Saturday, August 20, 2005

Anthropomorphizing Demons and Ideas

It’s early Saturday morning. Last night I went to a party where I met this guy who wrote The Science Behind The Science of Star Trek. Andre…something. I can’t remember his last name. We only talked ten minutes, maybe even less, but it was awesome. I was energized by the whole conversation. We talked about how astronomers really do their work off computers now – it’s not like they are outside at night with a telescope. Like at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, mostly the astronomers sit in rooms a few thousand feet below the actual telescope and they can operate the telescopes from their room. They see the images on the computer. I wanted to go visit Keck. I still do, but after learning that, my interest was diminished a bit. If its just images on a computer screen, why not look at the DVDs from the Hubble missions? Which of course, I have. But then those images are enhanced in certain ways – colors, contrasts and so forth. Which makes you think, well – what are we looking out at anyway? Our eyes only can see a certain spectrum of light and color. Why not manipulate that light and color – it’s just adjusting our personal filter of that image. The adjustment might even cause us to understand the image better. But there’s something lost. There’s something that starts to feel all made up about the whole endeavor.

I still have a dream of traveling the world and visiting the great Observatories.

I have still been thinking about that passage in Mark that I “mangled” in my San Francisco Chronicle interview. Why did I get that wrong? Maybe because, in that story, the character(s) that seem the most alive are the demons. A man comes up to Jesus and says he is possessed by demons. The conversation Jesus has is with the demons that describe themselves as of great number. I think that’s where I got the “people” part – not “person.” And then they ask to get put into a herd of two thousand pigs, which Jesus does. In my mind, that’s images of demons and pigs together. Then they run off a cliff. I think one of my problems is that I can’t think of “demons” as anything other than “people.” I anthropomorphize demons. In my mind, they have goatees and black turtlenecks and maybe even capes, and wings, and long crooked noses: witches, warlocks, but in the end…people. People dressed up to look like demons. I guess you could say: actors. Because all my images of demons come from movies where they are played by people. And when their spirits go into the pigs and the pigs kill themselves, it’s people and pigs killing themselves. When the demon(s) go out of the man, he seems to have lost his personality. I lose interest in his character after he doesn’t have demons. He seems to become a zombie, devoid of personality. It’s like Jesus strips him of his personality and then sends him off to spread the “message” of Jesus’ power.

Not that I am excusing myself for my lapse. It’s just…I’ve been musing about why I made that error. Why did I remember that passage that way?

My friend Kevin Gun, who is in seminary school to become an Episcopal priest, wrote and said that his class is studying this very passage at school, Mark 5: 10-20, and that his teacher starts the year with that passage because it’s so bizarre and unsettling. Here is a nice analysis of this Bible passage that I found: (Mark 5 analysis by Austin Cline)

I woke up thinking about these things. I haven’t come to any conclusions exactly yet. But this is what I woke up thinking about:

So many Christians who write to me feel persecuted and in a minority. They feel they are the underdogs. They also often describe the mainstream culture as hedonistic or without morality: society gone out of control. And they think that a return to the laws of God (their particular god) will make society much better and more loving and more pure.

Then I thought this: Christians don’t want evolution taught in the schools. Not only that, they can’t let themselves even consider that evolution is the means through which we people came to be. Probably because it’s too cold and haphazard and accidental. To think we feeling people came from such an unfeeling universe, a universe that doesn’t even have the consciousness to care about us humans is intolerable. Well, that’s understandable. It is very difficult to accept that, because we humans feel so much love for each other. We are deeply, emotionally connected to each to other. It’s almost impossible to think that the universe doesn’t have those same feelings.

These Christians think of evolution as a survival of the fittest method of arriving at dominance. But it is precisely this formula that they advocate economically. (That is, if they are Republican right-wing Christians.) They don’t want government regulation when it comes to business. They want the strongest to have full reign to dominate over the weak. They don’t want government programs that help the poor, they want those poor people to “work” hard and compete for their wages. Their social outlook isn’t one of taking care of others, it’s very much a marketplace, survival-of-the-fittest attitude.

It’s so ironic, to me that Christian Republican conservatives advocate survival of the fittest when it comes to the harsh realities of the marketplace, but they don’t want children to be taught this harsh method of how humans came to exist.

