[Note: Our esteemed guests, listed alphabetically in the subtitle, have kindly contributed insights and resources re: Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, respectively, at the end of this post. If you’re tempted to skim: skip to them!]
I’m talking about faith here because compartmentalization is a disease.
For today’s title, I just went with the fewest syllables.
My first draft, “Consecrate your work to a higher power,” is advice I’d give my younger self, as I think it would’ve saved me a lot of exhaustion and heartbreak. “Make yourself a vessel.” “Surrender your agendas.” “Crucify your personality.”
But is there anything more noxious than being prescriptive about spirituality?
Marx is mentioned because it’s become apparent in recent years that the God of my understanding won’t let me get away with lazy, Good Girl politics. In this disorienting time, when misinformation is rampant, and groupthink + the language of social justice are so frequently weaponized for careerist and reactionary agendas (my fellow white women are shameless about this), none of us can afford to feel less than precise and integrous—strong—in our political thinking.
We can and should have healthy doubts, uncertainties, humility. But the unexamined fear and shame that tend to underlie incoherent positions can make us vulnerable to manipulation.
Before I realized that, I thought I’d been doing enough just by voting intelligently, being nice to people, and, like any good woman/good liberal/good storyteller, empathizing indiscriminately.
Empathy without clarity can really catapult a bitch into one catastrophe after another.
Christ is mentioned because his teachings helped me out with some of those catastrophes, and brought me clarity.
But this is for everyone, including people who find Christianity repugnant. If I hadn’t been born into a decent church, I can imagine I’d associate the faith entirely with its institutional legacy of genocide and war-mongering, and its appropriation by the American right wing. Probably nobody has put it more saliently than Frederick Douglass did in 1845:
Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”
It was only when I began more fully confronting the wickedness of “Christianity” as many of us have inherited it—i.e., the most common religion of powerful people who imprison for profit, lock children in cages, worship greed, burn down the planet, sew hatred—that I felt compelled to seek out what I think Douglass meant by the Christianity of Christ.
It took me a lot of engagement with other faiths and intellectual traditions to help me get there. I owe those other faiths more than I owe any version of Christianity that darkens people’s hearts.
How did the teachings of Jesus become so mangled? I agree with the hosts of a podcast I like that “any great, earth-shattering truth, from a teacher, is unlikely to survive—with integrity—its encounter with humanity.” In the same episode, a left-wing Christian and agnostic former Christian describe what they call a “prisoner’s dilemma” inherent in Christianity and Buddhism, both traditions that originally stressed the virtues of humility, non-violence, and poverty. The idea is that these original theologies, by the very nature of their content, “maximize their capacity to be taken over by assholes” (since, in nature, “people who are kind and deferential” are often ruthlessly eclipsed by “people who are domineering and aggressive,” and who have the powerful winds of the status quo at their backs).
Note that a similar dynamic happens in the arts. The more raw and vulnerable, sensitive, risk-taking, questioning and generous you are, the better your artistic work is, and the better you are to work with. But if you’re operating that way in this everyone-for-himself economy, especially if you’re a single young woman with no money or status, or if you’re perceived—even subliminally—as professionally insignificant/Not That Important or Powerful because you’re not a white guy, you’re very likely to burn out, get hurt, and be taken advantage of. Royally.
In religion as in art, philistinism—by which I mean a kind of subconscious, narcissistic investment in mediocrity—fears and envies integrity; it wants either to own, control, and take credit for integrity, or to annihilate it. If this dynamic weren’t written about extensively in the bible and elsewhere (self-help books on abuse, workplace exposés, addiction recovery literature, philosophy), I’d have trouble making any sense of all the chaos it engenders.
It inheres in every structure of power that keeps a few people warm at their desks and a whole lot of other people anxious and poor.
Faith can help artists and believers of all kinds transcend this brokenness, as well as the pain it’s caused.
Or envision transcending it, which is the first step.
Until the catastrophes I mentioned, I’d always been able to rely on pretty rational, egoic drives for working. My characters struggled and reckoned with God all the time, but I didn’t.
