A theology of fear

Sunday was our stake conference. For those of you who are not Mormons, we worship every Sunday in a ‘ward,’ a group of 400-600 people. Wards are part of larger units, called ‘stakes’, a group of 8-10 wards; the guy who runs the stake is the Stake President. (The metaphor is that of a people gathered in tent, with stakes holding it together). Once a year, all the people in the stake get together for a big meeting, held in the stake center. And sometimes, occasionally, General Authorities of the Church come down and speak at stake conference.

This Sunday, we had the exceedingly rare experience of having, not just a General Authority, but an Apostle, Elder David Bednar speak to us.  This is very rare, and the stake center was crammed full.

Elder Bednar’s talk was outstanding. He talked about fear. As he pointed out, fear is generally described as something to be overcome. It’s a negative emotion, something that gets in the way of faith. Elder Bednar used as an example the story in Matthew 14, when Jesus walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are on a boat (presumably Peter’s fishing boat), and a storm starts up. Jesus approaches the boat, walking on the water, and says to them, “Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid.” And Peter, ever impulsive, asks if he can join him. But when he starts walking towards Jesus, he’s overcome by fear, and begins sinking, and says “Lord, save me!” and Jesus catches him by the hand and says “oh, ye of little faith, why didst thou fear?”

Elder Bednar made several cogent points about this story. First, it appears that fear is, in this instance, the opposite of faith. Peter is able to walk, miraculously, on the water, because he has faith. But, understandably, his faith falters. He essentially says to Jesus ‘the surface tension of water is insufficient to bear the concentrated weight of a two hundred pound human. I’m going to sink.’ But he has just experienced another miracle, the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes. He should know that Jesus had the power to supercede natural law somehow. If he had had faith, he could have performed miracles. Like walk on water.

So looking to Jesus is the essence of faith; looking to Jesus is what gives us courage, enabling us to overcome fear. Courage and faith are therefore linked. Although Elder Bednar didn’t say this explicitly, I would add that love seems similarly linked to faith and to courage.

Today is veteran’s day. I have not served in the military, and have never experienced combat. I know people who have. I can only imagine what they went through, my imagination aided, in my case, by movies. Think, for example, of Saving Private Ryan, and its depiction of the Normandy beach invasion by Allied forces. We see soldiers on boats ready to storm that beach, and we see and hear guns firing, bullets whistling past them, the impact sounds as men are hit. After watching that movie, I thought to myself, “I do not believe that I would be able to get out of that boat. I believe that I am too cowardly to do so.” But those men did get out of the boats, and did race up that beach firing their weapons, and did win that battle. That’s an extraordinary thing. And I feel chastened by their courage. I’m in awe of it. No doubt, for some, that courage came from their own religious convictions; they ‘looked to Jesus,’ as Elder Bednar suggested. For more of them, though, I think they thought of their families. I think they were driven by love. Which I also believe to be a gift from God.

But let’s talk about fear. There is another usage of the word ‘fear’ in scripture. It’s sometimes used as a positive thing: ‘the fear of God.’ It’s rather an archaic usage; we mostly use it nowadays as a colloquial expression meaning ‘a boss is going to crack down on underlings.’  As in “look at our sales figures for August. We’re having a meeting and I’m going to put the fear of God into our sales staff.”  But as Elder Bednar pointed out, that’s not really how the scriptures use the phrase. In Acts, for example, Cornelius the centurion is described as a man who “feared God with all his house, and gave alms to the people, and prayed always.” ‘Fearing God’ seems to refer, in this case, to a general piety and charitableness. Fearing God means to hold God in awe and reverence.  Not really be afraid of him.

A parent who wants his/her children to fear him/her, and beats them, is, let’s face it, a horrible parent. There’s certainly an Old Testament sense of ‘fearing God’ that strikes me as atavistic. We should obey God because if we don’t, He might zap us, send horrible floods or earthquakes or diseases. If we assume that terrible weather events are the sorts of things that God is personally responsible for, then it makes sense to fear Him, just as it makes sense, when hiking in the woods, to fear bears or wolves or poisonous snakes. But I’d rather not liken God to a wolf. That sense of ‘fear’ suggests an interesting theological question, does it not? Is God in charge of, say, weather? When a hurricane devastates a coastal region, or when a tsunami wipes out a beachfront community, is that something God sent? Does God do that, send terrible tribulations? If so, does He send them as a response to unrighteousness? Do we believe that a town destroyed by an earthquake had it coming?

There does seem to me to be a lot of scriptural support for the notion that ‘natural disasters’ are actually supernatural; that severe destructive weather events are in fact sent by God as a punishment for wickedness–Sodom and Gomorrah, Zerahemla.  And it’s the kind of thing you do hear from time to time in Sunday School: “those people had it coming.” At the same time, when a Pat Robertson or other prominent right wing evangelical goes on the air to say “this hurricane was God’s punishment for allowing gay marriage” or something like that, most people respond with disgust and laughter. That kind of sentiment is no longer  acceptable in contemporary society, and rightfully so. We believe in, and worship, a God of love. And one of the ways the LDS church has distinguished itself in our day is in the area of disaster relief. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, the Church is on the scene with supplies–food, blankets, potable water, shelter. So, what, when God punishes people for their wickedness, we jump right in and try to make things better for the people being thus punished? Really?

I don’t think we believe that anymore. I don’t think we believe that God uses bad weather to punish wicked people. I certainly don’t believe in it; some Mormons may disagree with me. But I dislike the theological implications of that. A second possibility is even more appalling to me; the idea that God is in fact in charge of weather, but just lashes out randomly, out of, perhaps, a kind of divine Pique. That’s the God of predestination, is it not? A God that just picks some people to save, leaving the rest to roast forever? That was the mainstream theology of early nineteenth century America, which means it was the theology specifically condemned in the First Vision, was it not?

No, what I believe theologically is that our life here on earth is a testing ground, and that part of the test of mortality is dealing with random, arbitrary disasters. Weather happens. God set it up to happen, but I’m not convinced He directs it, particularly. I don’t think health setbacks are meant to teach us anything, for example. I think we just get sick sometimes. Certainly, we’re meant to deal with illness with courage and resolve; that is part of our test.  And maybe we learn something along the way. But I don’t think we’re supposed to go through life afraid that if we say the wrong thing God’s going to zap us with lightning. I think lightning just . . . strikes.

