Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Few Words on Hugh Hefner

Well, I've seen a lot of comments come through my feed over the last few days about Hugh Hefner. Some about how four generations of 13-year-old boys owe him a debt they can never repay, some about how he contributed to the moral degradation of our country, some about how he managed to die on Hump Day. I think the reality of Hugh Hefner and the changes he brought to society are a little more nuanced and complicated than a simple black and white “good vs evil” assessment.

Yes...he did help to bring sex out into the open. He helped make us able to talk about it openly, to admit that we enjoyed it. To admit that we (women as well as men) wanted it. He helped us to be able to joke about it in “polite company.” And yes, he gave many 13-year-old boys their first look at a naked girl who wasn’t their sister, and was much better built. He helped us to get out of the era of sexual repression that we had been in for way too long.

And that’s a genie that needed to be let out of the bottle. 

Now...if you believe in sexual repression, then you obviously think that he was the personification of evil. But if you don’t believe in it, then things look a little different.

Did he help glorify the objectification of women? I don't know. Don’t we all objectify each other? I’ve taught high school girls, I’ve read Redbook and Cosmo, and I’ll tell you that there’s enough objectification going on by everyone on both sides of the fence. It’s what humans do as sexual creatures.

The difference here is that men tend to be a lot more visual than women. When a group of investors tried to put out a women’s magazine with photos of naked men, they found that women weren’t their biggest customers...but gay men were.

Seems that’s just the way we’re wired.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret...in my adolescent/young adult days, when I’d look at the pictures in Playboy, my first thoughts weren't “Nice tits, I’d like to f*** her”, although that was a close second. My first thought was, “She seems really nice. I wonder if she’d like me.”

You see...the genius of Hefner and Playboy from my perspective at that age was that he presented the women there as people with personalities, people with interests, people who you might want to get to know better...and then maybe sleep with...because it seemed like you'd both enjoy it. (And let’s hear it for my personal favorite from back in the day, Barbi Benton).

Those other magazines weren’t as classy as Playboy. They weren’t about getting to know…and maybe sleep with…the girl next door. They were about body parts and kinkiness. Does anyone remember that Playboy was first offered the infamous Vanessa Williams photos, and turned them down? He was not in the business of ruining people’s reputations for a quick buck…and especially not for the kind of pictures those were. Unfortunately, someone else across town was. Ah...if only Hef had bought the photos when he had the opportunity, and just sat on them...

But in the end, Hef was a victim of his own publicity. As he got older, he couldn’t seem to let go of the idea of himself as the stud able to surround himself with beautiful young women. He didn’t get that while it might seem cool to be seen with a hot 24-year-old at age 48, at age 84 most of us…most of us guys…were going “Eew…she could be your grand-daughter!” He didn't understand the “Eew Equation” of half your age, plus 7. It’s as if, having let the genie out of the bottle, he let it take him over. He couldn’t just quietly step back at age 69 and say, “You know, I’m really too old for this now.” He didn’t understand that there can be too much of a good thing, and became a caricature of himself…a garish caricature of himself.

Hugh Hefner is dead. And like so many of us, he was a mixed bag…who also gave us a mixed bag.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Blessing of a Password

When I was a teacher, I often learned from my students, and looked forward to those moments. As a librarian, I often learn from the people who come to get my help with computer issues.

Such was the case with the woman who wanted me to help her set up a new email account.

We had gotten through all the basic stuff like first name, last name, and desired username; and now it was time to create a password. I gave her my standard spiel about not using “password”, your dog’s name, 12345678, or “monkey” (really), and was about to give her some of my ideas about how to create one, when she told me one of her own.

“They tell me that your password should be something that people normally wouldn’t associate with you, so I want my password to be GodBlessTrump.”

I raised my eyebrow, and then she continued.

“Make no mistake, I despise the man. I think he’s a vile creature, and both an embarrassment and a danger to our country. But I also think that man needs some serious help, and I figure that every time I type that in as a password, I’m asking God to give him all the help he needs to do a good job and not get us all killed.”

