Monday, 17 July 2017

The Nude - Is It Art pt 2

Well, if you haven't read the first part of this post then I recommend that you do, namely because I explore the history of the nude, and also how the concept changed in the early 20th Century as we moved from the public to the private space. The other thing is that I am running through is the idea of where the line is drawn, and what we would consider offensive. One idea has suggested as to whether the image is sensual or not, yet there are works of art hanging on the walls of art galleries for everybody to see that are incredibly sensual. The other thing is that we are probably much more relaxed with regards to the naked body that the British of the Victorian era were, who were renown for being rather prude.

Obviously there is still a struggle between opposing forces in society as to what is considered to be art, and what is considered to be obscene. Obviously Google has taken the stance, and a good one at that, to move away from pornography. Okay, I'd hardly consider Google to be the go to place for internet porn, however with the changing nature of society (before the internet guys would throw on overcoats and sneak into the back entrance of adult bookshops) Google have adjusted their algorithm so that people don't 'accidentally' get directed to such a site. Mind you, while they haven't necessarily shut down any blogs that are overtly pornographic, they have made them somewhat more difficult to access.

Modern Times

In the early 20th Century art suddenly begins to head in a new direction, and this has a lot to do with the invention of the camera. Sure, impressionism had moved from the more realistic paintings of the past to a style that focuses on colour, and the majestic and the public had been swept aside to be replaced by the ordinary and the private. However, as we move beyond the impressionist phase we begin to see a different style of art taking place, and none is more dynamic than Picasso.

In the past the nude was seen as a form of perfection, and in a sense the artists had always been looking to create that perfect body, a body that someone could look at and state that it is a thing of beauty. The Ancient Athenians saw this concept of beauty in the male body, but as attitudes changed, particularly with the hetrosexual nature of the Christian west, this concept of beauty, from a patriarchal point of view, shift to the woman.

However, the cubists began to question the nature of the body, and we see this particularly with Picasso's Seated Nude and Blomberg's Mud Bath. Suddenly the concept has moved from the real to the subjective. Picasso reimagined the human body from the classical curves to more jagged edges with folds and shadows, while the identities in Blomberg's painting disappeared to become a tangle of limbs all scurrying to hide from the voyer. This is no longer a question of sensuality but a question of reality. Like the impressionists, the focus moved away from trying to be as accurate as possible, namely because the camera could now do that, and artists now were exploring these concepts through colour and shape.


We now take a turn from the explorations of the cubists and into the subconscious of the surrealists. In a sense these concepts have arisen from the writings of Freud, who began to explore what it is that makes us tick, and how and why we do what we do. Sure, Freud and his students were psychologists, and explored these concepts from a psychological point of view, but the surrealists took this psycho-sexual identity and turned it into art. Mind you, men were still the dominant force in those days, and many of the paintings were from a male perspective, but it is here that we begin to understand the psychological differences between the genders.

I guess one of the strongest paintings in the genre would have to be Delveux's Sleeping Venus. Here the nude is being taken out of the sensual and being thrown into the horrific. The night skies, the ruined temples, and the skeletal figures, all go turn this idea into something much, much darker. Once again we have one of the ancient gods, this time Venus (or Aphrodite), the god of sexual love, at least where the Greeks were concerned. However, we suddenly discover that this sensual idea has a much darker side to it, and this goddess of love is in reality a goddess of soul destroying lust.

Scylla is another form of art where the artist, this time female, is viewing herself in a different form. In one sense it is just her sitting in the bath with her thighs protruding above the water, but in another sense they represent the narrow straights through which Odysseus had to sail. Once again there is this shift away from the sensual to the violent. The idea of Scylla was that she was this monstrous serpent that would lie in wait for Odysseus' men to pass through the rocks, and when they were not suspecting it she would leap down and devour them. In a way this is the image that comes out of the thighs as well, something that is alluring, yet destructive.

Bellmer's Doll, is famous as it is haunting. In a way it is what is termed as a fetish, a object that has sexual meaning attached to it, and there is probably nothing that represents a fetish is the way that Bellmer's sculpture does. However, what is really unsettling is how it simply turns the concept of sex with a relational act between two sentient creatures that desire to express their love, and into a purely physical act that simply exists to satisfy the cravings of a single person. However, the other thing is that this object is clearly created from the male view point, suggesting that the female desire is something that simply does not come to mind.

While I could go on with these paintings, in particular Man Ray's Picsese (among others) I will finish off with Gruber's Job. Here was have a thin and naked man sitting alone in a dark alleyway. This is the realism aspect of surrealism, were we move away from the ideal and enter into the real. Job is the Biblical person who lost his wealth and family, and then his health, and spends a bulk of the book trying to understand the nature of suffering. In a way what we see here is not the beautiful and idealistic, but the real, the dark, and the horrifying. It is not the beautiful nude that we see, but the vulnerable naked man.

The Erotic Nude

Here we come to the centre piece of the exhibition, Rodin's The Kiss. At first I thought it was located in the gardens of his house in Paris, however it appears that the sculptures that are located there may not be originals. Actually, I had never heard of Rodin until I visited his house, and the only reason went there was because it was supposed to be one of the things to do when you are in Paris. However I'm not in Paris and this isn't a post entirely on Rodin, though this sculpture is the main reason that attracted people to the exhibition.

The Kiss is based on a scene from Dante's Inferno where the noble woman Francesca da Rimini falls in love with her husband's younger brother, and is then caught by her husband locked in a passionate embrace. As was expected at the time, her husband Giovanni basically killed them, and they spent eternity in hell locked in that passionate embrace. However if you look closely at the sculpture you will notice that the lips aren't touching, suggesting that the couple were killed before the kiss could begin, and this they spend eternity in this embrace, but never actually touching.

There are other sketches in this section, including some by Turner and David Hockney, who also challenged the society of the time. The Kiss was actually covered by a sheet when it was on display, which I had to admit is rather odd because if it was that offensive, or shocking, then why would it be on display. We also have Turner and Hockney who pushed the boundaries with their drawings as well, with Hockney in particular exploring the erotic nature of homosexuality in the years before it was legalised. In a way it seems odd that an act between two consenting adults could be considered a crime, but in many places around the world it still very much is.

Yet there is a line between the erotic and the obscene, and in one sense the etchings of Pablo Picasso (using his signature cubist form) could fall into the category of obscene. In a way something erotic is designed to titilate, to evoke our sensual nature, to draw us in. However the obscene goes in the opposite direction, in that it repels, it offends, and it drives us away. This is the nature of sex in our society - a constant struggle between the erotic and the obscene. There is the nature that is beautiful, however there is also the aspect which is just base, and to put it bluntly, quite degrading.

