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October 30, 2010

Cults and Creeds, Tumults and Greeds, part 2

Formless spiritual. Father, Word and Holy Breath. Allfather, the heavenly man. Hiesos Kristos, magician of the beautiful, the Logos who suffers in us at every moment. This verily is that. I am the fire upon the altar. I am the sacrificial butter. (James Joyce, Ulysses)

The top ten world religions (according to wikipedia) are: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Folk religions, Buddhism, Chinese religions (Taoism, Confucianism), Shintoism, Sikhism, Judaism, Bahà’ì.

What are religions and are they dangerous? What are cults and are they dangerous? Can new religions be invented or are we doomed to choose from millennia-old, dusty, musty, crusty belief systems? I was surprised to find a list of hundreds of new religious movements on the internet. Are they new religions or cults?

Our country, don’t forget, was formed by cultists: Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, Mennonites, Congregationalists, Shakers, Anabaptists, Amish—little groups of outcasts bound together by their defiance of the status quo.

Cults are defined as : ‘a social group sometimes accused of mentally, physically, or sexually controlling its members.’ ‘A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.’ ‘A quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents.’

Words associated with cults by their critics are: indoctrination, isolation, destructive, elitist, separatist, totalitarian, authoritarian, dangerous, fear, violence, brain-washing, mind-control, physical restriction (some adherents have to be abducted by anti-cultists)—in sum, not a very happy picture.

Examples (from various government lists): Order of the Solar Temple, Falun Gong, People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, Opus Dei, Rastafarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unification Church, Rosicrucians, Satanists, OSHO movement, Aum Shinri Kyo, Concerned Christians, Nation of Islam, Voodoo, Wicca, and many more. I’ve known members of several of these groups, and, frankly, they’re scary.

There are two large cults in the U.S., both of which prefer to be called churches: Mormonism and Scientology.

On a recent trip to Salt Lake City I stayed in the house of a sister-wife, one of the wives in a polygamist harem. The hostess treated us suspiciously. Around town the Mormons seemed a bit like people in a creepy movie, walking around smiling, heads full of holy thoughts. Then I met an ex-Mormon in California, and he went on and on about Mormon underwear and how The Saints pressure and coerce their flock to keep it in line like yapping sheepdogs. Another disquieting zealot.

Are you worried by Scientology? Invented by a science fiction writer, it seems like an elaborate joke. Why the huge draw on actors? And how should we view an actor’s work when we know he/she is a cultist in real life? It shouldn’t matter, right? But it does.

Want a list? (from the internet, may contain inaccuracies)

Scientologist Celebrities:
Adam Beason
Adjowa Hayes
Angelo Pagan
Anita Mally
Anne Archer
Beck Hansen
Beth Riesgraf
Bijou Phillips
Billy Sheehan
Bodhi Elfman
Catherine Bell
Chick Corea
Christopher Masterson
Corin Nemec
Danny Masterson
Darius Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
David Campbell
Doug Dohring
Doug E Fresh
Eddie Deezen
Edgar Winter
Eduardo Palomo (dec.)
Erika Christensen
Ernie Reyes Jr.
Ethan Suplee
Geoffrey Lewis
Giovanni Ribisi
Greta Van Susteren
Haywood Nelson
Isaac Hayes (dec.)
James Packer
James Stacy Barbour
Jason Dohring
Jason Lee
Jeff Conaway
Jeff Pomerantz
Jeffrey Tambor
Jenna Elfman
Jennifer Aspen
Jim Meskimen
John Travolta
Johnny Lewis
Judy Norton Taylor
Julia Migenes
Juliette Lewis
Karen Black
Kate Ceberano
Katie Holmes
Kelly Preston
Kimberley Kates
Kirstie Alley
Laura Prepon
Leah Remini
Lee Purcell
Lightfield Lewis
Lisa Marie Presley
Lynsey Bartilson
Mariah O’Brien
Marisol Nichols
Marissa Ribisi
Mark Isham
Michael D. Roberts
Michael Fairman
Michael Peña
Michelle Stafford
Milton Katselas (dec.)
Mutt & Jeff
Nancy Cartwright
Nicky Hopkins (dec.)
Pablo Santos (dec.)
Pamela Roberts
Patrick Renna
Paul Haggis
Peaches Geldof
Persia White
Placido Domingo Jr.
Priscilla Presley
Richard Elfman
Ruddy Rodriguez
Sharon Case
Sky Dayton
Sofia Milos
Sonny Bono (dec.)
Tom Constanten
Tom Cruise
Tyler Hynes
Xavier Deluc

