And as the semi-official state religion of today?

Church and synagogue attendance and membership are declining as the population turns gray, but that doesn’t mean many younger Americans aren’t worshiping something. It just might be an unacknowledged idol rather than the God of the Bible.

So what is the idol? One befitting the state, or secular society, rather than what’s more strictly defined as religion?

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The first clue might come it that nemesis for Sunday school programs – soccer and softball leagues, which schedule many of their games and practice sessions on Sunday mornings. (Parental visitation in divorce decisions further affect the youth religious training.) It’s fair to ask just what values are the sports programs are giving our children.

Sports, of course, points to professional athletics, and if you tune into any of the radio sports talk shows, you can get a taste of the ways the players and games are worshiped by adult males. Just listen to the passion and attention. It’s fair to bet few of them have engaged spirituality with such devotion.

Beyond that, consider how much of their identity arises from their chosen team. Where I live, it’s not uncommon for an obituary to list a person as an avid Red Sox or New England Patriots fan (or Celtics or Bruins). Sometimes the following even extends to a favorite sportscaster.

Many of the teams, we should note, play in arenas and stadiums built with taxpayer money or similar concessions.

Sports also points to the cult of physical fitness – people who can find five hours a week to spend at the gym but not an hour a week for worship. Sunday mornings often turn into fundraising walks or races, too.

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Another, but more passive cult idolizes celebrities. Generally, the figures are venerated for their physical beauty or sexual magnetism, which are parlayed into the entertainment or fashion business. Some professional athletes cross over into celebrity status, while a perplexing few more are simply born rich and have no talent at all other than being celebrities, kind of like royalty without the responsibilities. No scientist, surgeon, teacher, corporate executive, senator, governor, or other working leader can match the recognition a typical celebrity possesses.

For much of the envious public, following their contortions occupies a lot of time and brain space.

The whole scene looks to me like a modern-day cyber-Parthenon full of semi-mortals.

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Less obvious is the way art has become a semi-official state religion in America, now that state and federal funding exists. There’s long been the recognition of the fine arts as an adjunct to wealth, for whatever reasons. Many sense an abstract “goodness” in the products of art – chamber music, art museums, Shakespeare festivals, opera, poetry, the “book” that so many people dream of writing – even if the artist himself/herself remains (often with good reason!) somewhat suspect, a shady character. Perhaps that’s why these big institutions stand between us and the rest of ourselves, as artists and audiences.

Something abstractly “good” even when they themselves admit they don’t know much about the field. Contrast that to the lesser state religions in America: collegiate and professional athletics, Hollywood movies, and rock concerts, wherein no one actually advocates any common wealth.

I raise this to point out the materialism we, even as starving artists, are enmeshed in – one way or another.  It is so easy to hold the artist up in some idealized light – or the product itself – as the object of worship, totally forgetting to turn to the source of all. The dilemma of the news photographer: Should he rescue the victim and lose the opportunity of taking a great photograph? Or remain instead “professional” and observe the world as an outsider? This holds for all artists: at one point are we being selfish in our pursuits? At what point is our solitude essential for the well-being of all?

Gets complicated, doesn’t it.

Cleaning out the pantry

Our Eat Vegan Before 6:00 approach to Advent, adapted from Mark Bittman’s book, has led us to a refreshing side activity. We’re trying to use up a lot of items we already have in our pantry rather than shopping for more.

We’re digging out a lot of legumes and grains and beans that got pushed to the back, for one thing, as well as home-canned fruits and vegetables, for another.

This “use it up” strategy is actually fun, extending to other parts of the household. It’s boosting efforts at decluttering. Do we still need this or that? Do we know somebody who can use it? Does it go into our yard sale now planned for May?

To be honest, we still have a long way to go. Guess I’ll just have to use more jam on my toast in the morning.

Tara, the lover who wasn’t ready to settle down

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Nita personally knew three important non-family members in Cassia’s father’s past.

Tara is one she viewed mostly from a distance, the lover who matched him best before meeting Nita’s sister.

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Here’s a longer look, one I condensed in the final revision:

If anything, Tara was a lioness. It’s not just her sunburst of hair. It’s the way she moves and regards the universe. The way she even purrs, when pleased, or growls when vexed. It manifests in an insistence on social justice and rails at power-seeking machinations of any kind, public or private. No, she shares our aversion to anything underhanded or sneaky. But the whole time she and Baba are lovers, she’s far from ready to settle down. She’s searching, even probing, for the direction she wants to follow. What Baba never sees is her underlying anxiety or the ways it’s on the verge of explosion. Still, she opens his eyes and heart to so much.

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There have been moments in my life when I ponder how things would have gone when someone like Tara was finally ready to settle down but I was otherwise engaged.

Personally, what do you think of Tara?

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Cassia’s roots included inspiration like Fira, Santorini. (Photo by Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons.)

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You don’t have to take it as gospel

Despite of having read all of the Bible – and wrestled with many of its passages – I had never read it straight through until a few years ago. (Rather, it had been piecemeal. Seeing it in the larger structure presents some unique hurdles and troubling assumptions, as well as an evolving comprehension of the Holy One and faithfulness. )

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been retracing that experience with a new post each week at my As Light Is Sown blog. My reflections, as you might expect, are quite unorthodox, and in the books of the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament), they’ve been augmented by heartfelt insights and confessions by some wonderful Jewish poets and novelists – not  the stuff commonly encountered in Christian circles. You don’t have to be a believer to be engage with these stories. Think of them like Shakespearean or Greek drama, if you will, filled with human drama.

It’s a much different approach than reading it as law, one filled with more punishments than rewards. No, this is essentially about life itself.

I’d love for you to join in the series – and look forward, especially, to your reactions and comments.