Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

The Devout Agnostic

by Jay Parr

Sunrise as seen from orbit. Taken by Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

I am a devout agnostic. No, that is not an oxymoron.

After considerable searching, study, and introspectionand, having been raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, no small amount of internal conflictI have come to rest in the belief that any entity we might reasonably call God would be so alien to our limited human perceptions as to be utterly, and irreconcilably, beyond human comprehension.

Gah. So convoluted. Even after something like a dozen revisions.

Let me try to strip that down. To wit: Humankind cannot understand God. We cannot remotely define God. We wouldn’t know God if it/he/she/they slapped us square in the face. In the end, we cannot say with any certainty that anything we might reasonably call God actually exists. Nor can we say with any certainty that something we might reasonably call God does not exist.

Splash text: I don't know, and you don't either.

To horribly misquote some theologian (or philosopher?) I seem to remember encountering somewhere along the way, humankind can no more understand God than a grasshopper can understand number theory.

I mean, we can’t even wrap our puny little heads around the immensity of the known physical realm (or Creation, if you prefer) without creating incredibly simplistic, and only vaguely representative models.

Let’s look at some of the things we do know. With only a handful of notable exceptions the entirety of human history has happened on, or very near to, the fragile skin of a tiny drop of semi-molten slag just under 8,000 miles across. That’s just under 25,000 miles around, or a little more than two weeks’ driving at 70 mph, if you went non-stop without stopping for meals or potty breaks.

Freight train in the American west, looking dwarfed by the landscape, with mountains visible in the far-off distance.

Even that tiny drop of slag can feel pretty vast to our little human perceptions, as anyone can tell you who has been on a highway in the American West and looked out at that little N-scale model train over there and realized that, no, it’s actually a full-sized freight train, with engines sixteen feet tall and seventy feet long and as heavy as five loaded-down tractor-trailers. And even though you can plainly see the entire length of that little train, it’s actually over a mile long, and creeping along at seventy-five miles per hour. Oh, and that mountain range just over there in the background? Yeah, it’s three hours away.

If we can’t comprehend the majesty of our own landscape, on this thin skin on this tiny droplet of molten slag we call home, how can we imagine the distance even to our own moon?

To-scale image of Earth and the Moon, with the Moon represented by a single pixel.

If you look at this image, in which the moon is depicted as a single pixel, it is 110 pixels to the earth (which itself is only three pixels wide, partially occupying nine pixels). At this scale it would be about eighty-five times the width of that image before you got to the Sun. If you’re bored, click on the image and it will take you to what the author only-half-jokingly calls “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system,” where you can scroll through endless screens of nothing as you make your way from the Sun to Pluto.

Beyond the Moon, we’re best off talking about distances in terms of the speed of lightas in, how long it takes a ray of light to travel there, cruising along at about 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour.

On the scale of our drop of moltener, Earthlight travels pretty fast. A beam of light can travel around to the opposite side of the Earth in about a fifteenth of a second. That’s why we can call that toll-free customer-service number and suddenly find ourselves talking to some poor soul who’s working through the night somewhere in Indonesiawhich, for the record, is about as close as you can get to the exact opposite point on the planet without hiring a more expensive employee down in Perth.


That capacity for real-time communication just starts to break down when you get to the Moon. At that distance a beam of light, or a radio transmission, takes a little more than a second (about 1.28 seconds, to be more accurate). So the net result is about a two-and-a-half-second lag round-trip. Enough to be noticeable, but it has rarely been a problem, asin all of human historyonly two dozen people have ever been that far away from the Earth (all of them white American men, by the way), and no one has been any further. By the way, that image of the Earthrise up there? That was taken with a very long lens, and then I cropped the image even more for this post, so it looks a lot closer than it really is.

Beyond the Moon, the distances get noticeable even at the speed of light, as the Sun is about four hundred times further away than the Moon. Going back up to that scale model in which the Earth is three pixels wide, if the Earth and Moon are about an inch and a half apart on your typical computer screen, the Sun would be about the size of a softball and fifty feet away (so for a handy visual, the Sun is a softball at the front of a semi trailer and the Earth is a grain of sand back by the doors). Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light from the Sun makes the 93-million-mile trip to Earth in about eight minutes and twenty seconds.


Even with all that empty space, our three pixels against the fifty feet to the Sun, we’re still right next door. The same sunlight that reaches us in eight minutes takes four hours and ten minutes to reach Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system since poor Pluto got demoted. If you’re still looking at that scale model, where we’re three pixels wide and the sun is a softball fifty feet away, that puts Neptune about a quarter of a mile away and the size of a small bead. And that’s still within our home solar system. Well within our solar system if you include all the smaller dwarf planets, asteroids, and rubble of the Kuiper Belt (including Pluto, which we now call a dwarf planet).

To get to our next stellar neighbor at this scale, we start out at Ocean Isle Beach, find the grain of sand that is Earth (and the grain of very fine sand an inch and a half away that is the Moon), drop that softball fifty feet away to represent the Sun, lay out a few more grains of sand and a few little beads between the Atlantic Ocean and the first dune to represent the rest of the major bodies in our solar system, and then we drive all the way across the United States, the entire length of I-40 and beyond, jogging down the I-15 (“the” because we’re on the west coast now) to pick up the I-10 through Los Angeles and over to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, where we walk out to the end of the Santa Monica Pier and set down a golf ball to represent Proxima Centauri. And that’s just the star that’s right next door.

See what I’m getting at?

What’s even more mind-bending than the vast distances and vast emptiness of outer space, is that our universe is every bit as vast at the opposite end of the size spectrum. The screen you’re reading this on, the hand you’re scrolling with—even something as dense as a solid ingot of gold bullion—is something like 99.999999999% empty space (and that’s a conservative estimate). Take a glance at this comparison of our solar system against a gold atom, if both the Sun and the gold nucleus had a radius of one foot. You’ll see that the outermost electron in the gold atom would be more than twice the distance of Pluto.


And even though that nucleus looks kind of like a mulberry in this illustration, we now know that those protons and neutrons are, once again, something on the order of being their own solar systems compared to the quarks that constitute them. There’s enough wiggle room in there that at the density of a neutron star, our entire planet would be condensed to the size of a child’s marble. And for all we know, those quarks are made up of still tinier particles. We’re not even sure if they’re actually anything we would call solid matter or if they’re just some kind of highly-organized energy waves. In experiments, they kind of act like both.

This is not mysticism, folks. This is just physics.

The crux of all this is that, with our limited perception and our limited ability to comprehend vast scales, the universe is both orders of magnitude larger and orders of magnitude smaller than we can even begin to wrap our minds around. We live our lives at a very fixed scale, unable to even think about that which is much larger or much smaller than miles, feet, or fractions of an inch (say, within six or seven zeroes).

Those same limitations of scale apply in a very literal sense when we start talking about our perception of such things as the electromagnetic spectrum and the acoustic spectrum. Here’s an old chart of the electromagnetic spectrum from back in the mid-’40s. You can click on the image to expand it in a new tab.


