture, ignoring the fact that the progressive community that wants to see LGBT people extended rights and respect as full members of the human family and participants in society in many cases includes the same medical professionals and activists who fought for those with physical and mental disabilities.  It’s not that the progressive community has always showered itself in glory with people with disabilities (eugenics being the obvious, glaring example), or even that every aspect of the progressive community does so today. But in the last few decades extending respect and assistance to those in need, and extending the ethical concerns of society, has been a progressive pursuit.

Then, of course, there are the critiques of feminism, the assertion that somehow women are less respected due to contraception and pornography.* Plus an odd critique of an Obama era add showing how government would assist a single woman to get a college degree and a job that criticized the ad for saying a woman would then rely on government rather than a husband, rather than asserting that she should be doing such things on her own! He even includes a line about feminists fighting, “imagined boogeymen like patriarchy”, again ignoring that a short time ago a woman couldn’t by a car on her own. And until 1979, it was legal throughout the US for a man to rape his wife.

The suggestions that women are less respected now due to contraception are ridiculous and condescending. There is a reason women were the ones pushing for the legality of contraception, a reason women jumped at this opportunity—because they knew that controlling their own fertility was essential to controlling their own lives. And the Catholic Church acknowledges that healthy timing and spacing of children is important, or else natural family planning wouldn’t be permitted either (NFP). And his assertion, one that I’ve heard before, that anyone having sex while on contraception is destroying their experience somehow, that “contraceptive intimacy” is not intimacy is just as insulting. He asserts that “….their sexual contact is neither intimate nor fertile nor really mutual in any sense.” Now, listen, I actually don’t have a problem with church leaders making ethical or moral proclamations about married life, at least in the abstract, if they stick with ethical claims about contraception and reproduction. But it is simply ridiculous to assert that a priest has a better idea of what helps people be intimate and have a mutually respectful and happy marriage than the married couple themselves and there is a reason people continue to use contraception, including over 90% of Catholics. And that well over 80% of Catholics say that it shouldn’t be a moral issue. Make a better argument for natural family planning—the goal of which is to not be open to having kids at that time, by the way—don’t say that there’s no reason a married couple might want intimacy without a child *at that moment*.

This isn’t to say I disliked the book entirely. I actually really enjoyed some of the critiques of the breakdown of civics, and the importance of building a society together and respecting one another, which is part of what made some of the complaints about extending respect to LGBT individuals so jarring. I also think that Chaput does truly believe that Catholicism is called, in part, to respect others, embracing people in the love of Jesus, which he highlights in the book. Again, though, this is part of what was surprising. I understand that people are called to different issues, but this book was written at the end of the 2016 election cycle, when Donald Trump had been calling Mexicans rapists, threatening a ban on Muslim refugees, and saying that he would murder the families of terrorist (all against Catholic teaching, by the way, with racism and murder of innocents in war being ‘intrinsic evils’). It seems odd to say that the biggest attack on Christian belief in the country is a loosening of sexual mores.

I think that Chaput is sincere in his faith, and that he does see the importance of respecting each individual. Again, many of his general statements about the importance of truly living out and embracing our faith, about the importance of a civic life, about the need for the Church to stand up for what is right and not reflexively support the state, I agree with. Some of his other criticisms of the tendency of people to go along, and not be honest with ourselves and our beliefs, and represent those to others, struck me as well—I underlined many passages in this book. And on a wider note, I greatly respect that he wants to engage in society, rather than retreating, and that he sees the essential nature of the Church being one of hope, love and joy rather than despair and anger, which I find many a conservative leader retreating into. He shows an admirable willingness to engage those with whom he disagrees, to criticize hatred,  and to call out those on the right when necessary—his statement on Charlottesville was excellent. But I cannot agree with the underlying assumptions of his book, or that for the Church to be respected it means we cannot even allow the respect of those with a different belief that does not harm anyone other than possibly themselves.

