The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

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.

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.


Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.


Theology and culture

I’ve been reading a lot about the tenth and eleventh centuries lately.  Research for a play, but also, it’s just a really interesting period in history.  Because my play is about European politics in the period, I’ve been reading about Europe, but of course, 11th century Europe was, by almost any standard, a backwater. The 11th century was the high point of the Song Dynasty in China, for example. So while the Chinese people had magnetic needle compasses, Bessemer steel processes, and spherical trigonometry, the most educated European pope, Sylvester II, was generally thought to be trafficking with the devil because he knew how to use an abacus. The greatest cities in the world were Moslem, especially, Cordova, in Spain, with a population that approached a million people, and boasted the world’s greatest universities, librarys, and running potable water. The Toltecs were ascendent in the Americas, and Japan’s Fujiwara clan ruled benevolently and promoted literature and music and drama.  Europe, in contrast, stank.

Europe was savage, primitive, violent and filthy.  Rome, once the greatest city of antiquity, had fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, living like rats in the ruins left behind after the sacking of the city 500+ years earlier.  Commerce was minimal.  Emperors and kings had their hands full just fighting off Magyar, Viking, Saracen and Slavic pirates and bandits and raiders.  The ramshackle, jerry-built feudal system provided some rudimentary governing stability, but small-scale warfare was constant.

The Catholic Church could have, and was supposed to provide some moral boundaries and some pastoral care. But the Church itself lurched between corruption and over-jealous reform.  The Dominican monastic order was the closest thing they had to a stabilizing influence, but it too ranged in influence and virtue from the Cluniac reforms in France to utter debauchery and vice elsewhere.  What I’m basically saying is that life sucked in the 11th century.

And everyone knew it.  And so Catholic theology responded by building an entire world-view around the idea that life was supposed to be awful.  Hardship, violence, filth and disease were endemic to the human condition.  We human beings had chosen a world of corruption and death and illness and pain when Eve tempted Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit (i.e., sexual intercourse).  We shouldn’t expect any happiness in life.  We shouldn’t expect anything good at all.  Every hope, ever dream, every ambition was based on some expectation of the next life.

And so the holiest and best people practiced self-denial and self-mutilation.  They starved themselves in lengthy fasts, they wore clothing that tore the flesh, they flagellated themselves with whips; they built lifestyles around the mortification of the flesh.  I used to love teaching the plays of the great 10th century nun/dramatist, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim.  We would read her play Pafnutius.  Thais, a prostitute, is called on to repent by the righteous monk Pafnutius.  She locks herself in a cloistered cell, where she lives for a year, mortifying her flesh, not eating, with (as the play takes pains to mention), no place to relieve herself.  At the end of the year, she’s half dead, but holy.  She lasts long enough to say a final prayer, then dies and angels greet her, taking her soul to heaven.  As I would remind my students, that play’s a comedy, and that’s a happy ending.

But it makes sense.  If life is unrelievedly grim and awful, violent, short and painful, the theology people might find comforting would be one that focuses on a better life to come.  The saddest figure of the period, I think, was Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, who fought bravely to preserve the Church and Empire, but became appalled at the misery his wars caused people.  He began the usual mortification routine, with long fasts and hairshirts and the rest of it, and died at the age of 22.  But he died in hopes of a better life to come.  And while I can look back at medieval history and see a talented, brilliant and capable young man who could well have done a lot of good in his time here (as his grandfather, Otto I, had done), and see as well a young man succumbing, tragically, to clinical depression, well, that’s not how they saw it. He was in a better place.

Okay, so fast forward 500 years or so, to the early seventeenth century, and our American forbears at Plymouth and Boston, the generation of John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. By that point, of course, European life was a lot happier, generally.  Europeans knew how to build boats that could cross the Atlantic.  Better roads, better carriages, better rigging for horses. It was still a violent period, but much much less so than had been the case in previous centuries.  We human beings now exercised considerable control over our environment.  We could built reasonably safe and comfortable homes for ourselves.  Cleanliness had become wider spread.

