Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller

There is a precise reason that I decided to read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz in this last week of August. In another week or two I will have an essay published. I was commissioned to write the essay about two years ago for a forthcoming book, a festschrift, celebrating Reed College’s centennial. My alma mater chose a graduate from each major to write about his or her experience at Reed and the value of Reed’s education. I was the religion major selected. It will be a fun collection of essays. Some of the other essays come from highly regarded writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Snyder.

I began my contribution to the festschrift by writing a bit about Donald Miller’s 2003 book Blue Like Jazz. I wrote some things about his book that are highly critical. A number of years ago I read extensive portions of Blue Like Jazz and skimmed the rest. I didn’t care for it, or at least most it. Now, with my essay being published, I wanted to give the book another try to see if I would still stand by my criticisms. Plus, there is a movie version loosely based on Blue Like Jazz that is supposed to be released this fall, which will mean that the book might soon receive a lot more publicity.

Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality is sort of a memoir, sort of a collection of essays on the Christian religion, and sort of a work of apologetics, which is to say a genre of literature that attempts to prove or defend the Christian faith. Don Miller grows up as a fundamentalist Christian in Texas, but his relationship with the church is uneasy. He is drawn to spirituality but disappointed by many of the trappings of the church. He condemns its hypocrisy, exclusiveness, and Republicanism. Told all his life that the world is evil and fallen, and taught to fear atheists, Democrats, and gays, Don sets out to discover a different way of being Christian.

Don moves to the Pacific Northwest where he struggles to earn a living as a Christian author and searches for authentic community. Don, or at least the persona he develops in his memoir, is a bit of a loner. He is awkward with women. He really struggles to live in his own skin.

Though Don remains a committed and evangelical Christian, he grows and develops as a person by entering into communities of the liberals he was taught to fear and judge. He writes about living for a month with hippies in the woods. He attends a Unitarian church. And, he writes about hanging out at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I will return to Reed in just a bit.

Let’s consider what he writes about the Unitarian Church:
I began to attend a Unitarian church. All-Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs was wonderful. The people were wonderful. Like my friends in the woods, they freely and openly accepted everybody the church didn’t seem to accept. I don’t suppose they accepted fundamentalists, but neither did I at the time. I was comfortable there. Everybody was comfortable there. I did not like their flaky theology though. I did not like the way they changed words in the hymns, and I did not like the fact they ignored the Bible, but I loved them, and they really liked me. I loved the smiley faces, the hugs, the vulnerable feel to the place, the wonderful old gray-haired professors, former alcoholics and drug addicts, the intellectual feminists who greeted me with the kindest, most authentic faces that I understood as invitations to tell my story. I began to understand that my pastors and leaders were wrong, that liberals were not evil, they were liberal for the same reason Christians were Christians, because they believed their philosophies were right, good, and beneficial to the world.
Don’s observations are perhaps idealizations. He has good experiences with liberal groups, but there is a sense of otherness in his descriptions that bothers me. Blue Like Jazz is not famous for his attempts to describe the Unitarian church. The book is famous for his stories about Reed College, so much so that when I wear an old Reed sweatshirt out in public, people stop me and ask me if I've read Blue Like Jazz.

Only about 25 of the book's 250 pages take place at Reed, but those passages are the ones that the book is best known for. At around 30 years of age, Don decided to audit a few classes at Reed, hang around the campus, and befriend some of the students, especially Christian students. (I graduated from Reed before Don Miller arrived, but I knew a few of the students he writes about in his book.) When Don came to Reed he was still involved in some conservative evangelical circles and he was warned to avoid Reed, that it was a godless place full of sexual immorality and drug use. He’d be eaten alive.

Miller, by his own account, falls in with a group of Christian Reedies and together they form a neat little community. Most famously, they set up a confessional booth at Reed’s end-of-the-year weekend-long party. The confessional booth is not what you think. It is not expected that drunk students will come and confess their sinful partying ways. In the confessional booth the Reed Christians take turns confessing the sins of the Christian church, ancient and contemporary, to any student who will listen. The story about the confessional booth is probably the most powerful story in the book. The movie version may just be an excuse to film this scene.

However, the movie version makes one very big alteration. It shaves ten years off of Don’s life. Don becomes an eighteen year old freshman, not a thirty year-old dude who hangs around the campus. This brings me to my main criticisms of his book.

In my essay, my harshest critique of Blue Like Jazz is that Don Miller comes across as “creepy.” Is he really creepy? Well, the makers of the movie version certainly didn’t want to put a thirty year-old on a college campus. Let me be clear. I don’t think Don was putting the moves on anyone, but it is weird to imagine him thinking of a small group of teens as his peer group. While not sexual, the relationship dynamics are awkward to say the least.

This creepiness factor is only increased by the way in which Don Miller writes about women. Part of the persona he cultivates in his writing is that he a nice guy who bumbles a lot and who is unlucky in love. But, he does not come across as sympathetic. He often writes about women as you might expect a middle school student to write about girls.
I think if you like somebody you have to tell them. It might be embarrassing to say it, but you will never regret stepping up. I know from personal experience, however, that you should not keep telling a girl that you like her after she tells you she isn’t into it. You should not keep riding your bike by her house either.
Christianity Today’s review of Blue Like Jazz said that Don Miller comes across as “Anne Lamott with testosterone.” The difference here is that Lamott’s quirks and neuroses are, for the most part, endearing. Miller’s aren’t. I compare Miller to Elizabeth Gilbert, whose writing displays personality quirks that I find off-putting. Maybe it is just personal preference. But, Lamott has walked through the valley of the shadow of death and crossed the slough of despair. She is a plucky survivor. Her distinct personality seems to serve her well in life and the same can’t be said for Miller who often seems at war with himself.

