Follow by Email

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review of "Publicize Your Book!" by Jacqueline Deval

Oops ... wrong photo ... 
Rule of thumb: if you can end your book's title with an exclamation point, it will be easier to market. 

If you are a professional PR agent publicizing a very popular, how-to book, or if you are a writer and are independently wealthy and have nothing else to fill your day, "Publicize Your Book!" is an excellent resource.

According to Scott Turow, president of the writer's guild, the average writer earns $9,000 annually from writing. That writer would find following many suggestions in this book financially impossible.

Make and market a trailer for your book, this book recommends. These are not expensive, Deval says, only about a thousand dollars. Maybe that's not expensive to Jacqueline Deval, but if you are making $9,000 a year, it suddenly becomes so. Hire publicists in several cities. Hire a media trainer so you don't blow it once you do get on TV. Send out free copies of your book to a purchased, eight-thousand name mailing list.

The methods she recommends are also quite time-consuming. One example: devote a year to pursuing a celebrity who might boost your book. Spend eleven hours a day, for several months, and tens of thousands of dollars, publicizing your book. Watch the Oprah Winfrey show religiously – every day for a couple of years – to learn how to get on. Learn how to make films, create webpages, and design quizzes and games, and use those to publicize your book. Set up active telephone numbers for your book's characters. Dialing Raskolnikov!

It helps to be very lucky. Meet a movie star at a barbecue, and recruit that movie star into promoting your book. I'll remember that next time I meet a movie star at a barbecue.

The recommended methods are best suited to popular books that can be sold in sound bites, like how-to books and cookbooks. If writing literature, include characters who are graduates of a given school, and that school will help publicize your book. I kept trying to apply Deval's methods to books I value, like "Jane Eyre" or "Crime and Punishment" or the poetry books of John Guzlowski, who writes about his parents' suffering under the Nazis. I just can't see using Deval's methods to build a publicity campaign around these works.

Deval comes across as a sincere woman who really wants to help. But her book is often utterly tone deaf. I know serious writers, and I know marketers, and the two groups of people do not overlap in their personalities. The serious writers I know would find it very hard to follow a good ninety percent of the suggestions in this book. 

Yes, it is a Brave New World and we all have to sell ourselves – but if you are shouting at a group of people that notoriously includes many introverts, who is the crazy one? Remember Emily Dickinson who lived in seclusion and kept her poems in a locked box, Henry David Thoreau, who retreated from society and lived alone in a cabin in the woods, and Marcel Proust who was so overwhelmed by stimuli that he had to live in a cork-lined room, and who had to air out a chair for three days after a guest had sat in it because the guest's odor on the chair was too much for Proust. The world would be a lesser place without Dickinson's "I could not stop for death," Thoreau's "Walden" or Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past."

Writers who are more mercantile and narcissistic will rush to follow Deval's suggestions, and more power to them. But the world needs more than yet another book on how to lose weight while increasing your tan and growing younger.

I want to read books that aren't the paper version of "The Jersey Shore." Heck, I want to read books that are, at first, unappealing to me: a book that opens with dying rats? And yet Camus' "The Plague" is one of my all-time favorites. How would Camus, if he were alive today, market "The Plague"? Create a webpage with fun games? "Choose who among your friends will next develop buboes and die a horrible death!" That actually sounds a lot more exciting than "The Plague" is to read – it isn't about gore, a highly commercial substance; "The Plague" is a long, philosophical discussion on whether or not life is worth living, and it uses bubonic plague as a metaphor.

See? That sound bite renders "The Plague" pompous and unappealing. But it's a great book. I read it in one, long overnight session when I was a teenager, and I've been thinking about it ever since. How do you market *that*, Jacqueline Deval? How do you market the poems of John Guzlowski? John is an older, balding guy. His poems depict Nazis punching his imprisoned father in the eye and enslaving his mother after raping her aunt and stomping his cousin to death. How do you sell that in a sound bite?

Right now, there is a reader out there who has never heard of Proust or Camus or Guzlowski or a number of other superficially not-commercial writers. That reader, though, is hungering exactly for that kind of a book – a book that *can't* be reduced to a sound bite. A book that is superficially unappealing. A book that creeps up on you over a lifetime.

Right now, there is, out there, somewhere, a geeky, too serious, introvert struggling to get a story on the page. This story has nothing to do with red hot headlines or chic literary trends. He isn't even sure where this story is going. But he knows it will hurt his heart if he can't get it down just right – a story of an old fisherman who finds a pearl, or a spinster who brings a hot meal to a sick neighbor. This writer's goal is to put the best words in the best order down on the page, in a way that honors small, human moments. He'll finish his story, and, when he is done, he'll send it out to agents, and they will look for red hot trends, or a "national platform," or a celebrity endorsement, and, finding none of those, they will all pass.

The question is this: How to get the reader who wants to read that story together with the writer who is writing it? That answer isn't in "Publicize Your Book Exclamation Point." Whoever finds that answer will write a how-to manual worth its weight in gold.