But while we did have safer and more comfortable lives than previous generations had enjoyed, it was something of an illusion.  Infant mortality was around fifty percent. Childbirth was tremendously dangerous for women.  So the really important issues–will my children be safe, will my wife survive childbirth, will we be able to raise our families safely–still must have seemed completely random and arbitrary.  It may have been easier to transport goods to market–better roads, something approaching rule-of-law–but everything else must have seemed out of our control.

So theology, again, echoed culture.  The theology of the day was almost entirely predestinate.  God had, for His own reasons, chosen a few folks to be in his Elect.  We mortals had nothing to say about it.  We couldn’t influence His decision in any way.  You were either going to heaven, to live in eternal bliss, or you were going to hell, where demons would torture you forever, and there wasn’t a darn thing you could do about it. You’d think this would result all manner of debauchery.  If nothing you do can make the teensiest difference in your salvation/damnation, you may as well live it up, right?  But no.  The Separatists who founded New England believed that the Elect could be seen as such by their particularly blameless lives.

Anne Hutchinson was condemned, excommunicated and exiled, not because she questioned predestination, but because she questioned whether living an externally exemplary life proved anything.  She believed that the Spirit of God communicated with her, and that any Christian could feel God’s Grace within.  This made her, in John Winthrop’s mind, a heretic; specifically, an antinomian. It may strike us as a trivial theological dispute, but they didn’t; to them, this was crucial stuff.  But if you think about it, it fit their culture.  You can’t exercise any control over the really important events in your life.  But you can control some things, like what you wear, or how long you sit on a hard bench in Church on a Sunday.  Those actions are meaningless, and you know they’re meaningless, but you cling to them anyway, because maybe, just maybe, they offer a tiny window into God’s thought processes regarding you.

When we Mormons read the Joseph Smith story, we read about the theology controversies of the Burned Over district in upstage New York ca. 1820, but we don’t think about what the issues were.  What were all those churches contending over?  More of the same.  The intricacies of predestinate theology.  Was baptism essential to salvation?  Obviously no, it couldn’t be. Baptism is a thing people can do for themselves, so obviously it had to be irrelevant to the question of Grace.  But there’s that pesky scripture in John 3:5; where you have to be born of water and the spirit.  So you have to be baptized, as a sign that you were elect.  No, you didn’t!  Yes, you did!  And back and forth and back again.

So along comes Joseph Smith, and right there, Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, what does he say?  All sorts of blasphemy.  Vs. 2: God’s message is to everyone, everywhere.  Vs. 3: what you do isn’t going to stay secret anymore.  Vs. 4, it gets bad: God’s going to send out missionaries, who will, vs. 8, have the power to seal people unto salvation or damnation.  This is seriously Catholic stuff–people, human beings, having the power to send people to heaven.  Or, you know, t’other place.  And then, the biggie: vs. 10:

Unto the day when the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.

In other words, what we do matters.  Our actions count.  We can actually do things–like try to be a good person–which will make a difference in our salvation.  Predestination, in other words, is no longer central to Christian theology.

And yes, I know; that verse (and a whole bunch of other verses a lot like it) has led us to a modern Mormon cultural world of unrealistic expectations, and self-righteousness, and judgmental attitudes.  To ‘modesty standards’ and ‘body image issues’ and an epidemic of perfectionism and clinical depression.  A theology of works, it turns out, is essentially impossible to live up to entirely.

But what’s the alternative?  Because American culture today fundamentally rejects predestination.  In the marketplace of competing theologies, anyone who preaches that our salvation is entirely arbitrary and that we can’t affect it any way whatsover, well, that theology is going to look weird and be very quickly rejected.  We live in a time when we expect to control our environment.  If our kids get sick, we take ‘em to the doctor with the expectation that she’ll prescribe something that will make the kid better.  Over and over, popular culture preaches that everything is awesome, that you can and should dream, that you can do anything you want to with your life.  The fact that none of that is particularly true doesn’t matter.  If we believe in God, we kind of do have to believe in one who cares who wins the Super Bowl. Our theology reflects our culture, for better or for worse, just as theology reflected 11th century culture, and 17th, and 19th.

