I smiled today at the journal layout of a random LiveJournal person, whose journal I happened upon in that "surfing way" that LiveJournal inspires, now that google has stopped being mere waves and moved on to becoming unfathomable ocean depths.
The LiveJournal I reviewed celebrated a musical group [the curious Mael brothers, who perform as the band "Sparks"] whose work I have always admired. The group is an idiosyncratic duo, whose music has achieved only limited popularity and critical success--perhaps the ultimate "I'll sell out your club with my cult devotees" band for some 30 years.
Most people just don't get Sparks, which can, on any given Sunday, perform the blitz of odd ringing-guitar power pop or the abstruse reckoning of punchy Eurodisco, and is now on a two person vendetta to bring back a form of the piano-and-vocals-with-chorus art song based on motifs of lyrical repetition and tongue-in-cheek suburban absurdity. But I enjoy their music, and use my enjoyment as a mental reminder to respect the music of other folks, no matter how incomprehensible it might be to me.
I like the way that divergent and unique taste can be had by anyone without the need for advanced degrees, inordinate sums of money, or admission to any secret societies of cool.
No masonic orders attend the whim of the individual, and no academics consign souls to Heaven or Hell on the basis of taste. That's not to say all tastes are equal, or that no critical standards apply. It's instead to deny that any one body or group serves as the arbiters of taste for the rest of us. Each person answers to his or her own higher power (whether deity or the simple dignity of the rational mind), and works out the standards
for him or herself.
I respect the evangelism of ideas that results, in which anguished misunderstood literati bewail the philistinism of others. I remember reading the rock critic Dave Marsh, who habitually savaged every band worth anything in the world, excepting Bruce Springsteen (although, to be fair, he "got" Roxy Music before a lot of American critics did). I used to disagree with every other word he wrote, considering his work a banal attempt to reduce all of rock's promise to some flaky mystical notion that some primal rock legacy extended from the 30s blues singers and gospel thumpers, transmogrified into certain 1960s imitators, and then venereally transmitted into guitar bands and juke joint jumpers worthy just like the ones Mr. Marsh enjoyed hearing when he was a teen. My own personal rock feast is a much more rich table than that, filled with absurdity, much less Robert Johnson and much more 50s jazz, and leavened with every eccentric notion known to man about music. The space Mr. Marsh would assign to Muddy Waters in the rock pantheon I would freely donate to Harry Partch, and if we both might give BB King a nod, I'd put him there for the sheer sonic joy of the guitar solos, while Mr. Marsh might come up with some half-baked theory about personified oppression and moral superiority. Yet, for all my disagreement with him, I loved to read his different take on rock and his absurd but fascinating theory of a rock ethos.
I'm not, as anyone who reads this journal knows, of the school of thought that there are literal or metaphysical or artistic Hells to which some of us ought to be consigning others of us. I'm not quite willing, as some pop theologians are, to dismiss all sin and evil as mere "mistake", but I'm also not taken with the idea that anyone who does not think as I do is bound for nether regions. I don't find that such damnation theology is limited to right-wing religious people--I find people of all faiths and no faith who are perfectly willing to condemn others over issues about eggshell-opening.
I think, sometimes, that in a complicated world, it's easy to think that there is one simple set of thinking that governs everything. But the more I live my life, it's the fascinating web of complexity that intrigues me. I am all for relatively simple values--love one's neighbor, don't dump toxic pollutants into land fills, that sort of thing. But I treasure that my cacti books have hundreds upon hundreds of different cacti that hobbyists enjoy.
I love the idea that on eBay one can find tens of thousands of different hobbies being promoted. I like that I may like Trollope, while the metaphoric you may like James Joyce, an author who interests me as close to absolute zero as possible (and hence I should read next).
Simple thinking is just difficult business, for all its simple trappings. You start with something as easy as "gee, wouldn't it be nice if kids waited until they were older to begin having babies?" and next thing you know, you're putting inaccurate information into schooltexts in order to promote abstinence. You want to fight oppression against women, and next thing you know, you're describing all sorts of things merely mildly distasteful or even completely benign things as acts of extreme unkindness.
Do you know what I call the Human Saving Grace? I name her Nuance. Nuance spends less time cutting threads and shortening lives than anyone. She rarely explains everything, or for that matter, anything, in one neat sentence. Her mission in life is simply to add richness and context to everything.
Sometimes I long for nuance. Let's take a concrete example. If you read this journal, you may realize that I am a Christian or a Christian fellow-traveller, depending on how you define the terms. But using that term "Christian" or that term "non-Christian", either of which could be applied with some justice to me, brings up a world of baggage that require Nuance to sprinkle her pixie dust to leaven (or lift, if I am to keep my baggage metaphor pure). If you hear that word "Christian" and it triggers for you all images of all kinds of "red state" bigotries, then I simply am going to disappoint your expectations every time.
For that matter, although I live in one of the most "red counties" in one of the most "red states", that really just means that only 3.5 of my 10 neighbors voted left, as opposed to the 6.5 or so of the most blue counties.