Former Scientologist Celebrities:
Al Jarreau
Brad Pitt
Candice Bergen
Cathy Lee Crosby
Charles Manson
Demi Moore
Diana Canova
Emilio Estevez
Frank Stallone
Gloria Gaynor
Gloria Swanson (dec.)
J.D. Salinger (dec.)
Jason Beghe
Jerry Seinfeld
John Brodie
Kate Capshaw
Katharine McPhee
Larry Anderson
Leif Garrett
Leonard Cohen
Linda Blair
Melanie (Safka)
Mimi Rogers
Neil Gaiman
Nicole Kidman
Oliver Stone
Olivia D’Abo
Patrick Swayze (dec.)
Paul Haggis
Peggy Lipton
Quincy Jones
Ricky Martin
Robert Hunter
Sharon Stone
Stanley Clarke
Stephen Boyd (dec.)
Van Morrison
William S. Burroughs (dec.)

Rumored Scientologist Celebrities:
Anne Francis
Barbara Carrera
Bernadette Peters
Cassandra Hepburn
Chaka Khan
Christopher Reeve (dec.)
Deborah Rennard
Eileen Brennan
Esai Morales
Gordon Lightfoot
Horst Buchholtz (dec.)
Jada Pinkett Smith
John Savage
Lou Rawls (dec.)
Mikhail Baryshnikhov
Rock Hudson (dec.)
Ron Ely
Ron Wood
Shirley Maclaine
Will Smith

Does this list mean anything? Yes. What? I don’t know.

I’ll leave it to you to expand the topic through your own research. Talk to a current member and an ex-member of any group that interests you to get perspective. Don’t ignore spirituality. Make up your own mind. But don’t go into a room where they lock the door.

Sitting all together with a congregation of like-minded people, dressed up, chanting comforting nonsense, standing, sitting, singing, hoping for the common purpose to be realized before our eyes, praying for victory … wait, am I talking about spectator sports? The Giants in the World Series again? Sorry, got distracted. Maybe the cults don’t have such a hold on me after all. Or maybe being a sports fan is, emotionally, the same drug.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Tell me, my friend, do you know the difference between a well dressed man and a dog?
Jeff: No, I don’t, my friend.
Mutt: The man wears a suit, the dog just pants.
Jeff: Fine. Do you know the difference between a crazy rabbit and a counterfeit coin?
Mutt: I’m afraid not.
Jeff: One is bad money, and the other is a mad bunny.
Mutt: Ahhh. But what is the difference between an ornithologist and a stutterer?
Jeff: Go on.
Mutt: One is a bird watcher, and the other is a word botcher.
Jeff: What is the difference between a miser and a canary?
Mutt: Enlighten me.
Jeff: One's a little cheap and the other is a little cheeper.
Mutt: As long as we’re doing animal humor …
Jeff: Humor?
Mutt: The difference between a unicorn and lettuce? One is a funny beast and the other is a bunny feast.
Jeff: Animal?
Mutt: Okay, what then is the difference between one yard and two yards?
Jeff: A fence.
Mutt: Jolly good.

October 23, 2010

Cults and Creeds, Tumults and Greeds, part 1

The problem—our need to believe while remaining open to better beliefs and what lies beyond belief altogether—must be resolved existentially, through living it … (Huston Smith)

Breaking News: Jesus made the San Francisco Giants win the National League pennant! (point index fingers upwards) The Lord was with us, against Philadelphia (what sins were they paying for, I wonder), so we tore them to pieces, a Holy baseball massacre. Thank you, God Sir. [Don’t you wish he’d help us win that other game over in Afghanistan? Or are the enemies praying harder to their God?] = example of sarcasm

Did you take the religious knowledge quiz? ( I got ‘em all (brag, brag).

Remember when President Obama, in his inaugural address, said: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” He raised his finger for emphasis on the last note, as if to say that the atheists and agnostics and don’t-give-a-damners can finally join the nation. (My religious family and religious friends are rejoicing for me, right?)