I probably wouldn’t feel as strongly about Blue Like Jazz if it were not for my own perspective on Reed College. To be more honest, I never would have read Blue Like Jazz if it did not mention Reed College. Reed is a really special place to me and I tend to react against attempts by outsiders to label it. A few weeks ago the Princeton Review published a list of the most “godless” schools in America and about a dozen people emailed me the story because Reed was on the list. Yes, it is a school that is famous for its atheism, its laissez-affaire approach to drug use, its weirdness, and a big old party at the end of the year that lasts an entire weekend and tends to involve nudity. It is also famous for its genius students, Rhodes Scholars, amazing faculty, small class size and conference-style classes, and overall academic rigor. A few years back the Wall Street Journal published a story praising Reed for exemplifying what a liberals arts education should look like. To play up its hedonism without playing up its rigor and its excellence is to serve a purpose other than truth-telling. I take it a little personally that this place I really love is best known for how it is defined by a guy who audited a few classes and loitered around the campus for a year. Maybe that’s selfish of me.

Though Miller rejects Christian Republicanism, his faith is by no means liberal. He believes in something like original sin and tends to overlook societal sin and focus on individual sin. He’s rather dismissive of other religious traditions in a way that comes across as ignorant. Satan plays too large a role in his theological worldview. I am always uncomfortable with anyone who quotes Ravi Zacharias as a wisdom source.

As a product of and builder of liberal institutions (Reed College, the Unitarian church) I am curious about Miller’s outsider perspectives on these institutions. While not unkind, his perspectives seem both distant and idealized. If he had stayed longer, what other parts of his worldview would have been challenged and changed?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sermon: "Disciplines of Our Church" (Delivered 8-14-11)

When I was twenty I did a study abroad program for a semester in England and I got to travel across a fair portion of Western Europe. I was tremendously privileged to be able to do this. In what I’m about to say, please don’t think for a second that I don’t know what a tremendous privilege it was to go overseas for nearly six months. But looking back, man oh man did I cheapskate across Europe! I didn’t save enough beforehand which necessitated certain decisions while traveling that are actually fairly embarrassing in retrospect. There was nothing I did that was illegal or immoral. In fact, vice was entirely beyond my budget.

I went to great lengths to save a schilling and pinch a pound whenever I could. For example, rather than pay to tour a cathedral, I simply scheduled my visit to coincide with the public worship service. If communion was served, well that was dinner and a show. My diet wasn’t exactly great either.

The Friends Meetinghouse in Norwich, England, held a mid-week meeting followed by a simple meal of cheese sandwiches. That was how I attended my first Quaker meeting. If you’ve never attended a Friends meeting, here is what it is like. Most worship in the Quaker tradition consists of what is known as an “unprogrammed meeting.” The meeting begins when the first person enters the meeting room in which chairs are arranged in a circular pattern. People enter in silence. Seating is open. Forty five minutes or an hour later two members of the meeting stand and shake hands. That is the signal for everyone else to stand and shake hands. Then you have cheese sandwiches. The entire time is spent in silence. (On occasion meeting someone will feel inspired to speak at an unprogrammed meeting. When this happens, the person who feels moved will stands and reading a short passage from the Bible or say a brief prayer. I attended nearly a dozen Quaker meetings in England and a total of three or four people spoke at all of the meetings combined. Most meetings passed in total silence.)

At the first Quaker Meeting I attended my brain was screaming after only about five minutes. The noise in my own mind was deafening. Forty five minutes felt like an eternity. It was grueling and exhausting. By the time I had attended my sixth meeting the 45 minutes of silence had become much easier to endure, even rewarding. I probably wasn’t experiencing what Quakers refer to as their “inner light,” but the time spent in reflection and contemplation was meaningful.

I admire the discipline of the Quaker meeting. It is a discipline to come together and sit, week after week, in silence. And, it is a discipline that leads to a living embrace of pacifism, that leads to simplicity and to having the humility to listen.

This month, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. The observance of Ramadan requires all able Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. Neither food nor drink may pass your lips for the duration of the day. Ramadan lasts thirty days. It is an impressive discipline. And, I would have to think that having the strength to observe Ramadan leads to having strength in other aspects of life.

In Gandhi’s India and in Martin Luther King’s deep South, those who took part in non-violent civil disobedience demonstrated amazing discipline. It took discipline to march, to strike, to fast, to boycott, to sit-in, to go to jail. These collective actions required what Mohandas Gandhi called “Satyagraha” and what Martin Luther King referred to as “Soul Force.” Said King in his “I Have a Dream Speech,”
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

I am of the belief that it is a worthwhile project to take religious language that makes some of us uncomfortable and to engage that discomfort, to face our uneasiness, and to extract what is of worth from a concept that is challenging.

