Thursday, July 9, 2009

So, my friend told me I had it all wrong about Michael Jackson....

Instead of the sad and neurotic kid I had always seen, overwhelmed by stardom at too early and age, my twenty-something friend Endri sees Jackson as an almost prophetic world figure whose image was tarnished by false accusations and media hounding.

Of course, there's no reason both opinions can't be true. Certainly the young Jackson was astounding in his ability to captivate audiences, and the adolescent Jackson supple and creative both in his moves and his music. But even in those early music videos something made me uneasy, as Michael started appearing as a quasi-savior or demi-god. What was going on in the boy’s brain?

Early stardom—any stardom!—is perilous to psyche and soul. And this man was a world star like no other before him—the best-selling musician of the last 30 years. So, as news reports in the last two decades about the young man’s private life came out—the eating disorders, the extravagant spending, the kid-dream of a Neverland for a grown man to play in, then the allegations of child abuse—both my wife and I felt, with some compassion, that being forced by media-driven parents into his stardom had wrecked the poor kid.

Endri wasn’t about to let this impression go unchallenged. He had grown up with Michael's music and messages. While not star-struck, he had a more informed opinion about this songster's place among the modern bards, some of them actually carriers of prophetic messages the Spirit seeks to get into the world through any channel She can find. She’s not nearly as picky as the ordination committees of the denominations, who, to give them their due, have a different set of responsibilities. But then, neither Jacob nor Joseph, Jeremiah and certainly not Ezekiel would have passed the standard examination.

Which brings us back to Jackson, wounded meteor that he was. Be clear, I'm not suggesting Jackson was a saint, or even a prophet. But after a few short bursts of Endri's testimony to Michael's influence on him, and one heart-wrenching video, Earth Song, about the environmental crisis, war victims, and elephant-murder, I decided his output was worth reconsidering.

My instant Michael-education continued after the video: Had I considered what a hero he was to African-American kids,to say nothing of the white teens. And about how many of them got his social concern messages along with the highly stylized, sexy, boy-man androgyny, flashy costumes, shoes and famous moon-walk? Did I know his songs addressed world hunger, homelessness, drugs and AIDS as well as desire and denial, risk and repression? Did I know about all the money and advocacy he devoted to call attention to AIDS in Africa, when the world was still ignoring the plague? Had I ever heard of the “Heal the World” Foundation and the support of thirty-nine charities? I hadn’t.

So I did my own quick internet review of Jackson musical videos, and this is what I think I saw: increasingly, Michael appears in different guises, but with a common quasi-savior theme. Even as early as Beat It, he, or his music, brings peace in a tense multi-ethnic gang situation, and preaches interracial harmony. Over the years he becomes a kind of Orpheus, taming the beast in us, a cosmic Child, even a Savior-figure. Often he is the Androgyne, a sacred mythological figure, often shamanic, oracular. In Earth Song, Michael appears apocalyptically in a burning forest, tied to two poles in unmistakable crucifixion-stance, singing a passionate prayer to God, and to us:

Did you ever stop to notice,
All the children dead from war?
Did you ever stop to notice,
The crying Earth, the weeping shores?

Michael’s prayer resurrects forests, ends wars, raises elephants from death.

One might be tempted to dismiss these as messianic fantasies, and perhaps they were, in part. But that would be to ignore the more complex mystery of our times. Perhaps the semi-crucified songster had been overwhelmed by the archetypes he wore. Overwhelmed by earth's conflict and pain. How many of us know earth’s travail is daily there, but conveniently screen it out?

Michael, manifestly, didn’t, and prophetic messengers seldom have a happy life. Jung warns that the visionary (so also the creative person) is in danger of being “consumed” by the archetype pressing upon him or her. Did Jackson get lost in the midst of all that pressed in on him——the huge crowds of adoring fans, the pressure of world pain? He prays to God, in Hold Me:

Everyone’s Taking Control Of Me
Seems That The World’s Got A Role For Me
I’m So Confused....

These words speak not only for his confusion, but for the feelings of millions of those kids who grew up in an age when the world's increasing crisis was blared every day on TV and even taught in school.

It’s all too easy to see Jackson’s death by apparent over-mixture and overdose of prescription drugs as the sad end of a disturbed kid who never had a chance to grow up. Certainly that's what his critics (and they are legion) say. But that would, most likely, be to miss the main point: his influence on generations that are now called to deal with the problems he highlighted.

What will the fruit of his singing will be? That depends on how it awakens and moves those who heard the messages rather than, like heedless me, saw only the flaws in the messenger.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

So, Sarah Palin resigned, and the Eastern press laughs in scorn...

“How inept can she be? . . .And her hastily-arranged press conference—what a hoot! . . . The lady still can’t put one word in front of another without stumbling over them.”

