Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Christmas Pantomime: Handel and the 'Baby King'

It was interesting for me to read my First Atheist Christmas blogpost from last year while getting ready to celebrate Atheist Christmas number two.  One year ago I was tentative, not quite knowing the ropes. I almost wondered if I had any right to celebrate at all. Even as I listened to my old favourites then, I was wondering if I should be belting out 'O Come all Ye Faithful' or shyly withdrawing into a 'Silent Night.' This year was quite different, even though I can't by any means call myself a veteran. This Christmas I allowed myself to go back into the music I grew up on. I listened to the entire Handel's Messiah, one of my all time favourites. It was as pleasing to the ear as ever and I even found myself  singing out loud to "Worthy is the Lamb" as I listened to the triumphant trumpets blasting accompanied by the thundering timpanis.

Myth Music- 'The Baby King'

How did I do it? I allowed myself to embrace the music for what it is; myth music. It is a new category I have designated to place all of the religious music that is still beautiful but whose story, I have to admit these days, has nothing to do with reality. I fully embraced the story of the 'Baby King' on Christmas day including  the proclamation of the theme song in the video clip above," For unto us a child is born." In fact, as I listened to those lovely runs for which Handel is so famous and followed the story that is told in that iconic work, I thought of those pantomimes I used to enjoy as a child.  The ones where the evil witch, dressed in black, would come and create some kind of turmoil with some magic spell or portion. Then, when all seemed lost, in would come the good fairy to clean up the mess and make everything right.

Christmas Pantomime

For those not so familiar, Handel's 'Messiah' sets many passages from the bible that relate to Christ to music. From the initial 'Fall' in Genesis, through the prophecies of Isaiah, to the ' Coming' in the New Testament. Perhaps the best known excerpt of all is the timeless " Hallelujah Chorus." To listen to the unabridged  "Messiah" is to take yourself on a magical, dramatic journey. Indeed, this is what I pictured in my mind starting with the haunting melodic minor strains telling me how in "Adam all die" and " Behold Darkness Shall Cover the Earth." I could almost see the ' fade to black' on the stage with smoke emanating from a cauldron. Then, "Lo and Behold!" In the final act, emerges triumph from the midst of despair, in the person of ' The Baby King' , the prophesied one, the one who will one day free us from  sin through his death. I did think to myself that the wave of a magic wand to make sin disappear would be more elegant and certainly a more palatable ending for the children. Anyway, there is still enough there in the Christmas story to at least make you smile, with all the wisemen, shepherds and angels.  So, there I was on the morning of December 25th, enjoying my Christmas Pantomime just like in the days of my childhood.
Just like those days, I tried not to analyse the plot of the story too much. I could never understand, back in those pantomimes, why the witch in casting an evil spell, would always create some kind of loophole through which the spell could be broken. Why was there always some magic word, flower or wish upon a star that when discovered could just make the evil go away? Why leave the door open for your plan to be foiled? Now I understand. It was all part of the script to give you the desired ending.  The formula is simple; everyone's happy at the beginning then something goes terribly awry as we approach intermission. In the second half comes the wonderful denouement where everything just sorts itself out and all live happily ever after.

So, my 'Christmas with Handel' morning was every bit as sweet as a 'Gretel with  Hansel.' Yes, of course the holes in the plot were there. The difference here being that  it is the good saviour rather than the evil witch that seems to be giving the opposition a lifeline.The 'devil' in  Handel's masterpiece cannot  be faulted for making things too easy for our hero. The question is how the powerful God of Goodness allowed evil into the picture in the first place. In the pantomimes I have watched, good fairy godmothers may have special powers but certainly nothing like the omnipotence our God father has. Fairies going up against witches are relatively even contests. In contrast, in Handel's work, the protagonist has infinite power, yet inexplicably never uses it to eliminate bad for good. Well, it's all part of the  story mystery and it doesn't matter. The implausibility of  pantomime storylines is what makes them humorous and fun. Handel's 'Baby king' is no different. The absurdity is all part of the entertainment.Yet, undeniably you can still leave the performance with real feelings of love or disgust for the actors.  You may even see yourself in one or more of the characters and try to take away some lesson from their experience. However, when you leave the theater humming, laughing or contemplating what you have witnessed you know that the show is over.