“Discipline” is one of those words that we might have polarized feelings about. In a secular context, the word “discipline” is used all the time to talk about things that are actually quite admirable. In the world of the arts, we celebrate the discipline of the musician or the dancer. In fine arts there are entire styles that depend on mastery, repetition, and pinpoint control. Think of calligraphy. In the world of sports, imagine those Olympic athletes who’ve refined motion to a science, the disciplined form of the figure skater or archer or platform diver. In recent years the evaluation of hitters in baseball has gone through a revolution and plate discipline is regarded as absolutely foundational to success on the baseball diamond. Michael Lewis’ best-selling book Moneyball describes the approach of teams that look for players who possess the patience to wait for a good ball to hit. If someone calls your child a disciplined student, that is a great compliment.

And yet, “discipline” is a word that makes some of us kind of nervous, in a religious or a non-religious sense. If you Google “discipline” and “child” the top sites that come up are fundamentalist Christian parenting guides. A quick review of the websites shows that discipline was most commonly used as a euphemism for “spanking.” If I ask you to imagine a school that believes in discipline, you’ll probably imagine either a military academy or a nun with a ruler. If someone is described as a disciplinarian, it is not a compliment.

The word “discipline” just has these types of connotations. When I am discussing various Christian denominations with someone who maybe doesn’t know the differences between denominations, I will sometimes make mention of a denomination known as The Disciples of Christ. (Disciple and discipline have the same root.) In reality, this denomination is one of more progressive ones. When I mention this denomination, people who’ve never heard of them assume they are conservative. That’s my point: we hear “Disciple” and think “discipline” and we think “strict, overbearing, uptight, joyless.”

Now, I suppose if I continued on this trajectory I would probably wind up finding a middle road. I’d speak of the way in which discipline can be confining and the way it can be liberating. I’d call into question strict, joyless, boot-campy discipline while praising the exalted form of discipline that gives us ballet and salt marches.

But, what I want to do is take this in a different direction. I want to bring us back into this room. All of here together in this and as this church that we love. And, let me just state the obvious in case you were confused. As a church we are not about producing disciplined classically trained pianists or ballet dancers. We will not teach you how to lay off the high heat or land a triple lutz. And, for that matter, while we will gladly and open-heartedly welcome and show respect for anyone who sits for forty five minutes in silence or anyone who fasts during Ramadan, and while we will respect that dedication and devotion to practice and will say that the observance is beautiful, there are countless religious disciplines, such as translating Sanskrit, or ecstatic Sufi mystic dance, or the Japanese tea ceremony, that are just not disciplines that we teach.

They are all wonderful and beautiful disciplines. They are just not our disciplines to teach. So, what our disciplines exactly? Or, let me ask this question by making use of a real life example. Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was convicted recently of civil disobedience for his role in blocking the door to a jail in Phoenix while participating in a protest against immigration laws in Arizona a year earlier. He was one of 29 Unitarian Universalists arrested and those 29 UUs were among nearly 100 protesters arrested in Phoenix a year ago. So I ask, what discipline or disciplines did our UU brothers and sisters draw on to give them strength and presence while getting arrested for civil disobedience? And, this coming June our Unitarian Universalist Association will be having a justice General Assembly in Phoenix, and the plan is that our delegates will leave the sterile, air-conditioned confines of the convention center (in Phoenix, in June!) and fan out across the city and across the state to engage in ministry and action related to immigration justice. What discipline will we draw on for strength?

Does this question make any sense? I’m saying that disciplines shape how we are and that when we face circumstances that are trying and difficult and stressful and intense we recall those disciplines and they help to guide us through toils and snares and valleys of darkness.

There is a story that has been passed around in our movement for years. I think I heard it from a mentor of mine, but I don’t know where it comes from exactly. The story deals with a town or a city where there are frequently interfaith demonstrations for social justice. In this story, in this particular town, the Unitarian Universalists always turned out in force. Dependably. And, the story goes, that one day, an Episcopalian Priest who was a fixture at these rallies and protests was heard to remark, “God bless the Unitarians! They don’t know why they show up, but by golly they always show up.”

I used to not like this story very much. I felt like it was a backhanded swipe at us and an uncalled for one at that because we were the ones who did show up and do show up. Or, maybe it was a jab at our agnosticism. The Episcopalian Priest is able to say, “I’m here because I am a disciple of Jesus and I feel called to do what Jesus taught us to do.” We did not show up in response a scriptural commandment. As a Rabbi friend of mine puts it, “Being a religious liberal means being certain that the God that you aren’t even sure exists demands social justice.”

But, I want to offer a different reading of the priest’s observation that Unitarian Universalists showed up even though they are not sure why. I mean, the priest’s comment is just not true. We do know why we show up. We show up because we believe in justice. But, now I think that what the priest was asking is not why we work for what we believe. We work for what we believe because it is what we believe. I think the priest was asking about what keeps us from quitting, from throwing up our hands in frustration. What is our discipline? Why are we so disciplined about continuing to show up?

Here are a few guesses about the source of our discipline. I think part of our discipline is connected with what is known as our congregational polity, that is, that our churches are autonomous institutions that follow the democratic process. Doing democracy well requires a lot of discipline and a lot of patience. Doing democracy well also results in feeling a sense of ownership and responsibility, responsibility for your congregation or your community or your city or your state. In our tradition the members own the church. You own the church. You own the church. And, because you do, you might feel a heightened sense of responsibility for this space and this community and each other. A discipline born out of democracy.

I suspect that there are other disciplines that are ours, eithers distinctly or indistinctly. I think that an interfaith appreciation of diversity and a longing for an informed understanding of faith traditions that differ from our own is a discipline of ours. And there are more. And there are more.

