Clarence Clemons Asks: Who Do I think I am? @Manasquan-BelmarPatch

Documentary on E Street Band’s ‘Big Man’ premieres at Garden State Film Festival.

Clarence Clemens Garden State Film Festival 016Clarence Clemons had dispersed a crowd on the Great Wall of China so a filmmaker could record him playing his saxophone when a member of the crowd demanded, “Who do you think you are?”

The accusation can be heard off camera in theWho Do I Think I Am? documentary that emerged from the encounter and that Clemons premiered at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park Saturday night.

Clemons narrates the story himself.

It was 2005 and he had gone to China in search of rest and alternative medicine after a grueling tour took a toll on his body. Instead his accuser’s question became both the title and subject of his film and a catalyst for a spiritual quest. …

To find out where his quest leads, go to Manasquan-Belmar Patch.

Who knew the Ivy League gem offered a wealth of free public religion events?

As a girl growing up in Point Pleasant Beach, I didn’t give much thought to Princeton University. It was the 1970s and I was, shall we say, distracted. If I thought about our state’s Ivy League jewel at all, I saw it as an inaccessable, dusty treasure chest full of academic stuffiness and snobbery.

If we’re lucky, we grow up and find out the world’s gems are much more accessable than we ever imagined. What a delight it was then, a few years ago, to learn that Princeton has a thriving faith community and offers a bounty of free public religion events.

It’s a pleasant 45 minute drive west on Route 33 and across Route 1 to the university from coastal Monmouth County and a great way to spend an afternoon or evening while enriching one’s understanding of the religious landscape. …

Read about some upcoming events here. Plus, where to park, eat, and shop in Princeton.

Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson @Christianity Today

Roberta in her office

Roberta Ahmanson in her office, which is in one of three Ahmanson homes that I visited.


In its 2005 list of the 25 most influential U.S. evangelicals, Time magazine described former religion reporter Roberta Green Ahmanson and husband Howard simply as “The Financiers.” Indeed, that is what they are. But these are no ordinary philanthropists. Roberta, 61, and Howard, 60, are among a rare breed of donor who invests as much intellectual and emotional capital in the projects they support as their Fieldstead and Company philanthropy does vast sums of money. (One source who declined to be identified estimates Fieldstead’s annual giving in the low eight figures based on its projects and staff size.) While Howard’s name is at the fore of their notoriety, as heir to his father’s H. F. Ahmanson & Co. savings and loan fortune, Roberta’s passion and intellect have shaped a good deal of their giving in the
quarter century they’ve been married.

Consider Fieldstead’s $20 million investment into Roberta’s hometown of Perry, Iowa. It was Roberta’s vision that led to an elaborate restoration of the historic Hotel Pattee and the installation of an iconic downtown gateway by acclaimed sculptor Albert Paley. So too did Roberta’s vision secure Paley gates at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope in Tustin, California— and at the Ahmansons’ meticulously designed beachfront home in Corona del Mar. Orange County Register sources valued the home at $30–$35 million last January.

The Ahmansons’ critics focus on their support for conservative causes like Proposition 8 (their donations totaled approximately $1.4 million in 2007–2008), and for conservative thinkers like the late and much reviled Christian Reconstructionist Rousas John Rushdoony. The secular media especially have made and repeated these criticisms over the past decade.

For example, in a scathing 2004 Salon profile of Howard, “Avenging Angel of the Religious Right,” Max Blumenthal took pains to show that the Ahmansons’ ultimate goals are theocratic, a charge that has been widely disseminated. Roberta at once denies and defends the claim: “I never was, and I don’t know if Howard ever was either. I’m afraid to say this, but also, what would be so bad about it?”

Blumenthal wrote, “[Howard’s] money has made possible some of the most pivotal conservative movements in America’s recent history, including the 1994 gop takeover of the California Assembly, a ban on gay marriage and affirmative action in California, and the mounting nationwide campaign to prove Darwin wrong about evolution. . . . And besides contributing cash to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Ahmanson has played an important role in driving Bush’s domestic agenda by financing the career of Marvin Olasky, a conservative intellectual whose ideas inspired the creation of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”

Meanwhile, Blumenthal described Roberta as a “warm refreshingly humorous . . . spokesperson and indefatigable guardian” of her husband. But he failed to either understand or to communicate the depth of her contribution to their work.

Howard, who has Tourette syndrome, rejects Blumenthal’s portrayal of his marriage. So do numerous sources who know the Ahmansons well and describe them as equals. “Sometimes [Roberta] has to confront me when I have Tourette-related issues,” said Howard, “but she is not really a ‘caretaker.’ ” Roberta added that the Salon profile was “full of lies” and won numerous corrections.

Furthermore, critics and supporters alike may be surprised to learn that Ahmanson is not opposed to domestic partnership rights for homosexuals. She said, “Marriage is something that has had a long definition in history. . . . The thing I’m most concerned about is that religious institutions maintain their freedom of association and their freedom of religious practice. The Catholic Church, for example, should not have to perform same-sex marriages.” After Proposition 8 was overturned, she said, “Everyone knew how the judge would rule. It’s headed for the Supreme Court. Always was.”

In 2005, The Guardian ran a sensational article titled, “Anti-Gay Millionaire Bankrolls Caravaggio Spectacular,” covering an exhibit sponsored by the Ahmansons at London’s National Gallery. The writer repeated many of Blumenthal’s charges and likewise failed to communicate Roberta’s primary role in the project, not to mention her deep commitment to the arts.

DISCOVERING REALITY

I became familiar with the Ahmanson name not through Time or Salon but at St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach, where the couple was lauded for investing in the church’s legal dispute with the Episcopal Church. Howard and Roberta were members for a dozen years before joining Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, and although Roberta is currently between churches, she describes former St. James rector David Anderson, president and ceo of the American Anglican Council, as her pastor.

Meeting Roberta for the first time last winter, when she was in New York speaking at the International Arts Movement’s Encounter conference, I too found her to be a warm and generous conversationalist. Our discussion quickly turned from art and philanthropy, topics she covered in her conference talk, to mutual friends to the bipolar diagnosis that she and a member of my family share.

The interview led to a three-day stay at the Ahmanson guesthouse, where conservative luminaries like Anderson, Olasky, Thomas Oden, and Terry Mattingly had stayed before me. The well-appointed, art-filled home is located around the corner from the main residence and across the street from another that houses their private offices and Roberta’s extensive dish collection. On the weekend of my visit, Howard was driving Roberta’s red Range Rover to Hillsdale College in Michigan to collect their son David, who was completing his freshman year after a tutor-led primary education. Roberta stayed behind to host a lecture by Dallas Willard at their home. Afterward, she would meet her family in Michigan to begin a classic cross-country road trip before flying to Rome, where she would speak at a conference on Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love. Next, they would return home and host a week-long celebration of the completion of their elaborate three-year home reconstruction, the subject of The Orange County Register’s interest.

To say Ahmanson’s passion for art permeates every space she inhabits is to underestimate her commitment. As we toured the main house, her running commentary on its extensive collection rivaled anything an art historian might offer. Although she was fighting a cold during frenzied preparations, she picked me up in Howard’s Toyota sedan to tour the Village of Hope, a traditional housing program whose Paley gates, sculpture, and stained glass showcase her artistic vision.

Ahmanson chairs the board of the five-year-old Museum of Biblical Art (mobia) in nyc and belongs to the Collectors Committee at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She began arranging furniture and pictures when she was a young child and fell in love with painting in eighth grade, but love of art is not what drives her. Her life’s primary animating force was found in her strict Regular Baptist upbringing: her desire“to know if there was a God and if it mattered.”

She found the answer “painfully” at Calvin College, from which she graduated in 1972 before earning an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan in 1974. “When I was 21, I admitted that there was a God and that I believed Christianity was true, that it was the best description of reality. That’s how I think of it, and if there were a better description of reality, I hope, with C. S. Lewis, that I would embrace it. But it keeps proving itself to fit.

“Once you start on that path, you want to understand the world. It connects to my journalism, because what we believe shapes what we do. It shapes the art we create, the buildings we create, the institutions we create, the governments we create. All those things grow out of what we believe to be the nature of reality. So it’s the biggest question.”

Ahmanson taught (unsuccessfully, she says) in Canada before moving to California to pursue journalism. At Calvin, she had become aware of the biblical theme that we become what we worship. “We worship dead things, we become dead. We worship the living God, we become alive,” she says.
“And one of the attributes of that living God is beauty. Beauty leads us to him. We really cannot live without it.”