Is the allegedly “elitist” press corps truly that deaf to the heartbeat of reactionary patriotism? So highly refined that sentence structure is what matters?

Sometimes I feel that I am destined, or doomed, to be the embodiment of the “culture wars gap” — the great distance which divides the Northeast and the liberal Coastal cities from the so-called Heartland. With deep roots in the conservative, fundamentalist South, I am a cultural refugee-convert to the Northeast, a progressive Christian in the Episcopal Church. Pretty far from a Palin supporter.

But when Gail Collins’ opines with ironic glee that “Sarah Palin has come a long way....Now (even) the prepared remarks are incoherent,” half of me smirks along with her, and the other half feels she just doesn’t get it at all. Not the way this will play to Palin’s enthusiastic base of supporters, many of whom agree with Sarah’s conviction that God has destined her to be President. (Which, by the way, is one of my nightmares. Remember, I’m a “refugee” from Sarah-Land.)

How is Collins’—and many other commentators—wrong, even if their cleverness is Oh So Right On? Let me count the ways:

Well, among the Alaskan governor’s alleged “incoherent” remarks are the following:

'Life is about choices' declared the nation’s most anti-choice politician. Sorry, Gail; right, but wrong. “Choices” equals “freedom” as in land of the free and home of the brave. Code word. Sure, Sarah supports what liberals call “anti-choice.” Sarah calls it “pro-life.” One language: two divergent vocabularies.

She babbled about her parent’s refrigerator magnet which apparently had a lot of wise advice. Gail; the magnet says “Don’t explain: Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe you anyway.” Maybe Gail doesn’t relish refrigerator magnets, or hers reflect her many travels, but out there in middle America religious and moral sentiments abide. That parental magnet speaks powerfully of the feelings of an embattled minority whose sentiments are considered “incoherent” by the cogniscenti.

Palin’s stated desire to save Alaska the "waste of millions of dollars" over alleged charges of ethical misconduct is seen as a possible get-out-of-town-quick move before another scandal breaks. Gail hopes it will be an adulterous affair—smirk, smirk. Again, she misses the code words: "government waste." Palin campaigned to make state government more “efficient and effective.” She has, in her telling of it, been hounded out of office by “politics as usual,” by “media hounding” and by “enemies.” Code words. Code words. Code words.

Code words galore:

“to build up, not to tear down” (well-known quote from the Bible);
“fruitfulness and productivity”;
“industrious, generous, patriotic people”
“ take the RIGHT path...though it is UNCONVENTIONAL.”

Code words, not incoherence. Forget the sentence structure. Liberals seem to believe that clear thinking will win any struggle. Truth be told, not everybody can think all that clearly, and thinking isn’t the only form of “smart” around. As e.e. cummings said in a very different context: ....since feeling is first, whoever pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you....

Palin knows how to kiss. How to kiss the sore places in the psyches of people who feel America has been headed down the wrong road since the 1960s. How to kiss the fearful hearts who believe that moral “apostasy” invites the wrath of God. How to kiss the bruises of those who feel the Establishment looks on them with scorn. She’s their icon.

If those of us in Obamaland really think the threat of a serious right-wing takeover of America has disappeared, we are paying too much attention to getting our syntax right, and missing the drumbeats going strong out there in the nation’s hinter-heartland. Sarah made it big in the headlines today, the 4th of July. That was no miscalculation on her part.

She is the dream girl of an impassioned minority of Americans this very Independence Day. Gail, northeasterners, liberals, take note! And, for God’s sake, don’t laugh.

For Gail Collins' NY Times Op-Ed piece, go to:

Monday, June 22, 2009

There's more than one way to become a Father....

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins

As I heard one person after another rise to thank their departing pastor for his time with them, all with cherishing words and some quite misty-eyed, I could feel the waves of affection for The Leader move through the room. When C. S. Lewis outlined the “four loves” — affection, friendship, eros, and charity — I’m not sure he mentions love for good leaders. Probably it’s a combination of friendship and affection, but, most certainly, it is an abiding, often pivotal factor in the affairs of human groups.

This evangelical Methodist church family wouldn’t think of calling their pastor “Father,” and the man isn’t even pushing forty yet, but he was clearly seen not only as preacher, team captain, and shepherd, but as spiritual father as well, whatever the congregant’s age. And what does age have to do with something as archetypal as fathering anyway? This special way of caring and mentoring works through uncles and teachers, coaches and drill sergeants as well as those men who father a child biologically and hang around to help raise them.

Sitting at that farewell party, I felt that my Father’s Day afternoon was already full of meaning, even before arriving at my father-in-law’s celebration, because it made so clear that there’s more than one way to be a father.


