Friday, January 30, 2015

Marijuana and the Democratic Problem

This is a slightly expanded version of an editorial which appeared in the Wichita Eagle this morning.

This past Tuesday, when the Wichita City Council approved putting on the April ballot a proposal which would reduce the criminal penalty for adult possession of small amounts of marijuana to an infraction with a fine (essentially making it the same as a minor traffic violation), they did the appropriate thing. After months of work and much painstaking attention to detail, the many volunteers associated with the Marijuana Reform Initiative--some of which I'm happy to call friends, whose protests I have joined and whose petitions I have signed--had done exactly what the law requires, and the City Council recognized that.

It was interesting, however, as I sat in the City Council chambers and listened to the councilors’ comments (particularly as several of them spoke in what seemed to me to be a somewhat CYA-manner in regards to the "dilemma" before them), to be reminded how expensive and time-consuming and intimidating self-government can often appear to be.

Specifically, multiple members of the Council expressed consternation over the fact that the laws in question are “fuzzy.” Obviously, if the voters of Wichita approve this measure and the city government acts in accordance with it, instructing the Wichita City Police and city prosecutors to change their approach to this particular drug, the city will be in violation of state law, which categorizes marijuana possession as an offense deserving of a year in jail and a fine of thousands of dollars. (And or anything more than the first offense or mere possession, far harsher than that.) And yet, for them to simply dismiss this legally produced petition would also have been a violation of state law. Hence, their frustration.

But is a situation like this really one which calls for frustration? On the contrary, what we have here is rather simple: a group of citizens making use of the procedures legally available to them to directly initiate political action. As with any political action, taken by any means on any level of government, there always will be citizens organized–either directly, or through their elected representatives, or through various other established interests–to oppose them. That’s not surprising; that’s to be expected. It is the essential nature of mass democracy in a pluralistic society: many different groups, acting on behalf of many different agendas, using many different venues to pursue their goals. It’s combative and messy. For better or worse, under our present constitutional arrangement and with our present political culture, it couldn’t be any other way.

Does the fact that this particular political fight may involve the state claiming authority over drug laws and bringing an injunction against the city of Wichita mean that it’s different? More stressful, more irresponsible, and thus one to be especially avoided by our elected leaders? I can’t think of any principled reason why.

There are, to be sure, certain matters that probably shouldn’t cross from the legislative to the judicial branches of government or back again. (For example, I'm very doubtful of both the political wisdom and of the democratic benefits of attempting to force governments to recognize budgeting priorities through legal action, something we know all too much about here in Kansas.) But questions of criminal justice and penalties have, on the contrary, always involved fights in both legislatures and courts, and have been a particular target of direct citizen input and action for many decades. (Just think of death penalties cases, three-strikes-and-you're-out policies, mandatory sentencing, and many more.) This issue shouldn’t be any different.

(And I should emphasize, the issue here is not marijuana per se; the issue our often unaware attempts to shelter ourselves from democracy's messiness. To the extent that the fact we are talking about the personal possession of a small amount of a controlled substance here, I can only say, first, that this isn't--yet--about legalization, only sentencing reform, and second, as I wrote once before: "any defense of norms and traditions--especially prohibitory, paternal ones--has to be able to constantly respond to the changing, pluralistic flow of information all around us." Harsh penalties for a tiny bit of pot experimentation are contributing to a genuine social harm, that of mass incarceration. This is, in context, a good way to start pushing back on that.) 

I am most definitely not saying that I think every city council ought to challenge the authority of every state law, in the same way that I don't think state legislatures ought to make a habit of challenging the authority of the national government. There are all sorts of financial and constitutional--not to mention policy-related!--realities to be considered, and they might often suggest an acceptance of the status quo, or even encourage the recognition that in certain contexts general approaches may be well superior to particular ones. Even Thomas Jefferson, an arch-revolutionary and fan of local government if there ever was one, allowed that such was sometimes the case. (It would be nice if the Brownback administration, which never seems happier than when it is, on the one hand, throwing ideologically-motivated challenges at the national government, and on the other, stealing authority from local municipalities, considered those same points as well.)

But even given all those considerations, it remains the fact that, in our pluralistic and federal system, conflicts between different governing bodies are, as they say, a feature, not a bug. The number of variables that can come to play in these conflicts are huge and unpredictable. (What would be the content of any such injunction which the state government could lay on Wichita, anyway? Would they empower state police officers to come into Wichita arrest local police who obeyed the new local ordinance? Would they strip elected Wichita officials of their authority and jurisdiction, and replace them with appointees of their own? How would Topeka pay for that, anyway?) Like it or not, going forward with this vote is a step forward in the always evolving process of democracy. Clarifying “fuzzy” statutes and forcing a change in political agendas doesn't happen spontaneously; they will inevitably require clashes and challenges, and when the opportunity for such arises, they ought to be welcomed.

