Anamorphosis and the Knowledge Problem

Warning: this blog contains graphic academic language, hypothetical religious proselytizing and scatological references. Some material may not be suitable for children or sociology professors.

Review: Anamorphosis is an artistic technique by which the artist presents viewers with an image that can only be properly interpreted from a particular perspective or vantage point. Viewers of anamorphic images must complete an anamorphic action (like standing in the correct position, holding up a special curved mirror, or using a secret decoder ring) in order to the see the image as it is intended to be seen.

It used to be that our main problem with knowledge was a lack of it. For example, we didn’t know, for WAY too long, that people didn’t get cholera from the smell of poop in the air; rather, they got it because they inadvertently drank a poop smoothie. It stinks either way, but that right there is an excellent example of some very useful knowledge.

Now, however, it seems it’s not so much our lack of knowledge but rather, the keeping track of our knowledge that is the problem. Knowledge management and knowledge retrieval are emerging as the primary knowledge issues of this century. Anymore, it’s not that you know stuff, but rather that you know how to go about knowing stuff – and what’s more, that you can find it once you know it – that matters. And to us, the denizens of the 21st century, to whom knowledge has become sacrosanct, it matters. And because it matters, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: Where is all this knowledge coming from?

Most of it comes from what I have referred to previously as The Academic Industrial Complex. This cabal (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) includes research universities, corporate research arms and any number of public or private research institutions. These organizations are in the business of knowledge production and we are their enthusiastic customers. How enthusiastic are we? A new study shows that 86% of Americans will not believe something is true unless they are told that a research study says it is true.

Not really. No study says that. But see how quickly you were inclined to believe me when I said those magic words, “a new study shows?”

But here’s the irony: despite the fact that, 1) we value knowledge highly, 2) we place a great deal of confidence in the researchers who produce it, and, 3) we eagerly embrace the results of research in an effort to improve our lives, we don’t actually believe any of it is true. In all the research papers you’re likely to read (and really, if you’re not required to, you’re not likely to), you will never, ever, read the words, “Well, that’s it. We’ve figured it all out. We can go home now.” Instead, researchers spend the bulk of the concluding sections of their reports making excuses for the limitations of their studies, spelling out the confounding variables, and peppering their reports with phrases like “the data seem to suggest…” and “participants tended to agree…” and “results may indicate…” In the end, researchers always end up oxymoronically concluding that the research is inconclusive. Even the most confident researcher – or the most ideologically committed – wouldn’t dream of suggesting that more research is not needed. After all, mama needs a new pair of shoes…

So, we’ve got all this knowledge produced by big-S Scientists who tell us that none of it is big-T True. Maybe little-t true, possibly big-R Revealing, definitely big-S Suggestive. But not big-T True. And yet. We cling to our knowledge and continue to collect it because we are all acting on the underlying assumption that the world sucks, and if we just had enough knowledge, we could fix the suckiness. As an interesting aside, isn’t it odd that none of our tier one superheroes are scholars? Tony Stark comes close, but he channels his genius too quickly into weapons production and capitalism to fit into tweeds and a cramped office.

No. Scholars are underdogs. Researchers are victims of what I would call Unconsummated Anamorphosis: they have taken up the search for the solutions to life’s biggest problems and the answers to life’s biggest questions by peering into the unfathomable with only one eye open: the physical eye. They have to. From the outset, big-S Science has summarily dismissed the other eye – the metaphysical eye – from the process.

To be sure, big-S Science has a well-articulated set of explanations as to why it must exclude the non-physical. But then, it should admit openly that small-s scientists will forever only be able to uncover and purport small-s truths. In short, they will ever only – by their own admission and definition – be asymptotically approaching conclusive evidence. Hence, the very conveniently inconclusive we-need-more-research conclusion.

