Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Evil Comments by Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh Re Haiti

To the left:  Earthquake Aftershocks in Haiti  (Picture by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/ January 20, 2010) A man duckes under police tape warning passerbys to avoid ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral of Port-au-Prince after a 5.9 magnitude aftershock shook the Haitian capital on January 20, 2010.

Possibly a million Haitians are homeless and thousands upon thousands are dead or hurt.  Televangelist Pat Robertson declared to his viewers of the 700 Club that the Haitians had been punished by God for "having made a pact with the devil".  Apparently, this theological claim is based on the "Black Jacobin" slave revolt in the late 1700s which resulted in Haiti becoming the first non-white colony to win independence from a Europen power, in this case France.  Robertson stated:  "They (Haiti's rebels) said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French--true story.  . . and so, the devil said, okay it's a deal."

Fellow right-winger Rush Limbaugh also added his voice criticizing President Obama for supposedly "politicizing" the disaster by offering prompt and substantial American assistance.  He discouraged people from making contributions.  "We've already donated to Haiti.  It's called the US income tax."

Fortunately, there was little indication that Americans had heeded Robertson or Limbaugh.  The response of most persons seemed to be summed up by Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman who characterized them as "utterly stupid."

But the fact that Robertson and Limbaugh could even speak as they did in light of the enormous tragedy is mind boggling.  This is a natural disaster and it is not parallel to the Holocaust, a man-made tragedy.  Human intent is eliminated from the equation in Haiti.  And yet, the impact of the comments are as evil in all ways as comments of people who wish to deny the Holocaust of Jews in World War II Europe.  They are evil because they deny and dismiss glibly the very real pain, suffering and death that annihilation of populations experience. 

In the case of Robertson who cloaked his comments in theological language, the evil is compounded by promotion of a God who is vindictive, unloving . . . the Great Disciplinarian.  Robertson fails to understand the great lesson of Job and of most of human experience:  You cannot explain suffering by using the category of God and if you try, you will diminish yourself, the sufferer and God.  Better to shut the hell up and just be silent before the tragedy and before the Holy One.

For myself, I follow a gentle and forgiving Jewish rabbi who cared when he came into contact with hurt and brokenness.  When I read of him, I do feel it is Good News.  What good news is in Robertson's comments?  Who gets comforted by his statements?

Everytime there is a huge natural disaster these far right preachers and pundits love to make statements like Robertson's and Limbaugh's.  Remember, we heard similar stuff about New Orleans when Katrina happened.  Such a difference between this and this Episcopal Prayer on the Occasion of a Natural Disaster: 
 Compassionate God, whose Son Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus:  draw near to us in this time of sorrow and anguish, comfort those who mourn, strengthen those who are weary, encourage those in despair, and lead us all to fulness of life; through the same Jesus Christ, ou, r Savior and Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever.  Amen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Review: Impact Free Living According to Geoff Dyer

At the end of each year, I scan all of the lists of the best books published in the past twelve months.  This year, I immediately checked out a book that appeared on several lists.  This is what the Economist said in its blurb:  "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. By Geoff Byer.  Pantheon; 304 pages; $24. . . Mr. Dyer is one of the most interesting young English writers.  Every Dyer novel seems to end in a moment of ecstatic transformation.  This time, though, there is darkness visible.  His fourth novel, this is by far his best." 

The book is constructed around two seemingly disparate narratives and there is no obvious transition between them.   First, there is Jeff in Venice.  A writer, Jeff Atman, is sent by his publisher to cover the Venice Biennale art exhibition.  The Biennale becomes the background for Jeff's mostly non-artistic interests:  desire, sex (if you are squeamish about extremely detailed descriptions of sex you may not want to read this), drinking, drugs, food, fun   . . . . . . I imagine Atman as a slightly Woody Allen-esque neurotic art critic who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. 

The characters in Jeff in Venice all seem "very now" in their trendiness, irony, lack of deep-seated ethics. In one memorable statement, Atman remarks that "it's possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time." 

There are hints at depth and more than surface at almost all corners:  Jeff in Venice recalls the great Thomas Mann novel  Death in Venice.  His surname "Atman" is the name of the Hindu Brahman who is regarded as the Universal Soul .  . . a lower-case "atman" is the essence of an individual.  In the reflective light of Venice everything is constantly shifting and changing.  Nothing is as it seems.  This includes Jeff who is yearning for some kind of transcendance in the disorganized frenzy and aimlessness of his life.  This yearning takes him astray early on as he dies his salt and peppered hair before the Biennale.

