#20: M.T. Anderson 2016

Sensation of the Sublime, September 1, 2017

Author of over forty books for young adults, M. T. Anderson describes his experiences witnessing the Javanese trance dance and Nepalese animal sacrifice, reflecting on the ways religious rites make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. In the same way, Anderson suggests, writing “opens a space where we can glimpse our world from the outside.” Art thus serves the important cultural purpose of estrangement, which challenges our assumptions and results in fresh perspectives. To further illustrate, Anderson recounts the story of Christina of Markyate, a plucky heroine of the Middle Ages who defies even the most determined efforts to marry her off. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and religion writer and novelist Tara Isabella Burton.


RESOURCES

  • Tara Isabella Burton, Social Creature
  • T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
  • Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”
  • The Vita of Christina of Markyate

  • TRANSCRIPT

Intro

[music]

Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.

Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features MT Anderson at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing and his talk titled, “The Sacred and the Strange.” MT, or Tobin as his friends call him, talked about how paying attention to what might be considered “unusual” religious practices can help us see our own faith with new eyes. He says literature has a similar power to help us see our lives more clearly, by taking what we think we know and putting it at a distance, making it strange.

Tobin has written over 40 books for young adults, including The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and Feed, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His first graphic novel, Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, came out earlier this year. And his next novel, Landscape with Invisible Hand is set to come out September 2017.

Joining us to talk about the sacred and the strange is Tara Isabella Burton, who spoke at the 2016 Festival herself. Like Tobin, she’s observed religious practices from all corners of the globe writing for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and Al Jazeera, among many other publications. She’s currently the religion writer for Vox, and her first novel, Social Creature, comes out next summer.

Conversation

[music, phone ringing]

Tara: [00:01:46] Hello, this is Tara.

Lisa: Hey, Tara. It's Lisa.

Tara: Oh hi, how are you?

Lisa: I'm good. How are you doing?

Tara: Good, thank you.

Lisa: [chuckles] Good. Thanks so much for joining us today, Tara. Where did we find you?

Tara: I am working from home today in New York City where I am based with Vox.com. I'm still haven't quite unpacked my suitcase, I just came back from Ashville where I was interviewing witches during the eclipse, and now I'm about to go to Nashville with an "N" for the Religion Newsletter's Conference.

Lisa: Fantastic. Okay, before we go on, I want to hear a little about [chuckles] the witches in Ashville and the eclipse. What did you get into down there?

Tara: There were lots of different - it's a very witchy town.

Lisa: Okay.

Tara: There are a lot of people there very involved in different new-age spiritual practices, and I did a piece about - the eclipse was very significant cosmically for many of them, and there was a bit of a divide between people who wanted to use it as a time to do rituals or spells with very political or global impact to - as an act of political resistance on the left, and there were people who wanted to do something more personal and felt it was time to practice self-care or to take care of themselves and that, that debate became the heart of that piece, so I very much enjoyed doing it.

Lisa: We loved having you as a speaker yourself at the 2016 Festival and wanted to bring you on to talk a little about M T Anderson's talk in 2016. And he talked about the sacred and the strange and how, what we consider "strange" rituals from largely other people's faith practices can help us better understand or see our own faith practices. He says this - he has this great point that he makes throughout the conversation, which he talks about how literature makes the ordinary strange in a way that lets you actually see the ordinary with fresh eyes.

Tara: Yeah, absolutely. It's kind of both: it's making the ordinary  strange, and making the strange ordinary. And so much of my work when I'm writing about, whether it's sufi mystics on the Chechen border or its a hermit or it's a practicing wiccan in Asheville, so much of what I do and my approach is to, I hope not to sensationalize anything, but really just kind of treat it the same way you'd treat anything, which is to say what's going on, what are the emotional dynamics at the stake, what is the significance for this person of this ritual, this action, and also some of the boring stuff of, "alright, we need to light a candle", "oh, no - we have to find a lighter" [Lisa chuckles] and these kind of little, banal moments.

Lisa: Right.

Tara: That also tell you about people and that kind of allows you then to reflect on your own practice and realize that often, you know, it's so easy to separate out some kind of idolized notion of a foreign practice be it a spell or a prayer  - a dhikr in the Sufi tradition - and think of it as something kind of utterly mystical and strange than sometimes when we think about our own practices whether we're Episcopalians, we'll go to Church and sometimes it'll be transformative experience and sometimes we'll be a little hungry or sometimes I'll be chatting to someone next to me and there's a very sort of human moment in that.

Lisa: Right.

Tara: [00:05:07] That's sort of cultural, that's human, that's sometimes even banal or ordinary and yet it's only by kind of applying that to another practice that I'm witnessing and watching the intersection of the personal, the spiritual, and the day-to-day, and the sort of moments of sanctity that I'm able to kind of see that dynamic for what it is in my own faith.

Lisa: Definitely. So one of things M.T. Anderson talks about that I thought was really interesting in this piece, in this talk, is that he makes this connection kind of this religious space and this religious practice in which the participants are often kind of in a tension between believing and not believing. So this is something he talked about with the Javanese trance dance kind of at the beginning with people who, it's like, "Do they believe they're possessed? Do they not?" It's a little - they're a little coy about it. It's a little unclear, but it's this religious practice that's meaningful to them.

