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Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight, with Love

moonlightThis essay was published in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, December 4, 2016.

 

When my older daughter was at Riverside High, the theater program performed “The Laramie Project,” a collaboration of author Moises Kaufman, people in Laramie, Wyoming, and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. It was performed first in 2000 and uses multiple voices to tell a real story, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.  The event that precipitates the production, every time, is the brutal death of a young man murdered because he is gay.  The story begins with a tragedy.

Annie Proulx set her 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain” in Wyoming. She opens with these words:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

This love story ends as Jack is murdered with a tire-iron after attempting, finally, to stop living a lie. Ennis offers to help Jack’s parents take his ashes to Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s mother, who Proulx implies has a clue and a heart, offers for Ennis to visit Jack’s boyhood bedroom.  Proulx describes what Ennis finds:

The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.

Proulx’s prose and characters are so familiar I can visualize their gait, hear the cadence of their voices. I grew up loving men who are “inured to the stoic life.”  Texan Larry McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay with Diana Lynn Ossana for the 2005 film.  I have not seen the movie.  I knew too many boys and girls suffocated by a setting where they could not live the truth of daylight.  The only suicides I knew growing up were of people who others whispered about, often with a tsk tsking that implied death was better than living gay.  As one friend wrote, a town like my hometown is a place “you dearly love but never feel relaxed in.”

People have, in my hearing, used the words “Brokeback Mountain” as a derision, drawn from a visceral fear of men who are gay in secret. This is absurd, given these same people do not want anyone to be gay not in secret.  Fear of the undetected gay coupling is a nonsense that acknowledges God makes some of God’s beloved children gay, linked to a refusal to bless love between two gay people.  This nonsense is written into movies attended by congregations as a fellowship outing – where men marked as “effeminate” are mocked, used as comic relief in supposed morality plays or to accelerate comedy in self-loathing slapsticks about “family life.”

[Let those with ears to hear, please hear.  You know what I am talking about.]

I am grateful for the 2016 film Moonlight.  I am grateful the Carolina Theatre brought this to Durham.  The film is based on a play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and the screenplay was written and directed by Barry Jenkins.  McCraney and Jenkins offer a blessing that does not mock or evade hatred.  McCraney and Jenkins have also offered a story that shows a man coming out in a way not linked to death.  They wrote neither a comedy nor a tragedy.  They wrote a life.

In his November 4, 2016 essay “The Sad, Surreal Experience of Seeing an Audience Laugh at Moonlight,” E. Alex Jung writes:

It was a Friday night . . . and the screening was completely sold out. Early on, though, one scene made me realize I might have picked a bad audience: It’s in the first third of the movie, where our young hero Chiron is sitting at the dining table with his surrogate parents, Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). He asks them, point-blank, “What’s a faggot?” It’s a moment that feels like a gut punch. When I first saw it, I held my breath, waiting to hear what Juan would say. He explained that it was a negative word used to describe men who liked other men. Then came the next question, “Am I a faggot?” A group of women behind me started giggling at the first question and were full-on laughing by the second — so much so that they drowned out Juan’s response. I was perplexed: Were we watching the same movie?

I pray people will see the film. I pray people will hear and, eventually, not laugh.  And I fervently pray that children from Texas to Wyoming to Durham, North Carolina will see on screen the possibility of their own beautiful truth.

The National Anthem Protest Matters

This essay originally appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, November 6, 2016

football-anthem-protest

I listen to sports radio while running errands. This helps me follow what fans are being told to care about and what they are inculcated to talk about with one another.  This is how I recently came across Colin Cowherd.  Cowherd, the host of a Fox Radio show, was explaining Monday Night Football’s apparently suboptimal ratings.  By Cowherd’s reckoning, the NFL is punishing ESPN for periodically featuring journalism.  The NFL is delivering bad match-ups on Monday nights to try to bring ESPN to heel, Cowherd explained.  Cowherd was clear ESPN should know their place, and keep “promoting the brand” of the National Football League.  ESPN, by Cowherd’s analysis, had made a reckless decision by covering stories critical of the NFL.  Just before this analysis, Cowherd had told listeners that most people in the U.S. dislike an athlete named Colin Kaepernick.

