Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pensees: "Pastor Rick"

In the ideal world, there'd be no religious leader of any sort at the inauguration; we'd keep those people at a safe distance from the state. I don't think, personally, that the primal creative force of the world has anything at all to do with nations and governments. And even if I'm wrong, we'd be better off behaving as if this were true.


Obama and his team could have chosen anyone, who wouldn't agree to pray? The Dalai Lama. An activist nun. A schoolkid from DC. Joel Osteen, for heaven's sake, who at least doesn't run around condemning people, so focused is he on prosperity as a sign of divine love. Maybe the nation could use him just now?


Obama and his team made a mistake; this was an unvetted choice in the McCain-Palin tradition, and that's a painful thing to have to acknowledge. Did they know Warren said Jews go to hell, or that gay marriage, pedophilia and incest were equivalent acts? I'd bet not. This could have been an occasion to unify the country, or at least the prayer part could have been a non-event, but now, for many of us, the inauguration is actually ABOUT Rick Warren, which is awful. I want to be celebrating the extraordinary victory of our first African-American president, 146 years out from the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the election of a literate memoirist, a liberal, and a leader of great promise -- not to mention the end of the last eight miserable years of public life. If the guy had real concern for civic life, he'd step down gracefully and acknowledge it isn't the right time for him to be in this particular spotlight. But doesn't, an dhe won't. If you'd like some evidence of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can see for yourself while he addresses the faithful this week, with enough smiles and smarm to induce the need for a good spike of insulin, or a shot of vodka, whichever is handier.


I actually like the coalition-building idea. We've been stymied in terms of social progress by polarization, and Obama has the right idea to bring people with many different points of view together so that we can move forward. Does this mean that people who deny the civil rights of others should have a favored spot, blessing our next national venture? I said the other day that if Warren were denying the rights of any other minority group, there's no way he'd be up on that podium, but then the poet Alison Hedgecoke, who's Native American, pointed out to me that he could bash Indian rights and that'd be just fine. I think she's right; queers and Indians you can always throw under the bus.

If you can stand to watch that Warren video, you have a higher threshold for nonsense than I do. But I did make it halfway through, and there are two elements of his remarks -- each common in fundamentalist discourse -- that intrigue me.

One concerns the idea of choice. Warren says that we all have the freedom to choose to do God's will or not, and that he himself hasn't always made this choice. The notion that same-sex desire is something you choose is a fascinating view of sexuality, and it's obviously not one most people share. Do you recall CHOOSING what sort of person you'd be attracted to? Warren suggests, as Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart did before him, that we live in a state of undifferentiated wanting, surrounded by pitfalls, and at any moment we could give in. Does he believe it's an act of will to remain heterosexual, does he experience his own desires this way?

The other peculiar thing here concerns the ferocity with which Warren wishes to limit the definition of the word "marriage," as though the word has such meaning and power that to use it broadly or loosely were some tremendous danger, some terrible loss. I am, of course, a person who lives by the word, and I don't have anything like this forceful clinging to definition. (Maybe becauase I'm a poet. Say the trees and sky are married, the cardinal and the feeder are married, me and my blog are engaged, I don't care, that's all a potentially rewarding line of thinking.)

Anyway, there's a wonderful book on this subject called THE SCANDAL OF PLEASURE by Wendy Steiner. It's focused on the culture wars and the Mapplethorpe flap, but it's as relevant as ever. She notes the way, when the photographer's work was on trial,
liberals defended it on purely formal grounds; conservatives attacked it because it meant something, because a photograph represented the REAL. Same with words. For Pastor Rick, marriage is X, goddamn it, always has been, always will. Fundamentalism (one of the greater scourges of the planet at the moment) is a failure to read complexly, an insistence that the values of words are absolute rather than relative. Fundamentalism gives authority to THE book, be it gospel or Koran. Writers (and more thoughtful readers) live in a world in which authorship (read "authority") is shared, distributed, and never absolute.


Kelly Thompson said...

The Dalai Lama is my choice. I like what you say about authorship, Mark. No outside authority writes my story, if I can help it and separation of church and state is vital, vital, vital...did I say vital?
Seasons and Solstice Greetings to you and Paul on this, the eve of a new day.

