Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon: "Speaking Honestly of God" (Delivered 7-24-11)

Opening Words
[These words come from the book From Zip Lines to Hosaphones: Dispatches from the Search for Truth and Meaning by Jane Rzepka.]
What gods, if any, does a religious liberal look for? […]

Although atheism, agnosticism, and humanism are welcome and particularly popular, among Unitarian Universalists some gods are common.

God may be a spirit that offers a feeling of safety and advocacy close at hand, a feeling of belonging wherever you are. A warmth, a confidence, an acceptance.

Others experience a god that provides strength and encouragement, especially in the face of life’s challenges. A god that understands how difficult their situation is and how hard they are trying, as only a god can.
Some among us feel a life-force in the world, an energy, a liveliness, a connection that is not so much personal but universal.

No two Unitarian Universalist theists conceptualize their gods in exactly the same way – at least that’s my guess. But when people in our fold want a god in their lives, they are inclined to welcome a face of god that gives them strength for the good, with meaning and love.

Way back in March, I delivered a sermon about a book that had just been released. The book’s title is Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Its author is Rob Bell, minister of an Evangelical Christian mega-church in Michigan. In the book he argues for an understanding of the afterlife in which the gates of heaven are a whole lot wider than most people believe. He’s almost a Universalist, which is to say that he almost imagines an all-inclusive heaven and a shuttered and boarded-up hell… almost, but not quite. But almost ain't bad.

Bell's book made a lot of people furious. You can scour the internet and find countless examples of conservative Christians saying really nasty and vicious things about him for writing Love Wins. I’ve read and listened to some of those ugly rants, and I feel like asking a few of those people, “Do you praise Jesus with that mouth?”

The controversy over the book created a stir and helped to push up sales. Bell received numerous invitations to appear on various television news programs. These scheduled appearances just happened, as fate would have it, to coincide with the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan. So, all of a sudden, Rob Bell found himself in the position of theologizing, of giving religious voice, to this devastation in Japan that touched the entire world.

I want to read to you, word for word, a few of the questions Rob Bell was asked when he went on television. Appearing on Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos asked him, “So how do you handle the big questions being provoked by what we’ve been seeing in Japan? Why would God simply allow this suffering? And then, most of the Japanese are Shinto or Buddhist. Are they condemned to hell?”

In an appearance on MSNBC, Rob Bell is interviewed by Martin Bashir who comes off as hostile, and, frankly, like a jerk. Bashir begins by asking much the same question, just a lot more bluntly. Speaking to Bell, Bashir says, “Before we come to talk about the book, just help us with this tragedy in Japan. Which of these is true: either God is all-powerful, but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore they’re suffering, or he does care about the people of Japan but he is not all-powerful? So, which one is it?”

Okay, I want to hit pause for a few moments. I watched these clips and I was surprised by how much I was struck by these questions. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t help but put myself in the seat where Rob Bell was sitting. It is unlikely that I’ll ever write a book that will land me a guest spot on a network news program but, hypothetically speaking, how would I answer a question like this? Tell us something about the nature of God and make it fit in a five second sound-byte. How would I answer those questions if they were posed to me by George Stephanopoulos and Martin Bashir? My mind went back to that time I took a course on ministry and media skills, how we videotaped ourselves being put on the spot and answering pointed questions, and then we watched the videos of our responses to see if our answers communicated any sense of assurance or clarity or authority.

I imagined some different possible responses I might give if I had been sitting where Rob Bell had sat. I imagined myself answering aggressively. “Those are stupid questions. They are theologically juvenile. And, to explain to you why they are bad questions would take longer than you are planning to give me in this interview. I do not accept your premises and will not give the false choices you’ve proposed the honor of my reply.” But then I decided that answering this way wouldn’t be helpful to anyone.

I imagined confusing and undercutting the question with agnosticism. “Nobody can possibly know whether God intervenes in human affairs, or whether God has the power to intervene, or even if God exists at all. We just cannot know.” If my first response was too aggressive, this response seems to err on the side of too much passivity. It is a weak answer.

And the problem, I now saw, could be found in my unwillingness to honor the seriousness of the question. Each of my imagined answers had a bit of honesty in them. Questions like these, questions about where God is in the midst of suffering, really can’t be answered satisfactorily with five second quips. And, all answers are necessarily tentative and speculative. But, by dodging the question, I think you do refuse to engage in discussions about that which has been a perennial question throughout all of recorded human history. Why do we suffer? Does God cause us to suffer? Where is God in the midst of suffering?

The questions George Stephanopoulos and Martin Bashir ask can be understood in a different light. Consider the following (paraphrasing of an email that contained an) observation made by my friend and fellow UU minister Brent Smith:
In this “nation with a soul of a church” theological issues still remain at the heart of our culture. We may think in terms of philosophy, and concern ourselves with questions of God’s existence, which is a philosophical question more than a theological one. Or, we might put ourselves in the privileged position of the social scientist and compare and contrast how these questions are answered in various cultures and across world religions. But, in our culture we lead with a theological question. What is the nature of God’s love and what is the nature of God’s judgment?
Let me go back to those questions asked by the television personalities. Martin Bashir comes right after Bell. “Which of these is true: either God is all-powerful, but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore they’re suffering, or he does care about the people of Japan but he is not all-powerful? So, which one is it?” Bashir is asking a theological question about the nature of God.