The fathering-spirit requires only that a person be “older” in wisdom about a particular aspect of human life, and wish to share it with someone less fully formed in that wisdom with a particular kind of caring, a caring that combines encouragement and expectation with affection and acceptance. Children, boys and girls alike, who have a biological father with this care to mentor lovingly are doubly blessed: they live cheek-by-jowl with their genetic progenitor as well as living in the atmosphere of his desire that they grow strong and true into their fullest selves. Those who don’t have such a biological father with them will need to find an alternative father-love somewhere else, sooner or later, or be bereft of it.

Mothers bring their own kind of love, of course, to the enterprise, and much of it overlaps with father-love, so much so that more than one mother in human history has had to tackle both jobs with their children. But fathers themselves, biological and alternative, are still the most likely to embody this kind of love, for it consists not only of actions and attitudes, but the subtle energy of what the poet Robert Bly calls “body resonance” as well. Gender differences cannot be entirely captured by words, for we are, after all bodies too, male and female, so alike and yet so very different all at the same time.

This Father’s Day was further enriched by calls and emails from my “children," pictured above. I use quotes because my wife and I have no physical offspring (not by choice, but by circumstance. And yet I find myself, at an advancing age, richly blessed with the four kids I always wanted. Though from different genetic lines, they have come into my life for friendship and fathering. In fact, our family size may well not stop at four. Yes, the bass note of biological identity is not there, but the relationship is so affectionally real that we are in the process of adopting each other as godfather and godchildren.

I know from my own life-journey how important alternative fathering is. I wonder if any boy or girl reaches full maturing without more than one father (or, for that matter, one mother). And for men in their youth who had a father not-fully-present to the task, as mine wasn’t in spite of his best efforts, the need is greater still. Without uncle Karl, childless himself, who was always so delighted to hear what I was doing, or Peter, the Christian college worker who saw me as a spiritual son, or Howard who loved something special in me, or Guy who adopted me as a kind of godson, I don’t know what kind of man I would be. Now I get to return the favor.

"He fathers forth whose beauty is past praise..."

If the great Mystery that brought us all into being, that Reality we call “God,” actually cares that we humans grow up into our full stature as partners in the human venture, it’s little wonder so many traditions call it “Father.” Of course, humanity once knew (and needs to learn again) that this Source is also, appropriately, called “Mother” as well as many other names, Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Love among them. Whatever the ultimate nature of the Mystery, one Name cannot possibly capture all Its ways of working to shape us toward strength and real goodness.

But “Father” is surely one of them, and there is little wisdom in the tendency of some current religious types to purge the term from our prayers land theology, even if some folks have had such a bad experience of fathering that they are allergic to the term. The task is not to throw the Father out, as is the wont of some, but bring Mother and all those other Names into real prominence in our thought and worship.

In the Episcopal church at least, there is a God-neutering brigade that would deprive us of Father and Mother both with the lackluster “Parent” or the less-than-descriptive generic “God” repeated endlessly: “God has sworn by Godself that God will not...” They are, of course, then stubbornly opposed by others who literalize the patriarchal language to the point of idolatry. The Godself avalanche in some places sometimes seems me the Liberal way to avoid breaking through to a new/old mode and saying Her as well as Him outright, right there in the liturgy, often.

OK, I understand that, granted the unjust suppression of the feminine in history, some iconoclasm may be necessary, but does no one understand (on either side) anymore the power—and limits—of metaphor anymore? Ease up guys. Let the Hundred Names of God flourish! “The kingdom (sic) of God consists not in words, but in God’s power” as Paul reminds the quarreling Corinthians.

How could I even think of discarding "Father" when, made in the image of God as I am, along with all men and women, father-love arises so strongly in me. If it's not in God, why is it arising so naturally from the ground of my being? Being blessed with these recently arrived godchildren, (to say nothing of my beloved nephews and nieces who have their own place in the scheme), I find that chambers in my heart are opening which I never knew were there. This father-love arises in body and soul as I talk to them, look at their pictures, or even think of them. I get to be proud of their growth, concerned about their problems and worried about their safety. I get to be a father, and a love long missing has now found its home in me.

And, I dare to hope, I am privileged to know something more, in my limited human way, of what the Divine love feels like when it is fathering. It is a wonder.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Has music become more real than religion for the young?

The young man got more excited when I observed that “music seems to have become the real religion of a great many young people.” What I had heard him saying was that his journey into self-knowledge, soul-knowledge, was happening via music.

I was all the more interested because this seventeen year old has served as an acolyte, sung in the choir, participated in youth activities, and says he likes church. But his journey into the soul is marked chiefly by a succession of musical periods, all of it from secular sources.

It wasn’t that way when I was his age. As a teen-ager (we were “young people” in my Detroit neighborhood in the 50s), music was entertainment, not meaning—a pleasant diversion. I ask you, how much meaning-juice can you get out of “How much is that doggie in the window/ the one with the waggly tale?” or even the early Elvis: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog...”? The path to adult identify was well laid out for us within a fairly clear, if superficial, moral and religious framework.