Ryan said...

Mr. Doty,

I have long been a fan of your poems, and I am pleased to see you have a weblog up and running. I agree that Warren is a poor choice for the inauguration, a very very poor choice. But I am inclined to question your views on authorship and fundamentalism: isn’t Warren selectively reading the Bible to make it say what he wants? I know a standard mode of argumentation with Fundamentalists is to use Leviticus as evidence that X is bad (“Pastor Rick’s” view that homosexuality is against “God’s law”); however, few Christians actually know Leviticus, or else they wouldn’t play football, argue with their parents, etc, for fear of decapitation or eternal damnation…that is, they don’t understand Christianity’s relationship to Mosaic Law. So, that reading of the Bible is selective and immensely flawed (not that I’m “one of the faithful,” I’ve just read a little bit).

It seems to me that two major things (forgetting the nonsense of “Pastor Rick”) are at stake in this post: one, the matter of will. I agree that sexual preference is not a choice; however, I also am somewhat frightened of Science’s line (our other prominent religion) on this, which is that our personalities are genetically created. If our personalities are genetically created, we have no free will, so our actions are all the meaningless gestures of a puppet (granted: this is not the line of Einstein but the line of current scientists/headhunters who sell books). Of course, this is not what you are arguing, but I think the point at which we draw the line is worth investigating. Where do genetics end and where does free will begin? (Again, I agree with your statements, I’m offering up this question for the sake of reading a better mind than my own exploring it…I acknowledge beforehand there is, so far as I’m aware, no definitive answer.)

Secondly, I feel like you draw a false analogy: reading simply vs. reading complexly = reading for absolutes vs. reading relatively. I am all for the subjective, all for the individual, but I do think that a text is also a text, the way the material world is the material world whether I see it or not (my seeing interprets, distorts it). A problem I have with most Fundamentalists is that they choose to manipulate a text to say what it doesn’t, to simplify it. However, I also have this problem with a number of literary scholars. That is, in both cases, the subjective/interpretive readings allow for the reader to manipulate the text. Doesn’t the text say what the text says, the whole text? Obviously, ambiguity exists; however, to read relatively, to read believing the reader’s response is valid regardless of its foundation in the text, seems to me an ideology which exacerbates the current problem of selective readings presented as if they’re indicative of the qualities possessed by the text itself. Or is this a semantic problem regarding “relative” and “subjective”?

All the best,

Alex Dimitrov said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Dimitrov said...

It felt great to read this, Mark!

You bring up two things I wish more people disappointed in Obama's choice would talk about -- that ideally, we wouldn't have a religious leader speaking at this inauguration, or any national event (seeing as religion breeds fragmentation, and 'inclusion,' seems to be the word of choice for the Obama team) and that it's still perfectly acceptable to be publicly homophobic, and to, even beyond that, honor that homophobia.

It is very difficult to feel included in the "change" Obama has spoken of and continues to speak of. He never released a statement regarding Prop 8's passing (not to mention he was, for the most part, silent about it throughout the campaign), and this choice of Rick Warren makes me think back to when he campaigned with Donnie McClurkin, another anti-gay minister, or when he refused to have his picture taken with Gavin Newsom, for what seemed like political reasons.

Or let's talk about the fact that there are no LGBTQ people in his close circle of friends and advisors, he hasn't been actively supportive of LGBTQ organizations in Chicago, this list could continue...

I know it's controversial to say but I don't think Obama is going to be the change he proclaims himself to be, specifically for the LGBTQ community. It's already politics as usual. He's not going to rock the boat -- he's also watered down his policies regarding other key issues like the environment, which many environmentalists who supported him are upset about.

What's worse is that we're told by the media, and even by some Obama supporters, that we "shouldn't complain"...about Prop 8, about Rick Warren, etc. That somehow having Obama in office is symbolic enough of change and progress. Well, I don't buy that for a hot minute.

He hasn't even been in office for a day and his centrist liberalism is already showing. As a young person who voted for him I'm incredibly, incredibly disappointed.

