Monday, March 24, 2014

The People Who Pass - My Gypsy Story

It is time to put this story in print. It is true. I have told it many times but never written it down. I am driven to do so because of Adam Gopnik’s excellent report of the difficulties in France for the Roma and for the French.

In the early 1980's I was pastor of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church on the southeastern side of Trenton, NJ. (It has since merged with a church in Yardville.) This was an urban residential area, not far from the state prison and in another direction not far from the old Roebling steel works and State House, and in another from Little Italy. (I can tell other tales about that, but Janet Evanovich has done well enough with it.)

One Sunday an esteemed Elder of the church asked me about an old Cadillac that had been in the church parking lot for more than a week. He asked me if I could find out who owned it, and let them know that they couldn’t use our lot. The next day as I drove in the parking lot I saw a neighbor I recognized. I asked him about the car. “Yes, I saw people parking the car one day. They went into that house across the street.” I crossed the street and knocked on the door.

A man who looked very much like my mental image of a 17th century pirate answered the door. There were many others crowding behind him whom I could not clearly see. I told him that we needed the parking lot for the people who came to church events and the daily senior lunch. He understood and said he would move it, which he did.

My part time secretary had an office in the back of the church. I had claimed a large room in the basement for my office. I hated being in a basement, but it had a huge old double sided oak desk, and room for an 8 foot conference table. I installed a large chalk board on one wall for planning and teaching purposes.

One day my secretary buzzed me on my phone. The phone only had one line but it was left over from more flush times, so it had a row of I think seven buttons across the bottom of the phone, including an intercom feature. One of the unused buttons I labeled “God,” which drew interesting responses from people of various ages who used it.

“There are some women here to see you,” she said nervously. I said I would come up and talk with them. There were six women. One was grandmotherly. Three were middle aged; one of whom spoke and acted as their leader. Two were high school aged teenagers. All wore multi-colored full-length full skirts or dresses, and a lot of jingling jewelry. All had fanned out down two hallways and were examining all the rooms, offices, and the worship area. I suspected that they were “casing the joint,” but maybe they were merely curious. On my arrival they gathered around me. The leader said “We are here to ask for your help. We have need for a priest.”

“I am not a priest,” I said. “We are not a Catholic Church, but Protestant, Presbyterian. There is a Catholic Church a block away.”

“No. They will have nothing to do with us, nor we with them. We stay away from each other since ancient times. We have our own Christian faith, and you are a Christian leader, so you can help us.” I invited them downstairs to talk further with them, partly to get them away from my frightened secretary.

In my office, the leader introduced the others. “This one here,” she said about one of the teen aged girls, “has been dishonored by a man. We thought he was one of us, but he has betrayed us and insulted us all. He promised to marry this girl, but now he has stolen money and fled. Our men think that he has fled to Chicago, so they have left to get him. They will bring him back to us, and here is what we want you to do.”

“We will pay you well, to come to our place at night. You must wear your robe and vestments. We will have the betrayer bound on the floor. You must pronounce a great curse on him.”

“No, I don’t do curses.” I said many times in as many ways as I could. I explained that I and my church did not believe in curses, but only in blessings. I ushered them out.

A few days later I went to the house where they had lived. They were gone. None of the neighbors had seen them leave or knew anything about them.

Such an encounter tends to reinforce one’s prejudices. My Mother had told me of growing up in Missouri, where gypsies camped out in the fields on the edge of town. People had told her to stay away from them because they kidnapped little children, to sell, or to raise as their own. Only a few years before my enounter, in southwestern Minnesota, there was a story of how a number of cars and vans had parked in a discount store lot, entered the store, cleaned it out, and quickly left. They were not found.

We might think that after some time, maybe several generations, these people would be assimilated into the larger culture. Maybe; maybe not. I have mixed feelings because I love Django Reinhardt.

Another time in Trenton, a family came into the church asking for cash to get them to New England where they were to work harvesting apples. We were close to I-95, and were targeted by many asking for help. They had run out of gas a block down the street, they said. I asked them to take me to their car. They did. There were several very poor looking children in the backseat with many McDonald’s food bags and wrappers. I checked the gas gauge on the 12 year old GM sedan, and confirmed that it was empty.

