Introducing … Merit Badges for Distinctive Acts of Badassery & Aplomb

January 11, 2016

See them all (and get yours, for free!) over at susangrayblue.com.

wings

Why merit badges? Because being bold takes heart, and having heart in this rough-and-tumble world isn’t always easy. Because the road is long and twisty, and you have to bring your own marshmallows. Because goodness doesn’t always just happen – some deliberate assembly is required.

It’s an Emily Dickinson thing. It’s a Ben Franklin thing. It’s a fortitude thing. It’s an inspiration thing.

And it’s a scientific fact that these badges serve both as a reward for a job nicely done and as a magical token to ensure baddassery & aplomb in your future. Also, they’re free! If you want them, they’re yours. See them all over at susangrayblue.com.

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Finally! The board game guide to escaping fundamentalism

March 9, 2015

map onlyI hope you love somewhat fake maps as much as I do.

I’m thrilled to introduce A Field Guide to Losing Your Religion … but Not Your Soul. It’s the 20-step plan you’ve been waiting for.

The topography of an un-conversion is wild, and I’m here to guide you through it. (With Dante! And Dickinson! And marshmallows! And Korean taco trucks!)

Completion may take several years, so why not start today?

Or, I’d love to see you over on my new site, which is susangrayblue.com.

The appeal of ‘Dating Jesus’

December 19, 2009

Behold this three-part series that merrily suggests recent books to give this Christmas … or to add to your own reading list. The Charm Marm doesn’t approve of these ideas, but I do.

Not exactly love at first sight.

Combining endearing humor and impressive scholarship, journalist Susan Campbell preaches the gospel of independence in her memoir, Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl. Campbell details her church-heavy girlhood in Missouri as an irrepressible tomboy – she asked questions from the start and seemed to always know something wasn’t quite right when she was told that women were expected to remain silent in church. (It all sounds so obvious once you know better, but some of us believed what we were told at the time, so I’ve always admired those rebels in the back pew who never quite accepted that they were destined to be perpetually pliant.) Although she didn’t stick with church, her questions eventually led her to seminary, and Campbell weaves the work of philosophers, historians and feminist theologians into her story.

Recalling her early years, Campbell writes about witnessing door-to-door, playing baseball, taking her fashion cues from The Brady Bunch and singing hymns in four-part harmony. She writes about loving seminary classes many years later, especially when one of her professors says that many of the early Biblical texts subverted the hierarchy of the day. And yes, she writes about dating (and not dating) and dancing (and not dancing) and loving the real Jesus – the egalitarian one – despite what religion has to say about him.

She writes about believing in God but not joining a church; the feeling she describes of missing singing hymns but not quite wanting to be in the room where everyone’s singing them will be particularly poignant for anyone who grew up in a hard-core spiritual setting but now abstains from organized religion.

Campbell attends one Sunday with her brother, though, and describes another familiar feeling: Walking into a church, when so many churches these days preach a “lite” version of the Bible, knowing that you know more about what’s being taught than most of the people who actually attend.

“Although it is arrogant,” Campbell admits, “I realize that if we want to throw down and hold an impromptu Bible Bowl, he and I could beat any two of these people — clergy included — hands down.”

Apply with irony.

“Fundamentalism broke off in us, didn’t it?” Campbell’s brother asks her. She agrees – it broke off in her like a sword, she muses, and much of Dating Jesus is about Campbell healing that wound. As such, her book is a balm of its own.

And speaking of balm (oh, nice one!), if you’re giving this book as a gift, consider pairing it with every Christian Charm School drop-out’s favorite accessory: Looking Good for Jesus lip balm.

Read an excerpt
Visit her blog
Buy
Dating Jesus, $10.80
Looking Good for Jesus lip balm, $5.99

And speaking of balm (oh, nice one!), if you’re giving this book as a gift, consider pairing it with every Christian Charm School drop-out’s favorite make-up bag item: Looking Good for Jesus accoutrements.

A new breed of sacred activists

December 19, 2009

Behold this three-part series that merrily suggests recent books to give this Christmas … or to add to your own reading list. The Charm Marm doesn’t approve of these ideas, but I do.

Calling all mystics and activists ...

Famed Rumi translator and scholar Andrew Harvey has created what amounts to a guidebook for caring for your soul and the planet. In The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, Harvey aims to fuse the worlds of activists and mystics to create a balanced, passionate way of experiencing and contributing to the world. Mystics, he explains, often become reflective to the point of withdrawing from the world, whereas activists sometimes burn out or become dogmatic. Harvey models a new type of citizen — a “sacred activist” who has the contemplative template of a mystic and the change-agent tendencies of an activist. This previously rare creature can roam the planet realistically tuned into to the world’s problems in a way that’s both inwardly nourishing and outwardly effective. The Hope is a manual for becoming such a person.

