Tag Archives: performance art

The Origin of One Fundamentalist Baptist Preacher

Well, I’m giving up! I was born and raised to be a preacher and I’m finally gonna just do! I’m “coming out of the closet,” borrowing a metaphor that Fr. Richard Rohr uses to describe one who finds the courage to “come out” of hiding and be true to his inner most self.  So I will “preach” here though not in any formal sense as my approach to life and to the Bible is literary, the metaphor now prominent in my approach to life

This “virus” has cursed me from earliest days of my life, and technically even before as my dear mother had promised me to the Lord if He would let her have a son, having “struck out” three times already with my three sisters. And one of my earliest memories was standing on a feather bed in what we called “the splinter room”, wobbling so as to accommodate the give and take of the mattress, holding a Gideon’s New Testament in my right hand, and “preaching to momma” as she was ironing.  I must have just started fumbling with language as the only words from the Bible that stuck in my imagination were seven words from the book of John, “John the Baptist…locust and wild honey.”  Mother was preoccupied with ironing for a family of six…later to be eight…and at first did not give me the attention that I desperately needed.  I can still feel the desperate need for mother to look at me, give me an “atta boy” of sorts as I stood there reciting the same five words repeatedly, bible out-stretched in my right hand like I’d seen the pastor do in church, and hungrily looking for her attention. She finally did, and I’m sure it was much more quickly than I remember; she paused as she finished ironing one of my shirts, looked at me, made eye contact, nodded approvingly, and then resumed her ironing. I must have just beamed in my heart for the experience is still vividly intense in my heart some 64 years later.  And yes, this anecdote reveals volumes about the heart machinations that I’ve wrestled with over my relationship with my mother.

This “virus” finally came to a head when I was sixteen years when I “announced my call to the ministry” and “surrendered to preach the gospel.” I had known this was my destiny, my calling, and at last I gave into the itch and began scratching it.  I took comfort in finally having an identity, knowing that I could dutifully “walk through life in the closed cab of occupation” (W. H. Auden) and no longer wrestle with the existential question, “Just who in the hell am I?” But two years later, though the itch was still there, I began to realize that all of that “scratching” was not assuaging the hunger in my heart, a deep-seated need for an identity grounded in something other than indoctrination. After doing a year’s time in a Baptist Cemetery…oops, I mean “seminary,” an experience that deeply troubled my soul. With great shame and humiliation, I renounced my call to preach, taking decades to understand how “shame and humiliation” is often the driving force of an identity that is only “performance art.”

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School Shootings and Spiritual Bromides

Another high school shooting, another response with the perfunctory, “You are in our thoughts and prayers.”  This bromide is now catching a lot of flak, especially when coming from politicians who obviously prefer a glib, meaningless bromide rather than any commitment to addressing a politically-divisive issue.  With still another round of, “thoughts and prayers,” we have the commitment of these politicians to renew their commitment to further displays of, “not gonna do a damn thing.”  And many spiritual persons, steeped in “performance art” religion, will also offer this platitude and not dare to question their legislators and local authorities.

Spiritual bromides are common…and even have value.  Offering our “thoughts and prayers” to those who have experienced misfortune or tragedy.  And these words can convey the heart’s deepest sentiment and any such expression carries value.  But spiritual bromides can become so common place that they are merely the aforementioned, “performance art” designed to convey to others the appearance that, “we feel your pain.”  Since politicians, and spiritual leaders who have long-since lost their soul, will have to face this situation again, I suggest they have a new button on their computer, “TAP,” which they can automatically press in a moment like this and send out the automated message in which “thoughts and prayers” are wished.  Even better, they can call one of their staff persons and get them to push the button, allowing them to continue with interruption their daily routine of “spiritual activity” designed only to make them feel better about themselves.

Religion is so susceptible to being reduced to bromides like this, described by poet Conrad Aiken as, “well-worn words and ready phrases which build comfortable walls against the wilderness.”  Words are easy, and regardless of how noble they might be, they can be simply the noise of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,” if they have no gut-level meaning in the person using them.  This style of meaningless language is captured by an Irish poet, W. R. Rodgers, in this excerpt from his poem, “Word.”