Body Politics

Which brings us to this section on the political aspect of the body. Up until very recently, women weren't considered people, they were considered property - they were either the property of the father, or the property of the husband. There was no such thing as an abusive relationship because it was believed that if a woman was bashed by her husband then she obviously did something to deserve it. In fact, even in our age of recognisable human rights, there is still the belief, usually by the victim, that if they are assaulted then they were deserving of that assault. However, the political nature of the human body is certainly an incredibly hot topic.

For instance why is it that most women can only get into an art gallery as a nude model. Sure, there are female artists, though it is interesting to note that Susan Valladon, an impressionist artist from the turn of the 20th Century, began her artistic career as a nude model. Wilke also explored this idea with a nude photograph of her with the title 'Marxism and Art, beware of Facist Feminism'. In a way this is true of the feminist movement - there is the feminist movement that seeks equal rights for women, and there is the movement that seeks to demonise all men and to establish a feminine hegemony. In a way what they want is to switch the gender roles to make the male the weak and oppressed and the female the strong and domineering.

Which brings us to Curran's Honeymoon Nude, which is a melding of the renaissance ideal with the modern pronographic. In one sense the model is that of Bottecheli's Venus, however she has taken a much more modern appearance, and is designed to be the modern ideal. She is standing on that line between the artistic and the pornographic - it both senses being the ideal and the erotic. The honeymoon aspect is that of the young bride who has just married, and she is presented to her husband in all her glory. However, she is a possession of her husband, and we should note that we do not see the male body in the picture - in a sense we, the art critic, are that male, being given the pleasure of gazing on her body. While it isn't sensual as some of the other paintings, it is one that brings us very, very close to the line.

The Vulnerable Body

This was the final gallery, and I have to admit that I didn't actually take any photos here (namely because all of the works were 'no photograph' works). However, as was indicated at the beginning, the difference between the nude and the naked is the aspect of vulnerability. The nude is a thing of beauty, something to be admired, where as the naked is something that is akin to vulnerability and weakness. In the historical period the nude was painted as something of the idea, but as we move closer to the contemporary period, and as boundaries have begun to be pushed, the ideal has fallen to the wayside to be taken over by the real, and in some senses the surreal.

The vulnerable body is now something that is being explored - not humanity in their unobtainable perfection, but humanity in reality. As society pushes us more and more to seek the unobtainable ideal, and how our young are being pummeled with images of perfection that nobody can possibly obtain, we in part need to put on the breaks and actually look at where we are heading. In a sense we need to pull our heads out of the clouds, realising where the reality and the normal is and whether we are seeking the ideal or the unobtainable. In the past the artist looked and sought the ideal, however in the present the ideal is becoming much more unobtainable, and the artist is beginning to throw that away to instead focus on that which is real.

Drawing the Line

Which brings us to the question of where is the line between art and pornography. Well, sometimes that line can be very, very hard to distinguish. In a sense pornography has been around for as long as people have been able to take photographs, and the sex industry has been around for much, much longer. Some have suggested that pornography is designed to excite, and to provoke a sexual response, yet there is art that is designed to do exactly the same thing, and they hang on the walls of public galleries. Does pornography exploit people? Well, some say yes, and others suggest that people go down that road through their own desires. In fact you will find people in the sex industry that are very comfortable with their job and believe that they provide a benefit to society.

Some would suggest that it is an ideal, but a lot of art seems to seek that ideal. In fact once could consider that there are forms of art that are seeking to recreate the concept of Plato's ideal. Sure, with photoshop and such, images are touched up in a way that there is no way that a normal human could compete, yet the artists of the pre-photographic era did exactly the same thing. Then there are works or art that are designed to mimic pornography, but is not pornography but art. Personally, I don't think I can give a precise definition, since art can exploit, and art can be little more than crass consumerism, and art can even titillate and excite. 

Is porn art? I won't go as far as saying yes, but I won't necessarily suggest a no either. There is the obscene, and there is the erotic. However, in the end I guess it comes down to what it is used for and how it is viewed. Some people can view a work of art as little more than pornography, whereas others can view pornography as an erotic form of art. In guess it all comes down to the fact that a girl in Thailand could see the penis of Leonardo Da Vinci's Universal Man and thought it was funny.

Creative Commons License

The Nude - Is It Art pt 2 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Nude - Is It Art pt1

There is probably very few things more controversial in art than the idea of the nude. Sure, artists have been painting, sculpting, and creating nude images for millenia, yet there is always this debate over whether it is right to display the unclothed human body, and whether we should prevent the young from being exposed to such images. The question always comes down to where one draws the line between art and pornography. Mind you this line is actually a pretty subjective line, and is also a line that isn't necessarily set between gender identities - there are women who consider pornography to be fine, while there are men who are absolutely appalled by the industry.

Anyway, before I go into that space, the Art Gallery of New South Wales had an exhibition over summer on the nude, and while at first I wasn't really all that interested in it, after reading a Christian article (I can't remember for the life of me where it is), which as typical turned the whole concept into one of those joyless, we are Christians and fun is sinful, type of arguments, I decided, as I am prone to do, to break with tradition and visit Sydney, if only to see Rodin's Kiss (a sculpture that I didn't have the opportunity of seeing when I was in Europe).

The Classical World

Okay, the exhibition really only begins in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the idea of the nude goes way back before them. The Ancient Greeks loved the human body and believed it was the highest form of art. Actually, when I say human body I should mention that it was the male human body, which is why when you look at Ancient Greek statues (namely the gods) the males are naked whereas the females are clothed. In fact a couple of years ago I actually traveled to Bendigo, which is a two hour train trek from Melbourne, to see an exhibition that was basically Ancient Greek Statues. Mind you, the nude statues were the male Gods, so the statues of contemporary men (and they usually were always men) were clothed - it seems as if there was some form of dignity amongst the Greeks as well.

An interesting definition of the nude was proposed by Kenneth Clarke: to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, to be vulnerable and exposed. The nude body, however, is balanced, prosperous, and confident. In a sense the definition could be considered highly erotic since there are times when we will refer to somebody as being naked, and times when they would simply be considered nude. For instance, a woman in a strip club who has removed all of her clothes (and it is not necessarily a woman in these settings) would hardly be called vulnerable, but probably more seen as being confident as she may (and this is not always the case) see that her body can be a way of making money. The same goes with lovers hidden away in the bedroom.