One thing I love about this book is the graceful way Harvey brings together so many elements of spirituality and shows how to put them into practice cohesively. He illustrates how to balance realism with hope, service with self-love, dedication with joy.

Along the way, he looks squarely in the face of the world’s problems, from corporate greed to cruelty to animals. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by these issues, but Harvey’s response is rewarding on internal and external levels, which is what makes it sustainable. “Find your heartbreak,” he suggests — get involved in the cause that most splits you open. “What I have discovered for and in myself,” he writes, “is that allowing yourself to experience the kind of cosmic heartbreak I am describing, as long as you are grounded in spiritual practice and trust in God, leads not to death but a far more abundant life…”

For fuel, he references the poetic insights of Rumi as well as his own visions. He writes about the importance of not only discipline and fortitude but also compassion and self-care. He describes how striking a balance of action and meditation radiates outward and inward, so that sacred activists will care for the world and will care for their own souls and bodies as well.

This self-care component was missing from the Christian Charm School curriculum, natch. A huge, brimstone-filled hole of steaming unworthiness sat in its place. Harvey’s way of fusing productivity and pleasure is something charm school drop-outs everywhere can appreciate.

Harvey introduces seven laws for sacred activism, five forms of service and ten things everyone can do right now. He gets down to business, describing specific meditation techniques and forming “networks of grace” on his website, to make his model immediate. Seems as if Harvey’s put it all together, so sacred activists in the making just need to push a few buttons and get rolling. As Rumi would say, that’s freakin’ fantastic. OK, fine – he might be more likely to say something like, “Moonlight floods the whole sky / From horizon to horizon / How much it can fill your room / Depends on its windows.” You get the idea.

Read excerpts
Visit Harvey’s site
Buy
The Hope, $11.53

Setting the record straight on Jesus

December 19, 2009

Behold this three-part series that merrily suggests recent books to give this Christmas … or to add to your own reading list. The Charm Marm doesn’t approve of these ideas, but I do.

Digging for truth (and finding it).

In The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message, journalist and Pulitzer-Prize nominee Rex Weyler analyzes, synthesizes and all-around deputizes recent scholarship about the historic figure of Jesus and what the man actually said. Now that archeologists have uncovered so many early manuscripts and historians have unveiled the context that led to today’s Bible (such as “Constantine’s legacy of official doctrine and intimidation,” as Weyler points out), we can get closer to which teachings are authentic.

And why not? “We don’t do justice to Jesus or ourselves any service by accepting shoddy fourth-century scholarship, mistaken translations or politically biased rewrites as the real message of Jesus,” Weyler writes. As part of my Christian Charm School heritage, I grew up hearing about the Jesus Seminar – and, of course, being told that it was a heresy, an outrage, to challenge the inerrancy of the Bible. Weyler beautifully illustrates why there’s no reason to shy away from scholarship; even those who still take a literal view of scripture should be heartened to find such a compelling look at these issues.

The Charm Marm and many of her fellow fundamentalists seem to fear that this kind of analysis seeks to discredit Jesus somehow, but Weyler’s aim is to honor the tradition of Jesus’ followers by filtering out the bias and focusing on the essence of his teachings.

“Now, in the twenty-first century, we have the opportunity to give Jesus – the humble sage and healer – the cultural and historical respect he deserves,” continues Weyler. He details the way Jesus “absorbed the culture around him, distilled it and revitalized it,” tapping into the heart of his work. He “woke up from the cultural trance of his age and broke with the conventions and inertia of society,” Weyler explains.

One thing I love about this book is that Weyler brings together the work of so many historians and scholars. He references Rosemary Radford Ruther’s progress in feminist theology, for example, as well as Bart Ehrman, whose books describe both simple errors and intentional changes made with manuscripts in the decades during which men shaped the Bible.

Weyler’s book is highly readable and contains lists, a chronology and plenty of resources for those who want to dig deeper into the archeological and scholarly treasures we can so easily access now. Let’s hear it for the 21st century.

Read an excerpt
Visit Weyler’s site
Buy
The Jesus Sayings, $11.96

Pocket guides for post-charm-school studies

December 3, 2009

Enrich your pockets.

Today’s charm school break is sponsored by the world’s pockets.

Most Christian Charm School dropouts I know long for books that both inform and amuse. Ideally, these books also should fit in our pockets. Those of us without overly large pockets on all of our clothing would perhaps settle for such books that fit easily in our purses. Very well – look no farther than Jason Boyett, who has so far managed to pocket-ize the Bible, sainthood and the apocalypse itself.

