A Modest Proposal for the Christian Church

My friend Marge, as fine a Lutheran as you could ask for, has a beef with the apostle Paul. According to her, he’s a sexist. I agree. According to 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, women should not speak but ask their husbands to speak for them. I doubt many women would submit to this today, and it would come as a surprise to the Protestant and Jewish women who speak for wisdom in the assemblies. (In another passage, however, Paul says women should be allowed to prophesy. So he is a sexist and inconsistent.)

There is a trap in this kind of thinkingthe assumption that specific instructions to specific churches should be held up as universal commands for all time.

Many biblical scholars agree with this position, taking into account the vast differences between first century Palestine and 21st century America. However, inconsistency persists in the application of this reasonable principal.

Most Christians admit to a looser interpretation of Paul’s anti-female views… but cling to them in regard to that most loaded of topics:

Sex.

Here is where some folks will go into a tizzy. The word “fornication” (admittedly a delicious word for fooling around outside of marriage) can be translated as “sexual immorality.”

This puts the argument on a quantumly different plane. Rather than define sexual expression by its congruence with the institution of marriage, sexual immorality opens the discussion to all-too-frequent instances sexual exploitation, either to maintain power over another individual, obtain instant gratification for oneself, or too participate in a relationship that is too weak to withstand the raw passions associated with sex.

Therefore, I propose the following as examples of sexual immorality: yes, adultery (since it hurts innocent children and spouses), but also promiscuity, bondage and submission, partner-swapping (since it violates the essential privacy of sex), and spousal rape (horrific to contemplate, but it happens).

Allow me to weave my situation into this. I am in my sixties and never married. I am not stranger to sex, and I really, really like it. In its proper place, it’s life-giving, healing, and fun. (My friend Jane says sex is a sacrament. This may be going a little too far, but it contains more than a kernel of truth.)

The doctrine of intra-marital exclusivity (an later addition to the sayings of Jesus) was devised in an age where the average lifespan topped out at anywhere from 30 to t0. Agricultural societies and the need to bear many children encouraged marriage within only a few years of puberty.

Today people go decades between or without marriage(s). Some decide never to marry.

Look: God made us sexual beings. It is hard-wired into our nervous systems. The body, in particular the female body, has an extraordinary capacity for pleasure. Science is discovering that regular has many health benefits.

God also gave us the capacity to create art, build culture, feed the hungry, nurture future generations, plumb the depths of the universein short, to co-create what Martin Luther called the good order of creation. No one is seriously proposing we set up artificial limits on these activities.

He also gave us the powers of reason and conscience. As the maker of the gift of sexuality, he expects us to use it well.

So let the Church move into the modern world. If she shed a few inhibitions, she might just attract more believers.

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Chris Farley, Motivation, and Compression Socks

I love Chris Farley’s SNL sketch about the motivational speaker who lives in (yes) a van down by the river. (Was there ever a better description of one-step-above-the-streets poverty?)

Farley (rest his hilarious soul) was satirizing motivators, of course, but he hit upon my problem with motivational speaking. It’s based on the assumption that people can be changed by being talked into it. If you can only find the perfect slogan, you can inspire people to move mountains.

Here’s how I motivate myself: pure self-interest.

Take exercising. You and I have you-must-exercise dinned into us forty ʾleven million* times a day. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t respond to scientific nagging.

I have a problem with my feet swelling. I had trouble fitting my fat feet into my shoes. A nurse told me to buy compression socks and walk more to increase the blood flow to my feet and reduce the swelling.

I wanted to fit into my shoes without buying new ones. So on came the socks and out I went walking.

I got the results I wanted.

This principle applies to everything else. If I want a better life, I take the necessary steps and wait for good results. Try itit just might keep your mind out of that van down by the river.

* Forty ʾleven million is a unit of numeric measure, perhaps unique to the South. It refers to numbers between 350 and 860 trillion.