You may not sit in silence for an hour. You may not fast for a month. You may not commit yourself to a daily study of Torah or to Taize singing. But I turn the question to you:

Where do you find the discipline to keep showing up?

Where do you find the discipline to face what is trying and challenging?

What holds you firm, even when another way would be more convenient?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Sermon: "That of which We Dare Not Speak" (Delivered 8-7-11)

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘is it right?’” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sermon
Stephen Singular is a New York Times bestselling author. He’s written twenty non-fiction books on a variety of subjects, everything from current events to politics to biographies of athletes. He is a native Kansan, a local boy done good from Lydon, a small town an hour South of Topeka. Singular’s best and most popular writing deals with religious and political extremism. His first book was about the murder of a radio talk show host by a white supremacist group. More recently, Singular has written an exposé on Warren Jeffs and Mormon fundamentalism. His newest book, The Wichita Divide, deals with the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and abortion politics right here in the state of Kansas.

Singular came to Johnson County to speak earlier this summer. Few noticed. A group of about fifty people came out to hear him, cramming into a conference room at a local community center. The only way his visit was advertised was on the email distribution lists of a handful of small political organizations.

When Singular spoke to us he was clearly frustrated at the challenges of finding an audience here in Eastern Kansas. Universities, colleges, and public libraries had all turned down opportunities to host him. Independent and chain bookstores passed as well. The press, including public radio, passed on the opportunity to cover his visit. That he’s been ignored is so very tragic and infuriating because his book is about us. Not us as Unitarian Universalists, but us as Kansans. It is about the extremist organizations that make our state their home. It is about politicians from right here in our county, such as Phill Kline, who’ve made careers off of anti-abortion sentiment. And, this sermon is about what the lack of a response to Singular’s visit says about us.

In a book published almost a year ago, Chris Hedges writes about something he calls “the death of the liberal class.” What he means by the liberal class is this: the liberal class is a collection of institutions that include academia, the press, the arts, labor unions, and progressive churches that play an important role in preserving democracy. Hedges writes that these groups are the watchdogs of society, exposing injustice and deception, opposing totalitarianism and greed, and recalling us to the best of our humanity.

Hedges warns that the institutions that make up the liberal class are constantly threatened by temptations, the temptation of getting swept up in propaganda, the temptation of protecting their own little niches by playing it safe and not doing anything unpopular, the seduction of being able to touch the hem of the garment of power and prestige. The temptation to sacrifice principles.

When the liberal class betrays its own principles it is willing to turn over lists of professors, artists, and actors to Joseph McCarthy. When the liberal class betrays its own principles it will eagerly publish fabricated White House intelligence reports about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program without any journalistic verification.

I saw a similar betrayal in the way Stephen Singular’s visit was basically ignored. The bookstore says it is a business and it wants to protect its bottom line, not alienate any of its customers. The universities would rather play it safe and not invite controversy or jeopardize funding. And so it comes to pass that murder and violent religious extremism become something that’s too dangerous and too controversial to address and speak out against.

More than a century ago, Lord Alfred Douglas wrote the poem, “Two Loves” in which he coined the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name.” During the infamous court case in which Oscar Wilde’s sexuality was put on trial, Wilde was asked to tell the court what that phrase meant. Wilde famously answered by telling the court that it is what society does not understand and what the government attempts to punish and silence.

It really struck me going to hear Stephen Singular and reading Chris Hedges’ book. I began listening for imposed silences, the times when someone declares, “That isn’t something we can talk about.”

Last month I attended the meeting of the Johnson County Commissioners. At their meeting they were going to vote on whether to accept or decline a half million dollars in grant money offered to the county health department so that the health department could run sexuality education programs targeted to at-risk youth. Johnson County was selected to receive this grant because of rising rates of teen pregnancy and an alarming outbreak of chlamydia. I attended this meeting and spoke in support of accepting the grant money for the health department.

During the discussion the Johnson County Commissioners ceded the floor for more than ten minutes to an anti-abortion activist from Wichita who drove three hours to come warn our County Commissioners about the moral dangers of teaching teens about contraception. The County Commissioners agreed, voting by a narrow 4-3 margin to accept a portion of the health grant with the stipulation that contraception education not be discussed. They deemed contraception too controversial to mention.

It was an Oscar Wilde moment, with the County Commissioners deciding that they need to protect society from the prophylactic that dare not speak its name. That of which we dare not speak.

Last spring I attended a community forum on school finance hosted by the MAINstream Coalition and held in the basement social hall of the Asbury United Methodist Church. A panel composed of State Senator John Vratil, Sue Storm of the State school board, and Blue Valley school district superintendent Tom Trigg discussed the dire state of school funding and the effects that proposed cuts would have in our community. The question and answer period turned bizarre. One audience member asked the panel about whether we could use schools to generate advertising revenue. Which begs the question of whether there is money to be made in sending your child to Ronald McDonald elementary or Coca-Cola East high school. It seemed like an eccentric question, until the next person asked about building more casinos (in a much poorer neighboring county, no less!) I happened to be sitting next to the moderator, a woman of impeccable common sense, and we turned to each other and said, there is something not being spoken here. The moderator used her privilege to ask the next question, about whether we were in denial about our ability to fund the types of schools we would be proud to send our children to without raising taxes. The response that came back was very matter of fact. One of the panelists told us that the conversation about raising taxes is not a conversation that can be had in Topeka.