The concluding comments of one councilor during the meeting clearly implied that “being a good citizen” is the same as “not being in conflict with the state legislature.” If we all lived in small, authoritarian communities governed by consensus, perhaps that would be appropriate. But instead, we live in an environment characterized by adversarial conflicts, mediated through diverse political and legal processes. That's often not a particularly effective way to carry out mass democracy, but it is the system we have. And consequently, I think those who suggest that a legally produced vote on a technically invalid ordinance is the wrong step, and instead that everyone involved should be obliged to just appeal to the state government and wait for a "thaw" in the conversation about marijuana in Topeka, misunderstands: going forward with votes which force a question over just what truly is valid is exactly how conversations like that move forward. The people have done their political part; I hope the City Council, depending on what Wichita citizens choose, will be ready to their legal part as well.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Spiritual Responsibility and Self-Sufficiency

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a sermon I gave in sacrament meeting, on January 11, 2015, in Wichita, KS.

Recently, a thought got stuck in my head: do I really take responsibility for my own beliefs? That is, do I attend to what I believe, to determine what it is and what it means for me, and to decide whether I still believe whatever I used to say I believed or not? If beliefs lead to actions--and they don't always, but surely they do often enough--then the gospel of Jesus Christ, which calls us to action of behalf of our fellow human beings (and particularly the gospel as it is interpreted through Mormonism, which additionally calls upon us to build Zion), demands that we take the time to really think over, and get clear on, and be forthright about, both what we do and what we do not believe. And I really mean we there. I'm not talking about what our church teaches us to believe, or even about what we tend to say we believe in response to questions asked by others, but rather what we, looking inside ourselves, can honestly say we--not anyone else--truly hope and affirm.

Sometimes that level of self-honesty feels dangerous. And surely pursuing it is a more complicated and difficult and diverse task than we might wish. For one thing, there are a great many ways in which the individualism which this sort of introspection seems to presume can go wrong, and lead to self-centeredness and a disregard for the communities and histories by which we become capable of introspection in the first place. But in a small but crucial way, this quest for spiritual self-sufficiency is nonetheless the responsibility of every individual member of this church (as well as every member of any Christian church which calls upon its adherents to exercise faith in something larger than themselves). So let's explore that responsibility little bit here.

Nearly eight years ago, the PBS television show Frontline produced and ran a lengthy series on our church, titled simply “The Mormons”. At the time, this program was a big deal. It isn’t every day, after all, that men whom we hold to be prophets and apostles sit down for in-depth interviews with non-Mormon journalists. In particular I’m thinking of the interview Elder Jeffrey R, Holland gave, which began right of the bat with the interviewer asking, in essence, whether or not the Mormon church really was an “all or nothing” church. Now just about everyone knows--and certainly nobody knows better than those of us who are baptized members of this church!--that the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes many expectations that are far more demanding of one’s faith and one’s lifestyle than is the case with many other Christian churches. The interviewer questioned this, particularly in regards to the revelatory claims associated with the Book of Mormon and the beginnings of this church, and challenged Elder Holland directly: “Explain why there is no middle way.” And this is how an apostle of Jesus Christ responded:

I think [you're just] as aware as I am that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would [over] anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. [Instead] we would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum." We really don't want to sound smug. We don't want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

On my reading of that passage, it includes two exceptionally important points. First, here is an apostle of the church testifying that his faith rests upon a sure foundation, a foundation which is necessary for him (and, by implication, for all of us) to move forward. Second, here also is an apostle of the church recognizing that not everyone in this faith community which he loves shares that foundation. Instead, many of them–many of us--are working through their--or our--own “steps of hope or steps of conviction.” And, he importantly adds, he fully accepts all such people as fellow members as they (and we!) go about making those steps, searching for their (and our!) own drumbeat by which they (and we!) can move forward in faith as well.