And yet, they get evolution so wrong! Survival of the fittest isn’t even accurate. It’s survival of the most adaptable, survival of the lucky, survival of the most cooperative. That’s what evolution really is. One of the big reasons our species has done so well is because we love each other. And why do we love each other? Because we survive much better in numbers than we do individually. When we cooperate our children are raised with a greater likelihood of succeeding. If these Christians would just learn a little bit about evolution they might be inspired to look out for their fellow human beings a little more. But they want to keep evolution unknown – they want to just think of it as a hash unacceptable theory. And in the meantime, they want to allow huge businesses to roll over common people, unfairly taking enormous profits and paying the top executives absurd bonuses and salaries.

Jesus talks a lot about the love of the Father, God, the Universe. And while Jesus does tell people over and over again to give all their money to the poor, he also encourages people to dissociate themselves from their families—not to care about father and mother, to live without the cares of the world.

But we know that the Universe doesn’t love us. But our families, at least in theory, do. And the religious, at least many of the ones who write to me, seem to feel that this world is not of our concern, that this world is bad and hedonistic, and that there is another world where God is where there is perfect harmony and caring. And this secular world is bad, and this world of God is good.

I guess to me, I think it’s exactly the opposite. I think the Universe is a cold abyss. A fascinating, profoundly awe-inspiring, majestic, beautiful, terrible, heartless, unfathomable, large abyss. And I think that this world, where I live amongst people I care about deeply, to be lovely and small and sweet and painful and poignant.

And I think we’ve got to always be vigilant against our deep impulses to behave in ways that are like that cold, stark, exploitive, life-giving universe – we have to steel ourselves against greed, for example. We have to watch ourselves not to exploit or unduly harm others – to make life fair as much as we can. That, to me, is our most difficult task. We are products of evolution, be we don’t have to behave in the uncaring ways that evolution often does. (See, it’s almost impossible not to anthropomorphize evolution itself! It’s like my demons, how they are really people – it’s just so hard not to think of IDEAS like they are people!)

All right. So, this is what I’m thinking about.

Yesterday I spent much of the day getting my picture taken for People Magazine. My house was overrun with make up and hair people, a stylist, photographers and assistants. Actually – to be honest, the make up and hair person was only one person. I guess People is doing a Desperate Housewives issue and I am going to be in it as one of the writers. Which is so WRONG. Because I hardly do anything for that show. The other writers do so much, I’m just a fly on the wall. Even though I hope to not just be that – over time. But jeez, I felt guilty about it. On the other hand, it was really fun. Often photographers and stylists make me feel so bad and awkward – but these people were great. It seemed effortless. Of course I wished I was 30 pounds thinner, but other than that, I actually felt…well, pretty. For a moment.

Today I’m making vegetable soup and organizing the house. It’s sort of overcast here today, which is perfect weather for this sort of thing.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dawn's Demons

Today I was pointed to a blog, by Dawn Eden ( In her August 16, 2005 entry she comments on my San Francisco Chronicle interview.

In the interview (which you can read on this site) I make a mistake when I recount the story from Mark where Jesus send the evil spirits into the pigs and they run off the mountain. I said he sent the people too. That was incorrect.

She writes:

“Further proof that Christians need to continually remind the mainstream media of the most basic facts concerning their faith: San Francisco Chronicle religion writer David Ian Miller's failure to correct Julia Sweeney as she utterly mangles a story from the Gospels.”

And then,

“Apparently, it is too much to expect a San Francisco Chronicle religion writer to have the Bible knowledge of a 7-year-old Sunday-school student.”

This is what I wrote back to her today:

Dear Dawn,

Yes. I misrepresented the Jesus-commands-evil spirits-to-go-into-pigs-and-run-them-off-a-cliff story in the bible. I suggested that that Jesus caused the people & pigs to run off the cliff. He didn’t. He just caused a COUPLE OF THOUSAND PIGS to run off the cliff.

The point I was trying to make is that Jesus does several things that aren't particularly charitable or compassionate or even logical. I mean, if Jesus is capable of anything, why doesn't he just kill the evil spirits right there? Why does he have to kill two thousand innocent pigs to do that? Regardless of the fact that Jews of the period thought that pigs were unclean, we know that this is not true. So if we know this, why didn't Jesus? Why would that action be acceptable to him?

