“I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”
— Ron Burgundy, San Diego television journalist (in the film Anchorman)
Ah, books. Don’t we love them? Don’t we complain of the piles of books we have all over our houses? Take “shelfies” and “post bookspine poetry” texts: The worst of us make crafts out of elderly, unwanted books or put them out for charity.
Recently I purged my collection (another hot topic) and, going even further than merely weeding out books I no longer wanted or needed, I expunged entire authors’ catalogs from my shelves. Farewell, Joyce Carol Oates. Goodbye, James Ellroy. And I’m taking that shelf back, Don DeLillo. Loading the things into plastic bags and dropping them off at a book depository felt like liberation, like I was ridding myself of death, dust, decay. Other people’s ideas that I didn’t need any more.
What did I do with the Bible? I didn’t own one, anyway. My husband has a few in his Book Annex (the “bonus room”). If, in my life as a digital religion writer, I ever need to make sure I’m remembering something from the Bible mostly right, I Google it. My ideas of some Bible concepts are a bit fuzzy due to (1) Catholic school, and (2) brain glazing over, especially concerning the Old Testament, where God just always seemed like a borderline-personality jerk. I have to choose the New American Translation, the choice of American Catholics, to match it up with the words in my memory, because, not being a Protestant, the King James strikes me as absurd. Also, the only Bible I have personally owned was the Good News Bible, whose Annie Vallotton line drawings still haunt my memory with images of pensive kings, trumpeting angels, and the goat who carried sins away. Maybe I should get another copy of that. I could read it in the tub.
The story of religion, thus far in my American life, has been that men wrote Books about male gods. The said books contain all the knowledge and guidance one needs to get through this thing called life. If one has enough faith and/or does enough good works, one will get to go to a huge after-party called Heaven, where you will get to hang out with the man-God.
Men have been running the God operation here on earth for quite some time. Membership in these groups requires birthright, statements of belief, rituals. One does not merely call oneself a Catholic. One must be baptized by a priest, who has been Ordained, and who is definitely, absolutely, not a woman. Even if one only need proclaim one’s belief to one of the man-gods, it is still a curiously gendered omnipotent being one is submitting to. Men Write Book. Book is God. Man is Word of God. Men, when you think about it, have run not only the physical life of humans but also the spiritual and ritual life of humans for quite some time. Men have had Books to Bind Them.
But one day a man decided to network computers, and thus was born the World Wide Web. It contains multitudes. The internet has more to offer than porn, shopping, and listicles. The internet has a kaleidoscope of religion, religious thought, prophets, and religious silliness. Reports keep coming in that religion is in decline. That the “nones” are taking over. That the “non-denominationals” are on the move. Soon we shall be living in a godless nation where no one worships the Lord in a specially designated place for doing so. We will lose “traditions” and “values” and “morals.” We’ll be left, wandering in burlap tunics in a barren wasteland of faux-religions like “football,” “brands,” and “fandom.”
As a dedicated and prolific digital religion writer, I must disagree with the notion that religion is in decline. I have participated in and witnessed something else, something that doesn’t show up in church records or polls. Digital religion is exploding notions of what religion is by giving voice to the formerly voiceless, offering interaction between writers and readers and creating new ways of thinking about religion. Though I am a woman and working in a “new medium” (that is, much of what I write isn’t printed on paper, another mark of prestige) and a layperson, and not really a lapsed Catholic so much as one who is no longer receiving Rome’s signal, I must nonetheless witness to the fact that the internet has provided a paper-free gathering place for, as my website-in-residence KillingtheBuddha.com puts it, “people who are embarrassed to be caught in the religion section of a bookstore.” People on the “margins of faith.”
I wandered in the margins of faith for quite some time, carrying a lot of thoughts and feelings about religion, but having nowhere to talk about them. I felt that my thoughts were actually taboo. Look at what happened to Eve, after all. I was holding an entire universe of religious doubts, theories, and inquiries in my head and I did feel ashamed for secretly caring so much. I felt like my religious choices were (1) accepting or (2) rejecting, and neither one has ever served me. Acceptance, rejection, and doubt all coexist for me as does an ongoing fascination with the topic of “religion.”