Unfortunately for many of our friends, the pageantry does not end when the curtain is drawn for the last scene of 'Baby King.' They identify with the characters so much that they become part of an ongoing production with them and join  an ever expanding cast of 'extras.' They are  quick to  tell us  that the drama is not really over and that we have come back to see  the actors perform once more when  'The Cross' opens in March or April. They tell us that tickets  for 'The Cross'  are ridiculously expensive but some generous soul has paid the entrance fee for all of us already and that we would be both stupid and ungrateful not to take up this incredible offer. I am sorry, I am very familiar with the script of ' The Cross,' and I respectfully have to decline it.  Bloody pantomimes are just not my passion these days. I'd rather wait for December next year and enjoy my favourite  ' Baby King'  all over again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Christopher Hitchens: Unity in the Midst of Grief

Last Thursday night the non-believing world let out a collective groan. It was the news everyone knew was coming but no one wanted to hear. Christopher Hitchens was dead. Immediately, the tributes started to flow in from every corner of the 'atheosphere'  and indeed from many in the religious world who stood on the opposite side, but could appreciate a champion when they saw one.

It was a strange feeling for me during that night. I  experienced at that moment something I had never felt before in the three years that I have identified myself as an atheist. I suddenly realised that I was part of something truly global and it felt great to be part of it even as we all grieved. It has so often been said that bringing atheists together is like 'herding cats' but that night and the days following, every one in the herd was raising a toast to the fallen 'horseman' popularly known as Hitch. It didn't seem to matter what side of the secular spectrum you fell on. Those who favoured more measured methods of promoting secularism through humanism or explicitly working with the churches, seemed as touched as those that modelled themselves on the more hostile approach of Hitch himself. Many atheist bloggers and you tubers that are usually  not short of an opinion, seemed genuinely too shocked to talk or make a key stroke on their computers.Thursday was a night when you saw en masse the humanity of atheism and the grieving from the heart of a community that is often accused of not having one. Yet, it was so different from the kind of tributes I had experienced in religious life, it was huge but it was not worship. Even in  grief, atheists were  talking about things they thought Hitch was flat out wrong about, like his support of the Iraq war. I was told growing up that one should never speak ill of the dead. That didn't seem to be the modus operandi applied Thursday night,  yet the support for the man and what he represented was overwhelming. I think that says a lot for the value of the secular over the sacred.

It is common when a prominent person in any field dies to say, " There will never be another X." It is almost a cliche. Well, it seems on this occasion it may not be an exaggeration. The way Hitch delivered  his points during a debate, showed absolute brilliance. He could easily have made it as a stand up comic, his timing and turns of phrase so impeccable. It was an honour to join with members of the secular community here in Calgary and give a toast to 'the Hitch' on Saturday. None of us there had ever met him, yet he had clearly touched all our lives. It was years since I had got together with other people to sip wine for someone none of us had ever met in person. In the days of old in Barbados it was a weekly gathering to pay homage to a Jew that  lived 2000 years ago. Somehow the Christopher I was thinking about on Saturday meant so much more than the Christ offer I used to make in those bygone days.

I have been paying my own tribute to Hitch by listening to some of his famous debates. Some classic moments like these:

On the Catholic church: " They seem to have altered the popular ' no child left behind' to ' no child's behind left.' "

After a less than complimentary introduction of him from an MC at a debate: " Thanks for that introduction, which of all the introductions I have had in my life, is certainly the most.................(pause for dramatic effect) recent."

There was just nothing you could do with Hitch, not a moment that he ever appeared the slightest bit fazed in a debate.Yet, he could evoke an enormous degree of passion at any moment. Who could ever forget his many references to heaven as a 'Celestial North Korea'? There is a tinge of irony that Kim Jong Il, a man referenced so often by Hitch, died so soon after him. It would certainly have made for an interesting discussion between those two in the line up going to the 'Pearly Gates.'

Aside from all Hitch's brilliance though, I think it is something much more that is causing people to respond to him so emphatically after his death. It is the way he played out the last year of his life, the way he looked death in the face squarely and dealt with it. People of faith tend to face the threat of death by immediately seeking to get around it. They are like the student that begs the professor to grant an extension once he realises the assignment deadline is a tight one. Maybe, there are times such pleas are heard and leniency is granted but often valuable time is lost while going through the process of the appeal. Also, quite often even after the extra time, not much more work is produced. Scholars like Hitchens, don't spend time debating and  negotiating with the time the professor has set, they just put their heads down and get going, using the deadline as a spur to get the brain in gear and motor down the track. By the time others get their extension granted, Hitch has already finished two or three assignments. That's just his way and I think that's the way we all should roll.