Now, listen to Bell’s response. “I begin with the belief that when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear. So I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate, and stands in solidarity with us. Secondly, the dominant story of the scriptures is about restoration, about renewal, about rebirth. It’s about a God who insists, in the midst of this chaos, that the last word hasn’t been spoken.”

In all honesty, Bell’s answer is not a perfect answer. But, the question he is answering is all about the nature of God’s love and God’s judgment. I could spend a bunch of time unpacking Bell’s answer and what I think about it, but I want to move along.

So, let me hit stop as we move away from these interviews with a heretical evangelical minister. We are going to put all of this aside and bring the conversation into this room. As Jane Rzepka reminded us in the reading from the beginning of the service, as Unitarian Universalists we gather together with differing understandings of God. Some of us are atheists, agnostics, and humanists who try to avoid speaking or hearing the word God as much as possible. Others of us do find some concept of God to be beneficial or even desirable, at least insofar as the concept of God that is offered isn’t reprehensible or barbaric. We are diverse. I don’t pretend that we are all in agreement or that it would be a good thing if we were.

But, this morning, I want to challenge all of us. I want to challenge the theists and non-theists alike. I want to challenge us to assume that my friend, Brent Smith, is right when he says that we as a nation tend to make sense of things by leading with a question about the nature of God’s love and the nature of God’s judgment? Can you see how differing ideas about God’s love and judgment are going to lead to justification for different approaches to poverty, war, environmental destruction, the justice system, the education system, and the meaning of nationhood?

If this is true, just suppose it is true, then it is incumbent on us, theist and non-theist alike, if nothing else, to speak honestly of God. And, I want to explore what that might look like.

I use the word “honestly” in a very intentional way. And, that word may cause us to stumble. Because, at first it would seem that the only way to be completely honest is to admit to agnosticism. “We don’t really know. We can’t really know.” But, I think there are certainly times when rigid agnosticism is unhelpful. Suppose a white supremacist uses the book of Genesis to argue that God created some races to be superior to other races. The agnostic turn would require you to say, “I suppose that could be possible.” Or suppose you are being visited by your crazy uncle, the one who goes on and on about the connection between the Freemasons and the aliens. Your response – “I suppose that is possible” – is not spoken with honesty. You suppose no such thing. You’re just trying to change the subject. There are times when agnosticism can be without honor.

It is possible to speak honestly of God even if you don’t believe in God. Some people insist that God has given the United States a special blessing, that we come before all other nations, and that our interests supersede the interests of other nations. Others insist that God views all people equally and does not play favorites with nations. And, one of these statements seems more honest than the other. In all honesty, God did not help you score that touchdown and, honestly, God does not care who wins the Super Bowl. In all honesty. Speaking honestly of God.

Annie Lamott once quipped that you know you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do. So, is the God of the liberal church a God who likes to listen to NPR, just like we do? That is not what I am saying. If anything, I do actually think that Brent Smith is on to something when he observes, “We need to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our own in that we limit our love, but God does not. We set boundaries around our affections, unlike God’s love which knows no boundaries.”

The Hebrew prophet Micah once told the people, God does not want you to sacrifice calves or rams, or to pour out rivers of oil, or to put on a feast, or hold a big celebration to show your love of God. God is not impressed by this. “The Lord only requires that you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8) Oh, is that all? Justice, mercy, and humility are a lot to ask. Are you sure I can’t just prepare a feast? I find Micah’s image of God to be a very honest one.

If you question the usefulness of speaking honestly of God, consider this allegation from cultural critic Chris Hedges. Hedges claims that the liberal churches and liberal synagogues have often failed “to denounce Christian heretics who acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of consumerism, nationalism, greed, imperial hubris, violence, and bigotry.” Speaking honestly of God requires us to challenge popular images of God, images of a God who smiles upon the powerful, selects favored nations or classes, is impressed by showy displays of wealth, and blesses war.

Rob Bell, in introducing his book, says, “What we believe of heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” That would be the nature of God’s love and the nature of God’s judgment. “It exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” If we believe that God has created a heaven in which a few select people win, then we will be satisfied with a world in which only a few select people get ahead and everyone else suffers. If we believe in a God who would punish billions of souls for all eternity, we ourselves will be indifferent to suffering in the world and won’t challenge systems of exclusion and separation. If we believe that God is a designer of torture chambers, we will see no issue with designing our own torture chambers. If we believe that salvation means evacuation from this fallen world, we’ll see no need to reduce our carbon footprint.

Indeed, “what we believe of heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” And, what we believe about who God is and what God is like is incredibly important because it will inform our notions of how we ought to live right here and right now.