If you look at about the two-thirds point on that spectrum you can see the narrow band that is visible light. We can see wavelengths from about 750 nanometers (400 terahertz) at the red end, to 380 nm (800 THz) at the blue end. In other words, the longest wavelength we can see is right at twice the length, or half the frequency, of the shortest wavelength we can see. If our hearing were so limited, we would only be able to hear one octave. Literally. One single octave.

We can feel some of the longer wavelengths as radiant heat, and some of the shorter wavelengths (or their aftereffects) as sunburn, but even all that is only three or four orders of magnitudetwo or three zeroesand if you look at that chart, you’ll see that it’s a logarithmic scale that spans twenty-seven orders of magnitude.

If we could see the longer wavelengths our car engines would glow and our brake rotors would glow and our bodies would glow, and trees and plants would glow blazing white in the sunlight. A little longer and all the radio towers would be bright lights from top to bottom, and the cell phone towers would have bright bars like fluorescent tubes at the tops of them, and there would be laser-bright satellites in the sky, and our cell phones would flicker and glow, and our computers, and our remotes, and our wireless ear buds, and all the ubiquitous little radios that are in almost everything anymore. It would look like some kind of surreal Christmas.


If we could see shorter wavelengths our clothing would be transparent, and our bodies would be translucent, and the night sky would look totally different. Shorter still and we could see bright quasi-stellar objects straight through the Earth. It would all be very disorienting.

Of course, the ability to perceive such a range of wavelengths would require different organs, once you got beyond the near-ultraviolet that some insects can see and the near-infrared that some snakes can see. And in the end, one might argue that our limited perception of the electromagnetic spectrum is just exactly what we’ve needed to survive this far.

I was going to do the same thing with the vastness of acoustic spectrum against the limitations of human hearing here, but I won’t get into it because acoustics is basically just a subset of fluid dynamics. What we hear as sound is things movingpressure waves against our eardrums, to be precisebut similar theories can be applied from the gravitational interaction of galaxy clusters (on a time scale of eons) to the motion of molecules bumping into one another (on the order of microseconds), and you start getting into math that looks like this…


…and I’m an English major with a graduate degree in creative writing. That image could just as easily be a hoax, and I would be none the wiser. So let’s just leave it at this: There’s a whole lot we can’t hear, either.

We also know for a fact that time is not quite as linear as we would like to think. Einstein first theorized that space and time were related, and that movement through space would affect movement through time (though gravity also plays in there, just to complicate matters). We do just begin to see it on a practical level with our orbiting spacecraft. It’s not very bigthe International Space Station will observe a differential of about one second over its decades-long lifespanbut our navigational satellites do have to adjust for it so your GPS doesn’t drive you to the wrong Starbucks.

Physicists theorize that time does much stranger things on the scale of the universe, and in some of the bizarre conditions that can be found. Time almost breaks down completely in a black hole, for instance. Stephen Hawking has posited (and other theoretical astrophysicists agree) that even if the expanding universe were to reverse course and start contracting, which has not been ruled out as a possibility, it would still be an expanding universe because at that point time would have also reversed itself. Or something like that; this is probably a hugely oversimplified layman’s reading of it. But still, to jump over to popular culture, specifically a television series floating somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, the Tenth Doctor probably said it best:


So far we’ve been talking about physical facts. When we get into how our brains process those facts, things become even more uncertain. We do know that of the information transmitted to our brains via the optic and auditory nerves, the vast majority of it is summarily thrown out without getting any cognitive attention at all. What our brains do process is, from the very beginning, distorted by filters and prejudices that we usually don’t even notice. It’s called conceptually-driven processing, and it has been a fundamental concept in both cognitive psychology and consumer-marketing research for decades (why yes, you should be afraid). Our perceptual set can heavily influence how we interpret what we see—and even what information we throw away to support our assumptions. I’m reminded of that old selective-attention test from a few years back:

There are other fun videos by the same folks on The Invisible Gorilla, but this is a pretty in-your-face example of how we can tune out things that our prejudices have deemed irrelevant, even if it’s a costume gorilla beating its chest right in the middle of the scene. As it turns out, we can only process a limited amount of sensory information in a given time (a small percentage of what’s coming in), so the very first thing our brains do is throw out most of it, before filling in the gaps with our own assumptions about how things should be.

As full of holes as our perception is, our memory process is even worse. We know that memory goes through several phases, from the most ephemeral, sensory memory, which is on the order of fractions of a second, to active memory, on the order of tens of seconds, to various iterations of long-term memory. At each stage, only a tiny portion of the information is selected and passed on to the next. And once something makes it through all those rounds of selection to make it into long-term memory, there is evidence in cognitive neuroscience that in order to retrieve those memories, we have to destroy them first. That’s right; the act of recalling a long-term memory back into active memory physically destroys it. That means that when you think about that dim memory from way back in your childhood (I’m lying on the living-room rug leafing through a volume of our off-brand encyclopedia while my mother works in the kitchen), you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it. Because the last time you remembered it, you obliterated that memory in the process, and had to remember it all over again.

I’ve heard it said that if scientists ran the criminal-justice system, eyewitness testimony would be inadmissible in court. Given the things we know about perception and memory (especially in traumatic situations), that might not be such a bad idea.



So far I have avoided the topic of religion itself. I’m about to change course, and I know that this is where I might write something that offends someone. So I want to start out with the disclaimer that what I’m writing here is only my opiniononly my experienceand I recognize that everyone’s religious journey is individual, unique, and deeply personal. I’m not here to convert anyone, and I’m not here to pooh-pooh anyone’s religious convictions. Neither am I here to be converted. I respect your right to believe what you believe and to practice your religion as you see fitprovided you respect my right to do the same. Having stated that

Most of the world’s older religions started out as oral traditions. Long before being written down they had been handed down in storytelling, generation after generation after generation, mutating along the way, until what ends up inscribed in the sacred texts might be completely unrecognizable to the scribes’ great-great-grandparents. Written traditions are somewhat more stable, but until the advent of typography, every copy was still transcribed by hand, and subject to the interpretations, misinterpretations, and agendas of the scribes doing the copying.

Acts of translation are even worse. Translation is, by its very nature, an act of deciding what to privilege and what to sacrifice in the source text. I have experienced that process first-hand in my attempts to translate 14th-century English into 21st-century English. Same language, only 600 years later.


Every word is a decision: Do I try to preserve a particular nuance at the expense of the poetic meter of the phrase? Do I use two hundred words to convey the meaning that is packed into these twenty words? How do I explain this cultural reference that is meaningless to us, but would have been as familiar to the intended audience as we woulds find a Seinfeld reference? Can I go back to my translation ten years after the fact and change that word that seemed perfect at the time but that has since proven a nagging source of misinterpretation? Especially in the translation of sacred texts, where people will hang upon the interpretation of a single word, forgetting entirely that it’s just some translator’s best approximation. Wars have been fought over such things.

The Muslim world might have the best idea here, encouraging its faithful to learn and study their scriptures in Arabic rather than rely on hundreds of conflicting translations in different languages. Added bonus: You get a common language everyone can use.


