my occasional musings on life, love, art, perfume ... what else is there?

8.25.2006

Taking the Point

My memory now forces me into forensic activity whenever I want to make lucid a vivid event of my past. So the story I'm telling is reconstructed to the best of my ability, and I know it has inconsistencies.

(It is only in more recent years that I've thought complete honesty was the way to go anyway; I used to make much more creative fabric out of my hole-y recollections of the past.)

When I was 15, the Wicked Stepfather was youth pastor of our college town's more conservative congregational church. As a basic component of his personality, W.S. loved to stir up controversy and for that reason alone, I believe, decided to take the youth group on a field trip to the Chicago Theological Seminary in the later 1960s.

At that time, Liberation Theology with its emphasis on social activism, was gaining ground among daring young seminarians,and a mixture of this philosophy, woven into the fabric of theistic existentialism, was what our tender young minds were exposed to during that intense three days.

I think W.S. got more than he bargained for ... and, in hindsight, I bet he had some explaining to do when the youth of the church returned and started spouting some of the revolutionary rhetoric in which we had been immersed.

What I remember most strongly is the intensity and monk-like quality of the young men who were teaching us. We were staying in what seemed like a monastery, communal living with barracks-type beds and awful food served at long tables.

There were about 12 of us ... probably seven girls, five boys. And there was much stirring and twitching when the lectures started.

But I was transfixed. They were telling us that our lives, intrinsically meaningless in their raw state, could be fashioned into sharp tools for the advancement of God's purpose. We must learn to take risk in this regard, to put ourselves at the front line, to "take the point."

There was a symbol for this: an arrow shape struck through with a perpendicular line. Its meaning was that one should seek to be at the point, in the avant garde, on the frontlines, doing battle for God.

The context of that (and this?) time was that we should fiercely battle injustice wherever we found it (remember that this is the time period immediately before the Chicago Convention and I would imagine some of the seminary's denizens were much caught up in that violence).

These earnest young men taught that true faith involved action, and sacrifice ... and only these would result in our redemption.

Adolescent intellects were expected to absorb CliffNote distillations of Kierkegaard and Tillich and Barth. I cannot render meaning for you out of the faded memory of those lectures. I most remember the tone, and the intensity, and the certainty.

That we could make meaning out of nothing, that this was God's wish for us, that we were soldiers in an ongoing war, and that if we denied our role in this war, we were lost.

It is only at this moment that I realize how much this sounds like the doctrinaire teaching of the Muslim imams, readying their own soldiers for war against the infidels.

But I was in America. And although after three days I was filled with the spirit, the process of diluting the message had already been implemented by W.S., who hadn't realized the contents of the box he had opened.

Reimmersed back into a world of clothes, boys, music and makeup, it didn't take me long to forget the impassioned speeches of the young men, however attractive I had thought they were at the time.

But imagine if there were no diversion of a prevalent culture to dilute the message. Imagine if the message itself was the prevalent culture, and truly seemed the way up and out.

Then you get a glimpse of how a teenager could strap a bomb onto his body, make his bravado tape of farewell and, welcoming redemption, step into a crowded marketplace and toggle a switch.

14 Comments:

Blogger Doug said...

Mireille, that was an excellent and timely post. It's sure true that true believers are capable of much more than cynics for good and bad and it's only the cynics that know the difference.

I hope you leave this post up for a week. People shouldn't miss it.

Have a good weekend and Zockso!

5:59 PM

 
Blogger Alanna said...

There are conservatives like myself (also Christians like myself though not "Christian conservative" with all that implies) who worry that America's own increasing fundamentalist religiosity foretells our own fall from strength, just as Islam, once the world's great power, has failed to follow a parallel track into the modern age ... glad you like the raspberry cake! It's a lot more "fun" to talk about secular recipes, yes?!

7:46 AM

 
Blogger Minka said...

Zockso, I am so glad I swang by. I wouldn't wanna miss this. Well written and it somehow applies to me.
See when I read it...I didnæt think immediately of terrorism and fundamentalists. I thought of teh 2ond WW and Nazi Germany. peopel still wonder why Germans followed along, how tehy could just look upon the horendous acts and not do something...I guess your post hit teh nail on the head. becuase they knew of nothing else, there was everybody behaving in thsi manner, there were no other guidelines or options to compare.
No excuses though, just explanations.
Even the system of communism you can put under this. After all, from teh age of 6-12 I was marching because I thought the rest of the world did that too.
teaches us how important a FRAME OF REFERENCE truly is.
This is one of the best posts I have read this last month!
Thank you!