In fact, I was taught that separation of church and state is fundamental to good government and that freedom and respect for all religions is the cornerstone of democracy. And that belief is a private matter.

Here’s the test: You live in a country where almost everyone practices a different religion from yours (or your none-of-the-above), how do you want that society to respect you? By singing God Bless America at the ballpark? In God We Trust on the money? Forcing you to pledge ‘One nation under God’? Whose God? Our God, not yours. And if you ain’t got one, you ain’t nobody ‘round these here parts.

Going to hell? Been there, done that? Sounds kinda fun, huh, with all the nasty sinners? Dynamiting bridges, taking psychedelic drugs, consorting with biker chicks in leather chaps. Yahoo! Hell is having no self-control? Yeah, whatever. Is there a separate hell for each religion, since the other religions always believe they’re right and you’re damn well going downwards? Sure hope they don’t send me to Buddhist hell by mistake! Boooring.

Sorry, it’s too easy to expose religion to ridicule. The Shroud of Turin, proven to be a fake in 1988 (as the cloth covering Jesus’ corpse (didn’t he rise from the dead?—never mind)), continued to draw millions of faithful viewers at its recent exhibit. And they knew; they’d heard of the carbon dating that showed it was from around 1300 AD. The need for spirituality, strong as the attraction of opium, overcomes reason again.

Can religion survive the sins of the church? (a hint: Jerusalem, the thrice holy city, 4000 years of strife, still there) I mean, when is enough enough or way way too much? When are there so many scandals, so much evil, so much perversion, that one should abandon an organization like a rotten marriage? Never? Till death, murder, rape or terror do you part? How many people must lose their life savings to con artists? How much common sense murdered by credence in aliens, phantoms and superheroes dressed up as religion? How many boys/girls need to be molested, abused, violated, ruined (use the stronger term here if you dare)? There’s an epidemic of pedophilia worldwide (the abused becoming abusers exponentially) that originates partly from the clerisy, often ‘celibate’ Roman Catholic priests. Is anyone proposing a radical cure? Is the church? The pope has waffled so badly recently that his credibility is kaput.

And the anti-gay protestant preacher who pays male whores to bugger him and then, after his habit becomes public, leaves his mega-church to go start another mega-church? (Ted Haggard, for one) And the sheep who follow their pastor? (I used to get the bus in San Francisco across the street from the People’s Temple when 918 of the automatons drank poison.) Sometimes religious people act like they’re insane, idiotic, gullible fools, daft, bonkers, loony tunes, psycho, wacko, batty, deranged, unhinged, stark raving crazy crackers mad.

Ahh faith, they say, faith (immune to critique), mysticism, ecstasy, the unknowable, the mystery. The big lie, others respond. Big Brother’s double-crossing doublespeak. And like fish they all took de-bate.

All I know: When a religious experience is legitimate it deserves respect in the same measure as we must show disdain and intolerance for cheaters, frauds, hot-air blowers, brain-washers, hustlers, swindlers, buffoons, liars, hypocrites, suckers, dupes, demagogues, charlatans, scam artists, phonies, fakes, manipulators, deceivers, rabble rousers, propagandizers, browbeaters, sound-biters, wheeler dealers, exploiters, abusers, sexual predators, and on and on and on and on.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Old ministers never die, they just get put out to pastor.
Jeff: I beg of you ... please.
Mutt: Okay, Jeff. But you know, I once considered going into the ministry myself.
Jeff: Really?
Mutt: Yes, but I didn't have an altar ego.
Jeff: Awright, guess what’s the religion of the woman who had a sex-change operation. No don’t, I’ll tell you: a hethen. Get it, he-then?
Mutt: For the love of Mike. I had a friend, very religious, who owned a pest control company. Every morning when he sent his workers off on their assignments he said, “Brothers and sisters, let us spray.”
Jeff: These religious jokes are way too pat. Let’s knock it off.
Mutt: One more. Here’s an old-timer. Ready?
Jeff: No.
Mutt: Outside a small Macedonian village a lone Catholic nun keeps a quiet watch over a silent convent. She is the last caretaker of this site of significant historical developments, spanning more than 2,000 years. When Sister Maria Cyrilla of the Order of the Perpetual Watch dies, the convent of St. Elias will be closed by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Macedonia.