Speak honestly of God, and speak of a God who does not limit love in the ways that we limit love. Speak of a God who includes all, even though our inclusiveness may have its limitations. Speak of a God who is “profoundly empathetic, compassionate, and stands in solidarity with us,” even though we sometimes have failures of empathy and commitment. Speak of a God for whom forgiveness comes easily even though for us it may come with painful slowness. And though we may judge with anger and contempt, speak of a God for whom there is no judgment apart from love.

To speak honestly of God is to speak honestly of those values that for us are noble and worthy and worth pursuing. Amen.

Sermon: "The Promise Making, Promise Breaking, Promise Renewing Animal" (Delivered 3-6-11)

[This sermon was originally delivered on March 6, 2011]

Each week at the beginning of the service we repeat these words:
Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace;
To seek knowledge in freedom;
To serve humanity in fellowship,
To the ends that all souls shall grow
into harmony with the divine.
Thus do we covenant with one another.
Love is the doctrine of this church. That is a true statement. Ours is a non-creedal church, meaning what binds us together, what connects us, is not a statement of belief. Rather, what connects us is a way of being together with one another in community. And, love, it strikes me, is a pretty fine way to endeavor to be together. “We need not think alike to love alike,” said Francis David, the Transylvanian Unitarian. It is more important to love alike than to think alike. So, rather than trying to agree on a doctrinal statement of belief, we try to cultivate a loving community. Love is the doctrine of this church.

The quest for truth is our sacrament. This, I suppose, is sort of true. In Christianity, a sacrament is a special ceremony or rite that defines stages of faith maturity. Protestantism observes two sacraments: baptism and communion. Catholicism adds five additional ones: confession, confirmation, holy orders, matrimony, and the anointing of the sick. Is the quest for truth really our sacrament? Even though they have their own meaning in our tradition, we do child dedications, coming of age ceremonies, services of union and weddings, as well as our flower communion in the spring and our Waters of the World ceremony in the late summer. We all, to some degree or another, engage in a quest for truth, and I suppose that some of us experience that quest as having a sacramental quality to it, whatever that means. But, we also do other things, like the child dedication ceremony we’re going to do next Sunday, that feel, well, sacramental.

And service is our prayer. This is only very partially true. In fact, it is somewhat misleading. We should add an asterisk and add an explanation in small print. Yes, many of us love performing community service, doing social action, and volunteering in many ways. A few of us even feel spiritually awakened when performing service. But, knowing you, I also know that meditation is your prayer, that communing with nature is your prayer, that reflecting on poetry is your prayer, that yoga is your prayer, that journaling is your prayer, that gardening is your prayer, and, yes, even prayer is your prayer.

Maybe we should say, “Love is the doctrine of this church; the quest for truth might be our sacrament (we’re not really sure); and, service, while a great thing, is not our prayer.” But, I have to tell you, that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

“Wait a second, Thom,” some of you may want to protest, “You’re taking these words on the front cover of the order of service literally. They are not meant to be taken literally. They are a creative rephrasing of what most people think it means to be religious. Being religious, at least the way we are religious, does not have to do with doctrines and statements of belief or rituals or the recitation of a holy text. It has to do with love and with searching for truth and, especially, with the way we are in the world.”

Those words on the front of the service that we read each week are attributed to a man named L. Griswold Williams, a Universalist minister, who put them to paper in the 1930s. We don’t believe that they were originally his words. We think he combined several affirmations and covenants that were popular at the time.

In the first three lines, the Williams affirmation mentions love grounded in community, the search for truth, and service to one another. In the next three lines, he reprises each of these elements: To dwell together in peace. To seek knowledge in freedom. To serve humanity in fellowship. And then the affirmation concludes with seven words, “Thus do we covenant with one another.”

This morning I want to revisit the idea of the covenant, a central core concept within our tradition. We say that we are a non-doctrinal church, a non-creedal church. We say that what binds us together is not a statement or profession of faith that we all share in common. The words on the front of our order of service are not a statement about what we believe. The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism are not a creed. We say that we are not a creedal religion, but instead a covenantal one. And, so I want to talk a little bit about what covenants are.
Three years ago I preached a six part sermon series on Covenants.

Thinking that covenant might be a topic that was boring to some people, I decided to dress up as Indiana Jones, wield a whip in the pulpit, and announce that what we were really doing, figuratively speaking, was searching for the lost ark of the covenant. Or, at least the ark of our own covenant. That sermon wound up getting published in a denominational publication. And, then I wound up getting quoted on the subject of covenant in dozens and dozens of sermons all over the country and even the world. That sermon was mentioned in British Columbia, California, Arizona, Vermont, and dozens of other places, including London, England. My definition of covenant was probably the most quoted part of the sermon. “A covenant is a set of enduring but evolving deeply held promises made between people. And while the covenant is taken seriously, the promises are often so intense that it is impossible to always live up to them. We will never exactly live up to the covenants into which we enter. So, we will always admit a falling short – and respond by re-covenanting, recommitting to those promises.” Or, in other words, a covenant is a promise that is made super-seriously and that proves difficult to keep.

The poet William Safford was a well-known pacifist, deeply committed to the principles and practice of non-violence. One of his most famous poems is the difficult and intuitive, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” It is a poem that is frequently read at peace-making trainings. I think his poem implies something about covenant. The line that stands out to me: “A pattern that others made may prevail in the world.” “If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are, a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.”