And he was trying to find an analogue for something here in the United States, in North America that we might kind of be in a similar space with, and one of the things that he makes this connection to is writing and how when you're writing you are asked to or you're tasked with trying to kind of conjure lots of different stories and ideas that you're kind of believing and also knowing these people don't actually exist or you don't actually have immediate access to them depending on it's nonfiction or fiction, but I wondered about that believing in and not believing and how those things relate to each other in your writing when you're doing nonfiction but maybe also when you're writing fiction with this new novel, how that works in your writing process.

Tara: Sure, absolutely. Well, there's two ways for me that writing fiction is very much about negotiating that tension between belief and unbelief. And for me, the first one, perhaps the most significant one, is at the level of plot. We, as writers, often ask something, we ask faith of our readers, and I'm particularly conscious of this because my novel, Social Creature, it's about a murder and a woman who covers this murder for several pages by impersonating the woman that she's killed, and that's – you know – it's completely implausible, this has, I hope, never happened in the history of humanity, and yet, as a writer, what I'm asking a reader to do is abide with me and believe that this could happen, and she doesn't – or he doesn't – believe this because it's plausible or because it details of hiding the body are particularly believable, although I hope that they are, but because there's a kind of emotional truth of maybe you could pushed to the end of your tether, maybe you are someone who has imposter syndrome in every aspect of your life, why wouldn't you also have imposter syndrome trying to cover up a murder. [Lisa laughs]

And trying to invite someone to have space in something completely implausible as an extension of something emotionally real is absolutely at the heart of what we do as storytellers. We say, "Here's this crazy thing that's never happened but believe it anyway because it's also true in this other way." And for me, that's one element. Another element is at the level of character, so much, I think about this a lot, that kind of, our greatest sin in a sense in our own lives is we give ourselves as the hero of our own story is that everyone else is, you know, the villain or the pawn, and we kind of objectify other people and make it easy for them to – or make it easy for us to discard them because our own narratives are so important. And I think as a writer, it's on us to show how flawed that that conception is by fully believing in each of the characters we write and allowing each of them to be a center of consciousness, each of them to be the hero of their own story. Sure, maybe, within this story there is a clear protagonist, and yet as a writer I feel like I have to inhabit, I have to become every single character and see each character I write in their full humanity because otherwise the book would be flat.

Lisa: Right. [chuckles]

Tara: For me, so much of the tragedy of life and the dramatic tension of a good book is when everybody is a hero in their own story and then all these stories are butting up against each other and contradicting each other and that's where a drama comes from, it's, you know, it's Alice wants this and Bob wants something else, and that's the story.

Lisa: Right.

Tara: And so, I have to believe not just in the characters that are similar to me or the characters that I would necessarily sympathize with most because they're the most like me, but I have to believe in and become and subscribe to a world in which a character that is entirely unlike me is a center of consciousness, is the protagonist, even if that character's only on screen - on the page for five pages.

[music]

Lisa: Hmm yeah. Well, thanks so much for your time.

Tara: No worries. Well, thank you.

Lisa: Talk to you later, Tara.

Tara: See you later, bye.

Lisa: Bye.



Session

[music]

Lisa: And now M.T. Anderson on "The Sacred and the Strange" at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. A note to our listeners, this episode does include content that might not be appropriate for younger listeners.

[applause]

  1. T. Anderson: [00:10:29] Thank you. [chuckles] So I just had a really miraculous experience myself. I was walking in your beautiful forest over there, and as I walked down this wooded pathway I ran into Mary Ruefle, the poet, who is here for this conference, which was unexpected for me. And I said, "Hey, Mary, how are you?" And I said, "I know you probably don't want to chat, you look like you are meditating." And she said, "Stick your tongue out at the sun." And I said, "Okay." And so the two of us sat there, stuck out our tongues at the sort of giver of life, giver of light. And then she said around her tongue, [imitating] "It maximizes the vitamin D."

    [laughter]

    So there's your real piece of wisdom for the day. The rest of this talk is just nugatory.

    So, okay. I'm going to talk about the sacred and the strange today. Some thoughts on writing and the extremes of religious practice. So, I should say I grew up in the town of Stow, which is a dull little town in Massachusetts. And we liked it dull. We like the fact that is was a very standard American town. You know, standard congregational church, standard Carnegie library made out of brick from 1900. If that's not it, that's the Stop & Shop. So because I had grown up in a town that was sort of very small, very quiet, very standard, I felt very restless and I spent a lot of my life traveling around the world to places that were very unlike what I knew when I was growing up. Um, like this, which, where the hell is that?

    [laughter, applause]

    (Yeah, um, ok)

    So, and I also grow up in a deeply Christian context. so many of my family members have lived in religious communities of one kind or another. My mother is an Episcopal priest, she's actually here today. Say hello, wave to the people! Wave to the nice people, Mom!  [laughter] There she is! And there's my Dad! Hey, Dad! Good to see you! Sorry it's been a few months.

