(In which we witness love and marriage and indegestion.)

Posted by Job O Brother, May 4, 2009 01:29pm | Post a Comment


The boyfriend and I just returned from a weekend in the great country of Texas – Houston, to be exact. We went there to celebrate the marriage of some neat humans.

The boyfriend was Best Man at the wedding, so I spent a lot of time in the chapel entertaining myself as he practiced marching down the aisle, handing over rings, smuggling in tequila shots and body-blocking any attempts the bride might have of going “runaway” – you know, typical Best Man duties.

Having been raised in a church, I know how to find all the best hiding spots, and I felt immediately at home. Curled in a cool, dark alcove between the pipe organ and a wood-carved dove of peace, I listened to music on my iPhone and surfed the World Wide Web – reading The Guardian, watching this and this, and wondering why Facebook suggested I be friends with Bill Murray (who I still haven’t forgiven for dog-earing my copy of Dubliners).

Rice Memorial Chapel, the house of God in question, is tucked centrally on the campus grounds of Rice University. It’s a lovely, small chapel, decorated with gold tile and royal blue carpeting. It is noticeably lacking in denominational iconography – a single, movable, wood cross sat off-stage – which is to be expected, I suppose, from a University that specializes in applied sciences. Stained glass glorifying Dr. Willem Kolff healing the crippled with Jarvik-7’s and panels depicting various stages of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial would not have seemed out of place.

I flipped through one of their hymnals. I love a great many hymns, but none so much as “Blessed Assurance” composed by Phoebe P. Knapp and written by Fanny Crosby.

Take a load off.

Fanny Crosby was one of my childhood heroes (a fact which illuminates just how carefree and fun a youngster I was). Although a celebrity in her lifetime (born 1820 – died 1915), her name is now relatively unknown outside Protestant churches.

Rendered blind in infancy after a botched eye operation, she nevertheless grew to be a gifted musician – penning over 8,000 hymns under various pseudonyms – and a popular public speaker. She acted as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., promoting financing of education for the blind. She also trapped a brainwashing health club owner with his own subliminal suggestion gimmick. (Actually that was the Green Hornet – I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.)

Would you believe the hymnals of Rice Memorial Chapel don’t have a single Fanny Crosby song in them?! I was flabbergasted and, yes, a little hurt. Which is why I’m using the Amoeblog to organize a grass-roots effort to encourage Rice University to include Fanny Crosby songs in their chapel hymnals. Friends! Americans! The time has come to take action! MAYBE WE CAN! MAYBE WE CAN! MAYBE WE CAN!!!

The wedding itself was a sweet affair, and the bride and groom proved their love, not only of each other, but also of us, by keeping the ceremony brief.

The reception afterwards was rad! They held it at the nearby Houston Museum of Natural Science, in the spooky and captivating Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, where corridors of black showcased dazzling geological wonders. This proved to be not only an enchanting setting for a romantic celebration, but convenient, too, as a speakeasy. Only beer and wine was being served, you see, so the boyfriend and I, plus a handful of groomsmen and their wives, had to sneak in tiny bottles of booze.

“Is that a bottle of Chivas Regal in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

The Garnet & Diamond Necklace, designed by Ernesto Moreira,
to the left of which is a perfect spot to spike beverages with scotch without getting caught.

At one point, we were sitting at the cool kids’ table, eating the kind of high-class fry food you can only find in Texas. (I’m talking deep-fried scallops drizzled in garlic mayonnaise, served on a bed of rock salt, folks. God bless Texas!) The boyfriend handed me a tiny airplane-style bottle of vodka to pass down the table to the lovely Bosnian lady awaiting it. Between her and I was her husband. I stealthily took the bottle and, under the table, placed it on the man’s leg so he could continue the distribution. Instead, he looked suddenly shocked and confused, as though he’d just caught Santa dorking a reindeer. He looked at me, speechless, and I realized he had no idea I was pressing a bottle on his thigh – he thought I was copping a feel!

Once we all figured what was going on, we laughed. Well, my boyfriend and the Bosnian wife laughed – her husband and I were pretty awkward for a while, in that way that dudes get when homoeroticism is accidentally stumbled into. What tickled me the most was reconsidering his reaction, knowing what he thought was happening. I mean, if some guy sitting next to me at a dinner party suddenly placed his paw on my thigh I can’t promise I’d be as polite as he was! Later, when I smuggled a bottle of rum into his mouth with my tongue he wasn’t so startled.

