Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gimme That Old Time Religion Pt. 2 - The Church and "Bonnie and Clyde"

Bonnie, Clyde, Blanche and Buck are all disillusioned by the hollow promise that a conventional, religious, “working stiff” lifestyle can bring.  They break out of it.  Reject it.  It’s for suckers – not for special people like them.  Bonnie notes this, insisting to her mother that her and Clyde’s way of life is being truly alive, it’s the others that are “walking around dead.”  What an idea – what an image to keep in mind as we stage the opening of the second act next week.  During the Great Depression, the bread lines, Hoovervilles and mass migration really almost were a version of “The Walking Dead” in many ways – people let down by the system, hard-working people sold the American Dream only to have it pop like a balloon.  People joined a hungry throng for survival, following the work and the food.
Good Old USA?  A migrant mother
in the Depression comforts her children.
Image by photographer Dorothea Lange
The second act opens up with a chorus of these folks and the minister musing over the antics of the Barrow Gang.  Surprisingly, the preacher acknowledges that they’re not entirely to blame for their actions without condoning stealing.  Who gets the crowd’s condemnation?  Why, it’s the ‘good old USA.’
Blaming America is a concept that any good patriotic conservative evangelical might choke on.  So what’s going on?

There was indeed a strain of progressivism – even in Christianity - in the 20th century that did try to strive for social justice such as the reforms of the Roosevelt presidency and Civil Rights; these were loosely organized threads that placed emphasis on the idea of redemption and serving the greater good.  Of course, competing strains of evangelicalism were often far more conservative, shunning anything that smelled remotely of socialism. 

Nowhere were these divisions more stark than in the national Baptist Church beginning in the Reagan era.  At national conventions and meetings, ministers would vie for voting power on the direction of the church in a decidedly right-wing direction, for example, shunning women from the ministry, which repulsed other longtime leaders and members.  The church finally fractured in 1990 into the large and powerful Southern Baptist Convention and the more progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Baptist churches remain a splintered group under many "parent" organizations.

 Except Westboro Baptist. Nobody wants any part of those assholes. They're always hate-farting.
 I was a kid during that time, but you could feel the tension even in individual churches.  I recall my mom grumbling at a pamphlet included in the church’s Sunday morning bulletin.  It seemed innocuous to my young mind: it advertised a book and speaking series claiming to share exciting information about dinosaurs (which I loved) and how they were involved in the creation, and how the minutemen of the Revolution were all ardent Christians.  Mom knew better. “Ugh…conservative propaganda,” she muttered. 

Around the same time, Dad was on the phone, talking in a calm tone to a member of his Sunday School class.  Somehow, this man had become upset with mom and dad when it was discovered that they were not ardently anti-abortion rights (in a church that staged frequent pro-life rallies).  Our family didn’t stay at that church much longer. 

Is there “room for everyone,” as the preacher says?  There’s always been a conflict between judgmental religiosity and what it probably is supposed to be – welcoming love and redemption.  Jesus, after all, might have had a soft spot for the Barrow Gang, if not the robberies and shootings.  After all, he hung out with the freaks, the misfits and the outcasts, and instead attacked corrupt institutions – quite the anarchist in many ways. 
Eventually, mom and dad found a church where they felt welcome.  I sometimes volunteer there, and have some good friends and mentors who are members.  Divorcees are welcome, as are openly gay couples (and there’s no attempt made to “fix” them) – there are plenty of churches where they’re not, but that’s just the beginning.  It welcomes people of other faiths; it’s where “missions” mean not trying to convert people to Christianity, but physically helping them build or clean up their communities.  As a youth chaperone, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this church unquestioningly celebrated and respected a transgender kid.  The Gateway Men’s Chorus performed as welcome guests.  They host a community gospel choir, a racially and ethnically diverse chorus.  Feminists are welcome and given a forum.  There are actually churches out there like this – they’re just not all that noisy in politics.  But they do suck a lot less.

A great thing to be.
Perhaps the Barrow Gang wasn’t really all that cut out for that sort of existence, however open the church.  There’s always an air of fellowship and “the flock” in a church, which clearly isn’t for most of the folks in the Barrow Gang.  They’re celebrities – one entity that Americans, fickle as we are, worships every bit as fervently as religious deities.  The crowd singing in “Made in America” forgives and almost admires them for making their own way –after all, rugged individualism at any cost is as patriotic as it gets.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Gimme That Old Time Religion Pt. 1 - The Church and "Bonnie and Clyde"

When I was nine years old, my older sister and I were baptized.  Yes, nine, and beforehand, we were obliged to sit down and discuss our faith with the minister at our church at the time – because it was what is known as “believer’s baptism.”  That’s baptism by full immersion in water, not a mere sprinkling on the head of an infant.  It is, as Baptist tradition teaches, the way Jesus himself was drenched in the waters of the Jordan by John the Baptist.  Ideally, it’s supposed to symbolize many things, but most of all, a conscious choice – a death, a burial, a resurrection, a cleansing, and a new life and new covenant with God. 
It wasn't this dramatic.  Too bad.

We see a scene like this represented in “Bonnie and Clyde” – the character Buck, Clyde’s brother, is baptized while a preacher sings (in classic gospel style, backed by a choir) that “God’s arms are always open” to welcome sinners – right before Buck gives himself up to the law.  It’s a great scene in which we see Buck trying to make a go of the straight and narrow (and honor his wife’s wishes), while Clyde reaps the benefits of his chosen path until apprehended.  I’d argue that “Bonnie and Clyde” is rife with many more of these musical and dramatic “baptisms,” conscious choices where the characters are awash in reveling in – and committing to – their choices.

Do they, however, have as much agency as they think, though?  In the second act, the preacher sings about how the mixed bag that is American glamour, greed and broken promises gave birth to Bonnie and Clyde – they didn’t happen in a vacuum, the two were natural offspring of the turmoil of the depression and dust bowl.  It’s that push and pull between the characters’ agency and ability to act and their being caught in the jaws of something larger and out of their control, whether it be their passion or their poverty.

Ned and the kids get cleansed by the
Holy Spirit.
I honestly don’t know how much choice I had in my baptism.  While I don’t really regret it, I was just a kid doing what I thought I should do, my parents, my big sis and my grandma thought was the thing to do.  I felt obliged to do it, so I did it, much like Buck.  As he notes bitterly from prison, it didn’t make much of a difference in what came after.   While I’m not disillusioned with what’s at the very heart of wanting to be a good person in the “Christian” sense and a follower of Christ at its best – being the face of Christ and love for others, the idea that God is love, the "last commandment" of loving one another – I later became more interested in the “church” as an institution and a cultural touchstone than I did in the act of unquestioning churchgoing - and I really don't go much any more, though not out of bitterness.   Buck, Bonnie and Clyde sense  the empty promises that religion often offers for themselves (Blanche, Buck's wife, is cut from slightly different cloth, while she follows her husband, she's terribly distraught at living a life of crime) that what they’ve been told growing up ain’t necessarily so, and that in the absence of a caring God’s presence, they’ll have to make their own way any way they can - and they do.