I'm posting this here because I have failed utterly at marketing "Save Send Delete." No one is buying it. But ... when this or that person, through some miracle, finds it and reads it ... they love it. I compare sales -- dismal -- to Amazon reader reviews and blurbs by big name authors who supported the book -- glowing. 

I read Deval's marketing book and others, which, in their way, are very good books for well-funded campaigns for highly commercial books, and I am as clueless as ever as to how to market "Save Send Delete." 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Can a Christian Read Tarot Cards? Can an Intelligent Person?

A tarot card. 
The Three Wise Men. Source.
The Prophetess Anna by Rembrandt
Soccer fan. 

"Save Send Delete" tells the true story of my debate about God, and my relationship, with a celebrity atheist. In the book, I do my best to present the case for my own Christian belief.

I'm a pretty vanilla Christian. I don't handle snakes; I don't believe that Jesus was tutored by Buddhists or Egyptians or Space Aliens. I usually agree with the majority views expressed by American Catholics in opinion polls.

But I read tarot cards.

Is that … normal? Can Christians do that?

Is that … evil? Don't tarot cards … channel Satan?

Is that … stupid? You've got a PhD! How can you mess with anything as silly as tarot cards?

I'll answer these questions in this blog post.


Exodus 22:18, in the King James Bible, states, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

Pretty straightforward, no?

Actually there are some really interesting discussions of this verse. One is at the Straight Dope website here. Another is at the Religious Tolerance website here.

The Bible condemns those who claim to use magical powers to turn people against God and to harm others. Are there such people? Yes. There were in biblical times. They killed children (Deuteronomy 18:10.) There are such people today. They kill albino children in Tanzania in order to gain magical power. Is real magic involved? No. Evil is. Killing children with the stated purpose of gaining magical power is a bad thing.

In any case, Christians and Jews don't follow Exodus 22:18 literally. There are people who identify as witches among us, and we aren't killing them. We aren't even lobbying the state to make witchcraft a capital offense.

What about the Witch Craze that swept Europe between 1480 and 1750? Isn't that proof that Christians are duty bound to burn witches?

I don't think so. If Christians and Jews had to kill witches, they would have been doing so before 1480, and after 1750.

Something happened during those years.


The best answer I know of is in Lyndal Roper's book "Witch Craze."

The Reformation broke society up and sparked the catastrophic Thirty Years War. Unusually cold weather, the "Little Ice Age," damaged crops.

When things go badly, people scapegoat the vulnerable. Poor, isolated, post-menopausal women were no longer part of the cycle of fertility.

Hungry and anxious people's fears of loss of stability and fertility were reflected in accusations against witches: Witches spoiled crops; witches made cows go dry; witches stole babies.

From a review of "Witch Craze":

"It is nearly always a young, fertile mother who holds an older, marginal woman responsible for harming her child … in the psychologically tense atmosphere created by material scarcity – a dead child, a blighted flock – it becomes easy to imagine that you see the envy of a non-mothering woman at work … 'Witchcraft accusations were a hall of mirrors where neighbors saw their own fear and greed in the shape of the witch.'" (Read the full review here.)

I don't think of the witch craze when I attend Catholic mass.

When do I think of Roper's grim conclusions? When I read the International Movie Database discussion boards and the subject of any aging actress – any actress over age 25 – comes up.

The venom, the abuse, the pure hate that internet posters spew against women who have lost the bloom of youth chills my blood. Angelina Jolie, Andie MacDowell, Rachel McAdams, Julia Roberts, Lindsay Lohan – all these very beautiful movie stars are saggy and baggy withered prunes, showing their age, ready for the rest home, according to the ageist wasps on the IMDB discussion boards. Every shadow under every eye, every bulge under every designer gown, is picked apart for hours. They don't burn women at the stake; they burn them with words.

It's our animal nature. We admire the young, the strong, the vital, the fertile. We disdain the weak, the elderly, the poor, the lonely, the barren, the strange.

The Judeo-Christian tradition doesn't teach us to hate aging women, the poor or the vulnerable.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is remarkable among world faiths in the unrelenting emphasis it places on taking care of those we are tempted to cast aside: widows, orphans, strangers, the poor and vulnerable. See Exodus 22:22, Exodus 23:6, Leviticus 19:10, Leviticus 25:25, 35, 39, Deuteronomy 10:18, James 1:27, Luke 21:1-4. These verses just go on and on. There's a compilation here. People rant against the "angry" Biblical God. That God had a special concern for widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers.


Deuteronomy 18:10-13 advises against burning one's son or daughter and interpreting omens. I hope never to burn anyone's son or daughter. Is interpreting omens, i.e. tarot cards, unambiguously condemned in the Bible? Is all prophecy condemned?

No. In Jeremiah 27, there is a clash of prophets. Jeremiah approves some, and condemns others. Similarly, Jesus, in Matthew 7:15-20, advises judging prophets by the consequences of their prophecy. "Judge a tree by its fruit."