I nodded my head to indicate that I understood what she was saying. So often we use the word “bless” to indicate approval or special favor, but as I’ve said before, it also can also mean divine care…which is most decidedly not the same as asking God to give him whatever he wants, but rather, asking God to help him, by giving him the wisdom, caring, sense of justice, sense of decency, and sense of others outside himself that are necessary for being a good human being, let alone a decent president.

Then she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “And maybe that SOB will learn a thing from Dr Seuss, and what little heart he has now will grow three sizes!”

We both had a good laugh, and then we entered her desired password.

The system wouldn’t accept it.

She laughed and said, “It hates him more than I do?”

“Oh no,” I said, laughing myself. “I know what the problem is. You need a special character in there too.”

“Like an exclamation point at the end?”

“That’ll probably work.”

And indeed it did.

Now, every time she types in her password, she is most emphatically asking God to make Trump into a better human being.

Hmm…maybe I’ll go change my password.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The "Brutality" in Our Pasts

A few years back I was thinking about a rather unpleasant subject…rape. I was wondering how far back each of us had to go before we discovered that one of our ancestors was born as a result of someone being raped. I figured that it’s not just a possibility, but a certainty that each of us has a rape in our family tree.

It could’ve been from that thundering horde of Cossacks going on a rampaging, pillaging, and raping spree through certain villages in Russia and Eastern Europe 300 or so years ago. It could’ve been from a group of Vikings on one of their raids centuries before that. It could’ve been a drunk on the streets of Dublin a mere hundred years ago, who was forced to “do the right thing” by the girl…which we now know wasn’t the right thing by her at all. Going back even further and spreading out all over the globe, as we look at the “spoils of war” how many women were raped and became pregnant as a result of the “business as usual” of war? And where are the descendants of those children? Surely we all have at least one of those in our family history.

The thing is that for most of us that’s so far back, and so untraceable, that we don’t even think about it. In fact, I’m betting that none of you thought about this until now.

But I thought about it again while listening to a recent NPR piece about the popularity of the new DNA testing kits that promise to tell you “where you’re from”, or at least what your percentages are. After getting their figures back many people start off excitedly on a quest to find out more about the different places they came from.

Many white people, that is.

The story was different for many of the African-Americans interviewed. They saw the upwards of 20% European heritage in their ancestry, and they didn’t go traipsing off to England or Scotland or Spain to find that part of their families. That 20% was a disturbing reminder of what they euphemistically referred to as the “brutality” that African-Americans suffered under slavery.

Let’s face it…the “brutality” they’re talking about is rape. The same rape that’s in everyone’s background.

So then, what makes this ancestral rape different from all other ancestral rapes? What makes the fact that there’s rape in our family history different from the fact that there’s rape in the family history of everyone else in the world around us…white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, indigenous peoples of any continent?

Is it the fact that ours happened relatively recently? No, that can’t be it; after all the Cossacks were definitely ransacking, pillaging, and raping within the past 400 years. And that’s well within the timeframe of the arrival of the first African indentured servants to the British colonies in North America. Even that drunk in Dublin did his horrible deed within the past hundred years. And what about the girl who was raped a mere 30 years ago and put her child up for adoption…a child whose mother and father were both pretty ambiguously white, and therefore whose DNA test wouldn’t necessarily reveal anything about the family of the villain who caused the child to be born in the first place…a child who didn’t know the circumstance leading to their birth?

No, that can’t be it.

I guess that one thing is just the knowing of it. I mean, it’s pretty obvious. Even before the DNA testing, we all knew that we all had some white in us. Otherwise we’d be as black as the darkest Africans. And at some point we figured out that the European ancestry we had in us wasn’t consensual. So it must be the knowing for a fact that it did happen, and by whom. It must be the knowing that it did happen and exactly within what time period and under what cultural circumstances. It must be knowing that it did happen by people who were unambiguously not of our ethnic background.

Yes…it’s the knowing who did it that makes it different. And knowing who did it makes you less likely to want to trace that part of your ancestral heritage. I’m betting that had that adopted 30-year-old known that their mother was Italian and her assailant was German, they likely wouldn’t be excited about claiming their German heritage.

Yet…we’re at an important turning point in American history…one where record numbers of people are partnering, marrying, and having children, across not just ethnic lines (who cares about Polish and Italian anymore), but across racial ones. And with that being done, it can’t be assumed that the all of the 60% European in the DNA of a biracial child comes from “brutality.” Perhaps 10% is, but which 10%? No one knows.

