Monday, April 28, 2008

Theatre and Theology: Addendum and Apocrypha

A few years back, I wrote a series of essays about theatre and theology, in preparation for my coverage of the (now-defunct) Spiritual Fringe. Since I’m gearing up to start writing reviews of yet another spirituality-themed theatre festival, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit some of my thinking about the subject. After all, I’ve had two years – two more years of wrestling with my faith and my career, and I think I’m better equipped to articulate some of my thoughts again.

First of all, I consider my faith to be the center of my life and work. My thinking and writing about other subjects – politics, art – is a direct result of my thinking about more metaphysical issues. I suspect that this makes me something of an aberration within my profession – I would characterize the attitude of most local artists towards religion to vary from a kind of vague disinterest to outright hostility, with a few pockets of warm enthusiasm. Though I would argue that all of my plays have a religious subtext, there’s rarely anything explicit in the work. Yet another reason that I’m drawn to fantasy – metaphor is a powerful tool for examining ideology.

Yet I, like most, find the Bible-thumping fundamentalism of the neoconservatives to be actively repugnant, a fusion of religion and politics that capitalizes on the worst of both. So I spent some time exploring the more left-wing, social-justice-driven religious movements, and found myself kinda wanting to thump a Bible. Why? Aside from my own contrary nature?

I suspect that, in an age of globalization, the defining artistic movement is fusion – fusion between different disciplines and specializations, fusion between cultures. Religion has not been left untouched by this movement, and many of the more progressive churches have proudly absorbed many of the tenets of Eastern thought.

I’m no stranger to Eastern philosophy – and I suspect that, having seen China up close, I’m more willing than most to acknowledge the dark side of Confucianism. That said, I have a profound admiration for the writings of Lao Tzu and the Pali Canon. Attempting to summarize the whole of Eastern thought is a dangerous and foolish endeavor – roughly equivalent to, say, trying to sum up the single message of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – but if I had to try to single out what’s drawn *me* to those particular texts, it’s the idea of the self as a self-created illusion. The bulk of our suffering is self-created, and the things that cause us pain are the things that we cling to unnecessarily. That’s a huge, towering, terrifying idea, if all of the implications of it are examined closely.

So I’ve been to the churches that consist of people lounging around on couches, and I’ve read the (could they be more ironically titled?) self-help literature – I’ve heard priests preaching the power of positive thinking, and watched their congregations practicing their healing affirmations. Now, some might say that a Catholic upbringing damaged me too deeply to properly appreciate these behaviors; others might say that it effectively armored me against what a seductive school of thought this is. But I can’t avoid the observation that Americans – the most self-centered people in the history of our species, and oh do I love us for it – have taken these texts, built a new religious movement, and placed the self directly at the center of it. These movements revolve almost entirely around self-affirmation – around making *you* feel better. And that’s not the fulfillment of Eastern thought – that’s its ultimate perversion.

And then the Bible-thumping minister in me rears his head, and says – religion isn’t supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to make you feel *bad*. It’s not supposed to tell you to be content with yourself just the way you are – it’s supposed to urge you to strive to be something much *better*. God forbid, maybe a little fire-and-brimstone would be good for us. Especially living in an age of apathy and affirmation.

And the end result is that it takes the philosophy of liberalism, and *tries to articulate it as a religion*. It boils down to little more than the welfare state with Jesus’ smiling face stapled on top of it. And, yeah, that’s every bit as repugnant as neoconservatism. More so, if only because it strikes me as being more dishonest. Affirming for me why I choose to avoid getting sucked into the two-party struggle. Right-wing, left-wing, no-wing; jackboots are one-size-fits-all.

