30 January 2006

SOTU, part uno

In his Friday NY Times column (registration - and possibly a subscription - required to view), Tom Friedman called on President Bush to use Tuesday's State of the Union address to move America "toward energy independence". Here's a brief excerpt:

If Mr. Bush steps up to that challenge, this speech could be a new beginning for his presidency. If he doesn't, you can stick a fork in this administration. It will be done because it will have abdicated leadership on the biggest issue of our day.

Of course, Mr. Friedman goes on to suggest that President Bush should phase in a $2 per gallon gas tax, using the proceeds to buy up SUVs and other gas-guzzlers and also to fund gas-tax rebates to lower-income folks. He concludes that this upward pressure on gas prices will result in vastly increased demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, thus forcing Detroit to shift its production toward these ends and concomitantly forcing Detroit to innovate better than Asian automakers.

Great ideas all, but will it happen? Of course not. Why not? For some initial thoughts on why not, peruse my letter to the NY Times in today's paper. I'll be submitting a longer op-ed piece on this topic in the coming days, tentatively entitled Prometheus v. Mars, so if it doesn't get picked up by the Times (admittedly a very long shot), I'll post it here for you, dear readers, in a week or so.

Meanwhile, if anyone has ideas for drinking or other viewing games to play during SOTU (the State of the Union), feel free to leave them as comments. I expect I'll have a few things to say about the speech on Wednesday, but I'm sure none of my comments will be as funny as whatever The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's take will be.

23 January 2006

The Other…Does Only the Shadow Know?

First, my thanks to my old friend (OK, so he’s not quite as old as I am) the Psych Pundit for stimulating the psychological orientation of this article, based on recent discussions we’ve had. You owe it to yourselves to check out his site.

In my last posting about the film Brokeback Mountain and its societal impact, I noted that the religious ultra-conservatives who are upset about the film (and about homosexuality in general) are perhaps motivated by “fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other.” I went on to say, “there’s Jungian analysis that could be done there…”

Now, my friend the Pundit is not by any means a Jungian, although in previous private moments he has displayed some affinity for analytical and mythological perspectives (and not merely in his admiration of old Police songs). I, on the other hand, am much more mythically inclined when it comes to explaining human behavior. Thus, I see the Shadow as a solid explanatory archetype. Any discussion of the concept of the Shadow in under 1,000 words is naturally going to be lacking, but in brief, it’s essentially that part of a person’s psyche that is repressed, denied, and is home to many of our darker tendencies. As Jung put it:
Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (Psychology and Religion, 1938, in Collected Works 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, p. 131)
Part of the danger of the Shadow is our tendency to project it onto other people or groups of people. This usually manifests itself in our establishing of dualities in the world, often in some sort of we/they grouping wherein we assign all undesired traits to “they”. Note that the Shadow isn’t necessarily limited to an individual person – it can also be applied by one group of folks to another group. In other words, we thrive on enemies, because they allow us to project our own darkness onto some other group of people (‘the Other”). Have you ever noticed that in movies, the only time that all of humanity is united is when we’re all fighting some extraterrestrial alien race? We humans can band together only when we have a bigger “Other” to combat.

For the religious ultra-conservatives who deplore homosexuality, the LGBT community is their current hot-topic “Other”. Now, I’m not suggesting that all homophobes are repressed closeted homosexuals (but there definitely are a few). I am suggesting that for whatever reason, these religious folks have decided that much of what’s wrong with today’s society can be ascribed to the growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

However, these days we don’t necessarily have to resort to mythological explanations for this human behavioral tendency. Now we have evolutionary psychology, natural selection, “selfish genes”, and the like. What’s the best way to make sure your genetic material is the stuff that gets passed along for eons of generations? Eliminate the competing genetic material (and by extension, those people who carry the competing genetic material)! But wait, who’s got which genes? Well, let’s see, that’s my brother, so he probably shares a lot of genetic material with me, so I’ll let him live. This other dude, however, I don’t know from Adam, so let’s take him out. Or, this guy’s a human, but those creepy green aliens clearly don’t have my genetic materials, so set phasers on kill!

Here’s a question – isn’t it about time that we as a species reach the point in our evolution where we can start consciously acting a little more frequently in ways that might conflict with our genetic imperatives? Where, as the critically acclaimed science writer Robert Wright might put it, we realize that life isn’t necessarily a non-zero sum game, where these kinds of we/they dualities have outlived their evolutionary utility? If so, how do we as a species get there?

I’ll leave the neuropsychological answers to that question to those more knowledgeable than I on such matters (perhaps the Pundit will take this on, or one of his colleagues?). From a spiritually inclined, quasi-Jungian perspective, though, I’d say that consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge is key. As Jung himself put it:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (Aion, 1951, in Collected Works 9, Part II, p. 14)

17 January 2006

Storm brewing over the mountain

Brokeback Mountain, that is. Don’t worry, you won’t read any spoilers in this posting (unless you don’t know that it’s a gay cowboy movie, in which case you should have stopped reading already…oops, sorry about that).