And yes, I believe that fear, and the courageous overcoming of fear are absolutely crucial to the testing of mortality. I think that we look to God for faith, and we pray in faith, not because we’re afraid of horrible things happening to us if we don’t, but just because. Out of love. Out of devotion. Out of gratitude. Not because we hope for a reward afterwards, because good things and bad things happen to us, here, randomly, without being deserved or earned either way. But we can always choose. And the right choice, the best choice, is always the most courageous choice.

There is another way in which ‘fear of God’ can function theologically, although this wasn’t one mentioned by or in any sense referred to by Elder Bednar in his excellent address. We can be afraid of each other. We can be afraid, not of God, but of ‘god.’ Not the God who loves us, who created a beautiful, terrible earth for our mortal final exam, but the ‘god’ made up of popular opinion, the ‘god’ of mainstream prosperous white American culture, the ‘god’ that whispers and gossips and points ‘his’ crabbed and arthritic finger at our everyday foibles and missteps. And who forbids, not sin, but life. Who mutters under ‘his’ breath imprecations against (this is crucial) courageous, principled acts of rebellion born of conscience. Not the God of the Tree of Life, but the ‘gods’ staring down at us from the various spacious and specious buildings of our oh-so-active imaginations.

Samuel Beckett, in the greatest play of the twentieth century, had a word for that ‘god.’ He called it ‘godot,’ a french diminutive. And his ‘godot’ is a ‘god’ that we fear, and wait for, and he never, ever, shows up.  ‘He’ doesn’t have to. As long as we never leave, as long as we stay put, as long as we spend our days testing the branches of our trees to ensure they’ll hold the weight of a hanging rope, ‘his’ purposes are amply fulfilled.

Because, you see, Peter and the disciples did have one more thing to be afraid of. Not just the storm and the sea and the fear of drowning. Read Matthew 14 carefully. All the miracles described there, the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the water came immediately on the heels of an act of state-sponsored violence. John the Baptist had run afoul of the tetrarch, Herod, and his step-daughter Herodias. And Herod had John murdered. It was right after that horrid event that everyone freaked out and ran to the wilderness, five thousand strong, desperate for answers, for comfort, for reassurance. For courage. It was then that Jesus fed them. It was then that Jesus defied a storm.

Because what Jesus understood was that godot is a coward, and like many cowards, a bully, violent and weak. And there’s really only one way to sidestep godot. It involves a storm on a lake, and a boat, tossed and turned. It involves a blessing, and bread and fishes, and a terrified people fed.

Short term, godot won. John was beheaded; Jesus scourged and crucified. And Gandhi and Dr. King; likewise murdered. But courage overcomes fear, faith is stronger than death itself. Ordinary young men, huddled in a boat outside Normandy, drove themselves, through love, towards heroism. No one remembers cowards, except as cowards. We ‘fear’ (honor, worship, sustain) God by loving our brothers and sisters. And love leads to faith and faith to courage.  And even amidst danger, we can be of good cheer. We must, in fact, overcome fear. That’s the real test, and one so many of us (Mormons, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Atheists) pass every day of our lives. By being, not just human, but the best humans we can manage to be, the most courageous, the most daring, the most audacious. Artists and artisans, merchants and beggars. Be courageous. Be strong. Be of good cheer.

 

Popular music and Mormonism, or, a mistake religion teachers make

I see on the intertubes that BYU’s religion department is revising its curriculum. For once, this is a subject I know something about. I used to teach religion classes at BYU. I was what they call an adjunct professor, which is to say, a professor of something else, who taught the occasional religion class as part of his load.

Let me quickly add that I loved it. I loved everything about it. I assigned a paper, on the theory that college classes should always require a paper, and I even loved reading (and grading) all those papers. I taught the Book of Mormon a couple of times, but mostly I taught the Doctrine and Covenants. What I loved most of all was teaching kids from all over campus. I loved my theatre students, but it was a nice change of pace to occasionally teach, you know, people majoring in something else; biology, history, statistics, whatever.  When I was in grad school, I also taught early morning seminary, and loved that too. I also graduated from BYU many moons ago.  So I come from an informed perspective.  I’ve taught religion classes, and I’ve taken them. So free of charge, I offer this advice for BYU and anyone else teaching seminary or institute or anything like that.

Do not diss the music kids like. In fact, leave pop culture alone.

There’s always that temptation. You want to get into it. Rock and roll will destroy your soul. Disco=Inferno.  Hip hop’s from the devil. Dubstep will lead you astray. Solemn books are published, with titles like Pop Music and Morality or Arm the Children, warning us of the dangers of letting our children listen to the soul-destroying music their friends all like. There are even well-intentioned talks by General Authorities about ‘worldly art’ or ‘worldly values’ or just general worldliness, which means ‘music that’s bad for you.’

Baloney. There’s no such thing as music that’s bad for you.

The simple fact is that old people never like the music young people like, and that’s been true since Ogg and the Logpounders discovered what could be done with bone flutes. Or since Brahms first heard the music of Franz Liszt. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outraged (and delighted) Paris audiences. Or Elvis debuted on Ed Sullivan. And in every case, that infernal new music wasn’t just unpleasing to the ear, it was constructed as dangerous, morally questionable, leading young people astray.

When I was in high school, I remember our seminary teacher giving a lesson on The Dangers of Popular Music, and he specified Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung as particularly dangerous, especially soul-destroying. I loved that album. I had listened to it many times. Listening to Teacher go on and on about it, my reaction was not ‘gosh, maybe I’d better rethink how much I like this music.’ No, my reaction was ‘this guy’s an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’  Later this same teacher, to set an example, brought his record collection to class, and told us he was going to get rid of all these ‘questionable’ albums. I remember asking him if, instead of throwing it all away, he’d just give it to us, so we could make up our own minds.  He said that seemed fair (a major Seminary Teacher concession, and tactically questionable). I scored some great albums from his pile, including, I remember, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes.  Great album.