Indeed, the way Hitch finished his life reminds me a lot of the way that we were told to finish races on the track at school. We were always told to run through the tape, make that lunge to the line with the torso, regardless of the effort we had expended before. It was not something that came automatically, it was tempting to cruise through the finish after a gruelling run, especially if you  thought you were well ahead or were on your way to capturing some kind of medal. Well, Hitch may have been a winner but he ran through the tape and threw everything he had as the finish line got closer. From the time he heard the bell he was off and away. The race is over for him now and he has plenty of time to rest. Sadly, he can't hear the applause now ringing for him around the stadium. At least we in the crowd can take heart, knowing that if we all take his example and run with it, reason will win out one day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Godvertising all around us

Well, it's that time again. The month of December. The time where retailers rub their hands together in anticipation of increased sales, while churches moan about how the commercial aspects of Christmas have taken away from the 'true meaning' of the season. We know it's the dream of some in the pews to bring Santa to his knees before Jesus. Meanwhile, secular groups will be trying to break through the  religious din to remind the world that Christmas has really only just arrived at the holiday party. The festivities were in full swing long before Mary, Joseph and  the baby came knocking, desperately hoping there was room for them in the inside.

One thing is sure, through it all, God will win out. For all of the protestations of the faithful, the benefits of Christmas, wrapped in secular salutations of "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings," will  spillover into the church. Church attendance will spike on December 25th and the offering plates will be just a bit heavier than there were in the 11 previous months. Don't fool yourself, the churches, just like the retail outlets, get a nice little bonus during the northern hemisphere winter solstice. They say they want the secular out, but throwing out the bathwater to leave the baby will make for a dry Christmas. There is no way that the world would pay attention to a holiday with a pure focus on religion. This would mean that populations would pay as much attention to Christmas as they do to Passover. I am sure that deep down in their hearts the churches don't want that.

In any case, I don't think that churches at Christmas or any other season for that matter are likely to be pushed aside by things 'of the world.' The reason for the churches' staying power has to do with an advertising campaign that is highly integrated and structured. A public relations campaign that has been going on for well over two millennia. It is advertising that is dedicated to promoting the product called 'God.' I call it 'Godvertising.' Everybody raised in a society where religion is dominant knows what Godvertising is and many have been part of it and continue to be. We start getting exposed to Godverts from the time we are born and receive our Christian names. We continue to have the divine promotion bombarding our psyche until we are on our death beds being told of judgement or are at such a low point that we think it is the end of the world.

The goal of Godvertising is to create in the mind of the faith consumer a connection between 'God' and 'good.'  In short,  the message is that everything in the universe that we consider good is sponsored by God. I remember watching Sesame Street as a child and being amused by the idea that a letter of the alphabet or a number could be the sponsor of a children's show.  You would hear "Sesame Street is brought to you today by the letters 'C' and 'J' and by the number '5.'  Even back then, I realised that letters and numbers are abstract constructs of the human mind, obviously they couldn't provide funding for television shows. Well, believe it or not, there is another abstract construct that apparently produces something far greater than one hour of education and entertainment. Yes, every single thing that you love, value or treasure in this life is brought to you by the  letters G, O and D.  That spectacular sunset, that awesome piece of classical music,that amazing sexual experience, that beautiful family that loves you, that ability to understand and reason and learn, all brought to you by G,O and D. In fact, even the entire universe from before the Big Bang was brought to you by that invisible entity that starts with a Gigantic, Galactic 'G.'

There is indeed no evidence to suggest that this G-O-D letter trinity exists in reality. Even if it does, there is no reason to think it has a connection to anything else in the universe. So, that is where Godvertising comes in. It has to be very strong and unrelenting if it is to fill in a gap that logic and evidence can't. Of course, Godvertisers are more than equal to the task.