Perhaps that will eventually bring all of us back to the fact we all have a rape in our family tree.

And that it wasn’t necessarily just by “those people” to “my people.”

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Tent Big Enough for All of Us

Just this past year South Dakota got its first full-time rabbi in over a generation. Mendel Alperowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, is going to serve a state where there are not only fewer than 1000 Jews, but where most of that small number are Reform Jews. What he says about that in his interview on NPR is instructive for many of us Christians:

Well, see, it's interesting because the way we look at it is every Jew is really a Jew. No Jew any less Jewish than Moses or Abraham, and we're excited to welcome all Jews. And rather than us putting up artificial barriers and division between people, we're just having an open home and ready to welcome everybody, like Abraham and Sarah welcomed everybody to their tents. We view everyone like Abraham and Sarah, and our doors will always be open.

To them all Jews are Jews, and they’re all welcome. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, non-practicing. Those who keep kosher and those who don’t even know what it means, those who won’t carry their house keys on the Sabbath and those for whom Friday night and Saturday are merely part of “living for the weekend”, those who try to follow all 613 Levitical commandments and those for whom 613 is merely the number after 612. They all will be welcome in Rabbi Alperowitz’s tent. He sees himself as the rabbi to all the Jews in South Dakota.

So why can’t we be like this? Why do Christians have to be so divisive, and claim that you’re not a “real Christian” unless you believe and behave exactly like us?

Well, OK, let me clarify…we’re not all like that. It’s just “those people over there.” My people, the people on the more liberal part of the Christian spectrum do tend to maintain that Christianity is a big tent, with room enough for all. It’s those on the more conservative side who tend to look askance at us, and question whether or not we even belong in the same campground.

And this, despite the fact that in one of my favorite New Testament passages, Paul compares the body of Christ to an actual body…where every part is needed…eyes, ears, hands, feet, and heads. And to this I might add even the parts the we consider armpits and buttholes.

But what Rabbi Alperowitz says is even more instructive for us because is an Orthodox rabbi from the Lubavitcher movement. That’s perhaps the most conservative segment of Judaism. He’s saying that you’re a Jew whether or not you’re a Jew like us. Whether or not you believe and practice like us. Whether or not you’re super conservative or super liberal. You’re still one of us, you’re still family, and you’re welcome in our tent.

Why can’t more of us be like Rabbi Alperowitz? Why can’t all of us be like Rabbi Alperowitz? Why can’t we all say that it doesn’t matter where you stand on capital punishment, infant baptism, abortion, wine vs grape juice, gay rights, female clergy, marriage equality, dancing and playing cards (but not at the same time), divorce, and a host of other things; because there’s room in this tent for all of us? Why do we have to insist on our little group’s way being the standard, while everyone else is wrong and needs to be converted to our view before we accept them as part of the group?

Heck…why can’t we do that in the secular world as well?

Now, to be sure, my people aren’t totally without fault either. While we may grudgingly accept the fact that the more conservative Christians, who look down on us, are also Christians, there are just some who we think are too weird to count, those whose beliefs and practices are just too far from the mainstream for us to consider “real Christians”, even though they may consider themselves to be. And maybe it’s time for us to make room in the tent for them too.

So that we can be more like Rabbi Alperowitz.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Words We Remember

A few months ago, we had a guest preacher at our church; and partway through his sermon, he started reciting from one of the Psalms. I immediately recognized it as Psalm 100, and started mouthing the words along with him:

Oh be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands
Serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song…

Except that those weren’t the words he was using. I don’t know what version he was reciting, or even if he was doing a rough paraphrase of the psalm; but I know what version I was reciting. I was reciting the words of the Jublilate Deo from the back of the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal that I grew up with; which, not coincidentally, is also how the psalm is set in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). But more important, in my case, is the fact that they’re the words to the setting of the Jubilate Deo by George Blake, my former choir director at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange, NJ. And when I hear those words, I also hear his tune along with them.

But my point, and I do have one, is that no matter what version of Psalm 100 I grew up with, I was still able to follow along with the version that the guest preacher used. I’m also able to follow along with the version currently printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Quite frankly, even though I grew up with one setting of the words, I’m flexible enough to follow along with, and recite the words to any other setting of it.