But things changed in the culture, and music along with, though it’s hard to tell which comes first as there arose a deep, searching synergy between them. First there was the folk music explosion, with its ballads and yearnings. Then came the early civil rights music like Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition of “If I had a hammer/ I’d hammer out justice”) Culture changing forces were on the move, and the old path to adulthood became less formally outlined, less clear.

I remember vividly the first time, in my post-college seminary days, that I heard Bob Dylan’s “A hard rain’s gonna fall.” Being a meaning-junkie, my soul perked up its ears, and I was led into the revolutionary, self-transformative spirit of the 60s and 70s. So I haven’t been altogether surprised to hear from more than one younger person, recently, how formative music is for them as they seek a sense of identity in a largely post-Christian popular culture. I get it because for us, in our early 20s, a lot in the world suddenly went “up for grabs” and plunged us into questioning and re-defining ourselves and our world. I, at least, was a somewhat late bloomer in this search.

Still, it was different. My soul had already been significantly formed by a deep Christian rooting, a teen-age evangelical “decision for Christ,” a lot of Bible study, and a rich and meaningful experience as a growing kid in a vital Christian congregation with a thoughtful and progressive minister, for someone on the liberal edges of fundamentalism. The bards of the counter-culture period came as expansions of meanings already established, formative forces for a soul already set on a path.

The world is very different now for Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) kids growing up in America. The tameness of most of our congregational music, the sedateness of our liturgy, and the “nice” character of our teaching can’t hold a candle to the power of most of the music out there, where the vocals are saturated with angst of soul and frameworks of meaning. As long ago as the mid-1960s the Pied Pipers of the music industry and the alternative music scene captured the attention of a huge swath of kids. The transmission of the great cultural heritage of the West, including the sacred Story, was interrupted and dimmed by the new music-makers.

This is not in any way an “ain’t it awful” rant about kids, music or society. On the contrary, I’m intrigued about where the soul is being touched and where God may be hiding out. I’m offering an observation of what’s happening on the ground, and why so many young people, even those with a church, synagogue or mosque grounding, just don’t seem be receiving the transmission of the heritage. A rabbi I know, for example, who at the time presided over a growing and very successful synagogue, lamented to me in a surprising moment of irony, that his congregation provided a place where acculturated, suburban Jews could bring their children so that “they would have the memory of having been Jewish.”

So now I’m not only returning to the music of my youth, revisiting my late 20-something use of music as, at least, a commentary on themes established, but being taught by some contemporary youths—a high school junior and a graduating college senior in particular—something about the contemporary alternative music scene. What I’m finding people reading this blog may have known for years, but I’m finding a revelation about the state of soul of lots of younger people. A prime example for me has been discovering “Radiohead,” a British group which performs seductively beautiful music with lyrics that seem to express the confusion and despair of a culture dying and being reborn at the same time—but reborn to what? Take this for example:

We're rotten fruit/ We're damaged goods
What the hell, we've got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble/ We're backdrifters

Or this:

Everything is broken/ Everyone is broken
You can force it but it will stay stung/ You can crush it as dry as a bone
You can walk it home straight from school/ You can kiss it, you can break all the rules
But still...Everything is broken/ Everyone is broken

What I hear in what I’m being introduced to, and this is by no means the whole of contemporary music is the underbelly of much American youth culture. There are other voices, of course, pointing in a different direction—U2 for example, or this cut from Delta Spirit:

my heart it is thumping/ the veins they've been blue
the blood thats been pumping/ still hasn't met you
the beard that I'm growing/not fully grown
the years are not coming/the way I thought they would
hoping and waiting/for something to sing
like the angels in heaven/ the bones on the street
hoping for love/ to find a new voice
the song that's needs singing/has already been sung before

These kids are from “good” homes in affluent suburbs; they are well-educated, and headed onto the American career path of success, with high hopes of “making it.” And yet this music speaks of an underlying mood full of confusion, searching, with touches of despair and whiffs of nihilism. It is a disarming revelation of the underbelly of soul for millions, I suspect.

Part of this is surely the breakdown of the transmission of the sacred meanings that have sustained Western culture for centuries. As one young man told me recently, “I’ve been fed a lot of information, and filled with questions in college, but given no framework of value or meaning by which to understand the meaning of any of it for my life.” Nor had he really gotten such a framework from his church, though I know they tried.

As another young man, now in his 30s, who is an adult convert to the religion he wasn’t touched by in his youth describes the situation:

All is broken, at least for us urban cosmopolitan youth who were raised in the deracinating circumstances of "multiculturalism" and "self-expression." the two, of course, are related, because if there are no communal horizons, if it is all hybridity and fluidity, then it is up to the self to self-discover. Hence the individualization of everything, the growing despair and disenchantment of youth, and the thriving marketplace of quick-fixes, base sentiments, and little real guidance. In the pool of the marketplace, narcissus finds only his reflection. It compels nothing, asks
nothing, does nothing.

