The Taser's Edge

Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander

Foreskin’s Lament…with a title like that, how exactly do you review a book?  You try.  I got to know Shalom Auslander through his frequent, frequently hilarious contributions to This American Life.  (Try this one.)  He currently has one published book of short stories, Beware of God, and one memoir, Foreskin’s Lament.

So we’re back to that title.  Auslander grew up in an Orthodox (veering near ultra-Orthodox) community near New York, with an abusive father and a deep-seated belief that a vengeful God was out to get him.  I’m not quite sure why he only briefly connects those two facts of his upbringing, but he certainly seems to still carry the latter.

Auslander knows that he is being neurotic, but he can’t shake it.   Nor can he shake his belief that God is real.  And Auslander (and God) is angry.  Perhaps an excerpt is the best way to communicate the tone throughout the book.

“I felt like the horse on the Polo logo, unsure whether the man on my back with the menacing mallet was God, or family, or community, or all three, but knowing that if I could just throw the son of a bitch, I could run away forever.  My attitude toward the world I had come from and the God that I had come from were the same: I was tired, finally, of trying to find favor in someone or Something else’s eyes, particularly when that someone or Something seemed to be assholes and/or an Asshole.  Our philosophy teacher told us of a man who claimed that God was dead; if only, Friedrich.  He was alive, and He was a Prick.  Maybe I couldn’t run from him–maybe the trip out of the Promised Land was even more treacherous than the one into it–but perhaps, I wondered, I could spoil His sport with simple acquiescence, blithely accepting whatever fate He chose for me–no worrying, no praying, no beseeching, no obsessing.  No more bribes, no more payoffs, no more house of worship backroom deals.  Radio silence.  Not atheism; resignation.  So Whatism.  Whateverism.  Blow Meism.  Maybe the forefathers’ mistake was answering Him?  Maybe they should have just ignored him?” (164)

Angry, profane, somewhat over-the-top, but undeniably well written.  And again to the title.  There is a great metaphor that Auslander returns to several times throughout the book.  He, and those like him, who have been brutally cut off from their communities by their communities, are the foreskins, bloodied, bruised, tossed away.  The major hope is that there is a whole hill of foreskins out there (what does my ability to reference arcane and grotesque Scripture say about how I’ve been religiously formed?); they aren’t alone.  Not a ton of hope to me, but a survivor’s kind of hope.  Auslander is the foreskin lamenting.

For me, as you might guess, it was a depressing read.  It depressed me to read how damaged this author has been by his community, by his family, by his religion, because the things that are most important and most beloved in my life are my community, my family, and my religion.

Auslander and I seem to look at the world in totally opposite ways.  That is, I understand the miraculous to be God opening my eyes; it is an ongoing interpretive work of seeing the grace of God (love specifically and personally aimed at me) in all things.  Auslander instead sees the malice of God (specifically and personally aimed at him) in all things.  And both of us (perhaps he more than I) are aware that sometimes these thoughts veer into pure superstition.

As I read the book, I strongly resisted my tendency to believe that I understand where he stands.  I don’t.  And as I write this, I think that maybe the better take-away from this book would be for me, for the first time, to look at the devastation that religion can cause, to look at it straight in the face.  I admit I haven’t done that before.  The modern set of atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) haven’t really interested me; if I want robust atheism, I’ll read Nietszche.  The major claim that I hear again and again from the new guys, that religion has done more harm than good in the world, is one that I dismiss out of hand.  Auslander gives me pause in how easy that dismissal comes to me.  He makes me realize the ways in which I already know religion does damage and has does damage–to women, to ethnic minorities, to LGBT people, to me (yes, in some ways, to me too).  I think he would be glad to make me question the goodness of religion, of Christianity.  I think that might be part of his point.  Not to say I should abandon my faith, but that I need to be honest about the damage it does.

Going beyond his point, my question (as always) is what this means for the practices of the Christian churches.  How do we talk about the Gospel as life-giving good news (which it most certainly is), but also choose to grow in our honesty and willingness to open our eyes to the fact that religion, Christian religion, yes, even the cross itself, continue to brutalize people?  Crap.  That’s a hard question.  Thankfully, God’s out to save me, not to kill me.

Albums Worth Injury, Volume A

This afternoon after church, I decided to go vinyl shopping.  Instead of Nice Price Books, I headed for the nearby Books Do Furnish a Room.  (The reason?  All used book stores are hurting, but Books Do Furnish a Room seems worse off than any of them.)  There I picked up four Albums Worth Injury, albums so good that I would trade my own physical well-being to be able to listen to them.

