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Book Review: Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

Culture critic and religion professor David Dark wastes no time getting to the provocative claim of his new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. His statement is right there on the cover, bright red as a warning sign, but that’s only the beginning of a brief, entertaining, and thought-provoking book you’ll want to take your time pondering. Through a short and readable blend of memoir and cultural analysis, Dark is all about nuance and taking time to ruminate on the big questions: What is religion anyway? How does it shape a supposedly post-Christian culture? Can you truly escape it, dismiss it, disown it?

Everybody has a weird religious background, Dark claims, opening his personal story with some amusing anecdotes from his own youth (particularly an incident involving guilt-induced, makeshift communion in a Nashville Kroger parking lot). All of us Christian kids love to swap stories about our wackier beliefs that we’ve presumably abandoned, but Dark isn’t doing that here. He owns it, and informs the reader that yes, actually, you are religious.

After the Last Supper

[This poem first appeared in The Molehill Volume 4.]

The dirt mingled
in the water.
Three years’ worth.

Even the traitor’s.
Even the denier’s.
(Already named at the table—
for there is no past,
or future
in one who is
older than time.)

Peter resisted.
Would I have also?

Said no
to my king bowed low,
towel in hand,
wiping the dust
of the earth he owns?

The foot-worn
mud and grime
of past,
and future
dissolve in

The Fast and the Feast

“Dust you are. To dust you shall return.”

I don’t know what I expected, but somehow the way ashes felt as they smeared on my skin surprised me. There was nothing airy and mystical about this ritual. It felt as ashes probably should, like grit and earth, holding lightness and weight together. I didn’t feel the somber emotions I expected either, but I quietly took my place back in my seat for the rest of the service.

I’ve practiced Lent off and on for the past few years, ever since I realized I was tired of Easter sneaking up, but this February marked my first step into the Ash Wednesday tradition. Chris had to work that night, so I took the step mostly alone. Somehow though, I kind of liked it that way — just me in the middle of the pew, contemplating how very short life is. The service ended in quiet and darkness. Some of us filed out in silence, while others stayed, heads bowed, until who knows how late.

After the service, I pulled my beanie down over my smudged forehead, drove around Providence in the dark (mostly lost, unfortunately), and stopped at our favorite bakery to buy two Valentine’s Day cupcakes. Strange to go straight from meditations of death to pretty little indulgences. Such is the tension of Lent.

Here’s to the Snowstorms

Winter and I got off to a bad start last year. I spent much of my first New England winter waiting out four blizzards with a broken arm and wondering if I’d ever see green again. So this year? This year, I’ve been determined to enjoy, or at least appreciate, the darker months. Here’s the story of our one lone snowstorm (so far)… stay warm and look for the beauty!


Here’s to anticipation
because meteorologists are not clairvoyant.
We know that. Everyone knows that.
But we are people of plans and details
and we crave prediction, accuracy
 right down
to next Thursday’s temperature at 2pm.
So there’s the woman on TV
with the announcer voice,
the man with the Doppler radar
throwing out guesses and models.
The consensus is nobody knows
so go ahead, get your bread and milk.

Here’s to the week before
when every bright day is a gift
of cloudless blue and bare trees
that seem etched into
the sheer face of sky.
So deceptive when you’re indoors,
because how can the cold
be so beautiful? You run errands
without a coat, and remember
yes, there are some days
even the sun can’t thaw.

Christmas Day

Father, give us Christ.
Star Igniter,
Crack our darkness.
Send the rain to heal our deadness.
Only you make dry bones rise,
Dim the blinding lights that hide
Our fear, until we’re still enough
To feel the thaw of icy hearts.
In stable and by starlight
Overthrow our every expectation.
Our world inverts
Your kingdom comes.

Advent IV: Show Us Love

Father, show us love.
This violent world tears
Hearts apart and
Leaves us trembling in our shame.
Like winter leaves afraid to fall
We cling and sting in bitter wind.
May you slip into our world,
Swift and slight as drifting snow,
Too fragile and helpless not to love.
In heaven’s most audacious act
Our cold suspicion
Melts in spring.

Advent III: Teach Us Joy

Father, teach us joy.
The Christmas feeling
Lost its meaning
In flashing lights, electric dreaming.
We race and chase and check a list
Until the days are gone amiss.
May you call us in our carols,
In our traffic, in our deadness,
And give our harried hearts the chance
To feel the wonder once again,
Like waiting children
With nothing to dread.

Advent II: Make Us Ready

Father, make us ready.
This ground is fallow.
We have followed
Crooked paths to vales of shadow.
The cracked and drought-laced dust of earth
Thirsts and groans beneath our feet.
May we know dryness and longing
So when the rains come
To wash us clean
We will not run for shelter’s awning
But welcome the storm
Arms wide, hearts alive.

Advent I: Grant Us Hope

Father, grant us hope.
This veil of darkness,
Thick around us,
Is within us, and without us.
Our secret sins and sicknesses
Are mingled in our blood.
May the smallest flicker of
Your holiness come spark and light
To keep us warm and
One day burn our
Kingdoms all away.