Three of the most famous and beloved Biblical characters were themselves interpreters of omens: the Three Wise Men, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. They followed a star to Bethlehem to discover the baby Jesus. In fact, as is the case in traditional Slavic households, their initials – KMB – are chalked on the beam of my ceiling. I got the chalk in a Catholic church, on the feast of the Epiphany, from a Polish-American priest.

The Bible celebrates the three wise MEN and male prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Does it just dislike prophetESSES?

No. Anna, a prophetess, is celebrated in Luke 2:36-38.


All right, all right, all well and good! Let's not quibble over bible verses! Aren't you, in using tarot cards, giving the cards power that properly belongs to God alone?

Is reading tarot cards an act of idolatry? Do I think that tarot cards in and of themselves are capable of deciding fates, conjuring love, cursing enemies?

If I thought that, then, yes, by all means, use of tarot cards would very much be against the Judeo-Christian tradition and utterly sinful.

People commit that very sin – that sin of idolatry – every day. And they do it without tarot cards.

"My team has a big game so I am wearing their colors so they will win."

"If I could buy this one car / house / dress / appliance I would be happy."

"Something that I wanted to happen in my life didn't happen … or something I didn't want in my life happened … and so I stopped believing in God."

That's idolatry, folks. That's assigning a person or an event or a thing power that it does not have.

In fact, the belief that tarot cards or Ouija boards can "channel Satan" is itself idolatry.

Google "Ouija board satanic" and find thousands of websites discussing this question.

You know what I think Ouija Boards are? I think that they are pieces of cardboard. They have no more power and no less power than any other piece of cardboard.

Some think that Satan needs a piece of cardboard to enter the world. Oh, ho, ho, are they naïve. All Satan needs to enter this world is one person's ego.

Similarly, tarot cards have no magic power. They are just pieces of paper.

Some people are lost and confused and tempted to give away their power. They become fanatical Christians or cult members or followers of some guru or soccer fans – not because of any real conviction, but as part of trying to escape from inner turmoil by finding some authority outside themselves. They surrender their agency to this outside authority.

I don't think people in that state should mess with tarot cards, or gurus, or cults, or political movements or soccer teams. I think it will be a while before they can be mature Christians. God wants us, as full persons, to choose him, not to collapse on to him as an escape from the vexations, temptations, and confusions of being a full human being. To paraphrase the Mother Abbess in "The Sound of Music," "Christianity is not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live."

I don't do readings for people who are giving their power to the cards.


All right, then! But aren't you an idiot for believing in tarot cards? Why would someone who was smart enough to get a PhD mess with something so dumb!

Here's why. Two reasons.

First, I'm fascinated by tarot cards in the same way that I am fascinated by all expressive culture, from cave paintings to Hollywood films.

A tarot deck is an attempt to create a vocabulary to talk about the entirety of human experience in 78 pictures that can be held in the palm of the hand. Tarot decks are priceless reflections of the human mind. What do we value? What do we fear? What do we celebrate? What do we resist? How do we interpret love, temptation, affliction, hope?

There are countless tarot decks, with new ones appearing every day. There is the Baseball Tarot, the Tarot of the Pirates, the Gummy Bear Tarot, the Prairie Tarot.

Each deck re-interprets huge, human themes with its own twist. Think about it – if you had to draw a picture that communicated Love or Justice or Death or Satisfaction or Despair, a picture that could fit on a little card, that reflected your culture and your consciousness but that could be understood by, and move, thousands of strangers, what picture would you draw? It's this process of constantly emerging reinterpretations of the basic themes that captivates me.

There are at least two Russian-themed Tarot decks in which the Devil card is Joseph Stalin.

In the Housewives Tarot, Death is not a skeleton on a Pale Horse, but an expired jar of mayonnaise surrounded by flies and wilted lettuce.

In the Tarot of the White Cats, the Fool is a dog. In the Vanessa Tarot, the Fool is a hitchhiker. In the Whimsical Tarot, the Fool is the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. Each one of these cards says something unique about our understanding of the Fool, and yet something similar to every other Fool card. It's like a symphony of meaning – variation, theme, variation, theme.

There are at least two Russian-themed Tarot decks in  which the Devil card is Joseph Stalin. 
In the brilliantly witty Housewives Tarot, Death is not a skeleton on a pale horse, but an expired jar of mayonnaise. 
In the Tarot of the White Cats, the  Fool is a dog. In the Vanessa Tarot, the Fool is a hitchhiker. 
Here's another reason I read cards.

When I read cards for other people, I *always* discover something that I would not have discovered using any other tool. I've read Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists. I've read people I've known for years, and relative strangers. And I always discover something during these readings that I would never otherwise even guess at.

I'm a big fan of objective truth, and that is the objective, measurable, quantifiable, verifiable and replicable truth.

Tarot cards are comparable to microscopes, to telephone directories, or to the librarians working the reference desk of my university library. Tarot cards are tools, comparable to other tools, that provide me with information I access in no other way.


