NPR and Spirituality

As I was driving around our fair city, I was listening to my favorite radio station: WUNC, our public radio affiliate. NPR is currently featuring a series of pieces called, “This I believe.” It is sort of a post-modern reprise of Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s feature by the same name. Each radio essay expresses some facet of that peculiar constellation of beliefs by which we navigate our way through this life.

I was struck by an essay I hear today. In it, the author attempted to communicate to her young daughter what happens to us after death. The precipitating event in this instance was the death of their pet cat. The mother’s explanation startled me.

In some ways, her view was one of supreme Romanticism. She explains, “After a weighty pause I tell my daughter that Martin (the cat) is out in the field. I tell her that when animals, including people, die, they are usually put into the ground and that their bodies become the grasses, flowers and trees. I pass my hand over Maia’s blonde curls, gently touch a rosy cheek and check her reaction. She appears untroubled. She seems thrilled by the thought of one day becoming a flower.”

Of course, in some highly literal ways she is right. Our corporeal bodies will decompose and form the nourishment to fuel the growth of other organisms. What is interesting is the stark absence of any reference to something beyond the body. In one sentance we move from our bodies becoming trees to the child’s conclusion that she will one day become a flower. Notice that this was never actually stated, but the implication is that the very essence of our personhood is somehow inseparable from our corporeal body. Or, in the alternative, it might be said that our soul might find ways to attach itself to things other than our flesh (i.e., we become flowers).

The author makes this point when she concludes, “I am not the lonely human, plunked down on earth to aimlessly wander. I am a part of that earth and not going anywhere — just like the spider up in the corner, the dust on the sill and the cat I buried in the backyard. I watch Maia mull things over while she munches her Cheerios. I feel an unfamiliar calm. I feel connected. I am humbled and, what’s more, happy. Life, death: both are all around me, within my every breath.”

What an incredibly pagan and Romantic view of our life after death. One might be tempted to ask: what death? For in death it seems we slip from these bodies of perishable flesh into the ethereal beauty of a flower straining toward the sun and living of proximity to many other flowers all forming an orchestra of post-human ecstasy. Untrapped. Free.

That this is not the Christian understanding of the nature of the soul, the body, or the relation of one to the other goes without saying. However, if this essay is read as indicative of the broader culture we do well to realize the direction in which our thoughts are shifting.

I believe that the long alienation of mankind from the earth, is drawing many people to a pre-Christian spirituality that emphasises our connection with the natural order. This is, of course, the result of decades of wrong-thinking by Christians who have bought into the thought patterns and practices of the industrial revolution. What is needed is a strong pre-evangelism like that found in the works of C.S. Lewis who is admirably able to capture the ways in which we homo sapiens(ironic name, don’t you think?) are deeply connected with the cosmos in that we have been named guardians and stewards of it, keeping it trust for its Creator.

Until we are able to embrace our mandate to care for the earth, and are able to speak in ways that connect to this type of imaginative view, I fear that we will be placing un-necessary barriers before the hearers of the Gospel.

3 Replies to “NPR and Spirituality”

  1. JBG,

    When you refer to “decades of wrong-thinking by Christians who have bought into the thought patterns and practices of the industrial revolution,” to which thought patterns and practices are you referring?



  2. My writing sounds nice, but is sufficiently vague don’t you think? I guess what I meant is that the industrial revolution and our growing use of technology are in many ways predicated upon mastering/domineering/controlling/suppressing the natural world to serve our own needs and wants. My thoughts here are informed by Wendell Berry, the agrarian writer.

    As a Christian, I think that we have to keep two things in tension: our calling to use the natural world to meet our needs, and the calling to recognize that the natural order belongs to its creator. In my entry I meant to suggest that good creations like the internal combustion engine have also carried with them negative results, largely unintended by their creators. Having a car is not wrong, certainly. However, we have to recognize that driving alters our perception of distances, speed, and the community in which we live. I often walk down Hwy 54 in Chapel Hill, and when I do I find myself thinking what a crappy stretch of road it is between Glen Lennox Apartments and Meadowmont. This is not because there are no trees, or birds, or grass, rather it is the incessant drone of engines that ruins it.

    The wrong thinking that I had in mind is the type of thinking I often engage in that elevates convenience or speed above participation in the community. Every time that I choose to walk from ponit A to B I am glad that I did. However, more often than not I drive. In so doing I abstract nature/natural world and make it something that I perceive from behind glass.

    In fact, the very words I am using i.e., nature, natural world suggest the abstraction that has taken place. When I lived in England, nature was not something that we drove to see it was something of which we were a part in that from any place in our town, there were sidewalks and footpaths across fields, etc.

    I think that the more alienated our society gets from itself the more attractive the pre-Christian myths will become. As Christians we ought not be comfortable with such a trend, especially given the fact that care of and identity with the natural order is fundamental to our Christian identity, especially as outlined in the book of beginnings, Genesis.

    Hope this helps, N.


  3. thanks for the clarification – it did help. I’m short on time at the moment (another master’s paper draft due), so will cheat and ask another question instead of leaving my own remarks. What do you mean by “society’s alienation from itself,” and how does that fit in? Perhaps “alientation from Truth” instead? If I understand correctly, your essay focuses on society’s (emphasis on Western/Ind. Rev.) historical alienation from “the earth,” and the resultant overcompensation that seems to be leading to a false/twisted sense of connectedness…

    Hope you and A are well.


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