Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 

The Problem with Shaving

Evil may be an abstract concept, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  Sorry for the double negative—finding the right angle of approach is difficult sometimes.  I say that because I believe that the misattribution of evil is tearing civilization apart.  Science has rightfully taught us the tricks for understanding the material universe.  Problem is there’s more to the universe than material.  If all our minds consist of are electro-chemical signals, well, this batch swirling in my head isn’t alone in doubting itself.  (Think about that.)  So, here’s the problem—those on the opposite side of the political spectrum rending the United States into shreds aren’t evil.  They’re doing what they believe is right, just like the lefties are.  The evil comes from forces trying to tear good people on both sides apart.  The simplest solution, Mr. Occam, isn’t always the best.

Putting it out on the table, right and left have some basic disagreements.  By far the majority of them are sexual.  Both sides believe what they’ve been taught or what they’ve learned.  Sex, of course, is one of the great dividers of humankind.  It brings us together and it tears us apart.  Religions have always been very interested in sexuality—who does what to whom and what to make of the consequences.  None of it is easy to sort out.  Since the Bible voices first-century (and earlier) opinions on a matter they understood even less than we, the situation is very complex indeed.  Especially since many people wrote all the self-contradictory words within its stolid black, pigskin leather covers.

Complexity reigns in the world of explanation for both politics and sex.  Put them together and see what happens (if a Clinton, impeachment, if a Trump, nothing).  The issue with Occam’s razor is that the simplest solution doesn’t always explain things best.  It’s not evil to suggest woman plus man equals marriage.  Unenlightened, maybe, but not evil.  The truth is that things are more complicated than they seem.  A society taught, in many ways, that only one solution works could easily boil it all down to one size fits all.  Evil is the desire for political power that draws its energy from making each group think the other is evil.  I realize this courtesy often goes in only one direction.  That too is part of the evil machinations of a system that divides instead of seeks common ground.

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

Justice for All

One of the perks of working for a publisher is author talks. I’ve worked for three publishers now, and the last two have made great efforts to bring authors to their New York offices to present their work, in a kind of dry run, to those in the industry. When an author (whose book will eventually feature on this blog, so I don’t want to provide any spoilers just yet) was to speak on misogyny this week, I quickly signed up for a seat. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I could never understand how one human being could ever feel superior to another. As a child with no father around, my experience suggested that women were the strong ones. Yet when out in society I saw men always stepping in to take charge. What was wrong here?

I realize that I view life through male lenses. I’m also aware that gender isn’t nearly as definitive as we tend to think it is. Biology fits us with bits and pieces, and some of those constructed somewhat like me assume this gives them the right to dominate others. And they say we’re better than animals. Better at what, I ask? No, this isn’t about chauvinism—a man stepping in to support weaker women. This is about justice, plain and simple. We’re all born human. Humanity is nothing without those of both genders as well as those somewhere between. What should separate humankind from the vicissitudes of nature is the inherent commitment to fairness. Life is harsh and not all receive fair treatment. Do not listen to the narrative coming out of Washington, DC! The father of lies dwells there. And yes, I mean “father.”

We used to take pride in having climbed above the mere animals. We have constructed something that used to be known as democracy. Lawmakers, while fighting against women’s rights in word, nevertheless tacitly supported them at home. Now our government has declared open war on women. Men who have no idea what it is like to be viewed as and treated like an object every single day of their lives are making laws to punish those who do. I feel as though the sky is about to crack open and that blind principle we call justice is about to shout “Enough!” That’s not, however, the way that nature works. It is only when women are treated equally with men that we’ll ever be able to call ourselves civilized. Or even human. Until that day we’ll hunker down in our caves and await lawmakers who have any inkling at all of what fairness, what justice, even means.

Girls to Men

Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.

I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.

The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.

Lions and Lambs

This brief break between Christmas and New Year’s Day, taking into account the vacation days expended to enjoy it, is a time filled with movies, reading, writing, and sufficient sleep. In short, it’s like a dream. I’ll get around to addressing the movies eventually, but right now one in particular is on my mind: Zootopia. Disney movies weren’t a big part of my childhood. We did watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, but movies were an expensive treat. I remember seeing The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Herbie the Lovebug. When we could afford a movie, it was frequently at a drive-in where a carload was cheaper than individual seats. I missed several of the childhood western canon—I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college. Becoming a parent in the 1990s meant becoming conversant with Disney.

zootopia

Oh, I’ve heard the conspiracy theories: Disney is “the evil empire,” part of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, and any number of other collectives that want to run the world. They have access, we are told, to the young and a reach that excludes few before the age of ten. I know little of Disney’s business practices, but Zootopia suggests to me that they are telling our children the right message. The movie follows the ambitions of Judy Hopps, a bunny that want to be a police officer in Zootopia, the largest city in the animal world. Threatened and bullied because she’s a girl, and small—traditionally prey—she nevertheless overcomes the obstacles necessary to meet her dreams. Once she meets success, however, she finds herself engaging in prejudice against predators. Species profiling takes over and the white sheep (literally) take over.

The message of not assuming someone is a slave to their “biology” is a powerful one. Nick Wilde, the fox that assists Judy to her goal, becomes a victim. The only way forward for Zootopia is to recognize that profiling—gender or species—is wrong. Since the story isn’t preachy, it’s all the better. Watching unchecked prejudice surging through our political machinery today, it was difficult to believe that this movie was released all the way back in March. The prey animals are the majority, and they feel threatened and so follow the leadership that controls, deports the predators who’ve been law-abiding citizens all along. Only when we once again see shrews living peacefully next to elephants, rabbits, lions, and polar bears, do we get the sense that everything’s as it should be. I know nothing of Disney’s business practices, but with messages as important as this, I have but few worries.

Engendering Fear

menwomenchainsawWe live in fear. At this point in history, it seems, with good reason. Horror films, apart from being considered low art, teach us to deal with some of these fears. I hadn’t been reading about the genre for very long before I began to notice the repeated references to Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This is Carol J. Clover’s seminal study of gender theory and horror. Probably best known for first identifying the trope of “the final girl,” Clover gives much more than that to the conscientious reader. Her chapter on possession movies is among the most insightful that I’ve read. And yes, she does make a very good case for the final girl.

Using theories of gender, she explores why both boys and girls (the former numerically more obvious) flock to such disturbing movies. Although she suggests masochism has something to do with it, is isn’t simply that boys enjoy seeing girls suffer. Quite the opposite. Boys often see themselves in the place of female victims. As with most things associated with gender, it’s far more complicated than it seems. In that sense, this is a book for our time. We live in what George Banks calls “the age of men,” and while Mary Poppins can hardly be called horror, the underlying narrative bears some warning tones. Men, left to their own devices, will seize what power they can grasp. We’ve spent the last five decades teaching men that this is no longer appropriate, only to have that message wiped away with the final trump. Horror can be remarkably pro-feminine. Business, as we’ve seen over and over, is less so.

Not having ever formally studied gender theory, some of the intricacies of Clover’s argumentation were no doubt lost on me. I was, however, able to gather a remarkable amount of appreciation for the subtexts in many of the movies I’ve watched. Gender, you see, touches everything we do. It behooves us to be aware that careless, or thoughtless support of misogyny does not lead to the results that many men suppose. Some horror movies are truly difficult to watch. Not all conform to the standard expectations. What Clover has shown, however, is that often the women are able to draw from a depth of strength to which the male characters lack access. They don’t do so willingly. In fact, they are often reluctant. When the horror is at its end, however, the final girl emerges triumphant.