This is not, I think, simply pastoral concern. True, he concludes by saying that members of the church shouldn’t “sound smug...[or] uncompromising [or] insensitive” in how they interact with one another, but I don’t think he’s only thinking there about the fundamental Christian kindness and tolerance we all need to show to all of God’s children. Instead, I think he also has something grander in mind. One of the bedrock principles of the Mormon understanding of faith is that everyone, ideally, should be self-sufficient in their own testimony, or in their own beliefs. One of the very last statements recorded by Mormon, whom we hold to be the primary editor of the whole Book of Mormon, is very clear on this point:

Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him. (Mormon 9:27)

In this passage, we hear in the voice of Mormon a mirror image of the same inspiration which moved Paul to write in his letter to the Philippians:

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, KJV)

I see these scriptures as promising us that those of us who have covenanted to obey His commandments and take upon ourselves the name of Christ will be enabled to find salvation, and find the capacity to do those good things which He puts in us to do. But the route by which that salvation is made manifest involves us “believing,” putting our own “heart” into it, and “work[ing] out our own salvation.” And here is the point: how can we be believing in this way, and how can we do this work, if the steps we take towards that end are not, in fact, our own steps? Steps which fulfill us, encourage us, move us, inspire us, enrich us--all exactly because we have figured them out for ourselves?

It's for these reasons that I think Elder Holland answered the interviewer’s question the way he did. I think he was thinking, at least in part, about the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth. We, all of us who have covenanted to bring the teachings and the hope of Jesus into our lives, are the only ones available to do that building. So if Elder Holland, or if any of us, were to get into the business of looking down upon, or harshly judging, how we or any or all of our fellow members, in all of our different ways, are working out and stepping towards that sure foundation for our own salvation, then honestly, what would ever get built? I think the obvious answer is: not much. Building Zion, seeking to make our community one of the pure in heart, requires that each of us bring our own gifts to the project of building, rather than constantly leaning on or, worse, simply copying without much thought, the steps made and gifts offered by those around us. And this is even the case–maybe it is especially the case–when those steps and contributions seem less than certain, or seem to be characterized by questions and differences and doubts. As another apostle, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, recently said:

It’s natural to have questions--the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith--even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty....The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.

That diversity includes individuals whose stories are well-known, and deeply affecting. For instance, remember the man who, as the story is told in the Gospel of Mark, stood before the Savior and pleaded desperately for a blessing upon his suffering son.

Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:23-24, KJV)

This is, particularly to those of us who are parents, a heart-rending tale. Normally, I suppose, it is read as underscoring how absolutely essential it is to develop a sure faith in the saving power of Jesus. But look at what else this story suggests: it shows us a man owning up to the fact that he's not sure about something; that he hopes, but that he also has doubts. Rather than hiding his lack of faith, or falsely embracing a conviction in the hoped-for savior of his son which he does not truly or fully possess, he puts it all on the table before the Lord, in desperate honesty. This is someone who has something to offer the kingdom of God, something that is his own. His offering is not a borrowed one, not a copied one, but rather, as limited or as uncertain as it may be, it is an honest one, which comes from his own heart.

I'm not much of a fan of church books, generally speaking--I tend to think that the scriptures are demanding enough without us filling our minds with others' spiritual interpretations or recommendations about those same teachings and traditions we are all regularly called to attend to. But despite that, I have to say that Terryl and Fiona Givens's The Crucible of Doubt is simply a tremendous book, one that makes all sort of valuable points about this very topic. Let me call attention to two passages from it. The first comes after they cite a talk that Elder Boyd K. Packer gave to a meeting of regional representatives a quarter-century ago, a talk which warned about the tendency of the modern church to fall into "over-programming" its members, and "over-prescribing" spiritual remedies. Following this they write:

The catch with over-prescribing is the dependency it creates. In the spiritual realm, it is easy for Mormons to grow accustomed to viewing their weekly meetings not just as opportunities to serve and renew covenants but as their primary sources of spiritual nourishment. But...spiritual strength requires finding one’s own well from which to drink. We should recognize, first, that we are responsible for our own spiritual diet, and second [and this, I think, is the crucial point, especially in regards to accepting ourselves and those around us as we all take our own very different, sometimes doubting steps] that sources of inspiration are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout time and place. Mormons should feel empowered and inspired to fill our own wells with nourishing waters [wherever they may find it] (pg. 98).

The second is a wonderful (and worthy of remembrance!) story from the 19th-century church:

In Salt Lake’s old Thirteenth Ward, Bishop Edwin D. Woolley frequently found himself at odds with President Brigham Young. On a certain occasion, as they ended one such fractious encounter, Young had a final parting remark: “Now, Bishop Woolley, I guess you will go off and apostatize” To which the bishop rejoined, “If this were your church, President Young, I would be tempted to do so. But this is just as much my church as it is yours, and why should I apostatize from my own church?" That sense of ownership, or, better, of full and equal membership in the body of Christ, was Bishop Woolley’s salvation (pg. 103).

