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ROSA BROOKS

Naomi Wolf gets religion

January 27, 2006|ROSA BROOKS

NAOMI WOLF has found Jesus!

Wolf first made a name for herself with "The Beauty Myth," a 1991 feminist critique of feminine stereotypes. Admired by some and ridiculed by others, Wolf has since written on everything from motherhood to promiscuity. During the 2000 election campaign, she famously advised Al Gore to work on being an "alpha male," and her most recent book, a folksy memoir about her father, left many erstwhile fans clearing their throats in embarrassment.

Maybe that's what pushed Wolf toward Jesus. In an interview published last weekend in Scotland's Glasgow Sunday Herald, Wolf announced that she had been struggling with a midlife crisis a few years ago when she went into "a light meditative state." That's when it happened: "I was completely dumbfounded but I actually had this vision of ... of Jesus."

If that doesn't sound like the Naomi Wolf you love (or hate), Wolf agrees. "I wasn't myself in this visual experience. I was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to him [Jesus] and feeling feelings I'd never felt in my lifetime.... It was probably the most profound experience of my life."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 03, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Religion: A Jan. 27 column about religion in the United States said the Pilgrims hanged witches. It was the Puritans.

Has Wolf genuinely found her spiritual side, albeit by getting in touch with her inner adolescent boy? Or is this sheer opportunism, a bid for media love in an evangelized world that's increasingly hostile to feminism?

The Herald was quick to put it all in perspective. "In America, finding God is an acceptable resolution to midlife crisis."

Well, no need to be snide! It's true that the United States has always had a tradition of eclectic religiosity. And why not? Our shores were settled by the Pilgrims, who were brave, brilliant and -- face it -- absolutely nuts. They arrived in the New World and lost no time before starting to denounce one another as heretics. Before the century was out, they had managed to hang 19 witches. Then there was the Great Awakening and the Wesleyan revival and the rise of "televangelism," to mention but a few episodes of American religious fervor.

So yes, we Americans have always been enthusiastic about religion. Speaking in tongues? We can do that. Visions and fainting fits? We can produce entire revival camps full of synchronized fainters. Don't like your old religion? We've got a new one. Found Jesus while you were temporarily inhabiting the body of a 13-year-old boy? Not a problem, Naomi: We've got a church for you here somewhere.

It's true that some of our zanier religious impulses have been rather destructive (think Jim Jones and Kool-Aid), but others have been bound up with notable American achievements. The ferment of the Great Awakening led to the founding of Princeton and Columbia, and the mid-19th century religious revivals helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

Given our history, perhaps it's inevitable that many a modern midlife crisis will culminate in a spiritual awakening. But in our religion-saturated culture, I worry that we're losing touch with another great American tradition: the tradition of skepticism, rebellion and good old-fashioned orneriness.

In my own family, that's a tradition we cherish. I grew up hearing about my great-great-grandmother Mamie O'Laughlin. As her father lay dying, Mamie summoned a priest to his bedside. The priest sent back a message demanding $25, far beyond the family's meager means, and her father died without the sacrament. Later, when Mamie herself lay dying, a priest came -- this time unbidden. He offered Mamie the crucifix. Summoning up the last of her strength, she furiously flung it across the room.

Then there was my paternal great-grandfather, Chaim Steinbrook, born in the mid-1800s in a Russian Jewish village where his own father was a grain merchant and self-styled Talmudic scholar. In one version of the family legend, Chaim's father refused to let his hungry neighbors consume any of his plentiful grain during a year of famine, because the grain had been planted after the previous Passover and thus was not yet kosher. Disgusted, 14-year-old Chaim ran way from home and found his way to America, where he later refused to let his children even visit the local synagogue's playground.

Many Americans have characters like these in their family trees: rebels and misfits, independent spirits who place the demands of humanity over the blandishments of religion. People like the early American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had little time for religious cant. Stanton mocked the biblical account of Eve's origin in Adam's rib as "a petty surgical operation to find material for the mother of the race. It is on this allegory that all the enemies of women rest their battering rams."

As for Wolf, it's hard to argue with a vision. But if Wolf, who insists she's still committed to feminism, really needs a great American tradition to help her through her midlife crisis, she could do worse than emulate Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

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