Thursday, February 26, 2015

Telling the real story

Another Academy Awards show has come and gone, including ongoing complaints that historical films about the black American experience, most recently “Selma,” generally don’t win or are even nominated for any Oscars unless there’s a “white savior” involved. On the surface it sounds like racial bias or, at best, patronizing.

A few years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually, however, I realized why this is the case.

My newspaper runs a weekly, first-person column called “Saturday Diary,” to which I’m a frequent contributor. When I started there I was told, “The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the [Op-Ed] page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception.”

In other words, I learned at the conference that, say, mere social change simply doesn’t make a good story in its own right, either in print or on the screen. The protagonist needs to undergo a transformation of his or her own in the process for the story to be effective.

A personal example: At the end of prom season three years ago I wrote a Diary called “Being Prince Charming” — I still regret that I didn’t go to mine 36 years ago, but on my birthday in 2010 I took a woman to a cabaret for which we “went to town,” having portraits taken and everything. (While it wasn’t a complete make-up, I did get a sense of satisfaction.)

That “inner transformation” is why films like “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus,” both about the apartheid system in South Africa, made for good stories. In the former, a white “liberal” newspaper editor who was a severe critic of a banned black activist later became friends with him and took up the cause; with the latter, Nelson Mandela, sent to prison for nearly 30 years and probably bitter at that time, emerged a conciliator and, upon becoming president, challenged his own people to “do right by” the white population. (That film, whose immediate premise was Mandela’s attempt to unite the country behind the national rugby team during the World Cup, which South Africa was hosting, won an ESPY award from ESPN.)

So perhaps the critics of the Academy are barking up the wrong tree. It could be that people need to see how the black American experience would change the folks involved on a heart level, not just in a cultural or legal sense.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dating and marriage: Some thoughts from the dance floor

A few months ago I began taking lessons in West Coast Swing, and I’ve been having a blast. Since there are so few WSC dances in the Pittsburgh area I go to as many as I can, including most Tuesdays at the studio where they’re held.

There’s a culture involved in these dances — since in my observation no one is hitting on anyone else, you dance with whomever asks you and change partners with every song. And while I do have favorite partners (I’m sure that some women also prefer to dance with me as well), I usually invite the woman physically closest to me. It isn’t even considered gauche for a woman to approach a man, which happens to me about once a night.

The experience is showing me some things about relating healthily to the other gender.

For openers, I’ve never been of the opinion that you should date only those people you would marry; after all, everyone, men especially, needs to learn how to build a relationship, to see what works and doesn’t work. The studio offers lessons and a “practice party” afterwards, so that you can try out new moves and/or refresh old ones. Thankfully, since it’s a “safe” place, you can do that, with instructors ready, willing and able to help.

Were more people able to help each other in doing so, in love and life.

Second, I learned quickly that West Coast Swing is fairly unique in that the roles between “leader” and “follower” might change at a given movement; as such, I need to be ready for something different that my partner may want to do and thus create a “frame” for her to do it. For this reason I often prefer dancing with more experienced partners.

During one move called a “right-side pass,” in which a “follower” is normally twirling under the leader’s arm, one woman I was dancing with didn’t complete the pass but held my hand high and simply started moving in the direction I was taking her, indicating that I was supposed to respond. After this happened a couple of times, I finally realized what she was doing and didn’t force her to follow me, just “going with the flow.” (Technically it’s not a ballroom dance, most of which tend to adhere to strict rules.)

This happens a lot in marriage because, even though the husband is the “leader,” the wife may have some ideas of her own that he would need to, and thus should, support. Perhaps she may want to go back to school or seek a new ministry opportunity that would broaden her — and thus their — horizons.

And there’s no feeling in the world like knowing that you’re doing well. The last time I danced with one of my favorite partners, a 20-year-old who’s been at it for longer than I, I noticed at one point that her eyes were closed, I’m guessing because she had gotten "lost" in the dance. At the end of that evening she thanked me not once but twice for dancing with her.

I said in response, “I should be thanking you.” Because she was allowing me to grow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

‘Dangerous’ men

Lately I began thinking about a movie with the female lead as an ingénue and the male lead as a flawed anti-hero. The current “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

No. “Dirty Dancing,” which of course starred Jennifer Grey — what a coincidence — as a teenage girl nicknamed “Baby” and the late Patrick Swayze as a streetwise dance instructor with a checkered past who seduces her.

In fact, when that movie came out about a quarter-century ago it did arouse a bit of controversy. During a discussion on local Christian radio, one commentator called “Dirty Dancing” “a woman’s sex fantasy.”