Anyway, the idea of the nude is an ideal concept, which is probably when in the Ancient times it was only the gods who were craved as nudes - the gods were idealised humans, and as such had idealised bodies. Yet interestingly it was only the males, which seems to be the opposite to what our world (which, despite some claiming otherwise, is still pretty much a patriarchy) sees as being the perfect body. Even then, opinions change even across short periods of time and across different cultures - what is considered the perfect body in Asia is not necessarily the same as in the United States.
One of the characteristics of the Renaissance was that it was trying to revive the Classical world, and we began to see a significant change in the style of art. This is seen clearly with Michaelangelo's David and Leonardo DaVinci's Universal Man. I remember wandering into a bar on Bangla Road in Patong wearing my DaVinci T-shirt, and all the bar girls were interested in was that they could see a penis. However, I doubt DaVinci drew this simply as a bit of toilet humour, and in a way turning what is in effect a work of art into something that children would snicker at is in a way quite insulting. Yet it goes to show how there are two ways of looking at the nude - a mature and an immature way.

Yet one thing that I noticed as I wandered through the Vatican Museum was that there were a large number of ancient statues lining the wall and somebody had come along and glued stone fig leaves over the genitals. This raises the question as to whether this was done so as not to cause offense, or whether it was done because the people who did this (not doubt the Vatican officials) were easily offended and didn't understand the nature of art. I suspect it would be the second explanation, though we probably shouldn't forget that Ancient Athenian statues did have erect penni on them.

The Historical Nude

I'm not necessarily sure whether we can say that things were beginning to change in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Okay, women weren't allowed to draw nudes, particularly in a room with male models. However, this has something to do with the fact that women weren't allowed to be artists, theologians, philosophers, or practically anything that didn't involve staying home, cleaning the house, and looking after the kids (if you were middle class that is). For instance, Anna Merrit, with her painting 'Love Locked Out' needed to use a child for it was forbidden for her to paint an adult male. However, these days, a painting a nude child would bring about cries of outrage (and in a way rightly so), yet there was no concerns with displaying that painting at the Tate (or the Art Gallery of New South Wales).

One of the things about painting nudes was that they were considered to be one of the most challenging aspects of art. For an artist to truly be considered an artist they needed to create a nude. Mind you, artists seem to have their strengths, and their weaknesses. For instance my Grandfather never painted people because he could never paint people, and you will see that this is the case with a lot of painters that tend to do still lifes and landscapes. However you also have portraits, and interestingly enough one of Australia's leading art prizes, the Brooker Prize, is all about painting portraits.

Yet let us consider Victorian England, because it was not really seen as being a time period when people were debaucherous. Yet artists painted nudes, though many of these paintings never saw the light of day, such as the works of William Etty - his works were considered to be way too sensual for the viewing public and tended to only land up in private collections. However artists did paint nudes, and many of these paintings existed in pastoral settings, though the pastoral setting is usually an idealised world in an idealised realm. However the impressionists, particularly Manet with his painting 'Dejeuner sue l'herbe' caused some outrage, particularly since the setting was much more realistic.

However not all nudes were considered outrageous. For instance Alma-Tadema's, 'A Favourite Custom' which depicted some women in the baths in recently discovered Pompei, was celebrated and much loved. We also see some other paintings, including the Knight Errant and The Bath of Psyche, that didn't bring about as much outrage. I guess in one sense it has something to do with the sensual nature of the painting, and in another sense it is the classical context. Yet I don't think it is truly the classical context that defined what offended and what didn't, but more to do with the idea of the prudish nature of Victorian England.

The Private Sphere

I guess one major aspect of the nude is that it tends to exist in a private sphere. Sure, anybody can probably walk into a free beach zone, but you will notice that there are certain clubs, bars, and pubs that tend to be closed off to the general public. However in the artistic sphere, at the turn of the 20th century, we begin to see a movement out of the public sphere and into the private sphere. Maybe this has something to do with the rise of photography, or maybe it is a reaction to an artistic world that was tightly structured and academic and experimentation wasn't accepted. Well, when we consider that the impressionists were chided and ridiculed by the artistic community, this movement out of the public sphere and into the private sphere is not surprising.

In a way what is happening is that we are becoming voyer's. We are being introduced into a world that is basically behind closed doors, and artists did this in numerous ways, including my moving things (such as the bathtub in Bonnard's Nu Dans la Boignoire) to the side to create a more intimate feel. Deges did a similar thing in 'Le coucher', where it seems as if we are looking at a woman as she is climbing into bed. In a way the public space has been left for the academics to do what they will, and we are now finding ourselves in a new sphere were we get to see, and experience, a world that not many are allowed to see. In a sense we, the art lovers, are slowly becoming voyers.

Yet the question is whether it is sensual. Well, it seems as if Matisse' 'Femme nue Drape' is certainly quite sensual. In fact it is something that I would probably expect to see in one of those girly magazines, yet for some reason it isn't but rather it is hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Maybe it is because the image is more of a cartoon than realistic, yet I don't think that is the reason either. In a way this painting is certainly hidden within the private sphere, yet in another is it is drawing us, the art lover, into the image, as if we are a standing in the room with the subject of the painting.

Let us also consider Nevison and his painting 'A Studio in Montparnasse'. Is this a nude or is this a painting that happens to have a nude person in it. Personally, it is difficult to tell, namely because the subject is so small, and has his (or her) back to us. Mind you, I should mention that Montparnasse was the new artisans quarter of Paris during the 1920s and many writers and artists would sit in the cafes and wander the boulevards. These days Montparnasse is incredibly expensive, and not really a place where the bohemian artist can be found.

I want to finish off this post (which is part one because it seems there is a lot more I can write on the subject, and I am only half way through the exhibition) with the final painting I saw in this room, and that is Steer's Seated Nude. There is an interesting anecdote about that painting, namely when it was acquired by the Tate Steer told them that this was the first time it would be shown in public, namely because his friends didn't think that a nude should be wearing a hat, and in a way it destroyed the painting, and in another way it was offensive. Mind you, this idea sort of doesn't make sense, though I guess it is one of those all or nothing arguments.

Creative Commons License

The Nude - Is It Art pt1 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 3 July 2017

Slavoj Zizek - Philosophy of the 21st Century

Before I begin, I should point out that this review was originally posted on Goodreads, however due to the limit on how much you can actually write, I had to move this review from Goodreads over to my blog. However, while what I have written may appear a little odd, it is because I have simply posted it directly, only editing for glaring (ie I can see them) grammatical and spelling mistakes. While Zizek might not be everybody's cup of tea, I did find this first experience of his writings quite illuminating. Oh, and the Goodreads Review has now been cut down significantly.

20th November 2011

Once again I have began a commentary on a book (Living in the End Times) that I hadn't finished, but the main reason here is because I wanted to read a couple of more books so that I could then wrap them, pack them, and post them before Christmas, and anyway, I still had five and a half weeks to finish this book, so when I read the other two, I did intend on to going back and finishing this book (which I eventually did). The second reason was that there is so much in this book to discuss that I don't really want to let the ideas that I had picked up from reading this book drift too obscurity.

