The Sacrament of the Arts: Theatre at its Best

If ever there were a perfect illustration of the Sacrament of the Arts it would be  found up in White River Junction, Vermont where Northern Stage’s recent production of the play Oslo blew the audience away.   That is, blew them away by gathering them in.  Let me explain.

This award-winning play by J.T. Rogers tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats who, on their own, decided to try to make peace in the Middle East.    It was the 1990s — Israel and the PLO were at war, civilian deaths were mounting and the official government peace talks were dead in the water.  Secret, back-channel talks began in Oslo, and against all odds, after nearly insurmountable difficulties, the Norwegians did it:  by the end of the play the leaders of Israel and the PLO had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  How did they do it? Through a humanist approach.  Up to this time, some of the Palestinians had never even met an Israeli. The Norwegians insisted that there be time each day to eat together, relax together, to call each other by their first names—in short, to get to know each other as real people.    They met at the human level and the business of negotiation was conducted in a separate room.  Once the human connections had been forged, things began to change in their deliberations. There was more trust, more willingness to compromise, more empathy.   The final result was a victory for Humanism

And then the Dark Side had its innings.  Rabin, the leader of Israel was accused by conservatives of selling out.  The Bible, they said, gave all the land to the Jews. Period.  Rabin was assassinated.  Everything fell apart.  So here we are, still in a never-ending cycle of death that feeds all the war and unrest in that region: Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—so much hate directed at Israel and the United States, and when I ask my students why they hate us, they have no clue or come up with something as off-the-mark as George Bush’s comment that they resent our freedom.

Let’s come back to the play.  The great thing about theatre is that by its very nature it reminds us of our humanity. All these people come together—the cast, the writer, the tech crew, the audience—and they bond for a couple of hours. The audience is drawn into the lives and passions of the characters on stage. They see the world through their eyes, they share their joys, they sympathize, they suffer with them in their defeats.  It wouldn’t be the same if they were alone in a room streaming a film on Netflix, or even if they were in a crowded movie theatre, though that can come close.  No, it’s the fact that the spectator is there, shoulder to shoulder with others, taking in the drama together and being transformed by it.

At the end of Oslo, after it all goes to hell, the Norwegian protagonist turns  directly to the audience and says “My friends, if we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further  can we yet go? There on the horizon, The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?”  and each night of the run someone answered “Yes.”  It gives you chills.

One final note:  this kind of theatre experience doesn’t happen by accident.   It takes a certain kind of person at the top to create the atmosphere that can bring out the best in everyone. Creativity is strangled under dictators and thrives in a climate of warmth and support.  Northern Stage is blessed to have Carol Dunne as Artistic Director, Eric Bunge as Managing Director, and for Oslo, Peter Hackett as director.   It’s a happy place to work.

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What Would Be the Best Outcome from the Kavanaugh Hearings?

 

The dramatic, depressing stories from 36 years ago that were beamed around the world last week are now stuck in our minds.   Our country has been brought together to witness some gripping political theatre and some horrific personal tragedies.  Anyone with an ounce of compassion must feel the pain of Christine Blasey Ford, and, yes, the pain of Brett Kavanaugh too.  The images conjured up by the hearings will stay with us for a long time: of drunken teenagers, partying in parent-less homes; of a frightened girl attacked and scarred for life; of smug, sophomoric comments in high-school yearbooks; of jocks smirking over supposed sexual conquests and lionizing inebriation. Yes, the hearings brought us together to watch, glued to our seats, only to shatter into warring camps to the drumbeat of fatuous political rhetoric. Pathetic. Disturbing.

I can just imagine the ayatollahs and imams in the Middle East shaking their heads knowingly : “This is why we insist women must wear the veil.  It is the only way to protect them from the lusts of men, and particularly young foolish men, barely out of boyhood.  This is why we forbid alcohol.  Come here, my daughter, and cover yourself from head to toe so that you will not be a temptation for young men to sin.”

But is there no other answer than this? If only we could use this important moment to get at something even greater than a Supreme Court seat: the treatment of women.  The Catholics call marriage a Sacrament, but the act of sexual union itself is what is sacred, or should be, an intimate, beautiful manifestation of love and commitment, not a pastime, not a game.   To think of sex as an appetite to be indulged puts us at the level of the beasts.  Can’t we tune in to our higher selves without entombing women in shapeless cocoons?

Joseph Campbell warned us long ago, that we are society without a rite of passage for young men, and if none exists, they will create their own.  Drunken binges and scoring with girls have become the ritual for too many, especially when boys and young men come together in groups.  We should do all in our power to create a new respect for the Sacrament of Sexual Union.