A mutual friend introduced her to Howard in 1984, when she was working at The Orange County Register. They married two years later. Conversations with people who minister to the poor taught her that beauty can inspire the downtrodden to improve their lives. Additionally, she says, “We live in an increasingly visual age, one in which art museums have become the new temples, art an alternative to religion. Art can serve God or be an idol. Given who God made me, it seemed that I had a responsibility to get involved in the work and the larger conversation.”

main house chapel

Stained glass window in the courtyard chapel of the Ahmanson’s oceanfront home.

This is not to say that the art she supports is saccharine or safe. Quite the contrary. The Caravaggio exhibit featured work from the 16th-century painter’s final years, after he had murdered an associate. The same newspaper that vilified its sponsors published an admiring review that said, “There is a frisson of the transgressive about Caravaggio’s art, a morbidity as much spiritual as it is—to modern eyes—sexual and social.”

Dawson Carr, the exhibit’s curator, researched online about the Ahmansons after they had approached the museum to fund Christian exhibits. The art historian was apprehensive about what he found. “I got all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and vitriol and the like, and I just thought to myself, Oh my goodness, what is this going to be like?” He discovered that the couple “may be doctrinally conservative, but in point of fact these are not ignorant, mean-spirited, nasty people the way they’re often portrayed.”

Carr also says their sponsorship of Christian art is vital and that they never tried to influence the content or presentation of the show. mobia director Ena Heller echoes Carr’s sentiments. “I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when it comes to religion, people get very personal, very defensive, and slightly illogical, and I have never seen that with Roberta.”

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN VISION

Early in their marriage, the Ahmansons befriended Methodist theologian Tom Oden. Some 20 years ago, as they were sitting on their front porch overlooking the Pacific, Roberta asked Oden a question that would lead to one of their most significant projects: “What do you want to do with the
rest of your life?” He was taken aback, but had been thinking for several years about a major scholarly project on the ancient church fathers’ Bible commentary. He recalls, “Right quickly I said, ‘Well, this is the project that if I really could do it, I would feel I’d been most useful.’ ”

InterVarsity Press publisher Robert Fry- ling describes the resulting 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series,co-funded by Fieldstead, as “the most significant publishing project in the history of InterVarsity Press.” He says it has been acclaimed by evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic leaders, including two popes. “This extraordinary series would not have been possible without Howard and Roberta.” Meanwhile, the Ahmansons are funding another Oden project, the Center for Early African Christianity, whose mission is “to educate African leadership in the depth of African intellectual literary achievements, especially those from the Christian tradition of the first millennium.”

Roberta’s passion for journalism began when she was in high school and has continued throughout her life. She co- authored Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, and Fieldstead funds two projects that relate to this interest and involve Roberta’s longtime friend Mattingly: the GetReligion blog of the Media Project and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ Washington Journalism Center, which Mattingly directs.

Mattingly, for one, doesn’t think Roberta was fundamentally changed by marrying into great wealth. “The lady still reads like a tornado. She’s obsessed with the same kind of artistic and cultural and political and religious stuff. The same person that I knew as a reporter, chasing people around asking questions about all that, is frankly the same person that I know today.”

Roberta at Village of Hope in front of sculpture she commissioned

Roberta Ahmanson at The Village of Hope in Tustin, California, where she and Howard donated art and other ammenities.

When pressed, Ahmanson describes herself as a “Reformed Anglo-Catholic” and a philosophical realist. Two-thirds of the way through 2010, she had already read 74 books in the categories Mattingly mentioned, among them William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East; Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge; volumes in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series; James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World; several books on the arts; several by Pope Benedict XVI; and the fiction of Frank Tallis, Jaqueline Winspear, and Henning Mankell.

Like Mattingly, Olasky knew Ahmanson before she married Howard. When they met, he was an associate journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin working on an article for Eternity magazine. Fieldstead solicited Olasky’s help editing the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, a 16-book collection that was co-published with Crossway Books. The Ahmansons went on to help finance (to various degrees) Olasky’s summer writing sabbaticals, international research trips, a James Madison Fellowship at Princeton University, and World Magazine, of which Olasky is editor in chief.

The second of the Turning Point books, on international poverty, emerged from a series of meetings that Fieldstead sponsored in Villars, Switzerland, and then at their California home. The meetings, Olasky says, also informed his thinking about domestic poverty and led to his influential book The Tragedy of American Compassion. Newt Gingrich commended the book in his 1995 inaugural address as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and former President George W. Bush, in the foreword to Olasky’s Compassionate Conservatism (2000), described him as “Compassionate Conservatism’s leading thinker.”

As Blumenthal noted, Howard and Roberta also have strong ties to intelligent design, which purports that life on earth is best explained by reference to a creator. “We are probably the single largest supporter of the intelligent design movement, and have been since the beginning,” said Roberta. Her perspective on theistic evolution is unflinching: She rejects it because it “legit-imates naturalism as the mode of understanding reality.” Even so, she is not a seven-day creationist, and Fieldstead funds projects at institutions that promote evolution (see “Where Does Their Money Go?” sidebar).

Ahmanson is equally un-flinching in her defense of Rushdoony, controversial in part for his belief that the Levitical laws should be applied in modern society. Roberta claims he wasn’t “the ogre” he was made out to be and explains his theodicy as a response to his family’s flight from the Armenian genocide in Turkey. “His whole life project was to try to figure out what could protect you. In the end, he came down to the only thing that is solid is God’s law. Well, you say the word law in the 20th or 21st century, and people break out in a rash.”

Peb Jackson, the principal of Jackson Consulting Group, has known the Ahmansons throughout their marriage. When I asked him about their connection with Rushdoony, he said he hadn’t thought about it in years, but, upon reflection, said, “I think they were perhaps a little bit zealous in reference to their powerful support for Rushdoony in that effort. It’s really a reflection of the passion that they bring to wanting to focus on the forces in culture and society and faith, and wanting to use their God-given resources to influence those forces.”

When asked if it bothers her that their philanthropy is often overshadowed by criticism of their activism, Ahmanson said, “It used to bother me. My husband, for one thing, became a Democrat [in 2009], and he’s much more complicated than this kind of cardboard figure that they try to create. Even The Guardian must have figured it out, because they didn’t do any scare kind of stories about ‘The Sacred Made Real’ exhibit we sponsored at the same museum [in 2010]. They just left it alone, and the show got nothing but rave reviews, including one in The Guardian.”

Fred Smith, founder of the Christian philanthropy group The Gathering, says the Ahmansons are generally ten years ahead of their peers in Christian philanthropy. He mentions their foundational support of the pro-life movement in the 1980s, as well as their art patronage and interest in the early church. Smith thinks people don’t realize how much Roberta has changed. When he first met her, he says, “She would get angry and just kind of stomp out of the room figuratively and say, ‘You guys are never going to get it.’ I think over the years, she’s learned to temper that a great deal.”

Smith attributes some of Roberta’s early frustration to the transition from religion reporter to wealthy patron. “In some ways, she responded by saying, ‘Now I have a bully pulpit,’ and then went through some of the painful experiences of finding out that you can burn some bridges with this new bully pulpit until you get comfortable with it.” He adds, “I think everybody assumes that wealth brings perfection and omniscience. Sometimes the wealthy foster that myth as much as anybody. She’s had to grow up and stumbled around some in that, but I think she’s growing up. She’s not against things as much as she’s now for things. I think that’s made a big difference.”

Roberta Ahmanson is a force of nature. She brings intelligence, passion, conviction, and energy to the projects she pursues, and yet, she is defined even here in terms of Howard; with characteristic mirth, she declares she is amused by this fact. “Well, I am his wife and it’s a very important part of my life,” she offers. But she is so much more.


Where Does Their Money Go?

Roberta Ahmanson identified her and her  husband’s most significant beneficiaries:

• The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
• The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture
• The Center for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia
• Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope
• Perry, Iowa (Roberta’s hometown)
• The Museum of Biblical Art
• Faculty development grants at Biola University
• The Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University
• The Pacific Symphony’s Class Act Program
• The National Endowment for the Arts intern sponsorship in the chairman’s office
• The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project
• The Christian Community Development Association
• Food for the Hungry

Recent 990 tax forms for the Ahmanson Charitable Community Trust and Fieldstead and Company include donations to:

• Pepperdine University
• Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
• International Arts Movement
• Association for Community Education
• Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation
• World Food Prize Foundation
• Heartland Film Festival
• map International
• Trinity Christian Community (New Orleans)
• The Media Project


*This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Christianity Today.

