Tuesday, April 23, 2019

LGBTQ People and American Religion - a sea change

Life was a whole lot simpler when there was a clear distinction to be made between gay people on the one hand and religious people on the other. 

You know how when Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca one of the ceremonies they perform involves throwing pebbles at the devil? I love that. It’s really useful to have a bad guy to throw stones at. Soul-soothing, somehow. I loved it when I didn’t have to think before bashing the church – almost any church – for its homophobia. They were all, more or less, homophobic.

With the gradual recognition that there is nothing essentially Christian about ostracizing LGBT people as sinners, and the even more dramatic sea change among non-religious people in accepting LGBT people, the notion that one has to stop being gay in order to be Christian is falling by the wayside. The authoritarian religious groups are still pushing that bigotry – the traditional Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Mormons, the Evangelicals, but mainstream Christian groups and all but some of the most orthodox of Jewish sects have pretty much made a 180 degree turn on the topic, many now warmly embracing gay people. In 2009, the Hindu Council of the United Kingdom issued a statement that "Hinduism does not condemn homosexuality.”  Buddhists seem to fall, for the most part, between gay-neutral and gay-friendly.

Being gay ain’t all it used to be. Once upon a time you could count on gays and lesbians to rally behind another gay or lesbian person. There are not that many of us, after all, and it’s easy to get tribal when you identify with a group with a history of oppression. But things have changed.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is running for president and I don’t know what is more remarkable, that fact, or the fact that he’s shooting up dramatically in the polls. I’ve been around long enough that I’m inclined to see that as something to stand up and shout over. Who would have thought this could happen in our lifetime?

When same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., some said, “We’ve arrived, at long last!” It seemed to many that was the pinnacle. But it pales, somehow, next to being able to run for president and kiss your husband in front of a cheering crowd. Evidently, arriving isn’t something that can be measured by any single kind of event.

I’m reminded of Sally Field’s acceptance speech at the Oscars in 1984 when she said, “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect…and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now you like me.” We tend to pity people who go around wanting to be liked and respected. You’re supposed to have a strong enough ego that you don’t depend on others for validation. But the truth is, while some gays – drag queens, for example – thumb their noses at acceptance, most LGBT people display the middle class need for social acceptance. And we seem to have moved on without taking a lot of time to celebrate the progress, to the next step, where we stop using LGBT as our primary identity. Two good friends surprised me recently, one by complaining that the patriarchal world we live in makes it easy for a gay man to roar ahead, while a gay woman, in her view, gets no such royal treatment. The other friend, a gay man, tells me he values political experience more than being gay, and so he’s rooting for Bernie Sanders.

My guess is that Mayor Pete will not make it to the top this time around. For all his charm and wit, he’s new to the game. But I’ll take his candidacy as a feel-good moment, in any case. Cynicism and despair are always just around the corner. Blow the horns and bring out the balloons at every opportunity, I say.

This morning a YouTube video popped up suddenly and caught my attention. It is titled, “Devout and Out: Pip – A queer priest on leaving his evangelical church & making faith more inclusive.” 

Stories like these are good for me. They make me realize there’s a gap between my espoused values and my actual values. I argue that I have no trouble with religious people, that my only beef with religion is the way it is so commonly used as a cudgel. Americans are notorious for their religiosity. But when you take a closer look, you realize it’s not the spiritual side of religion that captures the headlines; it’s the tribalism. Religion is used, particularly by evangelicals – “born-agains” – as a way of marking themselves as insiders. “Real Americans.” They are currently in the seat of power, making arguments that Donald Trump with his petty self-serving nature is actually an instrument of God. These are single-issue people for the most part. Their issue is Israel for Jews only, or abortion, or holding back the tide of approval of gay rights. They are political Christians, not religious ones. And they are a loathsome lot because they put their own cultish interpretation of their scriptures ahead of the U.S. Constitution as their highest source of authority. Objective truth is not the goal of their search for meaning; “testifying” is – mouthing the doctrine. Twisting history to their purposes, they insist we identify America as a Christian nation or suffer the wrath of God. And repackaging the Jewish concept of "chosen people" to mean pre-selected for eternal bliss because of their born-again declaration.