And if you think about it, the Mormon theology of works may set up unrealistic standards for us, but it surely has a considerable upside as well.  We have to pay attention. We have to try to do good things.  We have to ask our friends constantly ‘did I do that right?’  We have to send water and blankets to countries nailed by tsunamis.  We aren’t free to just pursue happiness.  We see ‘pursuing happiness’ in social terms.

Of course, when I say ‘a theology of works,’ I mean Mormon theology but also world-wide, mainstream, people-who-believe-in-God theology. And also world-wide, mainstream, atheist and agnostic theology.  We don’t divide the world up into ‘Elect’ and ‘Damned,’ but we do divide it up into ‘People Who Care’ and ‘Selfish Bastards.’  We do think we should all be trying to make a difference, and when we think of a ‘good person,’ we don’t think of Otto III, poor kid, beating himself up for being a bad person, and starving himself to death.  When we think of a ‘good person,’ we think of Bono.  Or Angelina Jolie. Or Mother Teresa.

In short, we reflect our culture in our theology. As people ever have done.


90 percent

A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church.  They asked for tickets to attend.  They asked politely, and were politely turned away.  The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men.  I don’t have any idea why this is.  The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared.  I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else.  I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.

So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend.  I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that.  Good for them.

Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square.  If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church.  Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:

“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church  is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”

During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists.  I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows.  For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps.  She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture.  We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism.  (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!)  We are the Church, indeed.

Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends.  Many took particular issue with this:

“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.  Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends.  First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership.  I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.

I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.

But only one present.  And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.”  So what we have is a fight over definitions.  OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’  But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.

Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position.  In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women.  And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals.  Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian.  It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers.  I kept seeing that number.  90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.

But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so.  Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states.  In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote.  And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”.  Shiver.

I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it.  Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question.  That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.

I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate.  My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work.  But she’s also an ardent feminist.  That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy.  Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric.  Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there.  I’m an incrementalist, maybe.

And yet, and yet.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King.  He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker.  Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.

And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination.  And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’  And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years?  No: I’m too short-sighted.  Does it bend towards female ordination?  I don’t know.  But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium.  And still the arc bends.




Movie review: Short Term 12

Sometimes, you just need a good movie.

It’s true.  Sometimes, just watching a really good movie can help.

Short Term 12 is the ultimate low budget independent movie.  It won all sorts of awards at SxSW, the great independent festival in Austin.  It can’t have cost much to make.  The acting is tremendous, but I’ll bet you’ve not heard of most of the actors.  But it’s such a lovely movie, smart and kind and compassionate and real and true. It’s at 99% positive on, and deserves it. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Brie Larson stars as Grace, who runs a short term facility for really troubled kids.  One co-worker there is Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr., who plays Emily Watson’s assistant on The Newsroom.  Grace is astonishingly good at her job, incredibly empathetic and caring.  She seems to know when kids need discipline and when they need to be left alone, to work things out.  She’s funny and smart and kind, and Mason is very nearly her equal.  Together, you know they’re making an incredible difference in the lives of the 12-15 kids who live in their facility. It’s a real home, a refuge, with rules and expectations that the kids (mostly) live up to.

Grace is also a seriously messed up young lady.  When a very troubled teenage girl, Jayden, shows up, Grace takes a particular interest in her, because she recognizes a lot of her own life in Jayden.  (Jayden, by the way, is played by the amazing Kaitlyn Dever, who was so great as runaway teen on Justified).  And as Grace works with Jayden, we get glimpses into her own troubled past, which includes sexual abuse from her father.  We learn that Grace testified against her Dad, that he’s now in prison for it, but that he’s soon eligible for parole, and that knowledge throws her into a real tailspin.

Mason and Grace are also lovers, and Grace learns early in the movie that she’s pregnant.  When Mason learns of this, he’s great with it, proposes marriage, insists that the two of them are going to be terrific parents.  But the combination of Jayden’s problems, Grace’s own past, her father’s impending prison release all cause her to start to lose it.