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

Truth in our Modern “Fact-free” Zone

Truth is not a thing!  Truth is not an object that you stumble across one day as you amble along your life’s pathway, a bright and shiny object which you immediately recognize as “The Truth.”  Now it is true that walking along this path you might stumble upon a spiritual tradition, a thing or object, which is intriguing and even having a “bright and shiny” quality to it which appears to convey truth.  But this “bright and shiny object” can easily be only a spiritual bauble with which the ego can find amusement and self-gratification for a while.  The Truth is not on the surface of any spiritual tradition, is not a “thing” in the least.

But if you have been raised in the West where we have been systematized and “thingi-fied” since at least the industrial revolution, it is human nature to see everything as a “thing” even spiritual matters which are intrinsically a “no-thing.”  This is because our culture has turned our soul into a “thing” so that our intrinsic grasp of who we are is conceptual and therefore we will see other people, spiritual traditions, and even “god” as a thing.  We can’t help it.  It is human nature to perceive out of “the abundance of one’s heart” and the heart is always encumbered by the dross of the enculturation process.  Any spiritual tradition will encounter “meaning” only when one has the temerity to look beneath the surface of his life which always will jeopardize spiritual traditions that have been passed on to him.  Indeed, in some sense one must lose his spiritual tradition, his faith, his god if he is to find meaningful spiritual roots, meaningful faith, and a meaningful “god” who is not a mere idle thought rattling around in his skull.  This is relevant to the admonishment of Jesus that we must lose our life in order to find it, our “life” consisting of the persona that by necessity we acquired and has served a useful purpose…and can do so again if we will allow our internal resources (i.e. “Spirit”) to be tapped and give meaning to this persona.  And in my spiritual tradition, Christianity, the Christian persona is difficult to grasp as our ego does not want us to get a glimpse of just how much our faith has been an example of performance art.  This is what Jesus recognized with the established religion of his day and called them “hypocrites” or “actors.”  He, being a keen spiritual observer of his world, immediately recognized that their spiritual tradition had become merely performance art.  I think that today he would call most Christians something like “Christian-oids.”

Truth is elusive and to put it into words is difficult, technically impossible.  Words are only “pointers” in the spiritual realm and human nature is to take these words superficially and mistake the word for the thing.  Truth is a process, not a thing, and in my spiritual tradition this process is described as a “Person” and this is a meaningful way of seeing and intuitively grasping Truth.  But when at the core of our heart we perceive ourselves as a “thing” it takes a miracle for us to see any dimension of spiritual life, and life as a whole, as anything but a “thing.”  Until we see and understand this, our relationships…even the closest and dearest relationships…will be one “thing” relating to another “thing” without the presence of any dynamic process that is the essential feature of the life process.  Life is not static.  We live in a flux and we are a flux but our ego resists understanding this as doing so requires a heart that has become “petal open” and therefore aware of its fluidity and the fluidity of the whole of life.

(I almost got carried away here.  My ultimate point was the spiritual emptiness of our culture which has facilitated and even encouraged the development of Trumpism, with our President being only a symptom.  I pose the question I so often pose here, and in real time, “Where is the church?”  I could even say, “Where is God?”  Yes, God has disappeared and one could even say “dead” as did Nietzsche presciently note in the 19th century but that is only because those purporting to believe in Him have turned him into a sterile concept, the “letter of the law” and as the Apostle Paul told us, this “letter” always kills anything it touches.  Instead of droning on further, you might want to see a further amplification of this concern in another blog I posted yesterday.  Here is the link:  https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/)

Donald Trump and God’s Love

Donald Trump almost daily displays to the world a deep-seated need to be loved.  The media brings this to our attention often, and late-night comedians often make light of his childish efforts to win this love.  If he was merely a child on the actual playground, or some bloke in the neighborhood, most of us would recognize this neediness and try to offer validation when we could.  Teachers, monitoring the playground would soon refer him to counseling knowing that this deep-seated need for love needed attention “now” rather than in adulthood. But, of course Trump is cavorting about on the adult playground that we all cavort about on and his childish need for love cannot get the respect that it would deserve if we were still on a literal playground.  Mature “limits” need to be set by his “family” (the Republican Party) but they appear to have the same deep-seated existential insecurity and cannot say “no” to their errant child.

