The Pastor Who Ruined the Christmas Play

Jesus CryingI wasn’t going to say anything. I was invited to go to a Christmas play. It was at a church, but it was no big deal. It was a fundraiser, but I wasn’t paying. I figured it would be a bunch of kids in sheets like, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Instead, it was a fairly professional affair. The choir was quite good — as were a number of the featured singers. Some of the acting wasn’t bad, and one of its attempts at comedy worked pretty well. The orchestra was good at times, but the flutes, and even more, the trumpets were out of tune — especially in the first act. But overall, not a bad production at all.

But in the middle of the second act, the senior pastor of the church came up on the stage to talk about Jesus. For a good five minutes, I could pretend that it was all part of the show. But he continued on and on — for a total of twenty minutes, it seemed to me. It became nothing but proselytizing — for Jesus, but more to the point, for his own little fiefdom, the church I was sitting in. And I can see why! The church consists of at least three sizable buildings. This production was presented in the main church that holds roughly a thousand people. And it is packed with equipment — hundreds of thousands of dollars of audio equipment, as far as I could tell.

When the show was over, he stopped everyone from leaving to spend another five minutes pimping for his church. This man had destroyed any goodwill that I had acquired toward the Christian faith. In general, I push back against people who claim that religion is all about money. I truly don’t think that’s true. But in this case, the good pastor was not a fisherman of souls; he was a fisherman of cash — indirect though it may be. It was disgusting.

At one point during his main performance, he had all of us in the audience pray and ask God to come into our sinful hearts. And he said something about how if you ask Jesus to make his presence know, he will. Okay: typical evangelical nonsense. But it occurred to me at that point that it is pretty easy to stand up there on stage and talk about all the blessings of God when you are doing pretty well in a material sense. I thought of Satan in the Book of Job. Let’s take everything away from Pastor Cundall and see if his faith is as strong as Job’s. My guess: no.

It was also at this point that I really began to think about something I had noticed earlier, but put in the back of my mind. In all the cast and audience, the only non-white person I saw was a single Asian. I didn’t see any Latinos and I didn’t see any African Americans. This is a lily-white church in the middle of a country that does everything it can to bless lily-white people. And I was reminded how one of the big themes in the first act was bowing down to God — and by extension authority. And the scene right before the pastor’s talk involved shepherds being very slippery with the concepts of king and God.

For the first time in my life, I really saw a church as primarily a system of control. Its primary function is to perpetuate and empower itself. But secondarily, its function is to quiet dissent in the larger world. The church depends upon the existing secular power structure for its existence. This is quite a different way for me to think about the Abrahamic religions. Generally, I focus on their lack of theological depth — at least the way that most of them practice it. And there was lots of that on display, including the truly offensive idea that all you have to do is “believe” in Jesus and you are saved — like Christians are children watching Peter Pan trying to make Tinker Bell come back to life.

But I’m beyond that now. I can understand the need of many people to infantilize themselves in the face of death and the cosmic unknowable. But these are just the parishioners. The institutional nature of churches is evil. Garry Wills is right that the Catholic Church should get rid of priests. The Quakers have been right all these centuries. The church I found myself in tonight is more like a corporation than anything early Christians would have understood as a church.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Monty Python's The Meaning of LifeI just watched Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — very possibly for the first time since I saw it in the theater. I wasn’t that impressed with it at the time. The main thing I liked was the Terry Gilliam short that starts it, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. There were other things that were good — especially “Every Sperm Is Sacred” and the sex education skit and the “Galaxy Song.” But this was overwhelmed by “live organ donations” and the exploding Mr Creosote. In fact, it was the memory of this latter bit that kept me away from the film for such a long time.

In a certain way, I can say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The film’s excesses are, well, excessive. And I’ll add something else: it goes overboard with its breast obsession. This starts with the lovely Patricia Quinn (Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the schoolmaster’s wife; continues with the execution sketch where a man is chased over a cliff by a bunch of topless women — often shot in slow motion for maximum effect; and finishes with the stage show in heaven, which looks an awful lot like the dinner show at the MGM Grand. It all seems so adolescent. But there is a difference in my perception this time: it all strikes me as very funny, even as it is mixed with disgust. (In the Creosote skit, I swear I can smell what is going on.)

