Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Hitler shud hav finished em"

I wasn't going to write this post.

I was going to write a nice jolly light-hearted piece on my Top Five Films Of 2011 So Far. Maybe I still will.

But I just checked my Facebook news feed, and I saw that my friend S had linked to an article entitled “Israel killed 1,335 Palestinian kids”. One of S's friends, whom I do not know, commented on her link:

“Adolf Hitler shud hav jus finished em”.

S “liked” this comment.

S, I should point out, is not really a friend. We were at school together about twelve years ago, and it's been a decade since we were last on the same continent, let alone saw each other.

But it's still weird to see a sentiment like this coming from somebody I know.

We all know that the anonymity of the internet fosters the worst in people. We've all seen horrible, awful, hateful words on message boards and comment sections. The anonymity of these words makes it almost as easy to dismiss them as it is to write them.

When it's somebody you know, though; when it's somebody you used to play sports with, somebody with whom you once spent a happy afternoon exploring for secret pathways in the backyard – well, that's an altogether different experience.

Many of Israel's actions have been and are appalling, and the West's willingness to let them slide is even more egregious. Much as I loved the time I spent in Israel, whitewashing Israel's atrocities is mendacious and wicked. But... “Hitler shud hav finished em”?

Really, you're going there?

Maybe it's because I'm one of em who Hitler shud hav finished, but it seems to me you can be sickened at the thought of children being murdered without wishing 13 million people dead. In fact, it seems to me that, if you're sickened at the thought of children being murdered, wishing people dead (children included) is an unsustainable contradiction.

Like I said, I know the same sentiment is expressed daily all across the internet. Whoever you are, you can find a community of people online wishing for your death. I know I should be used to it. It's just that this time, it feels more personal.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Keeping The Faith

When I finished my BA, this time last year, I hadn't the slightest idea what to do next. My profound joy at bidding farewell to the hated Greek participles of my degree would seem to rule out further study; finding a job seemed less than likely, given the recession and my utter lack of useful skills. (An encyclopedic knowledge of schlock cinema, contemporary US sitcoms, and up-to-the-minute politically correct terminology does not, it seems, constitute a valuable skillbase in today's job market.)

And so I sought ways to avoid even thinking about it. I traveled Europe with the then girlfriend (good for 2 months of the rest of my life). I traded on the subsequent distance-enforced breakup for as long as possible (another 6 weeks or so). I earned a little bit from a one-off editing job (2 weeks). I slept on my brother's couch whilst undertaking an assortment of unpaid work experience (kept me going till Christmas). Finally, though, I was out of money and out of ideas, and I had to submit to the post-college experience most dreaded by graduates and their parents. It was time to move back home.

Forced, however unwillingly, to contemplate The Rest Of My Life, I committed to some soul- and Internet-searching. Much to my surprise, I found two ambitions had taken root in my heart and grown there intertwined. The first was to move to California; the second, to study theology in an academic setting. The two joined together when I found one particular, very exciting course, to which I underwent the arduous process of applying: taking the GRE, writing an academic statement, filling out the online forms, emailing the university, convincing three erstwhile lecturers to write me references, and having my transcripts couriered, at vast expense, across eight time zones.

And then – I waited.

My parents were dubious. Might I not want to apply to some other courses, just in case? Ought I not to have a plan B? Shouldn't I at least look for a job of some kind?

I didn't dismiss these gentle suggestions out of hand. I looked at other courses at a variety of institutions, both British and American, but found nothing that seemed worth the Herculean effort of applying. Nothing else set my heart pounding like this one course. I searched for jobs in the realm of publishing, which seemed the only field even vaguely appealing to me, but there was nothing for someone in my position. I pounded pavements until I found a minimum-wage customer-service job to tide me over.

And, at last, I got accepted into the program; and, after a couple of nerve-racking weeks, I got my funding.

My mother tells me she feels humbled by my faith, by the way I ignored her (perfectly reasonable) counsel to have a back-up plan and clung to the belief that this was the thing I was meant to do. But I don't feel at all that I was being especially faithful. Certainly, as I worked on my application, I felt a powerful sense of rightness; but, looking back over the past year, my overwhelming emotion was fear. I believed then, as I believe now, that God planted that initial longing for California in my heart two years ago as an arrow pointing in this direction, and that in fact all the strands of my life woven together form a giant flashing neon sign pointing in this direction, but I was still beset with debilitating doubts and fears.