I have trouble with these people because they fight so hard to choke off the extension of civil rights to LGBT people, not because of their doctrine. But here’s the rub. I also don’t like the doctrine. I have trouble with the virgin birth, with the resurrection, with bread and wine become flesh and blood to be consumed. I see no evidence that there is a single invisible being who answers prayer, and considerable evidence that if he exists, he can’t be counted on. So when I say to people that “I have no trouble with religion,” I’m not being totally sincere. I no longer take the issue seriously enough to want to persuade others to give up their faith in the local gods, but if the topic comes up and somebody makes the mistake of asking me whether I’m born-again, I’m quick to assure them I think once was quite enough.

Then along comes someone like Pete Buttigieg. I’m becoming a real fan. Not just because he’s gay, although I’m not above a little tribal loyalty, but because he’s so articulate. So earnest. Because his head is in the right place.  As are his values, which are my values. And mostly I’m delighted to come across a Sermon on the Mount Christian after having to put up with all these “terrible swift sword next time" Christians for so long. Don’t look now, but I think I’ve spotted a real one.

And how could I not wish him well? For years I went to shabbas dinner every Friday night and memorized the prayers in Hebrew, not so much out of respect for the Jewish religion (I find the Exodus about as convincing as history as I do the virgin birth), but out of respect for my friends who want to raise their children in a tradition which they feel provides the framework for getting through the hard times. A bit of order in a chaotic world. What’s wrong with doing that poetically? I have to ask.

But those friends are straight. Pete Buttigieg is gay, and my hostility to organized religion is so dyed in the wool by now that I’m having some serious cognitive dissonance with the acceptance of gay people by American churches these days. I shouldn’t, of course. Gene Robinson was made a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003, for sure, but it practically tore the church apart. Since then, however, the word “sea change” pops up regularly when discussing attitudes toward LGBT people.

If you want to see what I mean, have a look at a couple of these documentaries now available on YouTube on the impact LGBTQ people are making on the church.

There’s this one, about an evangelical once tortured by the conviction that he had to undergo “conversion therapy” (sort of like calling drowning therapy) in order to get right with God. It’s uplifting as can be to see his success, a pick-me-up story.  

Or this one, about a transgendered person (the reason we have the Q in LGBTQ).

For that matter, have a look at the 2013 film, Southern Baptist Sissies, available on Amazon Prime. Overwrought by today’s standards when it comes to gay angst, but it has some great one-liners from the Greek chorus, the two drunks who sit offstage and comment. (“I’m a social drinker: You have a drink? So shall I.”)  And the entire story is summed up by one of the character’s description of the church: “This is where we come to learn to hate ourselves.”

Only six years between that and the three signs of the times I’ve linked you to, just above.

Sea change.

 photo credit (a Baptist site, it's worth noting)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

True Detective - Seasons 1 and 2 - a review

Season 1 - McConaughey and Harrelson
I've finally gotten around to watching Seasons 1 and 2 of True Detective.  For many of you familiar with this series from when it came out in 2014, and on Hulu, this is at best an also-ran reaction, but I'm writing for others like myself who had to wait for the advent of Netflix Streaming. Season 3 is available on Hulu, but not yet on Netflix. Friends whose opinions I share most of the time tell me it's as good as Season 1 and they didn't like Season 2 all that much. I part ways with these friends. I thought Season 2 was excellent despite the trashing by the critics and I'm impatient to see the final season.

Part of me feels like I've just been forced to watch a dogfight between two pit bulls. But another part of me wants to speak out and persuade myself that dark subject matter should not detract from an otherwise superb artistic production. 

Truth is it does, unfortunately. I don't see how one can sit and watch such wretchedness and not get angry at having to witness the world decay and fall apart.  Why watch hour after hour of misery, corruption and shattered dreams? 

The answer, I guess, is because it's quality television.

It's not a new topic, this steady inflation of engaging subject matter in the direction of social decay and crime and
Season 2 - HBO photo
cynicism and disillusionment. If it's not about misery or corruption, evidently it's not cutting edge.

Here you go. I've got a great show for you to watch. All the good guys die in the end, and one after another the main characters fail at achieving their lifetime goals, But it's an engaging story. People fail to connect with their children, fail to shed addictions, fail to repair the world, But they're really sympathetic; they've got heart. Do we really need to go this far, get this dark, to create the kind of tension necessary for keeping an audience engaged in the plot line?

I hope this is not a spoiler, but the trouble with making the bad guy the State of California (in Season 2) and the corruption not only centered in but run by the governor of the state, is that it confirms your worst suspicions about the state of the world. You are convinced. Back in the day of early detective fiction, the cops went after bank robbers and the thrill was in the chase that ensued. Today, it's not realistic unless the hero uncovers the fact that corruption goes all the way to the top. The only thing that is certain is that just when you think things can't get worse, they do.