As I gave him $10 I realized that the gas gauge was broken, and that these people made their way around the country by telling stories to secure handouts. That was how they earned their living. I was paying for a well told story. OK. Until we can build a better society, this is what they and we have to do. Then I helped organize ministers in the area into a telephone tree for “knights of the road,” so that we wouldn’t get scammed more often than we wanted, and so we could agree on how best to help each individual and family.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spiritual Presence Sermon – Part II


Spirituality is Relational, NOT Supernatural!

We have the Spirit of God. The Spirit is within and among us. Paul says “You have the Spirit of God’s power and purpose and freedom.”
“You are free from the seductive values of corporate media commercialism and consumerism, of all the things that make for inequality and divide us and distract us from the values that Jesus was about.” That’s what Paul means by “flesh.”

In the Gospel of Thomas we read these words attributed to Jesus when his disciples asked him “When will the Father’s Imperial Rule come?” And Jesus said: “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘look, here!’ Or ‘Look there!’ Rather, the Father’s Imperial Rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

There was a teacher at my seminary who died a few years before I became a student there. His name was Joe Haroutunian. (Joe chaired the committee that wrote the Presbyterian Confession of ‘67.) All of my teachers told stories about him and they urged us to read his book, God with Us (still in print, Wipf & Stock).*

Joe wrote: “The Holy Spirit is not a ghostly presence or being. To speak of the Holy Spirit is not to describe a vertical relationship with God but a horizontal relationship with each other. The Holy Spirit is not so much in us – as among us. We know no love of God for us without our love for one another, no forgiveness of God without our forgiving one another, no faith or hope from God except as we have faith toward one another and hope in one another. We hear no good news from God or from his Son, except as we speak it one to another.”

Others go a step further than did Haroutunian: If we experience in Jesus that God became human, and if the Spirit of God is how we relate to each other, then God is not a being, God is the word we use for being itself, for the life energy and creative energy we know in our living. God is Spirit. God is love. And if we do not love, there is no God. That gives us a lot of power.

So think about this: What is the result of all our interacting, of all our loving each other? Fred Rogers – Mr. Rogers from his neighborhood said – “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” 

And that person gives a part of what you gave to them to others. So what we say and do and give carries the Spirit to others, and a huge web of thought and feeling catches on in the society and can become a dominant thought or feeling of the whole culture.

Mostly it doesn’t go that far, but we do speak of “the spirit of the age.” The predominant thoughts and feelings each year and decade and century shift and change and move in surprising and not so surprising ways. The spirit working between us and among us in all of the exchanges between us makes the culture in which we live.

When we have mystical experiences of the numinous or the sacred in small groups, in congregations, or in mobs, then we have a “transpersonal” experience of “God” or “Spirit.” Then we feel that something is happening or transpiring between us, sometimes between many individuals. Whether it is mystical or not, there is an unseen transaction between people that results in our coming to see things from the same viewpoint or seeing them in similar or perhaps new ways. The result is the transformation, growth, and/or dispersion of a worldview. Thus this “spirit” creates culture itself.

The totality of the culture of a nation, a workplace, or a congregation impacts what and how we think and feel, and what we think and feel then in turn influences the larger culture. It can be good or bad. That is why the culture is such a mixture of wonderful good fruit and awful weeds. This power of Spirit rising out of our interactions, has a dark side because you and I don’t always think and share what is good. Good and bad is in us and in the air around us, affects us, and we are mostly unaware of how we contribute to it.

I have a Lenten spiritual exercise for all of you this week. Think this week about every encounter you have with another person, beginning with your conversations after worship this morning.This includes face to face conversations, phone conversations, emails, and texts. Sit down maybe Wednesday and make a list of the people you have spoken with since worship today. What have you received from the other? What have you given to the other? What do you carry away from that encounter with the other? What effect does it have on you later? Does anyone come back to you days later and say – “You know that thing you said about families (or whatever)? I’ve been thinking about it and how it applies to me.”