    Okay, so. And because of that, as I've traveled around, because I grew up in this deeply Christian context, as I've traveled around, I've always been particularly drawn to and fascinated by the extremes of religious practice. So I've gone to ancient monastic cities in the Himalayas, ancient monastic cities in Europe. I have followed the route of the Albigensian Crusade and gone to the palace of the anti-pope at Avignon. Attended the festival of the child goddess of Kathmandu and scoured the Taklamakan desert with a friend of mine to find the tombs of Uyghur Muslim saints, the mazars. Here we are in fact seeking one that turned out to be on top of the ruins of a temple to a Buddhist rat king. Anyway, [laughter] so anyway, I don't like to brag, but I've actually had a life threatening allergic reaction on every continent on the planet.

    [laughter]

    Here I am suffering from anaphylaxis in the Pyrenees. I realized actually that I have never been to South America. But I am allergic to legumes, and I feel like South America is a very heavy legume-heavy culture. [laughter] So I think it's kind of like a shoe-in, like you know what I mean? Like, I’ll just land, get some red beans and rice, and boom!

    [laughter] You know?

    Okay, so. Today I am going to talk about some of the religious practices I've witnessed, which were most alien to me and how they might relate to literature. For me, writing and reading are some of the most important approaches to a sensation of the sublime. They are spiritual acts. So I want to discuss writing as rite, "R-I-T-E." The three religious rites I’ll be talking about are not things that are mainstream in this country: possession and exorcism, animal sacrifice, and, perhaps most alien to the American mindset, celibacy.

    [laughter]

    Now a word about my method here. I am basically talking about writing, but using religious rite as a metaphor. I am not a scholar of religion, as in fact some of you are. But is should be absolutely clear that these acts, however fascinating I might find them, are not quaint or exotic, and are certainly not undertaken as a spectacle to wow spiritual tourists like me. They are not conducted to give, you know, upper-middle-class Elizabeth Gilbert's their epiphanies. [laughter] They are deeply ingrained with symbolic and spiritual value for the participants that is in fact only partially visible to those of us who come from outside those communities and that must be understood and respected.

    [00:15:27] Now the first example I'm going to use is the Javanese trance dance. So I was in the island of Java with my sister and we had heard about these dances, they call them in English, they call them trance dances, where supposedly the dancers are actually possessed by spirits during the dance and do all kinds of crazy self-harming things under the influence of those spirits and then are exorcised at the end of the dance. And so I said I would love to see it. We had this friend who was from a really garbagey Javanese garage band, and he said that he could hook us up with a trance dance when one happened; there had to be a ceremony that was going with it. He finally found out that there was going to be a circumcision ritual up in a village up in the mountains above Yogyakarta, and we could go to that. And I thought sure I could go to that, a circumcision party sounds fun.

[laughter]

Finally, I can attend a party where there is guaranteed to be at least one person who is more miserable than me. [laughter]

So we drove, you know, are motorbikes up into the hills and found this little village where they had set out a dancing space, there were about maybe 150, 250 people from the village standing around. And they did this trance dance that lasted starting at around ten or eleven at night all through the night. And I have just a couple of clips to show you, but keep in mind that this was, I did not have good technology. I was running out of space and was for lot of the time sitting under a table try not to be rained on because it was a little monsoony.

So at first for about an hour or so they did just these very repetitive dances, sort of getting themselves into a trance state. Let's see if the video actually works. And so yeah, here they are, sort of dancing around with, in fact, with these wicker hobby horses that then at certain points the music changes and they have these stylized mock battles that I also have a quick clip of. (These stylized mock battles...um)

[Video sound]

And actually it's in some ways in terms of a dancing thing, it's eerily similar in some ways to if any of you know traditional British Morris dancing where they also have hobby horses and a lot of the dancing is very stylized battle dancing. It's very odd that here you also have this kind of like these wicker horses. Anyway, after awhile of this dancing, the thing is, you know, they had this, here is a moment of syncretism: traditional Indonesian instruments and then a Western drum kit setup. And after, you know, a few hours of watching this you end up, I mean there is just like these cycles of repetition, everyone is in sort of a trance state. But at that point, the dancers start to collapse and finally collapse entirely onto the ground.

And then gradually they wake up and this is the state in which they are supposedly possessed. And so as they get up they move in something that is very much like a kind of zombie-movie fashion. And at this point the idea is that, is that supposedly they are inhabited by the spirits and the spirits have to be placated by being allowed to do slightly grotesque things because if they are not placated they will essentially destroy the body that they are in.

So, um – and keep in mind that what I'm wondering while a lot of this is going on is, what is the connection with this ritual with the ritual circumcision? I mean remember that Java is actually a Muslim island. So this is actually clearly a preserved rite from a pre-Muslim culture. So I was very interested to know how this is supposed to theologically connect with a circumcision. Why does this possession need to happen for the circumcision to happen? Don't worry I don't have pictures of the circumcision.

[laughter]

[00:20:13] But okay. So after they get up, what they do is there is a table set up with stuff for them and they all do these kind of feats of hypnotized self-harm. So doing things like eating glass or one thing they did a lot was drinking a perfumed embalming fluid, and that kind of thing. And people from the audience were so head up by this some of them were also, not many, a couple of guys were entranced (or maybe just drunk) and came down, and you know, they would sort of beat their heads against things and that kind of thing. And then at this point gradually what they tried to do is they sort of a shaman came out who was wearing not only a sarong, but also in another moment of syncretism, a Tasmanian devil t-shirt. I don't know if he got the irony.