So this is a big part of my struggle with religious theatre – it so often boils down to little more than political diatribe in the trappings of religion. I *have* to believe that meaningful fusion is at least possible, even if it’s almost impossible to find. In any case, I'll be exploring the ideas for the next month over at Womb with a View.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


So a while ago I read the novel "Empire" by Orson Scott Card. I'm a fan of his fiction, less so of his political writing -- frankly, I think he's off his rocker most of the time, and obnoxiously dismissive of anyone who disagrees with him, although he will occasionally startle me with a well-reasoned and fairly-argued point about a controversial issue. So I was looking forward to this one, not least because its premise -- a civil war breaking out in the contemporary United States -- is an interesting one to me.

It's appallingly bad.

Leaving its politics aside, its literary qualities are pure camp, played with an absolutely unironic intensity. Its heroes are all unflinching, steely-eyed, square-jawed military men; its villains cringing, conniving academics plotting the overthrow of the free world. The prose is riddled with intrusive editorials from his blog. It's almost impossible to believe that this emerged from the same mind that created the tales of Alvin Maker -- stories about a group of men and women trying to stop a civil war that are thoughtful, layered, and inventive. Seriously. This reads like one of Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen novels, only it's not a parody.

I suspect that all of these issues are symptomatic of an underlying conceptual problem. The basic argument of the book is as follows: that all of the moderates need to get together and stop arguing, or the extremist wackos will break us apart. On its face, this seems like a reasonable position, and echoes one that I've been hearing in political discourse for a while. The problem is that it's bullshit. Read his work closely, and his definitions become a bit less opaque. Do you support homosexual marriage? Then you're a wacko! Do you oppose the occupation of Iraq? Then you're a wacko! And pretty soon, it becomes clear that the real argument of the book reads thus: that all of the moderates (people who think what I do) need to get together and stop arguing, or the extremist wackos (everyone who disagrees with me) will break us apart.

It's a rhetorical trick -- six of one, half a dozen of the other. For that matter, I have a hard time seeing the virtue of moderation as a guiding moral principle, period. Sure, you can look around you and draw up an average of the opinions of everyone within your political boundaries -- and I guess that would make you a moderate, if such a thing is to be desired -- but in nearly every other place and time in human history, you'll be a raving extremist. You believe in representative government? Guess what? In the context of most other civilizations throughout time, you're a wacko. I know that it's an extreme example. but if you were a moderate in Nazi Germany, I wouldn't want to know you. What's to be gained by seeking a middle position between two morally untenable ones? The founding fathers weren't seeking a reasonable middle position, and they were quite openly contemptuous of those who did. This guy sure as hell wasn't a moderate about anything.

After I spoke at my Republican caucus, I was followed by a man who stood up and asserted that "an election is not the time to assume a moral position." Buh? Then when is the appropriate time? When there's nothing at stake? When there's nothing to be either gained or lost by espousing a principle?

I'm annoyed with myself, because I've been so hesitant to support Ron Paul. For a number of reasons. He seems too good to be true, for one thing, and I've been burned by politicians before -- the last time I was this enthusiastic about a politician was Bill Clinton in 1996. (Which, I suppose, demonstrates how far my politics have swung in the past decade.) For another, I'm embarrassed to be playing to type, to be so utterly predictable. A fellow playwright asked me who I was supporting a couple of weeks back, then cut me off before I could respond: "Oh, you're a libertarian. You're just going to be supporting Ron Paul."

So yeah, I'm annoyed with myself. Not because I haven't been shoving my opinions down people's throats (like, I'm afraid, so many other Ron Paul supporters have been doing), but because I've been squatting over my enthusiasm for him, stammering and changing the subject even when people ask me point blank who I like in the race -- when I'm faced with the most exciting political candidate I've seen in my lifetime. In a way, that's why I'm pleased to see the success of Obama's candidacy, despite my profound dislike for his policies -- that someone has the opportunity to support a candidate that they can believe in. Lord knows the Republicans don't. When presented with the options, they chose the path of political expediency.

And if that's the voice of moderation, then I'll none of it. If there's a basic argument to what I'm trying to say, it reads thus: that all of the extremists need to keep arguing...

...before the self-styled moderates find a way to pull us together.