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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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Ron Rash, I hardly know you

From time to time I hear whispers about this superb fiction writer Ron Rash, and this just makes me think I am really lame for never having read a thing by him. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who has read a thing by him. He has yet to find his audience. Or maybe he has found them, but I do not know them. Whatever the case, it is time for me to read some Rash.

Or we can just give a listen:


Am I an anti-Semite?

Sooner or later, even a Hebrew like me will, if he writes about religion enough, be called names. I can’t quite figure out what is going on with this link, however. Who is doing the linking, and what are they implying? And can I eat it on milchig dishes?


Christine O’Donnell (R-Delaware), Devil Worshipper

I am frighteningly fascinated by this Senate candidate’s self-professed dabbling in witchcraft (she told Bill Maher, years ago, that a date once took her to a Satanic altar). Read more, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, here ... and check out his links to Michelle Malkin, et al., to see how pro-GOP pundits twist themselves in knots trying to defend O’Donnell (who I think needs no defense, valuing religious liberty as I do, even for witches). But one further point.

To me, this stuff humanizes O’Donnell tremendously. She is just like (albeit with variations, like thinking masturbation is wicked) milliions of Americans, especially women, in being fsacinated by the paranormal or Satanism or other nontraditional religions, especially in her early years. In the great work of sociology Teenage Wasteland, about heavy-metal kids in Jersey, the scholar and kickass journalist Donna Gaines noted that most of the teen boys she hung out with didn’t care much at all about the alleged Satanism in their metal music — but their girlfriends dug that stuff. Just as they wanted Stevie Nicks to actually be a witch. This stuff is practically rite-of-passage for certain cliques in certain white subcultures of girls. It is trivial, it doesn’t last, it doesn’t support any major adult religious movements, and it is not at all surprising that its semi-adherents mature into other faiths, or into no faith at all.

As to O’Donnell being contra masturbation, that is technically Catholic doctrine — a thoughtful defense from the First Things blog here — one imagines honored much more in the breach than in the observance. As I reported some time ago, the very smart and redoubtable and interesting Ross Douthat has said something similar. It is a view that intrigues me, and I am not inclined to ridicule it, although I do not agree with it. I imagine his view — and O’Donnell's, less articulately — turns a lot on what a “vice” is, and I’d love to get into the theology of that sometime with somebody better qualified than I.

One memory: a high school biology teacher answering anonymous questions about sex to an auditorium of sophomores at my very open-minded private high school. One student had submitted the question, “How do I know if I am masturbating too much?” His tentative answer was something like, “Maybe if you can’t fall asleep without doing it?” Which surely made bedtime that night very frought for a lot of teenagers in the room.


When pre-school gives you the heebee-Jesus...

With permission from the anonymous friend, who is trying to raise a Jewish child in a small-ish Southern town, I am reprinting this Facebook exchange:

[from her:] Got any pearls of wisdom on how to explain to Christians that non-denominational prayers are still, nonetheless, Christian?

this just in from [my son's] PK teacher (private, secular), in response to my question:


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: [pre-school teacher]
Date: Wed, Sep 15, 2010 at 11:07 AM
Subject: Re: Grace?
To: [my friend]

Yes we have always done a blessing before eating. We are sensitive to various religions and try to keep the blessings simple. I talked with our guidance counselor and she said lower school has done the blessings for the 23 years she has been here. In the older grades children share some special blessings from home.
Here are some we do in PreK.

We generally do Johnny Appleseed,
Oh the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord,
For giving me, the things I need,
The sun and the rain and the apple seed,
Oh the Lord is good to me.

Another we use is Happy Hearts
Thank you god for happy hearts, rain and sunny weather
Thank you God for this our food, and that we are together.

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we are fed
Give us Lord our daily bread.

Hope this is helpful.
[well-meaning pre-school teacher]


now, my reply, which was the best I could do off the cuff:


Ouch. That is a tough one. First, a clarification: do you mean that any prayer is in some sense Christian, or that the gestalt of praying before meals (unless obviously Jewish, i.e. the motzi or kiddush, etc) just feels goyish?

Ach, I guess it doesn't matter. Even the Johnny Appleseed prayer is Christian, because Jews and Muslims don't pray that way, but lots of Christians do. I see your point.

So, two thoughts:

1) You could explain to her that English-language prayers about "the Lord," certainly about "daily bread"--a direct allusion to the Lord's prayer--are using Christian language. That is not how Jews or Muslims pray over food. If they wanted a truly nondenominational prayer, it could be something like one I once heard at an ex-girlfriend's house: "Let us be grateful for the food we are about to eat and mindful of the earth from which it came." But when they talk about "the Lord," that is Christian God-talk, not Jewish or Muslim God-talk. It is culturally sensitive to a range of Christian expression, but not to Jews and others.

2) Or, you could accept defeat and use this as a lesson for [your son]. I don't know how you are raising him, but if Jewish, the conversation would go something like this: "[My son], most people in this country are Christians, and they pray that way. We are Jews, so in our house [or "at our holidays"] we say the motzi [and there are other Jewish prayers--for fruit, for drinks other than wine, etc., and a toddler might enjoy learning them]. But we have to be respectful of the people around us, so just listen politely [or: "join in if you wish"], but know that one thing that makes Jews different is we don't use those prayers." If he then asks why not, you can say something as simple as, "We like to pray in Hebrew, because it reminds us of our grandparents and all the people who came before them, and it's nice to think about our relatives."

In other words, Jewish children at some point do learn they are different, and at a young age that can easily be made into a positive thing -- we do things differently to remind us of our extended families. Which, in a very profound sense, is true.

Does that make sense?

Will the Pagan community embrace Christine O’Donnell?

It is quite clearly only a matter of time before Pagans, or a Pagan, embraces Delaware’s ex-witch for the U.S. Senate. Read more here. And please, send me links from the Pagan community.