One of the biggies was Jesus Christ Superstar. This was the very definition of Music We Shouldn’t Listen To, which meant it was an album I had to own and which I listened to many many many times. I didn’t think it was sacrilegious or blasphemous at all. I thought it was redemptive. I thought it helped me feel The Spirit. I thought that because it did help me feel the Spirit.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t make exactly the same error when I became a Seminary teacher. The exact same spirit of anti-art fanaticism swept over me too, and I found myself condemning the music of Aerosmith. I made just as big an idiot of myself, and I know I alienated one of the kids in the class, who loved Aerosmith and decided, on the spot, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was wrong. He was right. Aerosmith rocks.

Isn’t it true that some music does invite the Spirit and other kinds of music repel the Spirit? Maybe, to some degree, that’s true. Maybe Bach is more inherently spiritual than Berlioz (though to me it’s easier to feel close to God listening to the Symphonie Fantastique than the Well-tempered Clavier, for example). But . . . here’s one of the most ‘spiritual’ pieces of music I know. Mark Abernathy singing Come Come Ye Saints, playing guitar. i love this rendition. It feels, I don’t know, authentic, like William Clayton singing it around a buffalo chip campfire somewhere in Nebraska. I compare it to the Tabernacle Choir version. I love choral music, and it’s great too. Given a choice, though, if I need a spiritual boost, I’ll go straight to the guy with the guitar.

Or here. The Stones, singing Gimme Shelter. Or this song, Dylan singing Shelter From the Storm. (Isn’t that what we crave from religion? Shelter?) Or maybe this? (What’s prayer, but a jam session with God? Think rap can’t be spiritual? Try this.

Art is subjective. Art that speaks to my soul may not speak to yours. The Spirit is also subjective. I respond to spiritual stimuli that you may not perceive. There’s no such thing as ‘spiritual music,’ except to me, except to you.

Recently, directing a play, we needed a dance number. I’m no choreographer, so I hired one, and a cast member recommended that we use a Katy Perry dubstep remix. I don’t like dubstep music. I’m old. I think it’s just a lot of noise. But watching our cast learn the dubstep dance music, I was transformed. It was terrific, so sassy, so much attitude, so joyful. Young people celebrating how great it is to be here, on Earth, to have bodies, to move. I realized how wrong I’d been. It’s now my favorite thing in the show. And theologically expressive.

Art speaks to the soul. Art bears testimony. God works with all of us, as we are, where we are. And if one of my brothers or sisters is inspired by art that I don’t get, and I make a big deal of it, that’s my bad.

 

 

Can a Mormon be a liberal?

Can an active, practicing Mormon also be a political liberal? Yes.

In today’s Deseret News, Professor Ralph Hancock, from BYU, asked and answered this question. Though he’s a conservative, Professor Hancock likewise answered the question in the affirmative. Mormons can be liberals, liberals can be Mormons. We Mormons tend not to be liberals, but as I’ve written before, that’s probably more a matter of geography than ideology. Utah’s very Mormon, very Western, and very conservative. But Wyoming and Montana are not Mormon states, and are also very conservative. They’re all western states, and westerners tend to vote Republican, often for reasons having to do with land-use issues unrelated to religion.  I’m a Utahn, a practicing and believing Latter-day Saint, and a committed liberal. I don’t see those positions as being remotely incompatible. On the contrary; I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon.

Say what? Yep. As a Mormon, I believe that the Book of Mormon is holy scripture. And in the Book of Mormon, evil is consistently identified with a lack of charity, with a failure to care for the poor and needy. Greedy selfishness was the sin of the Gadianton robbers, for example, the über villains of the last half of the Book of Mormon. It was the primary reason the Nephites fell.  A haughty unwillingness to succor the poor is even the primary sin of Sodom (Ezekial 16: 49-50), and not sexual sin, as is commonly supposed.  Above all, I believe in the great sermon by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, found in Mosiah chapters 2-4. Benjamin says clearly that even suggesting that poor people are poor because of bad choices they’ve made in their lives is sinful (Mosiah 4: 17-21). We’re all of us beggars before God.

Professor Hancock, of course, disagrees that programs in which a central government attempts to alleviate poverty are what the Book of Mormon is talking about:

Where I disagree with my Mormon liberal colleague is in his rather capacious confidence that a federally driven police of welfare aid and income redistribution is an effective means of lifting up the disadvantaged. Davis observes that a root meaning of the word “liberal” is “generous,” and since generosity is a Christian virtue, a more liberal welfare state is more generous and more Christian.

I leave it to readers to scrutinize each step in this logic; I simply note that Christian charity seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification. It addresses the body by addressing the soul.

I would respond as follows. First of all, a Christian charity that ‘seeks the good of the whole person,’ is a Christian charity that extends from the premise that faults in ‘the whole person’ are what have left him/her poor. That’s pretty much exactly the kind of attitude that King Benjamin proscribes. Poor people tend not to be much interested in ‘moral and spiritual edification.’  They want to become less poor. If they have to listen to well-meaning platitudes along the way, fine, but mostly they want help. Paternalistic head patting has no place in policies alleviating poverty.

Let me be specific. I believe that what the vast majority of poor people really want is a job and a paycheck. So first and foremost, I support raising the minimum wage, making it possible for a hard working person to support his/her family. If a single parent wants a job, I support providing child care assistance. I support, short term, subsidizing housing, and for families struggling to make ends meet, food stamps as a temporary aid program. If a person struggles with a drug addiction, I think we’d be better off seeing his/her problems as a matter of public health, not criminality. And, of course, I think all citizens, of whatever country, have an absolute right to access to quality health care, preferably in a government-administered single-payer system. And I think that the richest country in the history of the world can and should do more to fight poverty internationally.  Too many children go to bed hungry throughout the world. We can help, and should.

None of this is remotely incompatible with the values of the Restored Gospel. The notion that the scriptures preach private charity only, that the scriptures are anti-government is preposterous, ideological and naive.

Professor Hancock also decries what he calls “extreme lifestyle liberalism,” which he calls ‘amoral.’  We liberals, he says, embrace such extremes as gay marriage and abortion-on-demand, which in his view come from viewing people not as moral agents, but as products of their environments.

Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, in the sense that courts continue to find bans on gay marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. My guess is that by this time next year, all fifty states will be performing same sex marriages. To favor expanding the blessings of marriage to all our brothers and sisters does not logically follow the proposition that human beings are products of our environments. On the contrary, it comes from viewing all people as moral agents, as citizens and therefore equals. But it’s an issue that’s soon to become moot anyway.

So once again, it comes down to abortion. And the disagreement between liberals, such as myself, and conservatives, like Professor Hancock, on abortion, arises from a natural and inevitable disagreement over natural law, over the rights pertaining to all citizens. A fetus grows inside a human body, in a womb especially (and miraculously) intended for that task. A woman has the right to make the most basic decisions regarding her own body. A fetus, however, might become a human being, with all the rights of personhood.  So how do we balance those rights? Where does the right of the fetus to possibly become a person outweigh the rights of the woman to decide what will happen within her own body?  Especially given the uncontestable reality that not all fetuses survive to term. Women’s bodies spontaneously and naturally abort far more fetuses than are artifically aborted medically.  A baby is an infinitely precious and wonderful gift.  A gift from God, I believe. But it’s naive and foolish to not admit that carrying a baby to term can have a serious physical impact on the body of the woman giving birth.

Nobody cheers an elective abortion. That decision is, I believe, never made lightly and rarely made irresponsibly. I remain convinced by President Clinton’s formulation, that elective abortion should be safe, rare, and legal.

But if we want to limit the number of elective abortions performed annually, let’s do it with compassion and kindness. Let’s help with job training, education, health care, child care, to give single moms a better chance to succeed.  Let’s help.  Let’s make adoption easier, cheaper, more frequent. And let’s see if we can join together in toning down the rhetoric of abortion. It’s not murder–certainly not in LDS theology, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy. Can we mourn abortion more than we condemn it?

So, yes, I’m a liberal and I’m a Mormon. I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon and I’m a Mormon because I’m a liberal.  And those positions aren’t remotely incompatible.

 

16 Stones: Movie Review

Set in the volatile world of Missouri in 1838, 16 Stones follows three LDS twenty-somethings on their quest to find the sixteen stones touched by the finger of Jehovah, as described in Ether, chapter three in the Book of Mormon. They think that if they can find those stones, it will definitively prove the Book of Mormon (and by extension, the LDS faith) true, and that the Missouri mobs attacking Mormon settlements will therefore stop the violence.

That’s not the silliest premise I’ve ever seen for a movie. The notion that our Founding Fathers put a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or the idea of an archeologist digging around for the Ark of the Covenant, so he can use it to defeat Hitler, both strike me as sillier. But National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark are fun. They’re entertaining because they don’t either of them take themselves very seriously, and because they feature rollicking action sequences and plenty of humor. 16 Stones, on the other hand, is painfully, excruciatingly earnest. Earnestness isn’t a bad thing. It’s not, however, very aesthetically enjoyable.

I just suggested that the premise of the movie is ‘silly,’ when a better word perhaps should have been ‘naive.’  I can see some LDS audiences enjoying the movie, and finding it faith-affirming.  That was not my reaction to it. I found that I had plenty of leisure and brain-space to pick it apart.  And so I did.

The movie begins in Far West Missouri, in 1838. But it doesn’t exist in any actual historical Missouri, but in the Missouri of Mormon myth-making, in which the Saints were innocent and gentle, and the Missourians a scruffy and vicious bunch of thugs, with yellow teeth. (The bad guys in this film had uniformly ugly teeth). James Delford (Mason Davis) is an LDS blacksmith, chastely half-pursuing a romance with Elaine (Aubrey Reynolds), whose brother Thomas (Ben Isaacs), James’ best friend, is expected home shortly from his mission. A Missouri attack, however, results in James’ mother being shot in the back and killed, and James is distraught and angry. At first, he wants to hunt down his mother’s killer, but Joseph Smith (Brad Johnson) talks him out of it. Instead, James decides to go on his search for the 16 stones of the film’s title. And Thomas and Elaine agree to go with him.

What follows is not so much a plot as a string of increasingly preposterous coincidences. Thomas, on his mission, met an Indian who told him of his tribe’s mythology, involving ‘turtle boats’ crossing the ocean. This strikes James as suitably Jaredite-ish, and the Indian, Kitchi (Rog Benally), even gives them a handy map to follow. (I’m not kidding, the Indian character’s name is ‘Kitschy’).  The map leads them to some metallic plates, inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters. They can’t, of course, read ancient Hebrew, but they rescue a Jesuit Priest (Andy Jones), who is being beaten up by Missourians, and who can read Hebrew, and who leads them towards their next clue. And so on. Meanwhile, they’re apparently supposed to be traipsing their way across Missouri, to just outside Chillicothe, Ohio, then back to Indiana, then back home to Missouri again, all on foot, Missourians having stolen their horses.  That’s a heck of a walk, honestly. In real life, their trek would take months. But our heroes stroll along unhurriedly, and manage the whole trip without experiencing so much as a change in seasons.

They are pursued all the while by two more Missouri scalawags, played by Jarrod Phillips and Allan Groves. Although these villains were portrayed as a couple of bumbling idiots, they are also heavily armed, and greedy, and apparently much better at tracking than Our Heroes are at noticing they’re being tracked.

And this leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Isaacs, Davis and Reynolds, the three leads, do a nice job with their badly under-written heroic roles. Davis is asked to play James as alternatively stalwart and doubting, and he handles both well, though he never does quite manage to turn those contradictions into a fully-realized dramatic character. Reynolds fares better, giving Elaine a courageous edge to balance her character’s doubts and insecurities. Isaacs is an energetic and appealing film presence, despite his character being given the least to do of the three of them.

But the poor actors forced to play bad guys in the film (and their numbers are legion) are uniformly dreadful, painting every Missouri bounder as both ferocious and dumb. The result was not just a film without nuance, it was a film that depicted most of its dramatic characters as subhuman. I do not see how this accords with my understanding art as an expression of the gospel. Art embraces our common humanity. It treats all human beings, even ones who embrace violence, as our brothers and sisters. When a narrative reduces all humanity to black and white, good and evil, then that narrative itself embraces falseness.  That’s okay in an action movie, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But the earnestness of this film urges us to take it very seriously indeed. Which, for me, turned out not to be possible.