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Resistance

In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, the antagonist who sabotages many a creative undertaking goes by the name Resistance. Resistance wears many disguises. It might show up as the deadlines and demands of your day job, the apparent indifference of the people around you, or your own apathy toward the “industry” of making art. Or sometimes it looks like vegging on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and seven seasons of Parks and Rec on Hulu. (At least… um… that’s what I’ve heard…) For many unfinished manuscripts, stagnating blogs, blank canvases, and forgotten songs, Resistance is at least one of the cuprits.

“Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Resistance is experienced as fear… If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

When it comes to turning my work loose in the world, lately, the Resistance is me.

Discussion: Favorite Music of 2015 (So Far)

Usually by the end of the year, the Internet floods with the best of everything lists. When the time comes to make said lists, I imagine I’m not the only one who feels like it’s a huge project to just remember everything I’ve heard in twelve months. So, since we are just over the halfway point in an exceptionally good year for music, I thought it would be fun to talk about our favorite albums so far.

It’s only scratching the surface of this year’s goodness, but I’ll get things started with five I’ve enjoyed, in no particular order. What would you add? What do you have on repeat until The Burning Edge of Dawn comes out?

Disclaimer: In the interest of fun / pointless self-imposed rules / sharing new things with friends, I decided to only include artists that haven’t been covered at The Rabbit Room yet. So yes, do go read Matt Conner’s post about Josh Garrels’ fantastic new record and buy everything Andrew Osenga releases, especially when it involves glorious ’90s rock riffs.

(Finally) Discovering Waterdeep

Despite years of hearing good things about them and enjoying Don and Lori Chaffer’s excellent performances at Hutchmoot, I have to admit that Waterdeep has perpetually been on my “I should listen to them someday” list. It’s been twenty years since their debut, and all I’ve heard is their 2009 record In the Middle of It.

I know. I’m sad about it too.

If you also suffer from this problem, I’m happy to let you know their new double album Waterdeep is streaming for free on Soundcloud for the next couple weeks, and it’s a great way to get to know them. The first 11 tracks (Disc 1) feature songs from Lori, while the remaining 12 (Disc 2) highlight Don. Enjoy!

And if you’re already a big Waterdeep fan, please tell me which album I should listen to next.

Transfigured by the World

I’ve been working my way through Christian Wiman’s memoir My Bright Abyss for roughly a month and a half. It was one of those rare random purchases, a book by an author I didn’t know but was willing to take a chance on with a Barnes & Noble gift card. Upon diving in, I realized this is the sort of book you savor slowly—a wandering collection of thoughts on faith, poetry, death, and beauty compiled over a number of years, “a mosaic” more than a narrative, according to the author.

My Bright Abyss chronicles Wiman’s meditations on faith after learning he has an incurable cancer. I wish I could give you a neat little review that tells you what this book is about, but I can’t. It’s about faith and fear, life and death, beauty and sickness, hope and regret. It’s about poetry and creativity in some sense, but so much more than that. It’s the kind of book that I have to pick up in a quiet moment of the day, slowly work through a chapter, then put down and think about for a few days before starting back in again.

It’s exactly the sort of poignant, urgent book a poet might write through years of staring death in the face.

The Pencil and the Keyboard

What’s better for your creativity: handwriting or typing? Here is a short but fascinating video making the case for both as essential tools:

The basic suggestion here is to use handwriting for note-taking, brainstorming, and synthesizing ideas for yourself, but to use a computer to create pieces that give information to others. Or more simply, always carry a pencil and learn to type faster.

As a writer who frequently switches back and forth, this rings true for me. All my poems begin as scribbly drafts on paper, but many an article or blog post was written completely digitally, when my fingers need to keep up with my ideas. (This may also explain why, since breaking my arm a few weeks ago, I’ve come up with a ton of ideas but have nothing to show for it. Science! One-hand typing is hard. Yes, I am making excuses.)

So let’s discuss. Writers, what’s your preference, and when do you pick a keyboard over a pen? Do you find your medium affects your ideas? Artists of other types (music, visual arts, etc), what role does technology play in your creative process?

(H/T Austin Kleon)

Winter Does Its Work

Blame thirty years of Florida living, the media, Norman Rockwell, or Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, but to me the idea of winter always carried a certain air of romance. Back home I loved the days of weather dipping into the 50s and chillier (Northerners, feel free to laugh at me here). Any excuse to pull out the cozy sweaters and settle in with hot tea and a book was fine by me. I guess I didn’t have much experience with cold. To paraphrase a famous snowman, it was more that I liked to imagine what real winter was like when it comes.

When I moved to New England last summer, I quickly realized my homeland was a fancy handwritten invitation to jokes and pity and some variation of “Haha, poor thing, wait until winter gets here.” Which is all in friendly fun, but sometimes it sounded more like, “You, naive one, are gonna die.”

I’d laugh it off, because I thought I knew full well what I was getting myself into.