Love is a subtle thing.  In my clinical work, it was often a core issue though always presented as some behavioral problem the unconscious intent of which was to get the validation (i.e. “love”) that was missing in early childhood.  In my 20 years of practice, it became apparent that the more a child had to demand love from others, the more it belied the lack of it in the depths of his/her heart.  I learned to note to myself, “This student did not learn to perceive himself/herself as lovable in early childhood, learning that performance of some sort was needed instead.”  And, the more we have to “perform” for love the more we convey to the world our intrinsic self-perception of being unlovable.  For some, this “performance” will mean seeking attention or power often in the form of bullying others.  Others will seek it in compliance with the expectations of others.  But with either approach, or any approach between those two extremes, the individual will be announcing to the world, “I am not loved.  I am unlovable.”

The Christian tradition often poses a problem relevant to this issue.  In its over emphasis of the transcendence of God and the attending need to “submit” to this all-powerful external source of approbation, the immanent dimension of God is dismissed completely.  The task for this and all spiritual traditions is to address this contradiction and at some point hopefully arrive at the conclusion, “Oh, I’m okay as is!   Oh, that what is meant by God’s forgiveness!  That is what Grace means!”  But this requires interior work and cannot be found in a passive stance toward the spiritual endeavor.  The significance of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling” is usually overlooked and we cognitively assent to a distant, disembodied God forgiving us which means that the interior guilt and shame remains and keeps us enslaved to this alienated deity and our alienated self.

Poet William Wordsworth understood this and summarized it so beautifully in this section his “Preludes”:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humility is Often an Exaggerated Virtue

Yes, I remember so well how wonderful it is to be humble!  I had learned that this was so very early in my life, knew that I certainly did not appear to be arrogant, was generous to others, and was just an all around nice guy!  And I still think this description of my self was true…and I hope it is still true today!  But there is a profound difference in the “knowledge” of humility and “be-ing” humble, the latter not an acquisition but an on-going process.

BUT, I now realize that the “humility” described above was a learned life-style instilled into me from an “humble” rural Arkansas culture and an “humble” fundamentalist Baptist culture.   The “humility” certainly did include a socio-economic dimension as I was the product of what historians called the Southern white “dispossessed” who were still suffering from the collapse of the pre-Civil War Southern culture, a pronounced historical “humiliation.”

But, one could still use the label “humble” to describe me and still could I hope.  However, I now think that humility is not something that you can acquire by social pressure or education or a spiritual culture.  In fact, I don’t even believe in “humility” in a certain sense but I do firmly believe in a phenomena which I like to call “humility-ization.”

Humility-ization is something that came to me, and is still coming to me, as a result of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  I prefer, however, to describe it as “the Grace of God.”  Humiliti-zation is a life long process of being stripped of the superficies of our existence, including the extremely superficial accoutrements of our “spiritual life.”  It entailed learning that my “humility” was mostly performance art, a role that I had subscribed to in return for the approbation of my family and community.  AND, that was good and I’m pleased that I acquired that persona for I now realize it kept me from a lot of mischief.  But, it took me way too long to realize that this “performance art” was very superficial, essentially inauthentic, and thus an act.  Even more so, it dawned on me that the New Testament word “hypocrite” was merely a term for one who was “acting” virtuous.

I emphasize that performance art is just a natural part of life and there is nothing necessarily wrong with it.  But, in a Christian culture, if one lives his whole life being “good” basically because he has learned it is the way to earn social approbation, then these words of Jesus would apply to him, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”  In my culture it would give one a good “send off” with lots of lavish praise. But what about the unlived life which could certainly have been lived as a Christian but one who was sincerely living out of the “abundance of his own heart” and not just from listening to shrill dogma he had listened to since early youth.

For, Jesus was not here to provide us fire insurance.  Jesus was not here to prop up an empty life, to give the shell of a human being a “suit of clothes” to wear, but to empower one to become authentic, to give expression to his inner-most essence which might be described as “the Christ child” within us all.  “Becoming a Christian” in the culture I was raised in, and lived in most of my life, was merely part of a persona and that, I might add, a very worthwhile persona.  But, to live one’s whole life as a mere Christian persona, as a Christian marionette (or Christian-ette) is to miss the point of the wonderful spiritual teacher who left us so much wisdom if we would find the courage to explore it more fully.