At this point, I am compelled to paraphrase Pontius Pilate and ask, “Quid the heck est veritas?” Moreover, if big-T Truth is disqualified from the get-go, why do so many people spend all their lives, and as much of everyone else’s money as they possibly can, ferreting out and publishing their own small contributions to little-t truth? Is there any point in our imagined evolutionary future that we will be able to say, “This is True,” and mean it? Any point when Big Data becomes Enough Data?

It is here that I’d like to suggest an idea that is admittedly politically, scientifically and academically incorrect. But it’s worth discussing if we, particularly those of us in the social sciences, seriously want to crack the code on solving problems and answering questions. The idea is this: when we exclude an entire perspective or point of view from the outset of an investigation, we naturally decrease our chances of meaningful discovery. We should not do that.

What if the anamorphic position (or vantage point) necessary for a more complete understanding of the world went beyond scientific investigation alone? What if, as the writer of Proverbs asserts, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” was actually true? Knee-jerk alert: I am NOT suggesting AT ALL that the fear of the Lord is the end of knowledge, also. Hence the word “beginning.” Scientific discovery is – and always has been – part of the gig. I would suggest that the writer of that Proverb is suggesting the fear of the Lord is, in academic language, “necessary but not sufficient.” That should offend neither the man of faith nor the man of science. It will probably offend both. And a lot of women, too.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, there is a very interesting – and very puzzling – interchange between Jesus and his disciples:

“The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see;
Though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
You will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
They hardly hear with their ears,
And they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts
And turn, and I would heal them.’”

You see what Jesus is talking about, don’t you? It’s not physical stuff he’s giving and taking away. It’s metaphysical stuff. Sight. Understanding. Perception. As it turns out, the parable gig was on purpose. Whenever Jesus was speaking to a crowd, he only communicated via parables, and the parable is distinctly anamorphic. The meanings behind the stories can’t be grasped by just anyone; rather, they are only revealed to people who are particularly open to anamorphic vision. He finishes with, “So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’”

REALLY?? Hidden since the creation of the world?? Well, there goes half your audience, dude. Everyone knows the world wasn’t created

Ironically, in the historical context in which these words were delivered, the people who didn’t grasp the meaning of these stories were the highly educated folks of the day: the religious leaders who were the gatekeepers and keymasters of knowledge and wisdom. Conversely, peasants and dolts saw things with remarkable clarity. Which just goes to show that you can be too smart for you own good.

In the end, if we care about truth – big-T or little-t – we have to ask, “What conditions would keep us from seeing, understanding and perceiving?” I will phrase the answer to this question like a good researcher would: the answer “appears” to be anamorphic in nature and “seems” as if it would have a huge impact on what kinds of questions we allow ourselves to ask, what kinds of studies we allow ourselves to conduct, what kinds of conclusions we allow ourselves to draw, and, ultimately, what kinds of things we allow ourselves to believe.

There’s no point in heading into that with one eye closed.

I did warn you.

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Anamorphosis and the Academic Industrial Complex

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from realtors – and we can learn so much from realtors – it’s the three most important qualities of a property: location, location, location. The same can be said, in a general sense, about research and knowledge production: the answers we find to our questions depend heavily on the location we occupy when go looking. In academic jargon, this is called “positionality.” Positionality (not to be confused with Wessonality, that certain je ne sais quoi that cooking oil gives chicken) is a term used by certain scholars to label the not-so-very complex idea that we all see the world differently, our position primarily and fundamentally being informed by our race, our class and our gender, or raceclassgender, for those that see a common enemy in the white male but are in a hurry to get to the co-op. The core idea of positionality is this: your reality is yours and mine is mine because we see the world from different positions. The core implication of positionality is this: who died and made you king?