Just at the moment when Jeff bids farewell to the woman he has been sleeping with during the exhibition, the narrative concludes.  What now?  Will he see her again?  No answers.  We are now in Varanasi, the great Hindu pilgrimage city formerly known as Benares, on the Ganges.  And someone is talking to us.  Is it Atman?  Maybe but we cannot be certain it is him and the text does not reveal this protagonist's identity.

Here in the epitome of otherness (to Westerners) he immerses himself in visiting Hindu temples, funeral pyres on the Ganges, transacting with the poor Indian masses, deciphering holy men and fake holy men, relating to and looking at other Western tourists.  Slowly Varanasi assumes a grip on him that he cannot shake.  He doesn't quite understand this grip.  But he literally ingests it with a little water in his mouth from the Ganges.  And from that moment forward he disintegrates, going native in dress and mysterious thought.

At least, that is what we might think.  His (Atman's?) reconfiguration and dazzling death at the end is a release of himself into a bigger Reality.  As in Venice, the reflection on the water, the importance of the water, makes what seems to be real only ephemeral.  And this includes the protagonist's own life.

What is going on in these two separate but related stories?  I read them as a narrative of the loss of ego.  In the Venice story, Jeff Atman loses himself, his dreams, his ideas through Venice itself and in sex and drugs.  In the Varanasi story, the protagonist loses himself in Varanasi itself and in the addictive connection to the water, the rites, the buildings and to something mysteriously bigger, overarching.

To the right:  British novelist, Geoff Dyer

One of the key passages in the Varanasi section is a key to this idea:  "For a few days we were joined by Sayoko, a young Japanese woman.  She was eating dinner at a table on her own and Darrell asked if she wanted to join us.  She spoke very little english and so, when she had sat down at our table, he began speaking to her in Japanese--which, even by his standards, was pretty cool.  Sayoko and I couldn't say much to each other, but she was easy to be around.  Her way of being in the world was unlike anyone else's I had encountered.  Having worked in London, in journalism, often interviewing artists, I had pretty well accepted that the sole point of existence--especially for artists, but among journalists too--was to make a mark, a splash, to draw attention to oneself.  Sayoko was the opposite.  She moved through the world as though the idea was to have a minimum impact on it.  Like a skilful driver, she negotiated her passage through things without collisions or near misses.  In the context of Varanasi the comparison made no sense, but to be in her company was to be reminded of how relaxing it was not to be honking your own horn and constantly expecting a crash, not to have your attention strained to the breaking point. . ." (p.p 235-236).

In Venice everyone was honking their own horns and the ancient city would long outlast them.  In Varanasi people were constantly bouncing off of each other in close proximity.  But the city and the water of the Ganges would long outlast them.  And some persons, Sayoko included, glide  and navigate through these realities not impacting them unduly.  At the end of the Varanasi story and at the end of the book, the protagonist or Atman navigate away from it all to some other shore.  Optimistic?  Pessimistic?  Hopeful?  Hopeless? Meaningful?  Meaningless?  Dyer leaves those conclusions to his readers.

I can't get this book out of my mind.  Now I am looking forward to the second reading.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

So What Is An Ogee?

Incredibly, The Blue Ogee has been in existence for a few years (with long dormant moments) but I have never shown the design of an ogee on the blog. 

Here is a design of an ogee arch.  The definition of ogee arch in the Encarta dictionary is:  "An arch whose sides curve gently inward toward the tip and then curve upward steeply to meet in a point."

The ogee is an elegant design rarely seen in modern or post-modern art and architecture.  May the discussions in this Blue Ogee blog be equally elegant and unusual for the society in which we live.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Word beyond Words

Just a few weeks ago, my eight month old grandson, Caetano, said his first word "Da-Da."  We had been anticipating what word this would be for several weeks and "Da-Da" obviously pleased my son.  Now Caetano is on the life-long journey of  using words in all of the variable situations he will encounter.

He will learn rather quickly that words carry incredible power--for good and for ill.  He will learn that words can convey complex thoughts and emotions, words can hurt, and words can heal.