But screw reality, right? One watches entertainment because one likes a good romp. An adventuresome journey into a world one lacks the courage or opportunity to take in real life. It's what books and cinema are for, right? Never mind that it's dark. The important thing is it's a jolt to the system. Keeps the heart pumping. Keeps the mind engaged and the interest high.

At least you get something for your money and your descent into the dark side. Matthew McConaughey never acted better. Woody Harrelson never acted better. Together they make magic.

Then, when these two actors are done in Season 1 they put their heads together and become producers in a second season with actors just as good - Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, three heroes with fatal flaws you can't help developing compassion for - even the gangster who wants to go straight but lacks the courage. You learn the back stories. You learn that the gangster is terrified by childhood deprivation and can't imagine grabbing a piddly $100,000 and running - something most of us would do in an instant to escape the kind of odds he's up against. You really connect with the Rachel McAdams character, the child who has to parent her sister while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that her own parents were missing in action. The Colin Farrell character wants only to connect with his child and you sit and watch the evidence grow that that goal is out of reach and you ache for him.  It's all brilliant writing (Nic Pizzolatto), brilliant directing (Cary Fukunaga; John Crowley), brilliant acting all around. I see why the series is being touted as worthy of comparison with The Sopranos, the show that started us down this path to rooting for killers. 

Ever since I watched The Wire, I have a quick and easy answer to the question, "With all the streaming you do, do you have a favorite?"  I've argued that The Wire should be required viewing in all the public schools in America, that anybody who wants to understand America should be familiar with it. I'm also a big fan of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, two other shows mentioned in that Globe and Mail article as spin-offs of The Sopranos. I now add True Detective to the list, take a deep breath, and admit that maybe it's time to admit I don't really have any interest in watching The Sound of Music, or Little Women, or Little House on the Prairie, so why waste any more time wishing for a more innocent America to return to?  Alice in Wonderland, of course, but that's not nostalgia, it's absurdism, even though it's ostensibly for children.

True Detective, like Breaking Bad, is a slap in the face to naifs like me, people who haven't thought enough, haven't taken the time to realize that one shouldn't have to apologize for the fact that not all plots are suitable for children. Maybe it's true that The Sopranos is a stand-in for modern-day America, a story about wasted talent and missed opportunities, a place slipping away and in the hands of waste collectors. After all, we've sold out what idealism we once had and have allowed money to trump all else. Why wouldn't entrepreneurial types be making money off of drugs and prostitution? And why wouldn't we be creating artistic photoplays based on this modern reality?

Is it, though? Is America now nothing more than a place for more and more throw-away things, more and more throw-away people each day? Is it what is being depicted these days when we watch Game of Thrones as the Romans watched the lions eat the Christians. Is it this bad?

The decay is all around us. The Roman Catholic Church is a filthy organization, rotten to the core. The Evangelicals are clueless whores, led by a pied piper cheered on by their very reverend leaders, willing to believe  that what earlier generations would have been convinced was the devil at work is nothing more than the Republican Jesus being clever. 

American foreign policy is all about getting even more money into the hands of already obscenely wealthy corporate executives, making arms sales to dictators in starving third world countries. At home, the gun lobby is succeeding in getting guns into every American school and home and hospital, to protect us from the worst fears our imaginations can conjure up. Why wouldn't we entertain ourselves with drama based on the assumption that the attempt to build a bullet train in America is simply a front for gangsters working hand-in-glove with the top political class in California to siphon off yet more money from tax-paying saps?

There may be a middle ground between the evil of dirty money that makes America go round these days and "the hills are alive with the sound of music," but I don't expect to find it in my lifetime. We're too polarized. Reality is too dark, and only fools are optimists.

So that's my conclusion. True Detective is a great show. Great acting. Great characters. Great plot lines.

Really great show.

Enjoy it.

Photo credits:

Season 1 - McConaughey and Harrelson
Season 2 - Farrell and McAdams, Kitsch and Vaughn

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Culpable/Wolf - two film reviews

Netflix and Amazon Prime are doing us a real favor flooding the internet with films faster than we can keep up with. Many of them are junk, alas, but enough good ones come through to make it worthwhile to keep up the subscriptions, in my experience.

In the last 24 hours I happened across two films dealing with sexual abuse, which I believe never got more than art-house exposure until now. And normally, I’d have passed them by, having burned out on the topic in recent years. But these two caught my attention for their promise of a different take on a familiar story, and I wasn’t disappointed.