The DJ, a woman unknown to both the bride and groom (who described her beforehand as a total crap-shoot) played an odd assortment of jingles, ranging from obvious wedding party pleasers…

…to more quizzical canticles…

The boyfriend had to physically hold me down when the DJ segued from Bobby Darin to the “Time Warp.”

I can’t not dance to the “Time Warp!” Even if no-one else is on the dance-floor. The boyfriend disagrees. Adamantly.

Speaking of booze (as I often am), this party wasn’t the only time on our Texas trip that my cocktails were mixed with subterfuge. We stayed at the luxurious (if somewhat notorious) Hotel Icon, in a penthouse suite that was inexplicably dubbed the Oriental Suite. The one Meiji period coffee-table aside, we couldn’t see any justification for such a moniker. Even the antique books which lined our headboard were, for whatever reason, printed in a variety of Scandinavian languages. I did my best to entertain the boyfriend by reading him Swedish musings on Eskimo culture.

Me: Eskimåerna älskar valspäck. De skaver på sina bröst och sjunga prisar.

Him: That’s what she said.

My latest love – and this will tie in, bear with me – is B&B Dom Liqueur. It’s composed of equal parts cognac to Bénédictine liqueur. Served straight-up in a brandy snifter, the scent will peel the outermost layer of your eyeballs off before coating your tongue in warm, honeyed, herbal deliciousness. After a day of eating at Texas’ own gastronomically defying Whataburger, a digestif like B&B becomes an angel of mercy.

I ordered a glass of it from the hotel bar after a long day of whatever the f*** I did that day, and took it up to our room, where the boyfriend and I snuggled into bed and watched a bit of (now-released) season one of Designing Women, because we are gay.

I was asleep before Delta Burke tearfully said goodbye to her Vietnamese foster child, Li Sing, with half my snifter still full of precious B&B.

The next morning, fearing the room service staff would abscond with my darling potation, I had the boyfriend hide it in the safe where it stayed, keeping company with a gold watch, until the following evening.

And now we’ve returned to our home. Yes, dear readers, the boyfriend and I are now living together on 8th and Curson, tucked behind what was until recently the Variety Building – an ugly piece of architecture that looks like a late 1980’s tribute to Mayan temples. Blech. Luckily, our own home is entirely lovable. Do stop by!

…But not without invitation. And never when we’re here.

St. Lucy's Day (Sankta Lucia)

Posted by Eric Brightwell, December 12, 2008 10:28am | Post a Comment

Tomorrow is St. Lucy's Day, a holiday primarily observed in Northern and Central Europe, and the Upper Midwest. If it seems odd for Lutherans to observe a St. Day, it's because it sort of is. Then again, as with most Christian observances, the holiday's roots have nothing to do with saints or Christianity.

St. Lucy's Day begins with a young girl clad in white with a lit crown of candles positioned in her hair in a fir wreath (or lingonberry or whortleberry twigs). She leads a procession of candle-bearing girls with coffee, ginger snaps, glog and St. Lucia buns (lussekatter). Sometimes there are boys in conical hats known as "star boys." The children sing Lucia songs which provide a welcome break from Christmas Carols.

Falling near the longest night of the year, the symbolism of young maidens bearing light-bringing fire and bounty isn't too hard to figure out, but if you must know the official Christian version of events, then here you go. Officially, Lucia helped the early Christians in Italy who hid in the catacombs. In order to see, but needing to bring food in her hands, she contructed a wreath of candles. Yeah... right.

The truth is that before the light-bringing Lucy was invented, Germanic people and their neighbors observed "Lussi Night." The figure, Lussi die dunkle, was a dark, evil female spirit that came on the 13th of December to punish those with uncompleted tasks. Similar (and perhaps to related) to Lillith, the Mesopotamian storm demons, Lussi also preyed upon children. In fact, a whole mob of Lussiferda (Lisle-Ståli, Store-Ståli, Ståli Knapen, Tromli Harebakka, Sisill, Surill, Hektetryni and Botill) would go around an enter houses through chimneys to kidnap children. Sound vaguely familiar?

Continue reading...