But the thing is, even without the vagaries of translation, human language isat besta horribly imprecise tool. One person starts out with an idea in mind. That person approximates that idea as closely as they can manage, using the clumsy symbols that make up any given languageusually composing on the flyand transmits that language to its intended recipient through some method, be it speech or writing or gestural sign language. The recipient listens to that sequence of sounds, or looks at that sequence of marks or gestures, and interprets them back into a series of symbolic ideas, assembling those ideas back together with the help of sundry contextual clues to approximatehopefully—something resembling what the speaker had in mind.

It’s all fantastically imprecisewristwatch repair with a sledgehammerand when you add in the limitations of the listener’s perceptual set it’s obvious how a rhinoceros becomes a unicorn. I say “tree,” thinking of the huge oak in my neighbor’s back yard, but one reader pictures a spruce, another a dogwood, another a magnolia. My daughter points to the rosemary tree in our dining room, decorated with tinsel for the holidays. The mathematician who works in logic all day imagines data nodes arranged in a branching series of nonrecursive decisions. The genealogist sees a family history.

Humans are also infamously prone to hyperbole. Just ask your second cousin about that bass he had halfway in the boat last summer before it wriggled off the hook. They’re called fish stories for a reason. As an armchair scholar of medieval English literature, I can tell you that a lot of texts presented as history, with a straight face, bear reading with a healthy dose of skepticism. According to the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, that nation was founded when some guy named Brutus, who gets his authority by being the grandson of Aeneas (yeah, the one from Greek mythology), sailed up the Thames, defeated the handful of giants who were the sole inhabitants of the whole island, named the island after himself (i.e., Britain), and established the capital city he called New Troy, which would later be renamed London. Sounds legit.


In the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain beheads the huge green man who has challenged him to a one-blow-for-one-blow duel, right there in front of the whole Arthurian court, but the man picks up his head, laughs at Gawain, hops back on his horse, and rides off. Granted, Gawain is presented as allegory rather than fact, but Beowulf is presented as fact, and he battles a monster underwater for hours, then kills a dragon when he’s in his seventies.

Heck, go back to ancient Greek literature and the humans and the gods routinely get into each other’s business, helping each other out, meddling in each other’s affairs, deceiving and coercing each other into to do things, getting caught up in petty jealousies, and launching wars out of spite or for personal gain. Sound familiar?

As for creation stories, there are almost as many of those as there are human civilizations. We have an entire three-credit course focused on creation stories, and even that only has space to address a small sampling of them.


Likewise, there are almost as many major religious texts as there are major civilizations. The Abrahamic traditions have their Bible and their Torah and their Qur’an and Hadith, and their various apocryphal texts, all of which are deemed sacrosanct and infallible by at least a portion of their adherents. The Buddhists have their Sutras. The Hindus have their Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. The Shinto have their Kojiki. The Taoists have their Tao Te Ching. Dozens of other major world religions have their own texts, read and regarded as sacred by millions. The countless folk religions around the world have their countless oral traditions, some of which have been recorded and some of which have not.

Likewise, there are any number of religions that have arisen out of personality cults, sometimes following spiritual leaders of good faith, sometimes following con artists and charlatans. Sometimes those cults implode early. Sometimes they endure. Sometimes they become major world religions.


At certain levels of civilization, it is useful to have explanations for the unexplainable, symbolic interpretations of the natural world, narratives of origin and identityeven absolute codes of conduct. Religious traditions provide their adherents with comfort, moral guidance, a sense of belonging, and the foundations of strong communities.

However, religion has also been abused throughout much of recorded history, to justify keeping the wealthy and powerful in positions of wealth and power, to justify keeping major segments of society in positions of abject oppression, to justify vast wars, profitable to the most powerful and the least at risk, at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of countless less-powerful innocents.

A lot of good has been done in the name of religion. So has a lot of evil. And before we start talking about Islamist violence, let us remember that millions have been slaughtered in the name of Christianity. Almost every religion has caused bloodshed in its history, and every major religion has caused major bloodshed at some point in its history. Even the Buddhists. And there’s almost always some element of we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong very close to the center of that bloodshed.


But what if we’re all wrong?

If we can’t begin to comprehend the vastness of the universe or the emptiness of what we consider solid, if we can only sense a tiny portion of what is going on around us (and through us), and if we don’t even know for sure what we have actually seen with our own eyes or heard with our own ears, how can we even pretend to have any handle on an intelligence that might have designed all this? How can we even pretend to comprehend an intelligence that might even be all of this? I mean seriously, is there any way for us to empirically rule out the possibility that our entire known universe is part of some greater intelligence too vast for us to begin to comprehend? That in effect we are, and our entire reality is, a minuscule part of God itself?

In short, the more convinced you are that you understand the true nature of anything we might reasonably call God, the more convinced I am that you are probably mistaken.


I’m reminded of the bumper sticker I’ve seen: “If you’re living like there’s no God, you’d better be right!” (usually with too many exclamation points). And the debate I had with a street evangelist in which he tried to convince me that it was safer to believe in Jesus if there is no Christian God, than to be a non-believer if he does exist. Nothing like the threat of hell to bring ’em to Jesus. But to me, that kind of thinking is somewhere between a con job and extortion. You’re either asking me to believe you because you’re telling me bad things will happen to me if I don’t believe you, which is circular logic, or you’re threatening me. Either way, I’m not buying. I don’t believe my immortal soul will be either rewarded or punished in the afterlife, because when it comes right down to it, even if something we might reasonably call God does exist, I still don’t think we will experience anything we would recognize as an afterlife. Or that we possess anything we would recognize as an immortal soul.

To answer the incredulous question of a shocked high-school classmate, yes, I do believe that when we die, we more or less just wink out of existence. And no, I’m not particularly worried about that. I don’t think any of us is aware of it when it happens.

But if there’s no recognizable afterlife, no Heaven or Hell, no divine judgment, what’s to keep us from abandoning all morality and doing as we pleasekilling, raping, looting, destroying property and lives with impunity, without fear of divine retribution? Well, if there is no afterlife, if, upon our deaths, we cease to exist as an individual, a consciousness, an immortal soul, or anything we would recognize as an entitywhich, as I have established here, I believe is likely the casethen it logically follows that this life, this flicker of a few years between the development of  consciousness in the womb and the disintegration of that consciousness at death, well, to put it bluntly, this is all we get. This life, and then we’re gone. There is no better life beyond. You can call it nihilism, but I think it’s quite the opposite.

Because if this one life here on Earth is all we get, ever, that means each life is unique, and finite, and precious, and irreplaceable, and in a very real sense, sacred. Belief in an idealized afterlife can be usedtwisted, ratherto justify the killing of innocents. Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. The implication being that if the slaughtered were in fact good people, they’re now in a better place. But if there is no afterlife, no divine judgment, no eternal reward or punishment, then the slaughtered innocent are nothing more than that: Slaughtered. Wiped out. Obliterated. Robbed of their one chance at this beautiful, awesome, awful, and by turns astounding and terrifying experience we call life.