Zizek is a Slovanian left wing philosopher and is a self professed communist and atheist. Now, remember, he is Slovanian so he would have experienced first hand the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and this is something that is addressed at the start. Here he refers to the dramatic paradigm shift in Poland, in that it went from a totalitarian state to a free market society, however his indication was that it was not the free market economy that the people necessarily wanted, but rather free speech. His suggestion is that they did not necessarily want to swing so far to the right that the state pretty much takes a back seat and allows the economy to self-regulate. I do not necessarily suspect that that is entirely correct, because the pure communist state did collapse under economic pressures, namely because there was no incentive for people to do anything, and as such, nothing ever got produced, which resulted in empty shelves in the shops. Zizek does indicate that in reference to Cuba, where Raoul Castro is blaming the west for their current food crisis, when in reality it is because nobody is actually the fertile land.

In some of the commentaries I have read of this book there is an indication that Zizek seems to come to no real conclusion, and also that he seems to jump quite a lot. In regards to conclusions, I feel that his intention is to try to have us think about the things that we are saying, and those of us who can think and act, can then act on them. Yes, he does seem to jump about, and at times I wonder what his discussions in the chapters actually have to do with the chapters, but despite that, there are a lot of thought provoking ideas that he does write about, and the trick is to pick up the ideas that sit quite well and actually make sense. As for purpose, well, those of us who know Zizek knows that he writes about a concept of the Big Other. This concept is basically the social conscience, which is summed up in an Ancient Greek word oklos (of which crowd is a rough, and very bad, translation).

The Single Minded Crowd

Oklos is defined as a crowd, however the actual definition refers to a crowd as a single thinking entity. Take for instance the scene where Jesus is presented by Pilate and the entire crowd cries out 'crucify him'. That is the oklos. Anyway, many left wing philosophers write about how it is the capitalist elite who are the problem in the world, but Zizek takes a different approach by saying that it is actually the oklos. The reason is that in a capitalist society the direction of the corporations and the government is determined by the will of the people. Two examples from Australia will outline this. First we have the issue of pokie machines which are a social blight on our landscape. Many people hate these machines and the damage that they cause, so much that politicians have been elected on anti-pokie machine tickets. However, recently, a group tried to force through an amendment to the constitution of a major corporation to restrict their use of pokie machines. Basically the amendment only garnered 2.5% of the vote, which goes to show that while there is a minority who despise poker machines, the majority either don't care, or even prefer the profits that the poker machines bring. Despite 60% of the vote being in the hands of superfunds, these funds represent millions of investors who all want a return on their investment, so when the question of listening to an ethical minority over listening to a majority who simply want returns, the majority always wins out.

The second example deals with refugees. Once again, in Australia, there is a minority who believe that the government's treatment of refugees is appalling and demands a more compassionate approach. While Labour was out of power they were incredibly vocal against the Liberal (read Conservative) Party's policies regarding refugees. However, once Labour were elected into office, they suddenly realised that if they wished to continue to win elections, they needed to change their stance on refugees because, despite the cries of the minority, it was the majority that demanded tougher sanctions. In fact, we have even seen the Greens drift further to the right in this regard, realising that if they also wished to keep increasing their share of the votes, they could not take a compassionate stance either (though their stance has changed somewhat since I originally wrote this, but that has to do with the horrid conditions that refugees are facing in detention centres).

A Cycle of Grief

Now, Living in the End Times follows the idea of the grief cycle by applying it to a terminally ill society, and Zizek splits it into chapters reflecting each of the stages of the cycle, being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, with some other chapters thrown in. As mentioned, it can be difficult to see how what he writes actually relates to society experiencing the grief cycle simply because he seems regularly head off on tangents. 
Denial seems to be more aimed at the left and how they believe that something can actually be done about the problems facing society, and the issue of multiculturalism and tolerance comes up a lot. However, as he recognises, the compassionate left first of all is a minority and secondly dwells in the city. In many cases, they believe, wrongly, that we can learn to tolerate these other cultures, but in reality what is happening is that these other cultures are slowly being absorbed into one mono-culture, if that is what is happening, because in many cases the cultures are simply drifting into ghettos and enclaves. We see this in Paris and we even in Sydney (with a huge Lebanese population in Lakemba and a large Asian population in Cabramatta). In a sense, the idea of a multicultural society, in Zizek's mind (and I agree with him) is impossible, particularly when it comes to religion. For instance, we may seek to tolerate other religions, but when our religion tells us that all other religions are wrong, we either transform our religion to accept it, or we put up barriers against those of who think differently from us. Further, it is only the secularists that seem to hold on to this falacy of all religions being the same.

While I am on the subject of religion, I want to explore what I find really surprising about Zizek, and that is for an Athiest, he is quite accepting of the teachings of Christ, and of Christianity. However, I note that he has mentioned a flaw in modern Christianity that has stained this religion for over 1500 years: the question of wealth. Ideally, the original faith was one of sharing resources, however once it became a state religion, the problem of uneven distribution of wealth came to play, so instead of addressing it, Christianity shifted its teachings to accept it. Now, in many cases, the issue of Greed is something that pastors will say 'bad, bad' from the pulpit, but not actually address. In fact, with myself, I am almost loathe to give to the church, since if I were to impoverish myself by tithing, I don't trust the church, or the church as it exists today, to provide for my needs. To me, it almost seems as if the violent attacks against abortion and gay marriage is almost like the church trying to make up for 1500 years of the acceptance of greed. It is like the Christian leader that does extra well as a leader because he is trying to make up for his porn addiction. In fact, it is the moral core of Christianity, in particular the idea of self-sacrifice, that Zizek seems to admire so much about the faith.

Failures of Multiculturalism

Another aspect of the issue of multiculturalism is the idea of the burka (and I can relate this this). In Western countries, there is almost a repulsion against the burka, namely because it conceals the part of the body that defines us so much: our face. When we speak to people we like to see their face because it enables us to relate to them. In a way what the burka does is that it places a barrier between the people communicating. The idea that the French have in banning the burka is that it is a symbol of the oppression of woman, but in doing so does not necessarily make the lives of the women better. In fact it could make them worse, with husbands refusing to allow them to leave the house. In a way the banning of the burka is not so much freeing women (just like banning abortion is not about saving the lives of the unborn), but rather about creating an acceptable mono-culture for everybody (and remember that we have had mono-cultures before, such as Rome, these cultures tend to borrow from other cultures and create what could be considered a superculture).