They sort of, and what he did, here oh – I'm sorry this actually a – oh, no, no, no. Okay. And he would sort of lay them down and quiet them. And he was kind like the demon whisperer. He would kind of quiet them down and supposedly draw the spirit out of them and then gradually they would kind of become fixed on the ground and they would be carried out, which you can actually see here. You can see that the rain has picked up quite a bit, too.

[Video sound]

And there's the guy in the background for example who - and they would be removed, and the idea is that at this point they will wake up inside one of the huts and they will be returned to human consciousness. So, so I was still wondering what is the connection between this and circumcision? And I tried to talk to people about it, but you know I didn't know Javanese and they didn't know English. So the one friend of mine who did speak English he was trying to explain, but they all kind of gave me this weird glance when I tried to ask about what was going on.

And finally I realized that there was no connection between this and the circumcision beyond the fact that this was kind of like a party act that you put on, like you hire a troupe to come and do this. It turns out this is a troupe that does this regularly; these are not like guys from the village who are possessed by the spirit. They actually come in from the outside and do this, and the idea is that you put this on as a spread to show your sort of magnanimity toward the town, like the town all gets this evening of bizarre entertainment.

And you can see this in a sense, I mean, they were coy about the reality of possession, too. I would say well so are they really possessed and they would say (I mean not the, I didn't talk to the dancers), but you know other people would say, “I don't know, what do you think?” [laughter] And it felt very much like, okay, this is probably something that where their sense of belief is very moderated, right? Especially because there later, like at 2 or 3 in the morning was a women's version, and there was not the same kind of, like, misrule, zombie craziness as the men, there was not a kind of monstrousness to it. You could see that it was curated in a sense. The women started to actually move in a more sinuous, elegant way based on a lot of the Indonesian dancing when they were possessed rather than moving in a more monstrous way.

I have to boast that one of the demon-possessed girls did ask to dance with me.

[laughter] So. [laughter] Maybe that was like penance! Anyway, but also you know that actually does play into the thing that in a sense having the one tall white guy in the audience, drawing him out into the rain and having him dance is in a sense a very crowd-pleasing act, you know what I mean? And so there is also the sense of a performance here. So I was like to what extent is it trance and to what extent is it calculated? To what extent is this a learned skill? And I mean I think that the people there, the adults at least there, assumed pretty much that it was at most a trance, and perhaps actually a feat of concentration, more than even that. So you have these people in the audience who are simultaneously believing and not believing. Knowing and not knowing.

So I tried to think of a standard American practice which could be used as an analogy. And you know, the, at first I was thinking well in a way it's like a magician. You hire the party magician, but you know on the other hand we absolutely know that, like Siegfried & Roy are not magical. So, and I realized, well, maybe in fact it's actually what it's most like is writing. It's this experience that is supposed to remove you from the normal, remove you from what you know, so that you can be inhabited by someone else. This is what writers struggle with: trying to fill ourselves with other people while we know in fact that we are doing no such thing. At best, it's a kind of trance state, mixing the trance and the calculation - the training. And our readers participate too, believing and not believing, knowing and not knowing. Weirdly enough, they are dazzled by our ability to fool them while not fooling them at all.

[00:25:31] Now this does not mean that the rite is somehow fakery, or that it doesn’t have a spiritual dimension. These possession rites mark off an evening from everyday life, that's part of it, you know. The boy who was circumcised that night will have as a memory, another memory, [laughter] you know, the memory that the town came together in this evening to celebrate with him. So it's supposed to transform time.

Now this is a basic element of religious practice, this move toward a certain kind of like alienation from the world, being removed from what you know into another place is a basic aspect of religious practice. Let's think for a second about pilgrimages, one of the most important rites in many religions. Consider this Buddhist monastery built in the middle of a literal desert, like the Christian monasteries and hermitages of the West. Imagine yourself building a home in this wasteland, calling this place home. Imagine drawing people away from their communities, away from their towns and their oases, away from the structures they know, the societies they know, out beyond the comfortable world to this desolate place. They leave their homes so that they can go out into a new and difficult place because this is the only way that they can have a vision.

Or, you know, I talked earlier about the Kaptara Mazar the, you know, the tombs of the Uyghur Muslim saints. At this site down the hill there was actually a small house, perhaps a pilgrim's rest. In fact, my friend who I was with later went back, he speaks Uyghur, and he then celebrated many times back there with some of the pilgrims there. And so it's made of grasses and wood and roofed with mud (oddly enough, when we found it there was a pair of white women's high heels by the wall, which seems like a surprising thing to decide to wear, but once again maybe a penance, I don’t know). [laughter] But keep in mind this was miles from any roads, so yeah.

Anyway, so this is also a place that people go to out in the desert to remove themselves from their town, from their oasis and to have an experience that takes them beyond what they know. They go into the wilderness so they can be outside society and understand society. It's a strange place to visit, I thought. The idea of home, or at least a shelter, would here be desolation: unconsoling and basic, the plains, some weeds, the tombs, the sand. But you would know, wouldn't you, if you stayed there you would always have thrust before you that home is anyways just a burrow for curling and the hills are always fleeing on the wind, and we are all, in the final account simply this: bright scraps hung on bones, blown between earth and sky.