Likewise, if this one life is all we get and someone is deliberately maimedwhether physically or emotionally, with human atrocities inflicted upon them or those they love—they don’t get some blissful afterlife to compensate for it. They spend the rest of their existence missing that hand, or having been raped, or knowing that their parents or siblings or children were killed because they happened to have been born in a certain place, or raised with a certain set of religious traditions, or have a certain color of skin or speak a certain language.

In other words, if this one life is all we get? We had damned well better use it wisely. Because we only get this one chance to sow as much beauty, as much joy, as much nurturing, and peace, and friendliness, and harmony as possible. We only get this one chance to embrace the new ideas and the new experiences. We only get this one chance to welcome the stranger, and to see the world through their eyes, if only for a moment. We only get this one chance to feed that hungry person, or to give our old coat to that person who is cold, or to offer compassion and solace and aid to that person who has seen their home, family, livelihood, and community destroyed by some impersonal natural disaster or some human evil such as war.


If I’m living like there’s no (recognizable) God, I’d better be doing all I can manage to make this world a more beautiful place, a happier place, a more peaceful place, a better place. For everyone.

As for a God who would see someone living like that, or at least giving it their best shot, and then condemn them to eternal damnation because they failed to do something like accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe in a God like that. I might go so far as to say I flat-out refuse to believe in a God like that. I won’t go so far as to say that no God exists, because as I have said, I believe that we literally have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure any God that does exist isn’t that small-minded.


So anyway, happy holidays.

This is an examination of my own considered beliefs, and nothing more. I won’t try to convert you. I will thank you to extend me the same courtesy. You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, and in all likelihood there is some point at which each of us believes the other is wrong. And that’s okay. If after reading this you find yourself compelled to pray for my salvation, I won’t be offended.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry Christmas. If you celebrate the Solstice, I wish you a blessed Solstice. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I wish you (belatedly) a happy Hanukkah. If you celebrate Milad un Nabi, I wish you Eid Mubarak. If some sense of tradition and no small amount of marketing has led you to celebrate the celebratory season beyond any sense of religious conviction, you seem to be in good company. If you celebrate some parody of a holiday such as Giftmas, I wish you the love of family and friends, and some cool stuff to unwrap. If you celebrate Festivus, I wish you a productive airing of grievances. If you’re Dudeist, I abide. If you’re Pastafarian, I wish you noodly appendage and all that. If you don’t celebrate anything? We’re cool.

And if you’re still offended because I don’t happen to believe exactly the same thing you believe? Seriously? You need to get over it.


Why All Babies Deserve to Die: Science and Theology in the Abortion Debate

by Matt McKinnon

The debate rages on…

The debate rages on…

Just a few of the headlines on the abortion debate from the last few weeks:

I would say that the Abortion issue has once again taken center stage in the culture wars, but it never really left. Unlike homosexual marriage, which seems to be making steady progress towards resolution by a majority of Americans that the freedom to marry of consenting adults is basic civil right, the abortion debate continues to divide a populace who is torn between adjudicating the priority of the basic rights of both mother and “potential” child.

I say “potential” child because herein is where the real debate lies: exactly when does a fertilized human egg, a zygote, become a “person,” endowed with certain human if not specifically civil rights?

Is it a person yet?

Is it a person yet?

Dougherty’s main point in his article on liberal denial focuses on the “fact” of the beginnings of human life. He claims that liberals tend to make one of two types of arguments where science and human life are concerned: either they take the unresolved legal issue regarding the idea of personhood and transfer it back to the “facts” of biology, concluding that we cannot really know what human life is or when it begins, or they acknowledge the biological fact of the beginning of human life but claim that this has no bearing on how we should think about the legality of abortion.

Both sorts of arguments, he claims, are obscurantist, and fail to actually take into account the full weight of science on the issue.

But the problem, I contend, isn’t one of science: it’s one of theology—or philosophy for those less religiously inclined.

The problem is not the question of “what” human life is or “when” it begins. Dougherty points out:

After the fusion of sperm and egg, the resulting zygote has unique human DNA from which we can deduce the identity of its biological parents. It begins the process of cell division, and it has a metabolic action that will not end until it dies, whether that is in a few days because it never implants on the uterine wall, or years later in a gruesome fishing accident, or a century later in a hospital room filled with beloved grandchildren.

Two-cell zygote.

Two-cell zygote. Is this a person?

So basically, human life begins at conception because at that point science can locate a grouping of cells from which it can deduce all sorts of things from its DNA, and this grouping of cells, if everything goes nicely, will result in the birth, life, and ultimate death of a human being.

He even gets close to the heart of the problem when, in arguing against an article by Ryan Cooper, he claims that many people are not fine with the idea that an abortion represents the end of a life, nor are they comfortable with having a category of human life that is not granted the status of “humanity”—and thus not afforded basic human rights.

The problem with all of these discussions is that they dance around the real issue here—the issue not of “human life” and its definition and beginning, but rather the philosophical and often theological question of the human “person.”

If we look closely at Dougherty’s remarks above, we note two distinct examples of why the generation of human life is a “fact”: (1) we can locate DNA that tells us all sorts of things about the parents (and other ancestors) of the fetus and (2) this fetus, if everything works properly, will develop into a human being, or rather, I would argue, a human “person.”

For there’s the distinction that makes the difference.

After all, analyze any one of my many bodily fluids and a capable technician would be able to locate the exact same information that Mr. Dougherty points out is right there from the first moments of a zygote’s existence. But no one claims that any of these bodily fluids or the cells my body regularly casts off are likewise deserving of being labeled “human life,” though the sperm in my semen and the cells in my saliva are just as much “alive” as any zygote (believe me, I’ve looked).

No, the distinction and the difference is in the second example: The development of this zygote into a human person. My sperm, without an egg and the right environment, will never develop into a human being. The cells in my saliva have no chance at all—even with an egg and the right conditions.

Nope, not people.

Nope, not people.

So the real force of Doughtery’s argument lies in the “potential” of the zygote to develop into what he and anti-abortion folks would claim is already there in the “reality” of a human person.

The debate thus centers on the question of human personhood, what we call theological or philosophical anthropology. For one side, this personhood is the result of a development and is achieved sometime during the embryonic stage (like “viability”) or even upon birth. For others, it is there at conception. For some in both camps it would include a “soul.” For others it would not.

So the reason that the abortion debate is sui generis or “of its own kind” is because here the issue is not the rights of a minority versus the rights of a majority, as it is in the debate about homosexual marriage, or even the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child. Rather the real debate is about when “human life” is also a human “person” (note this is also informs the debate of whether or not to end the life of someone in a vegetative state).

Is this a person?

Fetus at four weeks. Is this a person?

To this end, Mr. Dougherty is correct: We can and do know what human life is and when it begins. And he is correct that many are uncomfortable with the idea that abortion means the death of a human life. But he fails to recognize that the reason this is the case is that while those on one side regard this “life” as a human person, others do not. Potentially, perhaps, but not a “person” yet. And certainly not one whose “right to life” (if there even is such a thing: nature says otherwise—but that’s another blog post) trumps the rights of the mother.