This line certainly implies something about relationship and about the promises that are necessary for us to be in relationship with each other. The concern is that we not fall into thoughtless patterns of being together. The concern is that we be attentive to the promises we’ve made concerning how we will be together. We shouldn’t fall into default patterns of interaction. We shouldn’t follow the wrong God home.

Besides my oft-quoted definition of what a covenant is, the other thing about that sermon from several years ago that caught on was the story I told at the outset of the sermon. The context for the story was that the Missouri government was considering some piece of public policy around what may be taught in public schools about human sexuality. The regulations they sought to impose would have made it impossible for teachers to teach things that were true, that were scientifically and medically accurate. So, as one who takes seriously the sacrament of the quest for what is true, as one who seeks knowledge in freedom, I attended a public rally organized by Planned Parenthood. There, at that rally in front of the JC Nichols fountain on the Plaza, there were a couple of college students who were also conservative Christians who were also there to spy on what was going on. Word got around that a minister who supported sex education was in the crowd and the two students made a bee-line to find out the story of the minister who would stand up for medically-accurate human sexuality education.

They barraged me with questions, questions that clearly established that a pattern that others had made was prevailing in the world. They had never heard of Unitarian Universalism, so they began to try to ascertain whether I ascribed to the same creeds and doctrines to which they assented. “Do Unitarian Universalists believe in the Bible?”

But, you can’t know us by defining our doctrines. You can’t know us by pinning us down on a statement of belief. We’re covenantal, not creedal. You know us by knowing how we promise to try to be together. What is your doctrine? “Love is our doctrine.” What are your sacraments? “The quest for truth is our sacrament.” What words of incantation do you use when you pray? “We serve humanity in fellowship.”

In the assumptions that these ladies brought into the conversation, a pattern that others had made prevailed in the world. That pattern said that religion is about correct doctrine, established forms, orthopraxy. Talk about following the wrong God home and missing your star. It was agonizing to try to explain to them that we do not see religion as a matter of doctrines but a matter of relationships, not a matter of creeds but a matter of how we promise to be together.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber famously said that our humanity is inextricably bound to our promises. He called us the “promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing animal.” Riffing on Buber, UU minister John Buehrens said, “I believe that we humans are not so much homo sapiens (we are neither that wise nor that self-aware), but rather we are [the animal that makes promises.] We ourselves are created in the context of relationships, promises, commitments. We then either break them, make new ones, modify them, or renew them. To use a word deeply rooted in our culture, we are ‘covenantal’ by nature.” [See, John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope.]

In the Jewish tradition, the religious tradition from which we get the concept of covenant, a major part of the high Holy Day of Yom Kippur involves the deep contemplation of our promises. The central prayer of Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre, actually does something startling. It abolishes, for a moment, out of time, all promises. Rabbi Irwin Kula says, “It’s very frightening to imagine that we have no obligations, because it is our obligations, our promises that define who we are.”

Martin Buber turned modern Western history into a kind of parable. [Note: this parable is lifted and just lightly paraphrased from a chapter in A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker.] Buber said that at the time of the American revolution and French revolution, three ideals united together. Those ideals were liberty, equality, and community. But, in the confusion of a changing world, the three lost track of each other in the melee of the crowd. Liberty traveled west and came to America. All by itself, its character changed. It turned into a kind of freedom without responsibility, freedom to exploit and mistreat others and our planet, freedom from the responsibilities of community and from obligation to the common good. While Liberty went west, Equality went east to the gulags of the Soviet Union. In the name of equality, freedoms of worship, conscience, speech, and association were abolished. The third ideal – community, relationship, kinship – went into hiding. It went underground, only to surface at those times when people joined together to oppose the distortion of freedom or the perversion of equality. Community arose during the civil rights movement. Community arose during the Solidarity movement in Poland. Community arises whenever we break from patterns that others have made so as to be able to claim a way of being together in covenant, in promises we make to one another about how we will strive to be together.

What Martin Buber says rings so immensely true to me. All of us, at any given time, in the context of the great web of our relationships, have to navigate the course of making and breaking and renewing promises. We live amidst these promises – promises we’ve made to our partners, to our children, to our work and our vocation, to our voluntary associations where we practice religious and civic engagement, to our wider society, and to ourselves. Living within these promises entails the difficult task of trying to balance and reconcile liberty, equality, and community. It is a sacred struggle. There is a sacred depth in the promises you make and keep.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Review: Death of the Liberal Class

I just finished reading Pulitzer Prize winning author Chris Hedges’ eighth book, The Death of the Liberal Class, which was published in October, 2010. It is the sixth book by him that I’ve read.

What Hedges means by the Liberal Class is a group of institutions that together play an important and essential role in a democratic society. These institutions include academia, the press, the arts, liberal churches, labor unions, and, at times, the Democratic Party. Through truth telling these institutions help to shape public opinion and constrain the worst impulses of imperialism, war-mongering, and the greed of unchecked capitalism. The Liberal Class draws from a deep well of human wisdom that through literature, art, history, philosophy, and theology that instructs as to what it means to be human and reminds us of the perils of greed, wrath, and arrogance.