I hope the point of these passages, and all that I've said earlier, is clear. Building Zion, or just building a foundation upon which we may exercise faith and hope and charity towards our fellow human beings–as well as, don’t forget, towards ourselves–is a lifelong process. The result of that process, though, is felt immediately. It is the feeling which Bishop Woolley testified to--that, in making his own steps in and on behalf of his church community, he is making this gospel his own. In the end, as dangerous as it may sometimes seem to our ability to collectively feel as one, I don't think we can get away from the fact that we really and truly are individually responsible for finding and cultivating our own spiritual resources, and taking whatever steps we are inspired to take which will enable us to testify of our foundations, and enable us to call where we stand, and call the communities we are part of, something that is part of ourselves. When our spiritual sources--and I can think of dozens: movies, books, the spoken word, scholarship, satire, song, scripture, the sacrament, and more--don't seem like those which tend to be most common (and thus, we assume, most expected) in our congregations, it is easy to be feel intimidated. But that feeling must be resisted, or else our capacity to truly bring our own contribution and perspective to the table--as opposed to those contributions which we copy without any real feeling or belief from someone else--is done for.

Thirty years ago, another apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, gave what turned out to be--and what he surely knew, as he gave it, would be--his final sermon, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane." It is a tremendous powerful testimony of the reality of Jesus's atoning sacrifice and of our need to hold to His words so to be cleansed from our sins. I remember this sermon very well--but not, I think, primarily because of the particulars of his doctrinal claims about Christ. In truth, there more than a few things he testified to in this sermon which I am personally unsure about, and even disagree with. But he spoke a few lines towards the end which have have thrilled and haunted me for decades:

[A]s pertaining to this perfect atonement, wrought by the shedding of the blood of God--I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, and as pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world. He is our Lord, our God, and our King. This I know of myself independent of any other person.

I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.


The deep power of the apostle's words here is that he could express conviction in something "independent of any other person." It is easy, I suspect, to fall back on the language of revelation, invoke Peter on the "more sure word of prophecy," or Alma on "perfect knowledge," and rest on the too-often casually repeated claim that, if we all just do whatever it is we're supposed to do, we will be vouchsafed the same testimony of Christ which Elder McConkie expressed. But that misses what comes first: the courage and self-awareness which this step--like any such step--invariably involves.

In the end, I personally am convinced that our hoped-for Zion community can be as much built up by almost any honest declaration of Christian faith, however limited or idiosyncratic, as it is by the testimony of an apostle. In fact, I think even being responsible and forthright about one's spiritual dependence--as the scripture says, "to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God...[while] to others it is given to believe on their words"--is the sort of independent honesty which can build the kingdom. Why? Because, ultimately, we are Christ's hands in this work. And, hard as it may sound to say it, if what we have to offer by way of inspiration and conviction, to both our own weaknesses and to those of others', really isn't something that we have--and still are!--tremblingly working out for ourselves, but rather something which we have uncritically, robotically borrowed from someone else, then it is almost like we're not actually consecrating anything at all. The broken hear which we are called to sacrifice on the altar is always and only our own. That we may continually learn to be brave enough to do so is my prayer for us today.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "In a Big Country"

A rocking song off a rocking album. Modern Celtic rock (and perhaps modern Scottish nationalism) began right here, folks.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What I Said in 9 Minutes About Citizens United

It seems I'm getting better--the last one of these Citizens United protest meetings I spoke at here in Wichita, I took 15 minutes (or actually, only about 13). That was two and a half years ago; now, I'm down to 9 minutes, and threw in a short, ridiculously simplistic, and yet I think fairly accurate lecture on the history of American mass democracy to boot. It was a fun day. Many thanks to all the good activists here in Wichita who continue to make these important events happen! In the meantime, enjoy (and give me a break about my occasionally hoarse voice--I've been on sabbatical, and I'm out of practice). If you like this, check out Mary Ware's wonderful presentation also.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Local Wonderings in Wichita