What it comes down to is that I agree with a quote from Chaput, from page 210, that Christians need to love other persons as “living, unique, unrepeatable images of God’s own love, imbued with his dignity.” This is what we must try to live out in every part of our lives. And where that may challenge our moral theology, well, I defer to Jesus.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”–Matthew 22:37-40



*As an aside, I would love to one day do a side by side comparison of current Catholic critique of pornography with second wave feminist critiques of pornography. My strong suspicion is that there would be a good deal of overlap.

Faith Rooted Organizing

faith-rooted organizingFaith Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, Rev. Alexia Salviterria and Peter Heltzel
Up until about 6 months ago, my entire professional life has been working in a faith-based context, either directly at a congregation or working on faith outreach for an advocacy organization.  So I’ve read a lot on the topic and attended a lot of trainings.  And this is, I think, the best book on congregation based organizing I’ve read.  It’s certainly my favorite, at least.

Congregation based/community organizing is actually a pretty basic concept.  It’s the idea of bringing people together to advocate for change.  Usually political, trying to get more money for a homeless shelter or bus routes that better reflect the trips of the people who really need them, but they an also be to stand with people who aren’t usually listened to to get badly needed changes in their lives.  So, for instance, one of the “actions” taken by a community organizing group my church is a part of was to have other community members-including white, middle class folks-join residents of a broken down, low-income rental building in confronting their landlord about needed changes, or even joining them for the walk through with maintenance.  Other organizations have banded together to challenge banks about their lending to minorities.  The idea is that congregations are called to do more than just serve others through a food pantry, and to also advocate for change in the world.

Almost every aspect of congregational organizing is based on the tenants laid out by Saul Alinsky when he started the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1930s.  Anytime one studies up on congregational organizing, Alinsky, IAF, and other organizations that came from that model come up.  This isn’t too surprising, since they are amazingly successful and Alinsky may be the first person to really create a system of community organizing and lay out some rules.  Salviterria also originally comes from that model and has worked with the PICO National Network, one of the organizations, alongside Gamaliel Foundation and DART, that was built in the IAF model.  While they are successful, though, I’ve always been uncomfortable with aspects of these organizations, and Salviterria had a lot of the same criticisms.

The issue I have with the typical model is two-fold.  Firstly, while some organizations, such as Gamalial, try to be more tied to faith, for a lot of the traditional model they’re not really faith-based.  They work out of congregations out of practicality, because in some areas of the US and in some communities they’re still the only trusted institutions, and because in all parts of the US, despite the “rise of the nones“, there are tons of congregations.  I don’t really mind this, I can respect pragmatism and practicality and it’s not as if the organization tries to remove faith from what they do-everything I’ve been to that was hosted in a congregation still started with a prayer.  But for someone looking for a truly faith-based organization, this is not that.

The second, and larger, issue I have with them is that I have never enjoyed working with them.  Everything I’ve done with the IAF has seemed overly confrontational, and with a distinct lack of respect for the members, although I know others feel differently.  There is such as strict model that they stick with because of the past success, but they strongly discourage anyone from veering from it.  While they say over and over again that they’re built on relationships and power-sharing, I’ve always felt that they don’t share power, or rather, they’re only built on raising to power those who are willing to follow everything  that they say about what should be done.  And their relational meetings have felt rote to me, not really respectful or about building relationships.

I want to emphasize here that there are a lot of people I know who do not feel this way, and have really enjoyed being part of IAF or similar groups.  I think some of my criticisms, particularly about their resistance to change, are valid objective critiques, a lot of them are likely more of a mismatch between my personality and the organization.  They’re not for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not for anyone.

Back to the book!  Faith-Rooted Organizing aims to keep a lot of the practical aspects of the usual models of congregation based organizing.  There was a lot in this book that was very familiar to me from a logistical standpoint.  But she also tries to adapt it to an explicit faith, not just congregation, context.  As one of my co-workers used to point out, if you want people to stay engaged at something at their church, you have to give them a reason to do it through the church, not just some other volunteer group.  After all, there’s a lot more competition for civic life these days.  I also found that she was a bit better on how to actually accomplish things logistically, and what she had done in the past, than some other organizing books which are heavy on the concepts and light on the applications.