This is how Godvertising works. Basically, we are told that God is good and good is God.  Advertisers will often tell you that there is no better way to advertise than 'word of mouth.' Godvertising is no different. Words of clergy, teachers, parents and other authorities tell us that there is nothing we can achieve in life without God. We can't even take a breath without him. After being exposed to Godverts for many years, we start believing that all those things we have labelled 'compliments God'  were  written by God himself. Yes, Godvertisers just like crafty advertisers, know that your brain can play tricks on you like that, especially after a long exposure to a suggestive message.

Effective advertising campaigns tend to have 'jingles.'  These short, repetitive ditties  are composed so that people can remember the product and have connections that the advertiser wants resonating in the head.  Godvertisers recognised this early and came up with some very catchy tunes that are extremely difficult to forget. Just like advertisers, Godvertisers recognise the importance of catching the children in order to develop brand loyalty early. One popular jingle that plays over and over in my head even to this day is, " Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so."  This may seem a pretty innocuous line but it creates  an important association between some key words. Jesus, bible and love. Getting this link into the mind early, helps to stave off questions later on when you actually open up that bible package. It is true that you may see endorsements of slavery, genocide and misogyny when you read.  No worries, Godvertisers just want you to remember that 'hook' from the familiar jingle.  The strong imprint of  'Yes Jesus Loves Me' washes away every stain of Old Testament horror.

Throughout our lives, the Godvertising continues. Billboards outside churches, brochures left  strategically at bus stops, bumper stickers, customised number plates, door to door salesmen dressed in fancy suits, infomercials on late night television, swag with the 'cross' logo, it never lets up.  Even in the mainstream media, Godvertising rules. On call-in shows people are often warned that giving free adverts for products they may be associated with is not allowed. For some reason, these stipulations are waived when it comes to Godvertising. It certainly seems that there is no time or place when Godvertisements are off limits. The Godvertisers, inspite of  always claiming to be short of money, are somehow able to secure their positions as lead  sponsors of every champion sports team and grammy award winning recording artiste.

Godvertisers are also excellent at creating demand for their product. Yes, everybody needs God. We have all seen the advertisements that prey on the lack of self esteem of persons who have a few spots on the face, carry a little extra weight in the middle or have a receding hair line. The advertisers don't rush to tell such traumatised consumers that they just need to recognise that their beauty goes beyond such minor blemishes. No, they are quick to offer them that cream, shampoo, or exercise machine that will magically make the problem disappear. More than that, they will assure the customers that they will turn from nervous, recoiling introvert to fearless, confident 'go getter' that can land that great job, relationship or promotion. We are shown the tearful testimonies from consumers who tried EVERYTHING until this life changing product came along one day. The Godvertisers are way ahead when in comes to this tactic. God, of course is the 'all in one' product for all blemishes and the marketers make sure to show you every dirty flaw under the microscopes they carry with them. It's just like how those telemarketers make sure they show you how bad your skin is before they bring out the moisturising lotion. Godvertisers, just like the telemarketers, know that the worse you feel about yourself the more you will buy of their 'Cross of Jesus' cure.  It won't be a one time purchase either. Jesus may have paid the price for us in one installment, but they know we dirty sinners will keep coming back week after week after week for the Salvation Body Wash.

Godvertising really runs deep. Once that relationship between faith and morals is entrenched it impacts the choices people make, even as a career. Just as persons with a flair for the sciences are encouraged from early to pursue medicine or engineering, those with a strong sense of ethics and altruism tend to be pushed towards involvement in church life by both peers and parents. I have seen this many times. People with a strong sense of community service have made the decision to go into the priesthood so that they could get a chance to do what they felt a strong drive from inside  to do. A drive which the Godvertisers were quick to point out was a calling from God himself. Often these persons  realise later on that the product isn't all it is made out to be. However, by then they have such a high position in the Godvertising franchise that there is simply no other place to go. One of the saddest things about the Godvertising campaign is that it often catches those who are the most sincere in their desire to make the world a better place. Unfortunately the Godvertisers cause them to look upwards rather than inwards and around them for solutions.