Please don't count me among the great faithful, because I really, really am not. I've been so afraid – so consumingly, devastatingly afraid – and the best I can say is that God used that fear to make me depend less and less on myself and more and more on God. God works through the least of us, and the least faithful of us: God worked through Jonah, and God worked through Peter, and God is working through me, and God is working through you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Game of Thrones Season One

My most-viewed blog post, by quite a large margin, is Drinking Game of Thrones. (I enjoy the thought of hordes of unengaged people idly googling “game of thrones drinking game”, finding my post, and then getting slammed by the stealth anti-racism.)

That was eight weeks ago, though, and now the first season of Game of Thrones has come to a close. I suppose this means I should have five times as many thoughts as I did back then. Here are some of them.

As a whole, I liked the show. It has its problematic elements, natch. For one thing, I could honestly go the rest of my life without encountering another male-dominated story. It's gotten to the point where, if I pick up a book thinking it looks interesting but see that the protagonist is male, I put it down again. Only a really cool premise, a recommendation from someone I trust, or an author I love can make me read a book about a man. And yet (as we shall see) just because Game of Thrones is set in a male-dominated world doesn't mean it's necessarily a male-dominated story (see also: Boardwalk Empire).

For another thing, GRATUITOUS NUDITY. HBO has a fixation with this. The trouble is that US network TV is so puritanical, HBO goes too far in the opposite direction just because it can – like a teenager from a strict home who's away at university for the first time and goes a little wild. Maybe if the rest of US TV would just grow up a little, HBO wouldn't feel the need to shower its programming with BOOBIES. It's as if somebody said, “All these characters are a little confusing. Every other episode we need a scene where some man monologues for ten minutes about things the audience would already know if they'd been paying attention. But how to make this unnecessary exposition palatable? Ah yes, BOOBIES!” Honestly, it baffles me. We live in the internet age. Every viewer can see all the boobies they could possibly want at the click of a mouse. Why do we need gratuitous porn in our TV shows?

And, of course, lest they be accused of unequal-opportunity pornifying, the producers slung in a couple of dick shots as well. Wow. You know, I hate cats and have never seen an episode of The L Word, and if that ever makes me feel like Not A Real Lesbian, all it takes is one TV schlong to assure me that I couldn't be gayer if I threw out all my skirts and changed my name to Shane. Seriously, my straight and bi sisters? You're... you're really into that?

“But Anna,” you are yelling, “enough with the nekkidness already. You've written 400+ words, and you haven't even mentioned racism!”

Well, quit yelling; it's annoying your housemates. As you know, I have serious problems with the crass Orientalism of the Dothraki storyline, but I think it takes great strides toward redemption with that devastating scene between Dany and Mirri Maz Duur (here be spoilers, if I need to say it). Dany can't believe the woman she so nobly rescued would betray her; Mirri Maz Duur icily describes everything that happened to her before Dany's oh-so-noble white-woman intervention: “Look to your khal and see what life is worth, when all the rest is gone.” Unlike in the book, this scene is separated from the one where Dany suffocates Drogo. As such, it has the space to emphasize Mirri Maz Duur and to speak unarticulated volumes about the relationship between conqueror and conquered.

That was arguably my favorite moment in the season; but, gratuitous nudity notwithstanding, there were plenty of other things I liked too. For all my whining about male-dominated stories, I think the show did some pretty great things with its female characters. Both Catelyn and Cersei were much more engaging to me in the show than in the book. In Catelyn's case, it might have been the fact that I didn't have to listen to her inner monologue carp about Jon Snow, which was all she ever seemed to bloody do in the book; but both women, thanks to excellent performances from Michelle Fairley and Lena Headey, had real depth to their characters that allowed them to exist as much more than just mothers and wives.

Even Sansa had a moment in the final episode that made me think she's not quite as unutterably tedious as she'd been up to that point. In her case, witnessing her thought processes gave me a good deal more sympathy for her in the book than in the show; without them, her progression from vapid teenager to shrewd and desperate survivor isn't as clear. I have high hopes for her in the second season, though.

And need I even mention Arya, and the 52 varieties of ass she kicks?