As I write, my thoughts spiral out into cyberspace and join a digital choir of others. The Word is now among words, words that dare to not even be bound in leather. What if the notion of God was evolving? What if reports from God weren’t merely stories written by men long ago, taken as canon, and getting foxed and yellowed on bookshelves? What if one didn’t have to be recognized after one’s death to be a prophet, or recognized at all?
What if God were speaking, not only through us, but out of our own selves? God is, they say, in all of us. God is, they say, everywhere. What if our own voices could be heard as revelation: the shifting, mutating narrative of humanity’s dwelling within and without the divine? What if it weren’t chained to books and verses and paper and gatekeepers? What then? What would you have?
Something like a great digital harmony/cacophony. Something out of either/or land. Something that surveys cannot measure. Something that is alive.
Talking about these things while having no “authority” is liberating, and sparking debate even better. So many people who want to talk about religion, around religion, create religion, and debate religion. It seems that religion is being taken out of the category of religion and is running free on the internet, giddy with fresh air and fun. It appears to me that religion is having the time of its life.
Things are frequently sold as being instantly heirloom-worthy: silver spatulas, ceramic angels, replica coins. And memories, which are a form of heirlooms. Your kids won’t have any good ones unless you all go to a theme park and purchase magic that they can then consume! Unless you buy the right kinds of things or vacations, your children will have no “heirlooms” to “hand down” to their own children. Unless you partake of the purchased magic, your children will hate you in the present, future, and somehow retroactively. After you are dead, they will spit on the ground and call you an asshole for not leaving them a gravy boat or memories of hot, overwhelming days waiting in two-hour lines to go on five-minute rides.
But how can you buy an heirloom? You can’t. Most things that do end up being heirlooms are the homey, and possibly even homely, things like ratty footstools, worn gloves, and nameless bottles of perfume. And then there are the family Bibles, many of which show up in used-book depositories.
It seems that a need for control extending far beyond the grave, that of “legacy,” is the animating spirit behind so many of our human woes. Conquest, glory, accumulation of wealth and power all say: Please don’t forget me when I’m gone! I will live on in bronze statuary and the hearts of my people! You will look at that “heirloom” barometer and think of meeeee.
The same reverence for “tradition” also applies to “pomp.” Witness the world’s odd reverence for the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader is covered in breathless detail by the press, who fawn over his clothing, mode of conveyance, etc. A tradition of 2,000 years, long in current measures, but short in general terms, and an attendant amount of pomp are well used by this organization to continue its dominance (based upon the Word) of the global religious scene.
The way that “tradition” is used is frequently to justify practices of dominating others, be it top-down patriarchal religions, genital mutilation, or football. “Tradition” has come to mean a sort of dominationist rigidity in my mind. It’s not only repeating practices. It’s repeating them exactly the same way every single time. Catholics are masters of this.
Church-attendance decline is caused by more than mere boredom. There’s also an epidemic of what I call “agreeing to get together is the new getting together.” If good friends can’t even find it in themselves to follow through on planned drinks and/or dinner, it’s not surprising that tumbleweeds are blowing through the pews.
There’s also the participation factor. “Religion’s disappearing!” alarm bells might be sounding because the audience is no longer captive, silent. The digital religion explosion means a few things: voices are being heard; new thoughts are coming to the fore; perhaps the very idea of “religion,” instead of remaining flat on paper, is acquiring a third dimension in which players create the game in real time.
Reports of big media crumbling are frequently accompanied by much lamentation. Instead of gathering around a gigantic TV to watch a network broadcast, ever-tinier segments of the population are enjoying seven-second videos at their leisure. But I’ve always loathed scenes in movies that show people all over the world watching TV, suggesting that massive media brings us together: a TV pointing outwards toward the street from a shop window, people in a bar, guys in a barbershop, and various foreigners gathered in one-room shanties around tiny sets.
