Geneva Blackmer, intern for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, interviews the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet, founder of the Council, about his new book, “Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire.”
GENEVA BLACKMER: As many Kansas City natives are aware, you have an extensive resume as a Professor of Religion, teaching a variety of classes at Ottawa University, St. Paul’s School of Theology, and the “Interfaith Academies” partnered by Harvard’s Pluralism Project — to name a few. So the first, and most obvious, question seems to be: Why did you decide to write the book of sonnets before the well anticipated book on world religions, that many people were expecting? And did you have any reservations about this decision or how it may potentially effect your reputation?
VERN BARNET: Yes, many people have known me for more than thirty years as an advocate for celebrating religions, especially in the lives of folks in our own community. And when, after 947 columns in “The Kansas City Star” and monthly articles in “Many Paths,” many friends asked me to compile the best of these pieces as part of a book on world religions. I feel urgency about the three crises of our time — in the environment, in personhood, and in the social fabric — and the parallel wisdom from the primal, Asian, and monotheistic traditions to heal these diseases.
But, frankly, I’ve not found an effective way to communicate the shattering urgency of the big picture about world religions. We are still at the “let’s be nice to one another” stage, not ready to address the convulsions of our desacralized culture that are so large most of us cannot fit them into our fields of vision. We recognize “these” and “those” problems and dangers, but cannot see how they are all connected and amplified by the pervasive loss of the sense of the sacred.
So, because I don’t know how many days or years are left for me to make a contribution, I decided to tackle the unruly confusion about love throughout today’s world, in a very personal way, with my book of sonnets aimed, through a multi-faith landscape, to show how sexuality and spirituality are intimately related, and how the poetic form can propel the journey by which this truth can be discovered afresh.
This, of course, opens me to challenge, and I did consider publishing the book anonymously. I do not want to offend those with different views. I do not want to lose precious friendships. I hope that, just as Shakespeare wrote that he was “shamed by that which I bring forth” in his sonnets, so the spiritual exploration he has bequeathed to us helps me to hope that my sonnets have authentic spiritual, medicinal, and artistic value as well.
GENEVA: Anyone who opens a copy of Thanks for Noticing will quickly draw their attention to the extensive footnotes seen throughout the book. What makes these footnotes so important in regards to each individual sonnet, and the complete work? Were there certain religious traditions or sacred texts utilized more than others?
VERN:From A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, I draw upon religions of the world. I cannot expect most readers to recognize allusions to themes from faiths with which they are not familiar. The footnotes and glosses are critically important to convey the message of the book, which is, like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, an integration of poetry and prose. While each of the 154 sonnets in a sense may stand on its own, the sonnets are arranged by the movements of the Mass, and so a larger picture emerges from the book as a whole, with its introductory material and appendices, as well as the notes.
I am an Episcopalian. After the book was published, I discovered that unconsciously I included over a hundred references to writers in this tradition, and many more from the larger Christian faith. The subtitle of the book, The Interpretation of Desire, comes from the towering Muslim mystic, Ibn Arabi, and Islamic thought pervades the book. My doctoral dissertation was on Sunya, the Void, Emptiness, a key Buddhist teaching, and that also has significantly shaped my sonnets. These and many other religious citations are indexed as a kind of “concordance” on a developing website which can be found at VernBarnet.com.
GENEVA:Sonnets are obviously a unique and old-fashioned poetic form, and you have mentioned many times the bridge between your work and that of Shakespeare’s. In true Shakespearean form, your sonnets take the reader on an exquisite journey of passion, love, and sexuality. Do you feel that your sonnets help the reader truly embrace sexuality in the sacred world, rather than isolating it in secular world? Or perhaps help to reduce the stigma around sexuality in certain religious interpretations, that deem it as “evil” or “impure?” Was this a factor in why you chose this particular medium to express your thoughts?
VERN: Absolutely! Most folks don’t know that Shakespeare, an icon of Western culture, as we see from all the commemorations during this year marking the 400th anniversary of his death, wrote most of the sonnets to a young man with whom he was profoundly in love. Those, and the sonnets to a “dark lady” tell of rapture and anguish, enchantment and despair, disgust, deceit, and forgiveness, death and art. They mature into an astonishing spiritual testimony.
My sonnets are similarly addressed. Shakespeare did not have the benefit of studying what the world’s religious traditions have said about the flesh, and even today most readers do not know how affirming religions have been of the multiple ways in which love is expressed, and of how love can open to the experience of the divine. I wanted, in sometimes the earthiest way possible, to celebrate such explorations in my own sonnets, to show that the flesh is sacred, that love is divine, that sexuality and spirituality can be identical. As Rumi wrote, “The way you make love is the way God will be with you.”
One strand of Christianity, from Augustine’s Manichaean background, does separate matter and spirit, and considers one evil, impure, and the other good. The perversion of Augustine’s influence has often overwhelmed a more wholesome understanding of holiness. Through Western colonial culture, this Christian influence on some forms of Islam and Hinduism, for example, has been a disaster. I hope my book, accessing the religions of the world, will illumine the holy from the various traditions in a fresh and beautiful way.
GENEVA: Where can people get the book?
VERN: The Kansas City Library has copies and it can be purchased at several local bookshops or online. Also I’m giving talks about it around town, and folks can get copies on my site. I want to add that I am forever indebted to the folks serving on the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, past and present, from whom I have learned so much and for whom I have such affection. The book, with its footnotes and all, is, in part, a tribute to them.