We Bear Our Wounds, We Bare Our Wounds

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees

American Tune, Paul Simon

I know a young woman who was a former nurse. She was a newcomer at a halfway house. While she was out, her housemates staged an emergency accident scene in the house, a woman with an open neck wound. They called my nurse friend, who of course broke speed limits to return home.

She went into full emergency mode when she got there, speaking words of command and compassion. She did her job, and she did it very well.

As she reached to gently remove the “bandage”, the “victim” laughed and squirted my nurse friend with the contents of a ketchup packet.

A joke.

Some joke.

I cannot imagine the anger and shame that inhabited her. She spoke of it later in a calm, steady voice that belied a reservoir of hurt.

On hearing it, I felt a deep and abiding anger and disgust for those alleged human beings. I hope they got the dressing-down they richly deserved.

There are times when I hate the wickedness of the human race and its insistence on wallowing in evil.

We are the walking wounded, every one of us. Everyone is scarred, from booze, drugs, violence, abuse, neglect, prejudice, disease, and just flat out inhumanity. All of us are broken, and our souls have been battered.

But faced with evil and suffering, we take action. We console each other, listen to each other, let tears soak our shoulder and hold on as if our lives depended on itbecause it does.

My life was saved by a man who shared my name. He that told me his story of loss and despair. It was my story too.

I owe him so much. We owe it to each other.

There are times when I cherish the goodness of the human race and its insistence on wallowing in good works.

May it be so always.

Elegy for the Wax Machine

I admit itI am a throwback. Dial telephones, black and white TVs, vinyl records… I loved them all.

In the early Eighties, I worked for Spectator magazine, one of those free weekly newspapers. (Most of them were run by liberals; the owner of the Spectator, the late force of nature Bernie Reeves, was a right-winger. But I digress.)

In the pre-PC era, pages in print were hand-crafted. The technology of that time was cold type: body text and headlines were preserved on thick bands of paper. Setting the words into motion was the phototypesetter.

To work it, you pressed a key on a specialized keyboard. The machine passed a signal to a light emitter (not a laser) that illuminated a rapidly spinning film strip or disk. At just the right time, the beam created a letter on a roll of photosensitive paper which fed into a light-tight carrier.

Developing the paper involved horrible chemicals. You fed into a machine that pulled the paper through a developer and a fixer, and voila! Black type on white paper that you hung up to dry, using an even more ancient technology.

The type was pasted onto a paper form that the printer photographed on a camera bigger than God that was converted with more horrible chemicals into a plate that was strapped to the press.

It’s hard to believe things were that crude not forty years ago.

Crudest of all was the wax machine. You had to attach the type to the layout page. The machine coated the back of the paper with a thick ooze of wax.

The wax was melted into liquid in a metal tray that burned the living sin out of your fingers if you were dumb enough to try it. (Being a man, of course I did.) A grooved roller slurped up the wax and coated the paper.

The wax machine was one gigantic pain in the ass. It was a fire hazard, so you had to to turn it off at night. On deadline morning, switching it back on and waiting for the wax to re-melt was exquisite torture.

Wax collected everywhereon the plastic cover, on the rollers, on the temperature knob, on the power cord, and on the table the damn thing rested on.

The wax came in butter-sized sticks. If you loaded one too many stick in, the wax built up on the rollers and coated both sides of the type… which you then had to clean with a cheesecloth (even more old tech).

The machine whirred and grinded most unpleasantly. It was, as I said, a pain in the ass… but a necessary one. I don’t miss it.

And yet, and yet… The digital age has made it cleaner, faster, cheaper… and antiseptic. As a person who enjoys sensory input, I miss the old days of brute matter, of tangible objects, of a process that created words on paper as it smeared wax and dirt on your fingers.

It was real, and you could feel it. When we lost the wax machine, we lost something precious.

Due to Circumstances Entirely Within My Control…

I am taking a wee break from writing the essays.