I’ve seen the Olympics and hugely rated sitcom endings and great disasters along with millions, billions of others, and never once has anyone ever been “brought together” by such events. Not once did the world ever change. I used to have the same arid feeling after Mass. So much talk of being better people not “sinners” and basically being nice to each other, so little of that in practice. Empty rituals might deserve to die. Network TV thought it would own us forever; that crumbled pretty fast. Perhaps the same might be true for big religion. Maybe if people realize they have a choice and can think their own thoughts, they might find other ways of engaging with the divine. Also! Half of humanity might enjoy not being treated as second-rate. Possibly.
What’s wrong with diversity of thought and action, anyway? I like inventing traditions and observing traditions and modifying traditions and even ending traditions as deemed appropriate by all parties. Flexibility is key. After all, it’s usually accepted that children stop believing in Santa Claus after a certain point, and the ritual of “Santa”—the Great White Father who watches you to make sure you are good, punishes you for being bad, lives in the North, and accomplishes magical feats when he feels like it—may be retired.
When people ask me what I write about and I say “religion,” they frequently want to know why I do it. I say that I didn’t intend to do it, and I was surprised that I had so many things to say about religion, and even more surprised to hear from so many people that I had voiced things on their behalf. It felt great to openly admit, for example, that I thought, as a child, in all earnestness, that practicing Catholicism in itself was a form of suffering. Of penance. A neat infinity loop with no apparent rewards.
On the other hand, digital religion writing is a bounty of rewards. Religiony is an inclusive term. It describes anyone who has the religion bug, in whatever form it takes. The writing, the publishing, interacting with readers and writers, and joining a community of religiony folk has been (cough) one of the greatest blessings of my life. I have also been part of an ongoing conversation via email, and Twitter, which has provided a space for real-time discussion of such issues as the chocolate Pope, mercy, and what prayer means. In three-dimensional life, I find that when the conversation turns to “what do you write about?” “Religion,” those who react with the most immediate dismay, chagrin or plain disappointment, when pressed a little, begin to tell me all kinds of things, and I can tell they, too, have been carrying around all kinds of thoughts. There are dams, everywhere, just waiting to crack.
It is thrilling to think that I became a religion writer with my hands, sans official say-so from anyone. No credentials, no penis, no creed. Nothing, perhaps, but a great flowering of personal mysticism and untold hours at the keyboard. What I have discovered is that writing about religion is my religion. Forgive me, but I’m on a canoe, paddling in the darkness. I’m not scared. Whatever the divine may be, it is unnamable, unseen, but it is there. If I write with enough ferocity, I can sometimes get near the edge of it. I may detect the space near it in my peripheral vision. “We may detect the space near it in our peripheral vision” is not something you’re going to hear chanted on a designated day of the week any time soon.
If all our words disappear in a digital breeze, that’s all right too. I got news for you, religious totalitarians: it was going to happen to you, anyway. “Legacy” is a human concept based on fearing our death, rather than accepting that our lives are finite and one person is not more important than the next, no matter how much garb, power, or fame a person has. On a recent trip to Mt. Vernon, I found myself falling into my reflexive school-setting interior counter-narrative, which happens when I am held hostage and told tales of God or Godlike Men. We were told that Genius George had an incredible do-it-all house and farm (From candles, to ground-breaking organic gardening, to genteel hospitality!). My inner Sarcastic Hulk replied “Slaves do work! White man take credit!” I heard at least two matron-guides remark (with a certain amount of tee-hee) that G-Wash was actually kind of a fox, and was 6’2” and had beautiful blue eyes to boot. “White man tall! White man has blue eyes! Like astronauts!” Also, Martha was smokin’. “King’s wife hot! Make king proud!” We witnessed the placing-of-the-rose on Washington’s grave. “Worship dead man! We call freedom!” I was tempted to raise my hand and say “Must we keep sucking George Washington’s dick into eternity?” But I didn’t. I knew the answer: Yes. Yes, we must.