Another example is the idea of the Roma, and Zizek tells a story of some Roma who were camped out near a village in Solvenia. When the villagers demanded that they be moved, the left wing elements in the city cried foul and called for tolerance, however what is not revealed is that these city dwellers do not know or understand the Roma. Moreso, while the liberals like to cry  out about tolerance, many do not actually realise that the Roma themselves are a very closed society. Though it is true that attitudes towards them have been quite bad, there is also a distrust within the Roma of those who are not Roma. At least the Amish in the United States give their children the opportunity to chose either their lifestyle, or that of the outside, and are also quite welcoming towards outsiders (though you will discover that if you do wander into a pub in some regional areas you will be treated with suspicion, or even outright hostility).

Zizek at the Movies

One of the cool things about the second chapter was not so much his analysis of movies, but the movies that he analysed, namely The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda. Seriously, anybody who analyses Kung Fu Panda has got to be cool, but in any case, not only does he indicate that the cartoon is a means of creating a story that is absurd and would be offensive as a live action film, it also shows the idea of the collapse of the meta-narrative. The meta-narrative is the basic social foundation of our western society, but as the idea of multiculturalism imposes itself upon the oklos the original story begins to break down, and that is what we see in the eastern philosophies of Kung Fu Panda. In a way, the fact is that both China and India, large social groupings of people of many differing beliefs, have created what is considered a relativistic mindset. This was similar with the Roman World, until the narrative of the Christian worldview took over and gave us the modern meta-narrative, namely the idea that history moves from beginning to end, with struggles against evil in which good ultimately triumphs. However, this triumph does not come easily as it nonetheless involves sacrifice, with the supreme sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross.

Anyway, here is a video of Zizek talking about Kung Fu Panda:


However, the Dark Knight also indicates that there is a change in the narrative, a sort of lie that forms a part of the sacrifice so that the idea of the good may reign supreme. The character of Harvey Dent is always seen as being the element of good, however, for those of us who have seen the film, we know that in the end this character is twisted, by selfish means, namely that he lives while his beloved dies, and becomes the element of evil. His death, in the end, is covered up so that the idea of good reigning is held out to the oklos. Interestingly enough, and this is the case in the sequel Dark Knight Rises, the villains of the piece are actually the honest characters, honest in their goals and aspirations, and also out to expose the truth. It is almost as if the narrative has changed from that of the hero being honest and exposing the lie (though that does form the basis of many a thriller still) to the villain being the honest one and the crime that he is committing is exposing the lie. It is as if the oklos itself must continue to be deceived for stability to be maintained, and thus the idea of denial.

I also wish to mention his discussion of the remake, as is evident with the Will Smith film, I am Legend. Now, the original story, and film, was about the last man alive living in a world of vampires. In the end the man is killed, and as such humanity becomes the stuff of legend. Thus again we see the idea of multiculturalism, or the move to the super culture, being played out. Where in our world the vampires are the stuff of legend, the world changes so that the vampires become the norm, and humans are now legend, as is the title I am Legend. However, in the modern remake we see a shift, and the idea that humanity is holding on by its fingernails, and one man survives so as to allow humanity to be saved, the Christ figure. Thus, the idea of the legend shifts from that which is lost to the mists of history, to the idea of the sacrificial figure that saves humanity from destruction.

The Cycle Moves On

Now we come to the chapter on Anger, and there is a lot of discussion about violence and the idea of violence, so first I will go over the idea I mentioned earlier about revolution. Remember, that it was not so much that Poland wanted a free economic system, but rather a system where people could speak and think how they wished. It was a desire for a socialist state where there was political freedom. However, interestingly enough, to maintain a revolution one must resort to violence, as is seen with both Russia and with France. Consider that in 1917 Lenin was in the minority, and when he did win, he had to move to silence the opponents so that he might create his idea of a utopian socialist state, one that, within a few years, came close to collapse.

Zizek looks at the animal world, a world where it appears that the inhabitants live a purely socialistic existence. There appears to be no competition, nor is there any need or want, however we must remember that this is also idealised. In the animal world might means right and only the strongest survives. When two lions are confronted with one deer, the lions will fight to get the deer. I do not think he is right when he talks about the animal world as being a socialist utopia, but rather that we admire the animal world because we, as humans, recognise that we are above them, and we look down on them in the same way that we believed the gods, beings superior to ourselves, would look down on us. It is a form of tourism, which in a way makes me balk about so called short term missions to third world countries, because in a way we travel there as gods walking among mortals.

Now I will turn to the idea of the biblical concept of turning the other cheek. To our mind we believe that it is the idea of not responding to violence with violence, however Zizek suggests that being struck on the cheek in ancient times was a form of shaming, thus to turn the other cheek was a rebuke to that by simply saying, 'now make me your equal'. However, Zizek does go on to suggest that sometimes to respond to a fight by fighting is to actually concede to the bully, and that the best way to respond to violence is to turn away because, in a sense, that is a violent act in and off itself. Returning a blow is compromising yourself rather than defending yourself, and makes me think of the person who gets even more angrier when you do not respond with anger, but with love: 'why don't you fight me!'.

Delusional Democracies

Now, Zizek really does turn a lot of concepts that we take foregranted on their head and points out how we, living in so called advanced democracies, are actually fooling ourselves. We believe that progress, and wealth, can only come through democracy, however he points out that this is not the case. When we think of totalitarian states we either think of Africa, which is a basketcase, or we believe the lies that are peddled to us by the media. In reality, many of the democracies (South America for instance, and also Africa) are the basket cases, and it is the totalitarian regimes that are the societies that are advancing. Take Iraq for instance. The reason Iraq was originally invaded was not because it was a basket case totalitarian state (like Zimbabwe) but it was a totalitarian state that was progressing. In fact, when Sadam took power, he increased the wealth of the average Iraqi a hundred fold. The problem was that he was a threat, which is why the Americans bombed the country back into the stone age. In fact, if we look at history (even recent history) we discover that the states that have progressed the most in the shortest amount of time have been totalitarian states. Germany pulled itself out of the great depression much faster than the liberal democracies (who were only able to do so by declaring war against Germany) and then look at the so called Chinese miracle. The difference is that a totalitarian state does not need to go to an election every four or so years, which means that they can have a much longer term view, rather than having to commit to only short term goals, and the myth of a budget surplus. In fact, when the latest advance is the iPhone 5, which is thinner than all of its rivals, one must wonder if this really is progress.

