May 30, 2006

Words Made Flesh

The link in the title above is an interview at Salon.com - but more about that in a minute.

About a year ago, my agent asked me to put together a bio of myself that he could include with my written materials whenever he sent it around to any prospective producers, executives, etc. Realizing that this bio was yet another opportunity to show off my acrobatic skills with the English language, I really relished the opportunity to have a little fun at my own expense, with phrases like:
"Realizing that slavery was still technically illegal in the United States, He left the technology industry and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his life-long dream of filmmaking."
After all, this was being distributed to illustrate that I am, in fact, an artist. Attitude plus information was the name of the game.

The last line in my bio reads:
"He considers himself a Christian, so he’s learning not to look down on religious fundamentalists."
The two books I have the earliest memories of as a child are a picture book about the life of Abraham Lincoln, and a Children's Bible. It had all the Cecil B. DeMille-ready sections of the Old Testament, plus the Nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, & the Last Supper. I always wondered why my huge, white Children's Bible, with the big letters and colorful pictures, had so many fewer chapters than the regular Bible Mom & Dad had. It was missing the gory details of the Crucifixtion, the Acts of the Apostles, all of Paul's letters, and the Book of Revelations.

I recall, several years ago, Louis Farrakhan made a highly publicized stop-over here in the City of Angels, giving a sermon in, of all places, the Staples Center. I caught a small portion of what he had to say on TV, and this part always stuck with me.

Farrakhan spoke of both the kinship and the distinctions between the various religions sired by Abraham. As the literal meaning of the term "Islam" implies, Muslims such as himself are called to submit to the will of God. Jews, on the other hand, are the chosen people of God, and, as such, have both specific rights and priviledges as God's favorites. However, in Farrakhan's mind, Christians have, in many ways, the most difficult calling, because their faith calls them to strive to actually be LIKE Christ, who was, according to our faith, God incarnate as a man.

I spent virtually all of my formative years as an active participant in our local church, to which, I will give all the credit to my mother. Mom sang on the choir, she taught Sunday School, she served on the various administrative boards, etc. So, it should surprise no one that I sang on the Children's choir, regularly attended ALL Sunday School functions, served as both a junior usher and an acolyte (the Protestant equivalent of an altar boy, for my Catholic friends out there).

At his funeral this past Christmas, I learned that my mother's father commuted the 2 hour drive every Sunday from Baltimore City to his traditional family church on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay in rural Dorchester County to attend morning service, and personally took it upon himself to raise the money necessary to keep the church open long after it's membership had shrunk below the size that could actually support it. "They can't close it as long as I'm alive", he was heard to say.

The church runs very deep in my family.

And, as a child, I devoured all of these concepts of personal ethics. I took the Golden Rule so deeply to heart, once, at summer camp, I insisted that another kid punch me in the stomach to make amends after I'd accidentally winged him in the temple with the zipper of my jacket.

I have an ex who is an ordained AME minister. She once called me "a good little Methodist" - something President Bush & I have in common, at least, in terms of denominational affiliations. She elaborated that, in her mind, Methodists are distinctive from other Christians from their devotion to their concept of grace. And she defined grace in this way: If mercy is giving someone something that they don't deserve, then grace is NOT giving someone EXACTLY what they deserve.

But, ever since I left home to go to college, I've never really had a regular church that I could call my own.

Part of that is laziness. I mean, do I REALLY need to get up at 9AM to put on a three piece suit on a Sunday morning to ensure my eternal salvation? Is God, the Creator of All Things, the Alpha and the Omega, REALLY as petty as my 6th grade homeroom teacher?

But the other part of it is recognition. Having spent a lifetime in the church, I know all the tricks and cliches. I can recite the Nicean Creed, The Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, all by heart. Most of the metaphors and figures of speech most pastors use in their sermons are so rote, so repetitious, so mechanical, so stinking artificial, I can smell them a mile away before they even read it off of their prepared texts.

Back when I was dating my clergy ex-girlfriend, we went to alot of churches here in L.A., and, I've got to say, there are alot of guys in alot of pulpits around here (and in all the other towns I've lived in) who are tremendous entertainers.

But having a great singing voice and being able to tell a handful of Jesus-centric jokes is NOT the same thing as speaking The Word.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Verse 1, Chapter 1 in the Gospel According to John:
"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word WAS God."
We all know The Word when we hear it. Sometimes, it's coming through the voice in the pulpit, like my good friend down in Annapolis. Sometimes, it's on a silver screen, in the most unlikely of films. Or a song. Or a book. Or the mutterings of a homeless man on the Santa Monica pier. Or something whispered in an ear by a loved one.

The point is, once I heard The Word, and experienced it, I had absolutely no interest in wasting fours of my Sunday morning sweating in a three piece suit listening to some dude PRETENDING to speak it.

I once told my Mom that there are three kinds of clergy:
  1. those who are actually "called"
  2. those who want to be rock stars
  3. and those are desperately trying to fix the colossal messes in their lives by getting as close to God as possible
And, while I find that the first tend to be very few and far between, ultimately, they're not the point.

The clergy aren't the point. And neither is the church.

I once floated the idea among people on my old e-mail list about selling all those old church cathedrals and just having prayer/Bible study in our living rooms, and people literally looked at me like I'd grown an extra head.

(or, dare I say, a third eye?)

I honestly stopped looking for a church home because, in the end, I decided I didn't need it. Yes, it's great to have a common place & companions for worship, but, ultimately, I thought the whole point of the Protestant reformation was that you didn't need another person in order to commune with the divine.

If sin is a state of separation from God, and God is in all things, including ourselves, then isn't the notion of an intermediary between yourself and God the very definition of sin?

I've been reading "No God But God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" by Reza Aslan, and he makes the point about how, so often, in many different religions, including both Islam AND Christianity, the churches and institutions that are created by the followers of prophets are very often the antithesis of everything that the prophets themselves actually represented.

In many cases, I think we imprison ourselves in the forms and rituals and institutions we've constructed around The Word, so much so that we begin to think that the church IS The Word.

But it's not.

The Word is spoken every single day. But it's not shouted from a rooftop or screamed through a megaphone.

The voice that speaks The Word is small.

And still.

And sometimes, that's all I need to be to hear it.

Which brings me to this article in Salon, from a former nun who's now written a book that looks at the so-called "Axial Age" - a period in history when the foundations over virtually ALL the world's religions were founded. And, oddly enough, all these different religious traditions, from Aristotle to Confucius to Buddha to Zoroaster and his philosophical decendents, Jesus and Mohammed, all seem to be saying the same thing.

The Word can be written in many different alphabets & syllables. But the sound is still the same.

Check out her article - it's long, but WELL worth the read.

I, for one, have added her book to my Amazon wish list.

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