Based on True Events: Rambo (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, June 14, 2008 05:12pm | Post a Comment

So this isn't, practically speaking, a summer movie, but if they still made 'em like they used to, it would be. This time around John Rambo is a snake handling loner living in Thailand who makes money on the side by ferrying people across the river to their inevitable death in Burma. As in the previous films, he hates humanity and has little patience for ideology of any kind. He's content playing with his snakes until a hot Evangelical missionary (played by Angel's ex, the vampire Darla) convinces him to take her group over to feed a Karen village being tormented by the Burmese military. I read a few reviews that found this scenario unconvincing, suggesting that her platitudes wouldn't be enough to get Rambo to care.  Rambo's been playing with snakes for the past 20 years in a jungle, what more reason does he need?  It's not what's said, but who's saying it. Fear not, Rambo doesn't have sex, only its substitute, killing, which brings up a question I had while watching Bret Michaels in Rock of Love: how does the bandana stay on during intimate moments? Does Bret pay the girls not to say anything, has it written in their contracts? You'd think at least one of his rejects would call him on it. Is this why Rambo takes no prisoners? Regardless, kudos to both men for laying waste to a bunch of bodies while keeping their hair on straight.

Rambo is the second part of Stallone's Christian marketing diptych, following Rocky Balboa. Originally he wanted to call it John Rambo, but the studio demanded it be changed for some reason. He saw how well Mel Gibson was doing marketing bloodletting and violence to the fundies and decided to continue his successful franchises with that strategy in mind. Look how well it worked with the Rocky sequel:
What was also wonderful about the film was how Stallone incorporated, what I like to call, the faith factor. As part of his corner crew, Rocky brings along Spider Rico, portrayed by another former boxer Pedro Lovell, as his spiritual advisor. Before going out to take on Dixon, Rocky is sitting in his dressing room while Rico is reading scripture verses to him. In his restaurant, Rico always gets a free meal from Rocky until he takes it upon himself to start washing dishes for Rocky telling him, “Jesus wants me to work.”
Over there on Christian Spotlight, the reader responses were overwhelmingly positive, with only a couple of negatives that had to do with the profanity (these guys use the aesthetic criterion of bean-counting the number of salacious words in a film) and some kiss between a supposed 10 year old and a 40 year old (but this problem was brought up by teenaged reader). Christian moralizing has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the League of Decency, when violence itself was largely deemed indecent, irrespective of who was killing whom and for what reason. Now, as Gibson's Pollack-cum-blood manifesto, The Passion of the Christ, demonstrated, it's okay to get off on unrelenting gore so long as it serves a higher purpose. This a good thing; Christian films have finally caught up to their brutal legacy. Therefore, when Rambo is trying to get a group of mercenaries to go in and risk their pagan lives to save the Christian tail who inspired him earlier in the film, he mumbles, "live for nothin’, or die for somethin’."  Like the ambiguity of all that S&M Catholic self-flagellation and torture, is Rambo's new found higher calling a sublimated rejection of his celibacy or a belief in Divine Will?

Going by the Spotlight responses, the conservative Christians seem to take the film as an allegory for God's Wrath. But this film proved a bit more divisive than Rocky Balboa. The sheer amount of gore showed that there are some old-fashioned moralists who just can't take it, regardless of intent. As for the largely positive reviews, the violence was seen as a necessary realism for the way war is, carnage adding verisimilitude. Expressing the ambiguity I alluded to in the previous paragraph, one reader says:
My main objection to this film was the scene of a woman's breasts. I really am trying to stay away from films containing such material. There are other scenes of sexually related material as well. This film is EXTREMELY violent -- but this is to be expected fom a Rambo movie. The violence did not bother me, especially considering it is a means by which we privileged people can see the genocides occur in areas where few even know exist.
Why sex in art is never taken by the fundies as being a necessary depiction of the way life is continues to be unexplored, or outright shunned (cf. the differing reactions to The Last Temptation of Christ and Gibson's magnum opus). Had Stallone decided to give Rambo peace of mind by having him fuck a lot, rather than murder a couple hundred Burmese soldiers, the film wouldn't have been as well received by the right-wing Christians. God is always vengeful, loving in a strictly platonic way, never ordering His followers to go fuck their enemies, but only smite them. Unlike violence, fucking would be turning away from God, not towards him:
This movie so accurately portrayed the evil that man, without God, is capable of. To think that these acts of torture and cruelty actually happen in Burma. May God save those people. Is this what King David faced when he and Israel went to war? Of course, not the modern weapons, but the sheer hatred, the brutality, the lack of concern for life, the lack of respect for God?