Flashes of Light in the Darkest Depths: The Faith and Life of Blind Photographer Pete Eckert @TheHuffingtonPost

Pete Eckert is a unique artist featured in the documentary Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers. I reviewed the film earlier this year and talked to Eckert afterward about his spiritual and artistic journey. Here’s our conversation, edited for space:

Christine A. Scheller: As you know, I was exposed to your work through the documentary Dark Light, which is about blind photographers. Do you have any vision at all?

Pete Eckert: No. I have some light perception, but I also have phantom things that go on like crackling lightning and spirals. Somebody comes up and makes a loud noise; I get a big burst of white light come across my vision.

Christine A. Scheller: Do doctors have an explanation for that or is it just something going on in your brain responding to the noise?

Pete Eckert: The last 25 years or so, I’ve been actively rewiring the optic cortex. And so, it doesn’t surprise me when a sound will generate a visual effect. Somebody comes up and I don’t hear them and they grab hold of my shoulder, or if there’s a loud noise, I get this burst of light. That’s, I think, direct evidence that there’s a cross-over between sound, touch and vision.

Christine A. Scheller: What condition caused you to lose your sight?

Pete Eckert: I have Retinitis Pigmentosa (RT). My life is divided very neatly into two sides. I started to go blind when I was 27 or so. I had 210 degrees of vision. I dropped down to 90 degrees within just a couple of months. But I had 10 years of some central vision. I was legally blind, but I was a foreman of a construction crew at that time. I could shoot at the top of National Rifle Association pistol competitions. I made a lot of use of my central vision.

Christine A. Scheller: Was that a terrifying experience to go through?

Pete Eckert: It’s very emotional. RP is very cruel. You adapt and then some more vision gets taken. You adapt again and some more vision gets taken. Depending on how long it takes for you to drop down into complete blindness, you’re always suffering a loss. It’s as if you are watching yourself die.

Christine A. Scheller: What sustained you through that continual sense of loss?

Pete Eckert: That’s hard to say. I refused to accept blindness. I always pushed out into the world. When I got my first guide dog, we had some mishaps. I almost got run over by a train. A number of cars almost hit us. It was very difficult to adapt. Finally, at one point, I just decided my independence and freedom [are things] I’m willing to die for.

Christine A. Scheller: Did your Christian faith help you deal with the losses?

Pete Eckert: Perhaps, perhaps. I’m not really sure. I could see that something was taken, but something was given. You could call that faith. … I base my life on the Ten Commandments. But then, also on the tenets of Tae Kwon Do: Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control, and indomitable spirit. The tenets that I just rang off there, they’re just reflections of the Ten Commandments. A lot of them, if you thought about it, they fit together. A lot of Christians, they forget to be courteous. And then, when you run into trouble, you don’t give up–you know the indomitable spirit.

Christine Scheller: You were a visual artist before you went blind. At what point did you begin doing photography?

Pete Eckert: After I was totally blind.

Christine Scheller: How did that come about?

Pete Eckert: I was looking through a drawer and I came across my mother-in-law’s old camera. … I like mechanical things. I was fooling with it and my wife came home. I had her explain what all the settings were. There was an infrared setting on it. …I have a corny sense of humor. A blind guy doing photos in a non-visible wavelength, that just cracked me up!

Christine A. Scheller: Your process and your photos are so meticulous and ordered that it’s obvious you have a particular vision in mind. Tell me about that.

Pete Eckert: Vision is a slow process. Babies, when they are learning to see, don’t fully comprehend what their eyes are bringing to them. Sighted people, if they’re sick or preoccupied, are not getting all the data from what they’re seeing. So getting vision from sound is like low resolution detail. As I sit in the room I’m in right now, I can hear the clock going off. The sound’s bouncing off the walls; I can tell exactly where my dog is; hear the arms on the couch. Sound paints an image. It does give you the details of your surroundings.

Christine A. Scheller: Did you research sound or you just figured this all out from your own experience?

Pete Eckert: From my own experience. Now there are fancy studies on how the brain works and how blind people can do this and that. It’s pretty much documented. I was just going by the fear of blindness on my own. Once I realized and I was so quickly able to adapt, I figured, “I know I’m going to go blind; I don’t want to go blind; how can I provide a mind’s eye image?”
When I walk upstairs now, I don’t count the stairs; I listen. When I get to the landing at the top, I hear the opening. I used to teach martial arts. Learning to spar at full speed is a very good test of how fast can you change the sound into an image, because if you don’t do it fast enough, you’re going to get tagged.

Christine A. Scheller: How do you know if your work turns out the way you’d like it to?

Pete Eckert: Think of the process broken into two sides: The event and the product. As I build the image–it’s in my mind’s eye–so I know when to stop. I know what I’ve done by sound and touch. I know where I was and where everything is. I develop the film. I take the picture. I do the contact sheets. Then I get some feedback. It could have a technical problem, say, I left the lens cap on and there’s nothing there and if I brought it to the lab and said, “I want this to be two feet by two feet.” I’d be throwing money away. So, this is economics. I listen to a description and match it up with my memory–and so, did I get what I intended to get?

Christine A. Scheller: So you’re matching that feedback to the image you have in your mind and that you want to project.

Pete Eckert: Right. I’m looking for confirmation. I let the people talk–it’s a gift that they’re giving me. Feedback is a gift. Communication is a gift. And so, I let them speak as much as they want. Some people go like, “Oh, this is really scary. I wouldn’t want this in my house.” Even a negative response I think of as a gift…. I’ve got a whole bunch of work that never has been printed. People either like [my work] or they really don’t.

Christine A. Scheller: The images I saw are really fascinating. One is called “Stations” and the other is “Cathedral.” Were they made while church services were going on?

Pete Eckert: “Stations” was not. There were a few people in the church, but they weren’t in the photo. “Cathedral” was done during Christmas Mass. There was a whole lot of work that went into that. I did a film test to figure out how much light was needed. Everything that I could touch, as far as my hands would go, I touched. I memorized the layout of the church. I know the sequence of a Mass. I know when what happens. …

The parishioners weren’t too pleased that I was setting up to shoot and I knew they wouldn’t be. I wore my best clothes–coat and tie. I washed the dog. (I had a beautiful black German shepherd then.) I also had the knowledge that Father Anthony was a friend of mine and he supports what I do.

A few parishioners came, and they said, “You can’t do this.” And I said, “Yeah, I did it last year,” which was true. And they went away. Then they came back and said, “You can’t use a flash in here.” I said, “No problem, I never use a flash.” They went away. And then, they said, “Do you have permission to do this?” And I said, “Yes, from above.”

If you think about it, the Franciscan Church–its mission is to help the poor and disenfranchised. A blind person who has learned a method to see, who is more disenfranchised than that? Who should they support? They went to [Father Anthony] and I think he just said, “Leave Pete alone.” When Communion came up, Father Anthony came [off] the altar. He came to my wife and I, served us Communion, and then went back up and served the rest [of the] probably 800 people there.

Christine A. Scheller: That sends a message of affirmation.

Pete Eckert: Exactly. He was teaching the parish.

Christine A. Scheller: What were you trying to communicate?

Pete Eckert: The Spirit in a church. I had tried to find a way to show the Holy Spirit. It’s very elusive. And so, this isn’t a direct attempt for the Holy Spirit, but it’s a direct attempt to show spiritual feeling in the church.

Christine A. Scheller: And the “Stations” image–what were you going for there?2010-10-09-STATIONS.jpg

Pete Eckert: This is a little bit more controversial. If you look at the guy’s feet, he’s wearing duck boots. The Catholic Church is having a lot of problems right now. There is a lot of controversy. The duck boots are for walking through the muck and mire of controversy. Remember I have a corny sense of humor!

Christine A. Scheller: Yeah. Now, I have to look at that again, because you really do! Are you Catholic?

Pete Eckert: I don’t know.

Christine A. Scheller: Were you raised Catholic?

Pete Eckert: Yes.

Christine A. Scheller: What are you working on right now?