What I like most, though, is that what Game of Thrones is really about is “cripples, bastards, and broken things”. All the most compelling and sympathetic characters are the ones who are disadvantaged in the dog-eat-dog world of Westeros: women, PWD, a dwarf, a eunuch, an illegitimate son. The powerful non-disabled male characters, who think they hold the reins, are either flat-out evil or fatally myopic, and it's the people they continue to underestimate – Arya, Cersei, Tyrion, Varys – who will make them pay.

I think there's an interesting contrast here with The Walking Dead. Oh, how I hated The Walking Dead. (When its second season starts in October, I plan to finish a long-overdue blog post about how much and why I hated it. Sneak preview: one of the reasons is racism!) It's not an entirely fair comparison, because my familiarity with the source material gives GoT an advantage in my affections, but for two high-budget, highly-anticipated, highly-acclaimed TV shows, I've had very different reactions. And I think it's because TWD sidelines its cripples, bastards, and broken things, while GoT actually, despite what “starring Sean Bean” might lead you to believe, foregrounds them.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Convicted of Sin(justice)

There's this churchspeak phrase, “to be convicted of sin”. Having heard it used mainly by the young conservative evangelicals who remain my primary experience of churchspeakers, I always assumed it meant some combination of low self-esteem and guilt over personal failure to conform to the exacting standards of “traditional morality” – that is to say, the sense of shame with which a religious upbringing garnishes a little alone time with safe search off and non-dominant hand doing the pointing and clicking. As a committed non-subscriber to “traditional morality”, I have devoted the last few years of my life to not experiencing this.

Now, though, I think I'm beginning to understand what it means to be convicted of sin, and it has nothing to do with Madam Palm and her five lovely daughters (or Lady Lilac and her two AA batteries). To understand it, I've had to reframe my entire conception of sin.

Believe it or not, the strict behavioral prescriptions laid down by traditional Christian moralists aren't a bit Christian. They aren't even Pauline, and we all know how much the conservatives love ole Saul of Tarsus and his Romans 1:26 (per their interpretation, the only explicit prohibition of lesbianism in the Bible, though I'm pretty sure it's not contrary to my nature). The current conservative pet causes of abortion and homosexuality are mentioned, respectively, 0 and 3 times in the whole Bible (and it's only that many if you're wearing your right-tinted spectacles when you read it). You know who doesn't think abortion and homosexuality are Very Important Issues For Every Christian? Jesus. You know what he does think is a Very Important Issue For Every Christian? Loving your neighbor.

Both Jesus and Paul make it abundantly clear that the whole entire deal with being a Christian is that you don't have strict behavioral prescriptions to follow. It's literally the central message of Christianity that you don't have a rulebook. You love and trust in God; because you love and trust in God, you spend time with God and with God's people; through these times of prayer and fellowship, your heart is transformed into a heart of love, which manifests itself as good works. I am convinced that these good works comprise one thing and one thing only: helping those in need.

I recently read The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. It's an amazing book that I'd definitely recommend to anyone that doubts whether the mainstream church is doing it right (and anyone that doesn't; it might change your mind!). Shane chronicles his life as an “ordinary radical”, living a life of true Christian love and service in accordance with the teachings and example of Jesus himself. The people of his community have renounced the lip-service Christianity that conforms itself to the easy self-centered capitalist lifestyle; their love of neighbors doesn't give some money to charity and carry on as before, but transforms their lives into something that more closely resembles the passage in Acts so beloved of us leftists. Shane and his people are definitely doing Christianity right.

I've also just finished reading a commentary on the book of James. James is awesome. Whereas Paul, God love him, confuses everyone – not least the church leadership – with his philosophical waxings of an ex-Pharisee and his culturally-specific admonishments to an emerging church, James cuts to the practical chase. He has a lot of very strong words about the importance of helping those in need: without that, faith is literally worthless. First-world Christian communities like to make excuses when it comes to money, about which the Bible is far less equivocal than about (say) teh gays, but the vision I'm getting from my current reading and thinking is uncompromising: Christians get out there and forge human connections with those in need. Diggers dig, teachers teach, Christians hang out with needy people. If you ain't fulfilling the job description, you ain't a Christian, no matter what you call yourself.

