Thursday, January 25, 2007

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

Taking a break from work and everything else weighing me down, I did something last evening that I do very little of: I watched TV. Specifically, I watched the Metropolitan Opera's magical, whimsical, enthralling production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

The term "imaginative" just doesn't cut it in describing Julie Taymor's staging. A combination mystery play, fairy tale, and puppet show for adults --complete with a huge dragon that must have escaped from a Chinese New Year's Day parade ... and a hero who overcomes his instincts for violent combat and learns to conquer darkness with light and falsehood with truth.

Personally, I always felt that the Queen of the Night gets a bum rap in this story. What mom wouldn't be worried sick about her daughter if her ex had whisked her away and refused to disclose where he was holding her? These days, that would be called child abduction, and His High Priestliness Sarastro would be in big trouble with the law. But in this production, there's no question that the Queen really is evil. You can tell. She has tentacles instead of hands and looks like a big wasp. She even bullies poor Pamina, threatening to kill her if she doesn't side with her against her father....Sort of makes you wonder how Sarastro ever fell in love with the Queen in the first place. Well, even high priests have their weak moments, I guess....

The three boys who guide Prince Tamino and his reluctant side-kick Pagageno are pale, phantasmagoric child-men with long white beards, and the three ladies' heads literally turn with infatuation over the handsome prince.

The new English translation was as bouncy as the huge animal puppets dancing to Papageno's magic bells. The bird catcher had all the best lines and got plenty of laughs. However, the lyrics just didn't provide Sarastro with the necessary depth when it comes to expressing the principles and convictions of the Brotherhood. Mozart's music made up for whatever was lacking in the text ... and that is what I think is the essence of opera: it's the music that really tells the story.

Mozart is up there somewhere smiling and dancing.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Superwoman finally crashes
...or, this wild and crazy liberal life

The semester is only 3 days old and I'm feeling really tired already. I think I've finally succeeded in curing my superwoman syndrome. I skipped an Amnesty meeting last night. Time to go to fewer meetings and maybe carve out a little more time for resting ...and playing guitar, since the latest task I've volunteered for is leading the singing and providing music prior to meeting for worship every other First Day...

Wouldn't want to end up like my cousin Wonder Woman here... Sure is hard striking a balance of work, home, and activism...

I think it's time to play guitar again!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Vacation day in Guantánamo
...or, a cold day in hell

No, I didn't really take a trip to the Caribbean, but I did take half a vacation day to participate with about 50 other concerned, compassionate county residents in the International Day of Action to Shut Down Guantánamo. See:

Witness Against Torture

Besides, you would never mistake where I was for Guantánamo Bay Prison. It was too cold and windy to be confused with hell.

Somewhere in the U.S. some company is doing a booming business in fake orange detainee jumpsuits. People have been ordering thousands of them to wear during protests, like the one we staged in front of the county courthouse today. You'd recognize me anywhere, I know, but just in case ...I'm the one to the right of the kneeling protester, holding the sign.

Here's someone else holding my sign, an enlargement of the Witness Against
Torture flyer.

You know the facts by now, right?

You don't???? Well, come out of yourself a little and see what our government is doing in your name (if, gentle reader, you're an American citizen):

--500 people from 35 countries continue to be held without charge or trial as of January 2006, four years after the Bush administration began locking up detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

--Detainees remain in a legal black hole, many with no access to any court, legal counsel, or family visits.

--There’s mounting evidence that detainees have been subjected to torture and other forms of mistreatment. This evidence comes not only from the few detainees who have been allowed to meet with lawyersand the fewer who have been released, but also from FBI agents and former military personnel who were assigned to Guantánamo. (You can read the FBI reports for yourself.)

--Several detainees have attempted suicide. Three succeeded. In desperation,between 100 and 150 recently embarked on hunger strikes. They are being kept alive, sometimes against their will, through painful forced-feeding procedures.