Does that sound familiar? In the recent federal debt-ceiling debate were we not told from the outset that increasing revenue, even in the form of closing loopholes or letting tax cuts expire, was off the table? The compromise that dare not speak its name. That which dare not be spoken.

Now, let’s return to Stephen Singular’s lecture earlier this summer. I believe we are witnessing one of the most vicious assaults on not only abortion rights, but also on health care for women, and especially health care for the poor, that I’ve seen in my lifetime. In the time remaining I want to say a few things about this. I want to briefly describe the current state of affairs here in Kansas and nationally. I want to talk about all of this in light of the idea of “unspeakability,” how this issue has become one of which too many dare not speak.

In 2010 state legislatures in the United States considered more than 600 pieces of anti-choice legislation, passing approximately 5% of those bills. The outcome of the 2010 mid-term elections assured that this trend would only increase in 2011. In the first legislative session of 2011 alone, the Kansas legislature considered 13 pieces of anti-choice legislation, passing five of them. The legislature spent 25 hours of its time in session working to restrict abortion access. In the past few weeks, federal judges have granted injunctions against two of those new laws and our Governor is sparing no expense when it comes to assembling a legal team to defend the new legislation in court.

One of the laws that the courts have ordered put on hold is a law that would allow the state to re-allocate money from Title X family planning programs. Title X was created during the Nixon administration in order to provide family planning funding in conjunction with other health services to poor women. It is funded annually to the tune of around three hundred million dollars. In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment which prohibited federal funding for abortions. So, there are clear laws about what Title X funds can and can’t be used for.

Legislative attempts to cut off Title X funds are based on a new strategy based on the reasoning that if legal efforts to ban a specific medical procedure are unsuccessful, then the next step is to attempt to defund health centers entirely. Three weeks ago, the Dodge Globe reported on the imminent closure of a family planning clinic in Dodge City. This clinic provides testing as well as cancer and diabetes screenings to as many as 850 women per year who cannot afford health care. The article began,
Dodge City's Family Planning Clinic may close soon unless it can plug a $39,000 hole in its budget. Clinic director Karla Demuth learned last month that the clinic would not receive federal dollars in 2012, due to a budget provision that cut off federal family-planning funding for Planned Parenthood… Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri have filed a federal lawsuit over the provision. The Dodge City clinic is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood and does not perform abortions. The clinic does, however, provide pregnancy tests and other women's health services, as well as some services for male clients.
Writes author Stephen Singular,
Highly disturbing pieces of the [extremist] mindset, [characterized by] anger, fear, blame, hatred, and absolutist thinking… have gradually crept from the fringes of our society into the American mainstream. They’ve become normalized inside major religions, the corporate media, and political leaders at the highest levels of our society. They are at the root of what all but shut down our federal government on the night of April 8, 2011, when the anti-abortionists were willing to sacrifice the jobs of 800,000 employees because they don’t accept what has been settled law in the United States since 1973. [That they believe] their religious ideology trumps the rule of law [is] the very definition of extremism.
Earlier, in bringing up those subjects about which many do not speak, I was talking about things that “major religions, the corporate media, and political leaders” have deemed unspeakable, have tried to pretend does not exist, or have attempted to silence either through punishment or policy. A gag order is placed on speaking about these things because they are too controversial or unpopular or dangerous. But, now I turn the question to us. To what degree do we contribute to making something unspeakable? What sinister silences do we participate in?

Chris Hedges alleges that, “In the name of tolerance – a word that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., never used – the liberal church and synagogue refuse to denounce Christian heretics who acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of consumerism, nationalism, greed, imperial hubris, violence, and bigotry.”

“The liberal church and synagogue.” Is he talking about us? It is doubtful that he has us in mind. This sermon wouldn’t rank in the top 10 of “controversial” sermons I’ve delivered. But, for dozens of my friends who are ministers in mainline Christian denominations, this morning’s subject would be taboo, something of which they dare not speak. For them it is a sinister silence. But, it is something that can be spoken here. Our denomination has used the democratic process to vote to adopt no fewer than 10 unequivocally pro-choice resolutions making our denomination one of very few that has been able to articulate a pro-choice position with moral as well as verbal clarity. And I wouldn’t have it be any other way.

There is a sense in which the unspeakable needs to be a part of our lives for our own good. Sometimes you may just need to delete the horrible emails your obnoxious in-law sends you. That is healthy differentiation. It becomes unhealthy when you confuse your elected leaders with your obnoxious relatives. You can delete emails; you can’t delete public policy. Or, to put it another way, your obnoxious in-laws don’t hold your access to health care over your head. The state did pass a law banning insurance companies from covering abortions in their health plans. It is as sick as it is foolish to believe that silence will appease extremists. Silence is just not an option. Silence is death.