I’m not going to give away the ending, except to say that it’s wonderfully life-affirming and yet utterly grounded in the reality of the characters.  At the movie’s end, I was just stunned.  Took a deep breath, wiped away a few tears.  And tried to think of something nice I could do for other people.

Okay, I suppose I should give a content warning.  The movie’s rated R, because messed up teenagers use messed up language; it’s a trifle F-bomb intensive.  And it’s disturbing to see great looking kids, kids we care about and wish well, coping with really serious issues and problems.  Kids should get to be kids.  Kids shouldn’t have to deal with the kinds of abuse that kids, in the real world, regularly have to deal with.  But it’s also a movie that says that help is available.  It’s a movie that says that genuinely kind, but badly overworked, flawed and imperfect people are out there, fighting every day, making a difference.  Human goodness is possible.

So at the end of a day that was actually kind of discouraging, this was the movie to see.  This was the right one.  I know the title’s not good, and I know that you’ve never heard of the actors, and I know there’s bad language.  But this is a genuinely great movie, a work of art that also manages to be a mitzvah, a virtuous act.  Sometimes this happens,for art to become testimony, for testimony to be life-changing. Short Term 12, made for pennies, pulls of that miracle.

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.




Witches and movies

Witches, as they’re popularly conceived, do not exist.  Cackling ugly hags flying on broomsticks and casting evil spells; that’s what doesn’t exist.  No such thing. I mean, we’re all agreed there, right?

Okay, so, William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a play in 1606, Macbeth, that includes three witch characters.  It’s an awesome play, and the witches are awesome characters.  I directed a production of it some years ago, for my daughter’s fifth grade class.  I cast my daughter as one of the witches.  Other parents were upset about this casting choice, calling it ‘nepotism’; whispering that I’d cast my daughter in one of the coolest roles just because she was my daughter.  This criticism was 100% accurate, wholly justified.  I put the time in; my daughter was going to have a good experience, and she wanted to play a witch.

But the witches are such cool presences in the play that, depending on how they’re used, they can distort and damage productions.  There’s always the temptation to include witches throughout the production, but if they control the action, if they are seen as controlling Macbeth and his choices (and his wife’s choices), he becomes a less volitional and therefore less compelling character.  So you have to use them judiciously.

In Macbeth, anyway, the ‘weird sisters’ are clearly evil.  They make potions, they curse the characters, they make prophecies.  They’re bad.  And while I love the play (and its playwright), their presence in the play is also a bit troubling.  The play comes from a time in world history when people really did believe in witches, and persecute them and try them, and hang them, and burn them.  And innocent women were murdered.  As many as 60,000 women executed between 1480 and 1720, according to such historians as Lois Martin, Anne Barstow and Brian Levack. This scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is funny, but also maybe not quite all that funny, right?

Anyway, I’ve just seen several not-very-good movies with witch characters.  These movies are numerous enough to constitute ‘a trend’, and in my mind, a worrisome one.  But they’re also bad enough that maybe that trend isn’t as worrisome as I’m making it out to be. Judge for yourself.

One movie–just watched it–was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, one of the emerging ‘brilliant young Norwegian directors,’ and maybe the craziest of the lot.  (A previous film of his was Dead Snow, a Nazi zombie horror flick.)  Anyway, Hansel and Gretel, (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) having killed a witch as children, now go around killing them professionally. It’s a sort of medievally setting, but they have these weapons, like a kind of machine-gun crossbow thingy, that never did actually exist.  So, that’s the movie, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton hunting down and killing witches.  With a sexy love scene in the middle, and a final big massive fight scene–our Two Heroes vs a zillion witches.

Okay, it’s a silly action movie, one of those things Jeremy Renner made before he was a movie star which then got released after his Bourne movie came out. But wouldn’t you agree that any movie based on the premise of someone hunting down human beings and killing them is, uh, at least morally questionable? Especially since this actually factually did happen?  Killing ‘witches’, I mean?  But see, no one can ever be falsely accused of witchcraft in the world of this movie.  Because, as Hansel/Renner explains, real witches are easy to spot.  They’re really ugly.  Evil seeps out, from the inside, rotting away their faces. And teeth–evil witches have terrible teeth. Ugly women=evil women=women we can feel okay about executing.  What a reprehensible film.

