Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Pain

I’m feeling it, every day, in my small corner of the internet.  We’re hurting. We’re troubled.  We’ve lost something we fear we may never get back.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”  With Kate Kelly’s excommunication, some of us feel as though the Body of Christ just suffered an amputation.  And pain lingers.

Imagine a young woman in the Church, happily LDS, bright and ambitious.  I knew many such women in my twenty-plus years teaching at a university.  Let’s suppose she goes to college, graduates, finds a job in her field.  At work, she’s treated professionally, as an equal to others in her group or team or company. Occasionally, she may experience casual sexism, but there are places to lodge complaints, and complaints are taken seriously.  Perhaps she marries, and with some dexterity performs that delicate balancing act between work and family.  But then there’s Church, where empowerment seems more distant, even unattainable.  Why do men, only men, make the key decisions?  Is a biological imperative, reproduction, really equivalent to institutional governance, as the rhetoric suggests?  Why cannot mothers hold their babies when they’re blessed?  Why doesn’t the Relief Society President sit on the stand, with the other ward leaders? And boy, does modesty rhetoric grate on the ear. Petty complaints, perhaps, but suggestive.  And so this: Is this what God wants for her?  This can’t be right, can it?  And in that cognitive dissonance, there’s great discomfort, shading in time to pain, shading further into outrage.

But this hypothetical young woman is from the internet generation.  She’s used to social media; she’s used to organizing on-line, she’s used to chat rooms and Twitter and websites and Facebook, and Facebook groups. And she discovers other people who share her discomfort and pain and outrage.  There’s a forum for her.  There’s Segullah and Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives.  And there’s OW.  And she makes friends (“I’m not alone!), and meets new heroines.  And the institutional church has no equivalent space for the kinds of conversations she longs for.  And those on-line communities are empowering.  And one heroine, for many, is Kate Kelly.

1 Corinthians 12 has been a scripture oft-cited over the last ten days, those wonderful words about the body of Christ, and our interdependence and when “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  And Kate Kelly’s excommunication feels like the unnecessary excision of a crucial body part, feels like a misguided institutional effort to silence a voice that may be heterodox, but that has provided great comfort to many.

And it hurts.  Oh, my gosh, it hurts.

But Paul also wrote this, in the same epistle, to the same Corinthians, right there in the previous chapter to the one I just cited:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.  Every woman that prayeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head, for that is as if she were shaven. . . .

For a man ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11: 3-9)

 

Paul, for all his wisdom and insight and inclusive vision for a Church open to all, was also kind of a sexist jerk. I mean, of course he was.  He lived in the first century CE.  He was a Roman citizen.  People from the past pretty much always look like sexist jerks to us.  Unrighteous dominion is a universal temptation, especially, as Joseph Smith pointed out, for Priesthood holders (D&C 121: 33-39).  Sexism, institutionalized sexism, is our heritage and our burden. We’re making some progress.  We have a long way to go.
That’s one way to see it.
But look at this another way.  Another hypothetical woman, another perspective.  This second woman is every bit as smart, every bit as tough-minded, every bit as thoughtful as my first hypothetical woman.  But she’s not troubled by LDS sexism.  She doesn’t even see it; she’s not convinced it exists.  She’s been active in the Church her whole life, and it brings meaning and peace and fulfillment to her. Her husband treats her as an equal, and from her point of view, so have all the men in the Church with whom she’s interacted. She’s had leadership positions in the Church, and remembers those experiences with great fondness and affection.  She feels at home in the fellowship of the saints, and in the sisterhood of the Relief Society.  To her, Ordain Women is home to malcontents, to troublemakers. Doubt is something to be overcome, not voiced.  Stop complaining, and do your visiting teaching.  And to her, the very existence of OW, or of other manifestations of Mormon feminism are laden with disrespect, not just to LDS men, but also to women like her.  When you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you’re calling her entire worldview into question.  You’re essentially saying she’s stupid. Or weak. Or unperceptive.  It’s an insult, finally.  God has spoken; we’re a church built on revelation, so follow the prophet, and you’ll be happy.  Again.
We’ve heard those voices too, haven’t we?  And if we’re Christians, if we’re genuinely trying to be disciples of Christ, can’t we see that second perspective is not just subjectively legitimate, but that it also comes from a place of pain?  That women who oppose OW feel disrespected, belittled, that they are as legitimized by the pain they’ve endured as the women who support it? 
We all need to forgive.  We all need to repent.  The way out of pain is Christ’s atonement, freely offered and freely accepted.  
This is tricky, because we’re talking about two different perspectives, two different world-views even, and one seems supported by the institutional Church, and one seems to have just been categorically rejected by it.  If you’re a liberal Mormon (and I am), and you live in Utah (and I do), you know how much of a minority you are.  I love my ward, but I can’t pretend that they regard me as anything but an amiable eccentric.  It’s a role I’m happy enough to embrace.  But without the internet, I don’t know how many real friends I would have locally.  So it’s easy to feel like a persecuted minority. And there’s unrighteous pride in embracing that label too enthusiastically.
But Jesus knew rejection. Nazareth was a poor village, a couple of miles from one of the richest cities in the world, at the time, Sepphoris.  As a carpenter, he probably got work in the big city–the poorest of the poor, working for the richest of the rich.  He knew rejection, he knew inequality, he knew disrespect.  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was not just a put-down, it was a deliberate, contemptuous insult.  He was Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody, from nowhere.  And he called for us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile.  To forgive.  Unconditionally.  
My grandmother was a BYU faculty member back in the 60s, and one day, she discovered, completely by accident, that her assistant was making more money than she was.  She went to her Dean with this news, and he told her that it was because he was a man, supporting a family.  My grandmother was a widow, with five children at home.  She protested, and then he smiled at her condescendingly and said ‘women’s libber.’
She suffered that insult, and I know she found it devastating.  And she had four daughters, and all of them earned advanced college degrees, and worked professionally.  But she never considered herself a feminist, and would have found OW troubling. Nobody fits perfectly any template, and life’s always more complicated than we can suppose.