Positionality is popular in the social sciences where certain subjective methods in knowledge production are not only tolerated, but are encouraged. If we look sharply enough, we can even detect the stealth presence of positionality in the “hard” sciences. Feminist scholar/activist (a term that steps on its own toes) Michelle Fine admits, “…some of us still smuggle our knowledge of social injustice into a discourse of science that fundamentally contains, and painfully undermines, the powerful politics of activist feminism. As is often the case with moments of social containment, feminists in the social sciences carry weighty evidence for a passionately disruptive transformation of our disciplines. And yet…we also carry domesticating responsibilities to keep this social science appearing dispassionately detached.” I won’t argue with Ms. Fine because first, she is carrying a lot of really heavy luggage, but second, because I appreciate her honesty regarding her dishonesty. I understand, though for different reasons, why she feels the need to be dishonest in order to be allowed into the scientific debate. Any perspective that challenges the current establishment will be met with suspicion, resistance and probably exclusion. That doesn’t mean the perspective is invalid, but it doesn’t it make it valid either. The critical challenge of positionality is the same as the critical challenge of anamorphosis: in order to come as close to “truth” as possible, it is vitally important to be in the correct position.

In her piece, Reveal Codes: Hypertext and Performance, Rita Raley discusses the anamorphic nature of hypertext (those blue web links that take you from one cyber location to another) and explains, “Anamorphosis is a matter of correcting or adjusting one’s spectatorial position so as to locate the correct perspective.” I would add that we have to double check our position in both space and time, as it may not just be our physical position that blocks the view, but also the fact that we’re, quite literally, “not there yet.” The key point Raley makes though, is that there is such a thing as a correct perspective. In our relativistic, post-modern culture, this is quite a statement. Here, in a discussion about software programming, we readily accept the idea of “correct” perspective and “incorrect” perspective because nobody, not even the most hardcore science-ist, contends that there is no such thing as a software engineer. Once we step into the natural world, or rather out of the natural world and into the supernatural world, we have a lot more trouble coming to terms with this. But at least in this tech-centric world, we will acknowledge that sometimes we simply cannot see something unless we are correctly aligned in space and time. Which leads me to grammar.

As a former English teacher, I admit to having a rather long list of grammatical pet peeves. For example, few people pronounce the word “mischievous” correctly. They say “miss-cheev-ee-us” rather than “miss-chiv-us.” This annoys me, but at least I’m annoyed that it annoys me. I say this to set up another, more literary, pet peeve: the personification of Science, as if it were a monolithic proper noun. “Science has proven…” people say, when science has done no such thing. People prove things. Or don’t. But for the sake of brevity I will be magnanimous. Science operates on the premise that it has nothing in common with Religion, another monolithically personified entity. Science is the path to knowledge, its priests proclaim. Religion is not science (don’t be fooled by the “physics” in metaphysics). Ergo, we cannot ask – moreover, we cannot trust – Religion to participate in the critical modern task of knowledge production or dissemination. In fact, because of its myriad empirical deficiencies, we must work hard to prevent Religion from even trying. This is all part of the philosophical school of logical positivism that clings tightly to the tenet that we cannot know something unless we can observe it. In other words seeing is believing.

Interestingly, this approach absolutely precludes the possibility of non-empirical truth, i.e., that something might be true even if you can’t prove it empirically, and therefore sets up its own empirical deficiencies by disallowing certain “positions” from the debate. But we can always find an audience among the philosophical, including the poet Robert Frost, who, in essence, called BS on the seeing-is-believing trope. He claimed that the best work comes about by, “believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion.” In other words, believing is seeing.

The premise of Science is that we cannot believe until we see. The paradox of anamorphosis – and of faith – is that we cannot see until we believe. In truth, we must be open to both premise and paradox to achieve the kind of insight – or sight – necessary for truly understanding the world. To be continued…

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Anamorphosis in the Sky

Anamorphosis is an artistic technique by which the artist presents a somewhat mysterious image that can only be properly interpreted from a particular perspective or vantage point. Viewers of anamorphic images must complete an anamorphic action item (like standing in the right position, holding up a special curved mirror, or using a secret decoder ring…) in order to the see the image as it is intended to be seen. Anamorphosis means “formed again” in Greek.