That’s the Spirit at work. Spiritual Presence. We can’t see the Spirit but the spirit is within us and between us. The Spirit is working among us all the time and we are part of that work. It is not ghostly or supernatural. Spirituality is relational and transpersonal. What kind of spirit are we sharing and receiving? And the meaning of all this stuff that I have made all too complicated is simply: We should be nice to each other. Your spouse, child, parent, sibling, customers, store clerks, and all. We should be nice. It's catching.
--------------
*No photo of Haroutunian is to be found online. H.R. Niebuhr, wrote him on the dust jacket of Wisdom and Folly in Contemporary Theology (1940) about Haroutunian: "His iconoclasm is deeply religious. His anti-religion is like that of the prophets and his protest against contemporary religion is like that of the early Protestants." This may explain why I like him.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spiritual Presence - Sermon Part I

Twelve years ago I met a religion professor who was about my age. (Paul Allen Laughlin, author of Remedial Christianity and Getting Oriented) He had been ordained a Methodist minister after graduating from Emory in Atlanta. I had been ordained Presbyterian after graduating from McCormick in Chicago.

He asked me “What 2 important things didn’t we learn in seminary?” (I think this was while he was playing jazz piano in a bar in Santa Rosa CA.) “I don’t know,” I responded, “I would have to think about it.”
“The first one is World religions,” he said. “Everyone needs to know about them in today’s world. They didn’t seem so important 30 years ago, but after 9/11 we all see how important they are.
“The second one is the common element in every religion, but we didn’t study it: Spirit. Spirit is the lowest common denominator of all religion.”

He was right. After leaving seminary in the early ‘70's the world began changing more rapidly. It became smaller. We learned more about other peoples and other religions. People everyone seemed to be talking about Spirituality.

In Lent people have always had special services and adopted special practices, in order to meditate on the death of Jesus. In doing this we are hoping for a religious or “spiritual” experience; a direct experience of God. That’s the big change in the past 40 years. People don’t want to hear about faith; they want to experience it for themselves.

At a church on Long Island I brought a large canvas labyrinth into the church fellowship hall. Several people who walked it in silence, for the first time, broke into tears, it evoked such strong feelings in them.

I have been trying to recall how I came to faith and what it was like in those early years. I have been thinking of the intense, extended experience of Spiritual Presence I had during the 4 years I lived in Chicago and attended seminary. I can remember the excitement I felt then, and the enthusiasm that was in all of us in the church we belonged to on the near north side of Chicago in 1968 until 1972. I was all excited about my new Christian faith and the books I was reading in seminary. I had a strong feeling of life and freedom and creativity, of energy, and the life force. (I was going through a lot of changes: Going to seminary was a new direction for my life, moving to Chicago was a big change for an Iowa boy, I was facing prison for refusing induction to the Army, and in 1970 our first daughter was born.) I thought of all this excitement as the presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of being caught up and surrounded by the power of God. I remember an outdoor festival our church sponsored on the seminary field, on Pentecost Sunday, promoting the freedom and joy of the Spirit.

This feeling of the Spirit is an awareness that God is with us, but not judging us. It is a sense of being open to others and to the future, it is a sense of an inclusive and caring God, and belonging to a community led by the Spirit. It is feelings of awe and wonder at the whole of the universe and in the depths of our personal being. The whole world looked different to me, infused by this great light and energy.

That church at that time was an amazing fellowship and community of people. We were a people with a sense of communal belonging. We cared for each other and each other’s children. We studied together. We cleared out the area at the front of the church so that all of us [as many as 100 or more] could have communion together around the table. We ate together frequently, at church and in our homes in small groups. We went to movies together and discussed them afterward. We were involved in the anti-war movement together. We met with Black neighborhood groups in attempts at racial reconciliation. We raised money for good causes to help others in need. We were a community bound together in following the spirit of Jesus.

We were filled with ideas about things to do and changes to make so that we could be both faithful and relevant. Church life became so intense – too intense. We were making so many changes – you couldn't be sure that anything that happened on a Sunday morning would be familiar at all – that our Session [church council] declared a moratorium on all meetings for six months just to cool things down!