History is a battlefield, as is the term ‘feminist’ itself.  For some of us, Nauvoo means ‘The Beautiful’, cradle of revelation, home to the first sealing ordinances and a great vision of eternal progression.  For others, Nauvoo means a place of secretive, immensely creepy polygamy.  And for still others of us, Nauvoo means. . .  both.  Both/and.

We’re trying to find our way, as a Church, as a worship community, as participants in an immensely rewarding and frustrating trans-cultural conversation. Can we still find a way to press forward?  To forgive, to admit we don’t know all the answers, and to confess to ourselves that we’re in pain, and that pain is perhaps the one thing our Savior knew most intimately.  Let’s embrace Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody from nowhere, and Savior of the world.  Both/and.  And move, perhaps, a little ways towards healing.

My favorite calling ever

The Mormon practice of lay ministries has come under scrutiny lately, because of what we’ve been referring to around here as, ahem, the recent unpleasantness.  Still, callings are a fairly unique part of Mormonism.  Pretty much everyone gets to serve.  We get ‘called’ to do some job or another, called by our bishop, usually, or occasionally by our stake President.  I’ve had callings since I was a kid.  Some of them were really interesting, callings where I was asked to do something I thought I might be good at and others where I struggled. That’s true for most of us, I think.

Once, for example, I was called to be ward membership clerk.  It’s an exacting calling, requiring a certain level of computer literacy, meticulous organizational skills, and a laser-sharp attention to detail.  Any of you out there who know me: does that sound like me?

At all?

There was one sister who I transferred in and our of our ward four times, entirely by mistake. The bishop got copied on all my transactions, and he finally called me and asked what I had against Sister (?).  Of course, I didn’t have anything against her.  I was just trying to tell the computer that she’d had a baby.  That computer program didn’t like me, and I didn’t like it, and that’s all I’m going to say.

The one benefit the calling had was that I got to look up my own records, where I learned that I’d died in 1991.  There I was, listed as ‘deceased.’  I informed the bishop of this, and he told me that it didn’t get me out of speaking that next Sunday.  Nor was I excused from paying tithing.  Being dead didn’t seem to confer any benefits at all that I could see, so, reluctantly, I informed the computer that I had not, in fact, passed on.  It asked me if I was sure.  Yep, pretty sure.

But by far the awesomest, funnest calling I ever had in my life involved my one and only time in the Primary.  I was called as Primary Temple Coordinator.  This was a calling unique to our ward, the brainchild of the Primary President, but an exceptionally good idea, in my opinion.  My job was to prepare a weekly presentation on the temple for the kids, during something called Sharing Time.  Sharing Time was for learning Primary songs (all of which are amazing, especially “Hinges,” the best song ever about elbows, vertebrae and knees.  “I’m all made of hinges, ’cause everything bends, from the top of my neck way down to my ends.”  What a great song.)  Sharing Time was also for stuff like recognizing kids who’d had birthdays. Stuff like that.  Well, in my ward, they carved out five minutes for me to do a temple spiel.

What I did was go in with a picture of one of the 143 LDS temples world wide, plus a globe of the world. I would point to the picture, and ask the kids which temple it was.  Then we’d look on the globe for where it was.  Then I’d show them where we were, in Utah, on the globe, and we’d make a big deal of how far it was to that temple.  And then I’d give a little lesson about temples; just very short and to the point.