The main thing that strikes me now is that the film is beautifully produced. The acting is by far the best that the Pythons ever did. The art direction and cinematography are as good as any film. And it is directed brilliantly. Terry Jones threads the needle perfectly by creating a visually stunning film that keeps cuts to a minimum so as to highlight the humor. And the musical numbers are a thing to behold. Nothing is better than “Every Sperm Is Sacred” — which is a far more elaborate sequence than I had remembered. The whole thing breaks out into the street for a truly wondrous dance number. Much the same is true of the last number, “Christmas in Heaven.” The one musical number that isn’t terribly well staged is also the best song in the film, “Galaxy Song.” I have the feeling that they were planning to do much more with the animation, but apparently Gilliam was focused on the Crimson short.

One thing that I really liked this time, which left me flat before, was the whole sequence about the stiff upper-lipped British officers in the Zulu War. Much of it is just brilliant like Cleese’s mirror getting shot while he’s shaving — he bristles at the interruption and then picks up a broken piece and finishes. But the part that killed was when Palin and Idle were in the tiger suit. It is like the best vaudeville act ever. And Idle’s business with the tiger head and whiskers is priceless.

There is also a deleted scene that is quite brilliant. After the protestants discuss how they can use condoms and how the freedom to have sex for pleasure is what the reformation was all about, there was to be a skit featuring Martin Luther (played by Terry Jones with a Jimmy Durante accent). In it, Luther is a sex-crazed nut who has just broken out of prison. The skit revolves around a friend of his hiding his daughters. It is very funny:

I also like their ultimate statement of the meaning of life, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” I’m afraid that’s about as profound a statement as there is on the matter. But as obvious as it is, it still seems to be beyond the grasp of some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is still probably the most satisfying of their films. But The Meaning of Life contains their very best work. And it hangs together pretty well as a film. I think the biggest problem people have had with it is their own preconceptions of what it ought to be. It needs to be appreciated for what it is: probably the best sketch comedy-musical ever made.

The Psychology of Open-Carry

Veronica DunnachieVeronica Dunnachie seems to have killed her estranged husband and his adult daughter. There is nothing especially significant in the report of yet another disturbed person killing people. What makes this case notable is that Dunnachie was an outspoken advocate for open-carry laws. On the plus side, there were three small children in the house and she didn’t kill them. (Or even shoot them, bless her heart!) After performing the deed, she drove herself to a local mental hospital and checked herself in at the urging of another open-carry advocate. The police later arrested her there and she is now in jail.

According to Daniel Strauss at Talking Points Memo, “Reached by TPM on Thursday, Arlington, Texas police pointed to Dunnachie’s Facebook page and the photos on there showing her involved in Open Carry Tarrant County and pictures of Open Carry Texas.” The police said that they couldn’t comment on her affiliations “but if you go to her Facebook page, it’s pretty clear.” Indeed it is. Sadly clear. The Facebook page has been taken down. But here is an image of her exercising her Constitutional rights at what looks like a fast food restaurant, grabbed by Hunter at Daily Kos (apparently originally on Liberaland):

Veronica Dunnachie Exercising Her Constitutional Rights

I’m surprised that this story has not gotten more traction. Maybe it is just that it is so predictable. Somewhere I saw someone say something obvious but profound, “It’s amazing how quickly a ‘good guy with a gun’ can turn into a ‘bad guy with a gun.'” Or “gal” as the case may be. Of course, even with the minor coverage, the pushback has begun. Yesterday, Liberaland published, Open Carry Group Denies Double Murder Suspect Was a Member, but She Was. You really should click over to the article. It not only has a lot more details about what happened, but it has great snarky comments about the open carry groups’ pathetic attempts to distance themselves, like the following:

Open Carry Tarrant County’s leader Kory Watkins is denying any affiliation with Dunnachie. Watkins told that Dunnachie “was not a member of the group.”

Oh look, here’s Kory with the double murder suspect…

Here is his organization on Facebook calling her “One of our members.”

I’m interested in the psychology of the open-carry advocates. Most states allow pretty much anyone (other than felons) to get concealed-carry licenses. Why is open-carry necessary? I don’t think it is about not wanting to wear a jacket. I think it is about rubbing the fact that you are armed in the faces of everyone around you. It is a power trip. It’s about saying, “Don’t mess with me!” But what kind of loser is so insecure that they need to do that?