According to Hedges the Liberal Class has suffered a steady decline over the past century. The last one hundred years has been a prolonged dying process. Curiously, Hedges identifies the first decade of the twentieth century as a golden age for the Liberal Class. He cites the power of labor unions, the success of the Communist and socialist politicians, the work of journalists like Upton Sinclair, and the passage of laws protecting citizens such as the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

However, beginning with World War I and continuing for the next hundred years, the institutions that form the Liberal Class have retreated from fulfilling their own highest calling. They’ve managed to shoot themselves in the foot and have allowed themselves to be taken advantage of by the Power Elite. (The Power Elite refers to greedy corporations who are willing to sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of others for their own gain.) The earliest betrayals of the Liberal Class came during WWI when the Liberal Class failed to question government propaganda, silenced critics from within its own ranks, and joined up with the drumbeat for war.

Such betrayals, of course, have only increased over the course of the last century. There were, of course, the purges of McCarthyism and, later, the booing of Michael Moore and the New York Times and Thomas Friedman functioning as a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. The Obama presidency, according to Hedges, demonstrates the utter inability of the liberal class to stand up to the power elite.

Hedges argues that the American state has succumbed to inverse totalitarianism. What Hedges means by inverse totalitarianism, to use a source from outside of the book, is something akin to what Friedrich Nietzsche describes in his observation that, “Submission to powerful, frightening, indeed terrible persons, to tyrants and army leaders, is felt to be far less painful than this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons, such as all magnates of industry are.” Inverse totalitarianism, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s famous formulation, puts the banality in the banality of evil. It is not submission to a charismatic leader. It is being crushed by unchecked corporate control and the “unknown and uninteresting persons” behind this control.

Some of Hedges’ analysis comes off at times as a stretch. His book is short and suffers from his attempts to make his analysis all-encompassing. He writes with an overhanded moral and ideological fury that spares nothing in its path. This works when he is critiquing environmental degradation. It doesn’t work as well when he is critiquing modern art. It is unfortunate that he devotes so much space in his writing to these digressions because I believe he does deserve to be taken seriously on his most serious points.

In all of his books Hedges manages to be a better diagnostician than a doctor. He is able to describe what is wrong; he is far less able to advise us as to a cure. Whereas Hedges has been known to present us with a few less-than-satisfactory suggestions in some of his other books, Hedges ends Death of the Liberal Class by sounding his most hopeless note.

Hedges forecasts doom. He says that nothing can save us from the Scylla and Charybdis of corporate control and environmental destruction. Hedges advises us to form communities of resistance in which small enclaves of people grow their own food and preserve moral education and humanistic learning. He advises us against violent resistance because of violence’s corrupting influence.

If you’ve read Death of the Liberal Class, I’d love to discuss your reaction to the book and how this book has shaped the way you think about the current political realities in the United States.

Sermon: "The Dark Side of Self-Reliance" (Delivered 2-20-11)

[This sermon was originally delivered on February 20, 2011]

I do not tell this story because I think you are all that interested in stories about ministers. Actually, it’s probably healthier for you not to be interested in stories about ministers. I do tell this story (actually a composite of several stories) because I think it is unlikely that you’ve found yourself in exactly this situation, which makes it a safer story.

Andy (not his real name) was a middle-aged, second career minister whose first call was to a large church. It was a church with a lot of high achieving professionals as members, a culture that prized accomplishment. It was a church with a proud history of celebrated and prominent pulpiteers.

Not long after beginning his ministry Andy felt over his head. The work was demanding, intense, and even all-consuming. He experienced feelings of inadequacy, especially in the pulpit. He never felt that his sermons measured up. One week, after responding to a whole series of pastoral crises and administrative conflagrations, he came up empty when it was time to write his sermon. In a moment of desperation he went on-line, found a sermon that another minister had written, copied and pasted it, and preached it as if it were of his own authorship. It was well-received.

The consequence was not what Andy had intended. Instead of experiencing one-time relief, a singular respite, Andy’s sense of self-doubt and inadequacy increased, multiplied. Future sermons would have to be as good as the one he had stolen and faked. He fell into a pattern that grew compulsive. He received many positive comments on his sermons and the parishioners began to insist that the sermons be posted on the church website. Each compliment magnified his own feelings of inadequacy, shame, and his crushed self-esteem. He had dug himself into a pit and he kept digging. He alternated between poles of delusion and rationalization and self-hatred. Subconsciously, he wanted to get caught. And, eventually, he did get caught.

Some time ago I served a three year stint as a member of the Executive Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Part of the work of that group, the most important and challenging and sobering work of that group, involved intervening in cases in which ministers found themselves in trouble. Sometimes the trouble was of the minister’s own making, sometimes it wasn’t. But, by the time these situations reached us, a lot of the better outcomes that had been possible earlier were no longer possible.