Primary kids are between 3-12 years old; wonderful ages.  Kids that age are so amazingly, alarmingly honest.  For one lesson, for example, I brought in my wedding pictures; me and my wife standing outside the Oakland Temple.  I asked the kids “who do you think this is, in this picture?”  Answer: “It’s you and some lady!”  Another kid chimed in “you were a lot skinnier then!”  Sadly true.  Then I said “the lady in the picture is my wife, Annette.  Sister Samuelsen.”  “She’s a lot skinnier in the picture too,” said the kid.

The Primary Presidency kept a list of which kids had gotten to do things in Sharing Time, and they gave me suggestions about who hadn’t been called on for awhile and should therefore be recognized.  I worried a little that the kid I was supposed to call on wouldn’t volunteer.  No need.  Kids are basically narcissists; every kid could be counted on to volunteer for everything. I’d say “who wants to show me where this temple is?”  And every hand would go up: “me! me! me! I want to!”  Of course, they never had the tiniest clue.  And then you’d say “see, this is the temple in Switzerland.  Where is that on the globe” and they never had a clue about that either.  You’d work with them.  You’d show them where Switzerland is, and where Utah is, and, wow, look, how far apart they are!  But I’m not sure if the kids put it together.  One kid did.  I said “see how far away Korea is,” and he said, “how long would that take in an airplane.”  “A very long time,” I assured him.  (Like I knew!)  “How many days?” he asked.  The kid sitting next to him gave him a contemptuous look.  “Four,” he said confidently.  “It takes four days to get to Korea.”  All the other kids went ‘ooo.’  I decided to just let it go.

But of course kids are also the non-sequitur kings of the universe.  Once, I remember, I asked where the temple in the picture was, and one tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her hand, ‘me, me, call on me.’  She was, in fact, next on the Primary list, so I called on her.  And she said, proudly, loudly, confidently, “I just got new shoes!”

I loved the kids’ energy.  Of course, they’d just come from a 75 minute sacrament meeting, an endless time of just excruciating boredom, I imagine.  At least, that’s how I remember it, when I was in Primary. So Sharing Time was a time to get out the wiggles a little.  Getting to spin a globe probably looked comparatively fun.  Not as fun as singing and doing the motions for “Hinges,” but not half bad either.

I was Primary Temple Coordinator for about a year, and I loved every second of it. I think that any calling involving working with little kids is pretty awesome.  My wife and I also shared a calling once as Nursery Leaders, which was also pretty fun, if a little more meltdown-intensive.  Nursery is for kids aged 18 months-3 years.  There were lessons we were supposed to teach, and the Church manual for the Nursery lessons is amazing.  We taught lessons like “Trees show how much Heavenly Father loves us,” which is completely true, and good for all of us to contemplate.  The kids never paid attention, of course, but they got to draw leaves with crayons, which their parents were required, on pain of excommunication, to display with magnets on the fridge.  So we had something tangible to show for our efforts.

Of course, let’s not sentimentalize the kids involved.  I love children, but let’s get real: six-year olds are narcissists, and 18 month olds are sociopaths.  So you have to stay endlessly alert. But they’re also amazing, with an incredible capacity for love and affection, and also unrelenting selfishness. They’re us, in other words.  Human beings, in miniature.  Whose heart wouldn’t be captured?

 

 

Supporting Obama

I haven’t blogged for over a week, and I apologize.  My parents were visiting, and I just thought I’d give myself a little vacation.  But I’m back now, energized, I hope, for more commentary about Mormonism, politics, culture, and baseball.  Eclectic ‘R Us.

As I said, my parents were in town, and as often happens, my father and I got into it a little about politics.  I should point out that I admire my father immensely, like him and enjoy his company, all that.  But as he’s gotten older, he’s become increasingly Tea Party-ish in his political views, which, of course, I’m really really not. Meanwhile, NBC News aired their big Brian Williams interview with Edward Snowden, and it got me thinking about President Obama. And I also had a chat with my son recently, in which he asked how those of us who are genuinely progressive can possibly continue to support his President, whose actions on civil liberties are so disappointing, and so essentially indefensible.

My Dad, of course, thinks this President is the worst President of his lifetime.  He thinks that for lots of reasons, some of them valid, most of them not. What I suspect is that there’s a link between the fact that he despises this President and how much he watches, and likes, Fox News.  But I don’t want to blame Fox for everything.  My Dad’s 81, but he’s a thoughtful and intelligent guy; he’s perfectly able to dismiss some of Fox News’ worst excesses.