Pete Eckert: I’m working on a series. It’s multiple exposures. What I’m doing is I’m showing the sighted world with people ghosting out and cars whizzing around, and then, in my studio, I’m dropping in these kind of wild figures…. I’m trying to show how it feels to be a blind person in the sighted world.

If you think about it, as I’m around people, I can hear them. I can place them. But, since I can’t see them, they could be spirits. They could be an apparition. … And so, some of the misinformation or misinterpreted information–I let that go into my photos. Even when I was sighted, if I was preoccupied or sad, I wasn’t getting the same data from my vision as I was if I was happy and very attentive.

One time I was at a crosswalk and the light changed and the guy standing behind me started yelling, “Go, go, go!” I wouldn’t move and he started to step out around me and stepped as if he was going to step into the street. I reached forward and grabbed his shoulder and yanked him back. A car whizzed in front of him, and he went, “Oh.” And, he didn’t thank me for saving his life or anything.

Christine A. Scheller: Well, I want to thank you for inviting me into your world and the fascinating world of blind photography. You have much to teach those of us whose sight is limited by our vision.

Check out reaction to this interview at The Huffington Post.

On Quitting the Circus & Coming Home to the Jersey Shore @HuffingtonPost

A while back I was invited to blog for The Huffington Post Religion channel. I had a nice conversation with an editor who I’d met in 2008 at a professional event. I sent a couple emails in reply and heard nothing back. I submitted the post below last week and heard nothing back. I called and left a message for the PR guy who emailed me when the channel went live and heard nothing back. So I’m posting my introductory The Huffington Post post here. Perhaps someone at The Huffington Post will discover it and get in touch, either to tell me that they want it and/or me or that they don’t. Either way, this lighthearted, but very serious post reflects my current spiritual convictions and my current state of mind, which is contentedly and resolutely conflict averse. So,  if you’re reading, just pretend you are at the swarming open-source site being introduced to me for the very first time. Here’s what I’d have to say:

I was sitting on the front porch of the aluminum-sided duplex I rent from my mama and daddy, talking to my chickens and looking through the rusty old chain link fence, past a neighbor’s immovable pile of junk and the port-o-potty that’s taken root in the yard of a newly manufactured home like it’s a perverse old local pine, at a kid in a hunter green pick-up truck squealing out of the neighborhood and I thought to myself, “This is why people call this town Bricktucky.” It’s an insult that I’ve only recently been introduced to, though I’ve lived here at the Jersey Shore nearly all my life.

Never mind that it’s a short two mile jog from my neighborhood to some of the most expensive beach front real estate in New Jersey and nine miles southeast to the party town where American television is creating the same kind of distorted image of the Jersey Shore and Italian Americans that Neil Postman said it does of everything that matters. There’s a Moose Lodge between me and the summering glitterati and the most prominent Italian American influence that I observe here besides the dominant culinary one is the Roman Catholic Church.

It startled me, for example, after a six year sojourn in Orange County, California, to come home and find the local Gannett affiliate reporting on Ash Wednesday services as if they were a matter for serious consideration. In the land of the mega-church, the impartation of ashes was an opportunity to be identified with him who was despised and rejected, or at least with him who was a religious sideshow oddity.

Speaking of the circus, there is the carnival that is summer at the Jersey Shore and then there is a bucolic day-in, day-out life that nourishes those who live it. The same could be said of American Christianity. The abundant life resides in a parallel universe from the carnival performances of pseudo-celebrities and culture warriors left and right. Sometimes the universes intersect. Often they collide.

I didn’t always know this. I had my favorite Christian authors and radio preachers. I heard a particularly insightful one speak at a conference once. He was getting close to retirement and sprinkled his talk with appeals to buy his books so that he could enjoy his golden years. Another one, whose radio broadcasts nourished my budding faith in the early 1980s, was, twenty-five years later, the only mega-church pastor in an affiliation of them to publicly stand by my husband and me after we publicly confronted his spiritual mentor’s corruption.

You can be assured of one thing only when it comes to successful preachers and authors: they are compelling communicators. They’ve no doubt worked hard to get that book or sermon written while you’ve been lounging at the pool (or, in my case, the coop), but I’ve met and/or interviewed enough authors and speakers to assure you that prominence and godliness don’t go together like Guidos and Guidettes. Your grandma is more likely to be an accurate reflection of the risen Christ than anyone who’s sought and endured the limelight, including me.

You need to know this if you want to live the abundant life our savior promises rather than aspiring to the fun house mirror distortion. Becky Garrison gets this and writes about it in her new book, Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ. Garrison is the daughter of an eccentric Episcopalian priest. Although her father preached civil rights in the south when that was a dangerous thing to do, he also reportedly dropped acid with Timothy Leary. She writes, “Dad overloaded his sermons with countercultural slogans that were full of tolerance but light on theology. Without the power of the risen Christ, Dad’s civil rights activism that drew him to the priesthood was reduced to Sesame Street sing-alongs.” About her progressive peers, she says, “When peaceful progressives downplay the life-transforming power of the resurrection, they reduce the words of ‘social justice’ Jesus to just another prophetic voice calling people to repent.” And about herself, she reflects, “I can very easily get caught up in critiquing emergent exercises, progressive power plays, and other ungodly games that I forget to follow the living Christ.”

Garrison’s hyperbolic take on American Christianity reminds me of John Hurwitz’s and Hayden Schlossberg’s take on South Jersey in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. You remember when the main characters get lost in the Pine Barrens and battle it out with deer and peculiar country bumpkins? When I wasn’t cringing at their crudity, I was laughing myself silly at the duo’s depiction of my sacred soil, because it was so obviously rooted in a wry love of home. (Hurwitz and Schlossberg are natives of semi-rural Randolph, New Jersey). Likewise, Garrison’s skewering of the religious carnival is rooted in her love for the real thing and the bitter experience of seeing the spotlight shine so brightly on the center ring.

So, just remember, next time you’re reading that new spiritual memoir (or any post of mine): if the message doesn’t turn you back to your own life and its local sources of nourishment, turn your back on it.

Now I gotta’ go pickle those beets I picked yesterday with my mama. She taught me most of what I know about loving God and living the Christian life. That’s why I quit the circus and came home to her.

Thanks for reading.

Update 8/19/2010: The Huffington Post published an earlier version of the post. Thanks HuffPo!

Art That Reveals Our Need for Grace @Her.meneutics

My latest post is up at the Christianity Today women’s blog, and it’s one I really love because the artists  it features are so inspiring (both the film makers and the photographers). I had the privilege of speaking to the artist who took the picture below and communicating by email with a couple others. What a pleasure! I hope this post makes you smile, and causes you to ponder your own limited vision. It begins like this:

After seeing an advertisement for the 8th Annual Garden State Film Festival on Twitter, I requested a press pass, thinking I might screen an inspiring film or two that I could recommend to Her.meneutics readers. The festival director suggested Newt Gingrich’s Rediscovering God in America, which I saw and appreciated, but not nearly as much as two other films. Both reminded me that seeing the world through another person’s eyes is often the route to both empathy and greater self-awareness.

Shooting Beauty introduces viewers to a community of people with cerebral palsy, first through the eyes of an aspiring fashion photographer whose career is diverted as she teaches them how to take pictures, and then through their own and each other’s eyes. The second, Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers, defies logic as it highlights the stunning art and unique vision of some of the world’s leading blind photographers. Yes, that’s right, blind photographers. And no, I didn’t believe it either until I saw their work and their processes for myself. Both films tell their stories without either pity or sanctimony. This is a significant accomplishment for filmmakers who don’t travel through life in the dark or by wheelchair.

Shooting Beauty opens with the first person story of Courtney Bent. She initially visits a cerebral palsy day program to photograph its severely disabled clients, but soon discovers that her own limited perspective distorts the images she creates. …

You can read the rest here, and join the conversation either at Her.meneutics or right here at Exploring Intersections.

[Cathedral photo ©Pete Eckert ; all rights reserved. Used with permission.]

The Art of Ministry @Urban Faith

My first column is up at Urban Faith. It was inspired by the International Arts Movement’s Encounter 10 gathering. That’s one of the speakers, David Sacks, talking about his gorgeous photography work in the photo above.  I interviewed philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson at the Four Seasons Hotel after she spoke at Encounter 10. Her talk reminded me of a book club selection from the High Calling Blogs network so I incorporated a bit of that into my column. The interview with Roberta was so fascinating that I pitched my editors at Christianity Today on using it as the foundation for a profile of her instead of just running the interview. They agreed and are sending me to Southern California next month to build on it. This is how my work often comes together.

