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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Wednesday
Nov262014

Unitarians behaving badly

 

Yes, they too can behave badly. In this case, it’s a witch hunt at a West Coast seminary, with the victims (that is one of them above) being asked by their teachers to turn over their laptops and months’ worth of emails. Whole story here. Excerpt:

Last May, the night before she was to graduate from Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, Calif., Suzi Spangenberg pulled up in her car to the school’s graduation dinner. Before going inside with her son, Ms. Spangenberg, a candidate for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist, checked her iPhone. She was shocked by the email she found.

“A letter was emailed out saying my diploma was being withheld,” Ms. Spangenberg said last week, at an interview at her lawyer’s office here. “I had people coming from out of state! They asked everyone graduating, ‘Please stand up.’ And I had just been told I wasn’t graduating. So I was sitting there.”

Ms. Spangenberg and one fellow student were awarded their diplomas “conditionally” — which is to say, they don’t have them yet. This was an early episode in a controversy that still clouds the already foggy skies over this small, pluralist Bay Area seminary. It’s the story of a presidential search marred by leaked documents, an inquisition to find the malefactors and a religious community questioning the tolerance for which it is famous.

Wednesday
Nov262014

Young Adult lit for atheists

Yes, it’s here! YA for atheist kids! Unfortunately, it’s not so good. My review of three new novels in the Times Book Review can be found here.

After it ran, I got a thoughtful note, which the author is allowing me to reprint here.

Dear Professor Oppenheimer,

I read your review of "Misdirected" in the New York Times Book review and felt the need to write you. Twenty years ago, when I was fourteen, I tried to quietly refuse Confirmation at Blessed Sacrament School in Springfield, Illinois.  I offered in a letter to the theology teacher to attend, be photographed with the class, but to sit in the back and not go up for the bishop's blessing.  I had been an atheist since the age of seven, and could not in good conscience lie to a church full of my family, friends and community about my intention to live as a Catholic. The expression on Mrs. S.'s face as she read my letter was pure horror, and she never looked me in the eye again.

I was called into meetings with priests and teachers who at turns tried to convince me I was confused and that plenty of good Catholics were also scientists (I knew), or that I was going to hell (and were not amused when I said I didn't believe in that, either).  One priest told my best friend she should stop hanging out with me because people like me "become people like Hitler."  Luckily she thought that was ridiculous and asked, "Have you ever met her?" My parents pleaded with me not to ruin my younger siblings.  It took years for my grandparents to forgive me.  Last year, I spoke with my father about it for the first time, and he was horrified all over again, because he thought it was just a rebellious phase.

I do not know Ali Berman, or the authors of the other young adult novels.  They might not be great writers, but the experiences of their characters ring true to me.

Homophobia was also tolerated and expressed to varying degrees in the Catholic highschool I attended.  I heard students say that gays and atheists should die out loud in theology class.  Those teachers were more kind to me personally, but let the remarks stand. 

The behavior of that priest and some of my some of my fellow students seems "stock," but only because homophobia and whatever its equivalent against atheists are sad ritualistic expressions of dominance over a persecuted and misunderstood minority.  They would have preferred me silent, and for people like me not to exist at all. 

I believe culture has moved forward in its acceptance of diversity, but the cruelty that I experienced is still around, and in a religious school has more cover.  I am not angry with the religion I was born into. I think my familiarity with the Bible and my being "out" has helped my Christian friends understand a person can be good without God.  I have also been able to help my non religious friends see and understand the humanity of my deeply religious and wonderful family. My adult self has compassion for the clumsy handling of my fourteen year old self.  Those teachers and priests had never met someone who was openly atheist, only heard how dangerous and misinformed they were. I see why those teacher characters look so ridiculous.  I couldn't believe that grownups were making such a big deal about one kid, but there I was, the target of some pretty hateful language. As you began your review, atheists are among the most reviled group, and it stands to reason that these attitudes will manifest themselves in real and hurtful ways. Please don't let an unconvincing character fool you into thinking otherwise. 

Sincerely,
Theresa P.

Monday
Nov032014

Edmund White vs. David Blankenhorn, with Robert Silvers as referee

I get my New York Review in the mail, and read it on paper, so am late to every debate in its pages, but for the record let me say how unfair I think Edmund White was to David Blankenhorn in the latest issue. For the record, I know, slightly, Blankenhorn, the star witness in the California Prop. 8 trial, whom I interviewed for an NPR special that aired the day he reversed his position on same-sex marriage. I have never met White, although I’ve enjoyed the stuff of his that I have read. 

To begin, Blankenhorn gets White’s name wrong in his letter, calling him instead “Edmund Wilson.” Instead of doing the graceful thing and correcting it for Blankenhorn, on the principle that we all make such mistakes and magnanimity is the order of the day, White — and the New York Review editors — let stand Blankenhorn’s error, all the better to belittle him. I have to imagine that White gets called Wilson all the time (they are, after all, both high-middlebrow prep-school-educated Anglophone literary men named Edmund), and one wonders if White is always so tetchy about it. Perhaps he takes exception to being called “Bunny.”

But on to the substance of the letter, and White’s reply. Blankenhorn has written for one reason only, it seems to me: to say that the “admissions” wrested of him on the witness stand were in fact things he had stated for the public record for years. In other words, Blankenhorn did not fall victim to David Boies’s Jedi-like cross-ex technique, but rather freely admitted beliefs that he had long held. This is important not just as a matter of Blankenhorn’s dignity (who among us likes to be had on the witness stand?), but also as a matter of historical fidelity. What made Blankenhorn such a curious, and ultimately problematic, Prop 8 witness was precisely that he was not anti-gay, in the manner of somebody like the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, and he had no religious or moral objection to gay sex or partnering, as Maggie Gallagher does. But Blankenhorn is right to insist that these weren’t witness-stand revelations: they were facts on the ground.

White’s response is utterly baffling. In its entirety, here it is, beginning with his juvenile gotcha: “David Blankenhorn seems to have confused me with the late, great Edmund Wilson (so much for scholarly attention to detail). Nor does he seem to grasp that though he was presented as a witness for the anti-gay team, his remarks and writings actually strengthened the case for marriage equality.”

In fact, of course, Blankenhorn has grasped precisely that point, quite publicly. You can read him on it in the Times; you can listen to him talk about it. This is current events, people. It’s not my sense, reading the entire review, that White, is a fiction writer and memoirist and essayist and gay-sex pamphleteer (he co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex), is particularly up-to-speed on the swirling winds of gay politics or marriage equality. For further example, he seems not to grasp the extent of the opposition to Jo Becker’s book, which he mentions, in slight passing, near the very end of the piece.

We all make mistakes, and sometimes a mistake is accepting a review assignment that is out of one’s comfort zone. But it could be one definition of grace not to double down when a letter-writer corrects you. 

Thursday
Oct162014

The beggars of Lakewood

Imagine a city where the people are so generous that beggars fly in from the Middle East to go door to door and ask for money.
Thursday
Oct162014

Go to hell ... for a little while

See that man, that man above? His name is Edward Fudge; Mackenzie Astin played him in a movie; and he believed that Hell will be maximally painful, but will not last forever. His ideas rankle some fellow evangelical Christians. Discuss.