I’d met George Washington before. His name is “God:” the original Founding Father. Such an entity is a textbook narcissist who must constantly get approval from those around him. But even great men, with cities and municipalities everywhere in the United States of America named after them, will eventually be forgotten. Bronze monuments will oxidize, and pay tribute to nameless ghosts; museums will crumble; all but some carved rock will survive. Would God survive the disappearance of His Word if words vanish, too?
I sometimes think that words have been the problem all along, which is a problem for me, since my entire life is filled with words. But without that bifurcation between a “thing” and its “name,” did life make more sense? Did we feel ashamed when we realized we were naked because we didn’t know what “naked” meant before that? Maybe the Fall is not a narrative about God’s domination but rather, of humans, whose words helped them gain mastery over the world, but also expelled them from a garden of wholeness. Maybe no mind/body divide need apply? Or possibly, even, no division of the sexes into “good” and “bad.”
My sentimental, word-riddled mind thinks of the 32,000-year-old paintings in the Chauvet caves of France, as shown in the somewhat loopy Werner Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The paintings, which are stunning images of animals, are said to have been seen by the flickering light of fires. Here, I think, was the true religion. No words, no gods, no texts. No creeds, but plenty of symbol and ritual, which is the true “garb” of Catholicism.
I understand why people miss the Latin Mass, although it went extinct before my time. I like the smells, spells, and bells. I like the ceremonial robes and magic. But hearing the words in English is distracting and makes me argue in my head and ruins it. There’s something to be said for abstraction and repetitious sound.
I usually write balanced on the balls of my feet on a chair or bench. My heels are tucked behind my butt and I’m slightly hunched, but I don’t feel “weight” anywhere. I float like a walrus in the sea, somehow giving gravity the slip. I type, oddly perched, with my laptop on a table in front of me, in perfect comfort. From my fingers spiral stories of gods, caves, saints, Marvel characters, nun pop artists, mutating cells, mysteries upon mysteries and, of course, George Washington’s dick. I squat before flickering lights, Eve seeking knowledge.
I understand that pixels have their limitations. There’s no touch, no smell. No reading in the tub or that pleasant feeling of dozing off into a book on a Sunday afternoon. Computers are not warm. Screens get headachey. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, anyway. But I have found that networked, real-time religion writing offers some things that traditionally published paper doesn’t. Anyone can access it, anywhere in the world. I sold copies of my e-book to people in Japan and Russia. Anyone can participate, regardless of sex or title; there is a real community, a real human bonding that never occurred when people were merely watching TV, all reports of folks gathering at neighborhood bars and bowling alleys to the contrary. I think America has always been more Edward Hopper than Friends.
Ephemerality has a beauty of its own. The Japanese concept of mono no aware, the open-eyed observance of a fleeting moment in its poetic entirety (think cherry blossoms) might be perfect for the case of digital religion; the beauty of written words is no less because they are not inscribed and stackable. Letting go of “legacy” is difficult. Do we not all carry around notions of how we’d like to be remembered? And if we will do anything important enough to save us from ending up as part of a sole framed photo in a grandchild’s house; after that, oblivion? But doing so might also make our human interactions more precious, since we might enjoy another’s company for only a few fleeting messages of understanding or enlightenment.
But just as I don’t have to choose belief or unbelief, spiritual or religious, faith or doubt, I don’t have to choose pixels or print. My computer sits in a perfect rectangular space on my desk, surrounded on all sides by books and a towering supermarket Guadalupe candle. My words unspool in every space.
Mary Valle lives and writes in Baltimore. Reprinted from CrossCurrents (July 2015), a monthly magazine and global network for people of faith and intelligence who are committed to connecting the wisdom of the heart and the life of the mind.