So what does all of this have to do with all babies deserving to die? It’s simple: this is what the (necessary?) intrusion of theology into public policy debates entails. Once theological ideas are inserted (and note that I am not arguing that they should or shouldn’t be), how do we adjudicate between their competing claims or limit the extent that they go?

For the two great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, representing the two dominant trajectories of traditional Protestant Christianity, humans are, by nature, sinful. We are conceived in sin and born into sin, and this “Original Sin” is only removed in Baptism (here the Roman Catholic Church would agree). Furthermore, we are prone to keep sinning due to the concupiscence of our sinful nature (here is where the Roman Church would disagree). The point is that, for Protestants, all people are not only sinful, but are also deserving of the one chief effect of sin: Death.


“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23


Calvin was most explicit in Book 2, Chapter 1 of his famous Institutes:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s wombs: they suffer for their own imperfections and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

Since babies, like all of us, are sinful in their very nature, and since they will necessarily continually bear the fruits of those sins (anyone who’s ever tried to calm a screaming infant can attest to this), and since the wages of those sins is death, then it’s not a far-fetched theological conclusion that all babies deserve to die. And remember: “they suffer for their own imperfections.”

But they don’t just deserve to die—they deserve to go to hell as well (but that’s also another blog post). And this, not from the fringes of some degenerate religious thinker, but from the theology of one of Protestant Christianity’s most influential thinkers.

A sinner in the eyes of God (or at least Calvin).

A sinner in the eyes of God (according to John Calvin, anyway).

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin does not imply that we should kill babies, or even that their death at human hands would be morally justifiable: thought he does argue (and here all Christian theology would agree) that their death at the hand of God is not just morally justifiable, it is also deserved. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic theology behind the idea that children cannot sin until they reach the age of reason is predicated on the notion that this is only the case once their Original Sin has been removed in Baptism (So Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu kids would be sinful, unlike their Christian counterparts).

Again, this is not to argue that philosophical and theological principles should not be employed in the abortion debate, or in any debate over public policy. Only that (1) this is what is occurring when pro-choice and anti-abortion folks debate abortion and (2) it is fraught with complexities and difficulties that few on either side seem to recognize.

And contrary to  Mr.Dougherty, this is beyond the realm of science, which at best tells us only about states of nature.

But the only way we have a “prayer” of real sustained dialogue—as opposed to debates that ignore our competing fundamental positions—is to take seriously the philosophical and theological issues that frame the question (even if my own example is less than serious).

But I’m not holding my breath. I would most certainly die if I did.

Merry and Bright: The Spectacle of the Christmas Tree

By Marc Williams

“Spectacle” can be broadly defined as a visually striking display, event, or performance. Spectacle has long been associated with live performance, since costumes, scenery, lighting, dance, and other visual elements are frequently used to enhance the performance experience. In my BLS class, Eye Appeal, we focus on the spectacles that occur not only on stage but also in every day life. In my most recent blog entry, I wrote about the spectacle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and its spectacular precursors, the cycle plays of medieval Europe–in this post I’ll focus on Christmas trees and other holiday displays.

2013-White-House-Christmas-Tree-e1386618998921The day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2013, an 18.5-foot Douglas fir was delivered to the White House. Since 1966, the White House Christmas Tree has been provided annually by the National Christmas Tree Association. Since that time, the First Lady has been responsible for creating a theme for the tree each year, and its decoration and lighting has become an annual spectacle for those in the Washington, D.C. area—an interesting blend of politics, religion, and spectacle. There were indeed White House Christmas trees before 1966, but more on that later.

The delivery of the 2013 White House Christmas Tree

Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice for many centuries. In Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Rome, for example, evergreens were brought into homes to celebrate the continuation or return of life following the winter. Some believe these pagan solstice traditions were adapted by early Christians and evolved into our modern Christmas tree. The earliest recorded Christmas trees were found in 16th century Germany and were typically decorated with apples. The apple decorations are associated with December 24, as the medieval Christian calendar celebrated Adam and Eve’s Day on that date. Christmas trees were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s and were sold commercially by the 1850s [source]. At the time, Christmas trees were a new “fad” in America and many people associated Christmas trees with the German settlers who introduced them.

Interestingly, the White House Christmas Tree has a controversial past. The first White House Christmas tree was displayed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In 1899, while Christmas trees had become more common in America, they were still considered by many to be a fad. A White House Christmas tree was by no means obligatory. That year, Chicago Tribune readers mounted a letter-writing campaign urging President McKinley to buck the Christmas tree trend for a variety of reasons—many letters focused on deforestation, with one writer calling Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Other letter writers called Christmas trees “un-American,” since Christmas trees were still considered a German tradition by many. Given the Christmas tree’s pagan connections, some letter-writers viewed the White House tree as anti-Christian. Controversy surrounding the tree continues today, as some critics wonder if the White House Christmas Tree should focus on tradition rather than religion, or if the tree should exist at all.


The Tree at Rockefeller Center

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas tree in the United States is found in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The tree is positioned just above the famous ice skating rink and immediately front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition for over eighty years and its lighting has become a major entertainment event. The 2013 tree is 76 feet tall, weighs twelve tons, features over 45,000 lights, and is topped with a nine-foot wide Swarovski star.


Two rows of trumpeting angels are installed along the plaza, forming a lane that frames the tree beautifully when viewed from Fifth Avenue. The lighting ceremony has now become a televised event with celebrity hosts and performers; the 2013 lighting ceremony featured Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Radio City Rockettes, and many others.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

Here in Greensboro, residents of the Sunset Hills neighborhood create an unique annual holiday spectacle: a neighborhood-wide display of lighted “ball” decorations. This local tradition began with Jonathan Smith’s family, residents of Sunset Hills, about sixteen years ago. The balls are homemade, constructed from chicken wire shaped into spheres, then wrapped with a strand of Christmas lights. The balls hang from tree branches, some nearly thirty feet off the ground.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

The video below features the 2008 display and Smith discussing how the tradition started.

Lighted Christmas Balls In Greensboro, North Carolina

Have you seen any of these holiday spectacles in person? What role does spectacle play in your holiday celebrations?

Happy Holidays?!

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Ah, Christmas.  ‘Tis the season, deck the halls, joy to the world, and all that stuff.