Here’s how I’d describe what I’ll call my more secular motivations for writing and performing. They worked pretty well for a number of years:
Cultural/aesthetic. The drive to create things in conversation with other things
Social. The drive to collaborate, connect, find belonging
Therapeutic. The drive to heal personal and collective wounds
Economic. The drive to make money and eat; the drive to create jobs for myself and people I believed in
Altruistic. The drive to make things that could help or inspire people
Political. The drive to make arguments on behalf of causes; the drive to galvanize communities
Ludic. Joy, fun, pleasure, play
Narcissistic. The drive to prove myself or the value of my life
I got several good plays and performances out of those drives. Then all of my usual reasons for working more or less failed me:
Cultural/aesthetic. My obsessive, all-or-nothing commitment to Making Art—I guess you could say that working became a sort of Idol—got me entangled with abusive people.
I had never understood the Old Testament until this happened; now I read it more or less daily, and find it essential for navigating life and work under capitalism. I don’t know of a sharper or more comprehensive study of the relationships between creativity, industry, idolatry, abuse, and power.
Social. Committing to my needs and beliefs as an artist (and as an adult human being) ended up alienating some people I cared about. (I don’t know any women I respect who haven’t gone through this.) I realized that I’d been shaping my life for other people’s comfort and approval, squelching my instincts for decades to avoid being punished and judged. Even still, the handful of moments when I’d stuck my neck out had gotten me labeled as loud, precocious, vain, selfish, opportunistic, naive, conniving, dangerous, etc.
Eventually I learned to accept that when I surrendered, however appropriately, to the demands of my work, I could not control the way others would perceive, react to, or represent me.
At a moment in which character assassination is currency, and in which female and marginalized artists are facing greater economic precarity than ever, this step forward—the willingness to be misunderstood and maligned—was terrifying. But none of us who want to tell truthful stories have a choice.
I learned that seeking truth requires tons of solitude, and that finding truth can further alter our social bonds with others. It can incur retaliation; in some circles it can lead to being lied about and ostracized.
If we’re not interrogating the egoic social/relational structures that have made us feel comfortable in the past, we’re not doing our job.
Interrogation might well be destructive.
Therapeutic. Often—and this is why it’s so urgent to change leadership structures that enable abuse—unprocessed trauma and PTSD can make it very difficult, neurologically, for an artist to transcend the self (e.g., to achieve the kind of neural flow state necessary for many kinds of creative work). Writing about personal pain sometimes helps me get past things, and often I feel compelled to write about traumatic experiences for reasons that are bigger than my own healing. But it doesn’t always work out well, aesthetically or emotionally. Sometimes it can get me stuck in self-destructive loops, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Also, I’ve learned that artists who use their work as therapy—or who see themselves as therapists—without considering how that forced intimacy might affect the people they hire and collaborate with, are some of the most destructive people in the business. Consider the role of the director, played by Deadwood’s Molly Parker, in the recent film Madeline’s Madeline, a spot-on critique of certain trends in American theatre-making. (Miranda July’s in it, too.)
Economic. In my experience, a capitalist model of productivity is almost never conducive to making good work, or to staying healthy in the process.
Altruistic. I never feel more phony or egotistical than when I’m trying to be an altruist.
Political. Right now, we are all steeped in a secular, punitive neoliberalism that is fundamentally dishonest in its unwillingness to reckon with the universal human capacity for cruelty and evil.
(Scolding and blaming, however understandable, are not reckoning, but projecting.)
If I play by the rules of our culture in my work—i.e., if I participate directly in a reductive political discourse rather than forge my own language—I’m not doing my job, and I’m not going to be able to grapple squarely with the spiritual and social questions that I think we all need to be grappling with.
I serve leftism by becoming a scientist of my own sins. Politics as we know it does not furnish tools for this work.
Ludic: Work became torture because of a man.
Narcissistic: Most creative work requires some measure of narcissism—a belief in the value of personal experience; a willingness to work obsessively in solitude, responsibilities be damned. Investing the process with any additional narcissism—i.e., any conscious need for validation (approval, awards, revenge, etc.)—is like pouring pounds of salt into the cake batter.
Eventually I reached a point at which I needed to continue creating, but I also needed something beyond my own will and my regular motivations for doing so.
I was humbled by my own frailty and capacity for self-destruction, and by the realization that I’d spent my life running from the people I loved and needed most, and by a new understanding of the human capacity for blindness and self-deception.
I swallowed enough pride to borrow some money from a friend and follower of my work who had offered years before. He and other people I had not wanted to lean on in the past became angels. I could no longer think of myself as an Independent Woman, but I felt more honest. I spent about a year subsisting on soup, doing trauma therapy, reading the bible, studying religions that moved me, and going to bed at 9.