Now we like to think of our home as secure and what we know as home does not need to be home. Architecture that speaks of home to us, iconically, so let's say in an ad for paint, you know, paint commercials, you see the colonial house the white picket fence: that is not actually, that is a symbol for home and yet is not home for most of us even here in North America. Does this actually represent of picture of where we live? How much do we take for granted about home? How much do we not see the strangeness of our own home? For example, I walk through my apartment in a country that calls itself the most rational and advanced nation in the world. [laughter] I touch a spot on the wall and believe for some reason that light will emanate from a glass bowl on the ceiling. I twist a crank and I believe that a streamlet will flow. At night, I hear knocking in the walls, crawling out from the basement and I think not that the house is possessed, but rather that I will be warm in the winter. So what does this mean to us as readers and writers?

[00:29:50] Well there are some books that accept the world as we've always known it and presume that it makes sense. There are others that recognize that home is built, is always built in the desert, that it is always makeshift and that it need not be as it has been and will not always be as it is now. Just as a home or hermitage needs to be built in an empty place brick by brick, our novels are being constructed word by word from the smallest unit to the largest structure. It can be of our own design, or we can build it pre-fab. So on every level, from the smallest thing we do in a book to the largest levels, there is a connection of what it is that we assume people will know and what it is that we are sort of, where we are setting off on our own path alone.

So for example, we start in the level of the word. Words can be clichéd, individual words can be clichéd, or words can be unexpected. They can take us to a new place; simply the choice of a single word. On the level of a sentence, the sentence can bring together elements that you would never expect to see together and revitalize your sense of the connections in the world, or a sentence can tell you exactly what it is you expected to hear. On the level of the plot and the narrative, some of them take us to a place that is a complete shock, some of them actually take you to some place that you can predict right from the beginning. Novels can decide which way to go. And then these things in some ways lead us to a sense of the culture itself, the society. Do we take the society for granted? Does this book take the society for granted? Because all of the other cliches in a sense tend to be things that the society is invested in. And the whole way we see reality, finally, is built upon all of these images that we ingest through the course of our life and that make us assume that the world is a particular way. They naturalize the world as it is. Or, in other cases, they call that world into question.

So this points to what I see as the fundamental function of literature. As with those who go on pilgrimages to this site in the desert, we leave home because otherwise we can never come home again. We can never see what are home looks like accept from a different and distant hill, literally, geographically that's true, and it's also true spiritually, I think. (I shouldn't keep walking back out here I keep having to push this button.) [laughter] As T.S. Eliot said in "Little Gidding," "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." In some way, the voyage of the reader and the writer is like this: we go out into the unknown so that we no longer take the world for granted. For me, this is the definition of what distinguishes literature from other forms of writing, is that literature is that kind of writing that divorces you from what you know, that takes you on the pilgrimage.

In the early twentieth century there was a lot of talk about this, especially among the literary movement called the formalists. The Russian formalists like Viktor Shklovsky was one of the first people to say this. The way that he put it was this: “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us, and we know about it, but we do not see it anymore. Hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life as it exists; to make one feel things, to make the stones stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar.”

So, he talked about sort of an alienation. He said that things in the world become naturalized after we read about them, after we get used to them. They are naturalized: we no longer question them. They seem like they make inherent sense and then, art and I would say also certain forms of religion, exist to estrange us from what we know. Keep in mind that the word "strange" actually originally in English means, quite literally, foreign. So estrangement is actually the making foreign again of something. A stranger is a foreigner, quite literally. That's what strange originally meant. Estrangement is this removal of the self almost geographically from what you know.

So the sacred is the strange, in some ways. Both remove us from the lower world into a world of visions. The pilgrim, or the possessed, seek out the experience of distance, of estrangement, to see their own lives transformed. And in the same way, we should not look at others' religious practices because they're exotic, but because they force us to recognize that our practices are exotic, are strange, are perhaps even nonsensical.

[00:35:20] So, another example of this, my second example: animal sacrifice. Now, historically, animal sacrifice is often used by Europeans, especially by Europeans in the 16th, 17th, 18th century, as proof of a nation's barbarity. So it's an excuse to go in and slaughter the inhabitants by the tens of thousands until they stop, and recognize the superior kindliness and rationality of Christian civilization. [laughter] So, I've had to acclimate myself to animal sacrifice in some countries. It's just a fact of life and a way of life in some places. Here for example in the town of Dakshinkali, which is one of the, it's right near one of the big sacrificial sites in Nepal, I attended a festival where they built these palanquins for gods that are in these sort of jugs that they then, they're all over the town and then they pick them up every night and they walk with them in, they circulate around the town in a clockwise direction blessing the town for the year. And at the end of this ten-day festival, and those of you who are tender-hearted should close your eyes for a moment, I'll tell you when you can open them, at the end of this ten-day festival they sacrifice a bull that is born on the first day of the festival, so one that is 10 days old. Okay, I've switched the slide you can look back again. [laughter]