As highlighted on the Charm-o-Matic gift guide, Jason Boyett’s Pocket Guide to Sainthood: A Field Manual for the Super-Virtuous Life captures the glory, the shame and the silliness of saints throughout history. Starting with St. Ambrose and ending with St. Vincent de Paul (surprisingly, not the only saint who was captured by pirates), Boyett irreverently chronicles the miracles and trivia surrounding everyone’s favorite saints.

Boyett’s consistently entertaining tone and unexpected asides create an amusing backdrop for what’s actually a highly informative series of books. Writer Daniel Radosh pronounced the guides “witty, weird and sometimes even wise.”

In Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book About the Big Book, Boyett includes summaries and terms and then rounds things off with a series of lists, such as Nine People God Smites and the Four Best Moments for Donkeys.

Boyett also keeps a blog (and, you know, he actually updates his regularly).

For more …
Pocket Guide info
Boyett’s blog
Charm-o-Matic gift ideas

Pulling out all the stops on walking

October 27, 2009

walking_path
Just when you thought it was safe to walk again …

The Charm Marm gives the sweet girlies in her charge another walking tutorial on page 20 of the Christian Charm Manual. The lesson titled “As I Walk Through Life” includes several thoughts to bear in mind while putting one foot in front of the other, including the following warning:

A girl will never be charming – no matter how harmoniously her muscles are coordinated – if she is out of harmony with her Creator, out of harmony with family and friends, demanding her way above theirs.

We then see a list of scripture verses to support various walking imperatives: ” God wants me … to walk circumspectly, to walk in the Spirit, to walk worthy of the Lord” – and then my favorite – “to walk in the fear of the Lord.”

Yes, chickadees – that’s how the Charm Marm does it. The simple act of walking becomes a quagmire of literal and metaphorical spiritual missteps. (And what is fundamentalism if not a mishmash of literal and metaphorical?)

The upshot: Again, we mustn’t assert our will above the wishes others. Again, the slightest stumble may mean we aren’t worthy. And again, we must live, walk, breathe and brush our hair in fear.

Part of the problem here of instructing young girls to make no demands and to live in fear – often, the fear of not being worthy – is that they develop no sense at their core of their right to fully occupy their space, to have a personality, to have desires, to have a say in what happens to them. We’re instructed in countless sermons and Bible lessons to “die to self” and to not “let the world squeeze us into its mold” (renegade, non-King James translation on that last one). But how can we give away a self that doesn’t even exist? How can we tamp down something that has no shape? The sweet girlies in Christian charm school are subtly persuaded that we have nothing to offer at all – to ourselves or to the world – that is truly our own.

Undo the Charm Marm

You can’t swing your arms properly while walking if you don’t have a backbone. The ultimate trickery is that we’re taught that the backbone itself is the act of giving ourselves away – we’re taught that we’re nothing on our own, that only with help from outside ourselves can we muster a loving attitude to “walk in the Spirit.”

It’s time for sweet girlies everywhere to know that their backbone is their very own inimitable self, complete with desires and talents. Sometimes demanding your own way is the best possible action you can take. Your way is valuable. For that matter, you’re serving others most effectively when you know what you have to offer and what your metaphorical fingerprint looks like. (Hint: It may look like a fingerprint, but it feels like a backbone.)

Consider these your walking papers.

Original sin takes one on the chin

October 12, 2009
Shambhala warrior philosophy

Train like an ancient warrior.

Today’s charm school break is sponsored by ancient Tibetan warriors.

In Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa writes about the Tibetan concept of Shambhala and the importance of understanding your own basic goodness, so that you can in turn create peace and harmony in the world.

“When you experience the goodness of being alive,” Trungpa teaches, “you can respect who and what you are … Because we appreciate the world, we take better care of it and our fellow humans.”

There’s a basic assumption in his teachings that’s at the other end of the spectrum from that other religious concept of original sin. The Charm Marm loves reminding all the sweet chickadees in her class about original sin. The idea lurks on many pages of the Christian Charm Manual, including admonishments that the girls are members of the weaker sex, valuable only when pleasing others.

Instead, Trungpa keys into something much deeper. “When we feel that our lives are genuine and good,” he writes, “we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate, and at the same time, we can see our potential for extending goodness to others. We can tell the truth straightforwardly and be absolutely open, but steadfast at the same time.”

Trungpa emphasizes that this outlook provides the ground for helping yourself and others. He goes on in the book to teach more traits of the warrior, but a steady sense of one’s own goodness is at the core. He mentions a sudden whiff of fresh air or the clean feeling after a shower and says, “It is worthwhile to recognize and take advantage of these moments, because they are revealing basic nonaggression and freshness in our lives – basic goodness.”

Perhaps the Charm Marm would like to take a bubble bath now.

The perils of walking in church

September 14, 2009

Today’s Christian Charm School lesson brings us to the crucial spiritual principle of posture. Evidently, saints know not to swing their arms and hips too wildly while walking.

swish_knees

Don't walk like an Egyptian.