On the other hand, if your LJ "wish list" includes items like "Number 7: that nobody calls themselves Christian unless they believe that each word of the Bible is infallible and literally true" or "Number 9: that Nobody calls him/herself Christian unless he or she complies in each way with my notions of right living", then I am going to fail your personal religious litmus test. I'm just going to fail every religious test you can set. On the other hand, if you are "left" of me on such matters, and worry that I'm going to tell you whom you should not sleep with, and how you should tithe, you're not going to get too much fun from me, either.
I wish I could say that intolerance is limited to folks to the right of me, theologically or politically. But things don't work that way. I joined the Unitarian/Universalist Church because I love its inclusive way of not requiring a creed.I like the way that people from many traditions, or no tradition, theist and atheist, are all welcome there. But despite the principles of recognition of human dignity which substitute for a creed, one finds in the U/U church individuals who are anything but tolerant of other faiths.
Words cannot describe the simple absurdity in context of people who complained to the Religious Services Committee I chaired about their revulsion at hearing the word "God" spoken in open church of a church which stems from the western Christian tradition, or the woman who actually threatened to stop attending if one extremely liberal and non-dogmatic theist minister were again invited back to share his ideas, which included the simple notion that some folks act in a way which is evil, and we should work to combat evil and seek social justice. On the other hand, I found that folks oriented towards non-theistic rationalism, who could bend their thought around the most intriguing complexities of science and social justice, had the hugest trouble with accepting that other folks might wish to give or hear talks about, say, Beltane, or the way in which people might create their own reality. My church was wonderful, and I loved even the dissenters I describe here, but I was, shall we say, amused.
For myself, a person non-dogmatically attracted to mainstream and to arcane ideas, but more focused on tolerance than on "correctness", I ultimately found less comfort in churches in which "creedlessness in theory" translated into "you can believe anything you want, as long as I don't find it silly, or as long as it's not something orthodox from a main-line faith I ran away from as a child". I love the U/U church, don't get me wrong, just as I love
the Methodist church in which I was raised. But my search for a different, more tolerant way has rendered me effectively churchless, a state I do not aspire to keep, but have maintained for some months now.
But my purpose today is not to give one of my periodic contradictory expressions of the Theology of Gurdonark, but instead to question the notion that there is something desirable in universal agreement in thought. I think that it's a conundrum rather like trying to make people who like Jethro Tull switch and become Hives fans. It's probably not possible, and it's not even particularly desirable. Yet a lot of earnest souls spend a lot of time worrying about issues of this little moment.
I sometimes weary of the way I can think deeply, but do little. I was in the Las Vegas airport recently, on a layover during a trip from San Francisco to Dallas. I have a weakness for The Wheel of Fortune slot machine. It's pretty cool. You spin the wheels and spin the wheels, and sometimes the "SPIN" thing hits, and a mechanized voice says "WHEEL... OF... FORTUNE!" and a wheel spins and you win 40 or 100 or 250 quarters. Sometimes you win a little money this way, in the 20 or 40 or 80 dollar sense. More often, you lose 20 or 40 or 80 dollars. This time I lost something astronomic like 60 or 80 dollars, and then I had that momentary guilt.
I don't mind that I gambled, particularly, though the Methodist church has fought legalized gambling since it was formed, and my last regular church attendance gig was Methodist.
I think the slots are kinda fun and more moral than a lot of other things. But I minded that I could spend a couple of hours in an airport throwing away quarters (and darn it, I didn't even get to play the one with cartoon lobsters that costs a nickel a throw), when I could have taken that same 80 dollars and given it to Toys for Tots or the local food bank. It's all well and good to write in my weblog about the virtue of kindness, but I think I spent 25 dollar on my Toys for Tots donation last Christmas, and spent 78 dollars or what have you on Monday in the slots. Values? Let me guess.
I think that part of why folks stake out things to argue about is to permit us to lose
sight of the things we all agree about and just don't do anything about. I'm not saying that's universal--it makes perfect sense to debate, say, the war in Iraq, which is quite a conundrum no matter which side of that issue you're on. But other issues get lost in the rhetoric, and people starve or die of AIDS or can't get a good education. It's easier to debate the topics than it is to solve anything.
I think that simple faith has its virtue, but simple thought is a costly thing indeed. It can cost you your sanity. It can cost you your life. It can cost you your moral compass. It can cost you your freedom. It can begin with something as simple as hating everyone who listens to x artist, and it ends up in the worst kind of Hell--the self-created Hell of self-righteous certainty. Worst of all, you can be entirely wrong, yet filled with deluded notions that you're right. You work out mental certainty with fear and trembling, in my view.
Today I'm writing an appeal brief filled with complex issues, trying to make them concise, well-argued, and correctly stated and addressed. But if I take my eye off the ball, for just a moment, I'll miss a nuance I desperately need to see. It's not that I don't want to make the points simple, neat and clean. It's that I need to see the whole prism, and not just sunlight shining through it, burning a page.