Skeptic Michael Shermer has criticized tarot. He says that tarot readers say general things and those being read apply what works best for them and don't pay attention to anything said that doesn't apply to them.

I think that's a fair criticism.

OTOH, I've been reading long enough to have experienced beyond-chance events where the cards say something very specific that is reflective of reality.

Can this be proven?

I don't think so. The cards are pregnant with symbolism that can be interpreted in numerous ways. Look at the High Priestess card, above. That little picture is chock full of images harkening back to Ancient Egypt's Hathor, Solomon's Temple, Greek myth, the Talmud, The Apocalypse, and Freud. One of those symbols might feel powerful to a person getting a tarot card reading. How do you "prove" that moment wrong? It's too imprecise. If the querent found something clarifying, inspirational, or educational in that image, that's the proof of the efficacy of tarot.

Do I think that that is all that happens during a tarot reading? People making what they choose of highly symbolic, vaguely spooky pictures?

I don't know. But I know this. I am dyslexic. I am a teacher. I think about how people think. I write about this in "Save Send Delete." I write about my own thought processes, and how they lead me to believe in the Judeo-Christian God.

As a dyslexic, I had to, like a surgeon, dissect my own thought processes so I could get to the point where I could read written words. I had to do that all over again to figure out how I could write a dissertation.

I know that neither I nor anyone else is close to delineating all the ways that we acquire and process knowledge. I know that sometimes I know things and yet I have no way of knowing how I know them. I can say that my querents have used tarot cards to access knowledge that they weren't accessing in other ways, knowledge that has proven useful to them.


I was working with a student who had racked up regular court appearances and close calls. She was doing everything she could to undermine her own future. She had zero charm and if I thought about her at all, my thought was, "Better her inevitable incarceration than roaming the streets."

NOTHING I had done in my months of work with this girl, nothing in my professional bag of tricks, had had any impact. If anything, she hated me more each day that I was professional, nose-to-the-grindstone and by-the-book.

Late one day, we found ourselves, atypically, alone together. She knew I read cards and asked for a reading.

Strangely enough, she selected one card from the deck, and turned it upside down, and asked me to read it that way.

I said to her, "This card represents an ending, a death, giving up, being overwhelmed by negative forces or despair, and you turned it upside down before asking me to read it for you. You are acknowledging that you have been making negative choices for your life, and by turning this card upside down, you are choosing to overturn your previous, negative choices, and to set out on a new path. You are acknowledging that the bad will still be present, at least for a time, but you are determined to forge that new, positive path, even in the presence of the rubble of past mistakes. Look here: it's been a long, dark night. Before you is the dawn."

Her face took on a look I had never previously seen. She looked, suddenly, human.

She nodded fervently. "I can do it," she said. "I can make new, positive choices."

This anecdote takes us to the heart of the question. Tarot is a tool people use to explore their inner selves. The inner self is a formidable landscape. Credentialed authorities – priests, therapists – insist that we require their direction. Without it, disaster.

I respect their anxiety. But if the soul's formation is sound, the tool in the hand is used for good.


My review of Brian Crick's new minimalist deck, the Celestial Stick People Tarot, can be found here.

The Queen of Swords from Brian Crick's minimalist Tarot deck. Crick insists that there is no magic in Tarot; creating the deck was a "design problem." It is minimalist because, Crick says, querents bring their own thoughts to the images on the cards. 
If you'd like to win a free one-hour Tarot reading by me, tell five friends about "Save Send Delete" and have them send me an email saying that they found out about the book from you. I'll select one such person at random before the end of July and give that winner a free, one-hour reading on the question of your choice, with the deck of your choice. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

God and the Titanoboa: You Must Believe It to See It.

Okay, okay, but you probably don't look exactly like your  Facebook photo. Cut him some slack.
Titanboa, all 48 feet of her / him / it.

"You have to believe it to see it," New Agers like to say.

The quote expresses the opposite of the hardcore materialist worldview.

New Atheists like the guy I write about in "Save Send Delete" insist that the only phenomena worthy of belief is that which we can see, touch, smell, taste and hear. And, "You have to see it to believe it."

Believers like me insist that there is another, transcendent reality.

New Atheists insist that their refusal to believe in anything they can't see, touch, smell, taste, and hear makes them really smart, and the rest of us really stupid. That is why some choose to call themselves "Brights," as opposed to the rest of us living in the dark. That's why, on the National Day of Prayer, they declared a "National Day of Reason." To them, prayer is not reasonable. It is idiocy.

Is this always true? Is it always true that refusing to see something that you don't believe makes you smarter?

No. Not always.


Often it seems to me that atheists, insisting so firmly that God does not exist, that nothing transcendent exists, refuse to acknowledge data that strikes me as big as a house.

Jeanette's father had just died when she received a phone call from him.


"It was just a glitch with the phone," Jeanette insisted. "An electronic malfunction. Somehow it managed to make the phone ring. When I picked it up, I heard my dad's voice. It was a loving message, one he'd left a while back. Somehow, through this electronic glitch, that happened just after he died."