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wichita, KS, is the home to a wonderful bookstore, Eighth Day Books. (Which isn't my favorite bookstore in Wichita, but that's partly because my wife works at its primary rival.) One of the main reasons it's such a wonderful place is its sense of identity and vocation. It's much more than a "Christian bookstore," though it is that, and tremendously good at fulfilling that role in our community (see Rod Dreher sing its praises here, here, and here). But beyond that Eighth Day Books is the heart of a sub-community that has fascinated me ever since my family and I moved to Wichita nearly ten years ago. Traditionalist, usually (but not always) conservative, literate but only rarely academic, both reactionary and radical, Eighth Day grounds a motley, earnest, often brilliant collection of Christian thinkers and servers; even when I find myself somewhat perplexed by what I hear from some of them, I want to learn more. It's very ecumenical; the folks involved are Orthodox and Catholic and evangelical Protestant (and so long as they keep on letting me through the door, Mormon too); within their numerous overlapping circles, you can find schools, retreats, university programs and institutes, study groups, and more. Once a year, Eighth Day hosts an already-large-and-still-growing symposium, which this year was devoted to exploring the idea of "wonder" in a world where longstanding traditions of the civic place of Christianity have radically changed. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend one of the days of the conference this year, and I adored it. What I saw and heard around me this past weekend was an example of the sort of both strengthening and challenging local and cultural civic work which communitarians like myself have banged on about for years (but which we, in all honestly, have only rarely managed to contribute directly to ourselves).

Let me share some ideas prompted by three presentations I listened to. The first was the symposium opening provided by Erin Doom, the director of Eighth Day Institute (and yes, that is how you spell his name). Erin is a fascinating guy; I suspect he'd far prefer to be considered a lay theologian than a community organizer, but really he's both (and in fact, his efforts are themselves a testament to just how much working to make manifest and build up a community in a particular place is a type of Incarnational work). In presenting his vision of bringing together hundreds of people who, for reasons of curiosity or concern or just plain community attachment, wanted to spend two days learning, reading, and talking about the possibilities presented by our "secular age," Erin talked about a "dialogue of love" which is needed, one that can best be realized through a return to certain key ecumenical elements of the Christian tradition. For him (as well as for many others throughout history), these elements are scripture, icons, and liturgy--all of which may be seen as revealing a certain kind of radical localist perspective. What they have in common is an enduring presence--as stories which get adapted and interpreted but which also transcend the passing of time and fashions, as images which transcend their own replication and commodification, as seasons of time which transcend the manufactured pressures of socio-economic life. These are points of resistance to the pace and the profits of our contemporary capitalist and centralized world; they can become resources of retreat, for those who wish to either prepare to hold on to something old and good, or harness their strength to push for something new and good--or, really, both. Its a wonderful vision--made all the more persuasive because those in attendance at this conference, siting in an Orthodox cathedral in a mid-sized city in the center of the country, could see fruits of such all around them.

One of the headline speakers was Dr. James K.A. Smith, a scholar and theologian who had recently written a superb book explaining the philosopher Charles Taylor's monumental work A Secular Age. It was about that book, and Taylor's fascinating (if convoluted) historical, cultural, and literary excavation of the meaning of secularism in the modern (that is, post 1500 A.D. or so) West, which Smith came to speak about. I was delighted to hear him, because--as some of this blog's readers may remember--I've made rather grandiose promises about reading A Secular Age on more than one occasion in the past, and always failed. Taylor is easily the most insightful and, I think, basically right-thinking contemporary moral and political philosopher I know, and his work has been greatly important to me--but in this case, I really appreciated having someone smart, witty, and provocative explain his ideas to me. The most important concept which of Taylor's which he unpacked--and also productively complicated--for us is the notion that the emergence over the past half-millennium of the "buffered self" (a notion of individuality that is, in principle at least, resistant to being shaped or determined meaningfully by outside forces which might pour into one, because the core of that individuality is psychologically and morally removed and protected from the larger world) is closely entwined with the collapse of a robust sense of sociality. While Taylor doesn't claim, and neither did Smith, that these were two entirely distinct or causally related phenomenon, it occurred to me that, if we grant that the festivals and rituals of the pre-modern West existed at least in part to moderate those anti-social pressures generated by the maintenance of the divisions and roles of a religiously defined world, then it seems reasonable to assume that human passions and their supporting understandings are going to always be at least partly self-interested. In which case, perhaps it was the transformation of the social world of the first thousand years of Christendom into something less dependable, more dangerous, and more characterized by divisive opportunities--and here I'm thinking of everything from scientific revolutions to religious wars to the rise of capitalism--which made the desire for "buffering" oneself from the mysteries of the wider world so appealing. Point being, the modern self, mostly closed off to the transcendent but perhaps curiously open to glimmers of it as such can be realized within our "immanent frame" can be persuaded to attend to higher, impersonal goods by simply invoking the promise of tradition: the break with such is perhaps so deeply entwined with ordinary practices both personal and social that it is foolish to imagine that some new apologetic is going to open up atomists to what communion has to offer. Anyway, Smith's presentation and book are things I'm going to have to think about and write about some more.