Here are some suggestions:

Every father and mother should now go to their young boys and say, “Whatever you do in life, always treat women with respect.” Repeat this frequently throughout their adolescence.

Every coach of every team in high school and college should gather their players and insist (as many already do): “You guys are here to be examples to the wider community, so if I hear about any drunken binges, or parties with strippers or hookers, you’re off the team.”

Every president of every college and university should let fraternities and sororities know that the days of worshipping the keg are over. No more Animal House—it’s not funny anymore.

Every captain in the armed forces should meet with their troops and crews: “I know you guys need to relax and have fun, but do it within reason, and men, always treat women as your equals, not as objects, not as prey.”

In the meantime, women, watch out, and fight back.

The Thirty-Years War and the War in Afghanistan

For those of you who slept through World History in high school, listen up now: there was no war more brutal and dehumanizing than the 30-Years War that ravaged Central Europe in the early 17thcentury. The number of deaths, the displaced persons, the burned villages, the mayhem, chaos, cruelty–foreign armies pillaging and raping their way across the countryside—the stories surpass the horrors of any modern war.

Why did they fight?  Religion. The Emperor of Austria, raised by Jesuits, couldn’t bear the idea that so many of his subjects had rejected the Catholic Church and become Protestant. He gathered his armies and sent them out to bring the True Religion back, even though it meant destroying much of his empire. The Protestants, knowing that theirs was the True Religion, fought back furiously and both sides were equally un-Christian—it would be more accurate to say inhuman.

Is there anyone today, from the smallest child to the Pope himself, who looks back on that time and thinks that particular war was justified?   Of course not.  We shake our heads in disbelief and ask ourselves how could anyone professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ turn “love thy enemies” into “Onward Christian soldiers”?   The blindness of the participants is shocking to our modern sensibilities.

And yet that’s exactly what is happening once again in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.  Soldiers have been killing each other for decades, civilians have been slaughtered and raped, entire towns destroyed, and all for what?  So that Islam, the “true religion”, may reign supreme, with the Taliban or ISIS or Al Qaeda calling the shots on what the practices of that religion are.   To be honest, the Western World could most likely live with whatever practices these guys came up with if they would just stay in their homelands.  Let them treat their women however they want, we’d say, and let them pray in their mosques, if it were not for the threat those groups pose to our security.   They are determined to launch terror attacks on us, largely because of the United States’ support for Israel vs. the Palestinians, and even if they promised in a peace conference that they would leave us alone, who would believe them?  The road out of this morass is not yet clear.

But if anything is written in the stars, it is that one day our descendants will look back on this era and once again shake their heads in disbelief at how blind people were: “Our forefathers were sure they had found the true religion and must convince everyone of that at gunpoint.  Madness!  We now know there is no true religion other than that based on the sanctity of our humanity and all of its sacraments.”

 

George Elliot on the Sacraments: What A Way with Words!

I just came across this passage in George Elliot’s first novel Adam Bede written in the year 1859.   In case you’ve forgotten, George Elliot was a pen name for Mary Anne Evans (the pseudonym was to insure that people would take her novels seriously).

Elliott has just described carpenter Seth Bede’s proposal of marriage to Dinah, the pretty young Methodist preacher of the story, but he’s out of luck.  Dinah gently tells Seth her religious duties have to come first—he’s a good man, but she will never marry. Seth is heartbroken, and Elliot, in a beautiful ode to love, lets her sympathy for the poor young man’s unrequited adoration tumble out onto the page, writing that this sort of profound, pure love of a man for a woman is “hardly distinguishable from religious feeling.”   In fact, she writes, all of our deepest feelings of love share this religious quality,

“…whether of woman or child, or art of music.  Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies, all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object, and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery.”

That’s it exactly: the divine mystery of the universal sacraments, found in “our emotion in its keenest moment”—the birth of a child, the sexual attraction of our best beloved, the power of the arts, music, and nature transform us from mere primates into something else, something that brings us into the realm of the divine.

The War on Women

If you always thought World War III would begin in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula, you’d be wrong. It has already started, right here in North America, and it’s a Civil War,  with attackers on one side and victims on the other.  It’s a War on Women, based on the notion some men have, that the female of the species owes them something, that each man is endowed by his Creator with the right to possess a woman who will love him, and him alone, never turning away from him once a bond has formed between them. If she does, if your wife says she wants a divorce, if your girlfriend wants to break up, or if the one you’re pursuing isn’t interested, well, that’s a blow to your manhood that cannot go unpunished.