Eventually, people moved away and new people joined. I was ordained in that church and left to be pastor of a small town church where life was very different. I was disappointed to discover that most churches were not like the one I had known in Chicago. I was disappointed to learn how hard and slow it is to bring change to a church. Now I think I better understand what happened in Chicago and what didn’t happen elsewhere.

I think I know now what makes that kind of church, a community of the Spirit, a community of spiritual presence that Paul Tillich wrote about, or the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King spoke of – I think I know how it comes into being.

[to be continued]

What Is the Spirit of Christ?

I have been fascinated by Romans 8:9 for 45 years, so I chose this as my text for March 16, 2014. I had written a paper in seminary (long gone) on “spirit” in the Christian canon. I focused then on Romans 8, because it seemed to me that we used “Holy Spirit” in the same way we speak of the human spirit when we speak of the spirit of God or of Christ. This was no doubt my basic humanistic nature at work. All of this was before the charismatic movement and the great adoption of “spirituality” into the American churches.

I decided I liked the Jesus Seminar’s Scholar’s version, but not entirely (it is a bit clunky), so I translated parts of it my way, with thanks to the textual analysis of The Authentic Letters of Paul, by Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy, and Schmidt. I thought of using the LOLCatBible, but it is too hard to read aloud and understand. Great truths lie within, however.

Paul is also very difficult to understand. He is both an ancient writer and perhaps the first modern one. I see him essentially creating Christianity by spinning out one idea after another in order to explain his own spiritual experiences of “the Christ,” and to find meaning in his life. He didn’t always mean what we think he meant. His referents were other than ours. The deeper problem perhaps is that Protestants today can barely read Paul except through the lens of Luther’s reading and projection of it into all the churches of the Reformation. This has sent us down many rabbit trails. Here we go:

1 Those who are in solidarity with the anointed Jesus are no longer under a sentence of death.
2 For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by the seductive values of this world and death.
3 God did what the law of Moses – weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence – was incapable of doing: God sent Someone with God’s own character, but who was a participant like us in an earthly life with all its seductive corrupt values.
God sent such a One to condemn that corrupting power, and those corrupting values of our worldly life.
4 This fulfilled in us the just requirement of the Mosaic law so that we
live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to the purposes and power of God’s Spirit.

8 It is not possible for those who are pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement to please God.
9 You are not pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement but with God’s spirit of power and purpose.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit that was in the Anointed One does not belong to him....
14 All who are led by the spirit of God are the children of God.

You will notice that “flesh” here is not about our bodies, or sexuality, or personal failures. Flesh is about our human nature that drives us to get a leg up on our neighbors and make profits from them. It is the root of all that consumerism, warfare, inequality, and other nasty things that are common to this worldly life. Sin is our failure to live up to God’s values, or even our own ideals.

[Sermon to follow; to be continued]

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

911 – A Review of Freefall – The Basis for Many Conspiracy Theories

I have watched the Freefall: Explosive Evidence -- Experts Speak Out DVD, a presentation of arguments for why the investigation of the 911 collapse of three buildings should be re-opened, and why what the official investigation said could not have been true. It is well produced. I agree with the first part but not with the second. I will explain this and why I think so many do not accept the official version of those events. Then I will conclude with my own thoughts on why there is so much controversy over the events.

First I need to say that as the “911 truth” movement grew, I tended to agree with them. I signed petitions asking for further or re-opened investigations because I thought Giuliani and the Bush administration blew it. I am counted among the large number of people who doubt or have questions about 911. But –

911 was a unique and tragic event. It was another event like the JFK assassination. Almost no one could have believed beforehand that these things could happen as they were explained. These events shook us up. In these events we learned to distrust our military, intelligence and police agencies, officials and experts of all sorts, and the media that reported them. Someone on the DVD says “We know we’ve been lied to about other things, so we must have been lied to about this.” I understand this feeling, but it is not a logical, scientific conclusion.