Nancy Devine said...

i've read your post several times; and i've begun several responses. you've said aptly what needs to be said.
what is one thing you would ask of us, your straight allies, as we enter a new year and, i hope, a new, better america?

Mark Doty said...

Ryan's comment provokes me to say a bit more about fundamentalism. The fact is that I have some things in common with Pastor Warren; I think the word matters, too, and that you can't declare that a text means whatever you say it does. What I meant to say here is that the fundamentalist reads in a singular way, saying the text means this and only this. The word is a kind of casket, this kind of reading proposes, containing the treasure of a single, apprehensible meaning. I don't think I even wish that this were true! It would erase the work of poetry, which is to create a zone of meanings, a kind of meeting space between writer and reader in which meaning is built. Over and over again.

And about desire. Truly I don't think it's that we're imprinted by biology and there's never a choice to be made. Isn't desire some complex interplay between whatever longing arises in us, and the directions our culture allows that longing to go, and the choices we make about what to with it? The rub is this: in order to legislate civil rights, we pretty much have to move into a categorical notion of identity. To say that my legal rights are protected as a homosexual man doesn't answer the question about the ripple of heterosexual interest I might feel tomorrow, or s desire for celibacy, or polyamory... We talk as if desire holds still, and thus we can fix an identity in order to protect it -- but, thank heaven, it seems that human character is always more slippery and interesting than that. I don't think the fundamentalists can bear ambiguity, either in the word or the body.

Ryan said...

Dear Mark,

I think you've hit the nail on the head regarding both the Fundamentalists' approach to language and the protean nature of desire. Thank you for taking the time to say a bit more and for the illumination. Happy holidays to you and yours. - Ryan

Dana said...

"I don't think the fundamentalists can bear ambiguity, either in the word or the body."

First, I want to echo what Ryan said about being happy that you’ve started this blog.

Second, I love this notion of ambiguity existing in both the word and the body. I think ambiguities can make everyone uncomfortable, since we seem to have the notion that an understanding of the world, and other people, is dependent on labels and definitions.

But the difference is in how we respond to the impulse: Do we strive to eradicate all ambiguities by affixing a single meaning or interpretation, or do we allow ambiguities to remain what they are -- in flux and beyond definition and categorization?

And does the latter not open up a completely different way of being in, and understanding, the world -- as well as one another?

David Quigg said...

Dear Mr. Doty,

Before getting down to business, I just want to thank you for your work. I've been reading you since I heard you on Fresh Air more than a decade ago. Now that I'm a dad, I've had the extraordinary experience of sharing one of your poems with my daughter. It's "New Dog." The poem is special to her and has been since she was 4 or so. Sometimes I read it to her. Occasionally, she'll read it to me (which, frankly, destroys me.)

This being a blog comment and not a real letter, I will just point out for anyone else reading this that they can find that poem on the PBS site:


Thank you for taking the time to write about Rick Warren. I've been trying to make sense of all this myself. Today, after much thinking, I wrote a piece about it for Huffington Post. It's called "What Would Obama Do If Obama Was Mad At Obama About Rick Warren?"

(And yes, I realize I've dissed the subjunctive. Bad usage just sounded better to my ear.)

Here's a link ...

The response has been overwhelmingly good. But I've had one commenter who didn't appreciate having to endure the words of a "well meaning but patronizing straight person."

If you read the piece and see merit in it, that's great. If you hate it, I'd be honored to be ripped to shreds by someone I so admire.

With best wishes and deep gratitude,


A.H. said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your viewpoint. In his recent book,"The Library at Night", Alberto Manguel tells an interesting little story about Fundamentalism. It goes like this: if a book repeats the Book, then it is redundant. If a book contradicts the Book, then it is irrelevant. The problem with the likes of Warren is that they see with single-vision, when the world requires Blake's double-vision. Pastor Rick's pasteurised views are not going to help a "visionary" president entwine differing views and build an "adhesive" America. Like many, I wish Obama had shown a little more audacity and given such an important (world) address to someone who appreciates the complexity of language.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I guess there aren't yet more people under the bus than are riding in it. I wonder if the shocks are up to the bumps?