In business strategy, one learns of the concept of path dependence. The idea that it takes time for a new company to develop the capabilities and reputation to compete with the incumbent 'big fish' companies. Well,  the Jesus fish has been in business far too long for any new secular brand to even think of coming close. As a result, often when atheists want to get into the charity businesses they have to rely on the Godvertisers to make their programs effective.The Godvertisers love this. They may have nothing to do with the fund raising, but when the cheque is there to be handed over to the homeless mother of three, they are sure to be in the limelight. Once again the community perception will be emphasised. God= Good. I know it may seem cynical, but when it comes down to it, the Godvertisers are not as much concerned about the people getting the help as they are about the perception of where the help is coming from. In this regard the Godvertisers success is off the charts. "Thank God," is a Godvertising slogan we hear everyday. So powerful a catchphrase, even atheists who don't buy into the product, find themselves saying it.

 Interestingly, Godvertisers are not really there to advertise God per se.Godvertisers are in the market in order to promote their particular brand of God. It's not that different from people in the market looking to sell 'Smart' phones. You don't hear, " Buy a Smart phone, choose anyone you wish but just get one." No, you hear , " Get the iphone 4." You need a Blackberry Pearl" or "Samsung Galaxy is the best." They don't want you to buy a cell phone. They want you to buy THEIR cell phone.

The Godverts are similar, churches don't tell you to just, " Try religion."They want you to pick THEIR God and will try to the best of their ability to tell you why their brand is better than all the others in the market. A curious thing happens though, both when it comes to smart phones and religion. Some brands will get the lion share of the market, some will struggle to survive, but at the end of the day you will have more sales overall of the general class of product. In other words, people may not buy your Smart phone, but they will very likely buy a smart phone of some kind. Religion is the same, the more Godverts people see, the more conflicting messages they receive the more confused they will get. They may not know which to choose but eventually they will pick one and some religious leader will have a new consumer of dogma.

 The more Godvertising there is out there, the more the consumer is pressured to make a choice for  one of them. With every Godvert the atheist option is pushed further and further from mind. Yes, religious leaders obviously would like to control the market, but they are savvy enough to realise they can't always be the big player. However, as long as the industry as a whole is thriving, there is always a chance to get something even if it's just the crumbs on the side left by the mega churches. So, it's important for Godvertisers to keep the discussion around ' which faith should I choose ?' rather than ' why choose faith?'  The economist Adam Smith suggested that competitive markets work because a rising tide raises all ships. Religions on the whole seem to benefit as that faith tide rises.

In other words, Godvertisers work together to keep faith alive.This is why extreme Godvertisers that are manipulating congregations and making windfall profits from prayer handkerchiefs,  miracle soap and  holy spring water, are left untouched by mainstream promoters.  The excuse given is that consumers should be free to choose the God  product that they want. There is no thinking in these situations of consumer protection for the most vulnerable in society. Faith is the currency of religion and it must always remain liquid and flowing.  For Godvertisers, much as they spend  time fighting for market share among themselves, the most serious threat is one that is aimed at the entire Godverse. Moves that threaten to shutdown the entire industry from outside. Of course that danger comes from the atheists.

Not surprisingly, the Godvertisers and indeed the general public are often concerned why atheists feel the need to counteract Godvertising. The answer is simple. The widely accepted idea that God correlates to good is by implication saying that lack of God correlates with lack of good. Indirectly, the Godvertisers are saying that atheists are morally inferior and studies conducted in different parts of the world suggest that this attitude is widespread. Therefore as a group of non believers it is in our interest to counteract the Godvertising message. It is more about clearing our name and gaining respect than pulling down others' faith.  There are serious implications for us personally and professionally should we not take action to show that such attitudes regarding our characters are unfounded.It is interesting how religious people can easily recognise how an atheist billboard is an affront to their beliefs and yet never stop to think that any piece of Godvertising is effectively saying, " Atheists you are all wrong!"

Yes, I know it's sometimes hard to convince them, but at this Christmastime Godvertisers need not worry. Even though atheists may be on the move,Godvertisers are the incumbents and will be major players in yuletide for years to come.The season is promoted as a season of joy, giving and thinking of others. For a significant proportion of the population, that implies all the things Jesus stands for. So Jesus will be there in peoples' minds even if his name is not uttered. Advertisers will tell you that once consumers make associations regarding their products, you don't have to mention names to get them to buy. You can 'just do it' without having to say 'Nike!' So, Christians don't have to worry about losing their influence in Christmas or Xmas, once they continue to Godvertise.  In the meantime, we atheists will not refrain from telling them that Godverts that  imply that belief in a God is needed for good, are advertisements that are both false and misleading.