Towards the end of Martin Luther King’s ministry he turned his attention away from civil rights in the south and became an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. King is venerated today, but we forget how unpopular this move was in his lifetime. In King’s lifetime civil rights for African-Americans moved the discussion of race relations from something that you didn’t mention in polite company to something that was at the forefront of our national conversation. (The popular Kathryn Stockett novel The Help plays with this idea of speaking about what is unspeakable.) King was criticized roundly for taking on the war. Many of his followers deserted him. We forget how unpopular it was for him to speak about the unspeakable when it came to Vietnam. In one of his last sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King said,
I've decided what I'm going to do. I ain't going to kill nobody in Mississippi ... [and] in Vietnam. I ain't going to study war no more. And you know what? I don't care who doesn't like what I say about it. I don't care who criticizes me in an editorial. I don't care what white person or Negro criticizes me. I'm going to stick with the best. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, “is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “is it popular?” But conscience asks the question, “is it right?” And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that's neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand because it is right.
That of which I speak is not easy or comfortable or safe. Safety and the comfort are seductive illusions. Hedges would say that they are “temptations” that lead us to betray our principles. Anything that feels safe and comforting to us was won with sacrifice and dangerous effort. Our church, a place of welcome and comfort, was formed by heretics who faced banishment, imprisonment, and even death to create a free religious community. The freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly and petition, the freedom of the press, artistic freedoms, and the freedom of the ballot: none of these were easily won. None of these freedoms were thought to be safe.

Speak out! Challenge the unspeakable silences of those who would say "that's not something we can talk about" or "we can't go there." Speak out! Say out loud: "We need to go there." "That is something we need to talk about." Go forth and speak your conscience with bravest fire.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Sermon: "The Religion of the X-Men" (Delivered 7-31-11)



Welcome
Good morning and welcome to this place. At first appearance, you may think that you have arrived at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. That is actually an illusion. This morning you have actually come to a mansion on an estate in Westchester, New York. Welcome to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters serving the educational, developmental, social, and vocational needs of mutants.

You are welcome here as the person you truly are, no matter your race or ethnicity, your gender or sexual orientation, your beliefs or your doubts. You are welcome here no matter your superpowers of levitation or teleportation, your ability to breathe underwater or sprout wings and fly.

Join us as we invite every person into caring community, inspire spiritual growth, and involve everyone in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world. And, join us as we foil villainous masterminds who plot to destroy the world.

If this is your first time visiting us this morning, we hope you stopped by the visitor table in the foyer to pick up an information packet, fill out an information sheet so that we can contact you, and put on a nametag, because not all of us possess telepathic mindreading powers. Also, at the visitor table you can get measured for your spandex body suit and cape.
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Call to Worship
Mutatis Mutandis. It is a Latin phrase that is not nearly as interesting as it sounds. The phrase literally means “by changing those things which need to be changed,” or, more commonly, “all necessary changes being made.” And, while the phrase mutatis mutandis may sound exotic, its uses are actually pretty boring. The Latin phrase is used in legal documents and in philosophical and economic writing to signal that what applies to one set of things also applies to another set of things. Yawn!

Mutatis Mutandis is also the motto of a special school for young mutants in the X-Men comic books. Here the term’s meaning is not boring or legalistic or procedural. It is ambitious, noble, even heroic. What a noble calling: to live in such a way so as to change those things that need to be changed.

We gather in community to recommit ourselves to such a purpose, to the changing of things that require change. We come together, each of us holding onto things within us we would wish to change, to release, to let go of. We come together with the injustices of the world weighing heavily upon us, with awareness of the world’s pain heavy upon our conscience. We seek the courage and the encouragement to continue to live in such a way that we do our part to change what needs to be changed, envisioning the world not as it is, but as it might be. To paraphrase reading #453 in our hymnal [which lists as its source the Passover Haggadah?!]:
Together, let us use our powers, ordinary and extraordinary,
to heal and not to harm,
to help and not to hinder,
to bless and not to curse,
and to serve the causes of goodness, justice, and mercy.

Sermon
One of the blockbuster movies of the summer of 2000 was the first X-Men movie. I didn’t plan to see it. I do have a soft-spot in my heart for the bombastic thrills of action movies, but I’d never been a big fan of superheroes. As a boy I collected baseball cards, not comic books.

What inspired me to go see the first X-Men movie more than a decade ago, and to see each of the four subsequent movies in the series, was a review of the movie that ran in Dallas’ LGBT-friendly newspaper. (You see, I found myself in the heart of Texas and the arts and culture recommendations in the gay paper appealed to me a lot more than the rodeos, livestock shows, and country music concerts I read about in the “straight” paper.) The reviewer wrote that The X-Men was a not-so-thinly veiled allegory for the gay and lesbian experience.

And, the reviewer was right. The world of the X-Men is a world populated by souls searching for a safe and understanding community on account of persecution from a hostile populace and demagogues who would score cheap political points by making them scapegoats. In the world of the X-Men, the public is panicked over the presence of mutants. Beginning at a young age, many of these mutants go to elaborate lengths to conceal their identities in order to pass in the world. Many live double lives and fear being “outed.” Most mutants feel a little bit different during childhood, and those feelings are magnified during teenage years when they tend to feel alone and like no one can possibly understand them. Scientists attempt to locate the genetic basis of mutation and argue about whether there is a “cure.” Meanwhile, mutant pride groups insist that mutation is natural and beautiful. In one of the later movies, there is even a teenager breaking the news that he is, in fact, a mutant while his parents sit uncomfortably on the family sofa searching awkwardly for words. Finally, the mom turns to him and asks, “Well, can’t you decide not to be a mutant?” [See the endnote on Superpowers and Sexuality at the end of this sermon.]