However, that isn't likely to happen soon, as Sister Maria, 53, enjoys excellent health. By her own estimate, she walks 10 miles daily about the grounds of the convent, which once served as a base for the army of Attila the Hun. In more ancient times, a Greek temple to Eros, the god of love, occupied the hilltop site.

Historians say that Attila took over the old temple in 439 A.D., and used it as a base for his marauding army. The Huns are believed to have first collected and then destroyed a large gathering of Greek legal writs at the site. It is believed that Attila wanted to study the Greek legal system and had the writs and other documents brought to the temple. Scholars differ on why he had the valuable documents destroyed - either because he was barely literate and couldn't read them, or because they provided evidence of a democratic government that did not square with his own notion of "rule by an all-powerful tyrant".

When the Greek church took over the site in the 15th century and the convent was built, church leaders ordered the pagan statue of Eros destroyed, so another ancient Greek treasure was lost. Today, there is only the lone sister, watching over the old Hun base. When she goes, that will be it.
Jeff: And?
Mutt: That's how it ends, with No Huns, No Writs, No Eros, and Nun on base.
Jeff: Lord have mercy.
Mutt: Did the Giants really win the pennant?
Jeff: You betcha brudda! Youuuuu betcha!

October 10, 2010

What’s Poverty? What’s Wealth?

In 1975 I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya on a gift ticket. I stayed at the YMCA dormitory to save money and spent my days walking around the beautiful city. In Uhuru Park, in particular, pairs of well-dressed articulate young men my age would approach me to chat. I found this delightful, and we exchanged interesting information about our diverse countries. However, this fun meeting, which sometimes even included stopping for tea, always ended with an appeal on their part for money to help with their educational expenses. I expressed my regret that I had none to give, and tried to explain that though I was American, I was not rich. They never bought it and said, “All Americans are rich.” Are they?

Measured on an African scale, they are, we are. An entire district of Nairobi lives by sifting through the garbage pile created by their slightly more affluent neighbors. Few Americans live on garbage, and those that do have a richer lode to mine. Anyway, I was sorry that I was being set-up, sorry we couldn’t have a friendship that did not involve money changing hands, sorry that I was accused of being exactly what I thought I was not, but to them obviously was. Wealthy.

In 1966 I took civics in junior high school. The teacher talked one day about social classes, so I asked my mother, as we rolled newspapers for my route, what social class we belonged to. She had a degree in sociology from UC Berkeley. She answered: “If you judge class by income we’re in the lowest, if you judge class by education we’re in the highest.” We didn’t really fit into the ordinary social distinctions. My father’s pay was so low that people brought us hand-me-down clothes, toys, and food. But he spent 13 years studying at various universities earning about six degrees.

When I was a boy I had just three 45rpm records: One O’Clock Jump by Harry James, Caldonia by Louis Jordan, The Barnyard Song by Alan Mills. They came with the hand-me-down record player, and I played them over and over. That was all my musical education until I got a transistor radio with the money from my paper route. I can still remember those three songs perfectly. (I know One O’Clock Jump is instrumental, and they all had a B-side.) When I see my brother Paul we greet one another by singing, “Walking with my baby, she’s got great big feet …”

Now I have downloaded and collected and bought and pirated so many records and cassettes and CDs and Mp3s that I have thousands of recordings, several 500 gigabyte external hard drives full. Am I happier to have more music than I could ever dream of as a boy? Maybe three were enough. Not so long ago, many old time singers in the Appalachians were famous for singing moving versions of one song, the only song they knew! Is one enough? Or is no number ever enough? Am I sick with musical avarice? What if less is more?

Now that I think about it I had only three books too: A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Shirley Temple Storybook, and The Book House (a set of about 10 volumes of traditional stories). Okay, that’s not three books but close. With a healthy public library system it didn’t matter. I read library books since before I started school, checking out the allowed limit every week from first grade onwards through high school.

In San Francisco, they built the Parkside library on Taraval street, about three blocks away, just before I was born. I remember the low flat roof and huge concrete bricks that fascinated me as to how they were stacked to make the walls. In those days a five-year-old could go to the corner and ask any adult to take his hand to cross the big street; my parents let me go alone. In Antioch, the library was one house away from ours, practically across the street, not 50 feet away. I got so many stickers as rewards for reading books that the children’s librarian had to continually give me replacement cards. In Madera, I volunteered to work in the library shelving books and so on. (When my mother retired she also volunteered to work in the nearby public library for many years, so you know where I got all this love of libraries and books.)