This is because of the amateur clumsiness on display. The movie never could seem to keep straight who had guns or how many of them, let alone nuances like what sorts of guns the characters might plausibly have owned in 1838, or how likely those guns might be to misfire. At one point, Elaine casually lets her canteen (the one canteen owned by the three of them) dribble water onto a rock, despite it being the only drinking water available for three people on a long cross-country hike. The water on the rock ended up revealing an important plot point, but I was honestly more concerned with dying-of-thirst issues at that point, and I rather think they would have been too. Plus, it was never clear to me what these characters intended to eat on their journey. They certainly weren’t carrying much food, nor had they money to purchase any.  Aside from one early pork-and-beans dinner (cooked, of course, by Elaine; why else would you bring a woman along?), I don’t think they bother with food at all the whole movie.

Of course, they end up finding the stones. And then James is persuaded by Joseph Smith not to show them to anyone. You can’t prove the gospel true, Joseph sagely tells him. Faith doesn’t work that way. And it turns out the point of the whole journey was to teach James a Valuable Life Lesson. Not Proving the Gospel True.

Fair enough. But that’s actually the point of the entire movie. The whole reason for making the movie is to not just to bear testimony, but to Prove the Gospel True. The movie asserts as matters of provable fact that Indians had legends of turtle boats, that they wrote on metallic plates, that they worshipped a pre-Christian Jesus, that they wrote in ancient Hebrew. Plus, of course, that there really were stones that glowed.  That it’s all literally, provably, factually true.

But as a believing, practicing Mormon, I found every assertion of the movie unconvincing.  The reason is context. I find arguments made in good movies more persuasive than arguments made in bad ones. I don’t actually find faith difficult to maintain, but I do find naivete unsustainable. And so I tended to consign 16 Stones to a brand new category–“movies sort of like National Treasure, but nowhere near as fun.”  I did not find the sincere expressions of testimony made by these characters risible. I cannot say that about the film in which they appeared.

 

Granting cert . . .or not

I took a week’s vacation from blogging, only to return to stunning news. The US Supreme Court denied to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari in Kitchen v. Herbert. In other words, the Court’s not going to hear the case. They didn’t ‘grant cert.’ Which means that Judge Robert Shelby’s decision, as affirmed by the 10th District Court of Appeals, stands.

Gay marriage is now legal in Utah.

See, that’s the kind of in-depth legal analysis you can only get from a disabled playwright who is sort of a casual reader of SCOTUS.blog.

Wasn’t just Utah. Appeals from the Fourth and Seventh Circuit courts were also refused cert. Which means that cases that found anti-gay marriage laws unconstitutional in eleven states total were also affirmed. Gay marriage is now legal in 30 states. One of the states affected was Indiana, my old home state. Also Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin. Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, Wyoming.

Wyoming. Where Matthew Shepherd was beaten and tortured to death. Gay marriage is now legal in Wyoming.

So what happened? SCOTUSblog found the denial of cert unsurprising, pointing out that the Supremes “regularly deny review where there is no conflict among the circuits below.” Since June, 2013, there have been over forty decisions by federal and state courts in marriage cases, all of them (with, I think, one exception) affirming marriage equality. It might just be that the justices didn’t see an issue there for them to decide.

But if you want some probably irresponsible speculation, I’m up for it. It takes four justices to grant cert. Well, let’s assume that the liberal wing of the Court (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan) would have liked to take the case, hoping for a sweeping decision that would negate all anti-gay-marriage laws in the whole US. The conservatives (Thomas, Alito, Scalia), may have wanted to take it, hoping to reverse the national trend towards SSM. Justice Kennedy, the usual swing vote, was the deciding vote on Lawrence v. Texas, the decision overthrowing all anti-sodomy laws nationally. He’s a libertarian, and voted to overthrow the Defense of Marriage Act in the Windsor decision.  It seems unlikely that he would have joined the Thomas/Scalia/Alito wing in overturning all those forty decisions, but equally unlikely that he would want a more sweeping decision.

Chief Justice Roberts, meanwhile, though very conservative, is known to be seriously concerned about what he sees as an erosion of national respect for the Court as an institution. Either choice, the sweeping gay-marriage-everywhere decision or the overturn-forty-previous-decisions decision would be perceived as overly political and likely damaging to the prestige and reputation of the court. By refusing cert, the liberals get most of what they want, as does Roberts.  And Scalia, Alito and Thomas are only three votes. Sometimes, the best choice really is to punt.

The Deseret News has, for months now, kind of hilariously published at least three op-ed pieces a week arguing against gay marriage, urging the Court to take Kitchen v. Herbert, and predicting that the Court would, once and for all, reverse this dangerous national trend towards marriage equality. (Number of editorials published on the other side of the issue? Zero, of course). Some of the editorials were way over the top; others were reasonably written. But the possibility of a Supreme Court reversal never struck me as terribly likely. What I thought was most likely was a 6-3 decision affirming Judge Shelby’s decision, with Roberts joining the majority, and probably writing the decision. I thought it likely that Roberts would want to control the writing of the decision (the Chief Justice decides who writes decisions, if he’s on the majority–otherwise, it’s the senior justice in the majority). I figured he’d want to craft a narrow and limited decision affirming. But not granting cert accomplishes that same objective.

I’m a Mormon, a practicing and believing member of the LDS faith.  Our General Conference ended yesterday. (It’s a big semi-annual meeting for the Mormon Church). I was particularly interested in the comments of Dallin H. Oaks (one of our apostles). He asked this question: “Why is it difficult to have Christ-like love for all our neighbors? It’s difficult because we must live among those who do not share our beliefs and values.” We’re supposed to be ‘in the world, but not of the world,’ in other words, and that can be a tricky balancing act.  We’re to avoid contention, we’re to avoid anger and resentment, we’re to be disciples of the Prince of Peace, but we’re also to cling to our most deeply held beliefs. We’re combatants in an eternal battle between good and error.  The ‘strong tide’ in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, said Elder Oaks, is an example of the kind of error that Latter-day Saints are supposed to oppose. (It should be pointed out that holding differing views on legal and political issues is not prohibited for Mormons).

