Thursday, October 16, 2014

Joseph Anton Salman Rushdie Judy Garland.

I've been thinking for several days that I need to write something about the book I just finished, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir about the fatwa years, because I can't remember when I've been so caught up in a book, but I've had trouble homing in on just what I want to say about it. There's so much.

1. It's an enthralling book. I really, really recommend it. It's full of suspense, tension, surprises, reads like the best fiction, except that it really happened. Great behind the scenes stuff about the art and literary worlds. Art, sex, politics, religion. And just a fascinating story about someone having an experience you could never imagine the likes of.

2. Maybe you have a vague negative feeling about Rushdie from reading about him in the tabloids for so many years. Then definitely read this book. One of its major themes is the distance between what we think is true and what is actually happening, the distance between who we think we are and who others think we are. Maybe you'll walk away with a different impression, but I finished the book feeling like I had gotten to know someone hugely intelligent, passionate, bighearted, courageous, and self-aware. He is scarily candid. His devotion to getting at the truth is breathtaking.

3. It's a perfect book for this impossibly puzzling moment in our encounter with Islam in the Middle East.

4. Read it if you are at all interested in art and freedom.

5. Maybe you've already read it. It's been out for a year or so. I got it for Christmas last year. Don't be daunted by its length. It's a page-turner.

6. One sort of tangential thing I learned is that Rushdie wrote a monograph on The Wizard of Oz, which I bought and read also. It's wonderful, sweet, fun, full of unexpected insight. And his thoughts on Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which he calls "a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn -- the hymn -- to Elsewhere" (much of his take on the film, what he finds resonant in it, centers on what it says about dislocation, living in a place other than home, or in a home that doesn't feel like a true home, knowing that that true home might exist somewhere else, through the eyes of someone (Rushdie) who left home and was banned from returning) crystallized for me why I was so taken with Judy Garland years before I ever could have known of her gay icon status (and by extension why indeed she became that icon), and I'm certain this has been said many times but it never really sank in so simply for me: my sense of otherness, of not belonging, as a kid, and how compelling that idea of a place where there is emotional peace, belonging, contentment, must have been as a little kid, all those feelings were part of my world long before I associated them with sex. Judy (Dorothy) singing those words (to me, because who is she singing to, if not to me?) with such pure conviction was a huge dose of "Yes! That's it exactly!" It was easy to understand why I was obsessed with her as a 53 year old gay man, harder to pinpoint just why I was obsessed with her at 8. It was all about that song.

That's a lot of words typed very quickly. Hopefully some of it makes sense.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Is This God People Say They Believe In?

Everyone is still talking about the Bill Maher/Sam Harris/Ben Affleck dustup regarding Islam and whether or not it's dangerous, or any more dangerous than any other religion, and the subject came up last night among a group of friends gathered here on a chilly October night after dinner in the Fire Island Pines.

Our friend M. expressed the opinion that belief in God is mental illness, riffing on Dawkins' idea of a "God delusion." I'm somewhat sympathetic in a sort of how-can-people-believe-such-obvious-horshshit way, but in the end a mental illness diagnosis isn't for me an adequate explanation since it implies that really everyone before the Enlightenment was mentally ill.

I argued that belief in God is impossible to speak of as a single phenomenon because different people, even among the group of people who would call themselves devout Christians, have radically different ideas of what God is, from a white-haired old man sitting on a cloud to a universal spirit immanent in all creation to the embodiment of everything good to pure love.

M. was of the opinion that there are those who believe in a God who is a male supreme ruler of the universe and then there are those who have other, less anthropomorphic, conceptions of God -- and the latter are what we call "agnostic."

I went on to argue that there is a very large group of contemporary American Christians (maybe even a majority of non-fundamentalist Christians?) who do not have such a literal, limited understanding of God, who believe that the essence of God is essentially unknowable, and that the Bible and the traditional stories about God as a "being" are a way of approaching an understanding of God but not meant to be taken literally, and that such an understanding of God as something that is beyond human understanding is not incompatible with their sincere faith. M. argued that Christians believe literally in an anthropomorphic God and other such Biblical and traditional ideas as a literal heaven, hell, Satan, etc., and that those people who do not believe these things are not properly called Christians.

In an effort to understand just what the fuck American Christians do believe (and of course to prove myself right), I've been researching, googling, emailing an old friend who is a scholar of religion, and learning quite a bit but not really zeroing in on the issue. There's no shortage of polls asking about belief in God, but it never seems to be asked exactly what people mean when they say they believe in God.

It's only coincidental that I'm thinking and writing about God on a Sunday.