All of it helped.
And it left me with the distinct sense that I should and could keep writing, as long as I surrendered a sense of control over where the writing went and what it did for me. I would have to start doing it for mysterious reasons.
All of the old reasons were just ways of rationalizing an investment in painful, low-paying, precarious work, and I was being asked to invest without reason and without pleasure.
But with conscience.
I’ve cut several pages on faith + trauma recovery, and faith + ethical dilemmas. I’ll probably keep writing about some of this stuff, although I hope to get to a point where this newsletter is just fun recommendations and interviews.
In the interest of wrapping things up, here are some things I’ve come across.
I’ve gotten a lot out of this left-wing Christian-ish podcast (there’s a strong science angle and lot of sympathetic engagement with other faiths and with atheism): Buddhism 1 (start with this!!), spiritual trauma, Christianity and violence, LGBTQ Christians, sanity and social media (some top-shelf social critique here), perfectionism/“scrupulosity”, speaking in tongues, a bunch of content on sexuality and porn, dealing with change
Essays and Articles: King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (and a good article about it, and a recording of him reading the letter), “Behold, the Millennial Nuns,” “A Spiritual Autobiography,” Jia Tolentino’s tour de force “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston,” “Dasha Nekrasova Believes in God, Wellbutrin, and Sigmund Freud”
Books: Mary Karr’s Lit (imagine if Flannery O’Connor had a baby with Dorothy Parker and the baby grew up to write High on Arrival, which is also a great read); Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (less soft-core than it sounds), A Return to Love (talk shit about Marianne and you’re dead to me), Saint Augustine, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis’ Christian writings (I often disagree with him, but he’s fun to read and a lot of people’s way into Christianity), Simone Weil, Richard Rohr
There’s so much more. If you want to start a correspondence on religion, I’m your girl.
Some of my friends and colleagues have very generously offered up insights and resources from their faith backgrounds. I’ve added links—please check out their awesome work and recommendations!
When I started writing this post, I thought immediately of Daaimah Mubashshir and her play Room Enough (For Us All), a masterful family comedy set in a Sunni household. I’d never seen such a contemporary take on the genre in which religious customs play as central a role as they do in so many real homes. Her comedy and incorporation of detail are effortless. I asked Daaimah to share a few words about how spirituality has informed her work:
My relationship to spirituality exists on a spectrum. In some ways it’s a historical map: Room Enough (For Us All) is shaped around growing up in a Sunni Muslim household. In other ways it’s a GPS navigator; in Everyday Afroplay (The Immeasurable Want of Light, The Chronicles of Cardigan and Khente), it leads me to unfamiliar places and provides nourishment along the way.
I have been reading this memoir by Leah Vernon called Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim; in works like these, I'm reflected and seen. The past and future collide in front of a mirror and I feel centered and complete.
I also reached out to my friend Chantal Nchako, an outstanding LA-based actress who first spoke to me about Buddhism when we met a few years ago. For her, “Buddhism is about spreading Love across the world. Supporting one another. No judgment, and having an open heart.” I was and still am struck by her way of sharing about it—all light and enthusiasm, no expectations, assumptions, or pressure. Chantal’s current practice includes chanting twice a day as a form of meditation. She participates in SGI (Soka Gakkai International), a Buddhist movement with a strong focus on empathy and social engagement, and recommends World Tribune and the Living Buddhism newsletter as go-to sources.
Finally, Stephanie Swirsky has always stood out to me as a role model—someone whose deep intellectual engagement with questions about faith seems integral to her one-of-a-kind artistry, and whose on-going, often quiet, behind-the-scenes advocacy for women theatre artists is unsurpassed by anyone I know. I can’t pick a favorite play of Stephanie’s, but I’d be remiss not to mention the hilarious DON’T DO THIS TO US!, in which a woman named Rachel plans to go back in time and break Jared Kushner’s penis, to preserve the integrity and reputation of Judaism. When I reached out to Stephanie, she recommended Jewish philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber, both of whom come up elsewhere in this newsletter (Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem—I” in a later post about politics and values, and Buber in the podcast on spiritual trauma, which I highly recommend for anyone in a position of leadership). Stephanie also recommends Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. I’m reading the synopsis and can’t wait to check it out.
Thank you all for reading, and immense gratitude to Daaimah, Chantal, and Stephanie.
Got your own recs? I’d love to hear them! Comments always open.