He then went on to say this: “In public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbors and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should disagree, without being disagreeable.”

Did Elder Oaks know in advance of the ruling how it would turn out? I don’t discount the possibility. He’s a former judge, a legal scholar of the first rank, and a man with many many friends in the highest legal circles.  Was he saying ‘we lost this one. Let’s be generous in defeat?’  Possibly.  Certainly his talk was primarily arguing for generosity and kindness towards people we disagree with. And amen to that.

For many of my closest friends, today’s action by the Supreme Court is a wonderful thing, a cause for tremendous celebration and joy. For others of my friends, especially my LDS friends, the news is less positive. But let me add my support of Elder Oaks’ call for civility.  Gay marriage is now legal in Utah. Marriage licenses are being issued.  Let’s all agree to work to make the transition as smooth and easy as possible.

 

 

ReReading Job: Book review

Michael Austin’s Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem is a terrific book; smart, thoughtful, funny. I honestly didn’t think a literary scholar’s close reading of the (boring) Book of Job would be so compulsively readable. I didn’t think it would be the kind of book I would find myself unable to put down at two o’clock in the morning. Honestly, I thought reading it would be kind of a chore; that I would trudge my way through it dutifully, seeking a nugget of enlightenment in the mucky stream of turgid prose. Instead, I got all caught up in it.

This isn’t a hard book to recommend–go, now, buy it, read it.  But the task of recommending it requires that I acknowledge some barriers at least some of my friends are likely to put up.  First of all, Austin is openly LDS, and gives Job an LDS reading.  For some of you, that’s a problem. You’re likely thinking, “crap, an apologetic reading of Job. Pass.” But it’s not. It’s not, like, a correlated reading of the text; nothing like that at all.  This is Job from the perspective of a very smart, very well read, first-rate literary scholar, who also happens to be LDS, and whose initial personal history with the text (which he acknowledges), was that of an LDS kid struggling to read a boring book he didn’t understand.

It’s also possible, of course, that some of you might buy the book hoping for a correlated reading of the text, hoping, in fact, for something authoritative and definitive and McConkey-ish.  You won’t find that here either. This is a literary scholar reading a poem, reading it as a poem. An inspired poem, to be sure, but a poem nonetheless, a work of fiction, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a work of fiction. Austin doesn’t know, for example, if Job actually existed. He doesn’t care; he doesn’t think that’s a significant issue with the text. He wants to engage with the text as it stands, and he wants us to engage with it along with him. And what I’m trying to convince you is that you should, go on the journey the text demands of us.

The fact is, most people (most Mormons, but also most Christians) share a particular reading of Job built largely on the frame story found in Job‘s first two chapters, and final chapter.  Job was a wealthy man, who is tested by God (or by Satan, with God’s permission), is remarkably patient despite his afflictions, and is eventually rewarded by God with even better stuff than he had when the whole thing started.

I don’t want to give too much away, but what Austin wants to persuade you is that the frame story, the suffering patient Job rewarded story is the Disney version. And that all the middle chapters are the meat of the poem, and a profound and powerful deconstruction of the frame story. The body of the poem is entirely different from the frame story, different in approach, in style, in language and in intent. And that’s a good thing.

Because the case Satan makes in the frame story is particularly insidious. If God rewards good actions and punishes bad ones, if that’s all that’s going on, then nobody is actually good. We’re lab rats in a Pavlovian experiment based on a sophisticated reward/punishment binary. Is Job good? If he’s only good because he expects to be rewarded for being good, and expects as well to be punished if he isn’t good, then his supposed goodness is entirely illusionary.

Job’s friends insist that he must have sinned, for why else has he suffered such dreadful misfortune?  But he knows perfectly well that he hasn’t sinned and that the bad things that have happened to him are entirely arbitrary. And he isn’t remotely patient about it. He’s furious, and repeatedly and powerfully curses God for allowing him to suffer so. Job’s suffering is inexplicable, and one of the purposes of the poem is to suggest that inexplicable suffering is part of mortality.  We need to get our heads around that reality.

I don’t want to go on and on. Suffice it to say that Austin writes in a clear, fresh, clean, readable prose blessedly lacking in theoretical jargon or supererogatory turgidity. That I’ve spent more time thinking about this book than any other I’ve read for awhile, and that it made me re-read Job.

I just have one tiny quibble. I don’t think Job‘s a poem; I think it’s a play. That opening scene is theologically weird, but it’s dramaturgically sound; neat way to frame a tale. And most of it’s in dialogue. I have no idea what Job’s performance history might be, if it had one, but it would certainly work as a play, and many of the best literary works that it’s inspired are plays.

But that’s also not a crucial point. This is a great book.  Buy it. Read it. Now.

When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com.  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?

 

 

Dizziness

For eleven days, now, I have been pretty well constantly dizzy. It’s especially bad when I stand up, or walk around. And I’ve been to a few doctors about it, and they pretty well agree about what’s wrong. What sucks is that it doesn’t seem to be terribly treatable.

Here’s how it’s been explained to me.  When people stand up from a sitting position, blood should rush to the feet, and we should all feel light-headed. But there’s a nerve cluster by the carotid artery that regulates blood flow. Blood vessels are sent a signal to constrict, reducing blood flow downward. Most people experience a drop in their blood pressure of a point or two, but it’s very minor, and mostly we don’t notice it.  We’ve all experienced that occasional vertigo when we stand too quickly on a hot day. But mostly, the human body has that situation covered.

But in my case, that nerve cluster seems to have been damaged, a kind of neuropathy, probably because I’m diabetic.  So when they take my BP from prone, then sitting, then standing positions, three measurements in rapid succession, they record a drop in blood pressure of sixty points or more.  And it lasts awhile; twenty minutes or more. And so I’m dizzy all the time, especially when I try to stand to do something.

And it sucks. It’s makes life pretty miserable. I’m directing a play right now, and rehearsals are an endurance contest, an exercise in just hanging on. Driving is possible, though difficult.  I do tend to drive like a little old lady; very carefully. My Mario Andretti days are over.  Except Mario’s 74 years old, so maybe I drive like him still!