This is one of the few times that I really was disturbed by an animal sacrifice for various reasons I won't go into. And I should note that there are times, like in Bariyarpur there is a Nepalese sacrifice that is where tens of thousands of cattle are slain at once which has, I think, probably for the best, been shut down. But more typical, is of this town that I showed you (no I don't have a photograph of it, but again) the town I showed you near there there is a sacrificial site deep in the gorge to the goddess Kali, and it's a really amazing place. And I didn't take any photos because I thought it would be cheesy to, or just voyeuristic to take pictures of people engaged in what were to the them very profound religious practice. But it's a place where there is a giant brass snake in this valley and people go underneath it and they take - a family when they are facing difficult obstacles will take a chicken there usually and the young men there will slaughter the chicken, cutting its throat over a statue of Kali. The blood belongs to Kali it goes onto her, and then the corpse of the animal is taken off to essentially a barbecue and then they, the family, eats the rest of the chicken as a kind of, you know, it has a kind of festival atmosphere.

Now, I mean, this seems very alien to most of us. But the peculiar thing is I started to realize, well wait a second, if you look at this in purely mechanistic terms, or in fact from the view of the chicken involved, it has actually many of the features of an American barbecue. And I don't actually mean that as a joke. I don't mean that as a joke. But in a sense, if you look at the way, if you were thinking of it as a cruel practice, it is worth saying, if you take a look instead at also our own practices of slaughter, what does that mean?

If we want to talk for a second about barbarity, many of you are from agricultural communities, as I live now in an agricultural community. And you know the difference between what goes on on family farms and on actually the factory farms where most of the meat comes from in this country, you know, male chicks are culled out, thrown into garbage bags by the thousands where they are suffocated to death or crushed, and then they are all taken out regardless in these garbage bags and put into the wood chipper to destroy them because they are not useful. The females in laying houses, for example, are packed so tightly that they will never turn around in the course of their lives, they will quite literally never have room to spread their wings. They just don't have room, they are de-beaked from killing each other because they quickly degrade in these environments and become violent, so their beaks are cut off with metal shears to stop them from goring each other. Factory farm chickens, both broilers and layers, lead lives in festering, feces-caked rooms. And this is where most of our American meat comes from.

[00:40:00] Is this really more humane than sacrifice? In the case of a Nepali chicken, they are by and large free-range, often in fact in the restaurant near you, walking through. But also, they for one thing don't eat as much meat there; it's an incredibly expensive thing for them to have a chicken in the first place. So the question is, is our way of dealing with the lives and deaths of other creatures more civilized? Less bizarre than what we see here? I mean, of course Christianity is at its root based on a sacrificial theology. There is a reason that on Easter we celebrate the Lamb of God and eat lamb chops. [laughter]

You know, I was at a Bickford’s Pancake House watching a group of people pray over a set of chicken cutlets thinking about this. And thinking, okay, do we really believe that the Lord God of Jehovah, King of Kings, Lord of Sabaoth has arranged this chicken cutlet for us especially? Is the world ordained to so great a degree only to sustain us? Do we truly believe that God smiles upon all of the complicated systems of processing, packaging and shipping? Do we believe that He who dropped manna in the desert now injects birds with blessings providential as they are injected with hormone and antibiotic? Does the holy dove really rain benedictions down upon these birds when they are hung upside down on a conveyor belt and dragged through an electrified stun bath to render them insensate? Do these people really believe as a chicken faces the spinning blades that cut their throats, they hear whispered in their ears the sweet, soft 'well-done'? And do these people believe that when the corpses are placed upon the centrifuge and spun at high speeds, the meat crawling away from the carcass, perhaps He who first spun galaxies and hurled the planets into orbit, he who clamped gravity to mass, the Primum Mobile smiles at our minute ingenuity, our imitation of the Father above? Does Christ walk among the frozen patties as they are boxed and palletized? Perhaps this is what is meant when in the funeral mass we say omnis caro veniet ad te, "all flesh comes to thee."

Maybe they do believe this, maybe God does ordain this for his faithful servants. But it is certainly not the God who, as poet Alexander Pope says, "sees with equal eye, as God of all, A hero perish, or a sparrow fall." Suffice it to say, I find it hard to believe that the world was made for mankind's consumption. Reacting to the apparent cruelty of another's cultural treatment of animals, leads us to look at our own assumptions, [baby crying] which it sounds like is going on out there, [laughter] leads us to look at our own assumptions about an anthropocentric world, a world in which mankind is considered to be the center of everything. About all the species of living things that are forced to endure suffering and death so that humans can devour them. The glimpse of someone else's practice prompts us to question the legitimacy of our own.

And whoops – finally, I'm going to talk about celibacy. So, [laughter] the medieval period is a favorite for dreams of romance and for novels about romance, partially because everyone looks so much better draped. [laughter] But I want to talk about Christina of Markyate, who is a little known Christian teenager, in fact, one of the reasons why her story absolutely fascinates me, and it's been translated, Oxford University Press has a translation which is what I read, and so her incredible story resembles in so many ways a YA period romance. So she is born in eleven hundred, and just like in a typical YA historical romance, she is this plucky resourceful girl, you can't read this without loving her, and her parents tell her she has to marry a particular boy. And what's interesting is, we can reconstruct from, so this 1100, so just a little bit after 1100, we can reconstruct from her family names the fact that she came from an Anglo-Saxon family, and that now in 1066 the Normans have invaded England and the Normans are in control. And her family was clearly trying to set her up in a marriage that would connect them with their Norman rulers, because there is now this need for a kind of like ethnic cross-pollinisation, they need to connect themselves with the Normans to have a lot of, sort of, privileges and things.