In my childhood, great emphasis was placed in my working-class family on proper use of words.  It was understood that truthfulness was a basic virtue (Thou shalt not lie).  Lies, even little seemingly innocuous ones, were not acceptable.  Good casting of words in readable and pleasant penmanship (now almost a lost art) was important.  If words are important, then the way you write them is also important.  Some words were never to be used in our family--Dad and mom made sure that we understood that disrespectful words such as the N word could not be uttered. Some words ("I love you" and "Thank you") were deemed to be very good. I think that my parents'  attitudes of truthfulness, caring and respect helped ground me in my own ethical perspectives as an adult.

I have a repetoire of memories of hurtful words:  "Fag!"  "You are the least popular student in your home room" (by my school counselor). . . . these are only two examples that still stand out.

I also have one fairly recent memory of words that were liberating:  "I am gay." 

Christian faith development also has forced me to think a lot about words.  How do you engage in God-talk?  What did it mean in my evangelical Protestant background to repeat the words "  I believe in Jesus Christ and accept Him as my personal Savior."  What about words in prayer?  How do I account for my strong attachment to the words in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, quite apart from what these words point to?  Why do I love repeating the great creeds of the church when I am not sure I believe the words?  Do beliefs make a difference, really?  Or is it more that the words expressing the beliefs make a difference?

One of the things that I have learned in the monastic practice of lectio divina is to give close attention to words, their cadence, their construction. Their sound can produce new meanings.  And I am reminded very often that monastics always have  been attached to words, painfully copying and conserving books before they could be printed or mass-produced.

Words count.

Last Sunday, the First Sunday in Christmas, the Gospel reading was of the Prologue to the Gospel of John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God."  So now the Word is embodied, in-carnated, grounded in the person of Jesus.  Here we have jumped from the power of words to the ground of all expressions and reality:  the Word . . . the Word made flesh.  The immensity of this thought is stunning.  Yes, words count.  And now we are in the realm of poetry and metaphor:  The Word, the Logos.

What is it that makes Jesus, the human, the Word?  Can words answer this question.  Is the answer beyond words?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Hope of the Poor

Left:  Classroom pic from school run by the Episcopal Anglican Church in Goiania, Brazil for poor children.

In the suffrages recited during morning prayer we pray " Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; nor the hope of the poor be taken away."

Lately I have been chewing over in my mind these wonderful phrases from the Book of Common Prayer and, especially, thinking about what constitutes the "hope of the poor."

At first glance, this should be a no-brainer for me.  Since I spent several years in the mid-Sixties living in a Brazilian favela and since much of my professional life was spent working with marginalized groups in Africa, you would think that I could articulate what is the hope of the poor in some credible way.  Even now, in retirement, I live in one of Indianapolis' poorest areas. 

One of the first things that I realize is that the poor do, in fact, hope.  They may hope for something big, like better days ahead.  Or they may hope for something more specific, like a nice backpack to take to school.  They may sometimes hope for massive political change that will recognize their existence and their aspirations.  No doubt, this is part of the great political dramas of our times in Gaza or Brazil with the election of President Lula or here in the USA with the election of Barack Obama. 

As I am writing these reflections, the health care debate is focused on the US Senate.  Even though we do not often see the poor on TV  discussing health care, it seems reasonable to assume that they are hoping that something comes from all of the talk and posturing of both parties that will benefit their lives.

Sometimes the hopes of the poor are cast as dreams for this world.  This is one way of reading the United Nations Milennium Development Goals inspired by the great economist Jeffrey Sachs.  Obtainable or not, the idea of the concrete possibility of the eradication of poverty is powerful in itself.

Some years back we used to hear more of  "theologies of hope" and we were often pointed to German theologian Jurgen Moltmann.  Theologies of hope live in synergistic relationship to the theologies of liberation. . . . they may give theological articulation of the yearnings of the marginalized and take communities of faith into unknown territory.  For example, if it is true that poverty is not an individual moral flaw but a structural element in the human polity, how should churches and faith communities respond? 

Hope is never an illusion.  Hope may be the motor that causes either an individual or a whole group to move to new realizations.  Hope is not distributed, like some scarce commodity, to just the middle classes and rich (who, curiously, are often victims of hopelessness about their own lives and who live out post-modern ennui).  It is a part of the human condition, part of how all humans--poor and rich--are wired.

Which brings me to the answer to my question:  What constitutes the hope of the poor?  The hope of the poor is whatever makes them think or believe that a better or more just time is ahead or obtainable.  If this hope is "taken away" then part of their humanity itself has been taken away. 