Here’s a clip from “The Art of Urban Ministry,” which combines Roberta’s thoughts with my own and Bill Strickland’s and the Apostle John’s.

In his memoir, Make the Impossible Possible, entreprenuer Bill Strickland describes the images of his earliest memories. He writes, “What I saw as I walked to school each day was an unbroken landscape of decay that taught me indelible lessons about hopelessness and defeat no matter where my gaze fell.”

Home was different. There Strickland’s mother enlisted her children’s help in keeping their simple abode neat and clean. In high school, a teacher named Frank Ross introduced Strickland to the art of making pottery. It changed his life. With the support of patrons, Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild when he was just 19 years old.

Today Strickland presides over the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a gleaming, expansive community arts and jobs training center in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Of this space he writes, “Anyone who knew me could see straight off that the place was built to offer our students the same rich experiences that had turned my life around. There was clay. There were art and photography. After a while, there were gourmet food and flowers…. And it was all housed in a sleek, clean, sunlit space that had been meticulously designed down to the last detail, to give our students the same sense of self-worth and possibility that Frank Ross’s classroom had nurtured in me.”

You can read the rest here. And check out this video clip of Ben and Vespers from the IAM Encounter 10 closing ceremony. It’s funakalicious!

Running in the Shadow of 9/11 @Her.meneutics

There isn’t much to say in introduction to this essay except that it’s not what I intended to write. I had thought perhaps I’d get it out of my system and then write a more forward looking piece, but the editors wanted this. Here’s a clip from the middle of the essay:

On Sunday morning, the race began with a seven mile loop of Central Park. We emerged from the park onto 7th Avenue to the sound of cheering crowds. A smile crossed my face so big it made me laugh. Owning Times Square for a moment felt as magical as I imagine it must feel to be a Broadway star. We turned right onto 42nd Street and loped over to the West Side Highway, where we were greeted by showgirls and guys dancing and singing us on to victory. It was about then that my legs began to get heavy and tight, but I ran a really smart race. I paced myself, stayed in the shade, stopped at every fluid station, stretched, and ate packets of salt as advised in the 87 degree heat. Someone later asked if I ever thought of quitting. No! I was having too much fun taking pictures and tweeting as I ran and walked!

Besides, how could I quit with Dribble the World runner Ashley Ten Kate bouncing her basketball a few strides ahead of me for 13.1 miles! According to its website, Dribble the World “exists to save the lives of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa using the game of basketball.” There was also the 13.1 Virgin runner, who I thought was running in support of abstinence until someone who doesn’t write about the sexual revolution and its consequences informed me was probably a first time half-marathoner. Duh.

Sprinting for the finish line a couple hundred yards from Ground Zero, though, I started to cry again. It was as if all the happiness and pathos of my life was represented in that course. …

You’ll have to go to Her.meneutics to read the whole thing.

Beauty By Any Means Necessary

My latest post is up at Her.Meneutics. It’s called “Is it a sin to nip and tuck?” and was reclaimed from an article I worked on in 2007 that never made it to print. I offer the original here because my sources* made many points worth considering and because I think it’s a really good piece of work.

The photo above is of my sister Connie Smith before cosmetic surgeons created fingers for her from skin on her thigh. Connie was interviewed for this article. Living in Orange County, California, inspired my interest in the topic; Connie’s embodied experience informed my thinking.

“Beauty often wins love. It just does,” write Karen Lee-Thorp and Cynthia Hicks in Why Beauty Matters. No wonder women, and, increasingly, men are willing to endure the pain and risk of elective cosmetic surgery to attain it. New York Times reporter Alex Kaczynski states it bluntly in her cosmetic surgery expose’ Beauty Junkies. “In the end it all comes down to sex. … We are looking for love. And we will accept lust.”

Few admit this with the aplomb of Cena Rasmussen. This former model readily confesses that her cosmetic surgery addiction was fueled primarily by the bliss of turning heads. By her own admission, Rasmussen has spent years looking in the mirror. More often than not, she has seen reason to improve the image that stares back at her. Rasmussen was twenty-seven years old when Palm Springs, CA, cosmetic surgeon Razi Mazaheri first sculpted her flesh. He was dating Rasmussen’s friend and she was envious of the friend’s evolving, surgically-enhanced appearance.

In one transformative day, Rasmussen had breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, cheek implants and an eye lift. The breast augmentation didn’t heal properly and had to be redone almost immediately. In fact, one-quarter to one-third of breast augmentations will require additional surgery, according to Kaczynski and the FDA.

For Rasmussen, aesthetic surgery would become a biannual ritual that continued for two decades. There were more rhinoplasties, breast surgeries and lifts—eyes, face, neck—and non-surgical procedures as well. The regimen ended with a hyalauronic acid peel in 1999 that burned the skin on her face so badly, she says it left her looking like a “freak of nature.” Since then, Rasmussen has sworn off Mazaheri and has had nothing but $4000 worth of laser treatments to reduce the scarring. Still, she remains undaunted and is planning another face lift—her third, or is it the fourth? She can’t recall.

Racing into the Future

Rasmussen may represent an extreme in the use, or what some might call abuse, of cosmetic surgery, but the trend has been growing exponentially. In 2006, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, Americans spent just under $12.2 billion on 11.5 million surgical and non-surgical procedures.

That’s a 446 percent increase from 1997. Surgical procedures increased by 98 percent and non-surgical procedures by 747 percent. Liposuction, breast augmentation, eyelid surgery, abdominoplasty and breast reduction were the top surgical procedures in 2006, while Botox injections, hyalauronic acid, laser hair removal, microdermabrasion and laser skin resurfacing were the most popular non-surgical techniques.

Ninety-two percent of patients were women, but men had nearly one million procedures. Forty-seven percent of patients were aged 35-50, 22 percent were 19-34, and 25 percent were aged 51-64. Ethnic minorities made up 22 percent of the patient pool.

Sculpting flesh is just the latest in millennia of questionable beauty-enhancement practices. The use of mobile x-ray machines for hair removal early in the last century is another. By the 1930s, the technique seemed “firmly entrenched,” writes Teresa Riordin in Inventing Beauty. She says women appear to have been “either ignorant of the dangers or simply willing to ignore them, given the ease and effectiveness of the treatment.” Sound familiar?

According to Riordin, women have long been collaborators and profiteers in this business. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, for example, women received one-third of all U.S. patents, but in the category of pre-surgical breast enhancement (“falsies”), nearly two-thirds of patent-holders were women.

 So what is a Christian to think about elective cosmetic surgery? Is it a sin to get a nip and tuck? Depends on whom one asks. I asked a variety of professionals and lay people. Their answers are an eclectic brew.

Choice

Lilian Calles Barger, author of Eve’s Revenge, says the choice to have cosmetic surgery is not a free one. “If you tell me, ‘my mother had cosmetic surgery. She’s a very independent woman. She really loves God and she wants to do this, and this is her choice,’ I say, ‘This is not a free choice. This choice is under duress.” Barger describes the phenomena as “appalling,” “gut wrenching,” “fundamentally wrong,” “a failure of the imagination.”

“The body is not just a hunk of meat,” she insists. “The body is significant in Christianity. The Bible talks about how we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. The question is what are we offering our bodies up to when we do that?” Her conclusion is that we’re offering them up to “false beauty and to cultural norms that we should be challenging,” but adds, “so that is where you can be compassionate, because you can understand that sin is not the sinner by themselves. It is collaborative, communal, reinforced. We support each other in this.”

Barger’s claim was born out in interviews with several cosmetic surgery patients.  In nearly every interview, individual choice was held out as a trump card, but all the women made their decisions within the context of relationships both personal and professional.

Therapeutic and Spiritual Perspectives

A disconnect between body and Spirit emerged in the reasoning of two patients who said body sculpting decisions are spiritually insignificant. “I don’t think it is a spiritual issue in any way,” says Rasmussen. “I personally believe that when we die, we’re going to have a glorified body that’s not going to be physical in any way. So what does the Lord care what we do to our skin?” Rasmussen explains that she both saved for her procedures and tithed faithfully throughout the exercise of her habit.

 A fifty-something patient who asked not to be identified has had eye lid surgery, a chin implant, a mini-face lift and Botox. She says that as she struggled with the idea of tampering with the body God gave her, she sensed Him saying, “My beloved, you’re beautiful. You don’t need to do this.” She doesn’t believe, however, that tuning out the voice of God was sin. What matters, according to this patient, is “where your heart is.”