Immediately after 911, I think that not only the public, but government officials and experts were shaken. At first we thought maybe 10-20,000 people must have died. It was weeks later that the actual number of ~2,744 became known. The attitude of officials was: We must look like we know what we are doing, like we know everything that has happened and how and why. We must respond quickly with decisiveness and purpose to serve the public good (and preserve our political positions). Therefore, a massive hunt for survivors and then bodies or body parts was launched. A plan for removal of debris was set in motion. Even the piles of girders and other debris in NJ were offensive to the public. (I saw numerous stories about this on TV news.) There may be body parts in the debris, so let’s get rid of it. Sell it off to China. People are upset, so let’s launch a huge program to sell people cars at unheard of bargain prices. (Throughout the fall and winter, car sales surged.) Let’s get those who done it, so a massive bombing program against the Taliban in Afghanistan was planned and (literally) executed. This made sense even to many if not most liberals and Democrats. (It was easy to make war on a primitive country like Afghanistan without seriously weighing the morality of it.) What I am saying is that many of the mistakes made in the initial investigation are understandable in the context of the events and the aftermath.

A conspiracy is a secret plot. There are many such plots in business, government, churches, and all manner of organizations. They usually involve only a few people, otherwise they are easily uncovered. There usually is a paper trail and phone and email records. When the assassin(s) or perpetrators die in the event, suspicions increase greatly, because there is no one to question or confess. There is not necessarily a conspiracy behind every botched investigation and every complicated evil deed. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

“There is no satisfying scientific study” someone says on the DVD. I understand and accept how that could come to be. There is a lot of science to consider. The means to conduct such investigations are difficult after the fact. There will be disagreements among experts. A full investigation would cost many billions of dollars, and still would likely be judged incomplete or inconclusive by many.

I had trouble last month with the drain for my washing machine. It began to back up. The drain had been problematic before. It is a gray water drain system only for the kitchen sink and the laundry. It used to gurgle in the kitchen when the laundry was being done. A plumber installed a simple PVC “vent” on the drain pipe into which the washing machine drains. Now it seemed not to be working. So I went online to read about plumbing codes and practices and solutions re laundry drains and vents. Wow. There are multiple forums on the web on which hundreds of plumbers argue about such things. Many plumbers with opposing viewpoints claimed “It is just a matter of simple physics! Here is what you do and how you do it!” Only they disagreed. On one extreme are plumbers who require a vent on every drain in the house; on the other are those who argue that in Europe and Australia there are no such vents and no problems. Others argued over how long the vent pipe had to be and where in the line it should be installed. No agreement. I concluded that science isn’t exactly science or what I thought it to be. There is a lot that is not settled.

This experience comes to mind when I hear the experts who argue about whether the buildings came down in freefall or not, and whether a jet fuel fire can be hot enough to melt steel, etc. I think that no one was there who can tell us. There is no video showing what needs to be seen to make the necessary conclusions. It may be that no building has collapsed from a fire, but it is also true that no buildings like the twin tower ever were targeted by 767's loaded with fuel. So we cannot know. There will always be in such events “evidence omitted.” There will never be “unbiased scientific evidence and witnesses” considered to satisfy everyone. Yes, there was evidence not considered, and evidence too quickly destroyed. This is more likely because of incompetence in responding to a huge and unique event, than it is because of a conspiracy to withhold evidence.

Building 7 has always puzzled me. The questions are many about this, but now there are websites and videos showing pictures of the back side of the building that were not much seen in the years immediately after the event. A great deal of material from the towers landed on this building and tore into the back side. Also, the pulverized concrete and metal that blew out sideways at street level directly tore into building 7. There are recordings and testimony from many firemen and others on the scene that make it clear that they knew the building would fall sometime that day. There are at least as many engineers and architects who accept the way they fell as there are who don’t. I watched another video on a website that shows calculations that do not show free fall as if there were nothing to impede the falling. I for one do not expect “hesitation” when 40 and more upper falls are landing on floors below. The normal course of the buildings falling looks to me as it should, once one considers the damage.

A logical jump to quickly state a conclusion is repeated. What we saw “could only have been a controlled demolition.” From this the supposition is made that someone could get access to the core of each building unseen, and set demolitions. One statement got my attention: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Had to have been explosives.” Several witnesses concluded that it must have been what they thought it looked or sounded like: explosives. At the end of the video one witness considers many claims and concludes: “To me it means explosion.”

