September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.
Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.
By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.
In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:
“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”
The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.
The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.
We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.
Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.
We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.
This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.
To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books
September 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky in regards to some questions I had for the book I’m writing on the origins of religion. Beforehand, my contact gave me a study guide entitled Judaism Decoded. Like every faith, Judaism has an argument for why their religion is chosen above the rest. In the guide I learned that while other belief systems began with the visions and experiences of just one to a few people, the Jews say that millions of people witnessed God at Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the commandments and instructions on how to live. Apparently, every eyewitness relayed all the same details and shared the same memories—blaring trumpets, bad weather and all. And yet, only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain and be in God’s presence. It made me wonder why one has to believe the unbelievable to subscribe to a religious way of life.
This brought me to a point that the writer Karen Armstrong makes in her lectures. She has a fascination with the many Jews and Orthodox Christians who do not put any emphasis on the act of belief. Rather, they find their spirituality through the expression of ritual. Faith is not the main goal, but rather it’s the ritual that transforms the individual. I wondered if the Rabbi felt the same.
Rabbi Bogomilsky is a very busy man. After a day of playing phone tag, he finally had some time to talk. I was glad that I had taken time to prepare. In response to a question on the continuity of Judaism, he spoke of the Torah and why the oral tradition is so important. Today, we can barely understand the ancient texts that tell us of the events surrounding Moses. In comparison, the oral tradition stays current to contemporary language. “The Torah never changes, but our application of it changes.”
I asked him if he agreed with Karen Armstrong’s summation of Judaism as not being belief-centric, but rather ritual-based. He strongly disagreed. “We are not commanded to believe in God, but we are commanded to know God… The world is mundane. God elevates it from mundanity. In Hebrew the term for the world is olam, which means concealment. Through God we are given the tools for how to take a mundane world and elevate it. It’s a mental act, not emotional.”
Of course, different sects of Jews believe different things. In regards to the majority of Jews in Seattle who are non-practicing, he chooses not to judge. He understands that it’s a big commitment. And then he made my favorite comment: “Most people don’t think about their mission or purpose, they think about their existence—what job to take, who to marry, etc.” Right then, I felt a kinship with the Rabbi. Though I do not subscribe to a faith, my study of religions through history, and the expression of that study through writing and art, is my purpose and mission. The main difference between religion and art is that faith teaches a person to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches a person to see the world through all points of view.
Even in the most routine of days, I have a hard time comprehending how anyone could see the world as mundane. In fact, it is often within the routine that I find my most elevated moments. Through the exercise of a discipline, there is either frustration or a breakthrough. Each offers a new lesson. In each moment we are growing. Perhaps “olam” features well into this daily discovery. There is always something hidden to discover.
In this same vein, I have reached a new phase in my research of religion. Mainly, I’m no longer angry, and I no longer care about my own personal story of escaping the grip of Fundamentalist Christianity. Rather, I am in love with my topic. All religions are connected to each other, whether adherents would like to admit that or not. It makes for an incredibly fascinating story. And though I can recount the horrific details of conquest, torture, and sublimation within religious history, there is also so much we can learn about ourselves through an understanding of what we have believed throughout time. It has become my key to understanding human nature.