But still.  My Dad thinks that President Obama has been an incompetent, lawless and feckless President.  He thinks Obamacare is a disaster, and will lead to the worst excesses of socialized medicine.  Dad knows quite a bit about Norwegian health care, for example.  He was serving a mission in Norway when he had a heart attack, and was told that a simple EKG would take months, but that they would put him on a waiting list for it.  Instead, he got permission to return home early, and received life-saving medical treatment immediately here, in America.  My Dad also thinks that this President’s foreign policy has made America weaker, has damaged our standing in the world, and that Putin is playing him for a chump.  And President Obama’s handling of the economy has been a disaster. Worst of all, of course, is the federal deficit and debt, which Obama’s federal spending spree have driven completely out of control.

And there you go.  And not all that is wrong.  Most of it is, of course, but there’s just enough truth to it to make it plausible.

And meanwhile, I think the Snowden interview showed how far this President has gone in violating American civil liberties, how he has continued the dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric of the War on Terror we remember from the Bush years, how the use of attack drones have been operationally effective, but strategically a disaster.  I voted for President Obama–voted for him twice, and I do not regret either vote.  But I have my own disappointments with this President.  So I want to defend him.  I want to defend the policies of a President who I agree with on enough issues to feel good about supporting.  But I’m still uneasy with many aspects of his Presidency.

What’s needed in this conversation is nuance, an agreed upon set of facts, and a presumption of good will.  Not so easy to come by when talking to a Tea Party supporter.  And that’s particularly true when the Tea Party supporter in question is someone you love.

We have to remember that no President (or politician) has the freedom to do anything s/he wants to.  Presidents have to operate within the constraints of their time and place.

To give an example, I rather admire the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.  Moderate Republican, sensible man, built the interstate highway system, enjoyed a humming economy through most of his Presidency–there’s a lot to like there.  But one of the great blots on his Presidency was the ascendance of Senator Joe McCarthy, and that shameful episode in American history known as McCarthyism.  President Eisenhower thought McCarthy was a drunken buffoon–despised the man and most of what he stood for. And when McCarthy was waving sheets of paper with names, he said, of State Department officials who were Communists, Eisenhower knew perfectly well that it was all a lot of nonsense, that it was just a typical McCarthy stunt. But he couldn’t really ever say so.  Anti-Communist hysteria had such a firm hold on our country that taking on McCarthy directly would have been political suicide.  Plus, you know, we were in an existential struggle with the forces of the Soviet Union–it’s not like there wasn’t a genuine ideological battle to worry about, however preposterously we may have overreacted to it.

By the same token, President Obama can not afford to be painted as soft on terrorism.  And let’s face it, the first responsibility of any President has to be to keep the country safe.  That means that almost any President is likely to value security over civil liberties, if a choice has to be made.  I think the Snowden revelations have been really devastating and powerful and important, and personally, I consider Snowden a patriot and a hero.  But I also understand why this President feels he has to call Snowden a traitor, why the NSA still has essentially carte blanche to read our tweets and emails, why data mining continues, why these egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment continue unabated and why Obama continues to defend them.

By the same token, while I despise drone warfare, I understand why it’s so appealing to a President.  If we have intelligence about a possible terrorist attack, I understand the appeal of being able to do something about it.  And a drone is surgical (comparatively), and if an unmanned drone is shot down, the President doesn’t have to make a tough phone call to grieving parents.

It’s also a disaster.  The only way to defeat terrorism as a tactic is to win the hearts and minds of people who are on the fence regarding religious extremism.  Nothing is going to drive them into the hands of terrorist organizations faster than having these deadly flying things killing their fellow countrymen.

So what positives can we bring to a conversation about Obama?  Well, first of all, Obamacare works.  It’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than the status quo, and it will help even more people get health care going forward.  When America and Europe were both clobbered by the world-wide financial crisis, President Obama (mostly) stood up against those arguing for economic austerity, which is why our economy recovered better than the economies of almost any other country.  What was needed was stimulus, and if the Obama stimulus was too small and somewhat misdirected, it did happen and it did work.  He saved the US economy at a moment when that economy seemed very much at risk.

Ignore the Fox News talking points: Benghazi, IRS-gate, the supposed ‘illegalities’ of the administration delaying a few pieces of the complex Obamacare puzzle.  Obama has faced a Congress dominated by ideological extremists and unwilling (even uninterested in) doing anything at all to help the American people.  He’s stood up to them when needed, and gotten a lot of much needed legislation passed.

He’s not a great President.  He’s been a very good President, top third among all Presidents ever.  Give him credit where credit is due.  And feel free to point out his shortcomings.  Friends tell friends the truth, too.