Cissy Brady-Rogers is a Pasadena therapist who has had a mastectomy, but no reconstruction after breast cancer years ago. She says that our culture “sets women up to feel shame about our bodies.” Body shame originates at home where children are not taught what to do with developing bodies and sexual impulses. It is then reinforced in school and through the larger culture. This coincides with what Brady-Rogers calls “disembodiment”—the phenomenon by which a subject looks into the mirror and sees that he or she does not measure up to cultural ideals and then comes to view their body as an object in need of repair rather than simply “me.” She says those considering aesthetic surgery would do well to heal the cause of their discontent (shame) rather than treating symptoms surgically.

Sociologist Philip Rieff talked about this disembodiment as “the triumph of the therapeutic” in his landmark 1960s book of the same name. It is a view of self as patient to be cured that he believed had replaced religion as the defining cultural narrative. He wrote, “That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announced a fundamental change in focus in the entire cast of our culture—toward a human condition about which there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of despair and hope.”

For Christians walking out faithful body stewardship in defiance of this fundamental change, Brady-Rogers (who holds a Master of Divinity degree along with her other credentials) offers another narrative. She says patient-consumers are trying to figure out how to save themselves, just like the Galatians were, and in the process are biting and devouring one another by increasing the social pressure on all of us to conform to false ideals. “There is always going to be some law, some culturally offered avenue to save ourselves, to make ourselves okay, to fix what’s not working.” What Paul said is that it’s not going to work. Christ is the only one who can save us. “We are free to have plastic surgery. There is not a biblical law that says, ‘Thou shalt not have plastic surgery or drive a BMW,’ but what the Scripture says is: do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another.”

For a woman contemplating aesthetic surgery, she advises, “I would like her to have a group of soul sisters who could support one another in becoming who they are in Christ, and support her in a process of discernment about that decision, not as solo journey. That may be part of the problem; too many women are making these decisions in isolation from other women.”

 Idols and their Denouncing Prophets

Although the pursuit of beauty and the power it wields are timeless, a plethora of television makeover shows has normalized the triumph of both the therapeutic and the pornographic. Affluence and materialism, improved surgical techniques and doctors fleeing managed care realities for a cash business have all kept the engine humming along in the direction of more medical intervention to tame unwieldy flesh, according to Kaczynski.

In a 2004 New Atlantis article, “The Democratization of Beauty,” Christine Rosen wrote, “Cosmetic surgery … feeds our envy of those who embody nature’s most powerful but fleeting charms—youth, strength, beauty, and fertility. Its supporters praise its ability to change lives and its critics denounce it as the expression of our society’s worst impulses.”

As Christians reach for the charm, it’s these worst impulses that Hans Madueme, M.D., a fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, insist pose the greatest danger.

He calls the trend “deeply depressing” and says it’s one more area of American materialism that shocks his African family when they visit. The intuitive “yuk” reaction some Christians have towardaesthetic surgery is instructive, says Madueme. It tells us where the culture is moving, and reveals our loves, desires, idols and lusts. He suggests three “functional idols” that come into play with aesthetic surgery: youth, beauty and money. Consumers idolize youth and beauty, while medical providers exploit patients “inordinate desires” as a function of money idolatry.

Gary Churchill, a suburban Chicago facial plastic surgeon and aesthetic patient, offers a different perspective. He believes God directed him to a career that overwhelmingly consists of making women look and feel younger and more beautiful. Churchill was deeply offended when a fellow churchgoer suggested his work is incompatible with his faith. He takes a minimalist approach to surgery that leaves patients looking “refreshed” rather than altered.

Scot Rae, a bioethecist at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA, had an up-close and personal introduction to the world of cosmetic surgery when his wife Sally was having breast reconstruction after a double mastectomy. Although Rae was shocked to see young women in the surgeon’s office perusing catalogues that advertised buttocks implants, he strikes a middle ground.

Rae says Christians must see medical technology through a proper theological lense. He says God embedded his wisdom into creation through general revelation and that technology is “one of the primary ways that human beings unlock and apply God’s wisdom in the continuing quest to subdue the earth.” Rae allows that this quest was complicated after the fall, but says the three Ds—death, disease, and decay—were brought into the world by sin, and, as such, are legitimate targets for alleviation through technological means.

Like Madueme, Rae believes our intuitions are helpful, but sometimes in need of re-education. “They give us sort of yellow lights, but not necessarily red or green.” He offers a three-fold grid for evaluating aesthetic surgery. First, he says,” We are not our bodies, but we don’t devalue the body.” Second, “Medical technology, in general, to help alleviate the entrance of the effects of sin is a part of God’s common grace. And I think you can make a very good case that aging is a consequence of sin.” Third, “There’s a dynamic interaction between the soul and the body. So that’s why I think it makes sense that both men and women who have a change in their bodily appearance can feel better about themselves, and vice versa.” He concludes, “I think the bottom line is that you get principles and parameters out of Scripture and those form the fence around the field in which there’s freedom to make decisions.” If his eyelids were to droop in ten years, Rae says he would consider a nip and tuck.

Marketing toward Insecurity

To those who suggest that cosmetic surgery is marketed toward women’s insecurity, Ray Anderson, senior professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA responds, “We need to look at it much more realistically, that it’s on a continuum. It’s on the same continuum as other aspects of embodied cultural life that effect our self-image….The solution to that [marketing towards women’s’ insecurity] is not to demonize an industry, but it is to revitalize the soul, the self in such a way that one is free to make use of products, services, opportunities within responsibility without having to be branded in ones own mind at least to be capitulating to that culture. We have to be strong enough so that Christian women now need to be socialized in the Christian community in such a way that they are able to make good choices with regard to products and opportunities to enhance their appearance and self-esteem within their culture.”

Anderson’s son-in-law Gregory Evans is chief of aesthetic and plastic surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, CA. His practice is equally divided between corrective and aesthetic surgery. Evans says, “We all as physicians help people, but our area of the field is really trying to focus more on quality of life issues. … So one day a hand, another a cleft lip, breast reconstruction, injecting Botox around the eyelid—so we’re involved in the whole facet of a person.” Evans acknowledges the potential for exploitation, but offered a four page code of ethics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons as evidence that his board is serious about combating unethical advertising practices fueled by greed. 

The only board certifications Kaczynski trusts are those offered by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Anne Brattli is an aesthetician and salon owner in Sarasota, Florida. Brattli found out the hard way that not all board certifications are equal. Ignorant of uneven licensing practices in the industry, she briefly went to work for Kurt Dangl, a practitioner who was later featured on 20/20 and in Beauty Junkies for his part in the death of a breast augmentation patient whose anesthesia was administered by an unlicensed “nurse.”

Brattli says Dangl offered free surgeries to employees after four months of employment. At first she considered a tummy tuck or liposuction. But after witnessing the grisly realities of the operating room (which were visible from the break room where employees ate their lunch), Dangl’s arrogance and myriad grotesque complications, she changed her mind. Eventually she learned that Dangl’s primary training had been in dentistry and took an early and permanent maternity leave.

Brattli has been examining women’s faces under a high-powered microscope for a decade. She identifies a nagging problem with medically enhanced beauty. “When you’re talking to someone who’s had Botox and they smile at you, they don’t look sincere and you can’t put a finger on it, but it’s because they’re smiling at you with their mouth and not with their eyes. When you get a person who smiles with their eyes and their mouth, you feel like they’re genuine. With Botox, it doesn’t matter if they’re genuine. It just never reaches their eyes.”

“Sooner or later a person that resorts to some artificial way of delaying aging or overcoming some perceived abnormality is going to have to deal with the fact that you’re going to have to live with what you’ve got,” concedes Anderson, who, at 80-years-old, is still dying his hair and beard dark brown.

Wisdom from Tarnished Humanity

Some women, like Connie Smith, never have had a choice about the bodies they inhabit. Smith was born with multiple birth defects [her term of choice]: congenital constricting bands that cut off most of her fingers at or below the knuckles, a clubbed foot and webbed toes. With sponsorship from March of Dimes, cosmetic surgeons created digits that have served her well for more than 40 years. Perhaps it is women like her, Brady-Rogers and Sally Rae who have the most to teach us about living within our imperfect, aging bodies.