So they choose a good match for her, but he's not the boy she wants to marry. See this goes very well along with your typical YA scenario. And she says it's because she has already promised herself to another man. So this is the perfect setup for a YA romance: you have the plucky heroine standing up to the greedy parents. Now this where they alterity of religion, that is to say the essential difference of Christina and her time intervenes in the story, because I don't think I need to tell you that that other man is Christ. So, and this would not be the solution that would be used in a YA novel now. [laughter]

[00:45:17] So to go a little further into depth in her story, because she is so adorable; I love her. So as a small child she had heard that Christ was good, beautiful, and everywhere present so she used to talk to him at night and on her bed as if he were a man whom she could see. She did this in a high, piping voice so she could be heard and understood by others in the same house. She thought that since she was speaking to God no one else could hear her, but when people teased her, she changed her ways.

So when she was, I think it was about thirteen or fourteen, a bishop connected with the family came to visit. Now this bishop was the king's right-hand man, so a very important Norman lord as well as being a bishop. But he also had taken Christina, this girl, Christina's aunt to be his concubine, and she had had several of his children. However, he was getting a little tired of her, when he sees young Christina and he decides she's next in line. So he ordered her to come to his bedchamber at night. She went in obediently, discovered what was going to go on, and being a resourceful heroine, said, "oh, let me just close the door so that, you know, so that we don't attract attention," and then when she went over to the door she ran away. [laughter]

So the bishop was really peeved, and he, in his anger, told her to parents to marry her off and set up this connection with a young man of good family. And of course the thing is that the family wants to impress this bishop who is the king's right-hand man. So they are trying to force their daughter to marry this young man whose name is Beorhtred, which is actually almost a anagram of 'betrothed' hmmm, anyway, hmmm! [laughter]

So the description of Christina is in fact like a plucky YA novel heroine. Here’s the description: “Such integrity, such beauty, such graciousness shown forth in Christina that all who knew her esteemed her to be above all other women. Furthermore, she was so shrewd and understanding, so prudent in affairs, so efficient in carrying out her plans, if she had wished to devote herself to the things of this world, she could have enriched and ennobled not only herself, but also all her relatives. To this was added the fact that they hoped she would give birth to children who would take after their mother. So keen were they on these rewards that they begrudged her a life of virginity.”

So they call in all of the heavy guns of patriarchy: the abbots, the bishops, it's – this is, it's really, really an interesting story. And finally they thrust the young man into the room with her, and say, come on, let's make it happen. And she sits the kid down and gives him a stern talking all night about how this is a wonderful opportunity for them to perhaps become really good friends. [laughter] And she cites other examples of married couples who had never consummated their marriage and who had then retreated to their own convent and monastery, and she convinces him that this is what they need to do and he kind of miserably leaves the room in the morning.

So this is, however, then his friends intervened. “When those that had got him into the room heard what had happened, they joined together in calling him a spineless and useless fellow. With many reproaches they goaded him on again, and on another night thrust him forcefully into the bridal chamber, warning him neither to be misled by Christina's deceitful tricks and naive words, nor to let her unman him,” notice the language. “He was to get his way either by force or entreaty, and if neither of these sufficed, he was to know that they were standing by to help him. He must just remember to act the man.”

Now note here how patriarchy works on actually the male character, as well as the female, with phrases like to "unman him," to “act the man.” So behavior is being modified in a sense through the sense of masculinity for the male as well as for the female. So this guy is thrust in, Christina hears that he is coming, once again, she’s plucky, she grabs a nail on the wall and pulls herself up so she is standing on the nail in between the tapestry and the wall, okay. [laughter] And so the guy goes in, and she has disappeared. So he goes in, “I can't find her now.” [laughter] So they all come in and they start looking, right.

“How she trembled in fear of her life as they noisily sought her! Was she not faint with fear? She imagined herself already dragged out in their midst, with them all surrounding her, leering at her, threatening her, abandoned to the violation of her seducer. Finally, one of them by chance touched and held her foot as she hung there, but since the curtain between them deadened his sense of touch, he let it go, not knowing what it was.”

[00:50:07] So I love this girl. She is superb. And her mother torments her trying to send her to parties, where she is, you know, exposed to kind of bawdy jokes and drinking - they try to get her drunk. And, you know, I mean this is real: we know actually what bawdy jokes in the Middle Ages are like. This is a collection in fact, Fabliaux érotiques, but I will tell you that, you know, as a text to be read against the Christina text, these are really interesting because the idea of a erotic quote-unquote 'joke' in the Middle Ages is really what we would now see as a hate crime. They really are all about what we would essentially call rape and then the man making fun of the woman for having been raped. That is sort of the big joke of the Middle Ages. And so this is the kind of culture Christina was confronting. Her mother was thrusting her into this culture; her father, the bishops, even the king's advisors were trying to get her to enter this culture.