4:52 PM

 
Blogger Jemima said...

Compelling post.

I think, perhaps moreso in the UK, there is such a secular dominance that it's hard to comprehend religious fervour if you've never tasted it personally. It is so remote from the average life that the issues we're facing cannot be understood and therefore the roads to an amicable solution are hidden.

Outside of school, the children I work with have violent playstation games and hours of Islamic instruction. Immersed in nothing else you can see a disaster looming if they're exposed to the wrong person or don't begin to think and question. I encourage the thinking option, myself.

1:57 AM

 
Blogger mireille said...

actonbell said:

Excellent post. You said it, exactly. Our not understanding other cultures will be our unraveling, I'm afraid.

Have you seen the movie Paradise Now? If not, I think you'd really appreciate it.

5:46 PM

3:01 PM

 
Blogger ariel said...

Mireille, please forgive me for saying it but I'm sad to see how the Islam and terrorism is always mentioned together. people do make a difference between the cruelty of the crusades and Christianity itself but talk of the terrorism and Islam (one of the most accepting and tame religions of the world) as they were the same. I add that I am not Muslim.

anyways, I think you make a very good point. and isn't it so frightening? if I am a teenager in the 50's in Moscow, I might believe that I am a good person if I inform on my own parents. if I go to the right school, I'll believe that blue-eyed people are higher than brown-eyed people. and so on. it's just so scaring.

2:31 PM

 
Blogger mireille said...

Ariel, it is a good point about the way Islam is continually linked with terrorism in the media, in many American minds. In some ways, I think it is because we in the west tend to be insular; we think in terms of things being black or white, good or bad. We tend to simplify and aggregate too much. I am certain there are many Muslims of peace and intellect ... but the reportage -- and most of our national experience -- isn't of them. When I say I "...realize how much this sounds like the doctrinaire teaching of the Muslim imams, readying their own soldiers for war against the infidels," I should qualify it to say that I am certain that not all imams are readying their students to fight, even as I hope that the imams -- and all Muslims -- realize not all Westerners are infidels.

3:44 PM

 
Blogger puppytoes said...

powerful post, Mireille. and beautifully expressed. my own son nearly fell victim to the ideology of conservativism and Catholicism... but, like you, has managed to pull himself out of a narrow view of life by broadening his horizons.

it's all about perspective. you provide a wonderful one. too bad the people who need to understand it will never see this post. xox neva

10:50 AM

 
Blogger ariel said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:49 AM

 
Blogger ariel said...

darling Mireille, I'm so glad you didn't take my comment as a criticizm on you, you're one sensitive person that opens her eyes and think about the things she see around herself, that is what I like the most in your posts. Islam is continually linked with terrorism in the media here in Hungary too, not only in the media but in people's minds too. some years ago a friend of mine converted into Islam, and I've learnt a lot of the religion ever since, and met many Muslim women, children and men. it's quite funny, actually, I keep talking of what I learn of them to my mother, and I can see how she tells of what I tell her to other people finally getting rid some of her prejudices, it's good to see. of course Muslim people are people, do good things and bad things, fight, make mistakes, I'm not saying they (or any of us) are saints, and yeah, there ARE Muslim terrorists. also, I'm not trying to say that you are one to judge through her prejudices, just the opposite, you strike me as someone opens her eyes and tries to see. please forgive me if I caused any bad moments with my comment, I must be oversensitive to the Islam/terrorism thing. again, your post caught a big truth of our being.

6:50 AM

 
Blogger mireille said...

♥ ariel ♥

11:41 AM

 
Blogger cathleen56 said...

Oh, come one -- this analysis is beneath you, there's no other, more polite way to put it. I've been reading your blog, and have been so impressed with your open mind, your gentle disposition, your concern that you might offend other people. What happened? Did Jim vet this before you posted it? I bet not.

There are so many ways to disagree here, but I'll limit it to this: whatever Vatican II activists were trying to do, they never, ever advocated violence. In fact, they died for their ideals --- read about the "conversion" of Archbishop Romero, for instance, and you'll get the idea. These people were dedicated toward bringing to light and opposing the viciousness of economic exploitation, plan and simple. Not a single one of them ever advocated violence of any kind, so your equation of a Vatican II/Liberation Theology activist with a suicide bomber is inapt. If I were a better Catholic, I would say it was offensive, but I'm going to draw the line there. Suffice to say that Catholic Christians, the original Christian religion (well, maybe the Eastern Orthodox have a claim, but that's a discussion for another day) have always turned the other cheek -- that's where the concept came from. The "battle" that the idealistic priests or whoever they were were describing was always couched in terms of non-violence. And I think history bears this out -- there haven't been any bomb-strapping, murderous liberation theologists ever, and if you know of any, I'd be very surprised.

