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American Idolatry

July 20, 2009

Part 1: Religion and Politics

My almost fifteen year old daughter has been incessantly humming and singing the same song for approximately three days; part of the reason she’s humming is that, as she says, it’s “stuck in her head.” This is an annoying phenomenon I’m familiar with. The other reason, I suspect, has less to do with mental echoes and more to do with my reaction – usually a grunt and an eye roll. In order keep from encouraging her, I’m trying to minimize my (very natural) response.

In the realm of father/daughter politics, this sort of game play isn’t unusual. In fact, I have long believed that it’s the responsibility of children to try and annoy the shit of their parents, and it’s the responsibility of parents to work towards a healthy stoic response. This will, of course, confuse the child; but it’s all part of the back and forth. 

In this case, though, she might have me. (Don’t tell her.) The reason: the song she keeps singing and humming. It’s one that will be familiar to some of you. The song is an old favorite of Sunday School teachers and Vacation Bible School program facilitators (if you don’t know what either of these things are or have had to deal with the lasting impact of growing up in the shadow of “faith” count yourself lucky.) The song goes like this:

“I’ve got the Joy joy joy joy down in my heart.”


“Down in my heart.”


“Down in my heart.”

I won’t bother with the other verses. Yes, I know them. Luckily, she doesn’t; or, she has forgotten them. I don’t consider myself especially lucky, though, because the fact that she’s humming/singing what she does know only reminds me that I know more. This is not only knowledge that I wish I didn’t have, but it is knowledge that I am increasingly wishing my impressionable daughter didn’t have, too.

The mistake was mine; I was neutral about the role of religion for years, trying to come to terms with my own thoughts on the subject. I let my mother take her to church. I knew her own mother was taking her to church, though her own motivations have less to do with real faith and more to do with asserting control over every environment she can. All the while, I’ve been sorting through the muck of my own thoughts, my religious background, my intellectual development. I’ve read. I’ve thought. I’ve written. It hasn’t been as easy as you might think. People who haven’t grown up in the shadow of “faith” don’t have any idea what it means to not only question it, but to let it go. 

For people who claim to have faith, there is no issue because faith (or the aspiration to have it) is absolute… or at least, culturally constructed. The faithful – or at least the Sunday attendees – tell themselves that America is a Christian nation and they point divine references in founding documents and in statements made by various (though not by all) of the founding fathers. They point to the important “moral” lessons that are taught in church – for example, do to others as you would have them do to you and do not judge (though these both tend to be easier to preach than follow). Depending on your denomination (Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Charismatic, Fundamentalist, Church of Christ, Unitarian, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Apostolic, Primitive) there are passages that either justify or condemn your reading of scripture. There are church leaders and followers who claim their particular brand is “bible-based,” but I’ll not waste time and words on how ridiculously weak that rhetoric is. Nor will I waste space on all the things that the Word of God supports that we, as a society, have decided is not so good – the rule of kings, slavery, infanticide, the stoning of adulterous women, to name a few.

OOPS……….. did I do THAT? 

Anyway.  Sorry.  The point is this – regardless of how you interpret the bible or how you’d LIKE to interpret the bible, the fact is that all religion (and that includes Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and any Ism in which people are pit against one another on the say so of an invisible god, a historically inaccurate text, or on the word of some prophet or preacher) and the “faith” it claims ownership of is an all or none proposition. You can’t claim to be a Christian and maintain logical and progressive values, like accepting the idea that gays can and should marry. To be blunt, there is biblical evidence (if you accept a hopelessly degenerated and cherry picked text) to suggest that all these narrow minded jackasses are correct.  Moreover, it’s not all that logical to be a Christian and care about the environment. Why would you care? What’s the point in making sure the air and water are clean when the Rapture is imminent? (By the way – the Apostle Paul believed Jesus would return in his lifetime. He also has issues with women – that whole “better to marry than to burn” concept that has done generations of housewives SO MUCH good.) Depending on your reading, the Dominionists are correct – even Democracy itself is against the bible because it supplants the “divinely” chosen theocratic authority (first Pharisees and Sadducees, then church leaders, then Catholic Priests, and finally Protestant ministers, Elders, and Deacons) and places it – theoretically, since we’re still trying to figure this little detail out here in the ol’ US of A – in the hands of ordinary people. (Democracy, as we acknowledge it, was first discussed by the Greeks – those dirty ol’ pagans on whom we’ve based our entire Western Culture. If you don’t believe me, read Aristotle’s Poetics and then look at TV Guide.) 