Well, perhaps it sings us some good songs. Perhaps it speaks to us in ways we actually feel. But unlike the church, or what the church might be, it doesn't take those feelings and guide them to a higher purpose. Transformation is not the business of the market. It's the business of communal traditions. And so we have a marketplace that knows how we feel but asks nothing. And a church that has no clue how to speak to us, but asks everything.

Such a statement of the reality of a post-Christian and now post-modern situation! And I don’t have a spiffy answer about to how to transmit the sacred meanings in this situation, though I plan to follow some clues about how to sing the “song that has been sung before.” But it’s a quest people concerned with this transmission need to take. Anybody reading this is quite free to make comments. I know others are further along than I am. As I said, I’m a late bloomer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The kid felt calling Hitler evil was too judgmental.....

So, at the Harry Potter party (see May 18 blog), there was a kid who had difficulty with my calling Hitler evil. I was comparing the Dark Lord, Voldemort, to the great villains of history and this 11-year old (a Jewish boy, I think), said that calling Hitler evil was “judging him” and we didn’t have a right to do that.

Only in the suburbs.....or perhaps in academia. I managed to remain calm. I find it hard to imagine the people I know in the storefront church in Newark who put up with random violence, drug dealers preying on their kids, and so on, would find it so easy “not to judge.” Or the good citizens of Baghdad whose relatives just died in the car bomb attack. Or the survivors of the holocaust.

Mind you, I’m as allergic to judgmentalism as any other modern, right-thinking liberal. "Open mind, open heart" has been a major motif in my teaching for almost 40 years. But when a young Jewish kid has reservations about calling Hitler evil you’ve got to wonder if things haven’t gone a bit too far.

I’m surrounded by this sort of hesitation a lot: we mustn’t judge others, we must understand all and forgive all, it’s not up to us to judge, God accepts us just as we are, and so on. More and more, this seems a bit lopsided—a string of noble-sounding half-truths, ideals that ignore one half of reality.

“Judging” and making an assessment

There’s a big difference between judging as a matter of making an assessment and judgmentalism and arrogant condemnation.

The universe is actually quite good at “judging,” though we don’t usually call it that. Reality “judges” that if I step off a high cliff (unless I am Cayote in one of those Road Runner cartoons) I will be a goner. The Mississippi River “judges” that if we build our cities along its banks, they’ll get flooded from time to time. Human nature “judges” that for most people, betrayal of an important trust makes trust difficult in the future. Damage to relationships is real. Seems to be the way we’re made.

This “not judging” business seems like truly fuzzy speech. Just as “loose lips sink ships” (an old World War II slogan), fuzzy speech clouds clear thinking, not just for the brainy but for ordinary folks. Surely there’s a difference between being censorious, judgmental, and harsh in our estimation of others and the necessary business of making estimations about people and situations, and assessments of the effect of behavior on others.

“It’s not up to us to judge” is true enough if we’re talking about ultimate judgment, which is the province of God alone, “unto whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Who knows what was going on in the mind of Hitler? What demons of childhood haunted him? What brain defect warped his view of reality? What 11-year old Jewish boy taunted him in a schoolyard or on the street? Still, the death of 13 million people, and an extermination campaign against Jews, Gypsies, and Gays seems, well, a bit “evil” to me. Sure, he was “doing his own thing” superbly well, but if that’s not evil, I don’t know what is.

The Buddhists talk about right judgment, and so does Jesus: “Judge not by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). In order to do this, to quote an old bromide, we must “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.” And if we can’t, our judgments (call them assessments if that makes you more comfortable) have to be functional and provisional, not ultimate. Jesus is warning us off ultimate judgments, I must assume, when the says “Judge not that you may not be judged.” Be he himself did a good bit of judging: of character, of the way the wind was blowing, of the corruption of the unjust leaders, and so on.

Real-life example? Well, I am not to be trusted, I’m here to tell you, to deliver a message to my office if you give it to me at the end of a class or lecture. I’m likely to forget it. People have been known to stuff checks or notes into the side pocket of my briefcase in the conviction this will insure their delivery to my office staff. Not good judgment. But if you tell me a confidence, you can be sure I will respect its privacy. I can be trusted to do that. Even then, I wouldn’t want you to go beyond a functional judgment into ultimacy. Who knows what I might do if Dick Cheney kidnapped me and subjected me to waterboarding?

Accepted just as I am, yes; but then?

As to God accepting us “just as we are,” it’s a good start, but a dubious ending. I cut my teeth on singing, and believing, “just as I am, thou will receive/ wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.” It meant a lot, and got a big assist from Paul Tillich’s “accept the fact that you are accepted.” A good start. But where do you go from there?