Radical Sunset

One night last summer, I went out onto my deck* at dusk. It’s a good deck, high on a hill, facing west toward the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. As it happens, a radically beautiful sunset lured me out, but it was warm and I had bats for company, so I decided to welcome the stars after bidding the sun good night. I stared at a blank indigo dome edged with violent pink brushstrokes, knowing the stars were already there. My eyes flitted back and forth, seeking the first star, and finally it appeared, directly in front of me. Just then, I realized I was experiencing a kind of natural anamorphosis. It was temporal (related to my position in time) rather than spatial (related to my position in space): I was in a perfect position to view the stars but until the time was right, I would not see them. This revelation suddenly made me suspicious that anamorphosis, the notion that something is only recognizable from a particular perspective or position, was far more common, and far more varied, than I might have guessed. Which got me thinking about revelation.

In any contemplation of revelation – for this is the end result of anamophosis – we become, at some point, acutely aware of the limitations of our vision. From our fixed temporal and spatial position in an infinite universe, we can, at best, grope for understanding, seeking diligently for elusive clues that will bring the world into alignment. Though scientists have generated a great deal of knowledge about how the universe works, they have little to offer in the form of plausibly conclusive answers to life’s biggest questions. Conversely, theologians provide little empirical data about how the universe works but have a great deal to say about why it works. One of the most profound (and frustrating) conclusions we are offered is that, as finite beings, we will never know everything. Worse yet, it appears, if you go for such things, that God set it up this way on purpose. The prophet Isaiah quotes God himself, telling us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Which, for would-be universal code-crackers, is somewhat depressing. But hold on. A few hundred years later, the apostle Paul promises anamorphic resolution after all, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” For now, he implies, we have to be satisfied with a sort of catoptric anamorphosis (using a special mirror to see an image). At some future point, however, everything will become clear.

It is an exciting promise, except when we remember that the anamorphic action item is death.

* Yeah. That’s the view from my deck.

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Grace and Digital Citizenship

Which kind of ignorance is worse? Digital ignorance? Or analog ignorance? A conversation between a Digital Immigrant (DI) mother and her two Digital Native (DN) daughters, field notes taken by a digital bystander, illuminates the issue.

DI: This whole “Undo” thing? I’m just not conversant with that.
DNs: Well, what do you do when you make a mistake?
DI: Cry… Swear…
DNs: No, really. What do you do?
DI: I hit “file, exit.”
DNs: But then you can’t save the changes if you blew it.
DI: Right. I hit “Don’t Save.”
DNs: But that’s ridiculous. Then you lose everything you didn’t save before you made the mistake.
DI: Right. Well, I don’t want to save the big mistake, do I? I can always re-do the stuff I know I did.
DNs: That’s such a waste of time. And so unnecessary.
DI: Undo is perhaps a good thing…
DNs: Yeah… So simple… SO simple…
DI: Well, what do I have, in terms of knowing, that you don’t have? What does Grandma have?
DNs: Sewing. On a sewing machine. Cooking homemade stuff… And recipes for that.
DI: Oh yeah. Recipes! I’ve seen you guys. Let’s see… it says 1 teaspoon but I want to DOUBLE the recipe… (long pause; cringing face) What do I do, again??
DNs: (laughing) Well, Stephanie DID win at the Friends Scene-It game today. I totally give her props. She had mad competition.

Ultimately, we’re all looking for a world in which the “undo” feature is unnecessary. In the meantime, we locate our arenas of competence and settle into the world of “do,” hoping that the grace of “undo” – or at least tech support – will mitigate our errors.

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Grace and Swedish Cooking

Swedish Breadsticks

Well, mostly Swedish cooking. I’m sure I could work grace in but you’d notice that I was working too hard. We don’t want that.

This summer, I went to the annual gathering of the Swedish relatives from my mother’s side of the family. We call it Cousins’ Picnic. It’s a pedestrian name, but functional. If we said it in Swedish, we’d probably need more umlauts than I care to negotiate right now. Anyway, we take the ferry to my aunt and uncle’s property in Poulsbo, Washington, a small, Swedish enclave on the Washington peninsula, and eat.