And that may be the very same issue surrounding the extremely erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey”; when the book came out that a newspaper or magazine reported that one woman recommended the book to another, with this admonition: “Wear a panty liner.”

With the latter production has come the predictable amount of evangelical hand-wringing, especially the apparent glorification of sex, which many consider part of the coarsening of our culture.

Though I have no intention of reading the book or watching the movie, I have a different take: I see it as women falling for what I call “dangerous men.”

Having read the book “Wild at Heart,” I understand this phenomenon a little, with author John Eldredge explaining it as women wanting a sense of adventure in a relationship with a man. Not for nothing are fraternity men, athletes, entertainers and cowboys (to a certain extent) regarded as “hot”; mild guys who are morally upright and stable are, on the other hand, often as a result considered boring.

And this has been going on for decades now.

Here’s the rub: Eldredge also says that when women catch one of these “wild” men they often set out to tame him. Some refuse (I did in my last relationship), while others comply — and promptly lose their mojo, the very thing they fear. Some years ago a newspaper advice column ran a story about a couple in which the woman wanted her husband to trade in his pickup truck for a minivan and he was resisting for that reason. (I thought, “Why not buy the minivan but also keep the truck?”)

In one case, Eldredge referred to a wife who wanted to spice things up in her dull marriage, and he advised her to “invite [her husband] to be dangerous” — which in her case meant allowing him to buy a motorcycle, to her chagrin.

I’m seeing now that church culture usually doesn’t invite men to be “wild”; it’s supposed to turn out good and moral people who don’t make waves, but that has also hurt the masculine journey because a certain amount of passion is lost in the process. For that reason, adventure should be part of a man’s life. (It’s one reason I play jazz and blues, both an adventure every time out because in some cases no one knows what will happen next.)

So perhaps the issue isn’t really eroticism; it’s a desire for women to be intimate with a strong man. Or what they perceive to be one.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Avoiding the past

During his address at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama spoke truth. Too bad that some took it as an insult.

Denouncing those of any faith who "hijack religion for their own murderous ends," as quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, and most recently the so-called Islamic State, which he quite accurately referred to as a “death cult,” he also had a message for those who believed in their own moral superiority.

"Unless we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," Obama continued. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ." That led to the predictable outrage from pundits on the Fox News Channel who said that he was disrespecting Christianity in the process.

But that ignores the way that, say, people of color have been regarded — by other Christians — over the years, and I can tell you that such resentment exists even today because we haven’t truly dealt with it as a church or nation.

Let’s never forget the civil-rights movement, which started in Southern black churches in the 1950s but received not only non-support for the rest of Christendom down there but, in many cases, outright condemnation, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being denounced as a communist despite his stated opposition to communism as “incompatible” with the Christian faith. And the Ku Klux Klan, which hasn’t had any real power for two generations but still exists in some form today, considers itself a Christian organization.

Something else you might want to consider: Have you noticed the large number of African-Americans with Arabic names? There’s a reason for that: Also around that time many, especially in Northern cities, began abandoning Christianity altogether for Islam, which in this country had no connection to the powers that be — in addition to being perceived as more truly culturally relevant, it was a way for them to thumb their nose at the “establishment.”

“But what about ‘them?’ ”, you may ask. “They’re trying to kill us!” And we’ll deal with that in its time. But killing Christians has done nothing to kill Christianity; similarly, taking out Muslims won’t stop Islam because, as the saying goes, “The tree of faith is watered with the blood of martyrs.” So before we complain about someone else’s barbarism, we ought to look at our own — and, more telling, our continued propensity for such.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The grief of singleness

My church, which thankfully is more sensitive than many toward diverse populations, is holding an adult singles’ focus weekend the week after next. In advance of that, we singles were asked what leadership can do to minister to us properly.

It hit me for the first time on Sunday that, at least in the church, people need to know that singles are often dealing perpetually with grief — that because we’re unpartnered in a family-centric culture we often feel “less than.” Entering and leaving a church service solo when most people have spouses and especially children can be alienating.

It's easy to tell us that we really don't need a spouse and that we should concentrate on "spiritual" matters. While that's true in one sense, we humans are built, by God, to belong to something or someone, and when you don’t you really feel something missing — as we're reminded on a consistent basis. No amount of spiritual discipline or ministry activities can really make up for or address that; if anything, they can only hide the hole in our collective heart.

Of course, all three groups — widowed, divorced and never-married — have different issues. For the widowed, that loss is obvious; from what I understand, the death of a spouse, especially if the marriage was good, really does mean losing a part of yourself. Divorcées, in addition to the loss of a spouse, likely spend a lot of time second-guessing themselves, addressing either or both "What could I have done better?" or "Why did I choose this partner?"