Here is one story that ESPN risked to cover journalistically. On May 24, 2016, ESPN reported: “At least a half-dozen top NFL health officials waged an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign last year to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease, congressional investigators have concluded in a new report . . . the NFL pressured the National Institutes of Health” to defund a $16 million study, because the study “would be detrimental to the league’s image.”  ESPN concluded: “Taxpayers ended up bearing the cost instead.”  How dare ESPN cover a Congressional Report on the NFL, especially when Congress is supposed to be in gridlock?  (That was irony and a bad pun.)  Two Republican U.S. Senators from Arizona collaborated on another report, in 2015, on the NFL and the Department of Defense.  As ESPN reported: “the NFL received $7 million over three years from contracts.” Senator McCain “said he was ‘shocked and disappointed to learn that several NFL teams weren’t sponsoring these activities out of the goodness of their own hearts but were doing so to make an extra buck.’” Senator McCain noted that “the military faces cuts in spending” and that there is no reason to think (or studies to show) that displays of patriotism on the field will help recruiting.

football-anthem-highschool-protest

A friend told me I will “need a bigger paddle to stir this pot.” I do not have a big paddle, so I will now come at the National Anthem controversy by way of a Southern classic from 1974.  The first time I heard Kid Rock’s execrable cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” I threw up my hands, asking what this world is coming to. It seemed to me that Mr. Rock had trashed a good ballad.  Then I saw a documentary that interviews and features African-American women who served as back-up singers coterminous with the Southern Rock Era – women like Merry Clayton.  The film is called “20 Feet from Stardom.”  Merry Clayton there explains how she and Clydie King came to sing back-up on “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Clayton told Dorian Lynskey in a 2014 Guardian article:  “I said we’re going to sing the crap out of this song. They have the nerve to sing Sweet Home Alabama! That’s the white interpretation of Alabama. It’s not sweet home to black people! It’s not sweet home at all. We’re going to sing it like a protest song.” Clayton explained in 2013 to journalist Sam Adams for “A.V. Club” that hearing Neil Young’s 1970 song had hit a nerve with her, “I read the lyrics and it was during those terrible racial times . . . Dr. King had just been killed . . . it was a highly racial time, not just for black people, but for everybody in the world. We had the Vietnam War going on at the time; our boys were going to war and being killed.”  Clayton’s words helped me truly to hear lyrics I had allowed to wash over me.

darlene-love-lisa-fisher-merry-clayton-judith-hill-music-cares-grammy-parties-2014-650-430

There is a reason why NFL players across the league are not standing up during the National Anthem. The rule stating that players will be on the field during the Anthem is new.  As Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England explained on ESPN, this requirement was started in 2009.  It is part of the very same military recruitment scheme that Senator McCain rebuked.  Men standing 2000 feet from stardom are being asked to stand and pretend like their friends are not concussive and their fathers and cousins have not been killed and traumatized over a lie about weapons of mass destruction.  Some people are so devoted to the idea that this country has lived only in valour and equality that we cannot move forward in truth.  I love football, and I love democracy.  Real journalism matters for both.  If you have been fuming over one young man’s courage to name that this country we love has problems, please ask more complicated questions about our history and about our present.

 

 

Syllabus for War Class 2017

War in the Christian Tradition

Amy Laura Hall

Mondays 2:30-5:00

 

January 11

“Blackwater as Ecclesiological Problem” (8 of 25 on this site) https://issuu.com/prismmagazine/docs/on_being_the_church

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, January 17, 1961 (and related documents) https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/farewell_address.html

President John F. Kennedy’s Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963 https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BWC7I4C9QUmLG9J6I8oy8w.aspx

Augustine, “On Lying”

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1312.htm

 

January 23

Bigger, Stronger, Faster (film available online and at Lilly Library)

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/30/movies/30bigg.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1151309/

 