I was up for a couple of hours last night, just thinking about this.  And of course, the first reaction, the immediate human reaction, is self-pity. Why me? Why this?  After fighting polymyositis to a draw four years ago, with the subsequent loss of muscle tissue and fine motor skills, now this?  It doesn’t, to be honest, feel terribly fair.

But why not me? What makes me so frickin’ special?  Everyone gets sick, everyone suffers, everyone dies.  That’s the reality of life on this planet. Being dizzy a lot isn’t that bad, considering some of the alternatives. God is great and God is good, but God isn’t particularly nice, nor gentle.  His divine plan includes hurricanes and tsunamis, malaria and smallpox, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As He shouted to Job from the whirlwind, he populated this planet with behemoth and leviathan; monstrous creatures with unimaginable destructive power. And they’re needed.  And also the smallest of bacteria, which kill so many more, so insidiously. And they’re needed too. Why? Beats me. But arguing against His justice seems a trifle pointless.  We’re here to cope.

Meanwhile, I need to stop this cowardice and self-pity and get on with things. And I don’t mean major accomplishments. I mean cooking dinner tonight, serving my wife, who serves me so loyally and uncomplainingly. I mean making the bed, and tossing in a load of laundry.  I mean driving an auto-less ward member to a crucial appointment. I mean going to rehearsal tonight, and going again tomorrow night, and serving these wonderful actors who had the courage to audition for a theatre production.

I need a theme song, and I found one: Tommy Roe’s Dizzy. Preferably in a wretched punk cover.  Or oh-so earnest acoustic version. I can keep doing this: Youtube has dozens of covers.

Above all, I need to be able to laugh at this. When I texted one of my sons with the news, his reply was ‘I’d tell a dizzy joke, but I’m afraid you’d fall down laughing.’ That’s the spirit!  So, any dizzy jokes come to mind?  Is there a dizziness joke website, perhaps?  Of course there is.  (“I’d see a doctor about this, but I don’t know ver-ti-go”).

We’re here on earth to serve each other, and serve our families, and serve our friends, and forgive and love and serve our enemies, even. And you can’t get a note from teacher excusing you from that assignment.  We have to push forward, move on, show some courage and humor and get things done.

And that is what I intend to do. So no pity, please.  Laugh at me  and laugh with me, and tell me what I can do for you.  Deal?

 

When the Game Stands Tall: Movie Review

When the Game Stands Tall is a pretty nifty example of the inspiring teacher/sports movie subgenre.  Inspiring teacher movies are all about how wonderful teachers change the lives of young people–Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, you can probably think of twenty others.  Sports movies are generally about how a sports hero overcomes tremendous odds to win The Big Game–Rocky, Rush, Rudy.  So, an inspiring teacher/sports movie is about how a great coach teaches his/her young athletes to succeed, and to win The Big Game–Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights.  I used to be a teacher, and come from a family of teachers–I love inspiring teacher movies.  I’m also a sports nut–love sports movies.  It therefore follows that I’m a total sucker for ITSMs.  And When the Game Stands Tall is a first rate example of the genre.  If you like this kind of movie, you’ll like this one a lot; if you don’t, you probably won’t.

Jim Caviezel stars as Bob Ladouceur, football coach of the De La Salle High School Spartans, a team that over fifteen years, never lost.  151 in a row.  De La Salle was also a religious school, and Ladouceur teaches a kind of seminary class.  Bible studies. He was (and is) a devout Christian, and that’s why he’s stayed coaching at De La Salle, turning down much more lucrative college coaching offers. He thinks he can have his biggest positive impact on young men’s lives by coaching at the high school level, initially very much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Bev (Laura Dern), who thinks it would be swell if he were home with his family occasionally, and also, gosh, more money sure would be nice.  That conflict (which could be huge, but in this film, isn’t), doesn’t take up much of the film, especially after Ladouceur has a heart attack and has to turn over spring practice to his best friend and assistant head coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis).  When Ladouceur finally is able to return to coaching, the guys on the team are busy sniping at each other, and lack the unity that had previously been their legacy.  They lose; the streak ends at 151. They lose the next week as well.  This sets up The Big Game, a televised battle with a rival school from Long Beach, a much deeper and bigger squad, against whom they basically have no chance; Apollo Creed, to their Rocky Balboa.

So it’s pretty conventional stuff. There’s also a brush with tragedy–a star player is murdered sitting in his car, and the coach and community have to deal with the tricky theological implications of random acts of murder, the unfairness that strikes us all when young people die unnecessarily. There’s the ‘inspiring team-building field trip,’ like the trip the team takes to Gettysburg in Remember the Titans; in this film, they go to a local VA hospital and work with wounded soldiers. There are the obligatory ‘working hard in practice’ montages. The players gradually are distinguished from each other, individualized, and each gets a moment of triumph. It’s all very well done, well acted and filmed, and the football sequences are believable and well filmed, if, of course, a tad implausible. And, as usual with high school sports movies, the actors are consistently five years older than the kids they’re supposed to be playing. But let all that go. It’s all well done and effective.

When the Game Stands Tall departs from convention nicely, though, in that it does not end with the Big Game. After all, the Big Game for De La Salle was the third game of the season. There was an entire season to finish, and the movie takes another twenty minutes to finish it. But it’s not really a let down, because the focus shifts to the team’s star running back, Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), and his story. Ryan is very close to state record for career touchdowns, a record his abusive father (the always dependable Clancy Brown) very much wants him to break. Ludwig is very convincing as a big, John Riggins-style running back, a bruiser with speed, and he’s a terrific young actor otherwise.  (All the kids in the movie are–really a fine collection of good young actors). So in the season’s final game, Ryan’s quest to break that record becomes the main storyline of the movie. No spoilers here, but I found it very satisfying, at least thematically.  The movie is not, after all, about a football team with a long winning streak, but about the values of teamwork and sacrifice and character that the best coaches always stress and embody.