I am throwing you over for novelist Paul Auster, whose work you should know. I am getting a copy of his massive new novel 4321 and I will need time to devour it.

I can’t say when I will return. Could be days, weeks, months… on the scale of geologic time, it will be but a flicker.

Meanwhile, you can, as always, visit my photo website.

Seeya!

William Brittelle: Beyond Genre

I simply did not know that that music like this was even possible. After you read this, click on the YouTube link below, listen to “The Color of Rain”… and be astonished.

A tympani beats, an electric guitar sings, and a choir of (French?) horns swells in slow ecstasy. An ethereal voice croons, I pledge my allegiance and bite my tongue as I say goodbye to the only thing I care about…

Oh my sweet heavens, this is so lovely. It is quiet and exultant, mystical and earthy. On a day of jagged emotions, this song is my benediction.

The world insists on labels, and “electro-acoustic” seems to have taken hold for Brittelle’s work. So be it, a concession to our small categories. “The Color of Rain” partakes of classical’s sound-world but it exists on its own, insisting on nothing but a listen.

When you need a lift, treat yourself. You won’t regret it.

The Color of Rain, 2015, William Brittelle

Acolyte

I am something of a ham. I feel quite comfortable on the stage and have done some not-too-shabby work on Raleigh amateur stages. Theatre is one of my favorite places to hang out.

I trace my love of the boards to Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Raleigh, where I served as an acolyte in the mid-Sixties.

It was a straightforward gig: During the processional music, pick up the [thingabob whose name I can’t remember], walk reverently down the center aisle, bow before the altar, and light the candles with the thingabob. Sit quietly through the service (which at age ten lasted several decades).

When the final hymn began, get up from my rest, bow, transfer the candle flame to the wick on the thingabob, spin the thingabob around, use the bell-shaped thingie to extinguish the candle, and walk back up the aisle. Then to the vestibule to take off my robe and resume life as a mischief-maker.

I had some chops. I held the thingabob high, and became adept at spinning it a half-turn to use the bell thingie. My walk was neither too fast or too slow (some of my colleagues were too rambunctious) but paced to an inner music of sacredness. I would have been great at weddings.

One day I nearly quit in disgust. I went through my paces, held the thingabob on high, and had lain down a righteous groove.

Then it happened. The candle on the left refused to catch fire. I weaved the thingabob about, scorching the edges of the candle. Lifted it up, set it down, tried again. No joy.

I turned a previously unknown shade of red. Silently I cursed Murphy’s Law, Fate, the uncaring Universe, the altar guild, everything. Unholy words formed in my mind. I froze in mute rage, resisting the urge to lift the thingabob as high as I could and bring smashing down on that Godforsaken altar, howling like a banshee.

Exactly 14.78 hours passed. A kindly man from the congregation came up with his cigarette lighter, eased up the black nub of the candle, and got it going. I was too embarrassed to thank him.

I sat down and learned a special brand of seething. Eventually I calmed down. The memory faded, lost in my busy schedule of making model airplanes and ignoring my younger brother.

This morning I attended a new church. I liked the liturgy and the music and the communion, but most of all I liked a little girl with flowing red hair—the acolyte for the day. She was flawless, lighting six candles to my two, ratcheting up the degree of difficulty. She sat down in the front and paid close attention to the service.

It’s always fun to watch another professional.

How I Find a Good Movie

Let’s face it: Going to the movies is a crap shoot. You can look on Rotten Tomatoes all you like, watch trailers, and get recommendations from friends… but sometimes, you encounter the sinking of feeling of watching the credits roll by and realize you will never get back those two hours.

Movie taste is of course notoriously individual. When we see a movie, we bring to it a lifetime of memories, expectations, and experiences. So what I am about to say may well be useless to you. (Please read it anyway.)

Here are some of the ways I choose a movie:

I know the director. I am a big fan of the auteur theory. If I am in the mood for an old movie, choosing a work of Kubrick, Ford, Hitchcock, Bergman, or Tati generally works for me. This system isn’t perfect (Wim Wenders veers from greatness to awfulness with occasional stops at mediocre) but it’s pretty reliable.