More of our involvement with the poor should be in listening to their hopes, sharing in their dreams.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Make a Vow to the Lord and Keep It (Psalm 76:11)

On the left:  Br. Daniel-Chad Hoffman and Br. Daniel-Joseph Schroeder, Guardian of the Community of the Gospel during Reception of Full Members in the Community of the Gospel, All Saints Episcopal Church, Appleton, WI April 16, 2009

Today at Christ Church during Morning Prayers we recited Psalm 76.  As the reading went on, perforated by lengthy pauses, I was struck by verse 11:  "Make a vow to the Lord and keep it."   

In my life I have only made a few public vows that seemed at the time irrevocable.  I also broke these vows.  So my record in keeping what the Encarta Dictionary calls "solemn promises" is not good.

Yet, on April 16, '09, during the joy of Easter Week, there I was surrounded by the Guardian and members of the Community of the Gospel and a Priest of the Church making vows as a full member of the Community of the Gospel.

Those vows were:  "To live a life consistent with your Baptismal vows, continuing in the Apostles' teaching, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of the Gospel, seeking and serving Christ and striving for justice, peace and dignity of all persons."  And, as if this were not enough, there was more:  To "be diligent in prayer, study and personal service . . . submitting yourself to the love and guidance of the Holy Spirit as Christ submitted himself to the will of his heavenly Father"  . . . "to serve Christ as an active member of your parish, serving Him and the local community according to your talents and gifts in so far as your state in life permits" . . . to "accept the advice of the authority of the Guardians of this Community, the Council and your formation team."

To the right:  Br. Daniel-Chad and the Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes of Chicago who administered the vows.

Reciting the vows is  daunting. But it is easier than actually keeping the vows.  At Christ Church this morning the words kept echoing in my head "Make a vow and keep it . . . . make a vow and keep it . . . . . make a vow and keep it . . . . make a vow and keep it."

After the vows,  the hard work of the monastic life kicks in big time.  The only way to honor  the vows is to remember them often and to renew them.  This is why the congregation renews their baptismal vows at every baptism according to the Book of Common Prayer. 

But not so easy!  There are bills to pay, the groceries to buy, family  to relate to, activities everywhere . . . .American life is busy always.  In the bustle of daily life, I forget what I am about.

Hey, Br. Daniel-Chad, keep remembering those words:  Baptismal vows, word and example of Good News, justice, peace, dignity, prayer, study, service, submission, obedience, acceptance.  This is what it is all about  after April 16th.

Keep those vows.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: Philip Roth The Humbling

To the left:  Author Philip Roth

Maybe it is the fact that I am 66 years old.  Now I am reading books in which aging is a major theme.

This is one reason why I picked up The Humbling  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 140 pp) by America's greatest living novelist, Philip Roth. 

This weekend I read The Humbling in one two hour session.  The story is of Simon Axler, once golden boy of the New York stage, now  66 years old.  The tone of the novel is set by the very first paragraph:  "He'd lost his magic.  The impulse was spent.  He'd never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened:  he couldn't act.  Going on-stage became agony.  Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail.  It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came.  He couldn't get over to the audience."

The deep depression that Axler's lost gift causes is the theme of the first part of the book.  He can't shake this depression or the conviction that his best moments are behind him.  His agent, acting almost like a friend of Job, tries to entice him into a major return to the stage with no luck whatsoever. 

The second section of the book, titled "The Transformation" is about illusions, desire and falsely grounded hope.  I won't tell what happens in this disturbing section in order not to give away the plot.  But sex is here and in surprisingly large amounts for a guy who thought he was done with even desire. 

The third section of the book, "The Last Act" describes how Axler decides that he can have one measure--one last measure--of control in his life.  And how he can, as it were, return to the stage.  But this return is dark and troubling.

The Humbling reminds me that the American idea of a youthful aging process is a great myth.  Aging is what it is:  physical breakdown, mental uncertainties, loneliness, remaining desire, deterioration, memory of the past, of better days.  True, some people because of their genes and chromosones and because of their disposition or material wealth handle aging better than others.  Still,Roth's book stands as a potent reminder that aging ain't for sissies.

The truth of this fiction by Roth is hard and very cold.  No matter how much we are told that you are only as old as you feel or are inside, no matter how older persons are marketed as at a wonderfully sunny place, the reality is more on the side of Simon Axler.