When we arrive, we tote our coolers into the kitchen and unload whatever we brought. On the porch, as we enter the house, my aunt and uncle set up a sort of coffee bar with little snack-y things to nosh on before the main course. This year, there was a large container of breadsticks sitting on the table. This puzzled me. Swedes don’t really do breadsticks.

Let’s be honest. Swedes are not noted for their elegant cuisine, unless you think dehydrated codfish reconstituted in lye and baked until it’s gray and gelatinous is elegant. Swedes are better known for safe cars, cheap/chic furniture stores and pop-cult rock groups. And for hyper-practical cuisine. Swedes make things called lutefisk, which I’ve described tantalizingly above, and hardtack, which is basically rye bread, flattened out and baked until it’s a cracker. This is the kind of food that stocked 17th century sailing vessels and was rationed to sailors when fresh food stores were depleted. But the Swedes make it for Christmas dinner! There are three rules for Swedish cooking. Rule #1: Do we have all the ingredients lying around? Rule #2: Will it last a long time without spoiling? Rule #3: Can we eat it without dying? If the answer is yes to those questions, pretty well anything goes. One clarification on Rule #3: it can actually seem like it would kill you but if it doesn’t, it still qualifies as Swedish cuisine. For example, surströmming.

But I digress. Back to the picnic. My mom’s brothers were sitting on the porch kicking it old Swede as I grabbed a breadstick and took a bite. Hmmm. Not your average light, crispy Italian breadstick. It was denser and darker. I’d say chewier but no… chewy was something it could have been if it had been undercooked, and that’s another Swedish no-no. Rule #4: cook the crap out of it. To be fair, this breadstick was a much more flavorful than its Italian counterpart, though I couldn’t place the flavor. I knew it. It was on the tip of my tongue, literally, but out of context. My Uncle Don was smiling at me because he could see all these thoughts going through my little, third-generation Swedish brain. “Like it?” he asked. “It’s hardtack.” Ahhh… Knäckebröd. Then he proceeded to tell me how he made them. No. Actually, how he engineered them.

A little context. My Uncle Don is a retired biologist who worked for the government for many years as a food tester. At heart, he’s a scientist. His laboratory is the kitchen. He admires the heck out of John Snow, the Victorian physician who, through painstaking research, proved that you got cholera by drinking contaminated water. Was the water from Sweden? We don’t know. Anyway, Don knows a lot of stuff. Really. A LOT of stuff. Remarkably, it’s all either useful or entertaining. Often both. He has kept us amused, but more importantly, safe at many family gatherings by whisking the potato salad into the fridge before it killed us (remember Rule #3) or making sure we knew that baked beans could be deadly for reasons other than grandpa’s farts.

Don has always been the “educational” life of the party and it was him who came up with the idea of doing our own Swedish cookbook. Don’t laugh. Despite what I’ve just told you, we’re all actually really good cooks, having subjugated our Swedish heritage for making foods that only seem like they’ll kill you to our American propensity for making foods that appear safe and delicious but actually will kill you (eventually). The main problem with us doing a cookbook is that recipes usually spell out specific ingredient quantities and none of the cooks in my family are much for using measuring cups or spoons. They all learned to cook from Grandma Dagmar, whose recipes say things like, “add flour until the mixture is the consistency of pancake batter.” So I challenged my uncle that if the ostensible purpose of a family cookbook is to pass the secrets of Swedish cuisine on to the next generation (a questionable proposition anyway), then didn’t it make sense to specify, at the very least, what KIND of pancakes? Big, thick flapjacks? Thin, delicate crepes? My uncle had to agree that this was a valid point. After several moments’ silence, he said, “We’ll include a viscometer.” Well, you can’t argue with a viscometer.