These two news items:

http://www.post-gazette.com/news/nation/2015/11/06/Department-of-Defense-paid-53-million-to-pro-sports-for-military-tributes-report-says/stories/201511060140

https://sports.vice.com/en_us/highlight/stephen-a-smith-points-out-nfls-paid-patriotism-problem

 

January 30

Fog of War (film available online and at Lilly Library)

http://www.errolmorris.com/film/fow.html

 

“The Inner Ring”

http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring.php

 

February 6

Borderline (please purchase and read entire book)

https://wipfandstock.com/borderline.html

 

February 13

Borderline

https://wipfandstock.com/borderline.html

 

February 20

Borderline

https://wipfandstock.com/borderline.html

 

February 27

Guest Speaker, William Joseph (Joe) Stewart, “How Ideology Became Policy: The U.S. War in Iraq and the Role of Neo-conservatism”

 

March 6

The Shock Doctrine (please purchase and read entire book)

http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine

 

March 13 (Break)

 

March 20

The Shock Doctrine

http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine

 

March 27

The Shock Doctrine

http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine

 

April 3

Guest Speaker, Dr. Kara Slade, “The Technology of War”

 

April 10

The Terror Dream (please purchase and read entire book)

http://susanfaludi.com/terror-dream.html

 

April 17

The Terror Dream

http://susanfaludi.com/terror-dream.html

 

In his documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Chris Bell begins with the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s version of geopolitics, as Hulk Hogan battled The Iron Sheik during the 1984 season.  Bell tells a story about his two brothers on steroids, but the film is also about what makes a man a man in the U.S., and how athleticism and militarism have been intertwined to confuse, amuse and distract.  (Bell points out that Congress spent more hours during 2005 investigating and discussing steroid use in Major League Baseball than on the response to Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War.)  In this class, we will consider how stories about war, faith, and patriotism shape North American, mainstream culture.  A line from The Clash’s “Clampdown” inspired this syllabus: “We will teach our twisted speech, to the young believers.  We will train our blue-eyed men to be young believers  . . .”  I am interested in twisted speech, violence, and belief.  We begin with an essay on Blackwater as a problem of belief, two historic speeches that name both opacity and a growing culture of militarism in the U.S., and a classic, Christian text on lying.  We will then move to two films that describe masculinity, war, and culture, and a classic text on the allure of belonging. Borderline and The Terror Dream are self-explanatory, if you look up the links.  The last time I taught this class, a person currently in the U.S. military recommended I teach a book on non-military forms of coercion in geopolitics. The Shock Doctrine is my attempt to answer his request.  Two guest speakers, Dr. Kara Slade and Joe Stewart, will speak from their expertise, on war and rhetoric.

 

Assignments and Grading: Regular, weekly attendance and participation (30% of your grade); weekly 2-3 page close-reading papers (double-spacing) on the assignments (70% of your grade).  I will explain in detail the close reading format of the papers at our first session.  Papers will be due weekly at class time beginning on January 23.  Last close reading paper due April 17.  I will not accept papers by email.  Participation does not necessarily mean speaking in class.  Listening closely to and asking helpful questions of other students also constitutes participation.

Holy Pride

This essay first appeared in the October 2, 2016 issue of the Durham Herald-Sun. http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/columnists/amy_laura_hall/

Years ago, I was at a concert downtown to hear a vaguely Christian folk singer. He sang something that, at the time, I thought was profound: “With all the beauty this world has worth knowing, pride won’t get us where we’re going.”  I liked this so much I made these words the signature on my email account.  I now shake my head at my younger self.  Some friends could have written one simple question back at me: “What about the Gay Pride Parade?”

Last week, I participated in two different acts of pride. On Thursday, a group of Duke Divinity students led about a hundred people on a singing vigil through the new cafeteria on West Campus.  The women leading the procession carried candles, summoning us to continue one avowal: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”  This act was an act of lamentation.  We were lamenting racist terror in the U.S., most recently the killing of Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher.  We were singing to and with one another, committing to resist the pretense that racist terror is normal.  To my mind, African-American women are too infrequently encouraged at Duke to speak loudly and tell other people what to do, where to go, and what to sing.  So, this liturgy felt also like an act of courage.  Their words, their leadership, looked to me like holy pride – precisely the kind of pride that Duke needs more of if we are going to find beauty in this world and get where we need to be going.  Judging by the looks on many faces of people who were working in the new cafeteria, other people were grateful too.