Second film: Season of the Witch. Awful Nicolas Cage film, 14th century setting.  Cage and Ron Perlman play knights tasked with transporting a young woman accused of witchcraft to an abbey, where a book of spells can de-witch-afy her.  The Plague, the Black Death, is omnipresent, and is thought to have been caused by this girl, this witch.  Claire Foy is really good in the movie, playing the girl. But here’s the thing.  Either the Black Death is caused by witches, or its not.  Either this girl is a witch, or she’s not.  Either the medieval Catholic Church had the power to drive out evil spirits or it had no such power. In Reality-land, the answer to those questions are all clear: no, no, and no.  The Black Death is caused by a bacterium, and the medieval Church couldn’t even name a pope, let alone drive out witchy spirits, which anyway don’t exist. But movies aren’t based on truth, they’re based on artificially generated excitement. By answering all three questions ‘yes,’ this director, Dominic Sena . . . was able to make another bad, unsuccessful Nicolas Cage movie. Meanwhile, we got to perpetuate the idea that the biggest problem with medieval Europe was that they just didn’t kill enough witches. Gosh darn it.

Third movie, and certainly the best movie of the three, and the most financially successful: The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, the guy who made Saw.

The Conjuring isn’t so much a movie about a haunted house as it is a movie about paranormal experts investigating and eventually exorcising a haunted house.  The Perron family (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor), buy a house out in the country, and they move in with their five daughters, only it’s haunted.  So Famed Paranormal Investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) check it out, and eventually Ed exorcises the ghost of a witch.  One of the witches, in fact, from the Salem witch trials.  Who, it turns out, really was a witch. Genuinely evil.  Salem got it right.

The Conjuring is a very competently made and exciting horror film.  It was also kind of a hit; according to IMDB, cost $20 million to make, and grossed $137 million.  I saw it; scared the wee out of me, which is exactly what scary movies are supposed to do. My guess is that for most audiences, it was an effective commercial film.  Exciting and frisson-generating. But the Salem witch trials are central to the film’s plot. And the Salem witch trials did really happen, and remain a blot on the historical record. They were about public hysteria and panic and a mob mentality.  They weren’t about real witches. Because real witches don’t exist. Not, at least, in the sense of being able to fly on brooms and cast spells.

Look, I get that witches are fun.  I like scary stories about witches.  I think The Blair Witch Project is one of the scariest films ever made.  I think it’s awesome that Hermione Granger is a witch, and I love it when Elphaba decides to ‘defy gravity’ in the musical, and I loved The Witches of Eastwick and I grew up on Bewitched and I think The Lion and the Wardrobe needs a Witch in the middle, for balance.

But let’s not forget that there’s a history here. I’m troubled by a film that says that ugly women may well be witches, and if so, it’s okay to hunt them down.  Witch killing really happened, and it’s a horrible, terrible part of Western history.  And today, perfectly gentle and nice people share in the Wiccan belief system, and we should accord their religious beliefs the same respect and tolerance and honor we would any other belief system.

So by all means, let’s continue to stage Macbeth. And make scary movies.  And create fun fantasy worlds in which witchcraft is a real thing.  But maybe let’s also interrogate the narratives we create.  Because there is a history here, and it’s an ugly one.



Reading the Bible

I don’t usually talk about my New Year’s Resolutions.  For years, when asked, I would say that I had the same three resolutions: to exercise every day, to lose 50 pounds, and to quit smoking.  Since I don’t smoke, and never have, I figured I could be certain of batting .333.  And as a baseball fan, a .333 average is darn good.

But this year, I decided on a different resolution. I’m going to read the four books of Mormon scripture this year, all four. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, all of them, in one calendar year.  On Sunday, I got started.  Put on some music–the Lower Lights.  Great band, known for doing bluegrass/country versions of hymns.  Like this.  And this. Love the music, love the arrangements.  And I got started.  Genesis 1:1.