It’s been going on forever, of course, but lately has taken a turn for the worse. There have been mass shootings at the hands of men who are unable to find women interested in them. There are high school students killing the girls who did nothing more than refuse to go out with them. Men and boys who might never have thought of such a thing have found inspiration in the easy-to-come-by news that other rejectees have taken their revenge with a gun—so why not me too? The theory of Unintended Consequences practically guaranteed this would happen once the Internet was created: so many great ideas out there to be shared—so many dangerous ideas as well, dangerous to the point of mass destruction, and that’s where we are.

Not many people had heard of incels (involuntary celibates) until the Toronto killings in April of this year. Now we know that the Internet is providing an easy way for angry, frustrated men to rant and urge each other on to violence against women. It’s what the Rwandan hatemongers did on the radio before the genocide of the 1990s.  Now we’re facing a kind of gender-cide : “If I can’t have you no one will.”

What can be done about this? We can forbid hate speech and hire regulators to monitor it. No one should be allowed to urge others to kill.   Beyond that, it falls to families, mothers and fathers, to teach their offspring from an early age that Life does not include an entitlement clause.  It’s a sad reality that there are some people who will never find themselves in a relationship with the opposite sex–more than ever, in fact, when you consider the world as a whole.   In China, India, Vietnam, and some other countries the ratio between males and females is way out of balance because of selective abortion of female fetuses.   There are 30 million more males than females in China alone, and competition for a wife is tough.  This is a recipe for disaster.

It also falls to schools to help with a solution.   Every school should be teaching about healthy relationships, the realities of breakups, and how to handle those painful moments. The sexual urge is the driving force of our existence. We want a mate so badly that at certain times in our lives we can’t think of anything else.  Take that urge, the immaturity of young men,  lots of guns, a handy, unregulated social soapbox, and you’ve got something as explosive as nitroglycerin.

 

The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never hard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho) and the Sacrament of the Group

Drop everything and watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix, the incredible tale of guru Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), his attempt to create a paradise on earth in Oregon, and how it all went wrong. This should be required viewing at any university’s humanities program.   How could people of good will so bent on creating a world of love and peace end up hated and feared and persecuted by an entire state? It’s a clash of cultures with so many missteps on both sides.

First of all, comes arrogance.   You can’t roll into a place with a chip on your shoulder, claiming you’ve got all the answers, that you’re going to wave your magic wand and presto! all the local yokels will see the light, leave their former ignorant lives and join you in your ecstatic dance around the guru.   It’s not like the Spanish coming to the New World and the natives witnessing the impressive technological marvels this new culture had to offer. No, the Oregonians who lived nearby just saw a bunch of weird people all dressed in red who looked like they were stoned half the time.   It didn’t help when the front-woman for the Rajneeshees was Sheela, who seems to never have spoken about the locals without her lip curling into a sneer.

On the other hand, the county clerk in Oregon seems to have clearly violated election law and gotten away with it scot free.   The law in Oregon said that you only had to be a resident in Oregon for 21 days before an election in order to register to vote.   The Rajneeshees idea to win the election was to bus in street people from all over the country and give them a home in their commune–food and shelter in exchange for work.   They would then be eligible to vote and presumably vote for the representatives that Sheela wanted.   This is a scary strategy—one that any wealthy group could exploit to tip an election, but the law is the law. It was appalling to watch the county clerk with the backing of law enforcement refuse to register the newcomers, calling to mind the denial of voting rights in the South in the 60s.

But the main thing you get out of this 6-part series is just how powerful the Sacrament of the Group is. This need to belong is so strong within us—we want to be part of something, anything that will give our lives meaning.   All these people flocking to gurus in India, and later to be part of a commune in Oregon, agreeing to wear the same color clothing as a badge of honor that now you truly belong to “the master”—wow, to an outsider you look like nothing but automatons who have checked your reason at the door, giving your minds over fully to a con man who has hypnotized you into accepting his will as law.   There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the denizens of the commune as they tell us how happy they were in those days back in the 80s under the guidance of Osho and Sheela, but what it looks like is they were lobotomized by their desire to belong, as so many gang members are today, so many cult members, so many teenagers anxious to conform to the in-crowd at their schools.

There is also a Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. Every human being needs teachers and friends who will guide them and support them as they go through the twists and turns life presents them. It’s not exactly clear what Osho was all about—he certainly had charisma, but in the end was he on some kind of power trip, basking in the adulation his votaries were only too willing to offer?   The moral seems only too clear: never abandon Reason and Humility as you navigate the rough waters of existence.