Second, what's the alternative? Your comment about the prevailing culture saving you from joining the crusade was baffling. How are our lives going to be measured? By how rich we became? Or by how much reality TV we watched? Or what kind of car we drove? Or by how we treated the most disadvantaged citizens of the world?

7:10 PM

 
Blogger Lulu said...

But I don't think the post was about the relative morality of Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms, actually. We in the west MUST grapple with and try to understand what young Muslims who become sucide bombers think and feel, in order to deal with the dangers. As one terrorist leader said, how can you win when you all want to stay alive and we want to die as martyrs? Most wars in the past have been more evenly matched, in that both sides wanted to be alive and flourishing at the end of it.

And the post, I thought, was mainly about how frighteningly easily young minds can be convinced in a matter of days, with clever imagery, powerful rhetoric and the use of stirring music and emotional blackmail, that their lives are trivial and that some kind of fight is needed to save the world and make it better - and this can be used for good or bad. Teenagers, unburdened as yet by the daily struggle to earn a living and pay the mortgage, can be among the most vehement vegetarians, anti-racist, pro-planet-saving, animal rights moralists there are, bullying their parents into giving up smoking and into recycling. Which is great, and it's sad we ever have to lose that clarity. But studies have also proven that at some point during adolescence the brain changes for a while and becomes less empathic - teenagers temporarily lose the ability to correctly read others' facial expressions, for example - hence their famous self-absorption. And I think this predisposes them to be persuaded that the end justifies the means, and that if some people have to die for a cause, that's OK.

Also it is crass to suggest that the Western world and its values can be summed up as reality TV and a posh car. They could be democracy, individualism, tolerance. Fun, freedom, the right to aim for happiness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of lifestyle choice. The belief that our own ideas should not be imposed on others and that you can be good without a god (a big soapbox of mine). The failure of any of these values in practice does not mean they are flawed values.

I agree that there have been no major Christian advocates of violence and religious war in recent decades. But any religion, anywhere, when taken to obsessive extremes, can be troublesome. What about Ferdinand and Isabella?

As for the question of the conflation of Islam and terrorism, it is *of course* true that all Muslims are not terrorists, as the large and peaceful Sufi Muslim population in the UK especially bemoan. But it's pretty much true that all terrorists today are Muslim, and it's a kind of PC blindness to circle round this too much.

I was once caught up for a day or two, aged 20, in an evangelist group - instead of the 'fight the good fight' talk, I was love-bombed, and it worked. I was rescued by an older friend, a black American woman who had seen it all before and who deprogrammed me with gin, jazz and good literature.

9:55 AM

 
Blogger cathleen56 said...

I don't think we're far apart on many of the issues. I agree that we have to learn to understand why so much of the rest of the world hates us, and what motivates people to do us harm, but I have a feeling the answer is right in front of us.

And, I beg to differ, but the original post made the direct, inescapable connection between Catholic activism and suicide bombing, which I found shocking and disappointing, since the objectives of the two approaches are completely opposite -- the first is to fight against the terrorism wrought by the plantation owners against the peasants who live and die at the owners' mercy, and the second is to terrorize. 180 degrees opposite, if you ask me. And I was so affected by it because I think mireille is a really good, sensitive, thoughtful writer, so this seems to have come out of left field entirely.

And it wasn't me who made the "crass" observation that our culture is shallow -- it was the author -- maybe you missed this:

"Reimmersed back into a world of clothes, boys, music and makeup, it didn't take me long to forget the impassioned speeches...But imagine if there were no diversion of a prevalent culture to dilute the message." She could have said freedom of expression, freedom of association, but she didn't -- she pointed to boys, clothes and makeup instead.

As the mother of two teenage boys, I agree wholeheartedly that there is a stage where their brains -- and judgment -- are just not completely formed. That's why I'm so against the death penalty and sentencing children as adults. But I daresay that the average teenage Afghan boy is probably much less self-absorbed as the average American kid.

1:57 PM

 

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