Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Secular Christian?

Secular Jew is an accepted description of a person who identifies as being Jewish but is Jewish in a cultural, nonreligious way.  OK, I do understand that being Jewish is different than being "Christian", since there's a whole tribal identification and--like being mixed race--in a sense you are what the world will name you.

Christians aren't quite the same, though shared experience can create a tribal feeling for sure:  church suppers (just listen to Garrison Keillor), nuns with rulers, bathrobe Christmas pageants, Midnight Mass--. And, since many of the US's immigrants are traditionally Christian, you have the whole food and whatever connected to the holidays. Tamales, stollen, a German pickle, clam chowder, or Taco Bell so mom doesn't have to cook, whatever it is, it is, and hallelujah.

My parents were both from the South though my dad was very evasive about what he actually believed and we weren't constant church goers, I was raised a Protestant Christian.  Jesus watched every minute of my day and was very sad when I did anything wrong.  My mother read a chapter of the Bible to me every night; I said the Lord's Prayer and long list of God blesses kneeling by bed, hands porperly folded, before I went to sleep.

Christmas was magic.  Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Wisemen, and all the friendly beasts clustered around a baby while the angels sang. Every Christmas Eve I searched for the Star as I also watched for Santa and listened for the reindeers' jingling bells.

Peace on Earth and a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.  I won't give up my claim on them.

That I don't believe in Christian tenets anymore in any orthodox or even unorthodox way, I believe deosn't matter--I cling to my right to my heritage.  I collect nativity sets, sing Christmas carols when no one can hear (do unto others), remind myself that each person carries a spark of the divine and when I feed the hungry, clothe those without clothes, I serve whatever is holy in all of us. I should judge not and should remember that if I have two coats I ought to give one away.

For those who believe I still say I will pray for you.  "To whatever is at the heart of all this and cares" may not be much of an address but I don't think it's the dead letter office and prayer is as good a name as any.

Tradition is good, love is even better, and stories that encourage children to believe that hope shows up in surprising ways, the angels sing of peace, and the scraggliest Christmas tree can shine like a star are, I believe, mine to claim.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reading Confucius

OK, there's no question that the email surprised me.  Actually I assumed that the writer had somehow gotten the wrong address because a) she wanted to send me a review copy of a book and b) she was doing so because she liked my website. I did my best mental Scooby Doo huh? and promptly emailed back that while I never objected to getting a free book she obviously had the wrong person.
But then she used the secret words: Barefoot on the Ground.
And that's how I got to read Confucius from the Heart by Professor Yu Dan, translated by Esther Tyldesley.  (Translators should be recognized and applauded.) Published by Atria in October, 2009.
I'm very glad I did. And not just because of a certain implicit flattery in the whole exchange.  (Just the thought that somebody else might be reading this besides those of you who love me and maybe do pity
The back story on Confucius from the Heart is fascinating in itself--I had thought Confucianism in China had been pretty thoroughly relegated to the past and the bad old days before the Revolution.  However, the Analects were/are still being studied in the universities, at least as literature and history, and in 2006 Professor Yu Dan of Beijing Normal University gave a week long series of televised lectures on Confucius for the modern world.
To nearly everyone's surprise, apparently including Professor Yu Dan's, it was a hit.  (I'm not sure what would be comparable here--Socrates as an Oprah's Book Club selection?) Over ten million copies were sold in a short time.
Now it's been translated and brought to the English speaking/reading world.

I described to someone as the kind of book you keep reading long after youve closed the covers.  And it is.

At first it seems not so much simple as it does simplistic. Follow your internal moral compass.  Choose your friends wisely.  Govern yourself before governimg others.  Show respect to all.  Don't compromise your principles for public honors and material rewards. Nothing new.

However, as you continue to read, the point of the simplicity becomes clear: becoming  a junzi, the person who has found balance, equanamity, right thinking, and right action,  should be attainable by all.  The translator chose to use the Chinese word "junzi" throughout because, she writes, the concept has no satisfactory English equivalent. The simplicity of the writing does not suggest that becoming a junzi is easy, something that can be put on a poster and then absorbed.  Rather it is that becoming a junzi is a process that does not require an advanced degree or esoteric learning.

But that isn't what I mean by continuing to read the book long after it's been read.  When I started this review/essay I was sure I would be done over the weekend.  which was two weekends ago.  Looking back I should have listened to Confucius's statement that it is best to talk about one's achievements after they have been achieved.

Um, yes.

Recetntly I had the bad experience of finding out that someone I had referred a friend to, a person I thought was honorable, to be trusted, turned out to be not honorable, not trustworthy--in fact someone who tried to take advantage of my friend.

I woke in the night reading the lines that warn against those who are charming and say what you like to hear.  Choose a friend who tells you the truth, Confucius says. And you can tell this person because the words won't drip with honey and will not always be exactly what you want to hear.

May not make a funny fortune cookie, but I wish I'd listened sooner.