 

The Crisis in Modern Faith

My Christian faith has really matured in the past year.  Specifically, I have no faith in the Christian tradition but I do firmly believe that there was a man named Jesus who walked the face of this earth some 2100 years ago and he left behind teachings that I find of great value.  I do not know how much of the story of Jesus that we have in the Bible is valid but I firmly believe that there was some young man who was attuned with what I still call “the Spirit of God” and his story is a story of redemption.  There is so much to explore here.  So much to “cuss and discuss,” and yes I’m familiar with all the debate about the “historical Jesus,” and don’t find that vein of thought threatening to my faith.  But I firmly believe, in the midst of all my doubts, that there is a wisdom in the teachings of this man that we call Jesus though allowing this wisdom to filter through our ego-ridden mind requires a lot of work.

But then there is the conflict between his teachings and my experience in church and what I observe in the “performance art” of modern Christianity.  And I think that the whole of life is performance art in some sort and that is necessary.  But sometimes the performance art that is our life gains such primacy that we totally disregard the other dimensions of life which I like to call “spiritual.”  The whole of the performance art that is our life, our identity itself is often called our persona.  When this persona becomes the whole of who we know ourselves to be, and if we live our whole life ensconced in this “pretend-me” that famous question of Jesus becomes relevant, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul.”  For one who makes this mistake has lived his life on the surface and never done the “soul work” that would allow his soul, his inner-most essence, to find expression.  He will live his life as “The Hollow Man” that T.S. Eliot made famous in a poem.  And, emphatically I state, “This does not mean that losing his soul means he will burn for eternity in hell.”  In some sense, never having escaped the fantasy of his superficial reality, he has spent his life there.

Jean Paul Sartre described “bad faith” as one of such naivety that it perpetuated great darkness even while sincerely assuming to be promoting Truth.  Just because we are sure of our faith tradition, and of our practice, does not mean that the ego is not in control and if so ugliness will abound.  But then if the ego is in control, its primary objective will always be keeping one from awareness of its tyranny.

The Ministry as Performance Art

Bishop Eddie Long, a well-known mega-church pastor died last month after a long battle with “an aggressive form of cancer” and even more aggressive forms of financial and sexual scandals in recent years.  This story in Huffington Post is a very sad report of a life wasted under the ruse of religion, a wastage which devastated many other lives as well. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/us/bishop-eddie-long-i-knew/index.html) When “men of the cloth” get caught in compromising positions, i.e. “get caught with their pants down,” I don’t always giggle with delight.  I used to but I’ve grown up now and am more accepting of human foibles even in the arena of Hamlet’s “country matters.” But the story of Reverend Long goes far beyond the pale of “indiscretion” and reflects characterological depravity.

Having set out to be a “man of the cloth” in my youth, I can report first hand I was very much a mortal though I very much pretended not to be.  In my fundamentalist Christian culture, the ministry I took a stab at was usually performance art and, I now see, the Christian experience itself was largely “performance art” though that is not to dismiss it completely.  Life is “performance art” after all. (See poem at end.) But Bishop Long demonstrated the human cost of this duplicity, not just to himself but to those he victimized.  This is not to minimize the heinous nature of what he did but merely to recognize his primary flaw was in being guilty of being “human.”  Suffering from that malady always leaves one living a life of pretense to some degree and the more that the “pretense” is required by one’s social context to remain hidden, the greater the risk to the individual and to those around him.  And often the Christian culture fosters pretense over open human-ness which always involves being frail, flawed, and broken at times.  This is true for the laity but equally so for the clergy though the standards are often beyond the pale for the clergy.

Pretense in the area of faith is often a tragedy.  Spiritual teachers have always tried to tell us that spirituality is not about show but about authenticity and to be an authentic human being is to occasionally wallow in dimensions of human experience that we would rather not let others know about.  And most of the time we don’t have to.  Most of the time this ugliness can be addressed either privately or in the intimacy of close relationship, including therapeutic relationships.  But too often organized religions teach us to ignore this ugliness leading to the tragedy of Bishop Long.  This makes religion appear to some as complete escapism.  And often it is, and we certainly need escape for “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot)  But the “escape” of religion can be salvivic if we deign to address the ego’s grip on the whole of our life, including our religion.

 

(From a W. H. Auden poem)

I wish you first a sense of theater.

Only those who learn illusion

And love it will go far.

Otherwise we spend our life

In confusion about who and what we really are.