I stared. "Had this ever happened before?"


"And this happened just after your dad died?"

"Yeah. Isn't that odd?"

"And you're telling me that that wasn't a message from your dad?"

"Of course not. There is no afterlife. Dad is gone, forever. It was just an electronic malfunction."


I don't fully buy in to "You have to believe it to see it." I'm selective. Trolls, for example.

New Atheists like to talk about how rational and cool (cool as in hip rather than cool as in below 65 degrees) and atheist Scandinavia is. Look, look, these new atheists say. Scandinavians don't believe in God and the chicks are hot and their trains run on time.

On the other hand, my Scandinavian folklore professor, John Lindow, introduced me to the alleged statistic that 54 percent of Scandinavians believe in trolls. He said that one of his Norwegian students reported being harassed by a troll while waiting for a tram on a city street at night.

I wanted more data before I could use this anecdote to become convinced of the existence of trolls.

She saw some big, dark shadows, Lindow told me, and she interpreted those shadows as trolls.

Big, dark shadows = trolls. Not conclusive for me.


Sometimes, though, "You have to believe it to see it" is manifestly true. It is the smart thing, the scientific stance. Not believing in something has fooled scientists into not seeing it.

I came across a perfect example of "You have to believe it see it" the other day while reading about titanoboa, a recently discovered, prehistoric snake. Up to fifty feet in length, weighing over a ton, reaching up to three feet in height, crushing its prey with four hundred pounds per square inch of pressure – the weight of three Eiffel Towers – the titanoboa is the largest snake ever discovered. It lived during the Paleocene, sixty million years ago. Though they were non contemporaries, there is a cool youtube video, linked below, that depicts combat between a titanoboa and a T-Rex. Now that's what I call mixed martial arts!

The scientist who first discovered titanoboa refused to believe what he was seeing and touching. It was impossible, he, as a scientist knew, for a snake to get that big. So he refused to believe the very fossils he held in his hand.

Jonathan Bloch, University of Florida paleontologist, had been handling titanoboa fossils "for years." And he just didn't get it. "My only excuse for not recognizing them is that I've picked up snake vertebrae before. And I said, 'These can't be snake vertebrae.' It's like somebody handed me a mouse skull the size of a rhinoceros and told me, 'That's a mouse.' It's just not possible."

God is also not possible. Do you have to believe him to see him? You tell me.

Titanoboa v. T-Rex video here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Auschwitz. Synchronicity. God.


The term "Synchronicity" was coined by scholar Carl Jung. We use it to name those beyond-chance moments in life that bring together events in such a way as to give us a sense that there is some larger meaning, that unseen hands are commenting on our lives. The most frequently cited example: suddenly, without any prompting, you think of a friend you haven't heard of in years, and you then run into that friend.

Atheists insist that synchronicity is mere chance. Littlewood's Law of Miracles states that enough things happen in any given moment  that some of those events will appear to be miraculous. You think of old friends all the time. Eventually you will think of an old friend just before you run into that very same old friend.

That explanation works for me some of the time. Other stories of synchronicity, though, strike me as entirely beyond chance, beyond even the mathematics of Littlewood's Law of Miracles.

"Save Send Delete" tells the story of my debate, and relationship, with an atheist celebrity. In his public statements, he pooh-poohed synchronicity. With me, though, he was not so certain, and he did interpret events in our relationship as beyond chance. I did, too, and I write about that in the book.


We understand Auschwitz as the negation of meaning and the death of God.

Nazism really did tear the world apart. Nazis wanted to destroy what came before, including the Judeo-Christian tradition. They wanted to obliterate not just their victims' bodies, but their sense of meaning.

Here's the thing you might not expect – even in that absolute evil, that chaos, there was not only good, there was also meaning.

Of course Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, gave us "Man's Search for Meaning," one of the greatest books ever written. Anyone can embrace Frankl. An atheist can embrace Frankl. His book doesn't require a belief in the supernatural.

To me, the amazing thing is that even in Auschwitz, there were people who believed in God, and that even in the Holocaust, people noted, and took meaning from, synchronous events.


Well, of course, a skeptic might argue. Desperate people will find meaning in anything.

True. World War Two was a horror and it drove people to desperation.

But is that the only explanation? The only explanation of the many synchronicity stories told by those who survived World War Two? Human desperation combined with mere chance?

My dad served in the Pacific Theater. He saw combat – he had a lot on his mind. He had a dream that his brother, also in uniform, thousands of miles away, died. You know the end of this story. His brother had died. My dad had no way of knowing this. He was fighting in the jungle.

Even those who survived the ultimate horror, the Final Solution, tell these stories. They tell them a lot. One of the weirdest: Betty Schimmel lost her first love, Richie Kovacs, during the Holocaust. She later saw his name on a list of the dead. She married Otto, an Auschwitz survivor. Betty never forgot Richie, though. In 1975, on a return trip to Budapest, she looked across a restaurant, and saw Richie. She tells this story in her memoir, "To See You Again." Critics criticized the book for combining a Holocaust memoir with a hot love story. Life is not so neat. Betty's life story really is a combination of the two. With synchronicity thrown in.