The never-married — where I fall on the spectrum — can, and usually do, fall into the self-pity trap of "Will anyone want me?" Most of us have been in relationships before and are, like those who have been divorced, crushed when one fails. It's especially difficult when friends around you are tying the knot; in 1987 I played for my then-pen-pal's wedding reception in Wisconsin but with a heavy heart because right around that time I had come to realize that I would not get the woman I wanted. Men have it harder, I believe, because there are fewer of us than women in the church, and even at my age (nearly 54) asking a woman on a date is still nerve-wracking.

Oh, sure, we have things to do, and the majority of single Christian adults that I know do live life on life's terms. Speaking for myself, in my 30s I took the time to finish college and find a job in my field and after that embark on a parallel music career; more recently, I got into social dance. So I'm a very busy guy — but one who's more than willing to make the time for a special lady.

Hear what we're not saying, however: For the most part, we don't believe that merely having a partner will solve all our problems; some will be addressed, of course, but in the process others will be created. We understand this, which is why we're usually deliberate; because we've been burned we want the right person, not just anyone who comes our way. In other words, we're trying not to be desperate because we understand that's a turnoff.

I would say this: Please don't make any glib statements or give us advice, and be very, very careful about setting us up on blind dates (only one ever worked out for me). If anything, we need whatever support you can give us in our journey, although we can't tell you exactly what until we're there. All we ask for is your acknowledgement and presence; that would mean the world to us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In defense of ‘male privilege’ in the church

It's been a truism in evangelical circles that leadership is in some cases "too male" and that so-called male privilege needs to end for the benefit of its female members. I don't share that view.

So what would happen if women received the very same power in the church as the men, without any distinctions? Simple — there will be fewer men in the church than there are now. There are reasons for this.

First, under egalitarian leadership only certain types of men will be belong to, let alone lead, a church or fellowship.

They will be only the type of men who were reared in the church and go along with the prevailing church culture. They will be "safe," attractive and non-offensive and know how to operate; in other words, a man has to fit a certain image. Guys who don't fit the profile will be shut down and thus shut out.

This is especially the case in black churches, whose membership is, by numerous accounts, 75 percent female; in the case of one of the black Methodist denominations that was meeting in Pittsburgh a few years ago, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that number jumped to 84 percent.

In one fellowship like that where I attended in my 20s, I was once told that a number of the women felt “intimidated” by me. That may have been a fair charge, but I never got any specifics — who felt that way and what specifically I was doing. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I left, and the group, shrinking anyway due to a change of leadership, eventually collapsed.

Second, and more to the point, for reasons I've already mentioned, women cannot really reach out to men. Nor should they.

I'm aware of the Rev. Mark Driscoll, the embattled former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Because I don't know the specifics, I'm not prepared to comment on what same people called his unbiblical theology and abusive leadership style.

But he did reach young men. (And, frankly, women flock to such churches when they want to be partnered with strong men.) In fact, the singles ministry at my complementarian church was a pretty big draw, especially back in the 1980s, for that reason. On top of that, we have a large number of reforming drug addicts and alcoholics, the type of people, mostly men, that good “church folks” often run away from.)

It was these men who may have been "rough around the edges" that the Apostle Paul reached out to, and his writings reflected that.

And here's something most people don't consider: How many major Christian movements were led by women, and how many mega-churches have they started? None I can think of.

I think this is a case where the issue of "power" has superseded the church's mission. We say we want good men in the church but then don't give them any reason to stay.

The ‘green’ party — a taste of its own medicine

Last week, at the end of his State of the Union speech, President Obama made the comment "I've run my last campaign," at which some Republicans in the audience applauded derisively.

And then this shot from the president: "I know because I won both of them."

Of course, GOP politicians went off on him as a result.

Now, you can argue that Obama was rubbing their nose in it, but was it necessary for them to applaud what will likely be the end of the political career of someone they deeply despise?

Let’s be honest as to what this is about: Envy. And we’ve seen this before, with Bill Clinton, who was hammered mercilessly with propaganda and gossip simply because he belonged to the wrong party. If anyone believed that things would change over time, he or she simply hadn’t been paying attention. I mean, opposing policies is one thing; sabotaging the office is another.

You might say, Well, the other side is doing it too! Prove that. And even if that were the case, does that make it right?

I get the feeling that some people would rather fight than work together to solve the nation’s problems, focusing on defeating enemies rather than considering that their worldview — or perhaps more accurately, that of the people who elected them — is the heart, not just part, of the problem.

Reality should tell you that not everyone is going to agree, and disagreement shouldn’t be a capital offense.