--The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in a report of Feb. 2006, stated that “the legal regime applied to these detainees seriously undermines the rule of law and a number of fundamental universally recognized human rights, which are the essence of democratic societies,” and concludes that “The United States Government should close the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities without further delay.”
(from Witness Against Torture)

And if you are also a Christian, gentle reader, I address this poem to you:

Song of the Tortured Jesus

in the days preceding Easter you retell aloud the story of how my friends deserted me, how not one lifted his voice to protest that I was innocent. You recall how I was scourged. You walk the Stations of the Cross with me. You are there when they lay me in the tomb.

Then on Easter you celebrate the return of the Light, my return to life.

But I am still in the dungeon, buried all alone for days and nights, tormented by hallucinations. My captors bludgeon my psyche, mangle my personhood.…Again and again I am laid broken and unconscious in the prison-tomb.

Still you do not lift up your voice to save me. Today as then, my ordeal is mandated by the authorities. Those in high places deny my presence and my torments, even as they invent new laws to keep me here.

Free me now. Make me rise triumphant from this grave.

I too want to sing alleluia.

...and be sure to visit No2Torture.

A version of this poem appeared in
Swans Commentary,
April 24, 2006

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Portrait of Jesus as a nonviolent political subversive

One of the things I love about Marcus Borg is his quiet understatement. Nowhere in his recent book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, does he shout off the page, "Jesus is divine!" or "Accept Jesus as your personal savior ...or else!" As a matter of fact, the most sensational words of the whole book are featured in its subtitle: "a religious revolutionary." Which makes me suspect that, like so many of the words attributed to Jesus but actually added by others, Borg has his editors to thank for the book's subtitle.

The most categoric statement concerning Jesus in the entire work is: "Jesus is the decisive revelation of God--of God's character and passion" (p. 303). Borg declaring that "Jesus is the Decider"? Anyway, more comments about the passion of God and of Jesus in a later blog....

As for Borg's method, he interprets the Gospel stories --with emphasis on the Synoptics-- using the historical-critical method also used by John Dominic Crossan and many other biblical scholars. Or, as Borg prefers to call it, "the historical metaphorical" method. In his latest work he expands on the statement he made in
The Heart of Christianity: "Stories can be true without being literally and factually true."

I really have trouble fathoming why many Christians today insist on taking every word of the Gospels as literal, concrete fact. As Borg demonstrates, such literalness actually diminishes the import of the Good News. "It does not matter to me whether the tomb was empty," says the author. I don't know if any of you have attended a traditional Sunday service at a "mainline" church recently, but can you imagine what would happen if the preacher made a statement like that?

What Borg tries to hammer home -- but always with the gentlest of mallets-- is that
metaphor means more, not less when it comes to understanding the message conveyed by the Gospels. For instance, the Nativity stories, he explains, "directly challenge a central claim of Roman imperial theology," namely the claims that Caesar Augustus was the "Son of God," God incarnate, and "Savior of the World" (as Roman coins of the period proclaimed). That says much more to me about what the Gospel writers thought about God's attitude toward the Roman domination system --and what the Gospels have to say to us today about current political domination systems in general-- than insisting on the fact that there were really angels who appeared and spoke to shepherds.

And when a Gospel writer puts the words, "Truly this man was God's son!" into the mouth of a Roman soldier --whether "Mark" actually heard a centurion say this or not-- is like a playwright putting a revolutionary, in-your-face declaration into the mouth of his protagonist. It's as though, if you will, an American interrogator declared that some poor, no-account Muslim who died of privations and torture at Guantánamo had lived a more "Christian" life than _____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite authority figure who claims to speak for God).

(For a disconcerting real-life example of the above, watch this video.)

Think about it. Which statement is more revolutionary: "Jesus died for your sins" or "Jesus' death and resurrection (however you wish to conceptualize it) constitute God's judgment on the domination systems of our time?" Which is the more powerful interpretation of the Gospels, the factual one (empty tomb, angel, glorified body) or the metaphorical one?