And that's what I'm convicted of. I feel the call in my heart, stronger every day, to reject the comfort Christianity of the mainstream and to put myself out there where my fellow humans need me – on the fringes, where my lord Jesus Christ lived his life. Exactly what this will look like, I've yet to find out, but I'm certain that God has major upheavals in store for me – and a transatlantic move is only the beginning.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lesbian Bloggers Are Men

In a development that makes the world as a whole slightly more depressing, and straight white men in particular even more irritating, two prominent "lesbian" bloggers have turned out to be dudebros masquerading as women.

So, um. Pretty sure I'm still a woman, but if that somehow changes, I'll be sure to let you know.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Coming Out

I don't talk about when I came out. That phrase makes it sound as though it were a simple, closed, one-off action, which couldn't be further from the truth. No, I talk about when I started coming out. You start coming out the day you admit to yourself (or to your diary, if you're an embarrassingly pretentious dork like me) that you're not the hetero you and everyone else always assumed you are; I'd venture to guess that you finish coming out the moment you shuffle off this mortal coil, though I suppose it's possible that the afterlife is also a stew of awkward assumptions and pronoun acrobatics.

It's a truism, but coming out really is a life-long process. And it's bloody difficult, especially for those of us with an inadequate grasp of conversational nuance. Every time you meet someone, you over-analyse and second-guess everything. Is ey assuming you're straight, or staying open-minded? If you drop a reference to a girlfriend past or present, does that constitute “rubbing your sexuality in eir face” (a phrase that always makes me giggle)? As a generally out gay person, how far into a new acquaintanceship should you explicitly let the other party know you're gay? Could this apparently reasonable and friendly human being transform into an ugly and violent homophobe at the first mention of Melissa Etheridge?

As a queer radical, I sometimes feel that I ought to be proclaiming my gayness at the top of my lungs every waking moment: I should get my hair buzzcut, my face pierced a few more times, and my neck tattooed “GRRL LOVER”, and I should greet everyone with, “Hi, I'm Anna and I am a big ole queer.” That, I suppose, would be the purest manifestation of my political ideology.

But I am not a pure manifestation of political ideology; I am a human being with multiple identities, a sense of discretion, and not inexhaustible reserves of mental strength. Queer is something I am, but it is not the totality of who I am, nor even the most important aspect. It's perhaps the most marginalized of my identities, which is why I feel the need to weaponize it; but I just don't have the wherewithal to be in such a constant state of frontline warfare with the dominant culture. Of course, I am in a constant state of warfare with the dominant culture, but most of that is mental: and, given how exhausting that is, I simply haven't the energy to bring it in a loud, visible fashion every day of the week.

Moreover, I'm afraid of retaliation. I admit it: when my political ideology clashes with my self-preservation instinct, not getting punched in the face dominates nine times out of ten.

(Plus, my hair is great. I love it and will not sacrifice it at the altar of extreme butchness.)

The people it's easiest to come out to as gay are often the hardest to come out to as Christian. (And vice versa, no doy.) In my experience, the communities least likely to make assumptions about your sexuality are the most likely to make assumptions about your secularity. It's deeply frustrating: if I can have a great conversation about Jesus with you, I'll be afraid to talk about Rachel Maddow with you; if we're having fun discussing queer theory or your palaeontology degree, I'm going to have a hard time bringing God into it.

And yet I know that there are many, perhaps even a majority of, individuals who are open to the idea of a queer theologian-to-be. My fear of coming out as gay, Christian, or a gay Christian is exactly what the kyriarchy wants. The compartmentalization and conflict of your different identities is one of the ways you're kept fighting yourself and your potential allies, instead of the actual oppressive forces.

We're all afraid to be judged, outcast, or even physically harmed for who we are. Sometimes this fear is reasonable, often it's not, but in the minefield of social interaction it can be hard to tell. However, I do know this: if you don't know about my very personal passion for social justice, or about my mad dorkiness, or about my love for the Big Guy upstairs, then you don't know me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Open Letter To The World's Men

Dear Men:

I believe in you. I believe the same things about you that I believe about people of all other genders: that you have access to your fundamental goodness, that you have the divine spark living inside of you, that you are capable of conquering your baser instincts and demonstrating great love and achieving great things.

A few of you seem to be doing your best to make me stop believing.

