Thursday, April 17, 2008

Freedom Begins, Baby, Between Your Ears

Well there's plenty competition amongst the prophets today They're sayin', "doom, doom, doom" They got another apocalypse comin' our way Sayin', "gloom, gloom, gloom" Yeah, there's plenty on the dock sayin', "my ship's comin' in now Soon, soon, soon" There's plenty throwin' elbows and steppin' on toes They yellin', "room, room, room" --RCPM, "Plenty" The last two Peacemakers albums came packaged with making of DVDs. I watched the one for No More Beautiful World the other night. At one point, Clyne was explaining why he thought the name would go on the album. He basically said that the phrase "no more beautiful world" would mean different things to different people. It's, in effect, a Rorschach Test. You can say, "There is no more beautiful world," (an oft-repeated line from "Goon Squad") and mean that the world was once beautiful but is no more. You can also say, "There is no more beautiful world," and mean that no matter how you search, you'll never find a better place. It's a koan, a Zen riddle. I hadn't gotten the double meaning before, which is kind of funny. I took it to mean the former statement, then tended to argue against it and scratch my head to ask why Roger Clyne, of all people, would say the world has fallen apart. I won't be converting to Zen Buddhism at any point in the near future... There are two lessons that I originally thought were separate, but that I can no longer think of as being anything other than intertwined. The weird thing is, I can't really explain why that is (which is kind of why they were separate in the first place). It all starts with the song that started this whole thing off in the first place. Had I not known the darkness I could not love the light Were it not for gravity There would be no flight Had I not lost the path I would never find my way Equal part my heart I gave To bloom and to decay With a rattle and a grind I find That I'm back at my favorite part Well I may not be your kind If your kind is faint of heart When the world is sick and tired And it begs you to fall apart We may be hanging by a thread But now we're state of the art --RCPM, "State of the Art" I was on my way home one night last week listening to Turbo Ocho when suddenly a piece of a puzzle that I didn't know was missing fell in to place. I realized that it was entirely within my power to decide to be happy.* All I really needed to do was change my focus. It's also helped me to understand some of the...weirder...Roger Clyne lyrics, to wit: And so the clear blues sky no, she never made a sound Though she was blindfolded, gagged and bound Now see the poppies pushin' up through the bones on the ground But the body's never found --RCPM, "Better Beautiful than Perfect" It then goes back in to that chorus about dancing the night away and seeing that life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere. It's a sour note, especially since it's sung in the same upbeat way and you miss the incongruity if you're not paying attention to the lyrics. Then I realized that was probably exactly the point. There's plenty of crap out there to focus on if we want to. When tragedy strikes, we can choose to shake our heads, roll up in to a ball and say, "There is no more beautiful world." Or we can acknowledge the grief and the loss but still realize that there is, in fact, no more beautiful world.** This, I've just realized, is where the intertwined lesson is joined. In order to choose to be happy, we have to choose to not be small minded. I got one of the most horrible emails I've ever received or could conceive of in the wake of February's shooting at NIU. It was from someone who I hadn't spoken to in over a year. I may have mentioned it here before, but it warrants another look.*** Either way, the sender didn't know about the changes I've undergone in the last couple of years and still considered me a partner in ministry or whatever. The email basically said, "Hey, after NIU I felt really bad. So I went and prayed. God told me everything was great, because we're about to see a revival and NIU, Virginia Tech and whatnot are all the Devil trying to stop it. Just thought I'd send this to you all so you'd feel better, too, and remember to pray for revival and god to do good stuff." Except it was, like, six paragraphs of ever-so-pious Christianese. I did not like that letter. I immediately regretted ever liking the sender. In order to figure out why, I I had to forward it to a friend who also knew the sender. He managed to explain to me exactly why it was a horrible email. Basically, the thrust of the whole thing was, "I feel bad about this thing that didn't even happen to me. I wanted to feel better, so I asked god about it and, whaddya know, god made me feel better. Isn't that great?" It's horribly selfish, small minded, and the sort of thinking that turns the very real loss of more than three dozen innocent people (five at NIU, 32 at VT, plus it's entirely possible that more places were thrown in) and the very real grief of the hundreds or thousands of people that knew them, loved them, and would be feeling an ache at the loss that might never go away in to a masturbatory revivalist fantasy. It's childish, self-centered, and turns everyone else in to objects. I don't think it's possible to choose to be happy with that sort of mindset. This is where I work back around to my assertion that it's not possible to choose to be happy in a world where there is an all-consuming god. The email is Exhibit A. Exhibit B is my story of leaving a church a couple of years ago. My justification for the action at the time was simple. I couldn't stand to be in the presence of such a small-minded person. The other thing that came back and frightened me much, much later was the realization that had I stayed on the path I thought was marked out for my life, I would have become that pastor. The Christianity with which I grew up and fully expected to remain allows no room for doubt. There is one way to think, one way to live, one path to Heaven, one kind of real, true Christian. Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, and the other assorted rabble will burn and we're not entirely sure about those crazy Roman Catholics, either. What you've got to do is tell them that god loves them and they'll believe it and it will be all good. I'm not entirely sure when I became uncomfortable with the concept. I know it was an uncomfortably familiar companion by the time I went out to WIU, but my pattern of not living a proper, accepted Christian life or thinking proper, accepted Christian thoughts and feeling guilty about them extends back at least to high school. I never wanted to witness to anyone, which meant I was "ashamed of the Gospel," so whenever I'd feel guilty enough I'd try really hard to do what I was supposed to and fail miserably, starting the shame cycle over again. This is not an uncommon tendency, for the record. There are only two ways to defeat this shame cycle. Suppress the doubts or never have doubts in the first place. As far as I can tell, the only way to accomplish this is to be fairly simple-minded or to close yourself off from anything that could create doubt, a thought that dovetails nicely with the final exhibit. Exhibit C is a conversation that has occurred, with some variation, any number of times. Basically, somebody claims to be a Christian. This works best when its a famous person or a group outsider who is an acquaintance of all and someone who is well known to behave in non-Christian ways. The group then sits around and hashes out in exacting detail whether or not the subject of the conversation is really a Christian. Oftentimes there is a person or a few persons who are the official or unofficial enforcers of orthodoxy. They define the proper behaviors and attitudes of the believer and everyone has to make sure that they match the expectations. The pastor in Exhibit B was the enforcer of orthodoxy for that group. I believe he didn't take my challenge well because I was potentially hitting close to his own doubts and he could not deal with that. Seeing as how I'm full of any number of questions and rather enjoy entertaining doubts in the effort to better understand the world, I was rapidly moving to a point where I would either have to acknowledge and deal with the doubts or be so heavily invested that I started to bend others to my will so I didn't have to think about it anymore. While I can't say for certain, I believe it was an inevitability that I would either become what I am now or become that pastor who pissed me off so very much. Either way, there's very little choice in the system. I use fundagelical Christianity here because it's what I'm familiar with, but this holds true for pretty much any rigid hierarchical authoritarian system. You can choose to conform or be cast out. You can't choose to be happy. Any attempt at happiness has to be made in the form of that horrible email, by attempting to pervert reality in to something that works within the system and maintains orthodoxy. Which is why I've taken this as my unofficial theme, uh, verse, I guess: I let my courage down And I stayed up all night I sat upon the springs and chased away the dreams That I was wrong and they were right --RCPM "Never Thought" I really feel like I'm spending way too much time talking about Christianity here. Yet unpacking that change is such an important part of this that I can't help it. Besides, I'm not so far removed that I don't still hear the siren song, beckoning me back to that place. It would be so easy to shrug and go back. I'd have all my old friends again, run in to lots of girls who really want to meet a guy and settle down and be able to say that I've got all the answers. I could go to Seminary and settle down as a pastor. And, hell, I've come up with way better arguments for Christianity in the last year than I ever had before. The only problem is that they're just that, rhetoric. I no longer believe the underlying story. Something tells me that surrender would crush my soul. I've only now started to get the hang of being in charge of my own happiness. It's kind of nice. And, really, on another level I like to think that I'm doing something of a service. As a former insider, it's kind of fun to let everyone else in on the thought processes... *This isn't a cure-all or anything. It's very much a me thing. I would not, nor would I recommend to anyone else, finding someone who is clinically depressed or in mourning or something and saying, "Hey, come on, now. Just be happy." That's...that's just mean. **Again, this isn't a cure-all. I wouldn't dream of saying this to someone, say, who just lost a close loved one to cancer. It wouldn't help, nor should it during a time of grief. But at the very least it's something to contemplate. And maybe it will create enough joy to somehow soften the blow of grief. ***Oh, hey, I did...