And either you accept it or you don’t. Your own moral compass is flawed (you’ll be told) and so you must adhere to whichever reading of the bible your particular steeple subscribes to.  That rush of comfort you feel in not ever think for yourself again is called “faith.” (This feeling should also be familiar to people who embrace ideology over ideals – and not just religious ones.) That nasty little voice in your head that’s screaming at you to think for yourself – well, that’s “the devil.”

This, of course, was the root of my problem. I started noticing discrepancies in scriptural text when I was thirteen. I questioned them in private, of course. To question publicly was more or less discouraged – except by one enlightened youth minister who was eventually ran out of the church. I suspect that if they could’ve found a New Testament justification for public poisoning, he would’ve suffered the same fate as Socrates. 

My public reaction to my quandaries was to deny them. I held onto the vestige as best I could for as long as I could.  I held on so well, in fact, that when I DID eventually fall – as everyone does whether they like to admit or not – many of my “brothers and sisters” in Christ reacted in a decidedly ungodly way and ostracized me. (But then again, there is that scripture about avoiding nonbelievers, lest they cause you to stumble too.)  

My fall was profound; and it was, in some ways, painful. But my dad was a proponent of the philosophy that we learn best when we fall down.  And I guess I am, too. As much as I’d like to believe in the power of positive reinforcement, my most valuable lessons in life, love, and art have come from falling and hitting my face on the cement. Lucky for me my face has never been my best feature. 

When my daughter sings her jaunty tune and I roll my eyes, I am at a loss. Still. I want to explain to her that she’s allowing herself to be programmed. That she’s being robbed by her own consent. That it’s still important to think. That cherry-picked theology isn’t something to base her life on. I want to tell her the history of not only Christianity, but of all organized religions. It may seem like I’m picking on one particular Ism here… but that’s only because it’s the one I’ve had the most intimate dealings with. When I think about my issues with religion, a quote comes to mind – one from one of those biblical texts that’s not considered part of the “official” text. It’s a quote, attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, from The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas (as in Doubting Thomas):

“Let him who seeks continue to seek continue seeking until he finds. When he find he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled he will be astonished.”

Part 2: On the Altars of Commemorative Cups, Ticket Stubs, and Limited Edition CD Box Sets

I was not one of the seemingly millions of people who mourned the death of Michael Jackson.  Let me say up front – regardless of my own views to his guilt or innocence in regards to children, I am aware that he was found Not Guilty. (So was OJ, the first time around… but then, he was accused of murder, not child rape. I guess the lesson here is that as long as you leave ‘em alive, it’s all good.) At this point, I’m not particularly concerned with his guilt or his innocence. I don’t believe (in case you haven’t figured it out yet) in heaven or in hell; so whatever MJ did or didn’t do is something that the people personally involved have to sort through.  After the all the creditors are finished, of course. The ones with the biggest stomachs always eat first. 

I didn’t mourn him because I’m not a follower of our American Cult of Personality. (Great song, by the way. Vernon Reid is one of those guitarists who hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves.)  I do like to take notice of certain deaths. Writers, actors, musicians, public figures. Walter Cronkite recently died; we forget sometimes how close some people have come to seeing history. Cronkite had to go on air and tell America about the deaths of JFK, MLK, and RFK.  (The death of Malcolm X apparently didn’t warrant a break in regular programming… but he did get a mention, I’m sure.)  Frank McCourt also died over the weekend.  I was never a huge fan of Angela’s Ashes, but I tip my hat to the accomplishment.  David Carradine died recently in odd circumstances. I was bummed out when Ginsberg and Burroughs died. I was aware, though too drunk to really care (and I still don’t, to be honest) about the impact of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Michael Hutchence’s death (who went off, so to speak, in pretty much the same way as it seems our dear Grasshopper did.)  I’m forgetting some. But I know they don’t care because… well… they’re dead.  Feel free to extend the list in the comment section below.

Do I understand the impact MJ had on music? Sure. Am I aware that he influenced not only music, but musicians? Yep. 

Do I think he merited a memorial that JFK, RFK, and MLK would NEVER have gotten?

