Holy mischief in an age of fast faith

When Aiden Enns left his job as managing editor at Adbusters after several years, it's no surprise what this journalist, BuyNothing Christmas.org founder, and practicing Mennonite did next: he started publishing a new magazine on faith, activism, and progressive change called Geez. In a recent email interview, he discussed a magazine that takes to heart advice he got from an activist theologian years ago: "Have one foot in the church and one outside. And keep your weight on the one outside."

A few weeks ago, a group of American Christians held prayer rallies at gas stations to, presumably, urge God to help lower gas prices. Obviously, there are real problems with this from a perspective that truthfully emulates the teachings and behaviors of Christ. But how is this story emblematic of the kind Christianity Geez was founded as an alternative to?

Hmm, Christians praying to God for lower gas prices? Yikes, that confirms it... the oil barons really are God!

Praying for better deals at the pump? This is a part of conservative Christianity I don't understand -- it encourages selfishness and operates from a mechanistic world view. If God is some sci-fi robot that blesses us when we utter the magic password, then sure, it makes sense to pray for lower gas prices.

But if we are oriented to caring for others, and operate from an enchanted, mystical world view, then rising gas prices do something different to my spirit. They remind me of our profound interconnection, and get me thinking of limits and responsibility.
And then I pray for wisdom to know how to downscale and handle the conflict. I guess this is partly why Geez exists.

Each of us at Geez magazine has our own reasons for starting with the project. For me, I'm excited about a social and political dimension to the gospel. It's easy to fret over my connection to all the problems in the world. So I'm looking for stories that unravel the complicity and show paths of hope.
"Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success."

—Thomas Merton
My first reaction to Geez is that it's similar in tone and design to Adbusters: against mindless consumerism, designed with a similar kind of DIY aesthetic, interested in reclaiming core values that can be obscured by the relentless pursuit of the American dream. As a past editor at Adbusters, how was Geez inspired by that magazine, and how is Geez improving upon it?

I had come to Adbusters after eight years as a journalist and editor with a national church paper (Canadian Mennonite). In Vancouver, at Adbusters, I found my faith newly enlived. I saw our venture as prophetic - in the sense that Jesus said woe to those who are rich and the Hebrew prophets cried foul in defense of widows, orphans and forests. Adbusters offers a deep critique of the wide eyes and stone hearts that fortify consumerism.

I left Adbusters to see if this socially-engaged, prophetic critique might fly with people in the radical faith community. A couple years later, thanks to a solid group of volunteers, Geez was born. Adbusters is a kindred spirit and constant point of reference.

Will we improve upon Adbusters? Uh, that's a little presumptuous... but it's helpful to set high goals. Adbusters is a good rant. I'd like Geez to be a rant plus a gentle corrective. Criticize but also nurture an alternative community that embodies more hopeful, more helpful ways to live and feel. It's mushy gushy to talk about religious things. But someone, I think, has to articulate that wonderful feeling that comes from staring at a tree, say a weeping willow with its branches stroking the grass. That feeling of infinity that comes from a river that ripples and flows. This sense of awe has a political dimension, I want to articulate that and help it birth a more sustainable social movement.

My second reaction was surprise at the irreverence. In among quotes by Meister Eckhart and thoughtful essays on family values and life at a Trappist monastery are photos of a tattooed punk girl flipping off the camera; your hacked-up, newly logoless bible; and profiles of illegal art studio squatters. How do you respond to critics who say you're too negative, too un-Christ-like with your content? (I recall a few letters to the editor even took issue with the title, Geez being a truncation of Jesus' name and long ago used as a curseword.)
"I don't really know what fascism is, but this mixture of religion and military, this full-on blessing of the indiscriminate evils of war is, let's just say, offensive to the gentle spirit of Christ and Gandhi in me."

—Aiden Enns
I'm angry at Zondervan, who claims to be the largest publisher of Bibles, at selling out to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. We're all screwed when we take our sacred writings and hand them over to profiteers to re-package and sell back to us again and again (rant for ten minutes). I'm angry at Billy Graham's organization for coordinating prayers for the troops in Iraq (Operation Bless Our Troops), giving dog tags to civilians with prayers on them when they donate 10 dollars or more. I don't really know what fascism is, but this mixture of religion and military, this full-on blessing of the indiscriminate evils of war is, let's just say, offensive to the gentle spirit of Christ and Gandhi in me. That said, we need to find a creative, even redemptive, way of expressing this outrage. Hence we "circumcize our scriptures," and excise the Zondervan brand from the spine of our Bibles.

Back to basics: how'd this magazine come to be? In times where the radically religious are garnering headlines, from Bush and bin Laden to the Phelps family whose website godhatesfags.com pretty much sums up their beliefs, it's good timing.

Utne magazine was born in an era of increasing right-winged-ness (1984). With Reagan and Thatcher wielding their conservative politics, the progressives on the left needed a voice and Utne flashed on the scene.

Same with Geez, it seems to me. With Bush's re-election, stadium churches and "Christian" attached to seemingly everything (including capitalism and war), a whole subgroup is yearning for a voice to disagree. The message of gentleness, love, hospitality and common good is lost among a false-gospel of self-reliance and apocalyptic entitlement (not sure what that means, but it sounds good; sort of like manifest destiny for Left Behind readers).

And the response has been tremendous. We're up to about 1300 subscriptions with no promo budget. And it feels like we're just getting started.

Issue Two quotes Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a hero of mine: "Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success." While the quote seems to sum up the reverence/irreverence balance mentioned above, I've gotta ask: how will you gauge Geez's success?

In my mind, Geez will be successful if it does any of the following: give me and my friends a meaningful non-profit project to work on; rattle the cage of the religious right and tease out a few vulnerable souls trapped among the platitudes (okay, I'll admit we have our own set of platitudes, but I really do think almost everyone should get out of the car and ride a bike!); inspire people to make concrete changes in their lives, changes that lead to smaller-scale, slower-paced and nature-based living; bring hope amidst despair, especially to people on the fringes of North American society.

Who do you imagine the reader of Geez to be? The contemplative who likes good beer and tells the occasional fart joke?

I'd like to meet more contemplatives who tell jokes. They probably don't need Geez.

Who are our readers? According to letters we've received, Geez is perfect for progressive clergy struggling in the suburbs. It's for non-religious daughters to give to their mothers preparing for ministry in the United church, and who read it when they go home to visit. It's for gay sons who come out to dads who respond by giving them Christian literature with only one perspective on sexuality, love and justice. It's for agnostics with radio stations, listening for friendly voices among a chorus of mostly judgemental Christians. Our tagline is "holy mischief in an age of fast faith." There's a demographic implied there as well.


Anonymous said...

Nothing is sacred.
Comment is something.
Somethingness consumes itself. Becoming nothing.
I eat my words.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think I'll hang around a while and see what happens next. Perhaps I won't be anonymous either.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I sense a breath of fresh air. But mind you, I'm still skeptical. I have not been to church in almost two years, and have found myself after having given it away to religio-bureaucratic monolith organizations for 15 years. God is delighted in me that I had the courage to leave the circus. And I'm delighted that I actually KNOW God is delighted!

As a former pastor and theological student, I yearn for more of the quietly revolutionary, deeply accepting Jesus. Maybe I've found it in Geez? Not sure. We'll see. But may they be strong and have great vision. And may they fart with great courage.