In my humble film critiquing opinion - and I only got a B in my college Intro to Film class, but then again, that was partly because in the final I discussed how Apocalypse Now drew on the themes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, while my hippie-dippy 1960s throwback professor thought it was just all about how bad the Vietnam War was, but I don’t hold grudges, nope, not me…where was I? Oh right, my humble opinion – this was an outstanding film with a compelling storyline about a frustrated, bittersweet romance, absolutely gorgeous cinematography, and several top-notch acting performances. I’ve always been a fan of Ang Lee’s work, and if you’re not familiar with his oeuvre, you should definitely check him out.

What’s been remarkable about the public reaction to Brokeback Mountain is the relative lack of protests it’s engendered, at least to this point. The studio’s strategy was to start with a limited, bi-coastal release, figuring that audiences in NY and LA would be the most receptive to the film’s themes. As the release spread across the country, it was still limited to certain theatres with more gay-friendly demographics (e.g., if you lived way out in the suburbs, you might have to drive into town a bit to find it). After last night’s Golden Globes where it won four awards (including Best Picture – Drama and Best Director), making it a front-runner for the Academy Awards, it will probably start getting more widespread screenings. This has all been a very intentional strategy on the part of the studio, Focus Features (owned by NBC Universal), to warm up the public receptivity to the film’s potentially controversial themes.

But the studio hasn’t been the only one with a strategy. As I noted, there have been relatively few protests about this film – no calls to boycott NBC, not many picket lines outside of theatres (although some theatres have, no doubt, avoided protests simply by declining the film). This is due in large part to the fact that the conservative Christian machine has told its followers to leave the film alone. In short, their strategy to date has been “ignore it and hope it goes away”. However, now that it has major Oscar momentum, it will be much harder to ignore. I expect that the religious ultra-conservatives will now shift into high gear to do battle against what they perceive to be an abomination, namely, the normalizing and mainstreaming of homosexuality in American society.

Mind you, I think the religious ultra-conservatives have every right to hold homophobic opinions – this is America, where every person has the right of free speech, and hopefully free thought as well. They can have churches where gay folks aren’t allowed, and that’s their prerogative. (How they could ever recruit enough choir directors and tenors is beyond me, but that’s another matter.) Where they cross the line is when they seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. As my high school history teacher liked to say, “My rights cease to exist when I trample on your rights.” You don’t want to see a movie about a love story that happens to be about two gay cowboys? Do what I do when it comes to horror movies, or teenage romances, or anything with Paris Hilton in it – don’t buy a ticket!

What motivates these religious ultra-conservatives, I think, is fear. Fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other. There’s Jungian analysis that could be done there, as well as lots of discussions about gay marriage, but I’ll have to leave all that for a subsequent posting. For now, if you haven’t seen Brokeback yet, I would urge you to give it a shot. And for that matter, I would be remiss if I didn’t also urge you to go see Syriana, another of my favorites from this year. As George Clooney described it last night, it’s not intended to be a critique of the current Administration, but rather a critique of 60 years of failed Middle East policies. A caveat: there are some pretty intense scenes of violence and torture in Syriana (and some disquieting ones in Brokeback also), but I didn’t consider them to be gratuitous. If you’re looking for somewhat more gratuitous violence, you can borrow my tape of the 24 premiere…

05 January 2006

You know you’re worrying the opposition when…

…your opponents suddenly start acting worried about you. Such seems to be the case for the “Religious Left”, as shown by the recent NY Times op-ed piece by Joseph Loconte, a Heritage Foundation research fellow and regular commentator on National Public Radio. Mr. Loconte attacks Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, among others, for using religious language to advance their political agendas, warning that they are destined to “replicate the misdeeds of the religious right.”

But what exactly is Mr. Loconte’s objection to “religious progressives”? Is it their tactics? I don’t think so. After re-reading his article several times and scratching my head repeatedly (and I use a good anti-dandruff shampoo), it seems to me that his main objection is the content of their messages, rather than their style. What he really doesn’t like is that the religious progressives have agendas that include “global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council.” all obviously repellent policy considerations for Mr. Loconte.

He cites Professor Stanley Hauerwas’ contention that America has, at times, acted arrogantly in its foreign policy and that some folks out there in the world are legitimately upset with us, and goes on to describe this position as being morally equivalent to the Falwells and Robertsons of the religious right who initially claimed that the feminists and gays brought God’s wrath upon America in the form of the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, he asserts that while the Bible is a fine source of moral and spiritual insight, it’s “wrong to treat it as a substitute for a coherent political philosophy.” Unfortunately, Mr. Loconte forgets to quote the one candidate who cited Jesus Christ as his “favorite political philosopher” in the 2000 Presidential debates (hint: It wasn’t Al Gore).

Mr. Loconte does get it right on a couple of points. It is noteworthy that many conservative and evangelical religious groups (not always the same thing, although he conflates the two) are leading the fight to combat international sex trafficking, and are trying to rouse the American conscience with respect to Darfur. The left, by and large, has been too late to the table on these issues, and now should be playing rapid catch-up if it wants to maintain any sense of legitimacy on human rights issues.

