Back to household gods

Culture | Lite spiritual fixes and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Y2K: Binary blowout?," Aug. 22, 1998

Idolatry as interior design
Did you just buy a new house? Do you want to keep up with the Joneses? Forget about adding that deck or swimming pool. Go rearrange everything according to a mystical blueprint. Maybe buy a nice Buddhist altar. One of the biggest trends in interior design is something called "sacred space." The idea is to reclaim a slice of the sacred in a barren world. "Creating sacred space in the home, garden, and workplace helps us articulate and integrate spirit into our daily lives," writes Peg Streep, author of a how-to book called Altars Made Easy. One of the top superstitions that this is based on is the Eastern tradition of Feng Shui (Fung Shway), which claims that the arrangement of a home affects the "energy" of the place. In turn, this can improve the well-being of the residents. The proper placement of special items, such as childhood mementos or pictures of Grandma, can help spruce up the "spirituality" of the house. The good old impersonal power source that keeps the universe running must be picky about decorating. Plenty of Feng Shui practitioners are willing to tell people how the positioning of doors can connect us with nature. "A client of mine simply moved his desk into the command position and received a 40 percent increase in business," claims consultant Kathy Mann of the "Black Hat Sect of Tibetan Tantiric Buddhism" (sic) in her pitch on Ironically, people who sneer at churches feel the need to set up sacred space. We are back to the "high places" and household gods regularly condemned in the Old Testament books of Kings. As astrology for sophisticates, the sacred-space fad grants the momentary illusion of a behind-the-scenes look at one's own destiny. Rearranging a house or buying a few chimes to help the energy move around is easy. Moral demands and substitutionary atonement are messier. Political conversions
In the 1930s, four bright Jewish kids went to New York's City College and launched themselves into careers as political thinkers. They started out as Marxists, but drifted toward the mainstream. One, Irving Howe, died a social democrat. Two, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell, became moderate liberals. The fourth, Irving Kristol, became the godfather of neoconservatism and one of the architects of the Reagan Revolution. A PBS-bound documentary called Arguing The World (not rated, First Run Features) tells their story. It takes these men's lives off the dusty bookshelves and shows their place in American history. Filmmaker Jonathan Dorman shows these men as endlessly introspective, obsessed with ideas, and looking for answers as events and people march through their lives. At first each was enthralled with socialism, Trotsky, and third-party presidential candidate Norman Thomas. These guys were so far out on the fringe that they worried that supporting America in World War II would compromise their war on capitalism. Over time they had to come to terms with their own histories, mainstream America, and the fruits of their own radical ideas. When the '60s came and long-haired SDS ideologues crashed their quiet academic lives, their pasts came back to haunt them. They even considered closing the barn door after their Leftist horse got away by doing what they thought would be a near-impossible deed: voting Republican. (Mr. Kristol, of course, made the jump and never looked back.) Filmmaker Dorman gives a good introduction to this quartet of thinkers whose views diverged wildly over time. Too bad he paints them as men with ideas, but not lives. Irving Kristol's wife Gertrude Himmelfarb-a major neoconservative voice in her own right-is mentioned once, while his Quayle-supporting son Bill, now a major presence on the political scene, goes unmentioned. And while Mr. Dorman sets the historical scene well, he doesn't explain many details of the political differences. Each man's views, writing, and exploits are shown in broad-brush strokes, leaving the viewer hungry for details. But he does the world a service by making these men and their influential ideas accessible to a new audience. Who you gonna call? Stress-busters
Stress isn't just a headache or a hard day at the office. It's a big business. Americans spent $9.4 billion in 1996 alone just trying to get the weight of the world off their shoulders. The money went toward everything from stress balls and soft music to self-help books and anti-depressant drugs. This ever-growing industry is one a group of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism calls "Stress Inc." The students built an investigative Web site ( reporting on the business behind peace of mind. The word came into the pop vocabularies back in 1956 when Dr. Hans Selye published a book about The Stress of Life. Pharmaceutical companies immediately jumped on the bandwagon, using the s-word to sell pain relievers. Three years later, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought transcendental meditation to the United States. The momentum never stopped. Everything from breath mints and bath beads to political candidates and religious creeds are pitched as stress-reducing tickets to personal peace. Just sign on the dotted line, sit back, and relax. One of the student investigators, Kim Fraser, notes that the term stress isn't clearly defined and is as much a marketing term as a medical one. "Attention to stress tends to go in cycles, usually sparked by a scientific (or pseudoscientific) discovery," she writes. "Type A and B personalities, aerobics, meditation, the link between stress and heart disease-all were introduced by medical professionals, then spiraled into national obsessions." Stress Inc. includes a section discussing the new Maharishis moving into this turf. They found a psychologist in Queens who charges $500 to come into an office and make employees sit around and bang on drums for an hour. Major corporations from American Express to Xerox are willing to pay for this "Journey Into Relaxation." This clever site raises good questions. In our society stress hangs over us like a black cloud, reminding us always of our own finitude and that even our greatest achievements are tinged with discomfort. This is a case-like every other postmodern crisis from dysfunctional families to obsessive relationships-of our society's loving therapeutic relief from symptoms, but discarding the cure for its disease.

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