Hell no.

And don’t give that, “If JFK died today” bullshit. Did Rosa Parks get a send off that was covered and televised, bumped the war and the economy from the top slot in the news (even on NPR), congested LA traffic and caused local officials to worry about the limited number of port-o-lets and cops, since they couldn’t afford to pay for either? No.  Have there been mad dashes to the graves of Metger Evers, Susan B. Anthony, or Emma Goldman? No.

Do I suspect that if something (and I’m NOT endorsing… I’m supposing) horrible happened to Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan or that talentless kid who played the boy toy vampire in Twilight that all kinds of people (some of them I’m related to by blood and marriage) would be crying, gnashing their teeth, holding up t-shirts with pictures, posting tearfully written RIP blogs and memorial fan sites, and starting riots reminiscent of post NBA Championship parties?

You bet your ass. 

I love reading old Epic poetry. I can’t help myself. Gilgamesh is still one of my favorites, though it gets very little reading these days. Beowulf is another one I like to read.  (I mean the actual poem.  Yes, I realize there was a movie with a cartoony naked version of Angelina Jolie… but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Pay attention and think about her CGI nipple-less boobs later. On second thought, go find a real pair. With nipples. You’ll feel better.) I’m reading a lousy translation of what is still a great poem, The Poem of El Cid, one of the only Epics to survive Medieval Spain.  Epics have some resonance for me because I love literature, and I love the idea that the values they record once meant something. I also have a pretty vivid imagination – so when Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off, I don’t just read it – I SEE it. And my version is way better than any movie version. Even a CGI one. The subject of these poems – Gilgamesh, Beowulf, El Cid, may or may not have been real people. (El Cid is actually based on a real person. But, like all good Epics, the story has, uh, changed somewhat over time.) But I think it’s pretty cool to remember people who had to go through horrible things, go against terrible odds, and come out on top. And I’m not even much of a believer in victory – that, it seems, left along with the American Century that created the expectation that we would always be victorious.  And I’m not saying that the values espoused in classic Epic poetry are values that we need to necessarily bring back into vogue. Besides, the only way this would happen is if Vera Wang or Jimmy Choo or [Insert your favorite designer here, since I have no fucking clue who they all are and could care even less] suddenly came out with an Epic Poetry Line – and even at that it wouldn’t last very long.  Cultural memory is shorter than a cat’s memory. And that’s pretty fucking short.

Part 3: Cliff’s Notes (For Those of You Who Need Them)

I guess I’m trying to say, with all this rumination about Jesus, Sunday School ditties, Michael Jackson, and auto- asphyxiation (that’s how Michael Hutchence and David Carradine died)  that the ideals people represent are more important than the people – but that ideals in and of themselves aren’t absolute, either. I’m not saying I agree with most of what Malcolm X preached in his life. I’m not saying that the Kennedys were models of moral fortitude. I’m not saying that some what Jesus may have said wasn’t pretty smart. But then, so are the words attributed to the Buddha. So were some of John Lennon’s lyrics.  I’m saying we need to think about these things and not blindly accept anyone’s interpretation. Up to and including mine.

I’m also not saying that people shouldn’t feel something at the passing of cultural icons. Take notice. Remember why you liked their work. It’s natural. It’s healthy. But don’t mourn them like you knew them. You didn’t. You weren’t on their Xmas card list. You’re not in any family photos. (Unless you stalked them. And then you’re still not family. You’re just a nut.) You saw what they, their press agent, and the media wanted you to see. So breathe. Then go outside. Get a beer. Grab a boob. (Make sure you have permission for this, though.) Sit on your front porch. Enjoy the sunshine.

 I guess I’m trying to say – get a grip. On yourself, not just a boob.  Just because a bunch of people grew up wanting to wear one white glove and one of those studded red leather jackets doesn’t mean Congress needed to stop working on important things like health care reform to give MJ a holiday. Just because the people we love to read, watch, listen to, or emulate have the audacity to do something thoroughly human and DIE, doesn’t mean we’re any less ALIVE. When we start placing people or ideas  above us without thinking things through, they cease being people and stop being ideas. And they become less. Much, MUCH less. They become institution. Or, in America, they become something worse: a commodity.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. krulayar permalink
    July 29, 2009 9:32 am


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