Free Love Didn’t Come Cheap

[Christianity Today, October 6, 1997] In the middle of the room there was a woodburning stove. The small iron door was open on this chilly day, and the red flames could be seen leaping within as if in time to music. For there was music, too, a marching song, and the little girls who circled the stove marched around it in time. The girls were not happy. Each girl was holding in her arms her favorite doll. One by one, each girl marched up to the open door of the stove. One by one, each girl threw her doll into the “angry-looking flames.”

Gagging on Shiny, Happy People

[Christianity Today, September 7, 1998] I flipped back the corners of the rugs, one after another. It was a clammy, rainy day, and these hand-knotted wool specimens from Iran, Pakistan, India, and China were giving off a fresh-from-the-sheep smell. I didn't know what I was doing; I'd never shopped for a rug before. But the one thing that struck me as I gazed at one gorgeous carpet after another was that they looked too perfect. Then I peeled back one more layer and saw a rug that won my heart.

Should You Design Your Own Religion?

[Utne Reader, August 1998] One of the best pieces of spiritual advice I ever received was one I fortunately gained early, while still in college. It was that I should give up the project of assembling my own private faith out of the greatest hits of the ages. I encountered this idea while reading Ramakrishna, the nineteenth century Hindu mystic. He taught that it was important to respect the integrity of each great path, and said that, for example, when he wanted to explore Christianity he would take down his images of the Great Mother and substitute images of Jesus and Mary.

Making It Up is Hard to Do

[Books & Culture, July 17, 1995] Fiction is delicious, I discovered one day. I was about eight, sitting under the sycamore tree in the back yard and reading my mother’s childhood copy of Through the Looking Glass, while idly tearing off and eating the page corners. This old volume is before me now, and it is still full of pleasurable memories, visual, tactile, and even tasty. The book includes both the Alice stories, with Alice in Wonderland first. The cover, loved to pieces, shows a full-color Alice plumper than Tenniel’s familiar version; she is floating down the rabbit hole in a pose of peaceful surrender, one hand on her breast, something like Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. Inside, the book is inscribed in black ink, “To Barbara from ‘Inkle Ferber,’ Christmas 1930.” I have no idea who these people are. (Perhaps my mother stole the volume from another little girl.) The pages are cream-colored, aging to brown at the edges; they are thick and invitingly chewy. The oversized print is charcoal-gray.

Moms in the Crossfire

[Christianity Today, October 26, 1998] “Work or home? Breast or bottle? Spanking or spoiling?” asks the front cover of the New York Times Magazine. “No matter what they choose, they’re made to feel bad.” This “special issue on the joy and guilt of motherhood” is titled in big red letters, “Mothers Can’t Win.” Is this a special issue from 1987? 1993? 1972? Does it matter? This story has had more lives than Shirley MacLaine.

Deconstructing the AAR

As late fall slides to winter, across the country Christians are winding up another year of living the religious life. Late fall, and across the country members of the American Academy of Religion are winding up another year of studying the religious life. The distinction between living it and studying it may seem artificial; most Christians study scripture, as well as theology and devotional works. But the study based in faith is not like the study of religion per se. In the halls of academe, religion is just one more sociological phenomenon, to be appraised from a safe distance (after all, He may not be a tame lion). Not that all the members of the Academy are religious abstainers; there are mainliners, goddess-worshippers, Buddhists, and the odd evangelical or two. But the AAR meets in the ivory tower, not the church.

A Books & Culture Field Trip: The Baltimore Book Dump

[Books & Culture, November 1995] When I was down to the Big City not long ago, my youthful friend Rod took me to his favorite bookstore-cafe. We sat on high stools at a small, sticky square of yellow wood, buffeted by alternative rock flowing from the excellent sound system. I chose, at Rod's suggestion, a designer beer that the menu described as ”fruity and complex.“ Nearby, patrons lingered at blond-wood book racks, perusing the handsome volumes with impressive nonchalance. Diversity spread her amiable wings: elbowpatch-and-beret types mingled easily with Birkenstocker-backpackers en tout noir. So when Rod came up to Baltimore I took him to my favorite book source, across the street from the Friend General Store and Love Nest Package Liquors. The bulky one-story building fills nearly a city block; it is painted rosy beige with deeper-brown trim, and topped with romantic crenellations. The orange metal sign bolted to the wall reads ”Baltimore Department of Finance, Bureau of Purchases, Warehouse #9." But those familiar with its charms eschew the formal title; we call it the Baltimore Book Dump.

Cultvre Vulture

[World, October 1, 1994] ”What is culture?“ asks Tom Weller in his funny 1987 book, Culture Made Stupid. ”Not the same thing as culture, which a dish full of germs has...No, cvltvre is something nobler, loftier, finer, thicker with pompous adjectives." If there were a Federal Bureau of Cvltvre, it would be the Smithsonian Institution, which sprawls between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument, paralyzing tourists with its bulk. Although there are fourteen museums in the Institution, its holdings are so vast that only 2% can be shown at once. Museums range from the wildly popular Air and Space (which draws 9 million visitors a year) to lesser-knowns like the Portrait and the Building (yes, a museum about buildings, currently showing a barn).

The Women of Disney

[Books & Culture, March-April, 1996] In the middle of my life’s journey I came to myself alone in a dark plastic poncho at the Haircuttery. It was a few days after my 43rd birthday, and I had not received a Cinderella watch packaged in a tiny clear-plastic glass slipper. For awhile there I received one every birthday, because I kept losing them. That was some years ago. At that time I intended to be a grownup lady one day, and wear a crown and a long fancy dress. Everything about me would get bigger, except my feet; these would get smaller and smaller until they were the same size as Cinderella’s, and I could wear her tiny shoes. I think I kept losing the watches in secret hope of collecting two shoes and making a pair. However, I kept losing the shoes too, so my plans were dashed. In the middle of my life’s journey I see in the big black-framed mirror a grownup lady getting an E-Z Kare haircut, wearing E-Z Kare clothes, which conceal an E-Z Kare figure. I had forgotten my plan to be Cinderella about now, and at this point it’s probably too much trouble.

Overthrown by Eros

[World, November 18, 1995] As Morality in Media launched their eighth annual “White Ribbon Against Pornography” campaign, the New Yorker magazine helpfully provided a 22-page look inside the world of porn film production. Author Susan Faludi gave readers a sympathetic glimpse at the tough lot of a male porn star. No, really. In this business, the woman is the object of desire and the male is furniture, and pay follows accordingly. What's more, male actors regularly find themselves the unwilling cause of production delays, and reap as a result the irritation and scorn of their peers. Habitual apprehension creates more problems, and this career-destroying pressure eventually destroys every career. Has-beens shuffle into backstage work, or, if they're lucky, marry a female star who can support them.