Okay, I think I should have a discussion about the problems with revolutions, and that is because it ends up that only a small minority really wants the system to actually change. It is only when things really get bad that the entire population will rise up in an attempt to overthrow the existing order, and even then it is usually only small changes that they want. Most of the revolutions of history have generally been wars among the wealthy classes. We see this with the English revolution in the 17th century, which was a war between the wealthy aristocrats (supported by the Catholic Church) and the wealthy merchants (supported by the Protestants). Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, such as with France, Russia, the revolutions of 1848, and the Arab Spring. I will not comment on the Arab Spring as we are not sufficiently past that to actually see the effects, but with the French and Russian revolutions there was really no actual change in the system of government. Both began as totalitarian states and both ended as totalitarian states. In fact with France, the revolution in a sense is still ongoing, with the last major event occurring in 1968 (and even then we see it in the streets of French cities today with the immigrant minorities running around burning cars – the insurance companies must be loving that).

The problem with these two revolutions was not just the timing, in fact the timing was perfect, a majority of the people had simply become fed up and the government was so weak that it could not effectively put down an uprising (unlike Libya which required outside intervention). Anyway, we see similar events within both Russia and France, namely that once the revolution had taken hold, the immediate thought that came to mind was protecting the gains that were made the revolution, which resulted in a prolonged period of terror. This was more noticeable in France because the purges in Russia came later when Stalin was attempting to protect his own position. However, even in Russia, once the Bolsheviks had taken power their position was still weak, and they had to fight against the combined forces of the capitalist west to maintain their gains. Even internally they had problems, since the Mensheviks, which were more popular than the Bolsheviks, threatened to derail the communist experiment. This resulted in the suspension of elections, permanently. Even then, the problem of free speech arose, and when Gorbachev finally allowed freedom of speech, it was effectively the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

As I have mentioned previously, Zizek says an awful lot of interesting things, and the reason I am going on with this is because I feel that I have to make a comment on them as well. For instance, Capitalism is the art of selling nothing. I am not simply mentioning the concept of the brand, which is the classic example of selling nothing. Say you have two pairs of sneakers, made in the same factory by the same people, for the same price, but on sold to different companies. One goes to K-mart and the other goes to Nike. The K-mart no-name brand sells for say $20.00, but the Nike brand goes for $160 (though I believe the price has come down recently). The difference in price is basically the brand, or what some call the goodwill. In reality it is nothing, you are simply forking out money to be a part of a story, the Nike story.
The rise of the internet has brought a new dimension to the art of selling nothing. While the MMORPGs were the ones who initially created these virtual worlds, at least there was a point to them. You could escape into a fantasy realm and experience fantasy adventures. However evolution has brought about the realms of Second-Life, which is pretty much like an internet version of The Sims. In this imaginary world you basically play a person, a normal person living a normal life, in a pretty normal world (I have never played this, and have no intention of doing so). However it has gone one step further in that you can use real money to purchase imaginary items. In fact people have made a fortune selling what is effectively electrons and computer programs to make people in this virtual world feel better than themselves. The art of selling nothing has finally come of age.

Normalising Trauma

Now, I should return to the chapters, and this time I will speak of the one on depression. Here Zizek spends a lot of time talking about pain and trauma. One thing that he mentions and I can attest to, is that when one is under anaesthesia one can still feel pain. It seems that all the anaesthesia does is prevent you from crying out. I guess this is why many of us turn to drugs (or flee into the virtual realm). We cannot get rid of the pain, but we can flee from it and hide in our own numbness and hope that it will go away. By hiding, or numbing, ourselves we can prevent ourselves from screaming out. We also see this is the movement of faith, for as the Bible said, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. When Paganism had proven to the world to provide nothing, and Jewish legalism did not unburden people's guilt, Christ burst into the world to tell the world that they could have a direct relationship with God, and in one act undermined the powers of the priesthoods. However, two thousand years have come and gone, and we discover that what Christ tore down, man has re-established, and in many ways, our desires to put people between us and God has made us forget the truth of Christianity, which in turn as led to disenchantment, and thus to Atheism. Therefore, in a way, to get rid of the priesthood and its control over our lives, we have gotten rid of God.

Now I will turn to the idea of the normalising of catastrophes. There are many examples of how this has happened these days, and the one that Zizek mentions (which, being a Slovakian, is probably close to his heart) is the siege of Sarajevo. When it began it was a shock and horror, but after two to three weeks it becomes a normal part of life. The same thing happened with the civil war in Libya, and it is now true of the civil war in Syria. Sure, it is still reported on, and occasionally we tune in to find out if something new has happened (though as of the date of this posting it has simply become a fact of life), but with our society suffering from a severe case of ADD we find it almost impossible to watch history unfold. It simply happens too slowly. In our western mind we want history to work like a movie that lasts only an hour and a half, longer if it is really good, but not too long. Or we want it to work like a series, where every episode brings a new event and a new revelation.

When one says that Zizek leaves nothing untouched, that is so true. For instance he even touches on internet dating. Here we have the art of seduction and passion being transferred into the virtual realm. Now, I am not necessarily having a go at internet dating, not in the same way that you see all those sour pusses bitch and whine about how pretty much every dating sites suck (probably because they are doing it wrong), but the reason I am not too keen on them is because they take away that je ne sais quoi (and yes, it does mean the 'I do not know what'). You know, that feeling you get when your eyes meet across the crowded room, or that woman you catch checking you out on the train. What these sites do is that they break you down into a series of statistics and based on computer algorithms, attempt to match you (this is Emily, she likes dancing, nights at home, and walks along the beach). I would prefer the eyes across the room any day.

Now let me mention the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and how that was handled (or not handled). We see it there, and in many other places (and working in litigation, I can speak from experience), that it all comes down to a blame game. People's livelihoods are ruined so they resort to fingerpointing and seeking compensation. This blame game goes right up to the President, and even comes to the point where they say 'we can't hurt BP too much because too many pensioners have their money invested in BP'. Zizek is right when he says that we need to break away from this cycle of blame and compensation, of litigation and billing hours, and look at how we can learn from these disasters so that they do not happen again, as opposed to rushing to your local solicitor and issuing proceedings (or denying all liability on the grounds that if you admit to doing something wrong then you are going to be up for a lot of money).

Even then, it is not possible to learn from a disaster, but only to understand how fragile our society is. When a minor volcanic eruption occurred in Iceland the entire aviation industry in Europe was shut down. Two hundred years ago, if a volcano erupted in Iceland (or Argentina), the only people who were effected were those who lived on (or near) the volcano. Now, the entire world stands to be effected. It is as if Neil Armstrong's one giant leap for mankind has been effectively neutralised. Even then, as many say, the entire Western capitalist system is one fat finger away from complete collapse.