Maybe the Pope and the Dalai Lama will be covering this soon as well, but for now, the Charm Marm is the only guide we have who points out the scriptural importance of walking properly.

On page 18 of the Christian Charm Manual, the sweet girlies in class are shown the above illustration with instructions to “glide smoothly” and “keep stride moderate” and to not “swish knees noisily,” “drop heels with a thud” or “sway hips unnecessarily” when walking.

One the opposite page, the metaphor of “walking after the flesh” is presented with scriptures such as, “Let me not forget I am not my own” (I Corinthians) and “May I not grieve Thy Holy Spirit in the slightest way today—not once!” (The Charm Marm actually combined two verses from Ephesians and Ecclesiastes for that last one.)

So here we are again, chickadees, learning that the slightest thing we do incorrectly may grieve the Holy Spirit. Even the gods of ancient Greece weren’t this easily offended. It’s hard to imagine taking this line of thinking seriously:

  • Walk gracefully. Jesus likes it that way! (Hmm, was he gliding smoothly under the weight of that cross?)
  • Don’t swish your knees when you walk. Jesus doesn’t like it that way! (Did he walk quietly into the temple before throwing out the money changers?)

This level of detail seems silly, as always. But it gets at the fundamentalist need for control. Those of us immersed in that way of thinking as youngsters absorb all kinds of subconscious patterns that make us feel a very strange thing indeed: the need to control and be controlled simultaneously.

We learn that we aren’t masters of our own fate, but rather should be content with whatever rolls our way. We call this “God’s will” and use it as a reason for not making our own decisions or taking responsibility for what we really want.

Yet we also want to control others. We want everyone else to believe exactly as we do, and we plan to wave goodbye as they’re tossed into a literal, fiery hell if they think they’ve found God another way. We want to control the way others perceive truth, and we want to control the way others perceive us (since we’re taught that we’re only worthy when we’re pleasing others).

Undo the Charm Marm:

These patterns run deep. Even if you didn’t grow up thinking Jesus might actually care whether you “drop your heels with a thud” when you walk, the desire for control is transmitted implicitly through more traditional church teachings. It’s easy enough to realize you want to relinquish control of others and take control for yourself, but actually doing it can be tough.

Find some specific point of control you feel and undo it. T.S. Eliot famously asked in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Let your answer to that be “yes,” even if it means swishing your knees noisily when you walk. Notice that the universe does not unravel when you do so.

Notice, too, that the universe does not implode when you let go of the desire to control others’ perceptions. Nor do you smell brimstone when you state clearly what you want instead standing by passively. And while you’re thinking that over, be sure to swing your hips a little.

There’s no torture in charm school

September 9, 2009
Back to Dante, via Blake

Back to Dante's hell

Comparing life in Christian Charm School to such high levels of torment may seem histrionic, but recent articles about our government’s role in torture warrant some attention for the Charm Marm.

A recent story in the New York Times discusses the involvement of two psychologists in developing our military’s interrogation tactics. One of the doctors in particular was an admirer of Dr. Martin Seligman’s groundbreaking work on “learned helplessness.” As the Times explains:

“Dr. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape.”

The article goes on to explain that this idea of learned helplessness later became “an influential concept in the treatment of human depression…”

It’s worth noting that Dr. Seligman was horrified that his work had been used in torture. Nonetheless, the psychologist working for the military “believed that producing learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject might ensure that he would comply with his captor’s demands.”

My point with all of this unpleasantness is that I read about learned helplessness years ago in a book about the effects of growing up in a fundamentalist culture. The way it’s instilled through church teachings is subtle and rarely involves torture-device-wielding fiends.

Still, it’s what happens. If as a child you deeply internalize certain teachings about your place in the world, you cede all of your power to something outside yourself. You seek only to move toward this amorphous thing known as “God’s will.” You believe you’re only doing something good when you’re focusing on others.

After all, what have we learned so far in Christian Charm School if not that our value rests in looking pretty and pleasing others? (Both goals are rather out of our control, yes?)

Undoing that background noise of passivity can be a long process. Recognizing the tendency for what it is helps, as does taking back your power in all kinds of small ways, even through the kinds of happy delights I write about on the Charm-o-Matic.

Also helpful:

  • Deciding that your own energy and feelings matter. (Sounds obvious, right? Only if you never quite imagined it could be true.)
  • Becoming aware that you can make all kinds of choices that affect your life in quantifiable ways every minute of the day and finding ways to increase your own happiness level. (You know, instead of merely working toward some reward – or avoiding some punishment – after death.)

I realize that I’m simplifying a complicated psychological concept here and that there are plenty of causes for passivity. I’m just saying: Religion and torture – who knew? (Oh, I guess everyone alive in Europe during the Inquisition knew.)