Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Much of the buzz around Saddleback Church’s conversation with the two presidential candidates last Saturday night is centered on the apparent consensus that the clear winner was neither Barack Obama nor John McCain but the moderator, Pastor Rick Warren. Warren has been the recipient of many tributes these days for his adept handling of what could have been a highly charged situation. Instead, according to most observers, the candidates were offered ample time to offer potentially sensitive and subtle responses to often complex queries. Warren won further accolades for his eschewing the oft-used shock techniques employed by too many TV journalists today. His reasoned and thoughtful approach to this upcoming and vital national decision was a model that many, evidently, wish to emulate.

Rick Warren is the enormously popular Evangelical Christian author of The Purpose Driven Life and other self-help books. He is also, as noted, the pastor of the mega-sized Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California. Recently he has been garnering further attention for his unorthodox advocacy of Evangelical Christian concerns beyond the traditional anti-abortion and anti-gay obsessions of most of conservative Christianity. Warren has been increasingly committed to addressing the vastly complex problems of the AIDS epidemic, world hunger and the crushing poverty endured by millions here in America and around the world. If he isn’t careful he just may have some of us believing that the religious right isn’t always wrong.

Still, Evangelical Christianity has a long way to go to make up for some of the insidious behavior of its more public adherents. This past year’s revelations of some Evangelical Christians’ un-Christ-like deportment within the Justice Department has left many of us wondering what Christ they are following. When our former Attorney General’s top aide, Monica Goodling, a graduate of TV Evangelist Pat Robertson’s law school (!) decided to vet civil-service applicants by way of a conservative Christian agenda and then compound the deception by lying to Congress about her unlawful activities, Evangelical Christianity sustains one more piece of incriminating evidence that those on the Christian right seem to care little about the ethical teachings of Jesus.

And we all remember our current president’s designation of that same Jesus as his favorite philosopher during his first presidential campaign. One suspects Jesus must have moved far down the list as GWB employed the tools of deception, dishonesty and double-dealing during his tenure as commander in chief.

The bullying tactics of Evangelical Christians at such supposedly secular institutions as the United States Air Force Academy are well-documented and deeply disturbing. When a cadet’s chances of advancement are dependent on a particular religious practice, all citizens should be concerned about the very real threat to cherished constitutional freedoms.

Even granting that some of these folk are well-intentioned in their proselytizing, such activities can seriously threaten the inviolate separation of church and state. Out of Beijing this week comes the story of Kisik Lee, the U.S. Olympic archery coach whose evangelicalism has got the U.S. Olympic Committee more than a little concerned. Lee, a South Korean native, expects his team to be more than just proficient archers; he aims his arrows at their souls as well. As an Evangelical Christian, Lee leads many of his charges in Bible study and prayers as part of the team’s training. All well and good as long as he can remain objective about the talent of those not choosing to study and pray with him. The evidence of Evangelicals in power would indicate that such is often not the case.

Many of us who claim an affinity to the teachings of Jesus are hoping that Pastor Warren continues to manifest his unusual approach to his Evangelical faith. His willingness to challenge conventional insular Christian thinking with a theology based on compassion and service rather than intimidation and deceit is encouraging to be sure but we all know what happened to someone else who tried that same approach two thousand years ago.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Over three decades spent in the ritual business gives me a certain perspective on the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. The spectacular show revealed much of what is good about ritual and some of what is very, very bad.

I expect others about my age (rapidly moving toward ancient) were put in mind of another massive display of synchronized true believers while watching the proceedings a week ago Friday. Film clips of Hitler’s pompous pageantry at Nuremberg kept passing through my head as I watched a sometimes eerily similar show from China. From 1933-1938, the Nazis would put on a parade of monumental proportions both to jack up the German locals and intimidate the rest of us with their jack-booted troops. Watching the Chinese soldiers goose-stepping as they raised both their own flag and the Olympic flag didn’t do much to dispel my sense of ominous similarities.

Of course there was much to raise our collective altruistic spirit as well. Who can object when children representing the plethora of ethnicities indigenous to China strolled into the arena dressed in their own tribal garb? And when little 9 year old Lin Miaoke confidently stood all alone and sang “Ode to the Motherland,” whose heart-strings weren’t plucked even a little? The fact that little Lin wasn’t really singing at all but only doing a nice job of faking it while another, better tuned, tyke actually sang the number can be dismissed, I suppose, to the vagaries of show business but I think it’s a little more ruthless than that. Apparently, Lin wasn’t even aware that her microphone had been turned off during her mute performance. It seems she was sacrificed before the gods of “national interest” according to Chen Qigang, the general music designer of the opening ceremonies. Mr. Qigang rationalized the deception: “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression.” This is the very, very bad part.

When ritual is employed to deceive rather than inspire it crosses a fine line that I find particularly troubling even if I can’t actually decide where it is drawn. But when, for instance, I see religious leaders parade into their sanctuaries dressed-up as royal figures complete with regal robes and bejeweled crowns, I sense a crossing. I certainly understand the social value of honoring our dignitaries but one can’t help but wonder if the message offered is considerably more sinister than that. Kings and queens demand unquestioning allegiance. The dubious and the doubting are seen as traitors in such a milieu.

Our secular rituals can be equally disingenuous. The upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver has gone to extensive lengths to make sure the rituals that take place inside the Pepsi Center and at Invesco Field produce a picture of harmony and concord. To that end, the local authorities are making sure all disharmonious dissenters are kept far away from the proceedings. The little boy who announced that the king had no clothes wouldn’t stand a chance with the Democrats.

Bad ritual can also take place with the best of intentions but the worst of executions. With apologies to Henny Youngman, “Take our national anthem…please!” Surely our over-used “Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the more unsingable patriotic pieces of music around. With all the beautiful tributes to our national heritage and culture available why do we continue to use this disagreeable description of a rather minor battle outside of Baltimore? With a little deft editing, “America the Beautiful”, for instance, would be a giant musical leap forward and a reminder of how good ritual can offer inspiration instead of indifference, beauty rather than boredom.

No question in my mind that when those 2000+ drummers began pounding on their illuminated barrels last Friday night, most of us responded with both awe and amazement. The dramatic display of synchronicity kept over a billion people riveted to their TV screens which, not coincidentally, provided a nice diversion for the Chinese authorities to pick up any trouble-making dissidents on the streets who might disrupt the ritual taking place inside.