Then, on Saturday, my daughter and I walked with thousands of people through Durham for North Carolina’s 32nd Annual Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Festival Parade, otherwise known as the “Gay Pride Parade.”  Noting the convergence of tragedy the same week, some participants carried signs of solidarity against racist terror.  Some people started up conversations with members of the Durham Police Department, perhaps in an attempt to understand another human being’s perspective face-to-face.  I was struck again by how diverse the group gathered was.  I know that sounds cliché.  But, truly, the Pride Parade is every bit as diverse as the North Carolina State Fair.  There were people in biker gear, people in cowboy boots, teenagers and people who can remember the first parade over three decades ago.  There were Christian groups and Jewish groups and at least one proudly affirming atheist (they were carrying a sign proclaiming this).  Even within the group from Duke, we were students and friends and faculty – some of us walking in solidarity, others walking out and proud for the first time.  Many, many people from across this beautiful state took the day to risk an unabashed celebration of our beloved selves, recognizing that, for that one day, everyone was on the same page on this one single, basic affirmation:  We are proud.

I have quoted thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas in this column before. He wrote many volumes on Christian doctrine and Christian virtue.  He did not affirm the holy beauty of people who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender.  But he did write some very helpful things about a vice usually translated as “Sloth.”  For most people, the word “sloth” connotes sitting around on a couch watching bad television and eating take-out pizza for a week.  (Which might not actually be a disaster.)  But for Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a very particular, moral malady.  He suggests sloth is often connected to despair, and that despair often leads to an inability to go about the basic things in life that help us to flourish.  Not only does despair indicate a separation from hope in God, but that separation can lead people not to feel like eating, or walking around, or sewing, or dancing, or many of the other practices that are gifts of daily life.  Sloth is a kind of “sorrow,” he writes, because we deem “evil and worthless” the goods God has given us.  Thomas Aquinas even calls sloth a “mortal sin,” in that sloth involves our being fundamentally separated from the affirmation that God loves us and is with us.  Again, “when this state of mind dominates [someone’s] affections,” it can seem as if we will “never be able to rise to any good.”

By my reading of these two events, we were engaging in two different acts of holy pride, reminding one another that our lives are neither “evil” nor “worthless.” On both Thursday and Saturday, people resisted sloth, risking the appearance pridefulness for the sake of a virtue called pride.  In some Christian circles, these words will sound like nonsense.  I’m willing to risk that.

A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This is Amy Laura typing.  I am so very grateful that The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade has agreed to allow me to post this sermon.  Her words continually help me to remember whose I am. 

 

The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Hamlet, NC

September 11, 2016

Proper 19, Year C RCL

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

I preached slightly different versions of this sermon twice this week: once at a morning Eucharist at Duke Divinity School and then today, September 11, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hamlet, NC. The homiletic and pastoral challenge on this occasion was to note the anniversary of the 2001 attacks without participating in either sentimentality or nationalism. Ironically, the lectionary provided me with a tremendous gift. Fr. Stuart Hoke, the vicar of All Saints’, was a priest at Trinity, Wall Street in September 2001, and I was very aware he would have preached a very different sermon than this one. (In fact, he preached this morning at the 9/11 commemoration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.) The lectionary readings opened the door for me to give the only sermon I could on this occasion, as someone who participated in the days and years following September 11, 2001 in a very different capacity.

The Epistle and Gospel readings this morning were:

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

My words for you this morning require a caveat – or maybe two. The first is that I wish I had 30 minutes to talk with you about these texts instead of the brief time I have, because I have a lot to say that won’t get said. The second is that in order to think about how to read the lessons we just heard, we may need to consider first how NOT to think about them.