Just because I have one set of words memorized doesn’t mean that I think they’re the only set of words that should ever be used.

And just because it’s the set of words I have memorized from my childhood doesn’t mean that I think it’s the set of words that the current generation of children should memorize…if they memorize them at all.

As I was thumbing through the back of the 1940 Hymnal while writing this, I stumbled across a service for the burial of a child, and it included the well-known 23rd Psalm…except that it didn’t have the words that most of us my age grew up with. Most of us know, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” a construction which confused me for many years…after all, why wouldn’t you want the Lord to be your shepherd? However, both the back of the hymnal and the BCP have it cast as “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I can lack nothing.”

Wow! And this was done a good 40 years before the Consultation on Common Texts began its work on coming up with common, modern English, settings of liturgical texts for churches in the United States and Canada. I can’t help but think of how much less confusing this setting would have been to a certain eight-year-old.

But, as successful as the CCT and the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) were with their efforts to bring most of us in the English-speaking world to using common liturgical texts in modern English and a common lectionary, there is still one sacred cow, in all senses of the word, that they have made blessed little progress with.

The Lord’s Prayer.

The “new” translation of The Lord’s Prayer is going on 50 years old, and still has not taken root in most churches…not even those who use the rest of the CCT and ICET texts. Why is that? Two reasons. The first is because people still want to use the words “they remember”, and want their kids to learn the words that they remember.

This, even though they haven’t recited “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…” or talked about “the quick and the dead” in decades.

The second reason is because they were given a choice. For example, when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out in 1978, using all the other new common English texts, when it got to the place in the liturgy for The Lord’s Prayer to be recited, both versions were printed, giving congregations a choice as to which to use.

And guess which choice most of them made.

Just think about it, had the decision been made to only print the new text back then, most American Lutherans would’ve had almost 40 years of experience with it, they would now have that memorized, and that would be the version their children and grandchildren grew up learning. But because we were given a choice that we weren’t with the Psalms and the creeds, people are still clinging to the words they learned 50 or more years ago…as if they were the only valid words to use.

It has long since been time to change. The rest of us can continue to keep the old version memorized, just as I have the BCP version of Psalm 100 memorized. But unless you’re using Rite I in the BCP, it’s time for us to learn…and teach the new generation...the 50-year-old “new” version of The Lord’s Prayer, and be done with it.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

“Where Are You From?” Bad English, Othering, Conversation, or Belonging?

“Where are from?” A lot of people have a lot of different opinions about that question.

I have a friend who hates it because it’s not the question people are really trying to ask. She doesn’t mind talking about her ethnic background, but if you ask her where she’s from, she’ll steadfastly reply with the name of her hometown, until you catch on to the fact that you’re asking the wrong question, and phrase it correctly. Then she’ll give you the information you’re looking for.

Personally, I think she’s being a bit of a snot. She knows what they mean, she knows it’s being used as an idiomatic phrase about her ancestry. She knows that when people ask that, they’re probably asking “where are you[r ancestors] from?” But she acts like a big snot until they phrase it the way that she thinks it should be phrased before she gives them the answer she knows they’re looking for.

There are other people who hate this question because they see it as an example of “othering.” They see it as pointing out that you’re different, “not really one of us”, and “don’t belong here.” You know…”You’re not a real American…where are you from, anyway?” But that’s not how many of my generation see that question. The “othering” concept is as foreign to us as the othering concept tries to make the person of a different background.

To many of my generation, the question of “where are you from” was more akin to “what flavor are you?” We all knew that we were from different backgrounds, that we were all different flavors, and it was fun knowing which flavors we were, and talking about them. As I look back, I can recall that Dorothy and Muffy were Italian, Horace was Jamaican, Jimmy was Greek, Matthew was from India, Sophia was from Taiwan, Nancy and John were Jewish, Herbie was German, Linda was Polish, Josie was Puerto Rican, Sheri and Roxi were Norwegian, etc. Wanting to know “where everyone was from” was a natural thing. It wasn’t a divisive thing. It wasn’t an “othering” thing. It was simple curiosity. If we heard an unfamiliar sounding last name, we wanted to know where it was from…and we asked.