 

Jesus: A Pilgrimage, book review

Every day, just after breakfast, for the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a morning devotional with this lovely book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It’s by a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who also works as a ‘spiritual director.’  I’d never heard of that particular calling before, but essentially, a spiritual director is someone who works with people to help them understand the specific ways God may be working in their lives.  In any event, I can see how his work informs this book.

A few years back, Father Martin went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In each of this book’s twenty-five chapters, he talks about a place in the Holy Land that he visited, his experiences there, the insights he gained, contemporary Bible scholarship about those places or the events that took place in them, and a quiet meditation on the larger themes suggested by the New Testament.  He writes with such good cheer, humor and optimism that he’s a delightful companion for this kind of spiritual journey.  But the emphasis is always on the scripture itself, on his own prayer-life, and on both the historical Jesus, and his own personal encounter with Jesus-the-divine.

What I found was that this wasn’t a book that’s meant to be read straight through, like most books.  It’s rather a book meant to be savored, a chapter at a time, quietly meditating and praying each morning. As I read it, I found myself remembering my own visit to Israel, back in the late 90′s. I remember visiting the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian vendors, and their good cheer and kindness, and how fun it was to bargain with them.  It came rushing back, all of it.

And I love Father Martin’s insights.

Consider his words “Blessed are the poor.” Not every poor person is grateful or generous.  And grinding poverty is an evil. But Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in a poor village, knew that we can often learn from the poor.  Jesus comments about poverty are frequent in the gospels, so it’s always surprising when professed Christians set them aside.  But Jesus is saying that more than helping the poor and more than combating the systems that keeps them poor, we must become like them, in their simplicity, generosity and dependence on God.  We are to become poor ourselves, to strip away everything that keeps us from God.

Naive?  Possibly.  But in an America where so much rhetoric is focused on the poor as ‘takers,’ it’s refreshing to see this modern King Benjamin, focusing on the way we all of us must rely on the bounty of God.  And this is an earned insight; Father Martin spent years working with the super-poor in Kenya.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  At the time I was reading it, I realized that I was, unaccountably, angry.  A lot. I don’t have a lot to be angry about, honestly.  I’m comfortably enough off financially.  I have a wonderful family, and a wife who loves me and who I adore. But years of chronic illness had begun to drain my patience. I was tired of constant pain, tired of being unable to walk more than fifty yards at a time, tired of feeling exhausted and without energy.  And so even the most minor slights began to feel like major insults.  And I woke every day, and went to bed every night, tensed with anger and resentment.

But as a Christian, as a Mormon, as someone who genuinely would like to live by the Sermon on the Mount, I needed to find some perspective.  I needed to cultivate gratitude, as the Beatitudes urge us to.  I needed to say “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”  I needed to embrace the richness and joy of life, and let minor tribulations go. I needed to continue to see my illness as a great blessing, and not as a limitation.  I needed to pray again. I needed to worship.

And then this book fell into my hands.  And I read it, one chapter a day, for a little shy of a month.  And it led me back to works I consider scripture.  And it led me back to a deeper relationship with my Father and my God, who I so often neglect, but who will never cease to love me.

And as I was reading it, my parents came to visit, and to be honest, my relationship with them hasn’t always been as good as it should be.  But this was a good visit, a joyful visit.  I found myself seeing them differently too.

Sometimes the right book comes to you, as a special gift.  This has been that, for me.  And so I humbly recommend it to you.  And it’s for everyone, I think, for believers and non-believers, for Bible scholars and for neophytes, for Mormons and Christians, and probably also for my wonderful, kind, gentle atheist friends too, because we can all learn to love our brothers and sisters more completely.  Or maybe it’s just the right book for me, and one that doesn’t mean anything to you.  If that happens, then that’s fine too.  We all find our own ways towards forgiveness, charity, compassion.  We all find our own path toward love.

 

 

 

A Provo playwright

Sunday was the closing performance of 3, the final play in Plan B Theatre Company’s Season of Eric.  Or perhaps I should put it #seasonoferic, social media being all the rage these days.  I already wrote from the heart about this marvelous year.  But last night we had a staged reading of the first draft of another new play.  And so it continues.

The new play is about 11th century papal politics, and right now, it isn’t very good.  This often happens.  Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and this piece needs a lot of work.  Frankly, hearing the reading, I thought the middle third of the play was just flat boring.  This is not a good quality in a dramatic entertainment.  But the core is solid, the characters work, and all the problems are fixable.  So onward.