Christmas Tree, 2013

Christmas Tree, 2013

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, and yet, celebrations often come with obligations and complications.  Christmas, for those of us that partake in it, has multiple, and sometimes conflicting meanings.  For some, Christmas is a religious observance.  Although I respect the Christian origins of the holiday, I don’t follow any particular religion, have been to church only a handful of times, and associate Christmas more with elves than I do wise men.  Christmas is primarily a commercial event for many people, and although I do enjoy giving and receiving, I appreciate the thought put into a gift more so than the dollar amount.  Finally, Christmas, for many, surrounds family traditions.  For me, the term “family” is as diverse as the specific activities that I enjoy with different family members. “Families” can be groups you are born or adopted into, ones your divorced parents marry you into, ones you yourself marry into, and ones that accumulate throughout your life from circles of friends and colleagues.  I enjoy spending time with all these individuals, but I value more personal time with smaller groups than large gatherings where I exchange small talk with a variety of people. I also appreciate private time during the holidays, in which I have more time to paint, write, read, and watch movies. I believe the notion of “celebrating” should not be limited to one set of activities on one specific day.  My rituals aren’t always traditional, but they are genuine and specific to me. So far this season, my mom has come to NC from Ohio to visit me, and we did a lot of Christmas shopping.  I gave her one of my watercolor paintings, and she showered me and my husband with gifts.  Giving to her children and grandchildren throughout the year and especially at Christmas is a great joy to her.  And I certainly benefit and appreciate that joy!  It was fun shopping with her for me, as well as for other members of the family.

Ann with Shark

Ann with the Shark

Here is a photograph of me at the mall, holding a giant, stuffed shark she bought for her grandson (my nephew).  I smiled as I traveled through the mall carrying the shark and people smiled back at me.  I wish I had thought to photo-bomb the Christmas Santa, but it gives me a new activity for next year. The week before Christmas, I went to a matinee of American Hustle with friends who also had free time.  My friend Jay picked me up, and my friend Julie drove me home and helped my dye my hair a festive red.  In appreciation, I made a small painting for her of her favorite flower, the hibiscus.  These kinds of activities may not directly relate to Christmas, but they contribute to my seasonal cheer.


Hibiscus, 2013

My husband and I have a non-traditional Christmas palm tree he usually puts up, but this year, I wanted to contribute more, so I made a collage of a tree with acrylic paint and images from magazines.  For me, it represents how we design our own, unique Christmas rituals.  I bought him a smoker as an early Christmas present, so he could smoke us a Thanksgiving turkey.  It was delicious, and I am looking forward to the Christmas turkey!  He enjoys cooking, and I enjoy eating everything he prepares, according to my tastes.  It makes him happy when I am happy.  On Dec. 25, as he prepares our meal, I will wear my Christmas-themed pajamas, binge-watch Modern Family on DVD, and indulge in an afternoon glass of wine.

After Christmas day, my dad and step-mom will come from Ohio to Durham to visit me, my step-sister, and our families.  There will be dinners, movies, and possible cookie decorating with my 5 year old niece, as we try not to wake up her 6 month old brother.  Every year, my dad jokes about how I used to behave during Christmas as a child.  When I was young, Christmas was primarily about the presents, although I reveled in all the Christmas activities: making and decorating cookies; hanging all the ornaments, garland, and lights, inside and outside the house; sitting on Santa’s lap; and caroling.  My dad chuckles as he recalls how I would be awake almost all night on Christmas Eve in anticipation.  I loved opening presents and then throughout the day, despite my sleep deprivation, playing with new toys with my cousins from out of town, or playing board games with my grandparents.  I also adored eating a Christmas dinner that I “helped” my mom prepare and falling asleep early in front of the Christmas tree.  Then in a few days, after New Year’s was over, the tree came down, I went back to school, and I crashed.  Teachers would call my parents to express concern about my melancholy.  I attribute this now somewhat with it being winter in Ohio, but I know it was largely due to just letdown and exhaustion.  I would cheer up over time.

These activities may be familiar some of my readers and foreign to others, raising the question: What is the true meaning of Christmas? I think there are many answers.  Perhaps the more important question to ask is how to take the elements of joy we feel at Christmas and spread them throughout the year.  I would say to everyone, regardless of the season: bake, if you enjoy it; sing if you feel compelled; decorate your surroundings with color; relish time with loved ones; be generous and thoughtful; and have a piece of red velvet cake with ice cream and savor every bite.

Luminaries on UNCG Campus

Holiday Luminaries on UNCG Campus

Santa, Jesus, and Race

by Matt McKinnon

So, as I’m sure most of you have heard, Santa Claus and Jesus are both White.  They just are.  And these are historical facts.


Megyn Kelly.

Or so proclaimed Fox television personality Megyn Kelly on her show The Kelly File, while discussing an article by Slate contributor Aisha Harris proposing that the beloved American icon be “made over” in a more culturally neutral manner. (Harris’s suggestion is a cartoon gift-bearing penguin complete with red suit and obviously fake beard.)

What ensued was a predictable lampooning by late-night comedians and news commentators, followed by Fox News’ just as predicable recalcitrant dismissal of a “liberal media’s” obsession with race and race-baiting.  For her part, Ms. Kelly refused to apologize for her position, calling the entire episode “tongue-in-cheek,” though she did acknowledge that the issue of Jesus’ ethnicity is “unsettled.”


Harris’ Santa (illustration by Mark Stamaty).

There are many issues here that deserve commentary and discussion, not the least of which is Ms. Harris’ initial suggestion that an ethnically-neutral Santa Claus is much better suited for a multi-ethnic culture like that of the contemporary United States than the image of fat white man landing on rooftops and essentially performing what would be interpreted as “breaking and entering” in most legal jurisdictions.  (And at least one comedian has suggested the ramifications for a black counterpart, given the Stand Your Ground laws in places like Florida.)

But I, like most in the entertainment and media industries, am more interested in what Kelly said, and how she said it, than in what precipitated it.

Kelly, of course, was simply pointing out what most Americans probably assume: Santa Claus as a fictionalized character is based on the historical fourth century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra.  Santa has always been portrayed as a white man because, duh, his likeness is based on a real white man.  The notion that he can be portrayed any other way than that of mainstream American culture and its hegemonic ethnicity (white) is practically unthinkable—at least by white folks in the mainstream.

In fact, when watching the video from the show, it is more Kelly’s insistence of the brute factuality of Santa’s (and Jesus’s) ethnicity that is so problematic—and not necessarily her position.

And on this subject, a few ideas deserve discussion.

First and most obvious is that what the historical Saint Nicholas and Jesus both share is, if not a common ethnicity, then at least a common geography and culture—that of the Hellenistic Near East.  And while Nicholas was most probably a Greek from “Asia Minor,” and Jesus a Palestinian Jew, neither of them would have considered himself “white”—and would probably not be considered so by today’s use of the term.  So if Santa Claus is simply a reinterpretation of the Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, then Ms. Kelly is mistaken: neither he (nor Jesus) is white.

They just aren’t.

A forensic reconstruction of St. Nicholas' face, surrounded by his image in traditional icons.

St. Nicholas’ face, in a forensic reconstruction and traditional icons.

But, without getting into the specifics, our Santa Claus’s development most probably owes more to Pagan characters, practices, and legends than he does to the Christian bishop of Myra.  And so, arguably, on this point, Kelly is correct: Santa Claus, inasmuch as he evolves from Germanic mythology, is “white” or Northern European (though the same cannot be said for Jesus).


A Medieval European “Wild Man.”