It was also part of a thing we used to call “making conversation.” But nowadays I’m told that it’s rude, insensitive, and a potential “microaggression” to ask someone what their ethnic background is when you first meet them, based on what they look like or their name, because it potentially sets them apart as “different” and “other.” You can ask about that later on, when you get to know them better. Maybe.

And then, on the other end of the spectrum, comes the version of the question that comes from a sense of belonging and inclusion. My two, biracial, daughters are regularly asked where they’re from…or more specifically, if they’re X, Y, or Z….by people who are X, Y, or Z themselves, and think that they’ve met someone else like them. They’re excitedly being asked, “Are you one of us too?”

Especially by guys.

I have a friend who’s Puerto Rican and German, and I joke that she wants to take over the world…maƱana. But you wouldn’t know this when you first met her…at least I didn’t. Her ethnically ambiguous look and plain vanilla Anglo name didn’t give me any clues. But she said that all of her Hispanic friends see it in her immediately, and whenever she meets someone from Latin America or the Caribbean, their first question is, “We know you’re one of us. Where are you from?”

This is definitely a case of belonging. It’s like “You’re from Jersey too? What exit?”

So which question is it? Is it always the same question? Should we always react the same way to it, or should we understand that it could be one of many possible questions before we get all bent out of shape about it? Could we maybe assume that no assume that no ill will is intended when that question is asked?

I know what I think.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fed Up with Being Fed Up with Bad Church Music

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena when it comes to music…people seem to think that if they happen to like one particular style better than another, it behooves them to belittle the form that they don’t like. It can’t just be a matter of different tastes; one has to be good and the other has to be not worthy of even being considered.

I noticed this many years ago when I was teaching a summer course on web design when Hanson was big. Rather than creating a website about something they liked, the adolescent boys I had worked very hard on an anti-Hanson page. Further back than that, I remember working in Manhattan with someone who adored Springsteen, but reviled Barry Manilow as being “ersatz.” And I have a dear friend who I went to music school with, who hates country and bluegrass music because “her mother didn’t pay all that money for her musical education for her to listen to that crap.”

And into this already sad mix, I saw a link on Facebook a few weeks ago for the group I’m Fed Up with Bad Church Music. I had already let out a long sigh when I saw the name of the group, and then I got more disheartened when I read this partial description of the group:

This group may be for you...

1. If you are of the opinion that Shine Jesus Shine, Here I Am, Lord, etc. are not the most beautiful church songs ever written.

2. If you think the Mass of Creation has had its day.

3. You actually kind of like the idea of singing chant and hymns. Gasp!

4. If you'd rather hear a pipe organ in church than a band or keyboard.

Really? Is this really necessary? Can’t one say that they prefer a certain type of hymnody and liturgical music without saying that everything else is trash?

I got pretty much the same musical education as my friend who looks down her nose at country and bluegrass, and that education enabled me to appreciate the value of all kinds of music…even if it wasn’t a style that I was particularly enamored of.

My first paying job was as a boy soprano at a “high church” Episcopal church of the type that many members of this group either belong to or wish that their church was like; and I can chant with the best of them. But I was also lucky enough to experience all kinds of hymnody and liturgical music as a result of not only being in the choirs of many churches, but of visiting many churches with my friends.

What I learned from this is that there’s a lot out there. There’s a lot of church music out there from all different subcultures and styles, and they all have their place.

That being said, there are many contemporary hymns and pieces of liturgical music that I could live without ever hearing again. But I can also say the same thing about many “traditional” or “classic” pieces of church music. Similarly, there are many pieces of both types of music that I absolutely love.

I don’t make an idol of any one particular style, and am capable of mixing them up. I also believe that to think that God likes one type of church music better than another is the height of arrogance. Can’t we accept the fact that we have a personal preference for one particular type of church music without saying that all other types are holy crap?

And yet, since we went there, I’ll be honest with you…I’m no big fan of Shine, Jesus, Shine either, but I love Here I Am, Lord.

But...my all-time favorite hymn remains In Heavenly Love Abiding, from the venerated 1940 Episcopal Hymnal.

And that's OK. 

Now...can we all just get along now?