I’ve been writing plays, and getting them produced, for 36 years now.  I’m fifty seven years old; I turn fifty eight on Thursday.  And for most of that time, I was living and working in Provo, Utah.  There’s a general tendency for people in Salt Lake to think of Provo as backward, reactionary, conservative, old-fashioned, out of touch.  Hicksville.  All these criticisms/impressions are entirely correct; exceedingly well founded.  I live in Provo because for many years, I taught at BYU; my house is ten minutes from the campus where I worked.  It’s now ten minutes from the campus where my wife works.  I live in Provo as a matter of convenience and necessity.

And yet, I sort of love it.  It’s become home in the most personal sense of that word.  There are many aspects of Mormon culture that drive me bananas. But my ward is characterized by kindness, and my neighborhood is both nurturing and pleasingly eccentric.

Until recently, for example, we had one family in our ward that had these huge dogs; Newfoundlands.  The dogs were trained as therapy dogs, and our friends routinely took them to children’s wards in hospitals to interact with sick kids.  When my daughter was ten, she had to have surgery, a serious back condition, and our friends came to see her in the hospital, and brought their dog.  It was astonishing, to see how that visit transformed my daughter.  We’d see our friends walk the dogs down the street, and it was almost comical; the dogs looked more like bears than canines.  But they were endlessly gentle, the dogs.  I’m still moved when I think of our friends and their hundreds of visits to hospitals, and these huge dogs bringing joy to the lives of sick children.

There’s another family in our ward; good friends as well, from South Africa. And the husband is very active in local politics.  He is, of course, a staunch Republican.  But he could not possibly be more respectful of my heterodox Democratic stance.  He does tease me from time to time about it, but I tease him right back; we’re friends, in every sense that could possibly matter.  And I know he puts in countless hours working with city government on issues that affect our neighborhood.  Puts me to shame, to be honest.

I honestly think that living in Provo has made me a better playwright.  Such is the power of confirmation bias that all of tend to think tribally. And if our political tribe is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ then we tend to think of ideas from the ‘left’ as self-evidently true and valuable and ideas from the ‘right’ as deluded or mistaken or perhaps even actively malicious.  But I have two tribes now.  One is my Salt Lake tribe, the family of actors and designers and theatre professionals who try,as best we can, to do some good theatre from time to time.

But my other tribe is in Provo, in my ward, where people try to raise their families and do their home teaching and find fulfillment in callings and service.

And bad playwriting is polarized, bad playwriting is all about heros and villains and people who are Right in opposition to people who are Wrong.  I’ve done it myself, and been embarrassed afterwards.  I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to live that way.  I want to honor the best of both my tribes.  I’m Salt Lake and Provo.  A pretty conventional progressive and a Mormon high priest.  Both/and.

Spiritual Twinkies

Yesterday, one of the speakers in church talked about ‘spiritual twinkies,’ and how they differ from good spiritual nourishment.  In other words, some people substitute silly, shallow, faddish notions for actual gospel truth.  What we need, she said, is a commitment to solid gospel scholarship, found in the scriptures, and not fill our minds with the intellectually fashionable whims and caprices of ‘the world.’

It was a good talk, and I enjoyed it.  But the speaker didn’t really define her terms very well. She didn’t give examples of what she meant by ‘spiritual twinkies,’ or of ‘good gospel nourishment.’  It was probably just as well that she didn’t.  I think if you ask most Mormons ‘do you agree that we should avoid ‘spiritual twinkies’ and fill our souls with ‘substantive gospel nourishment,’ 100% would agree.  But if you got more specific about it, there’d be a lot of disagreement.  I think what you’d see is a massive display of confirmation bias.  I think everyone would say that their own pet ideas are ‘solid nourishment’ and that ideas they dislike are ‘twinkies.’  And we’d get all polarized, and once again American culture wars would seep over into Mormonism.

I remember two particular priesthood lessons, back to back, many years ago that illustrate my point.  In one lesson, the teacher talked about how important it was that we live by the standards of the gospel in all things, including our amusements, and that we should therefore never play with face cards.

I was outraged. I grew up playing hearts and euchre with my folks.  My Dad taught me gin and blackjack.  My grandfather supplemented the family income by playing poker for cash at the union hall.  He spoke heavily accented, immigrant-y English, and would pretend to not really understand the rules of poker, sort of shambling over to the table, looking pretty clueless.  But in fact, he was an exceptionally intelligent man, with the ability to compute poker odds in his head.  He’d clean up.  My parents love Michigan rummy and played pinochle with friends for years.  I love playing cards.  I still play hearts on-line.  So when this dweeb of a priesthood instructor quoted someone saying we shouldn’t use face cards, I tuned him right out.  Obviously, that was just his opinion; a spiritual Twinkie if ever there was one.