Some men, when they are in a position of power and influence, use their power to rape or sexually abuse others. Some men in a position of power and influence use their power to cheat on their spouses, almost invariably while propounding a “family values” platform or capitalizing on the alleged strength of their (monogamous, heterosexual) relationships. Some men in a position of power and influence tweet inappropriate pictures of themselves.

But I will not let the few affect my beliefs about the many. I will not succumb to the temptation to draw harmful generalizations about all men. Or about all heterosexual cis men. Or even about all white heterosexual able-bodied cis men in positions of power and influence.

I believe in individuals. I believe that the brain is mightier than the penis. I believe that the conscience can be stronger than earthly power, if we only let it.

I believe in you, and I won't let a few – or even a lot of – horndog politicians destroy that belief.

But, you know, feel free to vindicate my belief in you sometime.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I Have A New Favorite Poem

SURVIVOR
by Roger McGough

Everyday,
I think about dying.
About disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world.

It helps
keep my mind off things.

* * *

I came across this in a book called The Nation's Favourite Comic Poems. Thoughts?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Four – Jews, Christians, Mormons, & Everyone Else: “I Believe”

Previously in Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week:
Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”
Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”
Part Three – Cultural Relativism, Interfaith Relations, & New Religions: “Making Things Up Again”
Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

This is it: the big Act Two showstopper, the emotional high-watermark, the great thundering anthemic number that will live on in sheet-music form long after posterity has dismissed the rest of the show as pedestrian or dated or something. “I Believe” is definitely the standout track of Broadway's The Book of Mormon as far as I'm concerned – both because it's a stonking tune and because it encapsulates the show's philosophy.

Kevin, after despairing of his difficult mission and confronting his demons in a very dramatic fashion, has an epiphany: he will stand his ground, walk into the valley of the shadow of death, and own his faith with all his heart. It's powerful, affirming, and very frickin' funny.

I believe that the Lord God created the universe,
I believe that he sent his only Son to die for my sins,
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!

This initial juxtaposition of traditional articles of Christian faith with Mormon elements, which sound kind of goofy to a non-Mormon, confronts the religious viewer with the question: why that faith? Why do you privilege one specific holy text, or one particular reading of your holy text, or one definition of God over all others? Are the Mormon-only beliefs (that God lives on a planet called Kolob; that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri) really any sillier than the mainstream Jewish and Christian beliefs that Mormons also espouse?

The trouble with the relativist perspective is that it's not clear where, if anywhere, to draw the line. Are all religions equally true, or at least equally acceptable? What about a cult? What about a faith invented and adhered to by only one person? Most of us would agree that a religion that causes people harm is not okay, but who decides what constitutes harm? John Shore's definition of harm caused by religion would differ from Christopher Hitchens'.

Broadway's The Book of Mormon doesn't really address this issue. As a show written by atheists about religious exclusivists, it fails to delve into the deeper questions of truth and meaning that might be asked by a post-modern or relativist believer. There is, I think, an ethical difference between presenting as fact stuff you believe to be true (Jesus' resurrection) and presenting as fact stuff you believe to be false (Joseph Smith's magical AIDS frog), even if the underlying lessons are good ones; but you wouldn't know it from this show.

As a teenager, my motto, which I though was incredibly clever and witty (okay, I still think it's pretty funny), was “all generalizations are bullshit”. Little did I know, this is a highly deconstructionist statement. The relativist idea that “there is no absolute truth” is itself an absolute statement, and therefore must be false under its own premise. It's a Zeno's paradox of meaning. Zeno's paradox is all very well, but when you want to get somewhere you take a step; similarly, when you want to communicate you accept that meaning exists. If you believe in God, at some stage you pick a stance on the issue of truth.

I believe that God has a plan for all of us,
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet,
And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God!

Kevin says, “I can't have even one shred of doubt”, but many thinkers believe doubt is a key component of faith. In Robert Anton Wilson's Schrรถdinger's Cat trilogy, two faith groups are asked , “What is the opposite of faith?” One group replies, “Doubt”; the other, “Certainty.” No less godly a figure than Mother Teresa was tormented by doubts throughout a life of service and humanitarianism.

