“There were sweet grass baskets that the mountain people sold on Trade Street on Saturdays and a drugstore called Missildine’s that smelled of medicine and cologne and where they made strong, dark cokes at the soda fountain and grilled cheese sandwiches as heavy and limp as dead birds.”

The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days by Frederick Buechner


Kumaré (dir. Vikram Gandhi)

I specialize in choosing which book to read rather than reading one, in choosing what movie to watch rather than watching one. But when I found Kumaré while browsing Netflix Streaming, I pressed play. Here’s Netflix’s blurb:

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi puts an unexpected twist on this sobering documentary about spirituality and the power of suggestion when he poses as a prophet named Kumaré and develops a sizable following in the American Southwest.

Actually, it’s more interesting than that. Vikram Gandhi was born and raised in New Jersey by first-generation Indian immigrant parents who wanted their son to embrace his Indian cultural and religious heritage. His embrace, however, was likely not what they intended, more intellectual curiosity than religious devotion.

After studying studied religion in college, Gandhi eventually began filming footage for a documentary about yoga gurus in the US. Not only did he find himself deeply unimpressed by American gurus, but his travels to meet Indian gurus did not find any fewer charlatans (at least in his opinion) among them.

And so his project shifted. He wanted to learn more about the people who were drawn to these gurus. How did these men sell themselves so well and what did their followers experience in being drawn to them?

This is the ethically gut-wrenching decision he made to pursue those questions: Vikram Gandhi trained in yoga, outlined some scraps of a philosophy/spirituality, grew his beard and hair out to look the part, practiced a heavy Indian accent, chose the name Kumaré for himself, and then moved to Phoenix to see if he could gain some followers. Which he did.

This movie is ethically questionable in its making and hard to watch because of the real people it depicts. But I saw it a month ago and I keep thinking about the questions it raises about the nature of true and counterfeit (and otherwise) religious experience; and of human nature. For those of you interested by all that, do watch it, but watch it with a friend or a group that you can talk it through with afterwards.

“Fantasy was bad for children, because it disoriented them.”

The Phantom Tollbooth is my childhood’s Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t read Alice until age 22, but I read TPT repeatedly as a child. If I re-read it today, I know I’d be shocked at how much has stayed with me. I know that I still think about my emotionally overcast days as entering into the Doldrums. And I know I assume that sound designers around the world keep the words, “Have you ever heard a blindfolded octopus unwrap a cellophane-covered bathtub?” tattooed over their hearts for daily inspiration.

I cannot wait to see this doc. Thanks for pointing it out, School Library Journal.

One Body, One Flesh

Still by Lauren Winner

…it is only later, after I ask the priest, that I learn something about the elderly couple who, near the end of the Communion train, come to the rail and kneel, fragile as mushrooms.

What I learn is that for a dozen years, he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat–he lives on Ensure and lemonade. But at the altar I don’t yet know that, I only know what I see: they each take a wafer from the priest; and when I come to them with the chalice, the wife dips as I say “The Blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life,” and she eats her wafer, and then her husband likewise intincts his round of Christ’s Body into the wine and then he hands the round of Body of Blood to his wife and she eats his wafer for him. There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews and octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.

Sacrifice and Eucharist

Last Week

[L]ong before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another–the gift and the meal. Each represents the external manifestation of an internal disposition. Each has its own delicate protocols of what, when, why, to whom, and by whom. The proffered gift and the shared meal are probably the most ancient forms of human interaction…

How, then, did people create, maintain, or restore good relations with a divine being? What visible acts could they do to reach an Invisible Being? Again, they could give a gift or share a meal. In sacrifice as gift, an offerer took a valuable animal or other foodstuff and gave it to God by having it burned on the altar. In this case, the animal was totally destroyed at least as far as the offerer was concerned. No doubt the smoke and smell rising upward symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven, from human being to God. In sacrifice as meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God. In other words, the offerer did not so much invite God to a meal as God invited the offerer to a meal.

That understanding of sacrifice clarifies the etymology of the term. It derives from the Latin sacrum facere, “to make” (facere) “sacred” (sacrum). In a sacrifice the animal is made sacred and is given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal.

I’m drawn to this selection because I’ve never heard a more satisfying sermon or lecture on the different things that sacrifice seems to mean in the Old Testament, or a more illuminating connection-in-brief made between the Mosaic sacrificial system and the Eucharist.

[N.B.: This is a particularly interesting knitting-together because Borg and Crossan go to great (often awkward, in this book at least) lengths to make sure we know they believe that any form of satisfaction or substitutionary atonement is not only wrong but responsible for horrific violence in the name of God through history.]