Look Both Ways

Like many kids of the sixties I grew up watching Batman. I mean Batman—the campy, goofy, live-action version of the caped crusader that was must-see TV for young boys and other hero wannabes. This was all hung upside-down, as it were, by Tim Burton’s reboot of the troubled crime-fighter. Then came Christopher Nolan’s canon. The Dark Knight remains one of my favorite movies as it seems unstintingly honest. We are all part Joker and part Batman. Neither is ideal. More than that, this movie was my first introduction to Harvey Two-Face Dent. You see, I didn’t grow up reading Batman comics, and the television adventures never featured him. At least not as far as I can remember. Two-Face is a fearful foe because you can never tell when he’s telling the truth. That can be very scary.

The other day I asked my mother about someone I remembered from church growing up. This was a woman I hadn’t seen since the Nixon Administration and I was curious how she was doing, and even if she was still alive. My mother told me she was still around, but she doesn’t talk to her any more because the friend is “two-faced.” Among evangelical Christians this is one of the most feared of epithets. Telling different “truths” to different parties is a certain way to demonstrate want of moral fiber. Hypocrisy. It’s also a non-refundable ticket on the bus heading south, if you get my meaning. Christians want to be thought of as honest, if nothing else. Harvey Dent would’ve had real trouble being an evangelical (with some noteworthy exceptions).

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Businesses, however, are disciples of Janus. I often ponder the sheet number of items that companies classify as “public facing.” What, I wonder, is the antonym? I’ve even heard of corporations that will take legal action against former employees who honestly admit how business is done. No one is permitted to speak of what happens in the entrepreneurial boudoir. Corporations, under the law, are persons. They are afforded the secret inner life of real individuals. There was a “naked business” craze in early in the millennium, but that petered out. We have a public facing face and a reality that no one is allowed to know. Trade secrets. Information that only one corporation may have. Over in Gotham, Two-Face slips into a dark alley and escapes. In little white churches across the country, those who speak different truths are shunned. In the corporate high-rise, businesses are now people. They are, however, two-faced. I miss the Batman of my youth.

Sacred Fear

Last week’s Time magazine ran a story about fear. I’m no stranger to this emotion, so long ago I decided to engage it creatively rather than run away. The article, “Monsters Inc., Inside the weird word of professional haunting,” by Lily Rothman, contains the laments of those who operate seasonal haunted houses. People are just getting too hard to scare. Some blame violence in the media and computer games, a large-scale desensitization to the suffering people might cause to others. CGI has made the most hellish nightmare realistic in the theater or on the small screen. If you can imagine it, it can be brought to life. Yesterday was Halloween, the day we’re allowed to be afraid. Of course, those who fear the influence of negative emotions on children have cute-ified the frights: bulbous air-filled creatures lit up from within billow harmlessly in front lawns, monsters of various sorts sport silly grins, and humor is liberally sprinkled in with the horror. One haunted house owner wanted patrons to walk through naked, so they could feel vulnerable. Today most people will wake up to just another day of work, while others will roll out of bed ready for All Saints’ Day and a rousing chorus of Vaughn Williams. Some of us will still be scared.

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Thrice I’ve had to face the highly secretive severance agreement offered by employers who know that people over forty have a difficult time rebuilding a career. I know that in this I’m not alone. If it hasn’t happened to you, here’s how it goes: you show up to work one day and begin doing whatever it is someone pays you to do. Depending on the size of the organization, either Human Resources or some level of supervisor will innocently invite you to the office. They will have solemn smiles on their faces. The door will be closed. You will be told that, for whatever reason they wish to give, your services are no longer required. In return for your silence you’ll be offered some kind of adult care package. You’ll leave shattered and stunned and willing to sign anything slipped under your nose.

The secrecy’s the thing. I’ve never revealed to anyone, under pain of prosecution, what any of those agreements said. What I have noticed, however, is the fear. The lawyer-instilled fear of bad press. Organizations want to be thought of as caring and concerned. They do not want any clandestine information released. Truth seems to be the greatest engine of fear in the corporate world. A few years back, before the Bush-whacking of the economy, I read about optimistic companies practicing “naked business.” Revealing vulnerability. I immediately admired the idea. Like walking through a haunted house in the nude, businesses could demonstrate that they have nothing to hide. But there’s real fear here. Like a ghost, truth can pass through walls. Like Godzilla, truth is indestructible. Like the invisible man, naked truth just can’t be seen.

Two Mites for the Truth

“Abuse scandal puts heat on Vatican for more transparency,” runs a headline on the front page of today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. The reference, of course, is to the recent divulging of alleged abuse that implicates the brother of the Pope. The wording of this particular headline, however, contains the kernel of a very important religious preserve. Like the X-Files, religious structures thrive on secrecy. If the mystery were removed from religion, what would be the motivation to believe? Science provides facts and theories that do not require as much belief as they do acquiescence. Religion, on the other hand, deals with intangibles shrouded in murky darkness.

Religions cannot be transparent. “Naked business” models simply do not work when the wealth of the ages is at stake. Few religious believers ever question how or why the leaders of their traditions hoard wealth and valuable objects and real estate. The great medieval European cathedrals, as magnificent as they are, represent loss, pain, and toil on the part of a great many faithful. Those with severe consciences will always drop an offering in the plate, basket, or tray when divine pressure is laid upon them. Even if they really cannot afford it. Two mites for the salvation of an eternal soul is a real bargain!

No one can truly claim to have comprehended the whole of a religion. After all, many religions have centuries of accumulated lore and tradition that must be passed along in ways opaque to the general issue believer. If glass walls were erected around every seminary and religious training institution, those who have not had the experience of being involved in clergy instruction would find the sight blinding. No, religion will never be transparent. Nor will it ever be extinct. It is simply far too easy to believe what one is told.

Two mites, and then some