Tied into this is that Salviterria evidently had some of the same problems with traditional organizing as I do.  The book emphasizes respecting one another, and argues for cooperation over “power.”  A lot of the differences are subtle, but I got the sense from her book that when she talks about authentic relationships, she means it.  IAF talks about the organizing coming from relationships, but it also talks about everything being about shared self-interest, and, again, in my experience, every relational being has been about how to get something out of it, not just getting to know someone.  And yes that’s part of any meeting when you want a volunteer, but when you’re conducting a relational meeting to check a box it’s always going to be a bit more rote and about how you can use someone.

I find myself struggling to explain the book better, because a lot of what I liked about it was the subtle differences between it and other organizing manuals, and it’s really getting into the weeds of a subject and a world that I’ve been heavily involved in for over a decade but that most people don’t even know exists.  I will sum up, though, that if you are interested in getting your congregation involved in advocacy, either with politics or just in the community helping some members stand up to a local slumlord, this is the book I’d recommend.  It’s comprehensive on both the how and the why.  And if you like the concept of congregation or community organizing but have been turned off by other organizations, give Faith-Rooted Organizing a try.  It just might appeal to you where others have left you cold.




Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

LambLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

This book was first recommended to me by a very good friend.  While I trust his book recommendations implicitly, I was still a bit hesitant about this particular book.  I hadn’t read anything by Christopher Moore before, but did know of books like The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Bite Me: A Love Story, which didn’t exactly sound like stories about the Son of God, you know?  Plus my to-be-read bookshelf is getting pretty full.  I was always going to read it, I just wasn’t sure exactly when.  Then I was up at an event for work and the table next to mine was run by the New Hampshire Bible Society.  The Director of the NH Bible Society is a nice guy, but horrible at outreach events.  He spent the entire time reading-including Lamb, which it turns out he was rereading.  I was a bit surprised to see it turn up at this event, but it did give me the kick I needed to finally check it out.

I’m sorry I delayed for even a second, and I should have known better than to sit on a recommendation from my friend.  Lamb is an absolutely fantastic and hilarious book.  I’m truly amazed by it.  It walks what is a very fine line, managing to be satirical and irreverent without being sacrilegious.  Written from the perspective of a previously unknown 13th disciple, Levi called Biff, Lamb primarily focuses on the lost years, Jesus’ life as a child and before he began his professional ministry, although the book does cover the other gospel years at the end.  The book is amazingly well researched.  Another review I read said that the book did its best when it was entirely made up by Moore, and strained itself a bit when it got to the end and had to follow the Bible.  I disagree, and enjoyed the book throughout.  Also, while Moore filled in a lot on his own, this ignores the fact that his description of Jesus’ childhood years is not entirely from his imagination.  He pulls from the non-canonical Gospels, and an extensive amount of research on what life was like in the Roman colonies about 2000 years ago.

Lamb is a hilarious book in its own right, and even funnier if you know enough about Christianity and the Bible to get all of the allusions–Moore recommends reading the Bible first to get all of the jokes, and if you can’t get a hold of one, just finding someone going door to door who can explain it to you.  I also thought it did a fantastic job of portraying a more human side of Jesus, who after all is believed to be fully human and fully God.  I also read this right after Silence, so Lamb’s alternative of what happened to Judas was a welcome counterpoint, although it’s merely a footnote in this book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys humor, and anyone interested in Christianity and religious type novels.  Again, I’m sorry I waited at all to read it.  It really is an excellent novel, a lighter treatment of serious subjects, provides a new (although not entirely different) perspective on Jesus ministry, and a fantastically fun read.  It’s now one of my favorite books, and I expect it will make it into my regular rereading rotation as well.