Another. This is one I talk about in "Save Send Delete." Stefania Podgorska was a teenage Polish girl during World War Two. She was singularly unequipped to defy the Nazis. And yet defy them she did, rescuing thirteen Jews. Given the nightmare conditions of Nazi-occupied Poland, rescuing one Jew was more than most adults could do. But this was just a teen girl, one so untutored she didn't even know her own birthday. How did she do it? Partly, at key moments, with the aid of disembodied voices that told her where to go to find shelter.

I asked my friend Rabbi Laurence Skopitz, why don't those kind of angelic voices speak to more people? He said, they do, but people don't listen.

In fact, there are so many of these synchronicity stories that there is an entire book devoted to them: "Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope and Survival" by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal.


I just read a book I can't recommend enough: "The Auschwitz Volunteer." It's about Witold Pilecki, a hero among heroes. He was an underground resistance fighter who actually volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz, in order to organize and smuggle out information.

Pilecki was in Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943. And he repeatedly states, "I believe in God."

His faith amazes me.

And the synchronicity.

Pilecki gave a false name when he was arrested by the Nazis. He did this so that once he escaped with the information he had gathered and returned to his underground comrades, he didn't want the Nazis to go after his own family. He assumed that the man whose name he used was dead.

When the time was ripe, Pilecki made a hair-raising escape from Auschwitz. He was shot at twice, and wounded once. He ran wild through the countryside. His clothes were a giveaway that he'd been a prisoner. He was taken in by kind people who asked no questions. And, in this wild, chaotic, dangerous escape, he found his way to a house. It was the very house of the man whose name he had lived under in Auschwitz. Same man. Same birthdate.

This is beyond chance.

Does Littlewood's Law of Miracles explain it?

Was this real synchronicity, an event that suggests that some unseen hand is commenting on our lives?

Scoffers will ask, "Where was that hand when so many were fed into the ovens?" Believe me, I ask that question, too. And I find Pilecki meeting the man whose name he used to be beyond chance. Is all I'm saying. I'm not saying I can explain it all, because I cannot. I'm not offering an answer, here. I'm offering a question.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Five Questions for an Atheist


Five questions for an atheist.

1.) I have many atheist friends who are atheist in the same way that they are meat eaters or people who prefer corduroy over denim or khakis. They don't make much noise about their atheism.

In recent years, though, there has been a new type of atheist in public life. In a December 3, 2006 essay, "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion," two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chastised New Atheists for being "snarky," "obnoxious," "militant," "in-your-face," "offensive," "acerbic," "intolerant," "mean," "contemptuous," "fundamentalist," and "dogmatic." Google "obnoxious atheists" or "angry atheists" and you find much discussion.

"Obnoxious atheists" is a significant enough of a trend that Nick Kristof needed to write about it. What do you make of this?

2.) One thing I like about the Judeo-Christian tradition is our emphasis on self-examination, confession, and conversion. The Old Testament prophets are always haranguing the Jews to examine themselves, confess their sins, and return to God. In the microcosm, in Catholicism, self-examination, confession and conversion are ritualized. In the macrocosm, the Vatican has issued statements like the December, 1999 "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past."

Most remarkable for me is a November, 1965 letter from Polish bishops to German bishops. The Poles were horribly victimized by the Germans during World War II. And yet, in this letter, Polish Catholic bishops were able to say to Germans, quote, "We forgive and we ask for forgiveness." Given the context, this sentence alone takes my breath away.

There is a massive scholarly literature devoted to the Judeo-Christian emphasis on confession and renewal and its contribution to Western Civilization. Confession has been seen to be key in the Western emphasis on individualism, the invention of the novel, the concept of progress, etc. But really confession and renewal are necessary in any movement because, simply, human beings, no matter how good their intentions, screw up.

I don't see that same willingness to engage in self-examination, confession, and conversion among the atheists with whom I have spoken. In fact, I see the opposite. I encounter atheist who refuse to acknowledge atheism's flaws.

Atheists often toss off the poorly supported and certainly false cliche that "religion is responsible for more murder than any other cause." In fact, though, monsters, acting in accord with atheism-inspired ideas, have set the records for mass murder: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

As Dostoyevsky said, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." This is not mere speculation. The philosophical foundations for mass murder, found in Madison Grant, Kenneth L. Roberts, Lothrop Stoddard, and Heinrich Himmler, include line after line attesting, paraphrase, "Now that we've gotten rid of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its idea of a God who loves everyone equally, we can start getting rid of the unfit." In the microcosm, you have murderers like Leopold and Loeb, who used atheist ideas to argue for their thrill murder of an acquaintance.