Finally, it was wonderful to see Rod Dreher back in Wichita, and his presentation--both the parts I agreed with, and the parts I didn't--didn't at all disappoint. He's already reflected on some of his thoughts about participating in the Eighth Day Symposium here; let me just focus on something he said about "wonder."

"Wondering" has two complementary, yet still distinct, connotations. You can wonder about something, and be prompted to ask questions that you normally wouldn't ask. This was the main focus of Rod's presentation on the mass media, and how assumptions about certain "myths" end up closing down questions about worrisome or suspicious events or developments that really ought to be asked. I don't disagree with Rod about this reality at all, though I strongly suspect he and I would disagree somewhat on just what myths really are regent in newsrooms around the country today. But how does that phenomenon relate to another, deeper sense of wonder: that of being struck by the wonder, the mystery, of life? One seems to point towards the seeking of answers to questions, while the other suggests something which is beyond answers entirely.

In his comments, Rod quotes one of the other speakers at the symposium, a Catholic theologian named Bo Bonner (who I've met, and I agree: he's a great, funny guy), who talked about how the most profound truths of the Christian tradition are wild and weird, and that if one is interested in preserving the kind of enchantment which Christianity once provided, in so many different ways, to communities all around the modern West, then it must be allowed to be wild and weird again. I don't think this is necessarily "weird" in the "keep Austin weird" sense (an attitude which is not entirely foreign to Wichita as well), though there is likely some overlap there; rather, I think it involves living in a tradition so firmly--which, please note, is not the same as living it "confrontationally," and maybe not even living it "evangelically" either--that you can know and demonstrate through one's own life choices all the little mysteries and questions and weirdnesses which are inherent to it. We tend to imagine "awe" as involving something grand and mighty, a miracle so imposing as to defy description, but maybe we need to remember that being awed and enchanted is characteristic of the many marvelous idiosyncrasies which may be seen, assuming we can show at least a modicum of charity for ourselves and others, in ordinary, local lived lives. Let's face it: Erin Doom is, in all likelihood, kind of a weird guy. And so is Rod, and so are you, and so am I. That weirdness, and the pleasant wonder and unexpected questions ("Why does she do that?") which goes along with it, is not going to be known--at least not in a manner which can bring us, in our places, to contemplate permanent things--if we have just one "myth," one story, to reductively explain away all our own motivations and hopes and dreams. And neither will it be known if our lives become so transient, so ambitious, so committed to material accomplishments that don't ever give ourselves (or the structures of our meritocratic economy never allows us) the time or the place to fully live lives that are our own.

Well, Eighth Day has its own weird and wonderful and "wondering-full" little place, here in Wichita, and it's a blessing and goad and delight to us all. There are bound to be such places, built by such people, where you live as well: small corners of genuine social realization, mysterious happenstances, worthy of wonder. Go out and find them. They'll be worth your time, I guarantee it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Four Reasons to See Selma Immediately

Melissa and I and our two oldest daughters (ages 18 and 14; our third daughter, age 11, wanted to come, and we decided against bringing her--she couldn't have handled the violence and emotional intensity of the film) went to see Selma over the weekend. It's a tremendously moving and provocative work of art. If you haven't seen it, and you have two hours of free time this afternoon and $9 or so in your pocket, and you live in the United States anywhere near a major multiplex, I can't urge you more strongly: go see this movie right now. Why? Here's four reasons:

1) It's a great work of art, not a history lesson. This movie isn't, of course, fiction: all the people shown on the screen--Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife Corretta, John Lewis, Annie Lee Cooper, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, etc., not to mention President Johnson and Governor Wallace--really existed, really did the things (or nearly all the things) they're shown as doing, etc. The protests in Selma, AL, over the issue of voting rights really did unfold mostly as portrayed on screen. The film is, first and last, about telling a moving and provocative story, and not about instructing those who watch it about American history. The horrific bombing in Birmingham is placed at the start of the movie, even though it happened more than a year earlier. Meetings between Johnson, Wallace, and King are re-arranged and streamlined. Most importantly, all the speeches given to King are original for the movie. That's a result of legal problems with the King family estate, but it was fortuitous, because it liberated screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay to craft words and scenes that counterpointed, and deepened, the stories being visually presented to us in a wonderfully (though also often despairingly) artistic way.