Fiat Lex said...

Ha ha!
I always get a sharp and unkind satisfaction from watching another ex-Christian take on the laborious task of disentangling their psyche from TEH DOGMA. Espcially one whose opinion on things I respect as I do yours.

Double meanings are the bomb. I am addicted to them, and Clyne is a skilled hand. When somebody who, like him, knows what they're doing throws a double meaning into a lyric, you're right, it's best to read the statement as "both of these things are true, just true in different ways." No better way to describe a reality fraught with complication. It puts some torque on the mind to regard anything important from enough different simultaneous points of view for it to snap into focus!

The shame and inability to witness thing is also a Rorschach test, I think. And I agree with your assessment! The rare person whose belief is based on genuine happiness found through religion has no cognitive dissonance. For everyone else, they either force themselves to do something they're ashamed of, or demonize the part of themselves capable of feeling shame until it no longer visibly resists.

And if the person doesn't split off their personality internally, they must come eventually to the point that you and I each separately reached: "If this is making me miserable, why am I trying to spread it? Furthermore, why the hell am I still doing it?!"

Geds said...

For everyone else, they either force themselves to do something they're ashamed of, or demonize the part of themselves capable of feeling shame until it no longer visibly resists.

It's interesting to consider that in light of some of the more (ahem) interesting aspects of this variety of Christian indoctrination. Whenever I think that it doesn't make any sense, I hear some variation of, "The wisdom of man is but folly to god," which was thrown around a lot. Whenever I think of the Bible as a historical document, written with the mentality of the bronze and iron ages, that part of my brain tells me the old crap about everything being "god breathed."

Everything is just designed to make sure that the more you question, the worse you feel. It's unpleasant, to say the least.

Fiat Lex said...

*chuckles* Aye, like the prickles on the inside of a pitcher plant, it only hurts when you're trying to climb out.

But the "divinely inspired" argument smacks of Hollywood spin. The Holy Bible is "from and inspired by" the mind of God, rather than just "from." Huge freakin' difference.