One is a badly crafted production which is nonetheless worth watching because of its context – the black American religious community. The other, a German film, is a brilliant production deserving of broader attention than it has been given since it came out in 2014.

"The Church is a mother. And one doesn't hit his mother."
Die Verfehlung (“transgression” or “delinquency” - English title: The Culpable) is a story of three close friends, Jakob, a prison chaplain, Dominik, a social worker who works with teenagers, and Oliver, a church administrator. All three are catholic priests.

A teenage boy charges Dominik with sexual abuse. Dominik denies the charge publicly, but admits to Jakob that sex between them did indeed happen, arguing it should be understood as love, and not abuse. Oliver agrees with the local cardinal that this is dirty laundry which should not be washed in public. Jakob struggles with the expectations of his church and of his friend, on the one hand, and his conscience, on the other, which tells him he needs to report the confession to the district attorney, in part because he has discovered there is a second boy hiding in fear and shame whose story should also be told. A triangle of denial, blame and compassion, which puts flesh on the bones of the worldwide catholic child abuse scandals. While the church is roundly criticized these days for self-serving cowardice in failing to come to the aid of young people taken advantage of sexually by clerics, Filmmaker Gerd Schneider, once a theology student and priest candidate himself, makes the case, I think effectively, that a legalistic approach to human weakness may not be the best approach. And at the same time, he doesn’t let the church off the hook. In this modern world, it’s not the authority of the church with its non-Christian utilitarian ethical system, but a modern-day Kantian (principles-based) ethical system that seems to be what’s called for in addressing this out-of-control scandal.

Told with passion and even-handedness from all three perspectives, as well as with compassion for the victims involved, The Culpable is well-cast, well-acted and insightful. Highly recommended.

The American film, Wolf, was made in 2012. It involves a black evangelical church so well integrated into the lives of its families that it becomes hard at time to know where one begins and the other leaves off. The preacher (“The Bishop”) has a sterling record of having seen the family through some hard times, and is admired not only for his preaching but for his managerial skills as well, having turned a small neighborhood church into a thriving congregation and business enterprise. He has also been having a sexual affair with the family’s teen-aged son for several years.

The male characters in Wolf, all of them, the boy, his father, the bishop, are woefully immature and
unable to play the kind of responsible roles one expects of them.  The women, on the other hand, are as strong as the men are weak. While that fits a common stereotype of the African-American community which many will no doubt find offensive, it’s not the weaknesses that are the problem; the problem is the many serious dilemmas get resolved without explanation. It’s as if the filmmakers decided they’d run out of time, drew a line under the challenges, and made everybody kiss and make up, creating a seriously unsatisfying plot line.

What almost makes up for this weakness in the structure of Wolf (the title, I presume, suggests the bishop, rather than being a shepherd herding his flock, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing) is the fact that, as is the case with The Culpable, the film presents all sides with balance and compassion.

Not enough, in the end, in my view. The teenage son, sympathetic at first, seems to be carrying some heavy baggage indeed. His vulnerability to the bishop’s advances is explained away as a search for a missing father. Nobody seems to want to consider the possibility the kid is simply exploring his sexuality. His later sexual aggressiveness toward his girlfriend may stem from parental rage at his evident lack of masculinity, but it's left open whether that's the origin of his aggression or whether it's somehow the result of sexual abuse. Also left hanging is the question of whether the once willing boy has become aggressive because of the sex or because the bishop seems to have suddenly shut down his sexual affections.  As with most treatment of "abuse," the abuse is taken to be the fact of sexual activity, and not physical force or psychological manipulation.

Similarly, while it's refreshing to see the bishop depicted as a conflicted soul and not a monster, it's painful to see how in this closed community he has no place to go but to see himself as a hopeless sinner in terrible need of forgiveness. And the father, missing in action emotionally, kind of comes through in the end, although the audience is hard pressed to explain just what makes him see the light. I won’t spoil the ending. Let’s just say the hasty tying up of all these loose ends makes it hard to see what might have caused the maturity on the part of the men to evolve. That they managed to grow a spine and some sympathetic understanding that was missing initially is something the audience has to take the writer's word for. It's possible, of course, to ascribe the inconsistencies as simply complexity of character, and view the complexity,  along with the plot surprises, as devices that make this film worth watching.

photo credits:

The Culpable (Die Verfehlung)