In the situations where we had to intervene, there was one common denominator that was shared by almost all of the ministers who found themselves in trouble. That common denominator was isolation, a determination to struggle privately and discreetly. The struggling person becomes guarded and constructs an increasingly elaborate façade. The psychic pain leads to withdrawal, emotional and relational isolation. Among professionals, especially those who work in fields such as ministry, not meeting with other professionals in your field is taken as a sign that you are in danger, that you are in trouble. Isolation is a warning sign. It signals that something is wrong.

Two weeks ago I preached the first part in a two part sermon series on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance.” Self-reliance, I said, was a loaded term that has been used, misused, and abused in different ways over the past one hundred and seventy years. Self-reliance, as Emerson intended the term, had to do with self-confidence in one’s own thought and in the ability for the person to stand up and stick up for his or her own principles even when those views are in the minority, even when the crowd is moving in a different direction. Emerson writes, “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

For all his talk about keeping the “sweetness of solitude” while in the midst of the crowd, it is a misreading of Emerson to think that he was advocating a futile kind of self-isolation. As one person who read my sermon from two weeks ago commented, it can easily be argued that Emerson was a major proponent and advocate for community. He was, after all, the founder of an intellectual club that included both men and women, that was modeled after the coffeehouses and salons of England and the European continent. Intellectual understanding was best pursued in the company of other co-learners. He was not, was never, a solitary genius. He was always part of a fellowship of thinkers.

And, two weeks ago, I talked about how the term self-reliance has been co-opted to mean something entirely different than what Emerson had meant. Self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-determination, individual responsibility, personal freedom: in our contemporary society these are all used as code words for right wing economic and social policies.

Social change theorists have pointed out that since the mid-1960s, the concept of rights has been slowly losing ground as the dominant lens for understanding social issues in the public arena. And, since the 1960s, issues have increasingly been understood as matters of security, individual responsibility, and values (with the caveat that values are taken to mean right-wing Christian theocratic values.) What I’m saying, what these people who think about social change theory are saying, is that while most of us here in this room probably consider public education a human right, and health care a human right, and workers’ rights to unionize and receive a living wage and bargain collectively to be a human right, by and large most people would say that these things are matters of individual responsibility. The concept of personal liberty trumps the concept rights in the court of public opinion. This is a painful thing to hear and points to the need to develop new understandings and new ways of talking about and explaining and framing these issues.

What do I mean when I say that the frame that speaks of things in terms of rights has diminished in potency and the frame that speaks of things in terms of security, individual responsibility, and conservative Christian values has ascended in power? All you need to do is name an issue and see which frame has proven more successful in the realm of popular opinion.

Take, for example, the Patriot Act. When the vote came for that blatantly unconstitutional piece of legislation, the discourse that opposed it on the basis of human rights and civil liberties was completely annihilated by the discourse that framed the legislation as a matter of security.

Or, take the issue of unions. Right now we see this drama playing out in Wisconsin and Ohio. Proponents of unions have long held that unions function to protect the rights of workers. Opponents have maligned unions, accusing them of creating situations in which individual responsibility is compromised. Unions have been slowly losing power in our country since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Proponents of unions, according to the analysis of thinkers such as George Lakoff, need a new way to talk about unions that is not based on a notion of rights.

It is easy to point to areas in our culture and in our politics in which we can say that a kind of rugged individualism, a survivalist ethos, and a preoccupation with individual responsibility are at play. And, it is also easy to deflate the balloon and let the hot air out of many of these arguments. It is easy to point out when someone was born already standing at third base and thinks they’ve hit a triple. It is easy to question someone’s claims of self-reliance when they have dozens of lobbyists on their payroll or when they cash bailout checks from the government.

It is harder to point out those moments when we ourselves practice a distorted and self-defeating type of self-reliance. It is harder to point out because it flies in the face of what we know.

We know, thinking back to that example of the plagiarizing minister, that things began to go bad when he was unable to reach out to colleagues, to mentors, to his board, and to outside resources to help manage the intense stress he was under. We know he set himself up for trouble when he closed himself off and insisted he could manage it all by himself.

We know, in looking at the major issues we face as a society, that improvements don’t happen through individual fortitude and stoic suffering. We know that it takes collective action, coalition building, organizing, and cooperative action to bring about change.

We know that the George Odell reading from our hymnal is true, that “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted. We need one another when are in trouble and afraid… All our lives we are in need, and other are in need of us.”

We know this. We know this. But a lot of Unitarian Universalists tend to do otherwise. I’ve been having discussions will trusted colleagues, talking about a troubling pattern we’ve seen in our congregations. The pattern is that when a person finds themselves in trouble – an illness, a family crisis, a job loss, money problems, health problems, relationship problems – often when someone in our congregation finds themselves in trouble, they pull away. They pull away from church. They pull away from their friends here. They isolate. And, I’m not talking about stepping aside from a leadership position for a little while. I’m talking about refusing to ask for help and support and turning away the help and support that is offered.

And, from what I can tell, it isn’t just something that happens here in this congregation. And, I’m perplexed and frustrated trying to understand why this is the way it is. And, the only tentative hypothesis I have is that we’ve bought into a distorted idea of self-reliance that causes us to isolate and face hardship alone. Maybe you have another idea. If so, I’d love to hear it. I want your perspective on this.