The Final Words

Now, I am almost coming to the end if this (and I applaud you if you are still reading, because this commentary is almost as long as Zizek's book - well, no, not quite, but you know what I mean). Anyway, there are a couple of sayings that have stood out, the first being: when it is no longer possible to tell a lie all that is left is the truth, but when it comes from an official mouth, the truth is little more than a lie supported by the facts. Take George Bush for instance, when it came clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the only thing they could fall back on was regime change, and the desire to bring democracy to Iraq. Well, even though that was the truth all along, it was still a lie. Regime change had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with making sure that Iraq was bombed back into the stone age. No wonder people where insulted when in response to their protests Bush said that they were going into Iraq so that the Iraqis could have the freedom to protest. That was not the point, because it was clear that this is not what the protesters wanted (and I was just as insulted when Alexander Downer's response was 'there are things that you do not know about the situation'). I guess Oliver Stone was right in his movie that it seems that all Bush wanted to do was to prove to his father that he was not a failure, and even then he failed at that.

The second quote I will simply quote verbatim (from page 402) and will not comment on it:
this is the kind of god needed by the radical left today: a god who has fully 'become' a man, a comrade amongst us, crucified between two social outcasts, who not only 'does not exist' but knows this himself, accepts his own erasure, passing over entirely into the love that binds all members of the 'holy ghost' that is, of the party or emancipatory collective.
The two final points that I want to make is this, that true fundamentalism is being so strong in your faith that you do not see the need to condemn or ridicule others. Condemning others actually demonstrates a weakness in your faith, which is what made me realise why the New Atheists fight so hard for their position, and why they spend money to try to convince people that there is no God. Honestly, if an atheist were comfortable with his faith, he would pity those of us who believe in God, as opposed to attempting to mock, ridicule, and debate us with fine sounding arguments. In the end it will not work. Mind you, the same goes for the Christians who see a need to condemn others for their sin, which is generally a way of not so much distracting others from their sin, but making them feel okay with the fact that they themselves are sinners, and in the end do not need to do anything about it.

The final point is the purpose of the modern democracy, and that is a means of institutionalising revolution, namely creating a peaceful and bloodless way of removing a disliked government and replacing it with a government that is not hated as much. In a way it satisfies our desire for change, and we know that if we have made a wrong choice, we can always change it four years time. Mind you, the average time a government remains in power (at least in Australia) is around three terms, though sometimes you get some that last a lot longer (or a lot shorter).
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Slavoj Zizek - Philosophy of the 21st Century by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 26 June 2017

Book of Mormon - A Question of Faith

After seeing Cats I thought that I had seen all of the musicals that I wanted to see (with maybe the exception of Jesus Christ Superstar, though I don't really have any huge desire to see Phantom on the Opera, though some Gilbert and Sullivan might be a goer). However, one day last year I discovered that they were advertising The Book of Mormon on the trams, and a part of me suspected that it was coming to Melbourne. Well, it was, but ironically they had started advertising the musical a year in advance, which quite surprised me because I didn't expect that it would need such a long period of advertising, that is until I asked a friend who pointed out that the show is incredibly popular, and you simply can't walk into the theatre and buy your tickets because the shows end up being booked months in advance. As it turned out this was the case here in Australia - well, not quite, but the show that I saw had sold out.

One thing that I should point out is that this is not your typical musical. If you are familiar with the works of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in particular South Park, then you will basically be prepared for what is to come in The Book of Mormon. An anecdote I was told was that in New York an elderly couple decided to go and see it because it had won a Tony award, and any musical that won a Tony must be good. You can probably imagine their shock when the expletives started coming out thick and fast. However, the story ended up well because they decided to stay until the end and ended up quite enjoying it.

When I was thinking about writing this I wanted to make a statement as to how I am not bagging the Mormon religion, until I realised that I don't actually need to apologise. Stone and Parker aren't at all apologetic in the way that this musical turned out, and its popularity goes to show: one can be offensive, and yet still succeed. In a sense what this musical does is that it brings in a group of people who normally wouldn't see a musical, simply because it was produced by the creators of South Park. However, it has the potential to then open up the audience to the possibility of actually going and seeing other musicals as well.

I think about my own life and how I have developed as a human. When I was a teenager I would have never thought of going and seeing a play, nor going to an art gallery simply to look at pictures. However, these many years later, I find myself regularly attending Stage on Screen, and traveling halfway around the world to see a performance of Shakespeare. In fact in 2013 I traveled to London simply so I could see Les Miserables, namely because if I didn't, and the performance ended, I would forever regret it. It reminds me of another friend who told me how he was also changing. He said that when he was younger all he drank was beer, and would never even think of drinking wine, however he had suddenly found himself putting aside the beer for the wine. Mind you, he was also Irish, so there is a big class distinction between drinkers of beer and drinkers of wine. In a sense, like me, he had realised that with education he had found that he had become cultured.

Anyway, without further ado, I shall give you a brief synopsis of the musical, and then look at some of the themes: Organised Religion, Cross Cultural Evangelism, and a question of faith.

The Musical

The book of Mormon is about two Mormons, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who have finished their training and are preparing to go on their two years of mission work. Price is the star pupil and has this dream of going to Orlando, however Cunningham is the one who has simply scrapped through and has a tendency of making things up. When the destinations are read out, and the missionaries are paired, they discover that they aren't going to Orlando but rather heading out to Uganda, in the heart of Africa. In a way this is a shock to the system as Price had his heart set on Orlando, and the fact that it is a playground in Florida. However Cunningham, who looks up to Price, sees it as a dream come true.

When they arrive, not surprisingly, they discover that they are in what is effectively a hell hole. The people live in poverty, are ravaged by disease and violence, and the other Mormons there have had absolutely no luck whatsoever. However Cunningham, who is a little ignorant, decides that he will give it ago, especially since one of the villagers is really keen on hearing what they have to say. However, Price, the one who is best placed to share the message, decides to head back home, so Cunningham is left to do this best. The problem is that he quickly discovers that the message that he has been taught simply does not gel with the locals, so he decides to do something that he has been warned not to do - make stuff up, and suddenly discovers that the Africans are flocking to him to be baptised.

The news of their success quickly reaches Mormon Headquarters and they decide to send the President to Africa to see first hand the success. However, Cunningham quickly realises that he has done something naughty so does his best to keep the converts out of sight. That, unfortunately, is easier said than done, and the converts come out to perform a play that they had produced in honour of the Mormons and the story of Joseph Smith, which turns out to be my favourite song of the show - Joseph Smith, American Moses. To say that the President is horrified is an understatement, but this is where Stone and Parker's moral comes to the fore (and that is one of the problems with their work - they tend to end it on some rather blunt moralising).

An American Religion

Parker and Stone give us a good idea of the background of the religion, and to suggest that they make it sound a little ridiculous is quite an understatement. Mind you, growing up in around Christians, there was always this idea that Mormonism was somewhat ridiculous. Actually, a friend of mine suggested that the reason Mormonism came about was that the United States was never mentioned in the Bible, and as such Joseph Smith decided that to make it more American, that he would add another volume that included the United States. Honestly, I don't know what happened that day, and really don't want to speculate.