Or, to put it another way, which statement do you think is more likely to get the speaker attacked (=crucified) if shouted in a crowded theater ... or from a pulpit?

I was surprised to read interpretations of some of the parables as well as language like "domination system," both of which I had encountered in books written by Walter Wink (The Powers trilogy, The Powers That Be) but did not remember particularly well as figuring in other works of Borg.(Reviewing The Heart of Christianity, I do find much on the domination system.) From the notes at the end of book, Borg and Wink seem to be indebted to Parables as Subversive Speech by
William R. Herzog. I'll have to peruse that one as soon as I get the chance.

Borg in his gentle, understated, self-effacing way presents a very subversive Jesus for those of us who, though we may deplore it, are part of one of the major domination systems of our time. (See excerpt of Robert Jensen's Citizens of the Empire.) You have to read carefully to find this author's in-your-face statements. One of them occurs on p.298:

"Given this long tradition of Christian teaching about war, why were the streets of America not thronged with millions of Christians in the months leading up to the war [with Iraq] saying, 'We must not do this-- it violates all Christian teaching about the conditions under which we may go to war'? The most persuasive answer is because of the imperial captivity of much of the church in the United States."
Good heavens, Mr. Borg! Whatever are you implying??

Which leads me to something I've been wondering about quite a bit: unless Christianity is subversive, is it really being true to the message of Jesus? Or: Can Christianity be the official religion of the empire and still be Good News to the poor, the captives?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

For Wise Men (and Wise Women) Everywhere
...but especially in the U.S.

The star was like a glimmering, a pulsing…a throbbing, thought Caspar who had studied the medical arts. By the next night it had moved farther toward the West: We are being summoned to a far off land ”to pay homage” read Balthazar from an ancient text.

to pay ransom, thought Melchior, knotting closed the sacks of gold and wondering where that strange notion had come from. Servants loaded the gifts onto the backs of beasts and the caravan set out.

Balthazar made corrections to his maps as they went along and noted in a journal the customs of the peoples they encountered. Humans are the same everywhere, he thought: brutal or kind, fearful or trusting, selfish or generous. He recorded words he learned in their languages:
wik / bread …mau / mother…cmou /to bless.

They had already traveled much farther than expected, yet the star beckoned them on. Perhaps there was some error interpreting the portents? wondered Melchior.

No error, Balthazar replied.

I am too old. I fear I shall not finish this journey, groaned Melchior.

We will rest more often, said Caspar. Would we have made this journey without you, without your wisdom? Gazing into the distance from atop his camel, he announced: We’ve come to the great sea. We will need a ship to continue. Opening one of the sacks of gold, he hired a vessel and crew.

Just as the star became stationary in the sky at long last, the ship landed on an island. The camels laden again with gifts, trod easily on the sandy beach. They came upon a fortified place resembling a great farm with hundreds of cramped pens, each occupied not by a chicken but by a man.

These men too are from the East, said Caspar, but many are very ill and have painful wounds. Opening a jar of myrrh he prepared a balm….

Listen! said Balthazar. I think I can understand their language: they are praying, begging God to let them die rather than spend another day in this place of torment, far from their homes! He took some of the frankincense and began to burn it. Then he bowed his head and prayed to God to give the prisoners hope.

Paying homage to the new King would indeed have been a worthy act, but… said Melchior. I will find the words to persuade their captors, and with our gold we shall ransom these men. I will see them set free before I die.

As the men were released from their prison, Melchior’s soul was released from its earthly home. His companions used the last bit of myrrh to anoint his body and the last bit of frankincense to give thanks to God for his energy and wisdom. Then they placed a gold coin over his heart and on his lips and buried his body beneath the sands.

They realized that by keeping their gaze ever fixed upon the star, by remaining open hearted and steadfastugh weary, they had discovered a more urgent need and a better use for their abundant gifts.

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Lk 4: 18-19)