Of course, the real issue in all of this is the assumption that Santa is white—must be white, can only be white—whether rooted in history or mythology.  And that is the assumption of hegemony: Where whiteness is the presumed sole and legitimate norm.  Where the way things are is the way they have been and should be.

And pointing this out to someone who is oblivious to the ubiquity of whiteness in our culture can be awkward, unsettling, and even shocking.

Hence the insistence that Santa, like Jesus, is white—without any thought or consideration that such a proclamation may be controversial or that it could possibly be historically and culturally conditioned—tells us more about the speaker, her audience, and our culture than it does about either Santa or Jesus.

But this is not to belittle Ms. Kelly or chasten her about her firmly-held beliefs and ethnic identity.  For the real “White Man’s (sic) Burden” is not to rule over and “civilize” the non-White world, but rather to recognize and confront examples of “White Privilege” in our pluralistic and multi-ethnic culture.  And while there are much more important aspects of white privilege in present day America (like being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to jail far less often than non-whites for similar crimes), the ubiquity of whiteness as the aesthetical norm is not to be dismissed.

But this is easier said than done, since, while the ubiquity of whiteness is quite obvious to most non-white folks, it tends to be invisible to most whites.

And the same thing that happened to Ms. Kelly happened to me, though I was seven years old and in the second grade at the time.

I had the same reaction to the “Black Santa” that my African-American teacher Mrs. Watson had put up on her classroom wall: “Santa Claus is not black.  He’s white,” I thought to myself, aghast at the suggestion.  Luckily, I didn’t have a television show to proclaim this, and didn’t actually articulate it to any of my classmates either.

But the memory has stayed with me—as one where, for the first time, I was confronted with the hegemony of my own culture: me, a little white boy bused from my mostly white neighborhood to school in the projects: a minority among minorities, but whose whiteness was still the norm.

Or should be, as I mistakenly assumed then.


Still from the Good Times episode “Black Jesus” (1974).

And around the same time (1974) and in much the same way, I was confronted by the “Black Jesus” episode on Good Times, where JJ had used Ned the Wino as the model for his painting of the Christ, since—being passed out in the gutter—he was the only one who could hold the pose long enough for JJ to paint.

Much later, of course, I was confronted by a long history of Jesus being portrayed in the varying ethnicity of the portrayers—across the centuries, from Asia to Africa to Europe and the Americas.

An Ethiopian Jesus and a Chinese Jesus

Jesus in Ethiopian and Chinese depictions.

And then by the African-American Liberation Theologian James Cone’s insistence that “Jesus is a black man,” in that, according to Christian theology, God comes to his people in the guise of the most repressed and outcast among us.  And in the United States, the reasoning goes, who has been more marginalized than the African slave?

But, arguably, I may not have been as sympathetic and understanding of art history or liberation theology had I not first been confronted in the privileged place of my whiteness in American culture by folks like Mrs. Watson, and the producers, writers, and cast of Good Times.

So what is troubling in Ms. Kelly’s remarks is not her assumption that both Santa and Jesus are white—but her insistence that they are, an insistence that suggests that she has probably never been confronted by the hegemony of her whiteness or the problems that such an unyielding hegemony can produce, at least in a multi-ethnic culture like ours where the power to portray is the power to influence.

It is the catering to the very understandable perspective of a certain portion of the American public that times are changing, have changed, and that “their America,” for better or worse, is gone and not coming back.  And while such a perspective is frightening and should be met with sympathy and sensitivity in order to soothe and diffuse it, it is usually met with a demagoguery of entrenchment from the one side and outright scorn from the other.

Where are Mrs. Watson and JJ when we need them?

(Of course, I must admit, I don’t particularly care for the Penguin Santa myself, whatever ethnicity it is.)

A Holiday Spectacle

by Marc Williams

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade processes through Times Square.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving with the smell of sage wafting through the house as my mother began a long day of cooking and baking. Of course my morning was spent in front of the television watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And now that I have children of my own, Thanksgiving has come full circle: I’m the one doing the cooking and my son, now four years old, is the one enjoying the parade.

The Macy’s parade has been around since 1924, when Macy’s department store on 34th Street decided to hold a parade as a marketing ploy. Macy’s employees dressed in costumes—clowns, cowboys, and the like—and walked with Central Park Zoo animals on a six-mile route through Manhattan. The parade was a success for Macy’s, became an annual event, and is now the most popular holiday parade in America. The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California and Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans are also major parades, and communities all over the country stage parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, fall harvests, and other occasions. Parades big and small are commonplace, yet many viewers probably don’t realize that modern parades owe a debt both to theatre and to the church.

During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in Europe began dramatizing events from the Bible in an attempt to share the liturgy with a growing population that was largely illiterate. Church interiors were utilized in these liturgical dramas, with the central nave area of the basilica used for spectators and the columns along either side of the nave were used to separate different “stages,” or “mansions,” as they were called. The audience would walk from one mansion to the next, one mansion featuring the Garden of Eden, the next featuring Noah’s Ark, and so on. Interestingly, this staging technique—in which the spectator moves in and out of different acting areas—is still used today. It’s the same staging technique encountered in a “haunted house” attraction, and is also used by theme parks. Disney’s famous It’s a Small World After All and Pirates of the Caribbean rides use the same concept, although the audience is seated in a boat that moves through the attraction.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III forbade the clergy from participating in these liturgical plays. The performances were enormously popular but the Pope believed the scripture was becoming obscured by scenery, costumes, special effects, and scripts that were becoming increasingly colloquial.

The plays, known as “mysteries,” then moved outside the church. In some cases, the plays were held immediately outside the church—right on the church steps. Large stone basilicas with impressive steps and entryways could make for impressive theatrical backdrops. In some towns, performances moved to a town square. The image below from the Valenciennes Passion shows a town square that has several “mansions” built into its existing architecture for the performance of a 25-day long play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. The city’s own gates appear to be used as the gates to Jerusalem, with a setting constructed for the temple, another for the sea, and so on.

Setting for the Valenciennes Passion, 1547.

In other towns, the spectators were spread out, with groups seated on risers in different areas of the town. For these mystery plays, the sets, costumes, and actors moved from one audience to the next on pageant wagons. These impressive devices could “dock” with an existing stage platform, providing a custom backdrop for the performance. Also, the wagon would also carry all the props and costumes needed to tell the story. These pageant wagons are the forerunners of our modern parade floats; the audience sits or stands as the small staging area moves to them. The performance occurs, then the float moves along the designated route.

An English pageant wagon.

Spectacle was of tremendous importance during the mystery plays. Because the church was no longer the organizing force for the performances, the plays were presented by other groups in the community. In England, for instance, the responsibility was given to the local craft guilds. Typically, each guild was responsible for one story: finding the actors, building the scenery and costumes, and paying their share of the overall expenses for the event. The guilds were typically assigned a story related to their expertise: the shipwrights would present Noah, the goldsmiths would present the three kings, since they could supply gold crowns, the blacksmiths might be in charge of nailing Christ to the cross, and so on. The guilds took tremendous pride in their contributions and their efforts were dazzling: some wagons featured trap doors for surprising entrances and exits, others featured elaborate scenic detail that was stunningly lifelike, while some featured flying effects and other stage magic.