My wife accepts me, mostly, “just as I am,” but that didn’t stop her from demanding that I take responsibility for my repeated depressions (biochemical, it turned out), or my outbursts of intense anger (mostly a thing of the past). We both accepted each other “for better for worse” and have tried to minimize the worse. Why? The relationship goes better that way, and no “I have no right to judge you” is going to make our mistakes with each other really OK unless we seek to set them right. That takes honest, mutual disclosure of our judgments about all that hinders the growth of our love.

So, what about this? “God accepts us all, just as we are, for God is love. All are welcome, regardless who who they are or what they’ve done. But this love for us is so great it will not allow us to hide forever from the good that can to come forth more fully in us. In the circle of God’s acceptance, no one can remain forever unchanged, remain "just as they are" when they enter that forcefield of Ultimate understanding, no matter how long it may take them to realize there's more good potential in them than they know.

So what about Hitler, ultimately? That, of course, would be beyond my heavenly clearance level to judge.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Angels and Demons: Who’s telling the Story now?

The kids were eager. When they walked in and saw me dressed as Dumbledore, their faces lighted up. This was going to be a party with a difference. My nephew’s belated eleventh birthday party was off to a good start. The sorting hat quickly divided them into the four Houses of Hogwart’s School and the threat of their House losing points for wiggling, shoving and loud-mouthing to lapse into happy surrender to the planned program. These kids were into that story big-time.

Since the supernatural has been largely banished from the nation’s once “mainstream” Protestant churches, it has been taken up by “Supernatural” on TV. Sci-Fi or “fantasy” fiction, popular TV, cinema—even depth psychology!—now shoulder the task of telling humanity’s age-old saga of the battle of the angels of light against and the demons of darkness. Where the appointed storytellers fail to carry on part of the Story, the Divine Storyteller finds other bards.

Liberalism and humanism, of course, have their own version of the Drama, but morphed from mythic story into abstract ideas and principles: human dignity against the deadly “isms.” Fine enough. But the “isms” always go for the masses, often with success. Nazis, Fascists and fear-mongers need something more vivid than sweet reason to compete for followers in the marketplace of ideas.

Why do the religiously sophisticated so often look down their noses at the stories of angelic encounter that drives book sales among the “ordinary” folk, Christian and non-Christian alike? The older, primal archetypal levels that still rule our dreams and emotions are hardly called forth by high-minded, left-brained concepts, leaving out the deep parts of us in which soul still stirs.

I would be considered a “liberal” in many circles (I prefer “progressive”). I prize left-brain rationality in a big way. But I think e.e. cummings had it right when he said “when souls are outlawed, minds are weak.....” — that is, hyper-rationalism undermines not only soul but real rationality too. As part of the same poem, that son of a Unitarian minister also lays his finger on what may be the source of the lack of “fire in the belly” in so much late 20th century and current liberalism:

Jehovah buried, Satan dead,
do fearers worship Much and Quick;
badness not being felt as bad
itself thinks goodness what is meek....

Meanwhile, on some popular TV shows, a rather tough-minded goodness is locked in beleaguered battle with Satan with precious little help from heaven, even though there are a lot of angels of dubious character around representing the ultimate Good Guy (or Gal, as you prefer). “Supernatural” tracks two demon-hunting brothers, Sam (name = “heard by God”) and Dean ( “deacon, servant or captain”) are chosen by enigmatic forces to stop the legendary Jewish spirit Lilith from unloosing Satan on the world to start the Apocalypse. Right out of the book of Revelation, minus Jesus.

Inspired by the writings of Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, among other works, this post-Christian drama knows vividly the immediate power of evil, but the sense of an ultimate Good is shrouded in obscurity. The young men use Latin spells and Catholic sacramentals like holy water. There are angels on the beat.

But the heavenly realm’s goodness is dubious for Gaiman. So it’s up to the stumbling, fallible humans to try to save the world from destruction, while both sides give them difficulty. The old, old Story?

Certainly it is a version of it. Good, here human good is rooted obscurely in something super-mundane, fighting for its life against uncanny and relentless evil. Humanity against the demon. The very world at stake with little sense of God. Dean and Sam as saviors, without so much as a helping hand from the Bedrock of the Universe.

Maybe, as Bultmann claimed, “nobody who uses electricity can possibly believe in demons.” But the German New Testament scholar came to this startlingly rational conclusion as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, with mortars and mustard gas in regular use. In the midst of unimaginable human evil, in a century that will prove the wickedest (and the best) in human history, he decides Satan and the angels are outmoded symbols. Go figure.