2) Though the more you know about the history, the more its scenes open up to you. It is ridiculously easy to tell a simplistic, hagiographic story about the civil rights movement; similarly, it would be easy to tell a simplistic, vindictive one. Selma does neither, instead finding ways to insert into the story moments which complicate and reveal the many failures, frustrations, and cross-pressures which characterized King's life, the events in Selma, and the whole civil rights movement. For example, the tensions between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference are well dramatized in the film, most particularly in the scene between John Lewis and James Forman in which the latter contemptuously dismisses Lewis's willingness to join with King's organization in the Selma marches as "marching with the Lord." The fact that the SNCC became increasingly secular as the 1960s continued, and thus became increasingly uncomfortable with King's rootedness in Christian rhetoric and tradition, is there on display, if you're able to see it for what it is. Similarly, a brief moment in a Selma jail between King and Abernathy effectively anticipates King's turn to Christian socialism, and his deepening understanding of just how radical the call to equality must be. And a couple of sentences between Johnson and Wallace recollect the complicated legacy of Democratic reform in the American South, and how much the needed and valued efforts to improve the lot of the poor had historically depended upon pitting whites against blacks. Truly, this is a film which backs a lot of history, as seen through the prism of artistic license, powerfully and succinctly into its running time.

3) It never stops treating these people as the complicated human beings they were. Scene after scene in Selma showcases not just anger and joy, triumph and tragedy, but so many wonderful and revealing moments in between. The way in which the leadership of the SCLC politely but obliviously invade the kitchen of Richie Jean Jackson for their strategy sessions is a lesson all its own about race and feminism in the 1960s. The oily, ambiguous stare-down between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Johnson--with Johnson ultimately looking away first, and referring to Hoover as "Mr. Director"--speaks volumes about the cross-currents of power. Martin Luther King himself is given multiple moments which reveal him to be as self-aware and as strategically conflicted as the best of us would have been--none more so than the tense and tragic scene in which the FBI's attempt to blackmail King into backing off his crusade collapses in the face of Corretta's enormous, almost painful generosity and forgiveness. This is a deeply human film, one that walks the cinematic line of familiarity and surprise expertly well. (Simply for their construction of the movie, the lack of Academy Award nominations for DuVernay and film editor Spencer Averick is plain robbery.)

4) It'll make you angry for the best possible reasons. This is a movie about the events which led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act--quite possibly the single most important piece of legislation passed during the whole civil rights movement (the short, three-sentence lecture which King gives to Johnson about why voting rights need to take priority over any other concern is a whole lecture on pluralist democracy in itself), and a piece of legislation which the Supreme Court unceremoniously gutted in 2013. If this film challenges you to ask how on earth a small cadre of ideologically aligned agitators managed to convince five justices on the Supreme Court to break apart what is widely regarded as one of the most successful advances in equality in the whole history of the United States--well, good. It's job--besides the primary one of telling a great story--will have been achieved.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "New York State of Mind"

Have I put up a live recording of this song before? Doesn't matter, I suppose; when you have a living monument like Tony Bennett torching the song up, and then lovingly tending its embers down to the very last note, there's every reason to listen to it again.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why John Cleese is, and isn't, My Favorite Python Either

The title of this post is a reference to this old post of mine, which I wrote after reading the first volume of Michael Palin's diaries. (Palin is a wonderfully detailed, and really rather strangely fascinating--not to mention often funny--self-chronicler, but after digesting his second volume, I never went on to the third.) Of course, every Monty Python fan knows that when John Cleese and Palin performed together, not just laughs but absolute comic brilliance was within reach: I mean, you've got The Cheese Shop, The Argument Clinic, The Fish-Slapping Dance, and, of course, The Parrot Sketch. We know what Palin brought to that equation: a kind of preternaturally, unintentionally unnerving normality, or at least naivete. Cleese, however, brought the anger--or perhaps a strangeness, which he was also almost always vaguely (or viciously!) angry about. And now that I've read his wonderful memoir So, Anyway..., I can testify: John Cleese, at least insofar as he chooses to present himself here, is a very strange and unsettling man.