During the time that I was an intern minister living in Dallas I managed to total my car. I remember my internship supervisor driving across town to pick me up and taking me to a rental car agency and offering to let the church cover the cost of a rental car until I could arrange for my own transportation. I remember feeling embarrassed by this, by my own lack of self-reliance. When I expressed this, my internship supervisor told me to be quiet. “Listen,” he said, “Humans did not survive, from an evolutionary biology perspective, because of their sharp teeth and claws. We did not survive because of our speed or strength. Not because of our thick, protective hide or our warm hair. We survived because of cooperation and taking care of each other.”

When you turn to another person from help, you are fulfilling a biological role as well as participating in a moral imperative. “All our lives we are in need of others and others are in need of us.”

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Good and the Interesting of 80/35

Over the Independence Day weekend Anne and I traveled to Des Moines to attend the 80/35 music festival, named for the Eisenhowerian intersection of the two interstate highways in central Iowa. The festival’s name is evidence of the practical common sense and unpretentiousness of its location. While other festivals are named for a garble of fun to pronounce but meaningless letters – Lollapalooza, Bumbershoot, Bonnaroo – this festival’s name is nothing if not utilitarian.

80/35 could be called a third rate alternative music festival. Its headlining acts would find themselves charged with the mid-afternoon task of waking up the dehydrated and sunburnt crowd at most major festivals. Its mid-card and lower-card acts have virtually no name recognition. More precisely, while “third-rate” may describe the drawing power of 80/35 musical line-up, it was actually a charming and well-run musical adventure. 80/35 is situated in a city park that borders a fun little sculpture garden. It does not involve trashing some godforsaken field in the middle of nowhere. And, I’ve never witnessed such courtesy and lack of anti-social behavior within the mob-like anonymity of thousands of young people grouped together. Let’s face it: I’m now at the older end of the spectrum of festival goers and 80/35 indulged my creature comforts.

The highlight of this festival was getting to see two bands I’d never heard before but that had been highly recommended to me. Both of the bands exceeded my expectations.

The first band was the New Jersey punk outfit Titus Andronicus. They opened with “A More Perfect Union,” a complex and mesmerizing song that feels like a homesick ode to their home state. In all honesty, I have no idea about the song’s larger meaning, but the song does seem to play with powerful themes of nostalgia and utopian longing and how these emotions can be used, abused, and even exploited. (Or maybe I was just thinking of Independence Day.) “A More Perfect Union” also contains a wonderful little shout-out to New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.

Titus Andronicus played a long set and dazzled on-stage. While punk rock is known for short and direct, two-minute numbers, Titus Andronicus creates longer songs that somehow manage not to feel watered-down and sprawling. Titus Andronicus had a fantastic stage presence that combined humility with energy and exuberance. The spirited playing of guitarist Amy Klein, who sported a tour T-Shirt of Des Moines’ own indie-group (and 80/35 performer) Poison Control Center, was especially noteworthy. She also happens to have a great blog about indie rock with a little feminism thrown in.

Listen to “A More Perfect Union” by Titus Andronicus
Listen to “Upon Viewing Bruegel's ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’” by Titus Andronicus

The second band I really enjoyed seeing was the folk-rock ensemble Okkervil River. I had never heard their music before this festival, but I knew that their most recent album had received excellent reviews and that they are signed to the Jagjaguwar record label that is known for releasing Bon Iver’s albums.

Everything about Okkervil River was enjoyable and pleasing to the ear. As I listened to them, I couldn’t help but compare them to The Decemberists. However, I found that Okkervil River possesses in moderation all those characteristics that, in excess, make The Decemberists tiresome. Like Colin Meloy, Will Sheff of Okkervil River is dramatic and literary, just not overly so.

Listen to Wake and Be Fine by Okkervil River
Listen to Lost Coastlines by Okkervil River

Other bands I enjoyed seeing perform at the 80/35 Festival included Gold Motel, Pink Mink, and the flamboyant and entertaining dance-rock band of Montreal.

The most interesting performer of 80/35 was actually the festival’s headlining act, Girl Talk. How thoroughly post-modern to have a headlining act at a music festival who does not play any instruments or sing or even write music! So, what exactly is Girl Talk?

Girl Talk is actually the stage name of 29 year old Greg Gillis. Up until a few years ago, Greg Gillis lived a double life in Pittsburgh, PA. By day Gillis worked a biological engineer for a biotech company. By night and on the weekends Gillis flew all over the United States and even all over the world playing his own unique brand of dance music created entirely from samples. His laptop contains thousands and thousands of digital music files containing parts of popular songs. What Gillis does is to create what is known as “mash-ups” by layering two or three or four or five recordings on top of one another. Gillis’ style involves rapidly inserting and removing parts of songs. It never stands still.