Finally there was one time when on an impulse her mother took her away from a banquet and, out of sight, seized her by the hair and beat her until she grew tired of it. She then brought her back, lacerated as she was, into the presence of the revelers for them to the mock her. The scars on her back never faded as long as she lived. So she ran away, that was it. She ran away and hid, she hid in a secret hermitage in a cell, a tiny, wet cell. And it says, "though in her hiding place, she was hidden from men, she could never escape the notice of demons. In order to terrify the holy maiden of Christ, toads invaded her prison to distract her by all kind of ugliness. There sudden appearance with their big and terrible eyes was most frightening, for they squatted here and there, settling themselves right in the middle of the psalter, which lay open on the lap of the bride of Christ for her use at all hours. When she refused to move and would not give up singing her psalms, they went away." I love the idea of her singing the psalms to get the toads to disappear! [laughter]

Also though, very important, note that she is actually reading, which is very unusual for someone who has not taken holy orders. And that in fact, this illustration is actually her. [on screen] You know, the woman just there, is actually supposedly her because this, which was one of the most sort of expensive, opulent, illuminated manuscripts of the 11th century, oh sorry, 12th century was given to her, and this was actually pasted in. So we do actually think that that is a portrait of her when she was a woman. So she became a very powerful religious figure, she corresponded with the pope. She was clearly headed for sainthood, which is why this life exists, but something happened, we don't know what. Her application for sainthood after her death is cut off mid sentence. Someone decided it was not happening, and so she never quite made it to sainthood after her death.

Now, a modern version of her story would have her fall in love with a man and soften her views, and she did fall in love with the abbot of St Albans, the Vita says as much. But they decided to be strong and not to give into lust. They do carry on a deeply loving, platonic relationship for years. The demands of modern post-Freudian psychology require that for a happy ending, Christina of Markyate needs to recognize that her desire for Christ is just a sublimated sexual desire for another man. She then needs to (I can't read my own writing [laughter] – oh!) hook up passionately and hotly with the abbot of St Albans. [laughter]

And I have a note here that looks like monk's hood bodice-ripper, you know, that kind of pose, you know, so. [laughter] But that solution seems to me entirely reductive and disempowering, and I don't care if you believe what Christina believes or not. I want Christina of Markyate to get what she wants, not what we want her to want as modern people. I am rooting for her, I am rooting for what she wants. Here is a girl, who as a child, takes all of the tools of a crushingly patriarchal system and forges her own theology by herself, something that will serve to protect her and protect her spiritual life. That's incredible! To turn her story into a modern, human romance, rather than a very medieval, somewhat alien, divine romance, is in essence to perform the same violence on her that her parents attempted. Why do we need to tell her that we know better than her what she really wants? Why do we need to demand she follows our plot when she is struggling so bravely to follow her own? Why would we demand this tacky anachronism to be involved with Christina's story? It's just like Justin Bieber writing in the guest book of the Anne Frank house that he hopes that if she had been alive, she would have been a "Belieber," that actually happened.

[sighing] Yeah! It really happened, yeah, classy. [laughter] And for once he is a Canadian, not an American, thank God! [laughter]

[00:55:22] Christina's story, like the other religious practices I've talked about, invites us to estrange ourselves from what we know. It invites us to see our own well-known world as foreign, as estranged. On the one hand, Christina is like the heroine of a YA romance, but she was intent on an anti-romantic narrative, one which is very alien to us. In a sense, this teenage girl, dead for almost a thousand years, who stood up against all of the might of the Church, the State, and the family, she offers us a critique of our own highly sexualized culture, too. She offers us renewed insight into the traps and double-binds in which we snare girls and young women through viciously enforced and conflicting cultural demands and ideologies.

This is the great purpose of literature, as with many rites, to open a space where we can glimpse our world from the outside, even though we’re trapped on the globe's hide. We seek a vantage point to see from, some place that we can look back from so we can finally see what we already know. This is the only way to know the place for the first time. It is important for us to question our world. It is important for us to demand to know things anew. And especially in writing for children, which I do, it is important to let them know that the world they are being handed is not a world that has to exist. It is important for political reasons: a democracy will only function so long as the electorate is ready to ask tough questions, and, get and swallow some tough answers. A capitalist society will only function so long as consumers seek to understand what they are really buying.

But also, it is important for each of us personally to experience life fully. To touch the world that hangs so vividly all around us, and so, as readers, as writers, we dance like the possessed, trying to fill ourselves for a time with the alien, with the strange, with the sacred, with the eternal. We are all part of this dance, all pretending, yet all inhabiting. All waiting for that moment of vision, however brief it may be, however it may leave us lying in the mud, still, for a moment, we will have opened up our eyes and seen. Thank you.

[applause]



Outro

[music]

Lisa: [57:49] Many thanks to M. T. Anderson. You can check out his website at mt-anderson.com, and follow him on Twitter @MTAnderson. Thanks also to Tara Isabella Burton. You can learn more about her at www.taraisabellaburton.com, and follow her on Twitter @NotoriousTIB.

Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Jon Brown, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Deb Rienstra, Amanda Smartt, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.

You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you’re into the social media be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we are doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.

Also, we’ve got 26 years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you’ve been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at ffw@calvin.edu and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.

Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.