Can a few books be enough? The early Americans had a Bible, a primer, maybe a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress or some subscription novels like those of Louisa May Alcott or Harriet Beecher Stowe. Not more than a foot of shelf space anyway. As they traveled across the plains they tossed the heavy books to save the oxen.

Now I probably have 10,000 books filling my home, basement, father-in-law’s garage and computer. No comment needed.

What else? Halloween candy lasted till Christmas, otherwise none until Easter. We played with a broken baseball bat and a tennis ball because we had no real baseball and no glove anyway. I borrowed a bike from my friend David so I could ride my paper route to get enough money to buy my own bike, which only took about two years of savings. And I never remember eating out as a child, except potlucks and a burger once at the bowling alley.

So growing up were we poor or did we feel poor? Yes and no. We probably were but didn’t suffer for it at all. Never crossed our minds. Would I have had a better life with more stuff? No. Do I now? No.

Some economist recently came up with a minimum salary on which to afford happiness or the pursuit thereof. Quality of life can involve basic necessities (hard to smile on an empty stomach), so he says we need at least $60,000 annually. That’s much more than I’ve ever made. Combined with my wife’s pay too. He’s telling us that on his chart we’re out of the comfort zone and in the suffering zone. Yeah, so? It’s my own chart that counts.

I’ll let you answer for yourself the implied question about spiritual poverty or wealth and the meaning of life. Good luck.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Old professors never die, they just lose their class.
Jeff: We’re starting that again?
Mutt: Yes we are. Old doctors never die, they just lose their patience.
Jeff: Old hippies never die, they just smell that way.
Mutt: Old lawyers never die, they just lose their appeal.
Jeff: Old sewage workers never die, they just waste away.
Mutt: Old policemen never die, they just cop out.
Jeff: Old steelmakers never die, they just lose their temper.
Mutt: Old sailors never die, they just get a little dingy.
Jeff: Old hypochondriacs never die, they just lose their grippe.
Mutt: Finally, there is no conclusive evidence about what happens to old sceptics, but their future is doubtful.

October 7, 2010

I Had a Musical Dream

It was a concert just for me. All my favorite musicians played at the same place, in Golden Gate Park near where I grew up. And it was all FREE!

Earl Scruggs (my nickname in junior high) was still alive and in great form. As were Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, Jerry Jeff Walker, Peter Rowan and Del McCoury: the elite of old-time American music. Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, David Grisman, Elvis Costello, Guy Clark, Randy Newman, Rosanne Cash, Gillian Welch, Jorma Kaukonen, Dave Alvin, Steve Earle, Indigo Girls, James McMurtry, Kinky Friedman, Richard Thompson, Carolina Chocolate Drops, David Holt, Jerry Douglas, Laurie Lewis, Robert Earl Keen, T-Bone Burnett, The Dukes of September with Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen, The Flatlanders with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, Dry Branch Fire Squad, the subdudes, The Waybacks, Yonder Mountain String Band, Lyle Lovett, Bill Kirchen, Nick Lowe, Patti Smith, MC Hammer, Buddy Miller and a hundred others.

The music was ethereal; the moment empyrean. Some rich banjo player paid for the whole dang thing. Impossible? Strictly Bluegrass? Hardly.

Next year, meetya there.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: What the heck was that about?
Jeff: Some music festival in San Francisco. (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass)
Mutt: I hate music.
Jeff: Me too.
Mutt: I tried to write a drinking song once, but I couldn't get past the first bar.
Jeff: I hate music.
Mutt: Like the guy who broke into song because he couldn't find the key.
Jeff: Or the musical about a train conductor.
Mutt: What?
Jeff: "My Fare, Lady”
Mutt: How about the Disney movie about the tall-tale-telling champ?
Jeff: The Lyin' King? Oh mercy.
Mutt: Okay, here’s a good one.
Jeff: I doubt it.
Mutt: A guy walks into the psychiatrist's office wearing only plastic wrap shorts. The shrink says, "Well, I can clearly see you're nuts."
Jeff: So are you … both.