Is it even possible to will yourself into faith? One of the major criticisms of Pascal's Wager is that you cannot force yourself to believe something. (I think one could argue this point, but I won't go into it just now.) But this song is not so much about Kevin willing himself into faith; it's more about accepting and claiming the upbringing and culture that will always be a part of him: “I am a Mormon, and, by gosh! A Mormon just believes.” To him, “you cannot just believe partway – you have to believe in it all”. He has always believed in Mormonism as a synthesized whole, not as an extra bit tacked on to Christianity, and those of us interested in interfaith dialog would do well to remember that.

I've talked before about atheist smugness; Broadway's The Book of Mormon mostly avoids this by being an exuberant celebration of faith that doesn't shy away from difficult questions. Trey Parker calls it “an atheist’s love letter to religion.” After all, from the rationalist-atheist perspective he and Matt Stone espouse, irrational beliefs sustain us all, whether it's faith in God, belief in human goodness and love, or simply hope of any kind.

* * *

That brings us to the end of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week here at Gay Christian Geek! Thanks for reading; I hope you've enjoyed it (and are not as heartily sick of these songs as I now am). Quick shout-out to Richard Beck's terrific blog Experimental Theology, which gave me the idea – if you'd like to see it done properly, take a peek at his superb series on The Theology of Calvin & Hobbes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Three – Cultural Relativism, Interfaith Relations, & New Religions: “Making Things Up Again”

Previously in Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week:
Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”
Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”
Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

It's interesting to me that the decline of faith in the west hasn't removed the cultural impact of religious identity. I think it's particularly noticeable among Jews: my cousins near London host an enormous Passover seder and a Rosh Hashana meal every year, and are very active in their local synagogue, and not a one of them believes in God. Atheist Muslim friends, atheist Catholic friends, even atheist Protestant friends have spoken to me about how their family's religious background shaped their experiences of growing up and their characters today.

Recently I had to fill out a form that asked me to state my denomination of Christianity. I thought long and hard about which subgroup I identify with most, but in the end I couldn't narrow it down any further than “Protestant”. I'm very sure, however, that I'm Protestant; I can't even imagine myself being Catholic.

My faith is Protestant with a strong bulwark of Jewishness; my upbringing was Protestant with a strong bulwark of Jewishness. From the values and ideas instilled in my formative years to my present-day beliefs is a straight line: how can I help but be a cultural relativist?

And so I hesitate to call any religion “made-up”. People, if they have any belief, more often than not have the beliefs they were brought up with, and it seems too arbitrary for one religion to be correct and everyone born into a different faith tradition to be at an instant disadvantage with respect to the truth. But religions rarely take well to the new religions that spring up to usurp them. It's at the heart of the Jewish resentment of Christianity, the Christian fear and hatred of Islam, and the tendency of pretty much everyone to make fun of Mormons.

You're making things up again, Arnold:
you're taking the Holy Word and adding fiction.

At this point of the show, ill-informed Arnold is confronted by the villagers with some awkward questions. Lacking the Biblical knowledge or theological understanding to argue his points, he simply invents stories about God curing Joseph Smith's AIDS and declaring female genital mutilation an abomination. Of course, the punchline is that, to a couple billion people, Mormonism itself is “recklessly warping the words of Jesus”. Is that fair? Is it true that “a lie is a lie” – no mitigating circumstances considered?

I'm making things up again, kinda,
but this time it's helping a dozen people.

At the heart of the show lies the question, “Is making stuff up really so bad if it helps people?” I'll return to this question from an ethical perspective tomorrow, but for the moment let's consider the theological implications.

From an exclusivist religious perspective (of any faith), clearly the answer is “yes”. If you believe you have a monopoly on the truth, then you likely feel a duty to share it with others and save them from their false religions. (This is why, as many problems as I have with them, I find I can't judge evangelicals too harshly; they truly believe that they're doing the right thing.)

From the rationalist-atheist perspective, it's one fairytale or another. If you don't believe in God, what's the difference between zombie Jesus and a magical AIDS frog? Either you think it's reprehensible to tell anyone stories of the supernatural and divine, or you say (along with the show's creators) “whatever works”.

To the post-modern believer, however, this question sparks a whole host of further questions. Given the subjectivity of religious experience and the profound influence of cultural background, what can be legitimately considered “made-up”? To a Jew, Christianity is made-up; to a Christian, Mormonism is made up; to a Mormon, Arnold's new religion is made-up – who's right? What relation do facts bear to truth? Any lover of fiction understands that something can be made-up but still true (read Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ for a very interesting take on this, in relation specifically to Christianity).