Smith is a homemaker and is divorced from her husband. Facing the idea of mid-life dating and re-entry into the job market, she has no plans for medical enhancement. She feels the same cultural pressures that others do, but says when she feels good about other areas of her life—particularly her relationships with God, family and friends—her birth defects don’t bother her or others. “When I’m feeling good, I project an air of confidence, she says, “My hands are the last things on someone’s mind; they are looking at my face or my body, or they are listening to my words. My hands are irrelevant. When I project insecurity, I feel like some people treat me like I’m invisible. They’re looking at me in a different way.”

Transcendent Pursuit

Rieff and Kaczynski may be correct that the therapeutic and the pornographic have triumphed. The theologians may be correct that technology can be either used responsibly or abused in a Christian context as it alleviates the effects of the fall. Feminists and therapists may be correct that the industry exploits women’s greatest insecurities and culturally induced shame. But there’s also something uniquely American and Protestant in the wholesale rush to embrace medical enhancement.

David Brooks describes this strain of perfectionism in American life in his book On Paradise Drive. He writes, “Unlike some other bourgeois nations, we are also a transcendent nation infused with everyday utopianism,” a utopianism that “lures us beyond the prosaic world” and “gives us a distinct conception of time, so we often find ourselves on some technological frontier,” Of these ever-expanding frontiers, Brooks duly notes that we occasionally look back on them with regret.

As medically altered faces and bodies become more commonplace, will the era of Botox and DD breast implants be one we regret? Will the dangerous excesses be abandoned as x-ray hair removal machines were? One can only hope.

*Note: I have not updated the information in this piece. Source affiliations and cosmetic surgery stats may have changed.

Poetry with Pinsky

First a confession: I’m in the meet and greet line after poet extraordinaire Robert Pinsky  read and described his work to a crowd from his (and my children’s) hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey, when the woman who had been behind me is suddenly in front of me. My hobbling husband is waiting at the front and, being both a little wound up and vaguely concerned about how long he would have to stand there leaning on his cane, I say to her, "You cut in line." To which she replies, "No, I didn’t." "Yes, you did," I insist. Then, with electric poodle hair and glowering eyes, she turns fully in my face and roars, "Shut up! Lady." Whoaoaoaoa.

I’m not sure I said anything after that. I think I grumbled under my breath a bit, then waved my spouse over and whispered in his ear. Not shy of anything or anyone, he reprimands her. We enter the Twilight Zone . Woman, to me, seething: "I’m the chair of the English department, retired. I’m going to write a short story about you!" Hah! Lady. What? Are you kidding? "Journalist," I retort. "I’ll write about you," and here I am, hesitant to embarrass an elder statesman of the field, but how can I resist sharing such an absurdity as dueling exposure threats? It is the one sour note from a delightful afternoon. Obviously, I should have just let her pass. Normally, I would have. What’s the harm after all?

I fell a little bit in love with the poet, I think, and was, probably like her, eager to get to him and, yes, to my own sweet spouse. On the way to the car after we have our brief interlude with Pinsky, I say to Jeff, "This is classic. I confront someone for being out of turn. They threaten me with ‘Do you know who I am?’ which never, ever, ever elicits the desired response, and our experience is sullied while she goes on to schmooze with the luminaries." When will I learn?

Robert Pinsky grew up the son of an optician, on Rockwell Avenue, which bisects the street where life was happiest for me and mine . It was happy there for Pinsky too. He called Long Branch  a town of "strong character" and "significance" in American history. Seven presidents vacationed there, lounging on or near the beach at the end of my street, which is now a part of Seven Presidents Park . James Garfield died in Long Branch . Ailing after the assassination attempt that eventually killed him, he insisted on traveling to his summer home to recover. Railroad tracks were laid to get him to the Elberon section of town. (Elberon is now the providence of Orthodox Jews who reside under the multi-town Eruv that extends the boundaries of "home" on the sabbath.) Garfield expired upon arrival. A bronze statue of the unimpressive president graces the beachfront promenade in front of the Ocean Place Resort. A worker from the sanitation department painted it gold one year, if I recall correctly. Not a great career move. About as wise as a public duel.

Anyway, Pinsky wrote a poem about Rockwell Avenue called "The Street." The woman sitting behind me at the reading was first with her hand up during the Q&A. She too had grown up on Rockwell Ave. and wanted to know why he’d written such a poem, about the seedier side of life there. She had been embarrassed by their street way back when. He said he had too … until he realized what rich material the experience had provided for his poetry. Everything is clay for writers.

The first poem Pinsky read was an entirely American one that basically said to Long Branch, to his ancestors, to all who would claim him, "I don’t belong to you or need you. I belong to myself alone." He then explained that once one stands up to stereotypes that threaten to define, one can wrap one’s arms around their own heritage.  His theme was lifted from a Zulu ethic he had heard on a trip to Africa. "We do not worship our ancestors; we consult them" … and/or argue with them … be they Jersey, Jewish or literary. Then he read a couple love poems to his home town.

Clearly Pinsky’s ancestors in the university auditorium on Friday afternoon were proud of him. He, the son of a "nominally Orthodox" Jewish family, was allowed to bring pizza home from Nunzio’s on Westwood Avenue, but only if he and his father confined themselves to the piano bench while they ate. Pinsky went to synagogue across the street from one of the town’s Catholic churches. On Saturdays, he watched lovely, forbidden Catholic girls going to and fro, and later was inspired to write "From the Childhood of Jesus ," a poem he said was about the two things he hated most as a child: Judaism and Christianity, because they tried to tell him who he was and who he wasn’t. (Read it and you’ll understand.) Later he would embrace both religions as ancestors. Judaism in obvious ways; Christianity as the keeper of his language.

Someone asked him why, as a Jew, he would write a translation of Dante’s Inferno . He scoffed and rebuked the woman. The language that he loves was carried along by the Christian faith. He said he isn’t even a translator, but a poet who redeemed the work from the literalists by giving it back its beauty … to great effect, I assume. The work has repaid him handsomely.

What I most appreciated from the Q&A was when Pinsky said it is no tragedy for artists to earn their bread through menial labor. He’d always assumed that would be his lot. He is a teacher by trade. Growing up at the Jersey Shore as the grandson of a bootlegger and bar owner, he had known many gifted musicians who spent their days cutting hair, etc., and, one presumes, their summer nights entertaining tourists. It is no tragedy.

Someone asked for a definition of poetry. Pinsky didn’t blink: "Poetry," he said,  "is making works of art from the sound of language."

The hometown boy served three unprecedented terms as U.S. Poet Laureate . Predictably, he claimed not to care about such things. He is very proud, however, of his Favorite Poem Project , through which thousands of ordinary Americans have shared their passion for poetry.

Pinsky won my heart because he spoke my native tongue in my native place. He is not just a writer; he is a thinker with a Jersey Shore sensibility. A sensibility that is no nonsense; fierce; honest; a little bit raucous and irreverent; beauty loving. Beautiful.

Losing Religion; Finding Art and More

    

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a book signing by former L.A. Times  journalist William Lobdel . The signing took place at a book store in historic Clinton, New Jersey .  The book (Lobdell’s first) is Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace . We were late for the noon event because we love Sunday worship so much, we were unwilling to skip it or tear ourselves away before communion as we’d planned. I note this because it illustrates how good people who go through similar crisis of faith often come out of them with very different conclusions. 

Lobdell’s book is dedicated to both his family (a wife and four sons) and those wounded by "the church." He and I lost our [investigative] religion journalism virginity simultaneously, though not collaboratively. We both thought we’d do God’s work by reporting on (or informing on) the seamier underbelly of American Christianity … only to find that corrupt subjects and their supporters often seemed empowered by the exposes’ written about them while we and their victims were accused of being tools of the devil.  

I read with interest his article on Trinity Broadcasting Network when I literally lived around the corner from the media giant’s world headquarters. I had visited the glittery venue myself for an essay on television indecency , and was consequently excoriated for inferior faith by Joni Lamb , one of TBN’s competitors. I noted Lobdell’s disillusionment with evangelists Greg Laurie and Franklin Graham when he wrote the L.A. Times  essay about his loss of faith  that led to Losing My Religion . Lobdell wondered how these and other reputable evangelicals regularly appeared on TBN despite the blatant charlatanism and allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder. I wonder about such things too. I wonder also what these evangelists and their Catholic counterparts think their role is in the deconversion of the Lobdells of this world.