Is this what will happen to us if America turns from God? Is it really a waste of life to go into these areas and try to bring the peace of Christ? Rarely does a movie cause me to ask so many questions, but this one did and still does. An excellent movie!! I salute Stallone for his bravery in making this film.
Just so the fundies know Stallone is on their side, he made the junta leader a HOMO-sexual predator -- along with the groping of some Burmese hookers and a touch of rape, it's the only sex directly referenced in the film. Any positive depiction of sex would be cause for concern for right-thinking parents everywhere. If these Christians watched more Battlestar Galactica, they'd know that even genocide can be forgiven with a lot of sex. Sleeping with the enemy produces hybrid offspring, ideological miscegenation. But, then again, that's not something the Evangelical types strive for, as it would dilute the purity of their beliefs -- "segregation now, segregation forever."  That's why they have their own Christ-brand simulacra for everything we secularists and pagans enjoy, like death metal, theme parks, feminism, genre fiction and the aforementioned example of torture porn (well, in fairness, this last one is merely returning to its roots). These Christian extremists exist in a alternate world that's akin to the Star Trek holodeck, where any kind of story might happen, but in the final instance, the flock can rest assured that it hasn't left the Biblically literalist sub-structure. It's certainly homo-ideological, even while it denounces any -sexual part. 

Besides, the inclusion of negative homosexual stereotypes -- as with 300 -- will ultimately give this film, featuring a bunch of overly muscular men slaughtering everything in sight, an interesting angle for future queer theoretical analyses, rather than any sort of consistent moral agenda for the impressionable masses.   In other words, any sort of sexual argument the film makes will probably go unnoticed to anyone who doesn't over-think their mass entertainment (like yours truly). Since the Sixties, the medium has been the message, and Stallone's medium is violence. It is in violence that pagans, Christians and atheists can all come together and love the same thing.  Take my god-hating limey pal, Simon (who's trying to be American, but he still doesn't drink coffee):
I've never seen so much awesome carnage! Legs getting blown off, people exploding in a fountain of blood and getting cut in half, and don't forget about babies being thrown into burning rubble. That's especially awesome! And what about the ending of this movie. It brought a tear to my eye. I give this movie a roman thumbs way up. This movie gets a perfect 10 for total entertainment! I have to say I love Stallone for making this picture.
Everyone loves babies and everyone loves specular violence; they go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Rambo is a rejuvenation of the Eighties superhuman action flick for a post-Saving Private Ryan generation. Back in the Reagan era, the muscular hero would mow down an impossible number of villains at a distance with very little bloodshed. Stallone's great aesthetic innovation here is to personalize the carnage, giving the audience both quantity and quality. Rather than just keeping the camera with Rambo, he locates it within the ranks of those being lacerated à la the first 30 minutes of Spielberg's film, letting the finely detailed blood splatter and limbs fly across the camera eye. The result is as close to a summer movie being directed by Takashi Miike as we're likely to get. That's high praise in my book.

One doesn't have to be a homophobe and/or Christian to appreciate Stallone's ability to use realworld events to occupy our leisure time. It's a sign of the new interventionist aesthetic where it's politically correct to enjoy violence involving the Other so long as Our Hero is stopping it from killing an-Other (as was recently seen in Iron Man). What's not as widely acceptable is when we're supposed to be entertained by the fictionalized versions of acts perpetrated on us (confer the conservative reaction to United 93). Thus, Stallone cherry-picked the worst of the current political crises that didn't directly involve the U.S. and interpellated his hero into the story. As an action director, Stallone knows how to entertain.

In fact, so committed to violent entertainment is Stallone as an auteur that any proselytizing ability the film possesses is only going to work on the most committed, red-meat eating kind of Christian (you know, the ones who see the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son for God as a sign of loving devotion). On the way down the river, Rambo kills a bunch of Burmese marauders who were trying to steal supplies from him and the missionaries and keep Darla as a sex slave. Instead of thanking him, the head missionary chastises Rambo with a bunch of claptrap about "thou shalt not kill." Reminiscent of the moral dilemma in End of Days where Schwarzenegger has to give up his gun and go fisticuffs with Satan in order to prove his love to the Lord, this pacifist missionary is shown gleefully smashing in Burmese skull with a rock later in the picture. What a right-wing Christian might see as an allegory for Divine Wrath, a homo-loving atheist might see as leisurely entertainment. Such is Stallone's complexity as an artist. Truly heady stuff: like the morality of sex, is violence only to be appreciated when it's done for God?