1. Combat Rock by The Clash

Tracks you almost certainly know and which you very certainly should like: “Rock the Casbah”, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (and M.I.A. fans will note the opening of “Straight to Hell” from its being sampled throughout her “Paper Planes”)

Injury worth sustaining: Fall from an 18 ft. ladder onto your left ankle.

2. After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

Songs you will like if you let yourself welcome the Whiny Crooner: Multitudes.

Injury worth sustaining:  Not one but three toenails lost when a door is opened across your bare foot.

3. Band on the Run by Paul McCartney

Reason some rabid Beatles fans I know and love do not know and love this album: Unknown, but it’s definitely not a good reason.

Injury worth sustaining: Falling down four flights of stairs in an old apartment building while wearing ancient and heavy rollerskates, resulting in a broken arm and leg, as well as a neck injury.

4. Blue by Joni Mitchell

Injury worth sustaining: Being trapped in an elevator shaft filled with so many snakes that you suffocate, and then slowly being crushed into a snake-and-you puree by the descending elevator, thereafter being drained into a human shaped ice cube tray, resuscitated by a mad scientist/vivisectionist, forced to do his evil bidding, which requires all your new snake faculties, including smelling in the dark with your snakey tongue, until you are chopped to bits by a garden hoe wielded by a burly Eastern Rite Catholic priest shouting about your hideous unnatural form, brought back to life by the tears of a child who finds your pieces in the garden and truly loves you, but then eaten by a hawk, which is eaten by a carnivorous feral pig, which is eaten by a badger, which is eaten by a hippo, which is hit by a truck, stuffed with you inside it, mounted, and then destroyed in a tragic fire, after which the smoke of your body smells real bad.

Conclusion: You should listen to this album.  You should listen to all of these albums.

N.B.: All injuries worth sustaining are subject to future revision.


Bonus: I also picked up a couple books (as it were a bookstore, after all).

1. No Bars to Manhood by Daniel Berrigan, S.J.–Radical sixties priest’s book written from his prison cell.

2. On the Geneology of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche–I think you’ve probably heard of it, or at least the author.  The title accurately explains Nietzsche’s project in the work.

Tuesday Reading Roundup 12: Anything but School, Please Edition

1. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller–Finished it off.  Kind of like Superman finished off Batman in that brutal fight.  You’ll have to read it to believe it.  And you knew they would have to fight some time, so no whining about spoilers.  Bruce Wayne has gotten vengeful in his old age, and that just goes plumb against the American Way (at least when that vengeance is carried out by a masked vigilante).

2. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle–The series continues as Charles Wallace saves the world from nuclear annihilation by traveling through time (via unicorn, of course, which flies on the wind, which goes where it pleases), aided by Meg, married and pregnant, kything with him the whole way.  Such good imagination at work.  Favorite scene at this moment’s recollection: seeing a baby unicorn hatch and get its first taste of moonbeams.

3. Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle–Now the Murry twins, Sandy and Dennys, are thrown back into the time of Noah by an experiment they happen to walk into while searching for the Dutch cocoa in their mother’s lab.  Ever wondered what nephilim (see Gen. 6:1-4) were?  You are not alone, and Madeleine L’Engle has a better imagination than most of us.  Even as the wonderful imagery is still here, it seems like some of the writing is of lesser quality than the first three books.  (Although I would still be happy to claim authorship.  Well, authorship of at least some parts.)

4. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Edwin H. Friedman–You know I am next-to-incapable of giving my energies to schoolwork if I can’t read this amazing and raveworthy book.  The most insightful teacher since fill-in-the-blank, and I am having to force myself through its pages.  It’s just not right.

5. On the Genealogy of Morals by Frederich Nietzsche–We only read a couple chapters for my Hauerwas class, but I think I might be in love.  Such a lively writer, and he doesn’t take himself so seriously that he can’t have fun.  (Refreshing, especially after Kant.)  My take-away: here is an atheist who really seems to understand the interior of Christianity and then reject it on its own terms.  I can respect that, truly.  While I admit I haven’t read the most recent crop of atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.), I think they would have a hard time keeping up with Nietzsche.  His strength is that he takes Christianity seriously; from my admittedly little contact with videos of more recent atheists, they fail to do so, and so fail to move the conversation forward.  One more thing: no matter how badly misread or misused by the Nazi agenda, it is hard to read this philosopher on this side of the Third Reich (and the horrors of the 20th century in general) without at least wondering what part his ideas, and ideas like his, played.