 

Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

Peace in the Middle East Can Begin with Apologies

Today a BBC interview with Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish provided a much-needed wake up call to the world.   Dr. Abueleish lived in Gaza with his family in 2009 at the time when the Israeli army was striking back at the Palestinians. Two shells crashed into the bedroom of his house, killing 3 of his daughters and a niece while wounding several other family members.   Since then his mission has been to help end the violence that has engulfed the entire region. For him, a key part of this would be an apology from Israel, something he has not yet received.   Why would this be important? Because, he explains, it would be an acknowledgement that he and his family were not just the detritus of battle, worth no more than the rubble of a fallen building.  They were and are human beings, with all the dignity and value that entails.  This is the lesson that people in conflict forget time and time again. We dehumanize our opponents treating them as vermin or targets instead of  neighbors–real people, human beings.

It would have been so easy for the doctor to slide into a never-ending hatred of those responsible, but, as the old saying goes, hatred is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting your enemy to die. There has to be more, there has to be reconciliation, and for that there has to be a willingness on both sides to seek restorative justice and not retribution. It begins with the stories– the pain, the losses, the fear–all parties listening to the others,  humanizing what has been dehumanized.  Then there have to be apologies. It’s difficult to see why the Israeli government or military or both cannot say they are sorry for what happened to those girls in Gaza that day.  They claim they were firing on militants and maybe they were, but why should that make it more difficult to apologize?  Are they afraid of seeming weak?

Dr. Abueleish turned his back on hatred.  His way of dealing with his loss has been  to establish a foundation that encourages women from the Middle East to study at universities: Daughters for Life.  

He feels that educating young women is one of the keys to finding peace in the Middle East.  One of the keys.  There are so many.  But who can doubt that he’s right and applaud his efforts.

 

G.B. Shaw on Right-Wing Christians

I heard a powerful speaker yesterday at the Humanist Hub, just off Harvard Square. Eugene Scott is a writer for the Washington Post whose specialty is religion and politics. One of the things he said especially struck me: you have to divide American Christians into two camps. In the first group are those you could have a conversation with and perhaps come to some agreements with about public policy. These are thoughtful people, not too happy with Trump, who might be willing to admit that the Bible is not a word-for-word dictation from the Deity.

The second group of Christians are people who will never be convinced to change their thinking on anything. They feel threatened by social change, they like Trump, facts are fake news, and their heads are stuffed firmly into the far-right sands, unable to contemplate the world the rest of us live in. They want nothing less than a return to what they think made America great in the past. They want a Christian nation, a Roy Moore nation, where we fix the problems facing us by putting prayer back in the schools.

This parallels what George Bernard Shaw had to say in a short piece from 1932 called The Black Girl in Search of God, in which he excoriates the hide-bound Christians of his day for not being able to distinguish the fact that there are several “Gods” in the Bible, each an improvement over the one that appeared before it. The God of Noah was a primitive God, an angry God, Who wiped out virtually the entire human race and then was appeased by Noah’s offering of the “sweet savor” of burning flesh.   The God of Job, on the other hand, was on familiar terms with the Devil, was philosophical, argumentative, and tolerant. “People who cannot see the difference between these two Gods cannot pass the most elementary test of intelligence: they cannot distinguish between similar and dissimilars.” Later, the Bible introduces us to the God of Micah and of course Jesus—each more different still.

In his typical style, Shaw does not mince words when it comes to religious extremists: “People whose education in [science and history] is derived from the Bible are so absurdly misinformed as to be unfit for public employment, parental responsibility, or the franchise.” In other words, fundamentalist Christians cannot be expected to vote with any discernment. As Eugene Scott said, you pretty much have to give up on ever trying to convince them of anything: they are blinded by the Bible and Breitbart News.

So where does that leave us? I would hope that the Seven Universal Sacraments would provide some relief from this schizophrenic society outlined by Shaw and Scott. We share common ground in the physical world and we need to find common ground spiritually and politically.

The other place it leaves us is the public schools.  The homeschool movement along with the Christian schools are worrisome.   What is actually being taught there?  If we don’t support public education and create safe spaces where “similar and dissimilars” can be analyzed and discussed, where our citizens can be taught to think instead of simply believe, where we can engage religious fundamentalists in some kind of meaningful dialogue, then we’re going to remain stuck in Trumpland, sniping at each other, lurching from protest to protest, waiting for the next scandal, stupidity, or slaughter.

It’s a lot to fix.