I would never suggest that my atheist friends have anything in common with Stalin or Nathan Leopold – they don't. Rather what I would like to see is their acknowledgment that ideas founded on atheism lead to murder. Without this kind of self-examination, confession, and conversion, yes, Atheism remains a potential weapon.

Do you have any comments on atheists' resistance, so far, to taking serious account of how atheism has had an impact on the real world?

3.) Along with the gifts of the Golden Age of ancient, Pagan Greece, the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the major building blocks in the foundation of Western Civilization.

The Adam and Eve myth, for example, gave us the idea that God loves and values each individual life; it is from a Talmudic commentary on the Adam and Eve myth that we get the saying, "He who saves one life saves the entire world." This is a radical statement of the value of the individual, and it is truly a Judeo-Christian ideal.

"In Christ there is no male; there is no female." This biblical idea of respect for women was so revolutionary, according to Rodney Stark, it is why Christianity, an outcaste sect of losers, of "women, children and slaves" – all equally despicable to a proud Pagan like Celsus – was able to overturn the Roman Empire.

Christians, according to Stark, unlike their pagan neighbors, did not kill their female children, and allowed them to mature physically before giving birth. Simple demographics show that a female child born to a Judeo-Christian culture has a much better chance of survival than one born to a Muslim, Confucian, or Hindu culture.

The central, most compelling myth of the Old Testament is one in which God works to liberate slaves. This narrative was central to the Slavery Abolition and Civil Rights movements.

Nancy Pearcey, in "Soul of Science," argues that the Judeo-Christian conception of God and creation lead to the invention of science.

Our legal code is founded on Judeo-Christian concepts.

In the introduction to her book on world myth, scholar Barbara C. Sproul acknowledges all of this when she says that even if one does not believe in the Judeo-Christian God, if one grew up in the West, one probably believes in these very Judeo-Christian ideals.

Does jettisoning the Judeo-Christian tradition give you any pause? At what might be lost? At what rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem – at what might come next?

4.) What do you like most, or find most attractive, about religious belief in general, or Christianity in particular?

I ask this specifically because of a comment made by an atheist internet friend, Jeanette. After Pope John Paul II died, she watched his funeral, and commented wistfully that she wished she could be part of that tradition.

5.) What do you find least attractive about atheism / atheists?


These are all genuine questions. Will post, as comments or as stand-alone posts, all civil and on-topic replies. 

Excerpt from "Save Send Delete" in The Ryder, June, 2012

There is an excerpt of "Save Send Delete" in this month's "The Ryder" magazine. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Should I Help? Should I Believe? From a Reader

Photo courtesy of Michael Ging.

In November, 2004, after my essay "Political Paralysis" appeared in the anthology "The Impossible Will Take a Little While," Isabel Zumel, a reader in Oakland, California, emailed me. I'd never met Isabel. I did not know her. Her email was beautiful. It vividly captured a moment when Isabel was presented with a choice: to help another human being, or not to help.

I kept Isabel's email. I wrote to her in 2012, after "Save Send Delete" came out. While "Political Paralysis" is my reply to the question, "Should I help?" "Save Send Delete" is my reply to the question, "Should I believe?"

Isabel wrote me back. As before, her email was her beautifully crafted answer to the central question of my writing. In this new, 2012 email, Isabel addressed the question, "Should I believe?" from the point of view of her six-year-old daughter.

Isabel has kindly granted me permission to post her emails on this blog. Below please find Isabel's email from November, 2004, addressing "Should I help?" and, below that, her email from 2012, addressing, "Should I believe?"

Isabel's email from 2004:


Date: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 15:11
From: "Isabel Zumel"
Subject: Thank you for your piece "Political Paralysis"

Dear Danusha,

Yesterday evening I left my office in a rush to make my commuter bus from San Francisco back home to Oakland. I was running a little late, but figured if I walked really briskly, I'd make it just in time for my bus.

As I was about to cross the street at a four way stop, I saw a driver frustratedly gesture as he waited impatiently for an older woman with a cane to cross the street. He screeched past her just as she made it to the sidewalk. I quickly crossed, passing the older woman, when I saw out of the corner of my eye that she wavered unsteadily and clutched a nearby parking meter to keep herself upright.

I stopped suddenly, turned around, and asked her if she was okay and if I could help her. She said she had been having difficulty walking since she had a heart attack and asked if I could walk her to the end of the block. I agreed and offered to carry the heavy plastic bag she was holding, filled with canned goods. She told me, "You're the first person to ever stop and ask me if I needed help. It's kind of indicative of our times, don't you think?"

I was stunned when she told me this and didn't know what to say. So I told her that actually, I was really in a hurry, but when I saw her I knew that making sure she was okay was far more important than getting to where I needed to be.

It turned out she lived for many decades a couple of blocks away from my office in the hilly North Beach neighborhood and that she was on her way to bring dinner to a friend who had been ill for a while and was living four blocks away at a residential hotel.

I ended up walking with her to the residential hotel. Her friend, a gentleman walking with a cane but cheerful nonetheless, met us out front. She motioned to me and told him she had found a nice neighborhood escort to walk over with her.