Sadly, I think the psychology is very similar to that of Bill White, that I discussed exactly a year ago, How to Not Become a Neo-Nazi. In that article (one of my better ones), I pointed to the fact that White seemed to lack meaning in his life. He was running around from cause to cause until finally finding a home with the neo-Nazis. I see a similar need with the open-carry brigade. But just as finding his cause made White a dangerous man, open-carry made Veronica Dunnachie a dangerous woman.

I’m always reminded of this great Tom Tomorrow cartoon, “I said after you, dammit!”

Armed Society is a Polite Society

I have little doubt that Dunnachie is mentally unstable. And break-ups are very difficult. But a situation that would normally end in a slap fight ends with two people dead, because a mentally unstable, emotionally fragile person had a gun. And in Dunnachie’s case, she always had a gun. Because “freedom.” But that’s a mighty strange concept of freedom: people have to die because a bunch of rudderless people have decided that if they aren’t allowed to carry guns everywhere, the black helicopters will come.

The Problem With Obama

Garry WillsI think one of the things that may be hindering him is that he’s so aware that he is the change — that it’s such a break with our history to elect a black President — and that’s such an odd thing to some people and that’s why they’re calling him “not an American” or “socialist” or “fascist” or whatever — that he wants to emphasize continuity almost to a fault. So even though he came to national attention by opposing the Iraq War, he appointed his Secretary of State (someone who voted for the Iraq War), his Vice-President (someone who voted for the Iraq War), his Secretary of Defense (someone who conducted the Iraq War), the two generals in Afghanistan (who conducted the Iraq War). That’s continuity, all right! But is it the continuity that we need?

And then I noticed that the same thing was happening in other things. He wanted to face up to the banking problems. So he put in Geithner and Summers and Bernanke — the same people who got us into the banking problems. He wanted to bring us healthcare. And the first people he invited into the White House were the AMA, big pharma, the insurance companies. And he actually said, foolishly, “This is the first time we’ve had all these people on our side.” They weren’t on his side; they were snookering him. So I think that his rhetoric of a post-racial, post-partisan, post-blue-state-red-state America is just unrealistic. And the Republican Party has played him for a fool.

—Garry Wills
Interview on Conversations With History

Aphra Behn

Detail of Aphra Behn by Peter LelyBefore getting to the birthday post proper, I just want to say that it is the painter Roger Fry‘s birthday, and I love his work. I just don’t know that much about him. And for some reason, there isn’t all that much of his work online. Nor is a book about or by him in the library. But maybe by next year, I will have something to write about. He’s very deserving. Of course, so is the subject of today’s birthday post.

On this day in 1640, the great English writer Aphra Behn was baptized. Like most people from that time, we don’t know when she was born. The standard thing is to assume that people were baptized when they were three days old. That’s what the birthdays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Cervantes are: their baptismal dates minus three days. So with Behn, we are just going with the baptism. And it hardly matters. Why not that day?

Well, why not any day? The truth is that we don’t even know Behn’s real name. The date of her baptism is apocryphal. We don’t really know anything about her. And that is very probably by intention. The literary theorist Germaine Greer said of her, “She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks.” Even the one place where seemingly every adult is documented finds her missing: tax records.

To give you some idea of just how vexing her life story is, check out this passage from Wikipedia:

Shortly after her supposed return to England from Surinam in 1664, Behn may have married Johan Behn (also written as Johann and John Behn). He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg.

Shortly after returning from a place she may have never been, she may have married a man who might have been of a particular profession and maybe from a particular place. It is exasperating! But we do seem to know that she worked as a British spy in the Netherlands. She was supposed to get in good (Seduce?!) the son of the exiled son of the recently executed Thomas Scot. For this dangerous service, the King of England (Charles II at that time) repaid her the way they normally did: by abandoning her and not even paying her expenses.

Because she was in debt, she started writing for a couple of theater companies. Her early works were rather bawdy, like, The Amorous Prince. But she found more success later with comedies. She wrote a total of 19 plays and was the first notable female playwright in England (other than Queen Elizabeth who wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays). But she did far more than this. She also did a great deal of translation, and most important, she was key in the development not just of the English novel, but of the novel generally.

Sadly, she spent pretty much all of her adult life in debt. She may have been working at a furious pace (only John Dryden wrote more plays during that period), but it didn’t pay off very well. Perhaps the British were as bad about paying women then as we are today. On the other hand, there are two portraits of her by noted artists (and perhaps a third). So maybe she just lived beyond her means, as seems to have been typical of writers then — and now. She died in poverty at the age of 48.

Happy birthday Aphra Behn!