Plus, evil spirits? COME ON. Are we to believe that there are "evil spirits" that can infect a person and then be driven out of a person? And then driven into an…animal?

You say my mistake is the reason that Christians have to remind the mainstream media of the most basic facts concerning their religion. I completely agree. I think you should remind everyone in the mainstream culture (which is predominantly Christian) that their God is someone who sends evil spirits into pigs and drives them off mountains. (Pigs owned by people, by the way. Even if the mainstream culture you are trying to remind the “most basic facts” to isn’t moved by the specter of two thousand pigs hurling themselves off a cliff by Jesus’ direction, they might be upset – in this most commercial & profits driven culture -- that those pigs were owned by someone. Even by today’s standards, two thousand lost pigs have to be counted as an economic loss.)

So yes. Jesus didn’t send some people and pigs off a cliff. He sent the “evil spirits” into two thousand pigs and they ran off a cliff. Is that so much better? Is this the story that you say any seven-year-old Church student knows?

Personally, I would find that defending Jesus’ killing off of a couple of thousand pigs after he infected them with evil spirits a “basic fact” of your faith not worth defending. But that’s just me.

Good luck to you. I hope your mother gets well.

Julia Sweeney

This is the Gospel story: Mark 5:1-20 (New American Standard Bible)

Mark 5

The Gerasene Demoniac
1They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.
2 When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,
3 and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain;
4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him.
5 Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.
6 Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him;
7 and shouting with a loud voice, he said, "What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!"
8 For He had been saying to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"
9 And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Legion; for we are many."
10 And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country.
11 Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain.
12 The demons implored Him, saying, "Send us into the swine so that we may enter them."
13 Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.
14 Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened.
15 They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the "legion"; and they became frightened.
16 Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine.
17 And they began to implore Him to leave their region.
18 As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him.
19 And He did not let him, but He said to him, "Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you."
20 And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

More thoughts on this story:

Rereading this story, I find it even more upsetting. We know that people who behave in the way this man is behaving are psychologically traumatized and need help, maybe even medical help. If Jesus is the Son of an all-knowing God and they are also One, why wouldn’t Jesus know this? Why wouldn’t he prescribe a medication for the man, or offer to hear the man’s story and try to help him with some Talk-therapy? Clearly Jesus doesn’t know about these things. Clearly this was written in a time when no one knew about these things. Jesus was responding to this poor crazy man in a way that was consistent with the scientific information they had. They believed that mentally disabled people were possessed. And they believed that pigs were bad.

I mean, isn’t this obviously a story that would have wowed people two thousand years ago and isn’t relevant to us today? Why does anyone cling to these stories for spiritual sustenance? Why do they look at this story and find it meaningful? I don’t get it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I must perform these two monologues.

Well, I just couldn’t stand it. I had to figure out a way to keep doing these shows! The good news is that I am going to be making both monologues into films in the next year. I have a great producer (I can’t announce his name just yet) and we are in the planning stages for filming. In the meantime, I wanted to keep both monologues alive in my head. And since I’m doing a benefit in Spokane, performing In The Family Way, on Oct. 7th, I figured I should call the Groundling Theater and figure out some dates where I could do my shows.

So, I’m going to do ten Sunday morning performances. Three of In The Family Way, and seven of Letting Go Of God. I know, it’s weird doing a Sunday morning matinee, but I really wanted to do it at the Groundling Theater (that place is like the house I grew up in, I feel so closely connected to it) and that’s the only time the theater really had for me. Plus, I will admit, I love that time of the day and that time of the weekend. (Maybe that's why Church's do so well...) In my case, I get up so early, and I often have other things I want to do on Sunday afternoons (like go to the Skeptic lectures in Pasadena at Cal Tech -- see and Sunday nights are hard because there's work and school the next day to get ready for, and well, to me a Sunday morning show is perfect. Also, I used to go to the eleven a.m. Sunset Five matinees years ago, and it sure seemed like there were a lot of us out there who enjoyed seeing something at that time of the weekend.

Also…I am less interested in bodies in the seats than I am in keeping my performance up and current in my brain. Also…(so many also’s…!) it gives me a chance to serve coffee and scones and drive my publicist crazy because of what a weird-ass idea it is to do shows on Sunday mornings. So, there you go.