Indeed the same is true today at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. New balloons and floats are added each year, and these new efforts are consistently focused on providing a new spectacle that has never been seen in a parade before. In this year’s parade, for example, Cirque du Soleil provided a new float that is the biggest in parade history, complete with acrobats and contortionists—it was like a little self-contained circus.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Dreamseeker” float in the 2013 Macy’s Parade.

In my BLS course Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss modern-day spectacles like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and historical spectacles like the mystery plays. We consider why we are so consistently impressed by the “wow factor” that spectacles offer, and wonder what draws each of us individually toward these spectacles. For me, the Macy’s Parade takes me back to my childhood home, watching television in my pajamas with the smell of sage in the air. What memories do you associate with the Macy’s Parade? Or do you have another favorite holiday spectacle?

On Sitting In, and Standing Up

by Jay Parr

I had a completely different blog entry ready to go this morning, but then I woke from a dream that got me thinking about something more important.

Woolworth's Sit-In

In the dream I was walking into a diner that was attached to a basic travel hotel. There were three or four young women — college athletes dressed in team sweatshirts or some such (you know how vague dreams can be) — sitting on the bench waiting to be seated. The host offered to seat me (and my companions?), when I pointed out that those young women had been there first.

That was when it came to my attention that the diner would not seat unaccompanied women.

I’m proud of my dream self, because I went ballistic. I started off ranting at the poor young host. He was, of course, just an employee, who could either do what he was told or find himself without even this subsistence-level job. In fact, as I pointed past him at the unoccupied counter seating, traditionally used by those who are eating “unaccompanied,” his face kind of looked like the the counter clerk’s in that famous image at the top of this post: Surely sympathetic (I mean, the guy in that picture couldn’t even eat at the counter where he worked), but in no position to even comment on the disparity, much less do anything about it.

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

 After a vague dream-transition I found myself talking to the man in charge. And a police officer. Both were white men. The manager/owner was older, white-haired, and reeked of privilege. Actually, looking back at the dream, he kind of reminds me of Newt Gingrich. He was spewing some nonsense about the morality of allowing unaccompanied young women to come into a family establishment and distract the poor unsuspecting fathers from their families. Because that’s obviously what these college athletes were up to, in their team sweatshirts, with no makeup on, hair pulled up in practical athletic ties, ignoring everyone else and talking shop amongst themselves. Surely it was all a ruse, and they were really there to steal me from my wife and daughter. Oh, and somehow it was their fault that I just might be too weak-willed to control myself? And of course, were I to have such a moment of weakness it would be inconceivable that they might, you know, reject my advances or something.

The cop had been called because some hothead was making a scene.

That’s about all I remember of the dream. That and something about large vehicles getting tangled up at highway speeds (anxiety much?). But as I was setting the coffee to brew this morning I started wondering what I really would have done, had I found myself in a similar situation, say, perhaps at that Woolworth’s counter down on Elm Street on that Monday afternoon in the winter of ’60. I like to think I would have pointed out those four scared but stoic freshmen and politely said, “They were here before me; I’ll wait until they’ve been served.” I mean, I know I wouldn’t have been among the hecklers shouting racist epithets (I’ve always been a little too Quaker for that), but would I have just quietly gotten my order and gone on with my day? Would I have gone home and mentioned the incident to my wife? Would I have been among the Woman’s College (UNCG) or Guilford College students who came downtown to clog the counters with white “customers” insisting that the the black protesters be served first? Or would I have been too busy supporting my family (or perhaps “too busy supporting my family”) to do much more than follow the articles in the newspaper?


The Pride Flag, because not all families are heteronormative.

I definitely connect that issue with North Carolina’s “Amendment One” vote last May. I was vocally against it, not just because I support same-sex marriage (which I do), but all the more so because its wording is so much broader and insidious that it affects any unmarried couple in the state, gay or straight. Oh, and their children.

I learned of the bill’s introduction in the state legislature shortly after an old coworker of mine lost his partner of thirty years and had to endure absurd legal challenges because the state considered my marriage — my second marriage, mind you, which was less than three years old at the time and had been performed in another state — more valid than his decades-long partnership, which had begun before my wife was even born. She and I have been flying a pride flag on our house since the referendum bill passed in the legislature. It’s a small gesture, but it’s how we feel about the issue.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

The fact that those being denied service in my dream were women also points (albeit circuitously) to mainstream America’s complicated and uncomfortable relationship with Islamic nations, Muslim Americans, and Islam in general. I have a problem with any legal system or culture that limits the options of any group merely by virtue of their membership in that group. That goes for nations that curtail the rights of women — some of which do so on religious grounds, and some of which (not all the same ones) are Islamic nations — but it also goes for western nations and institutions that want to limit the rights of Muslim women to wear hijab, niqab, or even burqas. My wife has childhood friends, two sisters, who are Muslim. One of the sisters is divorced from an abusive husband — and the Muslim divorce was a lot simpler than the American legal divorce. The other sister once set aside the injunction against being alone with a man other than her husband, simply so that her sister’s childhood friend’s husband (i.e., yours truly) didn’t have to sit and wait alone. Brought me delicious cardamom tea and we had a delightful conversation amidst the din of playing children. Southern hospitality at its finest. These women are American born and raised. They are not oppressed by a misogynistic culture (well, that’s debatable, but that’s a whole different conversation). Their choice to wear hijab is not a symptom of their oppression, but an expression of their cultural identity. Yes, there are women who wear hijab (and niqab, and burqas) because they are legally bound to do so by oppressive theocratic legal systems. Yes, there are places in the world where unaccompanied women cannot be seated in a restaurant, or drive a car, or even walk down the street, because those in power have deemed it inappropriate. And yes, there are radical Muslim elements that view America(ns) as the godless enemy. But we can’t allow ourselves to conflate an expression of religious and cultural identity (wearing hijab) with sympathy for oppressive governments or violent radicals. Really. It makes as much sense to declare anyone with a crucifix or a rosary in league with the IRA bombers (and don’t get me started on how our media always point out the religious affiliation of “Islamic terrorists” but never that of Christian terrorists). But I digress.

I suppose this post could be an examination of my responsibilities as one who benefits from the privilege of the straight white male, or more broadly, the responsibilities of anyone who benefits from the privilege of majority status. Because I really do feel that whenever I encounter situations in which someone is being denied equal treatment or equal access to resources because of their gender — or their race, or their economic background, or their sexual identity, or their cultural identity, or their citizenship status — that it is my responsibility to call attention to the disparity, to voice my opposition to it, and to subvert it in any way that I can. And I guess that’s why, even in that dream that got me started on this rambling post, I caused enough of a ruckus that someone called the cops. Because really, it’s what I think any of us should do.

What bothers me most, though, is that it never occurred to me to simply say of those unaccompanied girls, “Oh, they’re with me.”