During the Q&A, I asked about his wife, whom he followed from evangelicalism into Catholicism. He said that as he began to come home with increasingly egregious stories about her denomination, she too abandoned faith. As to their four children, I don’t know. One assumes their parents’ deconversion means something to them.

"Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher  also reported on the Catholic pedophilia scandals (as a Catholic) and later converted to Orthodoxy . Recently he opined that it may indeed be better for some scandals to remain hidden because exposure is so destructive to the faith of ordinary believers. I disagree with him for reasons Lobdell mentioned yesterday. Complicit silence breaks faith with victims, both those who speak up and those who don’t. As Christians, we are especially called to care for "widows and orphans"—in other words, those most vulnerable to abuse (James 1:27 ). We are also called to walk in the light (1 John 1:7 ); I take this to mean a commitment to truth, not lies.

Lobdell said that he’d inevitably be contacted by other alleged victims after his stories would run. They’d be particularly incensed if a perpetrator publicly downplayed his guilt. Dreher writes that he’s been tempted to report on Orthodox corruption, but has decided that his own and his family’s faith can’t handle it. This is a luxury many are not afforded: police officers, pastors, teachers, nurses, parents, other idealistic religion reporters. I trust that God will make right in the end that which is not made right in this world. I eagerly await the day when mercy and justice will visibly kiss. I know they did so on the Cross, but I long for faith to be made sight.

On the jacket of Lobdell’s book is an endorsement by John Huffman, chairman of the board of Christianity Today  and a hero of Lobdell’s. Huffman writes,

William Lobdell has written a heart/mind/soul-wrenching spiritual autobiography. He has been inspired by followers of Jesus who have served their Lord with integrity. But he has also been devastated by observing, up close, the ugly, sinful underbelly of a critical, self-serving, institutional and individual religion. This is a must-read filled with warnings and wake-up calls to those of us in leadership positions. I respect Bill for his honest reporting of his odyssey to this point and pray that someday there may be a future book, just as honest, with a grace-filled conclusion.

Lobdell said that before he lost his faith, he requested a change of assignment at the L.A. Times . He "couldn’t take another story." When he publicly confessed his deconversion, he expected criticism. Instead he received 3000 emails, the most his newspaper had ever received. Many of them expressed empathy and support. Mine was among them.

I’m glad to finally possess a copy of Losing My Religion . I think I’ll find it oddly comforting. Along with it, I’ve just begun reading Becky Garrison’s 2007 offering, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith . Garrison is another journalist who shines her spotlight on holy dirt. In this book she turned it outward. Lobdell doesn’t fit within her field of vision though. He is more a Materialist than an anti-Theist and, despite the blazing A  logo on his blog, he sounds more pink agnostic than bright red atheist. Could there yet be a reconversion sequel in his future? Believing supporters are praying so. If our prayers evaporate unanswered, no harm done, right Bill?

In addition to these atheist tomes that coordinate nicely with A Secular Age , I’m reading a book Christianity Today editor-at-large Rob Moll sent me some months back. Rob and I became friends after he wrote an expose’ on my former church group  and was excoriated for it in the blogosphere. We lost our Christian [investigative] journalistic virginity together on that one. Although he’s much too young for such a heavy topic, Rob is now writing a book about Christian dying that will no doubt be excellent. His research led him to send Jeff and me Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Mourning into Dancing . I find most grief books beside the point, but I do pick this one up sporadically and glean some comfort from this pastor’s experience with those who’ve suffered devastating loss. Anger and disillusionment are common features of grief. People of faith cannot thrive there though. Nor can they thrive in a religious gutter. It’s good for them us to climb out and breathe air that’s fresh and clean.

I felt on the verge of tears through much of Lobdell’s talk. His story tapped into a place of deep pain for me. The betrayal. The lost idealism. The impact on my family (with loss of hope and life rather than collective loss of faith). He described the molestation victims he had gotten to know through his work as having "hollowed out souls." I resonate with that description. My mother and I were talking recently about that part of us that died with Gabe. How, in some measure, we’re just biding our time now until this life is over. Lobdell believes that when it’s over, it’s over. There will be no reunions. No justice. No mercy. I find those thoughts both unbearable and untenable. Unbearable for obvious reasons, untenable because there is too much mystery and beauty in the world to believe it has no ultimate meaning.

After the book signing and a simple, satisfying lunch of lentil soup and egg white/asparagus/Swiss cheese omelet, Jeff and I happened upon the Hunterdon Art Museum , which is housed in an old stone mill. The building itself is a work of art and the "Cutters" exhibit was literally inspiring. When we came home and showed our son photos of the various cut paper and steel art objects, he got out the previously neglected daily origami calendar I had bought him for Christmas and produced a collection of his own. I was thus prompted to thank God not only for art, but for honesty, comraderie and faith. These are gifts that science may describe, but which it cannot explain. Sorry Bill.

 

Update: The Library Journal description of Mourning into Dancing as found on Amazon.com :

Wangerin, a Christian minister and imaginative theological writer, provides a splendid description of death, grief, and the feelings of those who mourn the separation. Wangerin includes four types of death: the primal fall or original sin over which human relationship with God was broken; the numerous "deaths" we each suffer on earth, as typified by the biblical story of the prodigal son; individual bodily death; and "dying absolute," or spiritual death. His primary focus, however, is the small deaths in daily life as typified by one family’s grief. Wangerin depicts human feeling convincingly; his theology that all death is related to the first (primal fall and original sin) supports his hopeful and confident faith in the purpose of grief as leading to renewal, healing, and resurrection. For public and seminary libraries.

Update 4/8/09: My review of Losing My Religion is here, at Her.meneutics .

Tonight at Drew University

Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams will be reading. I highlighted his work in a previous post. My son and I will be there. Husband says he draws the line at poetry readings, even though it (poetry) was one of his best subjects at Philadelphia Biblical University. Update to come. For now, here’s a reprint (and, purely for your enjoyment, the marginally related updated photo above—symmetry, beauty, etc.):

Because he was always the good-hearted one, the ingenuous one, the one
      who knew no cunning,
who, if “innocent” didn’t quite apply, still merited some similar connota-
     tion of naïveté, simplicity,
the sense that an essential awareness of the coarseness of other people’s
      motives was lacking
so that he was constantly blundering upon situations in which he would
      take on good faith
what the other rapaciously, ruthlessly, duplicitously and nearly always
     successfully offered as truth. . .
All of that he understood about himself but he was also aware that he
     couldn’t alter at all
his basic affable faith in the benevolence of everyone’s intentions and that
     because of this the world
would not as in romance annihilate him but would toy unmercifully with
     him until he was mad.

C.K. Willams  [HT: John La Grou]

Update 2/9/09: Poetry is meant to be read aloud, by someone who loves words and lets them roll off the tongue in just the right cadence with respect and passion, or roughness or subtlety …  as the words demand. C.K. Williams knows how to read his poems. Some were deadly serious; others light and funny. The hour flew by.

He began with older work, about dogs, women, intestinal gas, death, beauty, a suicide (the only one I didn’t really care for as he romanticised the act); then he moved on to a batch of unpublished poems about aging (and, with it, knowing both too much and too little), what he believes in (poetry) and Roe vs. Wade—that one was quite shocking, and personal, as apparently his poems are apt to be. They’re personal in the way that a gifted writer finds words the rest of us lack ,or, don’t take time to string together, to acurately describe the world and its mysteries.

Williams grew up in Newark, NJ, as did my father. (I was born there.) He was a Beatnik, Williams that is, and lived for a time in Paris. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. 

I bought his Collected Poems, and asked him to sign it. Something I rarely do. What’s a man’s signature, after all? Especially for a book editor who’s seen what goes on behind the curtain. It’ll be a gift of remembrance for my son. He liked the old man quite a bit. I realized on the long drive home that I passed on to both my sons a love of words, and poetry. Now there’s a rare gem for a mother: something to be proud of with no guilt attached.

There will be readings by celebrated poets most evenings into next week. I may return on Tuesday night, if there’s nothing else on the agenda. They’re being held in historic Mead Hall, pictured below. Stunning building, given by a capitalist for the education of future Methodist pastors. A statue of Francis Asbury graces the lawn. Asbury, a circuit-riding preacher, is the Methodist for whom Asbury Park, NJ, is named. Wonder if Bruce knew that when he made it famous