And ALSO the parking is great on Sunday morning, no valet, plenty of street parking –and great places to go to brunch before or after. I will gather information on restaurants nearby over the next few weeks. I will be starting Sept. 25th and do sporadic Sundays through October, then pretty much every Sunday through the middle of December. And finally, two Sundays in January.

I am going to do Letting Go Of God in Palm Springs on March 11, 2006. I will have more details soon. Then, in May, Ira Glass and I are going to do a joint show in Seattle and in Austin. I will have more details about that soon too. In that case, I will be doing a one hour version of my show, and then questions and answers with Ira afterwards.

What else? Oh yes, I am going to be on a panel at TAM4 in Las Vegas in later January. For information go to or to And then I’m going to be speaking at TED this year. This conference is in Monterey, CA Feb. 22 – 25. For information on that, go to

That’s all I can announce right now. Whew. In the meantime, I am working at Desperate Housewives three days a week and on my book for two days a week. I know I said I was going to blog more, but…I have so much to say that I can’t actually SAY. ARGH. So, it’s hard. But I will try.

Mulan and I just went up to Spokane for five days last week. I have eight girlfriends who I've known my whole life, and we all got together last Wednesday to boat around Coeur'D Alene lake and drink margaritas and get caught up. We talked all day long. We could have been at it for a week, I think we all felt we were just scratching the surface. We all vowed to do this more often. We jumped off the roof of the houseboat we were in, and we drove past Camp Sweloken where many of us went to Camp Fire Girls Camp when we were young, and we even yelled out our old camp "call" and the current campers answered us back from the beach. It was heaven. The next day Mulan and I went boating with Darcy and her sister Dena, who are among my old pals. Darcy lives on the Spokane River. She water skis four times a week all summer. She works two days a week. Her life is AWESOME. I was inspired and jealous and felt lucky all at the same time.

Every minute I wanted to move back to Spokane. The whole time I was there, I was thinking, "You had the guts to move OUT of Spokane, but do you have the guts to move BACK?" Like it was the tag of a movie or something. Mulan and my mother and my niece and nephew and I went to the movie March Of The Penguins. We all also saw the Imax movie about the Nile. I try to see all the IMAX movies.

We went on the carousel downtown, we wandered through Riverfront park, we went to Auntie's bookstore and got books. The weather was perfect. We had a little wind storm that kept us in one night. WHAT AM I DOING HERE IN LOS ANGELES?

I kept reminding myself that I actually really like Los Angeles. And I really like my neighborhood and the schools and I love show business, too. But still...

One night I drove past my grandmother's house and sat outside for ten or fifteen minutes and fantasized about buying it, remodeling it, and then just...quilting and listening to the radio in it for the rest of my life.

I was recently talking to a writer friend about characters and their "drives." When you write on a show, you are always talking about what the character "wants" and what their "drive" is what they are willing to do to "get" what they want. All these words are so active. And my whole writing career I have had a hard time with it. When I write things on my own, my characters are very passive. Things happen TO them. They don't want very much. I mean, I have learned how to think in the "drive" mode, but this is not natural to me. It's hard for me to think of: plot. I am much better with character and characters reacting to things that happen.

Anyway, my friend said something that just blew my mind. It changed they way I approach much of my writing. He said, "Look. All I really want to do is read the newspaper. And everything that happens is my personal obstacle to getting to just sit down and read the paper. So that's all you need, that's all the drive you have to have."

I know this may seem so inconsequential, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Yes. YES. That's exactly right. And that's true for me -- at least for the moment. All I really want to do is quilt and listen to the radio. That's all I want to do. I want that like some people want heroin. (I am taking a quilting class on Saturdays now...just so you know. I am making a quilt for my daughter's stuffed animal, Eddie, an object that she has not parted with since we got off the plane from China.)

So, I sat outside my grandmother's house, a house I have only happy and content and loving memories associated with, and I just wanted to buy that house and quilt and listen to the radio. For like...years and years. Till I was tired of it. Even though I couldn't imagine being tired of it.

Okay. Here I am wistfully going on about this when I'm also announcing all this performing. I guess I am full of contradictions, like, I suppose, we all are.

But still! Quilting and listening to the radio!