In the last third of the DVD, there is a lot said about psychology and emotion that explains much to me:
“It is difficult for us to come to terms with the official conclusions.”
“We were secure and then we weren’t.”
“We respond to such events with fear and anxiety.”
“There are a lot of things that are not as we think or thought they were.”
“It had a traumatic impact on all of us.”
These things are exactly true. What we conclude as a result is another matter. A narrator says “If we open Pandora’s box it challenges all the things we believe about the world.” Definitely. I think our view of the world was changed forever that day. But not in the direction of not believing that 19 extremist Muslims, mostly Saudi, trained in Afghanistan, pulled it off.

I have great respect for David Ray Griffin. I read and used some of his work about process theology. He is right about empire and American exceptionalism. Sadly, he contradicts many things about which he wrote in the decades before 911. He used to be suspicious of notions that science could solve all problems. Now he thinks he knows how buildings do or do not fall.

One person says “We couldn’t believe it (both the event itself and the official report) Why do people have so much trouble hearing our challenges - our truths?” Another says “We need to educate other people about this!” They are upset that everyone doesn’t agree with them and contradict their newly adopted worldview. As a trained Biblical student and theologian, I thought of great Biblical and other historical events and how they have been seen by different folks after the fact. I saw the church fill up with people in the days after 911 and then empty out. The rise of the “nones” and of atheists in the decade following are a direct response to the event. As a nation we are living most visibly within what Bellah called “the Broken Covenant.” I preached about how our implicit sacred contract had been broken: America was great. We had an agreement with God. We would fight to defend Jesus and the American Way (our version of the Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community), and God would protect us. After 911 it was easy to see that no one protected us from all the potential evils in the world. And we were blind to see that we created or set up the event by how we had treated Muslim, middle-eastern peoples in the last century.

The pleas are made in the DVD: “There is no trace of 1000 victims; why don’t we know? There needs to be identification!” Yes, 1,000 were pulverized or vaporized. Their remains will never be identified. What about our identification? Who are we now? This is a deep, existential problem that we are doing nothing to answer! O yes, we are. We are challenging the official narrative of what happened, and this is something.

“We need to heal; we need justice; we will never forget!” Yes. “Science can solve this!” No. “We have to have a new investigation; we have to know what happened!” We know enough but we will never know it all. We are very bad at living with ambiguity and uncertainty.
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Ed Asner narrates a 15 minute documentary on this DVD in which the following logic is given:
The fall of the buildings looks like controlled demolition.
Controlled demolition requires months of planning.
Therefore, the 911 events (not the hijacking of airplanes, but the fall of the buildings) were planned and carried out after much planning and preparation.
I've seen the theories here about thermite and I am not convinced.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Oswald is to Kennedy as Conspiracy Theories are to Theology

I have been reading and watching TV shows about JFK conspiracy theories. I tend to agree with those who say that Oswald definitely killed Kennedy, and he probably did it alone. He was a loner. Everything fits his acting alone as much as anything can be made to fit a conspiracy necessary to understand the act. What we struggle to accept is that a nobody could get away with killing a somebody, that someone with no power (other than what comes out of the barrel of a gun) can kill the most powerful leader in the world.  We don’t want to accept that this Oswald was a leftist, who killed Kennedy in Dallas, the center of the right wing world at the time. The FBI and the CIA did not want us to know that they were incompetent, or at least had missed something really important. We did not want to know that our politicians, the best and the brightest, were merely human and unable to protect the President, and unable to make sense of what had happened, and at a loss like the rest of us about the meaning of it all, or the lack of it. We learned not to trust politicians, media people, and experts. Fear of nuclear war, anxiety about Viet Nam and communist threats, concern about or for greater civil rights for Negroes had put us on edge. We didn’t know that the insubstantial charisma of the Kennedys was the only substance of our hope. (Then, Lyndon Johnson gave substance to both our hopes and fears.)