I decided not to use the King James version of the Bible for my study this year.  I decided to use the Revised Standard version.  You’re going to laugh when I tell you why: it’s because of a play.

I was reading a terrific play; Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn.  Another of those great plays I’ll probably never see in production, sadly.  It’s a play, obviously, about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, but its also about her legacy in England.  It argues, with justification I think, that Anne may have been as responsible as anyone for England’s transition from a Catholic to a Protestant nation.  And I know what you’re thinking–’duh.’  Henry had the hots for her, and the only way he could get a divorce was by declaring himself the head of the Church in England.  But Anne was the person who gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, the most explosive Protestant tract of the day.  The play argues that Anne knew Tyndale (not implausible), spoke of him to Henry (likely), and that Henry’s subsequent conversion was sincere (could be, as much as the religious convictions of any psychopath could be sincere).

Anyway, the play Anne Boleyn is set in two periods; obviously the Tudor reign of Henry, but also the later Stuart rule of James.  And James has this conversation with Dean Lancelot Andrewes and Dr. John Reynolds.  Andrewes was a Church of England bishop; Reynolds a Puritan.

JAMES: How will you translate the Greek word Ecclesia?


REYNOLDS: Congregation.

JAMES: Hah hah!  A world of difference!  Church meaning an institution of the state; Congregation meaning a meeting, higgledy-piggledy group.  How to translate Presbyteros?



JAMES: Priest; ordained by a bishop.  ‘Elder’, an older man in a congregation.  And in Corinthians, the Greek word ‘Agape?’  Faith, hope and . . . .

ANDREWES: Charity.


JAMES: Charity, yes, public responsibility, alms, civic rectitude. But ‘love’ can go anywhere, lead to loose talk of ‘love of God’ and this and that, a path to heresy and darkness.  Hu, hu, hum. Hop. (Pause).  In my Bible, there will be ‘church,’ ‘priest,’ and ‘charity.’

What a lovely scene.  And I love how this scene–and the whole play–depicts King James.  A vulgarian, a man of gross personal habits and crudity of expression, a disgusting man in many ways.  And a terrible king, not because he was gay, but because he was unable to see faults in his ever-changing court favorites, leading to no consistency of policy, leading to justice by caprice and chance, arbitrary in his judgments and terrified of conspiracy, scared of his own shadow.  But for all that, an intelligent, well-read man.  A man who knew his Greek, and was completely conversant with theology.  And a new authorized version of the Bible was a great achievement, the crowning accomplishment of James’ reign, (which was otherwise rather devoid of accomplishments).  The ‘epistle dedicatory’ that appears in the front of the KJV may reek of sycophancy, but it’s not entirely unjustified–England needed that book.

But ‘church,’ ‘priest’, ‘charity.’  Brenton’s play reminds us that translation is not an exact art, and that every translator’s culture leaves its residue on every page. I’ve done some translation myself, and while I try to work with integrity and fidelity to the original text, I also have my agenda.

I’m not dissing the KJV.  I love the language of that translation, archaic and (at times) inaccurate as it is.  There’s a solemnity and reverence in it that I would be loathe to lose.  At the same time, the English language of 1611 is not the language we speak today. I’m looking forward to reading Ezekiel and actually having some idea of what he’s saying.  Not to mention Paul.

And as I read this year, I’m going to stop and read aloud.  I want to imagine myself sitting on hard ground by a campfire, listening to a tribal elder recite aloud.  I want that sense of myth and wonder.  I want to re-imagine the Bible as oral history, transmitted mouth to ear, over millennia.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.  And God said “Let there be light.”  And there was light.”

And in the background, banjos. And fiddles. And harmonicas.  String basses.  And tight harmonies, thirds and even seconds, in the vocals.

I’m going to read the scriptures this year.  I’m going to put on my jeans and sandals, and wear my rattiest shirt.  And I’m going to hear it in my mind. Congregation.  And Elder.  And Love.