The cookbook is, of course, still in the works because… well, mainly because the kinds of recipes that might end up in the book are not an easy sell to the American consumer. Plus, some of the more uniquely Swedish recipes already inhabit a couple other old Swedish cookbooks I dug up. These books include instructions on how to make dishes like Marrow Pudding. Yeah, that’s right. Some Swede actually thought, “What am I going to do with this stale coffee cake, this handful of raisins, and this spare cup of bone marrow left over from Old Bessie’s left leg? I know. I’ll make pudding!”

The upside is that Swedes do understand how to mitigate with alcohol. The sauce that goes over Marrow Pudding has only three ingredients: sugar, water and whiskey. NOW we’re cooking with gas!

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Grace and The Open (or not) Road

I wasn’t the first, I won’t be the last and I’m not the only. No excuse but mild consolation..

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Grace and Yoga

About this grace thing… I’m hoping anyone who cares will give me a little. Clearly, I’m bad with consistency when I don’t HAVE to write. I’m excellent on a deadline, but that only highlights my subservience to extrinsic motivation. There’s a wart for you. Will someone please tell me I have to write?

Today is the day after Labor Day. It seems like the new year has begun. So, here is one of my New Year’s Resolutions: I resolve to blog more often. Non-linear Me is saying, “Bet that would sound really strange in 1959…” Cynical Me is saying, “Like you care…” Maybe you do and I need to have a bit more grace for myself, but there’s another wart: self-criticism. Anyway. For me, the blogging is about discipline and accountability. To whom, you may ask? Aside from myself, I guess, to the masses. Have you had your opiate today?

So, like I said. About this grace thing. To be honest, it’s not going as well as I might have hoped, but if I’m gracious to myself, I’ll concede that a lot of it may be hormonally driven. Speaking of driving, if I could just get rid of the need to get in my car and drive it, I think I’d have a lot of my grace problem solved. But then I’d still have to answer to my husband and my daughter who see everything. Good thing they love me. And I can make them laugh which is a great diffuser of tension. As is yoga. And herein lies my thought for New Year’s Day, September 8, 2009:

Imagining a gracious life is kind of like watching the yoga DVDs they play in Lululemon: you can visualize yourself on that beach in Hawaii, wearing those tights, looking that lean and, yes, being THAT flexible, but once you get the DVD home, roll out your own sticky waffle mat, greet the clouds (hey, I live in Seattle), and begin to personalize yoga, you realize that it’s WAY harder than it looks. I mean it. These people are moving so slowly, it’s ridonkulous.* But when you do what they do, it hurts.

How does this relate to grace? Well, it’s easy to watch grace (and yoga) happen, and even to imagine that it would be possible to do it yourself. But when you actually put yourself in a position (pun entirely intended) to do it, you come face-to-face with your own inflexibility. I think of doing the Astavakrasana pose.  HP_214_Astavakrasana_248Seriously. I can’t pronounce it, but I think about it, and being an ex-gymnast, I can actually get partway there – even at 50 – before I start crying (metaphorically) because it hurts. Then, I think of something I saw on TV a couple years ago that literally made me cry. Washington’s Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, was in court, facing the families of some of the 48 women he killed between 1982 and 1998. Most of the victims’ relatives were twisted with bitterness, venting their pain-soaked rage at him, some inviting him to rot in hell. He sat, poker-faced, as they hurled venom at him. Suddenly, this happened, as reported in the Seattle PI, on December 19, 2003:

“As Ridgway listened in court, he… broke down when the father of one of his victims offered forgiveness. It was Robert Rule, a white-bearded man with gentle eyes who works as a mall Santa Claus each year. ‘Mr. Ridgway, there are people here who hate you,’ said Rule, whose 16-year-old daughter, Linda, was killed in 1982. ‘I’m not one of them. I forgive you for what you’ve done.’ As Ridgway gazed at Rule, Ridgway’s lips began to tremble. He started to cry and quickly turned away to wipe his eyes.”