Then again, those who cite Jesus as an influence on their foreign policy (see Presidential candidate above) must wrestle with the difficult question of Jesus’ own pacifism, even extending to his lack of self-defense – to loudly call oneself a follower of Jesus on the one hand and advocate for the widespread use of military force on the other yields a cognitive and spiritual dissonance that should be called to account. I’m not saying that a coherent case can’t be made for just war theory – I’m only saying that no one in the present Administration has seemed to want to bother to make that case, preferring instead the easier Old Testament imagery of a vengeful God smiting all enemies of his chosen people.

Mind you, I’m all for the separation of church and state – which means no establishment, and no hindering of free exercise either. But there’s a technical theological term for one who regularly champions the faith-based agenda of one side of a debate while disallowing faith-based claims from the other side. That term, a favorite of Jesus’, is “hypocrite.”

04 January 2006

New year, new wineskins

By popular request (no, really), I’m reposting here a revised, slimmed-down version of a homily I delivered on New Year’s Day. Yes, believe it or not, there actually exists a church that would allow me in the pulpit, on rare occasion.

The primary text for the day was this teaching of Jesus:

Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.

Another text was the Ecclesiastes passage that everyone who can remember music from the 1960s knows, from the Byrds song Turn Turn Turn – to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, etc.

So here’s what I had to say about all that:

This idea of new wine and new wineskins always confused me, so I did a bit of research. When Jesus was talking about new wine, he meant really new, as in freshly pressed grape juice that’s still fermenting and bubbling. This new wine would burst out of the old, less flexible, drier wineskins. In order to store the new wine, you needed new, supple, expandable wineskins to allow the new wine to ferment, age, and ripen.

To digress just a bit – the fermentation process of wine is necessary in order for it to ripen and taste better. If you’ve ever had Beaujolais Nouveau, you know what I’m talking about – this is the wine that’s released in November as the first wine of the vintage, so it’s only been aging a couple of months. It tends to taste young, fizzy, and not particularly complex or interesting. Generally speaking, the best wines have been allowed to ferment, bubble, age, grow, and change over time.

Likewise, each of us is (hopefully) on a spiritual journey toward enlightenment that is constantly evolving, growing, maturing. Our spiritual self, however you choose to define that, retains its basic nature – it’s still grape juice – but its essence changes. It’s no longer just simple juice, but now it’s a fine, exquisite, complex wine.

How are we like old wineskins? What can we do to transform ourselves into new, flexible, softened wineskins that allow the Spirit to work within us, allow for all that bubbling up and bursting forth?

In the Buddhist tradition known as Shambhala, there’s a book called The Sacred Path of the Warrior. It describes the essential part of the sacred warrior as being his or her heart. And what do you think is the essential characteristic of that heart? How must an ordinary heart be changed, transformed, to make it a warrior’s heart? You might expect that it needs to be strong, or solid, or steadfast, or perhaps full of courage (insert your best Cowardly Lion impression here).

But no. What this Shambhala teaching says is that the essence of a warrior’s heart is that it is broken. Broken, soft and vulnerable. Only with a heart that is already broken, open wide, vulnerable, flexible, pliable, moveable, is a warrior able to go out and do battle in the world.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds to me a lot like needing to have new wineskins - new, soft, flexible wineskins in order to accommodate the bubbling, bursting, new wine activity of the Spirit within each of us.

What about the church, or any other community of seekers, as a whole, as a body? How can such a body be like new wineskins? There are a couple of things I heard recently that come to mind.

As I often do, this year I listened to the live Christmas Eve broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University in England. This is a venerable tradition in an amazing setting – I’ve been to Cambridge University – this place looks like the Great Hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. The choirmaster for this service explained the reason for adding brand new songs and changing certain things around each year this way – he said it was the way in which he “nurtured” the traditions. Not eliminating traditions, but “nurturing” them, keeping them alive by continually refreshing them, adding new life to them.

Now how can a faith community nurture tradition and transform itself into a vibrant community? Here’s one radical idea – what if it was committed to radical hospitality, radical inclusion, radical welcoming? Instead of being frightened of folks who are different, open your doors to them all, male or female, black, white, or brown, gay, straight, bi, or anyone anywhere on the rainbow we call human.

Here’s another “radical” idea – what if a community became a radically prophetic voice in society? Not “prophetic” as in predicting the future, but prophetic as in speaking truth to power, as in striving to bring about a “new heaven and new earth.” A full-throated prophetic voice like the prophets of old – Isaiah, Elijah, Jeremiah – and like the new prophets – King, Gandhi, Bono – who cry out for justice, peace, and love.

The other thing I heard recently was a description of what a religious/faith institution is, or actually what it’s not, supposed to be. It is not a museum. It doesn’t exist simply to house a bunch of dusty paintings and statues and artifacts – and rituals and practices and beliefs - for curious onlookers to come and browse and stare at. Rather, it should be, must be, a living, breathing, organic body, with a beating, soft, broken, open and vulnerable heart.

Because after all, the broken, open, vulnerable heart – is the heart of God.