I never had an inspirational high school coach, because I didn’t play sports in high school. But my high school drama teacher was a remarkable woman, a life-changingly inspirational coach to me and to hundreds of other kids in our high school. So I get the concept.  My guess is that if you’re someone who likes inspiring teacher movies but are personally indifferent to the game of football, you’ll probably like this movie a lot nonetheless.

It’s very easy, of course, to be cynical about a movie like this, a very Christian-centric movie about how sports build character and how life lessons are taught by brilliant teachers. But I didn’t find myself cynical in the least. I found it very powerful and moving.  But again, I’m a sucker for movies like this.

Sunday Thoughts

Yesterday, I went to Church with my boot on, having broken my foot.  The choir was singing, and my wife is the choir director.  High councilmen spoke, and as is often the case, my mind wandered.  So a wander-y post; please forgive.  There’s always a chance it will lead somewhere interesting.

The subject the speakers had been asked to address was ‘reverence,’ and as usual, the speakers emphasized that reverence isn’t just a matter of keeping small children from disturbing the meeting.  In fact, for the most part, the parents of small children in our ward are particularly punctilious about taking obstreperous infants out to the lobby.  But our speaker (a man for whom I have a particular fondness, because he’s from Kentucky, and speaks with the soft burr of a Kentucky accent, so familiar to this Hoosier boy) began speaking of reverence in lots of other settings; the music we listen to, the popular culture we consume, the clothing choices of young men and (especially) young women on dates.  We show reverence for Heavenly Father by eschewing hip-hop, by avoiding ‘certain movies,’ by dressing modestly; that seemed central to his thesis.  Rebutting it in my mind, I thought: ah, Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season and a purpose under heaven.” And modesty standards are ephemeral/cultural/patriarchal/anachronistic, not transcendent/eternal/reverent.  And what of irreverence?  What of comedy?  “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

But my wife had been thoughtful ever since the passing of the sacrament.  From time to time, we pass notes in Church.  We try to do it reverently, or at least, secretively, and I love it, love communicating with her in these tiny notes scribbled in the margins of the program.  “Why,” she asked, “is the sacrament a two-part ordinance?  Why body AND blood, bread AND water?”  “Because that’s what Jesus instituted, at the Last Supper.”  “But why?” she asked.  “Why should we remember both the body and the blood?  Could it be because our bodies can survive lots of difficulties, but not the loss of blood?”  I wondered about this.  “Perhaps because Christ’s atonement was meant to overcome both pain (body) and death (blood)?”  Could that be it?

The Last Supper is described in all four gospels, but as with many incidents, is more elaborately told in John; it gets four chapters in John.  But John does not really mention the Supper itself; most of it is given to what must have been his last great sermon to the Twelve, a great dissertation on discipleship.  ‘Body and Blood’ aren’t mentioned, but the whole talk is full of dualisms: Jesus as ‘true vine’ and Father as ‘wine dresser’ for example, ‘servants’ who are also ‘friends.’

So perhaps our speculation isn’t scripturally based.  I still think my wife’s on to something profound. The sacrament celebrates Christ’s victory over pain and death, both.  We don’t just resurrect, we recover.  We overcome too.

And that’s something to cope with reverently.  We finished our note: the high councilman sat down, we headed up to sing.  But on our way up to the stand, my knee gave out a little.  I had to gimp my way up, then stand awkwardly while catching my breath enough to sing.  The song we sang was lovely, and the arrangement my wife had made for it emphasized the text in beautiful ways.  And I thought about pain, and the overcoming of pain, the part of the sacrament service (maybe) relating to bread, the body.  The beauty of music is enhanced by the difficulty of learning it.  The real dualism isn’t pain and death, but pain and joy, neither of which can be experienced without each other.

And another way to overcome pain, another way of coping with the endless struggles of human existence really is comedy, it really is irreverence.  That’s why people in power can’t really be very funny, unless they’re also self-deprecating.  A joke by a white supremacist about silly black people isn’t funny.  A joke by a black comedian about his own people can be.  Humor exists to afflict the comfortable, as well as to comfort the afflicted.  That’s also why the atonement was given us; that’s what Jesus meant by ‘inasmuch as you have done it unto one of least of these, my brethren.’ Did Jesus want us to laugh?

(And the single most reverent event I have attended was a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Indiana University.  With rock music, and bad language, and a priest blaspheming.  And a child leading us towards atonement, and peace.  And there’s holiness in great comedy, there’s God in the details of theatrical performance, however secular.  I feel God’s presence, listening to Bach, to the Beatles, to Tupac, to Arcade Fire.  To every season there is a time.)

Also over the weekend, I re-read Anne Wroe’s spectacular Pilate: Biography of an Invented Man.  In the medieval passion plays and cycle plays, Pilate was always a leading character, and a comedic one.  A ranter and a drunk, he’d lay about him with a club, shouting curses to Mahmoud (Mohammed, and who cares about anachronism!).  Pilate was, as governor of occupying forces, the most powerful man in Palestine; Jesus as powerless as it was possible to be.  But, especially in John, the tables are turned on Pilate.  His conversation with Jesus is just strange enough to be plausible–Pilate asking what he must have thought were utterly straightforward questions (“where are you from?”) and Jesus giving answers as baffling as they were provocative. (Funny?  On purpose?  Comedic?) Because Jesus knew from the beginning that his body and blood had to be forfeit; he had to be killed, and in a specific way, and this Roman administrator had to order it.  But Pilate was just unsettled enough to see, with perhaps some genuine insight, how wrong his own role would have to be.  He nearly overcame his own limitations; three times, he declared that he could find no fault in this man.  But ultimately, his own weaknesses reasserted themselves.  And, finally, he affixed his seal to an order, and then ordered a basin, and washed his hands.

He did it because he was afraid.  He did it because he knew how Emperor Tiberius (pedophile and murderer and a Roman God, a vicious tyrant, and also believed to be divine) treated the bodies and blood of men under his command who did not handle the affairs of Rome perfectly.

So we all have the same choice Pilate had, the choice to behave courageously or cravenly, bow to authority or (at times, when prompted to) mock it.  And we’ll suffer either way, and die whatever we choose.  But we can honor that body and that blood, by the choices we make. But we have to make those choices.  And not let our culture, whatever it might be, dictate them for us.