Without venturing too far into the big spoiler territory, the show concludes (along with many, both religious and not) that, since we can't know what happens after death, we shouldn't dwell on it, but concentrate on living. The specifics of your beliefs aren't important, provided that you try to live a good life, help others, and improve this world in whatever ways you can.

It's hardly a revolutionary stance. But it might just be the best way of living in a world of many faiths and acknowledged cultural relativism.

Tomorrow: The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Four – Jews, Christians, Mormons, & Everyone Else: “I Believe”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

Previously in Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week:
Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”

Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

While I was occupied with learning to make friends, preparing for the onset of puberty, and terrorizing the other little girls of Nairobi's international schools with the help of my never-defeated under-elevens netball team, my mother was confronting an adult's demons. After losing a lot of sleep over the abject poverty on our doorstep, she quit her job and devoted several years to the founding and running of a charity to feed and educate kids living on the streets.

One day, some of these kids started asking Mother about life in her country. “Does everyone in your country have a place to live?”

“Almost everyone. The government tries to provide housing for everyone,” she explained.

“Does everyone in your country have enough to eat?”

“Almost everyone. If they can't work, the government gives them money.”

“Does everyone in your country go to school?”

“Almost everyone. The government provides free schooling for everyone.”

“So everyone in your country is happy?”

I'm reminded of this story by “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”, in which a young Ugandan woman sings of her desire to go to the promised land that Kevin and Arnold described for her. With a devastating combination of humor and pathos, she conflates the Salt Lake City of the boys' description with the Paradise of her mother's stories:

I can't imagine what it must be like,
this perfect happy place:
I'll bet the goat meat there is plentiful
and they have vitamin injections by the case.
The warlords there are friendly:
they help you cross the street,
and there's a Red Cross on every corner
with all the flour you can eat.

Her new-found faith in “a land where evil doesn't exist” is predicated on the realization that “if I want to get there I just have to follow that white boy”; before long, she asks to be baptized. You could call it a mercenary faith: faith motivated by the prospect of gain.

Take, for example, Pascal's Wager. You'll recall its argument that choosing to believe in God is rational because, if God doesn't exist and you believe, you have nothing to lose; but if God does exist and you don't believe, you lose everything. The problem I've always had with this idea is its intellectual dishonesty. In the same vein, people have argued that an ethics born of genuine concern for others' wellbeing is somehow a nobler, more ethical ethics than one that relies on the reward of eternal life.

However, before sneering at Pascal's Wager and mercenary faith as intellectually dishonest, we have to take into account two important theories: the just-world hypothesis and Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

The just-world hypothesis suggests that humans have a psychological need for an appropriate reward/punishment system. I think we can all agree that we have this craving for justice, and that it's not satisfied in this life; that's why we have Law & Order: SVU, the idea of karma, and the concept of God's ultimate justice. (It's also, sad to say, why we have victim-blaming and a champion rationalization mechanism.)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a pyramid categorizing and ranking human needs: from physiological needs, through safety needs, love/belonging needs, and esteem needs, to self-actualization at the top. The intricacies of this ranking are dubious, but it's fair to say that someone who has neither food nor a piano is not going to prioritize finding a piano. Which is to say: is worrying about the intellectual honesty of our faith not the privilege of the breaded classes?

Yesterday, I wrote that it's easy to say that souls are what matters when your body is comfortable, healthy, and safe. Similarly, it's all very well to debate the ethics of mercenary faith when the goat meat is plentiful. When you lay the innate human yearning for fairness over the lower rungs of Maslow's pyramid, belief in something better is often the result.

“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” asks the question of all missionaries: is your success perhaps less to do with the Lord's message and more to do with the wealth, health, and power you clearly enjoy?

It asks the question of sneering intellectuals: how can you in good conscience tell people they need to have “noble” reasons for their faith?

And it asks the question of everyone in the west: would you like a little perspective with those first-world problems?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti:
the most perfect place on earth,
where flies don't bite your eyeballs
and human life has worth...

Tomorrow: The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Three – Cultural Relativism, Interfaith Relations, & New Religions: “Making Things Up Again”