Believing in conspiracy theories was and is necessary for many, in order to make sense of the senseless and to force order on the essential randomness of the universe. That leads me to think of theology. Today I read in The Christian Century a creative interpretation of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians by N.T. Wright (who I think of as NT Wrong). He thinks it wonderful that Paul gave new meaning to the Schema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One”). He thinks it logical that Paul was defending monotheism by reading Jesus into the Schema as “Lord.” Sorry NT, you are making Jesus more than the revealer of God’s just reign; you are making Jesus divine. But hey, maybe that is no different than declaring him to be the unexpected expected Messiah. My point is that all theology, while it tries to put order on our thinking about what we know least about, is essentially speculation. It is reason applied to unreason and resulting mostly in continued discussion about the supernatural. Every conspiracy theory is talk about what might be. Coincidences are collected to prop it up. People will continue to believe in conspiracies as long as there are alternative ways to understand what happened, no matter how forced. People will continue to speak of deities as long as we remain in ignorance of total reality.

Auden said it well. It has yet to be said best, because he lived in a time supportive of belief as our own time is not. I understand that he disowned this poem; we cannot: September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

------ We are human, and that implies a great deal about our capabilities for good but also for ill, and it describes also our limitations. We can learn a lot about ourselves in reviewing the Kennedy assassination. We had reason to be shocked by that event, but we should not have been surprised by 911. Nor should we have responded by seeking revenge. If any of the conspiracy theories is accepted in truth, then retribution against someone or some group would be required. It would not be justified.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Easy Listening and ---- Marcus Borg!!!

The other day I searched YouTube for a recording that my Father-in-law had, and which I listened to when visiting. I was fascinated with the arrangement of this orchestral version of a pop song. Couldn’t remember the song. What I did remember was that it was a Longines Symphonette LP, a best hits of ‘68 or some year around there.

I found the album on ebay. Greatest Hits of 1969. The first track was Soulful Strut. That was it! It isn’t on YouTube (I should buy the album and upload it!), but here is Billy May from the same year with a similar performance.

I don’t think Billy May was as good as the Longines Symphonette on this number. This judgment requires some explanation, because if it was one thing I (and all my cohort) hated in the ‘60's and ‘70's was this “Easy Listening” sort of usually mushy music. Remember Mitch Miller? OMG, he played oboe on the Charlie Parker with Strings album! Remember those Readers’ Digest LP’s? And the ever present Longines Symphonette and other collections? I remember riding in cars to Presbytery meetings with old men who listened to the local “Easy Listening” radio station. (I think those are gone and I haven’t even heard a “Smooth Jazz” station for a few years.)

I searched for info on this mystery orchestra with the name of a watch company. It’s identity was not given, nor the conductor. In recent years a few music lovers have said, “Hey, this was high quality arranging, performance, and recording. What was going on?” They uncovered the secret: It was Neil Richardson and the BBC music studios.

Neil was a great arranger who wrote and produced theme music for BBC radio and TV shows. The back of the albums often told great detail about the latest electronic technology used to produce the recordings while saying nothing about Neil or the musicians, many of whom were from the London Philharmonic. BTW, we could say the same about Mantovani, also recording in London. (If it's been a while, you need to hear Charmaine, the theme for distribution of meds in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)


Here is my thought about all this: Easy Listening was a way for my parents’ generation to come to terms with the new rock and roll of the ‘50's and ‘60's, and all of the cultural change they were forced to live through. This was the soft landing for them. Soulful Strut was something they didn’t want to hear, but a dynamic arrangement played by a small symphony – they could handle that. It served the grand cultural purpose of helping people through disturbing and disruptive change.

When I first went to work for The Jesus Seminar, I was asked if I knew about Marcus Borg (who was a fellow, but mostly absent from the Seminar.) I replied, “Yes, I had read three of his books.” “Well,” I was told, “He is our soft landing specialist. People who can’t handle what we are doing can read Marc and learn to accept what we are doing.” And I am sure that some people learned to like jazz through popular songs and bebop from Charlie Parker with Strings.

I am not making it well through the current musical transition. Walmart today was not playing the old elevator music (which until recently was the softened hits of the ‘80's). This was screaming soul and heavy metal. I had to get out of there. When my generation is gone, the youngsters can move on, with music and with religion.