Others, like Walter Wink, lead us back to the old language. Following the lead of civil-rights activist William Stringfellow, Wink found new power in the Bible’s ancient language of demons and angels. The “principalities and powers” describe the “bigger than all of us” quality of the soul of organizations—that mysterious synergy of people, ideas and customs that somehow influences outcomes, even when the participants don’t consciously intend these results. His blend of depth psychology, organizational analysis, liberation theology and New Testament imagery about the “powers” has played to some applause, but needs to become a permanent part of our filters of moral discernment.

A cure for a hyper-rationalism that substitutes a host of “isms” for a host of demons and an army of high principles for the battalions of angels is certainly not a return to pre-modern supernaturalism. We have more than our full quotient of fundamentalists still beating that drum. Secular or religious, however, we might well take a deeper look at what truths some supposed pre-modern images (and even superstitions) point — as Susan Howatch has done so effectively in her many novels about priests and laypeople up against real psychological and spiritual evil, blending depth psychology with ancient symbols in a very sophisticated way.

I used to joke, for example, that the life of my seminary was still controlled by a powerful 19th-century dean who built most of the buildings—that whoever the current dean was had to consult him every night by means of a golden Ouija Board. Of course, I didn’t mean it literally, and no one took it that way. But only such a parable could describe the uncanny way that the seminary drama was always the seminary drama, no matter who was cast in the roles.

Meanwhile, while our liberal churches continue their internal house-keeping wars, the Story is still told by many bards and poets to the “crowd,” the vast increasingly post-Christian audience. We are a story-telling species, and mythic tales that tell us what the unseen forces are doing gets our juices going.

Buffy, the ordinary high school girl, rises to the challenge of being the Chosen Vampire-Slayer. Clark Kent, just entering adulthood on “Smallville” (he almost realizes he loves Lois Lane, finally!) ended the season prepared to die to save the world. And the impending release of the latest film episode in the Harry Potter series leads us inexorably toward that last, final battle with the Dark Lord in which Harry will die and rise again, ending the threat of world-consuming evil.

Most everybody knows in their guts we face the End of the Age that birthed us, that civilization is in a sea-change going we know not where. Anybody who doesn’t is living in the most protected suburbs and ignoring the news completely, so caught up in money-making they neither notice nor care, or has such blind faith in the myth of Progress that they haven’t been noticing events. The lot seems to have fallen to the TV bards and science fantasy seers to tell the tale, often in disguise of Christ and Anti-Christ, of demons and angels, of the world at peril and the otherwise ordinary humans called to heroic missions and given special powers. Even Dan Brown’s dreadfully written pot-boilers (“Angels and Demons”/ “The DaVinci Code”) make razzle-dazzle movies, telling the tale of reason and tolerance in crowd-winning ways.

The writers may not believe the stories literally, but they address our fears with the ancient hopes, and they know that these mythic symbols are the best way humanity has found to describe the truly mysterious movements of good and evil. Or if they are not telling this story, they are imagining future ages past this coming time of difficulty, and painting pictures of eschatological possibilities unheard in most post-mainstream pulpits.

Perhaps they are just whistling the old tune in fear of “what is coming upon the earth,” or perhaps the Storytelling One is speaking the persistent Word through them, however blunted the full message may be. Surely the story of God’s struggle against the dark forces of the human heart should be told as vividly for our day. It needs to be told, with force, in its fullness, instead of by writers less certain of the power of Goodness, storytellers more knowledgeable about its many Names.

For whatever reason, the young are listening to the new Bards in rapt attention. The 11-year olds at my nephew’s recent Harry Potter party knew that story, chapter and verse, the way my childhood fundamentalist Sunday-School classmates knew the story of Jesus and the battle of Jericho.

What that mysterious Bardic One will make out of this cultural phenomenon remains to be seen.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

You've got to have some sympathy for God.....

Poor God is getting buffeted about badly these days. To be more accurate, the most widespread stereotype about the God of western religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) is taking it in the neck a lot. A grand Idea, developed over centuries by the leading lights of Western philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Kierkegaard, Schliermacher, Tillich....I could go on—is treated with the scorn and contempt suffered by Zeus in some of the Roman comedy, who appears as a bit of a buffoon.

But poor God has become a Poor God indeed. Tarred and feathered over being the biggest cause of prejuice and hatred (murder, genocide, sexual dysfunction...I could go on) in human history, He who was once the fount of all goodness is now for many the source of noxious fumes. You'd almost think he had become the Devil in many people's eyes, like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the leading "Brights" of the new vanguard of evangelistic atheists.

In a way, you can't blame them, what with hateful preachers saying "God hates Gay," fanatical suicide bombers claiming (through a distorted, non-classical form of Islam) to kill in the name of the God of Abraham, and 8 years of a right-wing "Christian" American presidential administration pushing "abstinence only" programs for teens that cause more pregnancies than any other advice for teen behavior.