I scooted off quickly and we waved goodbye to each other as I ran across the street. I never actually got her name...and I ended up missing my bus my maybe half a minute! But while I waited for the next bus I came across your essay in the November issue of The Sun. It struck me not only because of the similarity of your experience walking home in the snow and meeting that one neighbor to stop for you, but also because what you wrote is what I've been feeling and coming to terms with over the last year --that our opportunities to make small differences shouldn't be discounted, and in fact should be viewed as unexpected blessings from which to learn. And that recognition (or lack of) shouldn't be the impetus (or discouragement) to act in the moment in a way that expresses our deepest and sincerest humanity.

Thank you for making yesterday extra meaningful and affirming for me! This is the first time I've ever written to an author, but I felt compelled to let you know how much your words and ideas touched me, and probably many others. Keep up the writing!

Best Regards,
Isabel Zumel
in Oakland, California


Here is Isabel's email from 2012, after I wrote to her to let her know about "Save Send Delete."


Hello Danusha - Yes, this is the same Isabel Zumel that sent you that email, now many years ago. I am so happy for the publication of your new book! I am intrigued by the themes described in your book. Interestingly, there's been a recent upsurge in spiritual thought in my life after a pretty long period of shunning organized religion, and it has been heavily inspired by my daughter.

I think the last time we exchanged emails I was single, living on my own, working in what is now a pretty prominent San Francisco non-profit. (I say prominent because the organization I worked for before has spawned a current generation of elected San Francisco leaders. It's been interesting watching from afar.) Now, I'm married and with a 6 year old daughter, living in Jackson, Wyoming. I'm Assistant Director of Teton County Library so I will be sure to put in a purchase suggestion to add your book to our collection :)

Lately, I've been meditating on the wisdom of children. It's really because of my daughter, Malaya (which in Tagalog, the Filipino language of my parents and husband, means "free"). I resisted the pressure to baptize her in the Catholic Church after she was born because I felt it was important for her to have some understanding of faith before she was baptized. Last year I started reading Bible stories to her. She has been completely fascinated and enthralled by the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection, which I think is kind of odd for a little girl. Last year, I was coaxed to return to church by a friend who is like a sister to me. We have been going and taking our children to the Episcopal Church. In the Episcopal Church my friend, her son, Malaya and I have found a spiritual community that feels like home.

A few weeks ago, Malaya started asking me about going to Hebrew School with a Jewish friend from school. I was a little bewildered why and she explained she wanted to learn Hebrew. I offered her Spanish lessons and Tagalog lessons, which in my mind were more logical since I speak and write pretty passable Spanish, she has a few Mexican "tias", and my husband is fluent in Tagalog.

She said to me as a bargain, "Mommy, I'll go to Spanish class on Mondays FOR YOU and I can STILL go to Hebrew class because it's on Thursdays at 4." I checked the Jewish Community's website and lo and behold, Hebrew classes were in fact on Thursdays at 4. She was so insistent that I contacted the Jewish Community. They welcomed her with open arms. She attended the last class of the school year last Thursday and sang in the children's choir at Shabbat last Friday. My husband and I were astonished that she seemed to know half of the songs after only one day of class. Last Sunday, she sang in the children's Episcopal choir and had a wonderful time. In her mind, there's no dissonance with being an active participant in both the Episcopal service and Shabbat.

For such a small community, there are actually two Jewish "groups." The Jackson Hole Jewish Community group, which offers Hebrew School, is primarily Reform. There is also a Chabad community. Our family is good friends with the Chabad Rabbi, his wife and daughters. We've celebrated Shabbat at their home several times.

I think that may be another reason Malaya wants to learn Hebrew, to, in her words, "be able to speak in a secret language" with the Rabbi's young daughters, who are her dear friends. As a result of Malaya starting Hebrew School, I've met a couple of the moms from the Jackson Hole Jewish Community and one of them expressed interest in meeting the Chabad Rabbi and his family. I was surprised that they hadn't met yet. It made me start to wonder, is it possible for a little girl who attends Episcopal Church to be a catalyst for bridging the Reform and the Chabad?

How naturally wise children are in friendship and uncomplicated human connection, and in seeing beyond boundaries that grown-ups believe are a struggle to overcome. And how much I am learning from my child when I turn down the volume on my adult sensibilities and listen humbly to her innocent and pure explanations of life. My husband and I are supporting her curiosity. And I am pausing on planning an Episcopal baptism. As strange as it may sound, I feel compelled to stay out of the way of my 6 year old's spiritual journey. It has already started to uniquely develop in a way that I couldn't even fathom. The "rational, responsible parent" in me questions if I should take control of the direction, but my heart tells me that if I do that I will stunt what is not meant to be shaped by human hands and will. Apologies for this long email, but after seeing the books you've written in the last several years I thought you'd appreciate this story.

Best wishes to you! Receiving your email made my day.
Photo courtesy Scott Liddell