The story goes that two Jewish tribes traveled to the United States and established a colony. Over the centuries they warred against each other, however the Angel Mormon appeared and gave them a new testament to encourage them to live in peace. These were the golden tablets that are referred to. However, they eventually died out (and the tablets were handed down to another named Moroni), and the plates were buried, which centuries later were uncovered by Joseph Smith. Apparently he had a vision where the angel Moroni appeared and told him where the tablets where, however he couldn't show them to anybody so had to copy them down (using a special pair of glasses that he had to give back afterwards).

Smith then attempted to establish his religion where he was said to have found the tablets, but due to huge opposition ended up traveling across the United States to establish a colony in Utah, though he didn't survive the journey. The journey itself was rough, and they faced opposition not only as they traveled, but also when they attempted to establish themselves in Utah, which eventually led to the Mormon Wars. However, they survived and are said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.

Crossing Cultures

This is where the problems begin to arise. Parker and Stone constantly refer to Mormonism as being an American religion. Even Joseph Smith is protrayed as this handsome Aryan male which is reflective of the true American. In fact there is a point where Cunningham is reading directly from the book and discovers that is says that some of the Jews were cursed with black skin, which doesn't go down all that well when you are preaching to Africans. They even raised the issue that it wasn't until recently, when one of the Presidents had another vision, that African-Americans were actually allowed to join the faith.

I have written a previous post on Cross Cultural Evangelism, however I will probably touch on a number of things here as well, since this seems to be one of the themes of the play. Unlike Christianity, which began in the Middle East and has spread across the world, and broken down cultural boundaries, Mormonism seems to have a lot of difficultly in this regards. This probably has a lot to do with it being an American Religion. The thing is that the religion arose in the United States, and came about during a time of White Supremacy. Sure, many have claimed that Christianity is also White Man's religion, but the thing is that this is because we have adapted it to our culture.

What Cunningham did to deal with the cultural differences is that he changed the stories, which was needed due to the strict nature of Mormonism, however this is not always the case with religions. Take Buddhism for instance, which managed to insert itself into both Indian and Chinese cultures. Also, the fact that Christianity has grown so fast, and continues to grow in places such as China and India is also a testament to that - and nobody has changed anything. However, the problem is that Christianity is still seen as 'White Man's Religion', namely because it was brought to the region by White Men who expect people to follow it the way that white men do.

Before I continue, I'll share another anecdote. When I was in France I was wandering along the shopping Mall in Amiens and saw a Mormon attempting to approach people to talk to them, however all he was doing was asking them if they spoke English. Seriously, this simply does not work like that - he is in France, they speak French, and they actually get quite offended, and rightfully so, if you come along and start demanding that they speak English. The thing with Missionaries is that they don't go out into the world to force people to speak English, but rather to share a message, and in that way they should make an attempt, and a pretty good one at that, of learning the local language (as well as translating the Bible into said language, and even going as far as creating a written language if there isn't one). I still remember meeting some missionaries in Greece who didn't seem to think that it was necessary to know how to speak Greek.

Organised Religion

So, thus I come to my next topic, and that is the idea of origanised religion. In fact one of the things that I have come to learn in my years wandering around the planet is that people don't necessarily hate religion, nor do they necessarily hate God - they hate origanised religion. The thing is that it is the boogey man of faith, and rightfully so, where the church ceases to be a community and begins to be a corporate structure, and the problem with corporate structures is that they become inflexible. One pastor suggested that the thing with Christianity is that there is an inflexible core, but you need to be willing to be flexible around the edges so as to meet people where they are at.

The thing is that organised religion is inflexible to the point that it is either their way or the highway. In a way the whole bloody mess that came out from the Reformation was simply due to the church refusing to be flexible with regards to their doctrine, and this is understandable - the people at the top had a lot of power - religion is power - and that by not only allowing people to read the Bible in their own language, but to also have direct access to God, undermined this. We see this in the Gospels where Jesus is regularly chastising the church leaders of his day - they were barring access to God, and dishing out salvation how they saw fit.

The one thing that people desire is certainty, and certainty after death. In fact people want to be saved, even though they say otherwise. Death is the great unknown, and what organised religion does is that it entraps people by offering one aspect of what they need to do to be saved - and it is always a question of what they have to do. Once they have the power of people's salvation, they can then imprison them, and in effect control them. However, they fear change, and they fear it a lot, which is why you see these culture wars being waged across not just the United States, but Australia as well.

So What is Religion?

I have heard time and time again that the difference between Christianity and Religion is that religion is what we must do and Christianity is what has been done. Yes, that is true in essence because the core of the Christian message is that Christ died for our sins, meaning that somebody else has suffered the punished which is due to us. Our sins burden us down and create a barrier between us and God, however Christ's death has broken down that barrier meaning that we do not have to earn salvation, because under our own steam salvation simply cannot be earnt - we simply are not good enough because even one sin is enough to create that barrier.

However, I still think that that definition is nothing more than semantics. Whether they like it or not Christianity is still a religion. I remember sitting at the University Tavern with a group of friends trying to explain that and they simply laughed - why, because in their mind Christianity is a religion. The thing is that a religion answers three basic questions of existence: where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going when we die, and in the end Christianity gives a pretty good answer to those questions. In fact, in my opinion, it is the only religion that gives a satisfactory answer to those three questions.

This is where the point of the Book of Mormon comes to the fore. You see, Price and Cunningham went to Africa to preach Mormonism, but it because pretty obvious that is wasn't going to work, so Cunningham changed the story. All of a sudden the people responded, and responded in bulk. The crux was that it didn't matter what they believed, but rather that they believed in something, and what Cunningham did was that he gave them something to believe in. This is one of the flaws of the modern Evangelical movement. We aren't giving them something to believe in, but rather giving them something to believe that maybe, just maybe, life will be better on this Earth.

The Africans realised that life wasn't going to be better, but what Elder Cunningham did was that he gave them something to make life a bit more tolerable. They were never going to leave their village, and they were going to suffer the ravages of living in poverty - The Book of Mormon did a brilliant job in exploring the problems facing the Africans. The thing was that Mormonism in that form simply did not address the issue of the Aids epidemic, violent warlords, or grinding poverty. However, the message the Cunningham gave them was a message of hope, to rise above this, and to actually have faith that while life may never get any better, but it is is a journey, and a journey that we can take either living in despair and fear, or living in contentment and being able to appreciate what we do have, not what we don't.

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Bok of Mormon - A Question of Faith by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me