I started weeping when I saw that. I wept in part because I was moved by Rule’s forgiveness – and Ridgway’s reaction to it – but also in part because I knew, in the core of my being, that I was more likely to have been one of the other people, letting the monster know how he ruined my life. I wept because I thought, I probably couldn’t do that. It was like the Astavakrasana pose of grace.

In truth, grace is far more difficult than yoga. Here’s why: you can’t practice grace unless you go through life experiences that require forgiveness and these are usually far more painful than yoga poses. All the more reason to practice small acts of forgiveness – like not getting mad when someone cuts you off in traffic – so you get in shape for larger acts of forgiveness. And all the more reason to seek instruction from the Master of Grace who turned the world upside down when, as he was being falsely accused, beaten, ridiculed, whipped, unjustly convicted and nailed to a cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”


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Amazing Grace

Probably the most famous hymn – if not the most famous song – of all time is Amazing Grace. It’s a Christian hymn about the transformative power of grace but strangely enough, people of all faiths (and those with none at all) find themselves able to sing, at the very least, the first verse:

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

A little aside because I’m non-linear: today there are many arrangements of this song and some of the best involve bagpipes. Nearly anything with a bagpipe in it gets me going. So imagine my joy when I discovered a cover of Amazing Grace by a band with the delightful name of the Dropkick Murphys. This performance is so unlike what I imagine John Newton had in mind when he wrote the hymn that it represents, to me, the very core of the concept of grace. These guys can’t sing but once your head gets banging, you just don’t care.

Today, grace usually means elegance or beauty. It can also mean mercy, but the word is rarely used for that. Pardon or clemency are better legal terms than grace, which is too pretty a word and not academic enough. Theologically, the meaning of grace is very specific: it is the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God to the full breadth of the sliding scale of humanity, from selfless saints to sadistic sinners. The key word here is “unmerited.” It’s about not getting what we do deserve and getting what we don’t deserve. I don’t know about you, but I’m fine with that when it benefits me. Where the theology breaks down is when I’m asked to give it. More on that in future posts.

Back to Amazing Grace. In 2009, I am known, in various circles, for my dislike of the overuse of the word “amazing.” When a word is used too much, it loses its meaning and power. One such word begins with the letter f. Another such word is amazing. It is overused. The literal meaning of the word amaze is “to surprise greatly or to fill with astonishment.” Most things in life don’t really do that. And so I have instituted a moratorium (to which no one adheres, but I can still make speeches on it): you can only use the word if the thing you are describing truly is amazing. And guess what? Grace, the kind that transforms a poison heart, really is amazing. Ask anyone who has ever been forgiven or witnessed someone else forgiving the unforgivable. It happens. Not that much in our culture but grace happens. That’s amazing.

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The Grace Project

Without a huge run-up to how I got inspired to take on this project, I will say that it began when I finally admitted to myself that sarcasm was not, indeed, a spiritual gift. OK. I always knew it wasn’t, but I clung to it (I still do cling to it) as part of the “realness” of me: too clever to be kind, too smart to be fooled and too quick to be slow. So I began my project. What is the project? I’m calling it The Grace Project. A sort of transformation of me.

Over the next year, I’m going to attempt to embrace grace in a radical way in my life, in both theory and practice. I’m going to unpack the concept of grace intellectually and I’m also going to practice the art of grace emotionally and physically.

Through it all, I’m going to write about the experience. I know that I will fail, often and, probably, spectacularly. I already have, but I’m not going to talk about it now. Maybe later, when I know you a little better, I’ll tell you what happened on the very first day of my project. Which promptly became not the first day.

My aim is transparency with discernment. None of us will know whether grace is working unless I admit how horrible I can be without grace. Weight loss programs always begin with an honest assessment of caloric intake… But I don’t want this to be like watching legislation or sausage being made: so ugly or unpleasant that you will want to turn away. We’ll see how that works for me. And for you.

Bookmark me and check back. I have some interesting things to tell you and maybe you’ll make it interactive and join the convo.

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