The X-Men were the creation of two young comic book writers from New York named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Respectively, their birth names were Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg and they were the sons of Jewish Eastern European immigrants. The first X-Men comic books were written by Lee and Kirby nearly fifty years ago at just about the same time as the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists in the early 1960s. Lee wrote of his comic book creations, “Mutants have an extra power, extra ability, some extra facet or quality denied a normal man. The word ‘extra’ was the key. Mutants are, in a sense, people with something extra… And a man with something x-tra could conceivably be called an x-man!” [As quoted in The Serpent’s Gift by Jeffrey Kripal, p. 126]

In the comic book series and various spin-offs you can encounter hundreds of mutants. Some have fairly basic superpowers: the ability to fly, super-strength, extraordinary speed, the ability to control water or wind or turn something into ice, the ability to shoot powerful lasers from one’s eyeballs. Other skills are more nuanced. Mystique, a female mutant, can mimic anyone’s outward appearance, but in her own natural state she's covered with repulsive reptilian scales. Rogue’s superpower takes the form of radical empathy; she absorbs the memories of anyone she touches. However, this proves so traumatic that she goes to great lengths to avoid touching anyone. And then there is a young male mutant, Banshee, whose superpower is the ability to emit a destructive, deafening scream.

In Stan Lee’s imagination, these extra abilities are a result of genetically-based evolutionary mutations. “The evolutionary mutation… is at once an astonishing gift and a social curse – the uncanny power… sets one apart from the rest of the crowd.” [Kripal, p. 127] In the mythology of the X-Men there are two competing philosophies represented by two powerful leaders. One of those leaders is Professor Xavier who possesses the mutant ability of telepathy. He can read other people’s minds and can even control other people’s minds with his own. Professor X believes that mutants and non-mutants will eventually live in harmony and he creates a special school for young mutants, “safely hidden from the gaze of the public,” [Kripal, p. 126] in which they can not only master their mutant skills, but also develop emotionally, socially, and morally.

A competing philosophy is represented by Xavier’s arch-nemesis Magneto. Magneto’s mutant ability involves being able to control metal magnetically. He can change the trajectory of a bullet, cause metal objects to levitate or hurl them through the air, and can even hold up a locomotive with his magnetism. Magneto’s character is Jewish. As a child he witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of the Nazis during the occupation of Poland. From this Magneto took away the lesson that people are hardwired to try to annihilate those who are different. Magneto sees the world as a place that is fundamentally hostile to difference. For him, it is better to eliminate others before they have the chance to eliminate you.

Magneto endeavors to destroy the non-mutant supermajority of humankind as a means of self-protection. For Professor Xavier, difference and diversity are marvels. They deserve to be celebrated for they are evidence of the very miracle of life. For Magneto, difference and diversity are the root cause of suffering. Difference needs to be abolished before it destroys us.

I’m not going to spend this entire sermon rehashing the various and complicated plot-lines of the X-Men comic books. I do however want to say a little something about how these characters and mythologies might relate to us and speak to us.

As the reviewer in Dallas’ lesbian and gay community newspaper noted, the X-Men movies of the 21st century play on themes of inclusion and exclusion. In contemporary society we find forces of acceptance and forces of hostility directed towards homosexuals. For Stan Lee in the early 1960s, the comic books’ subtext touched on not only anti-Semitism, but also racism and sexism. The X-Men are remarkably egalitarian when compared to any organization or club you can imagine in the early Sixties.

The X-Men can be read as autobiography, as the memoirs of Jewish boys coming of age in New York during the Great Depression, with the obvious embellishments of spandex and superpowers. The competing philosophies of Professor Xavier and Magneto are really two sides of a psychological coin having to do with identity formation and social acceptance. There is pride and shame, the idea of being chosen and the awareness of being oppressed. There is the secret knowledge of one’s own cultural heritage with its language and learning, its rites and rituals, its history and mythology, and there is the awareness that all of those things make you not only special but also “other.”

I would be willing to bet that most everyone here has, at some point in their life or another, felt a bit like a mutant. Maybe, for you, it was a long time ago, like when you were going through the pangs of awkward adolescence. Or, maybe it is during your family reunion and you wonder about the extent that you share a genetic match. (You know, humans and chimps share 98.4% identical genetic material. And you look at your relatives and think, “Oh, it has to be less than that.”) Or maybe you feel like a mutant in your own neighborhood. Or when you try to explain that you are a Unitarian Universalist. Or when you share your political and social views or your lifestyle choices. A member of our church recently remarked that she might as well have a third eye situated in the center of her forehead. The “miscomprehension of family, friends, or society in general” [Kripal, p. 132] can be devastating.

I decided to attempt to preach on the X-Men when in the course of a weekend in June I went to go see the fifth X-Men movie and I read a book entitled The Serpent’s Gift by leading scholar of religion Jeffrey Kripal, whom I had the pleasure of studying under as a graduate student at Harvard. One chapter, “Mutant Marvels,” describes parallels between scholars of religion and the mutant gnostic superhero. Later this fall, Kripal will release another book, Mutants and Mystics, that continues to explore these themes. He is a challenging, exhilarating, and unconventional scholar.

If you will allow me to geek out for a few moments on academic religious theory, there are two ideas in Kripal’s academic work that we might want to consider. The first point to consider is the idea that neither the superhero of popular culture nor the supernatural within religious mythology is entirely fictional. Rather, they are fantastical exaggerations of what is true. Or, to put it more plainly, we might doubt as to whether Jesus could cure leprosy or heal blindness with his touch. But, we can surely imagine Jesus repairing a person’s psyche, healing the spirit, and leaving a person feeling, well, healed. Not a lie, but an exaggeration that points to something true. Jesus would fit right in among the other mutant superheroes.