In a seminary community like the one I work in, and I think in many churches too, it’s easy to hear today’s Gospel as a summons to heroic ministry. Yes, I could tell you to be like Jesus, to welcome sinners and eat with them, to go after the lost sheep with conviction and zeal. And that would be a fun sermon to preach – much more fun than this one. Telling people to be pastoral and welcoming is like crack for nice Episcopalians like me. And it’s certainly true that the notion of the imitation of Christ is a prominent feature in Anglican spiritual practice. But as a theologian, one of my constant concerns is not so much to tell people to be like Jesus as it is to point them – and myself – towards how much we need Jesus.

And that’s what I think these texts are ultimately telling us. They aren’t marching orders for ministry so much as they’re about what Rowan Williams called “the anarchic mercy of God,” the mercy that “ignores order, rank and merit.”(1) And that is the mercy offered to you today, even as it was offered to St. Paul. Even as it has been offered to me. Let me explain.

While I know it’s early in the morning for such things, I’m about to get very personal and very real for a minute. As we come to the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I can’t help but read Paul’s words today with a shiver of recognition: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Because I, too, am all too familiar with violence – the kind of violence that sits behind a desk and acts at a bureaucratic distance.  I recognize far too much of myself in Robert MacNamara’s account of the firebombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 civilians: “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”(2)

But I received mercy. I remember walking outside my office at Langley Air Force Base, looking up at the sky, and saying “My God, is this what my life is going to be?”

Now admittedly, God’s resounding “no” to that question involved five more years of harrowing experiences that I never want to repeat. But that, too, was a kind of mercy. The mercy that raises the dead and turns the chief of sinners into an apostle won’t do much for those who think they’ve got it all together. And that’s part of my story. That’s how I ended up in this pulpit.

I don’t know all of your stories. I don’t know what precisely has brought you to this place or to this point in your lives. Maybe sometimes you still wonder the same thing. What I do know is who has brought you here today. And I do know that for church people it can be much easier to make a propositional claim that the lost sheep and the lost coin matters – and much harder to know yourself first as that sheep, as that coin, as the one over whom heaven rejoices. As the one who stands in need of mercy.

As my favorite dead Danish philosopher says, it is a little mystery that it is better to give than to receive. The greater mystery is that it is far more difficult to receive than to give.(3)

That is where we are today, on this strange anniversary in our nation’s history and on this seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. In his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth reminds us that the primary ethical action – the starting point of Christian life together – is repentance.(4)

And so it’s particularly fitting that we come to the end of the summer and begin the new school year, with all its new challenges and new opportunities, with repentance in mind. Each one of us has particular things to turn from, but the same particular One to turn to. Christ Jesus, the one who came into the world to save sinners, whose grace is overflowing, and who has appointed you – yes, you – to his service.  My brothers and sisters, your sins are forgiven. My sins are forgiven. That – and only that – is the condition of possibility for the work of ministry that is yours and mine.(5)

Remember that, especially when it seems like everyone but you has it all together, when you just aren’t sure you can get everything done, when you wonder yet again why you came here. And while I can’t answer that question for you, I can point you along the way, as T.S. Eliot did in Little Gidding:

What you thought you came for Is only a shell, a husk of meaning  From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled  If at all. Either you had no purpose  Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured  And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places  Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,  Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–  But this is the nearest, in place and time,  Now and in England.

If you came this way,  Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season,  It would always be the same: you would have to put off  Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity  Or carry report. You are here to kneel  Where prayer has been valid.(6)

Welcome – or welcome back – to this place that is also the world’s end. Here, prayer has been, and is, valid. Here is the free and difficult gift of grace. Can you receive it?

 

(1) Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (Cowley, 1991), 17.

 

(2) This quotation appears in The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary by Errol Morris that I recommend very highly.

 

(3) See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.

 

(4) See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, in the commentary on Romans 12 entitled “The Problem of Ethics.”

 

(5) I remain grateful to Amy Laura Hall for first saying a variation on this to me at my ordination to the priesthood.

 

(6) T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, online version at http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html.

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