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To read Frank Browning’s latest book The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion is to eavesdrop on series of confessionals, and to be party to the converse positions and erotic agreements of Browning and Brother Peter, a homosexual Dominican monk, a relationship that begins in kitsch surroundings that Jean Paul Gaultier might want to rip off. It is to enter a rich demimonde frocked in drag and incense, at times sensuous and melancholy, at others cavalier and threaded with paradox. The confessions leak from the ecclesiastical to the secular world, revealing the sexual wounds of the Catholic church, the often painful duality required of gay men within the institution. The relationship between Browning and Brother Peter is—in all senses—touching. The Monk and the Skeptic is a remarkable book, full of yearning and transcendence. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with Frank about his book and to have him elaborate further on some of the questions arising from it. Since then, Time magazine has named Pope Francis ‘Person of the Year,’ an accolade about which I suspect we would both remain skeptical.
“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.
Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.
In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.
Even in the frozen center of Massachusetts winter, my college campus was ripe for the blood harvest. Red Cross banners were everywhere, always. I felt compelled to volunteer myself in part because it seemed such a blameless cause that I could think of no reason not to, and easy charity is de rigeuer for the college kid. But the first time I tried to sign up for an appointment, I was turned away. Somebody I vaguely knew — a student liaison for the Red Cross — looked up at me from behind a table in our echoing humid dining hall and told me, without asking my weight, that I wasn’t heavy enough to give blood. My winter coat dwarfed me, but she was still right: The Red Cross asks that donors be 110lbs, and I weighed only 100.
On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”
Imagine you have in your possession a fantastic new game: a programmable, mechanical ant farm. This farm consists of some dirt and water and plants, as well as a few mechanical ants that have tiny programmable brains in them. These ants are also able, by a fun mechanical diversion, to reproduce.
When you first take the ant farm out of the box and assemble it, the ants can’t do anything. You alone are responsible for their behavior by using a set of rules that their programmable brains will follow. You don’t control every decision or motion they make (where would the fun be in that?) but rather you set up the rules and turn them on and watch what happens. Will their little civilization rise to greatness, forcing you to buy expansion modules to give them room to grow? Or will it wither and die before it ever really gets started? Oh, and one other fun attribute possessed by these ants: They know they’re in the game. Their brains are just smart enough to realize that their inconsequential lives are owed to you, the owner of the game. But they’re okay with it because otherwise they would enjoy no other existence.
It has become de rigueur for writers to write essays about what their parents have done to them–those vivid, haunting moments when everything changed and a young life was damaged forever. Few people, though, tell the opposing stories, the unforgivable things that we’ve done to our parents: mom’s wedding ring dropped in the toilet and flushed; dad’s convertible wrapped around a traffic light; and worse, the disowning, that time-honored tradition of deciding in our twenties that our parents are too backassward to deserve our respect.
We make amends. We grow out of our snobbery. But what I did to my father on December 28th, 1975 was more unforgivable than any of the usual offenses.
June 07, 2012
Greenland’s latest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is a scathing satire of American family, marriage, and politics, situated at the intersection of the Old Testament, Penthouse Forum, and Elmore Leonard. I love Larry David’s blurb:
One of the premises of your book is that living without God is dangerous, can you explain why?
In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
April 08, 2012
The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.
To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense. This is a book for people who are unable to believe in miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrubbery, and have no deep interest in the exploits of unusual men and women like the thirteenth-century saint Agnes of Montepulciano, who was said to be able to levitate two feet off the ground while praying and to bring children back from the dead – and who, at the end of her life (supposedly), ascended to heaven from southern Tuscany on the back of an angel.
April 01, 2012
It was the summer of 2004, and like most liberals, I was absolutely steaming out the ears about George W. Bush. Unlike most liberals, though, I had taken it upon myself to write a novel about it.
Looking back, I’m not sure what exactly I was thinking. Even if I had completed the book in three months, it would never have reached an audience before the 2004 elections. But regardless, there I was, sitting in hipster cafes on Portland’s Alberta Street, writing a novel about a preacher who had gathered together an odd bunch of bicyclists and zinesters and strippers, and who was preaching to them about the evils of the Bush Administration.
Delirium tells the story of how a small group of reactionaries, who want to control sex, hijacked American politics. Author and historian Nancy L. Cohen traces our current political dysfunction to the machinations of a well-organized, religiously-based movement to reverse the sexual revolution and hold back the tide of women’s rights, gay rights, and the changing American family. Delirium charts the strange history of this bipartisan sexual counterrevolution and exposes how an extremist minority, out of step with mainstream America, has been able to commandeer national discourse.
Why is your book called Delirium?
Because you can’t title a book Crazy. The big question is, why is our political climate so insane?
March 17, 2012
Asked for “one single word to describe your impression of the budget negotiations in Washington,” Americans volunteered “crazy,” “disgusting,” “stupid,” and “juvenile.” Two-thirds of the American public called it “ridiculous.” In the weeks after the debt ceiling crisis, polls registering record levels of dissatisfaction poured in from every major survey firm and every major news outlet. Obama’s approval rating fell to its lowest level yet, but Congress and the GOP fared even worse. Approval of Congress plunged to an all time low, while disapproval of the Republican Party rose to record highs.
I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.
I was 18 or 19. It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive. Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae. After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.
Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.
The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.
I am two years old.
And I am sacred.