The next week, we had a different instructor. And he based his lesson on President Kimball’s ‘Don’t shoot the little birds” talk, and went on to talk about how hunting was probably inconsistent with a gospel-centered life.  This was in a Utah ward, and most of the guys in there loved hunting; went deer hunting every year. Uproar!  Outrage!  How dare he!  “My father took me hunting, his father took him hunting, his father took him hunting. Nothing, nothing has strengthened our family more!” And so on.

I don’t hunt; have never gone hunting in my life.  Can’t imagine wanting to, ever. The closest I’ve ever come to hunting is fishing, which I did do, as a kid, whenever Dad wanted to and I couldn’t figure out a graceful way to refuse.  I’ve always regarded fishing as the boringest sport on the planet Earth, right up to the point where you catch something, at which point it becomes the most disgusting. Do not see the appeal. So this anti-hunting lesson in Priesthood seemed very appropriate to me. I thought it was a great lesson.  Solid gospel nourishment, that one.

So can that be the standard?  If we agree with it, if it confirms us in self-righteousness, if it gives us a nice warm glow of moral superiority, then it’s obviously spiritual sustenance, but if it involves some petty practice, perhaps even a sin, that I personally enjoy committing, then any talk condemning it is probably a Twinkie. And cultural norms are affirmed, and anyone disagreeing is probably an apostate.

So maybe we should dig a little deeper into this question, this tough little Twinkie vs. Nourishment conundrum.  If all we’re doing is confirming our prejudices, then I’m not sure why we should bother even going to Church.  And I’m not entirely sure that the answer is something simple, like ‘read the scriptures.’  Because, let’s face it, you can find support for almost anything in the scriptures.

I agree that we should read the scriptures, and I do, every day.  Right now, I’m working my way through the Old Testament.  Really enjoying it, especially now that I’m using a different, better translation than the King James, and can mostly understand what’s going on.  But let’s face it, there’s a lot of crazy stuff in the Bible.  A lot of crazy stuff. I’m not sure how much spiritual nourishment we can get from the story of Lot and his daughters.  Or Elisha and the she-bears.  Or the entire pro-genocide book of Joshua.

So what exactly does qualify as non-Twinkie spiritual nourishment?  It seems to me really it’s just a few basic things.  Jesus, and his life and example and atonement and resurrection.  The restoration of the Gospel.  Continuing revelation. And the attempt to live a Christian life, according to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Forgive. Empathize. Live lives of charity and kindness and service.  Be kind, be reasonable, be gracious, be decent.

That’s all what nourishes me.  It’s also really hard, to live your life that way.  Forgive those who trespass against us?  Turn the other cheek?  Wow.  Seems impossible, sometimes.  But isn’t that the essence of the good news of the gospel?  Jesus Christ, and him crucified?  His example, his precepts, and the nearly impossible standard of goodness he did, in fact, require of us.

So here, tremblingly tentative and unsure, is a possible rule of thumb.  If someone’s sermon or lesson or talk involves asking something difficult of me, asks me to try to live my life in a way that I personally find really really hard, then that’s gospel nourishment.  Pretty much anything else is Twinkies.

 

 

 

Boxes of books

My daughter has been on a ‘clean up this dump’ kick lately, and tonight, she got going on our basement.  And she found three big cardboard boxes full of books.  She brought them upstairs, and my wife and I went through them, deciding which ones, after all these years, we still want to keep, and which ones we can get rid of.

Books are friends. Our house is filled to overthrowing with books.  The room where I work has four big IKEA bookshelves, each one filled close to full.  And a great book has to be treasured, preserved, loved.  I home-teach an elderly woman, disabled to the point that she’s effectively bed-ridden, but I love visiting her.  Her room is full of bookshelves and books, and she’s a thoughtful, interesting and intelligent woman; when we visit, we talk books.  And conversations can last long beyond the appointed time for home teaching.  She reminds me of my mother-in-law, another bibliophile of the first order.

So as my wife and daughter and I went through the books we had so carefully stored, and so carelessly forgotten, I was reminded of times I had completely forgotten.

One of the first books out was The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pitch.

I remember finding it in a used book store on 7th East in Provo (now long defunct), and taking it home and reading it, jaw dropping.  It was a wacky book, full of gruesome details about how everyone who was involved in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith had awful lives thereafter, and died in excruciating agony, of horrible diseases.  All of this, the diseases and the agonies these guys suffered, was recounted in voluptuous detail, with then a citation from whoever had told the authors the story.  The book was bonkers, and it turns out, BS.  But I was a college freshman, and I took it home and devoured it. I liked it so much, I took it to my grandmother (a former professor of library science, and the kind of dedicated bibliophile that puts the rest of us to shame), and she snorted in disgust.  She turned to an early page, and she pointed to the book.  “He cites this woman, you see?  Well, I knew her well; crazy as a loon.”  And she said, “this is just folklore, Eric, and a pretty nutty example of it.  I’m surprised at you for being taken in by it.”  And that exchange made me like the book even more!  I’ve loved Mormon folklore ever since. Still, I’ve outgrown it.