Selection by director works less well for contemporary films. I am sure there are many fine present-day directors, but I don’t know them yet. Conversely, there are some directors I know to avoid. Seeing for example, Tyler Perry’s name on the credits is enough. (I could write an entire essay on why I can’t stand his work, but it would put me in a bad mood.)

Actors with good taste. Some actors (I’m talking to you, Sly Stallone) make poor choices as to what they appear in. Others, such as Ryan Gosling, have learned to associate themselves with good projects.

Genre. This is variable. The only genre I avoid entirely is slasher movies. On the other end of the spectrum, I am fond of caper movies—watching well-planned grand larceny warms my heart, even though the plan always fails. Just once I would like to see a movie in which the heroes make off with the money, no one rats them out, and everyone retired to Brazil.

I like the occasional action movie, but if the explosions/time ratio is too high, I come away exhausted.

My dear brother has taught me the virtues of the western. They are few and far between now, but their mythic power cannot be denied.

A word on science fiction: Most films labeled as science fiction are in fact action movies with weird art direction. I can sniff out the occasional film that has a truly speculative idea, such as Arrival or the Blade Runner diptych.

Trailers. Of course, these are marketing tools, and most every movie has two minutes’ worth of good shots. But a trailer that’s not so slam-bang and highlights some interesting dialogue is a good indicator.

Incidentally, modern trailers are the worst part of movie-going these days. Seeing five of them in a row, each one a sensory assault, literally makes my chest vibrate. Will you please turn down the damn sound.

Anti-recommendations. Some reviewers like everything (hello Peter Travers and Rex Reed) and if they are the only name on the list, I stay home. Similarly, everyone has a friend with opposite tastes. If they love Film X, odds are you will see it as a travesty.

Awards. These are a pretty good indicator for me… as long as the category involves acting, directing, or screenwriting. Remember, the film that won an Oscar for best sound mixing could be a steaming pile of bovine byproduct. Much as I love good photography, the cinematographers in the academy look for striking visuals first and good stories second.

So… what what works for you?

Ignorantly Blissful, Part One

Pilfery, sheer pilfery. The blog backlog is running low and I am resorting to reproducing dubious satire I wrote for a college newspaper in the 1970s, aka the Mesozoic Era. I resist the temptation to edit out the weak jokes and syntactic sins. You may find this amusing as a period piece. Headlined “Secret sources”, it goes…

Excerpts from All the President’s Weathermen, by Bob Woodwind and Carl Bernslime:

It was a hot summer day in 1972. The Washington Pest’s summer weekend weather writer, Bob Woodwind, was checking his meteorological sources. He contacted an ESSA official.*

“Is that you, Bob? Listen, we have a rumored tropical depression. You better check around; this could be the ‘big lasanga’ you’ve been looking for.”

Puzzled, Woodwind talked with the city editor, Ben Badly, who introduced him to Carl Bernslime, a new reporter on the Disaster Desk. They would make an unusual journalistic team: Woodwind, a former Yakology major, Bernslime, formerly a zeppelin repairman based in Wyoming.

Immediately, Bernslime decided to contact his secret source, Deep Cold Front. He signalled him by sunbathing with penguins beside his barbecue grill.

At 8 a. m. Bernslime met Deep Cold Front by a brontosaurus in the Smithsonian Institution. “Do you have anything about a tropical depression?” he asked.

“It’s bigger than that. The responsibility goes up a long way.”

“To the Committee to Re-Elect?”

“Higher than that, even.”

“Good Lord! You mean” but Deep Cold Front had vanished, leaving behind only a slight low pressure system.

Woodwind wasn’t doing any better. He had managed to get a look at the National Weather Service’s files, but he couldn’t take any notes. So he had to memorize the highs and lows of each city, lock himself into a pay toilet and flush his notes to the Pest’s executive washroom.