Kripal would say that the superheroes of Marvel Comics are also fantastical exaggerations. He’s right; I’ve met these superheroes. I’ve met Mystique, always altering her outward appearance in order to please, while inside feeling malformed and shapeless. I’ve encountered Rogue in the shape of several women and men whose depth of empathy leads them to carry deep reservoirs of pain and memory within them. And, I’ve met dozens of Banshees, whose deafening primal screams push away and offend.

Kripal’s first point that I want for us to consider: superheroes are real. It is just that when their stories get written down, the truth is exaggerated and mythologized. Kripal’s second point is a lot more dangerous. He is speaking to scholars of religion, but I would actually suggest that he might say the same thing to us. Could it be that living an authentic religious life means embracing our inner mutants, accepting and realizing the potential of the “dreams and strange gifts that [we ourselves] do not quite understand and cannot quite accept”? [Kripal, p. 133]

Which leads me to ask, what superpowers and mutant abilities are present within this room, within this congregation? And, an even more interesting question: If we can imagine that this church community is something like Professor Xavier’s mutant academy, what role do we play in the development of special abilities and in the instilling of heroic purpose in our members? What powers are here and how do we best develop them?

Now, I am not a mind reader. I possess no X-ray vision. For all I know, some of you may be wearing capes and bright colored spandex under your clothing. I do not know your alter ego. What superpowers and uncanny mutant abilities do we have in this room?

If you stumble looking for an answer, I would ask you to examine this question: Do you ever feel like some kind of mutant? Do you ever feel like you might as well have a third eye in the middle of your forehead?

Allow me to suggest a hypothesis. My hypothesis is that we feel like mutants, that we feel like we have a third eye in the middle of our foreheads, when we perceive the world in ways that are deemed abnormal or strange. That’s what it is about, right? After all, what is a third eye or a sixth sense but an unusual means of perception? I would even go beyond perceiving. Perceiving things differently can get you labeled as a mutant. Being in relationship with the world in ways that break cultural taboos will definitely get you labeled as mutant. Perception and relationship.

You may speak an unfamiliar mutant language. It could be the language of science, or computer code, or poetry, or heretical theology. You may have mutant vision, seeing beyond the normal horizons of eyesight. You may see the world through the lens of another cultural tradition causing you to look critically upon your own unquestioned culture. You may keep company with people whose perspectives are often marginalized. Mutants perceive what is not normally perceived, sense what is normally not sensed. Accordingly they possess a special knowledge, a knowledge that makes them dangerous and feared and despised.

All superpowers are really extra abilities, abilities that allow us to reach beyond, to connect: In the superhero comics much of that reaching beyond is spatial. A superhero can tunnel under the earth, fly into space, jump over buildings, or run extremely fast. Some of that reaching is natural, to reach out and commune with molecules and minerals, with animals and atoms, or even with the earth itself. Some of that reaching is psychological: mind readers, telepaths, empathic readers of dreams and desires. Some of that reaching is intellectual, or even radically emotional, a reaching into the depths of rage or desire or hope.

We might consider, then, that one of the superheroes at the height of the pantheon of superheroes exhibits some strong Unitarian Universalist tendencies. I am, referring to the master spinner of webs, Spider Man, whose power lies in reminding us of our connection to an interdependent and interconnected web. When your Spidey Sense is tingling, spin that interconnected web.


Endnote on Superpowers and Sexuality
I began this sermon above by making reference to an piece of writing that read the mythology of the X-Men as an allegory for the experience of the LGBT community in contemporary America. To be fair, superhero comic books make reference not only to homoerotic sexual energies, but to all sexual energies. Kripal argues,
In order to understand properly the hero motif in world mythology, and in American mythology in particular, we must be willing to mythologize sexuality as an originary expression of a kind of mystical humanism and recognize that hidden within human sexuality lie real “secret identities” and “superpowers” that continue to sublimate and morph throughout the life cycle into multiple forms of consciousness and energy as wild and various as any superhero team... Hence Dr. Kavita Rao’s rather matter-of-fact observation in a recent issue of Astonishing X-Men that “[a] child’s mutant power usually manifests at puberty.” My point exactly. What is x-tra is the seXual. [Kripal, p. 136]
Historical “decency” campaigns that have claimed that comic books have a corrupting influence on the young have frequently made reference to the erotic encoded within comic books. If you don’t believe me, watch this short clip from the first Spider Man movie. Or, read this scene from the screenplay, in which Peter Parker has sequestered himself alone in his bedroom:
Two empty glass bottles stand on a bookcase on the far side of Peter's bedroom. SPLAT! A web strand fires toward them, misses by a mile.

Peter, sitting on the opposite side of the room, frowns and tries again. SPLAT! Another wild miss. He looks down at his wrists, thinking.

INT HALLWAY -- NIGHT

Aunt May at his door with a bunch of laundry. She knocks.

AUNT MAY
Peter? What's going on there?

PETER
(opens door a crack, peeks out)
Exercising... not dressed, Aunt May.

AUNT MAY
Well, don't catch a cold.

CONTINUED:

He closes the door revealing the room is full of webs.