The collected poetry of Philip Larkin.  Keep.

I don’t remember when I first read Philip Larkin.  I am the most random, idiosyncratic and unsystematic of poetry readers–I love cowboy poetry no less than Lance Larsen, tend to dislike poets we’re all supposed to like.  I won’t read anything for six months and then go on a spree.  But Larkin amazes me; so grim, so honest, so completely unsentimental. Among other things, I didn’t know you could put the ‘f-word’ in a poem.  He did; not often, but when it was required. I kept the book, and I know I’ll be going on a Larkin binge pretty soon.

Nibley on the Timely and Timeless.  Kept.

Hugh Nibley is, I think it’s fair to say, the godfather of Mormon apologetics.  He was a man of extraordinary erudition, and he wrote book after book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It made him beloved.  But while a lot of his research has been effectively discredited, his occasional essays on Mormon culture still hold up.  He was a theatre guy too, loved good plays in good productions.  He wasn’t a literary critic, particularly, but he was certainly a cultural critic, in his own inimitable, irascible way.  I can’t believe I had this book in storage for fifteen years; it goes back on my shelves tonight.

Elizabethan Drama: Tossed.

A favorite anthology, consisting entirely of plays by Elizabethan authors other than Shakespeare.  I remember getting it in grad school, and being fascinated by Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and Tamarlane, and Cambyses: King of Persia. There was a time when such a collection would have been called something like ‘pre-Shakespearean plays,’ or something. Shakespeare was the only thing that mattered; everyone else’s work either helped us understand Shakespeare better, or helped us realize how much better Shakespeare was than anyone else.  That kind of bardolatry is passé in today’s academy (blessedly), but I remember with great pleasure a class I took in which we read and discussed all these plays.  Marvin Carlson taught it, and it was one of those great classes.  But I’m not a scholar anymore; send it away.

Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Back in the day, these kinds of anthologies were very popular among academic publishers.  We teachers would have to assign certain plays to our students, and take them from anthologies, since there wasn’t really any other way for kids to get hold of them.  But publishers didn’t want to actually solicit good translations, so they’d find some public domain (and very old-fashioned) translation, and publish four plays or so.  Those old William Archer Ibsen translations are very Victorian and British, which is not to say they’re worthless, but they’re why I’m doing my own, in an updated American idiom.  I kept this book, though, to inspire me.

I don’t want to go through every book we looked at tonight.  But every book was meaningful, led to memories and spurred conversations. Books can do that, and not much else can.

 

High school theatre

My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged.  Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects.  But I’m back today, and glad to be.

Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition.  I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition.  It was a fun day.  ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’  So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.

When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’  This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play.  I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production.  But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses.  And the characters are all, well, grown-ups.  Would high school kids be able to convey all that?  I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.

We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine.  They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am.  And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.

Some of the show choices were interesting.  One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit.  Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater.  Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver.  Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home.  The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny.  And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too.  I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.

An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice.  It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed.  It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed.  But I thought it was splendid.  Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.

We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar.  Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan.  I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work.  It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.

Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death.  It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter.  Well done.

Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting.  We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’  About the challenges facing today’s youth.  About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers.  And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important.  And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.

And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable.  Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers.  And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.

High school can be full of wonder and joy.  It can also be horrible.  But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.

My high school drama teacher changed my life.  Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life.  I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program.  So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.

American education does face serious challenges.  But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted.  But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.

Opening Night: Clearing Bombs

Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy.  Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street.  And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table.  And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.

So maybe I was a smidge nervous.

Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone.  And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise.  Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics.  And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this.  Never heard of any, at least.  But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.

But that’s what I’d written.  In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs.  That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why.  Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.

But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works.  It was never my intention to write an economics lecture.  I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama.  I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain.  And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned.  And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great.  And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters.  And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.

And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection.  Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s.  (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually).  And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.

So I had great support.  Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed.  None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself.  But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!”  High praise indeed!

But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter.  Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles.  And ideas can change the world.  And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.

In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be.  Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death.  Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths.  Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.

To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed.  Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities.  Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler.  Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards.  Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.

Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized.  A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything.  It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks.  So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.

But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power?  And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.

Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street).  Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny.  But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought.  Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.

What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist.  The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.

But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years.  They, together, wrote the agenda.  And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.

I lucked into a great subject for drama.  I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out.  If the play works, it’s more by luck than design.  But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.