The next edition carried a lead story under their bylines stating that the CRP was behind a plot to use a tropical depression to keep Southern Democratic voters at home. Ron Ziegler denied it, calling the Pest “an occluded front of climatological confusion.” The President’s personal weathermen, H. R. Scaldeman and John Hairlipmann disavowed any wrong doing.

After a day of questioning CRP employees, Woodwind hit paydirt: Not only had the CRP authorized a tropical depression, it had funded a full scale hurricane in Cuba, which accounted for the 500 raincoats stockpiled in a CIA telephone booth.

But Bernslime knew that the trail led to higher officials, perhaps as high as Scaldeman and Hairlipmann themselves. He got out the penguins for another rendezvous with Deep Cold Front. They met again, this time in a remote trash bin in the Tidal Basin.

“Beware the Ides of March,” Deep Cold Front whispered.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing, but it sounds authoritative, doesn’t it? But you’re right. Scaldeman and Hairlipmann authorized that hurricane with CRP money.”

Bernslime found Woodwind with his secret source in an all-night laundromat. He pulled Woodwind out of the dryer; together they took the findings to Badly.

“Get another source to confirm this. It’ll look good in the screenplay.”

For a week the two newsmen scoured every weather bureau in the city. They found nothing, until Woodwind found a wind sock with the initials “H. R.” on it. Here was the missing link they’d been searching for!

The implication of Nixon’ top men in the Weathervane scandal was the beginning of the end. Soon a shocked nation would learn of official plans to “snow under” sensitive documents and “rain out” political enemies. Two fledgling reporters had unearthed a series of small craft warnings that led straight to the cumulonimbus clouds over the White House, to the “Big Forecaster” himself.

* The ESSA (Environmental Science Services Administration) was the incorrect agency. I meant to write the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). So sue me.

Elegy for Sears

I heard on NPR this morning that Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, after failing to pay $134 million in debts (its total debt load is $5.5 billion).

It’s a shame. Probably every American over 40 bought something at Sears—and there’s an excellent chance they still have it.

The NPR report described Sears as the Amazon of its day. It sold everything, even houses, through its catalog, a massive book of dreams that dwarfed our tiny phone books.

What did not come from Sears? I don’t have the receipts, but in the Bliss household, the TV, the refrigerator, the air conditioner, the lawn mower, the washer and dryer all came from Sears. If Sears had made cars, we would have had one.

My first camera came from Sears, and probably my table radio, and transistor radios. Even my chemistry set, which I abandoned once I discovered that I could not make explosives. I had a Sears bicycle, a Sears wagon… who knows? Maybe the bed on which I was born came from Sears.

The arrival of the 500-page holiday catalog was an event in the annals of materialism. My brother (always a little more direct than me) circled all the items he wanted for Christmas. Thumbing through it was an education in more ways than one—let’s just say the women’s undergarment pages did not escape my notice.

In my drawer I have three Craftsman screwdrivers, still as useful as the day they were forged. I bought them in a five-piece set when I left home in 1977. As a bonus, it came with a metal disk: a “four-way pocket screwdriver,” emblazoned with the motto, the biggest name in tools.

It adorns my keyring to this day, after hundreds of impromptu fixes. Best thing around to slit open package tape. A talisman of smart engineering.

Sears embodied the best of American know-how. Sears never sold moon rockets—but it could have. Instead, it built the Sears Tower in Chicago (now renamed to honor a holding company), for some time the tallest building in the world at 110 stories.

NPR attributed the company’s demise in part to the loss of its strong brand image. Kenmore, Weatherbeater, Craftsman, Diehard—all gone. I am no economist, but I know that a company that loses its brands will eventually die.

So what happens next? Many will lose their jobs, of course, and shareholders will take a big hit. And, wonder of wonders, the CEO of Sears, Eddie Lambert is a billionaire.

I wonder—when did Mr. Lambert last mow his lawn?