Postcards From the Margins


Vincent Van Gogh's Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), May, 1890
Vincent Van Gogh’s Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), May, 1890

Best panel of AWP 2014, hands down:

KtB @ AWP, “Doubt is My Revelation”: Panel Discussion with Jeff Sharlet, Nathan Schneider, Kaya Oakes, and Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Philip Lopate has written that the essay as a form is all about doubt. But what if you’re an essayist obsessed with religion? How does a skeptic engage with devout subjects? Or alternately, how does a writer of faith reach across the divide to unbelievers? Editors of and contributors to Killing the Buddha, an online literary magazine specializing in “first person dispatches from the margins of faith,” share their experiences and discuss the essential role of doubt in writing about faith.

I’m not primarily an essayist. I’m a writer of fiction, and sometimes poetry. And now, a blog. A blog trying to find its place in a big blogging world.

I went to the panel described above at a big writer’s conference (AWP) in Seattle, just a few weeks ago. I listened to four great writers talk about doubt and faith and their work.  I learned about their website, Killing the Buddha. An online literary magazine with the subtitle “A religious magazine for people made anxious in church.”  Specializing in “first person dispatches from the margins of faith.”

It makes me feel like I’ve found my people.

But maybe you object, as I did, to killing anything? Does this help?

From: Daily Buddhism:
I have heard the phrase “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” many times. Can you explain this?
It actually comes from an old koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect). It’s a simple one:
“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”– Linji
…Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.

When I started writing fiction about ten years ago, I could not have imagined how my Catholic beliefs and disbeliefs—neither of which, I thought, had much to do with beliefs I generally hold about the universe—would nonetheless show their ugly, and sometimes beautiful, faces in my work. Often. Daily. It was surprising, to say the least. And puzzling, too.

Read anything by Kaya Oakes to get a glimpse into what it means to be a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights feminist in today’s Catholic church. And yet what absolutely slayed me at KtB’s AWP panel was when Kaya Oakes, this self-declared relapsed lapsed-Catholic woman, read the following from her essay, “Torn Bread” , about attending an Episcopal mass where a woman presided:

So I waited for a difference, watching this Episcopal priest, this young, stylish woman with her beautiful voice, in this exquisite wooden church on a hill, where the congregation was busily assembling good-looking food in the kitchen before the service started, when I stumbled in looking for a garbage can. I notice when food looks and smells good. What can I say; I’m always hungry. I’ve always been hungry.

(What’s not to like about a smart, irreverent, Catholic woman writer who is always hungry? But I digress. Back to Kaya Oakes):

But in that “cannot” I have heard in my church, in the church I freely choose when it tells me all of the things I can’t do, I’ve never felt denied to the point of resentment. Because, vocation? My vocation isn’t behind an altar. My vocation is putting my ass in a pew, week after week. My vocation is the vocation of billions of people, in nearly every religion. It is the vocation of showing up.


Last week was the first-year anniversary of my father’s death. Maybe it was that, or the start of Lent, or the errand I did that day that had me walking past St. Olaf’s Catholic Church on 2nd Avenue South and South 8th Street in Minneapolis. But I’ve walked past that church hundreds of times in the seven years we’ve lived downtown. And never went in.

So you have to think it might have been Kaya Oakes’s ass in the pew that got mine there, too.

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