Christmas: My Wish Is For 'Less' Instead of 'More'

Posted by Charles Reece, December 25, 2007 06:31pm | Post a Comment
When he wasn’t drinking in pubs and shooting billiards, the greatest Scotsman who ever lived, David Hume, took apart human reasoning, piece by piece.  Of particular relevance to the holiday season, in his essay, "Of Miracles," he critiqued one the foundational chestnuts of the Christian tradition.  In order for something to be a miracle, it must be supernatural.  If it's truly supernatural, then it's beyond natural laws.  If it's beyond natural laws, then it's a violation of anything we humans have the capability of understanding or reasoning about -- is, in other words, beyond rationality.  A Christianity without miracles isn't much of a religion, since all of it's basic beliefs become, at best, metaphors for natural phenomena (virgin birth, resurrection, et al. would be just strange ways of talking about more pedestrian subjects that we all know occur under natural laws).  Thus, Christianity isn't rational. At best, it's nonrational (as opposed to merely irrational), the belief being what's called fideistic, which is the act of accepting a proposition (like 'there is a god') without sufficient evidence, or, really, any evidence at all, because of the supposed value in faith itself.  Many Christians don't like this approach, but it's hard to see any other viable alternative.  Of those who bite the bullet and continue to believe, the most famous are:

Blaise Pascal, who argued that one should believe in a god because if there is a god, the possible reward for being right outweighs the possible punishment for being wrong and you don't get jackshit if you're right about there not being one.

William James, who argued in absence of definitive evidence one way or the other, one shouldn't just be skeptical of both propositions (there is or isn't a god) for doing so misses out on any good that might obtain from either being true (although he seems to focus more on the good of the affirmative).  One can't wait until definitive proof to trust every person one meets without having an incredibly impoverished existence, and the question of a god places a similar demand on an individual.   The noncommittal agnostic will burn in hell just like the determined atheist after all, so suck it up and be a man.

Søren Kierkegaard, who argued, as best I can tell, that the qualitative difference in the act of becoming a Christian was for him, at least, enough of a reason to have faith in a god.  Justification comes from the Christian acting good because of his faith, rather than any foundational assumption about the necessity of Christianity.  (Ludwig Wittgenstein had a similar approach to the majority of human activities, so there is a group of fideistic Christians out there calling themselves Wittgensteinian, even though it's doubtful Wittgenstein was one himself.)

I don't much find this approach very convincing as it's more an argument that some practical advantage might come your way if you do believe than any sort of reason for believing.  You're better off in a theocracy pretending to believe in the mandated god, but pretense isn't the same as actual belief (minus CLOCKWORK ORANGE-styled brainwashing).  Who gives a shit if religious belief leads to a longer life, as has been reported in some scientific research?  You can’t just turn on belief for a life extension.  Hell,  it might be the religious context in which the nonreligious have to live which contributes to their early grave (cf., the Inquisition).  Honesty isn't very pragmatic for achieving power.  Morality isn't likely to get you rich.  Perspicacity rarely leads to bliss.  So in the spirit of giving, here are some intellectuals who have taken a stand:

Bertrand Russell, who doesn't sound like he was the nicest of fellows, but he gave good argument, nonetheless.  His classic anti-Christian tract is Why I Am Not a Christian, wherein he takes to task all of the famous theological arguments for God (as in the one who used to not have any true vowels to his name, not some aberration with multiple arms or a big dumb guy with a hammer).

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in an interview about his atheism and his general scientistic belief that not much else other than science gives us a truth worth considering.

Another scientistic thinker, bearing a striking resemblance to Saint Nick, is Daniel C. Dennett, who uses philosophy as the little yapping dog to Dawkin's big dog of science, Spike.  In the link he talks about faith and its role in a democracy.

The late, great paleontologist Stephen J. Gould referred to the former two's camp as pan-adaptationist, because they (along with other popular scientists like Steven Pinker) attempt to explain all human behavior as a function of natural selection.  That's neither here nor there for this blog entry (except to explain why I keep using 'scientistic' in the place of 'scientific'), but a particularly eloquent opponent to their camp who's no more Christian than they, but far less scientistic is H. Allen Orr, so here are some of his takes on science, religion, Dennett and Dawkins, plus an exhange with Dennett.

And, finally, all-around curmudgeon, Christopher Hitchens gives us some yule-tide warmth and season's greetings.

Also, coming out on Jan. 7th, a conversation between Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris:

Merry Tuesday.
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