It was reported that his most recent album contained samples from 379 different recordings. Over any given five-minute stretch, Gillis may sample from twenty to thirty different songs. Yes, I did mention albums. He has released five albums, each consisting entirely of other artists’ copyrighted material. These albums can be downloaded from his website. (You get to choose how much to pay!) Gillis believes that what he does is covered by the legal principle of “fair use” and has supposedly never faced a lawsuit, which is incredible because he’s sampled over from over 1,000 different songs. Girl Talk has been critically well-received. His releases have appeared on all kinds of best-of-the-year lists and his 2006 album The Night Ripper was included on The AV Club’s list of the best albums of the decade. Gillis has been able to quit his day job. The Girl Talk project, that includes headlining this music festival, evidently pays the bills.

So, what exactly is a Girl Talk concert like? His stage includes a table, a monitor, and his laptop computer. He claims to mix all of his samples live. This may or may not be true. With one hand on his mouse, Girl Talk dances behind his laptop. Every so often he removes an article of clothing. The audience comes on stage and dances right alongside him. There are lights and confetti cannons and beach balls. It is a big dance party. You can see what it looks like here. Or here. Or here. Or here.

The music that Girl Talk samples is mostly hip-hop and rap, top 40, and rock. It is all popular music. In the thirty minutes of his performance that I listened to, Girl Talk sampled from about twenty different hip-hop songs I could not identify as well as songs by Beck, The Ramones, Nirvana, Beyoncé, Tone Loc, Young MC, Miley Cyrus, Kylie Minogue, and dozens more I’ve probably already forgotten about.

You can find a huge number of his recordings as well as “concert” footage on YouTube. Some of his mash-ups are rather famous including his mixing of rap lyrics from Notorious B.I.G. with the music from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” (The joke is that he is mixing something “big” with something “tiny.”) He also mixes “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones with an annoying song called “Black and Yellow” by rapper Wiz Khalifa. His vocal samples are drawn very heavily from rap and hip-hop and contain all of the racializations, misogyny, and glamorization of recreational drug use and excessive demonstrations of wealth that are so common within that art form.

Was Girl Talk entertaining? Not tremendously. He was a bit baffling at times. It was about ninety degrees out when he took the stage after the sun had been beating down brutally all day long and he took the stage wearing a hooded sweatshirt and warm-up pants. The sweatshirt stayed on less than five minutes, but c’mon now. His microphone work was astoundingly banal. Before clicking his mouse he grabs a microphone and says, “What is up Des Moines? Right now we are going to party. It is summer and we are outside. I said, it is summer and we are outside. We are going to party right now.” The rest of his microphone work consisting in exhorting the audience to jump or put our hands in the air and every remark of his was peppered with the verbal reminder that this all happening “right now.” The two words “right now” came out of him like some awkward verbal tic.

It is my tendency to look at things and inquire as to their meaning. I may be at fault for assuming that things have meanings. Girl Talk himself would probably deny that there is any meaning to what he does other than getting people to dance and have fun. He denies that he is offering any commentary on music and claims only to sample from music he enjoys. However, if John Cage’s 4’33” means something – (something about performance, something about the relationship between performer and audience, something about silence and whether silence is possible, etc.) – then I think Girl Talk probably means something.

I do think that the audience’s role at a Girl Talk “show” is performative. The audience is invited up on stage and surrounds and even swallows Greg Gillis. Meanwhile, Girl Talk’s role is at once minimalist and maximalist. Clicking a mouse is a fairly minimalist activity however the soundscape caused by this small act is large resulting in several songs piled on top of one another. The idea of the audience being up on stage is indicative of the “cult of self” that dominates American culture. The everyday events in my life deserve to be posted as a Facebook status update. I will tweet my daily activities in real time. Someday I might be the focus of a “reality” television program.

I would further say that Girl Talk is highly performative in the sense his music is probably best enjoyed by people who are familiar with the canon from which he draws and that, as a result, what is actually being observed is our own conscious recognition of the music. If you know none of the songs, it will appear jumbled. To actually enjoy Girl Talk I would argue that you have to enjoy that you recognize the music. Case in point, the loudest ovation at 80/35 came when Girl Talk sampled in a selection from teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus’ song “Party in the USA”. The guitar lick at the beginning of this song is just about the catchiest thing in the world. I’ve never heard this song on the radio. I don’t own any of her music. I would never pay to see her in concert. But this guitar lick is somehow familiar to me. What people at 80/35 – people who also don’t own any Miley Cyrus and paid money to come to this indie rock festival rather than a Miley Cyrus concert – were cheering was not the guitar lick as much as the fact tha they recognized the guitar lick. (There is further irony here. That Miley Cyrus song is about conquering homesickness by recognizing pop music!) I would posit that the more extensive your popular music knowledge, the more likely you are to enjoy Girl Talk.

Finally, I think this music says something about multitasking, short attention spans, and media saturation. There is no development in his music. There is no narrative arc. A song comes in and it is gone 15 or 30 seconds later. A verse and then no chorus, not to mention no second verse or third verse or bridge or solo. I think to enjoy Girl Talk one has to almost feel that there is something too slow about listening to only song at once. Let’s hear Nirvana and 50 Cent. Let’s hear Notorious B.I.G. and Elton John.