He's also terrifically funny, of course--a smart comic writer, a gifted physical comedian (another great Cleese-Palin combination there), and a man capable of some of the greatest slow burns and insane outbursts in the whole history of any media....but undeniably strange. Reading Cleese's presentation of his early life (the memoir runs from his family history and birth up to the founding of Monty Python in 1969, then almost entirely skips the next 45 years to conclude with Cleese's take on the Pythons' wonderfully nostalgic--and sometimes actually, genuinely funny--live farewell show) convinces me that much of his skill at making us laugh is in fact because of his strangeness. Remember that the same root which gives us "strange" also gives us "estrangement," and Cleese shows himself in this book as constantly on the edge of feeling at least partially estranged from, and thus confused and even sometimes terrified by, almost everything. That includes his parents, his school teachers, his fellow students, women in general, the various techniques and technologies of both performing live and performing on film or television, the vicissitudes and opportunities of university life, and really just about everyone who seemed more capable of negotiating and/or escaping from the perceptions and expectations of the English class system--Cleese is very emphatic about his origins in the "middle-middle-lower-middle class" (pg. 30)--than he. And finally--and this is really the most important part of Cleese's psyche, I think--he is deeply bothered by his own frequent sense of estrangement, alienation, and disconnection. There is, in short, a deeply self-focused anger about the man, a separation from himself that sometimes comes off as a clinical fascination with his own overwrought thought processes (there are multiple moments in the book when he, as he reconstructs various triumphs and failures, essentially recollects that the worst thing he too often does is "think about thinking"--pg. 250), but sometimes also borders on self-contempt. It's a fascinating psychological journey to be taken on, though of course because Cleese is a talented man who has had some marvelously fun opportunities in his life and has met and been influenced by (and sometimes made enemies of) some truly remarkable people, following that psychological journey is made all the more entertaining.

Does this make Cleese my favorite Python? I don't know. It's absolutely clear that without him, Monty Python would have never existed, at least not in the form it did: he was the only one who had, at one point or another (either while at Cambridge, or while on tour with the Footlights in America, or while writing and performing for various BBC television shows in the early to mid-1960s), met and worked with and had access to every single person that made the Flying Circus possible: not just all the other five members of the troupe, but the directors and consultants and managers who were familiar with and liked Cleese's work, and thus opened the BBC's doors to them. And it's widely recognized that the Flying Circus's fourth season, which Cleese didn't participate it, is the weakest of the four...though that's also the season where the more clearly cinematic imaginations of Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam are most visible. (Cleese is fervently proud of--and deservedly so!--A Fish Called Wanda, probably because he recognizes that he is first and last a sketch artist, a writer of "good jokes and funny scenes," who has "managed to write only one really good film script in fifty years"--pgs. 354-355.) Mostly I would have to say that, if Palin was the most adaptable, open-minded, and likeable Python, then Cleese was the most essential Python, the man who was, however unexpectedly--the notion that success simply fell into his lap without him knowing what he was doing is a constant theme throughout the book--the constant and reliable font of the raw comic materials which allowed all the others to become catalysts for.

It needs to be said that Cleese's memoir is a great one to argue with and wonder about--a result that he almost certainly would be pleased with. He has opinions on everyone from P.G. Wodehouse ("a very good comic writer rather than a great one"--pg. 26) to Peter Sellers ("the greatest impersonators often have strangely colourless personalities"--pg. 339), on everything from Americans' often money-grabbing lack of any sense of vocation (pgs. 210-211) to  how photographic technology has made the relationship between fans and celebrities even worse (pgs. 321-322). The stories of his awakening to the fact that he was surrounded by gays and lesbians in the arts world around him, and his reaction to his writing partner Graham Chapman's coming out are hilarious--and revealing of how very much Cleese was shaped by the preferences and prejudices of his ordered, rural, moderately-if-not-truly poor, conservative upbringing in Weston-super-Mare, despite no longer holding to many of those expectations (pgs. 210-211, 305-307). He's a man of easy resentments, if only because his longings for the world so often revolve around rules which he remains attached to, even as he beats up himself over that fact. The political ignorance he sometimes shows--the man thinks, at least in this book, overwhelming about how things affect him, and almost never how they might affect other people--is embarrassing, but forgivable. He has given his readers here, I think, a great document of someone living through the disappearance--or has it, really?--of the old English class-bound world. The fact that it came from someone's whose own writing and acting played a not insignificant role is teaching us all the naughty delight of kicking that world while it was on its last legs is just icing on the cake.




Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Forever Blue"

A sweet and light and unjustly forgotten pop tune from Swing Out Sister, here backed by English jazz-funk masters Level 42. A great combination.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Young, Attractive, Strangely Wealthy White People Sharing Coffee...FOREVER

Remember that mashup which played every single Billy Joel hit all at once? This--every single episode from the first season of Friends played at the same time--is worse. And better. Infinitely worse and better, at the same time.