"Good" Religion Under-reported

The news media, of course, can't be bothered to report that religious institutions are responsible for most of the charity provided to the poor, the sick, and other people in need. The history books, mostly, don't tell young people that American Christians (and later on Jews) launched the women's suffrage movement, the abolition of slavery, supported labor union organization, virtually created and was a major force in the progressive politics of the first half of the 20th century. They don't report that religious institutions are the base of most of the volunteer work in America. Nor can Hollywood or TV find much room for positive images of clergy, who are usually Bible-toting, narrow-minded moralizers, or worse.

Having seized the headlines, fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity has come to define the brand name in the eyes of millions, especially a growing section of the next generation. Few people realize what a specifically "modern," trimmed-down, and (from the standpoint of the mainstream of classical Christianity through the ages) distorted version of a grand way of wisdom.

Counter-trends in Religion

There are counter-trends of course. Interfaith cooperation between Christians, Jews and, increasingly, Muslims is growing remarkably and rapidly. Millions of "progressive" Christians and Jews support progressive social change, and fight against racial prejudice, gay oppression, America's historic "too bad for you: work harder" stance about the poor, and many other causes liberal atheists, agnostics, and humanists support.

And progressive theologians, as they did in every age, incorporating new knowledge into ancient religious impression of a Divine ground and Source of the life of the universe. Their "God" is not your grandmother's God, and a good thing too. While respecting the wisdom of the ancestors, they see a Divine energy at the heart of evolution, growth and change in moral awareness, sexual joy, physical health, and love of the stranger and those who are different from us.

Meanwhile, trends in anthropology, studies is social evolution, brain research, cross-cultural study of mystical experience in every religion, and demonstrating that while theological explanations of God change, the actual experiences of "cosmic mind," overwhelming Love surging through creation, a compassionate awareness lurking at the depths of the human psyche, unexpected and seemingly miraculous guidance and healing, and the subtle but unmistakable feeling of being in a "Knowing Presence" persist in every age. They are erecting a new picture of religious pathways as a powerful, and mostly beneficial, bond in human societies, and major source of moral inspiration.

What's the Future of our "Secular Paradise"?

Meanwhile, the 20th century utopian fantasies of building a secular paradise on earth through capitalist progress, Fascist or Communist dictatorship, socialist and humanist progress, while they contain bright hopes for human flourishing (based, often, on ideas drawn from the Hebrew prophets) keep coming a bit of a cropper, even though they sometimes (Fascism excepted) do some good along with more evil than modern people want admit.

Some of the evil is clear: it was not Christianity that killed tens of millions in Stalin's atheist regime or Hitler's neo-pagan hell; it was not Buddhism that produced the killing fields of Cambodia. Some less highlighted, even taken for granted: the slaughter of the native populations by "enlighted, progressive" European colonialism (the missionaries often tried to save the natives); the "ethnic cleansing" that built secular Turkey and other nations; and the (inadvertent, unintended) death of millions of infants and adults in modern medicine around the world, especially in areas overpopulated and underfed because of increased hygience and lowered infant mortality rates. Not all evil is planned and intended--and every movement causes some.

Religious groups sometimes commit evil because any human institution—medicine, government, even the family—are capable of evil. Secular humanism can cause much good. It has not had time enough in human history to demonstrate it is capable of more good than the religions at their best.

Don't get me wrong: I have relatives and good friends who are humanists and/or atheists. I have nothing but admiration for their moral courage and deep human values. Nor do I despise all fundamentalists or religious conservatives. Again, I know dozens of loving fundamentalist Christians who are the lights of the world. But the question is what represents Christianity best, and what is the most socially, morally, and spiritually beneficial view of life and the universe for humanity going forward in this difficult century.

The Aims of Religion Re-assessed

"At least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions," writes the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton in his new book "Reason, Faith and Revolution" (Yale University Press, 2009). Religions “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

Not a traditional believer himself he feels that in the wisdom of the religious "radicals might discover there some valuable insights into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas....(T)he Jewish and Christian scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end." (See "God Talk" by Stanley Fish in the NY Times, May 3, 2009)

And it is time for educated, progressive Jews and Christians, especially those who represent a generous reading of the classical theological and moral tradition, to speak out boldly and vigorously to address the burning issues of our day, and to take the bull of reactionary religion by the horns and try to wrestle it to the ground. The world deserves better than what they offer, and what we have too often not offered while the foundations of culture eroded beneath us while we were coasting on the progressive hegemony of the last century.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Welcome to this blog! Today I did what I've planned to do for a long time: start a blog. I'm moving into the next phase of my work and since I'm a writer (three books now and a lot of essays) it would come naturally, especially as my work becomes more diversified. What I'm doing now is continuing my life as an Episcopal priest in a public educational ministry, Interweave, an interfaith center for spirituality, wellness, and the common good. But more and more, I'm hip-deep in interfaith leadership work, gang violence reduction in Newark, spiritual direction, and public and political issues. So here goes. First post soon.