Archive for July, 2011


Bogart, Bacall and the Sparrow in the Hall…

Lately I’ve been thinking about The Big Sleep.  I think about this film quite a bit, though not when I’m sleeping.  The sleep of the title is a hard-boiled reference to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy which talks about the “sleep of death.”  The film, based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, tells of detective Phillip Marlowe, who has been hired to settle the gambling debts of Carmen Sternwood, wild young daughter of old General Sternwood.  Well, it wouldn’t be a hard-boiled detective story if there wasn’t a body, and soon there is.   And ultimately it is the fate of former bootlegger, Sean Regan, that becomes the mystery Marlowe wants solved.  There is a legend about the film — William Faulkner worked on the screenplay, and he discovered that he couldn’t actually figure out who did the murders in the book.  He and the other screenwriters approached Chandler, who admitted that he too couldn’t figure it out.  And, in the movie, we’re not really sure who did what. 

And yet, it remains one of my favorite films.  Part of my joy in watching the film is Bogart and Bacall.  It’s because of Bacall (and Barbara Stanwyck)  that I cannot resist some tough-talking babe.  And the banter between Bogart and Bacall in this film is as good as such banter gets. 

But the reason this film sticks in my mind, and has remained in my top ten film list for as long as I’ve had such lists, is the film’s lighting and the final scene of the film.  That final scene takes place in the living room of Arthur Gwynn Geiger, the pornographer who got killed about 20 min. into the film.  In this final scene, lit apparently only by the ambient lighting of the room (all desk lamps, no overhead lighting), Bogart is trying to figure a way whereby he can solve the case and get himself and Bacall out of the house alive, for the bad guys have the house surrounded.  That scene is powerful, but, I imagine the hold the scene holds on me is the tiny illumination in a world of dark.  The danger is not overwhelming — this is pretty common in detective novels that the detective be stuck in a situation from which s/he must extricate him/herself, and such extrication does take place — but in a film that largely takes place at night, this scene, a brief spot of light in a world of dark really grabs me.  I suppose it must be one of the dominant metaphors that rule my psyche.

I got the same feeling when I heard the story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity.  A pagan king, he had been approached by some wandering monk, who spoke glowingly of Christianity.  In consulting with his fellows, the metaphor of the “sparrow in the hall” was used.  Imagine our lives to be like that we live now, in the warmth and brightness of a great hall, safe from the storms outside.  A sparrow, flying about outside, flies into the hall, lingers a while, and then flies out again.  For Edwin’s counselor, that is what life is — we come from the darkness, spend our lives in the light (the light has varying degrees) and then die and return to the darkness.  If Christianity offered a hope of some other realm beyond, adhering to Christianity would have much to commend it. 

And I see the appeal of such a belief, and can see why Christianity won so many followers — in a world of uncertainty, with only the certainty of death ahead, and greater uncertainty beyond, who wouldn’t want the promise of a joyous afterlife? 

I see it differently — I appreciate the beauty of the afterlife promised, but I cannot vouch for it.  In the face of the doom ahead, I find little comfort in such a belief.  That may seem a downer, and sometimes it does feel so.  On the other hand, I find myself thinking of that sparrow while s/he’s in the hall.  It’s bright, and warm, and, for a short time, glorious.  Once that bird leaves to go back into the winter storm, I don’t have hope for it, but if I can reflect on that terrible moment ahead, I can also reflect on the beautiful moment of the here and now.  And if I am aware of the dangers Bogart and Bacall face, and whenever I watch the film, I am aware of the danger (and I know how it all turns out), still  I can focus on the here and now — Bogart and Bacall beautifully lit, together in a moment of incredible intimacy, as it is those two against the dangerous world, and the potential danger beyond can, paradoxically, heighten the joy of living now, especially of living now with another.  It is the evanescence of the beauty that heightens it and makes it even more valuable.

So what if Christianity is right and there is this great beauty to come — well, that’s just a great bonus.  And, if not — if we leave the light and go into the dark of nothingness.  Well, we’ll always have Paris.


It’s a Matter of Opinion!

Yesterday, I went to a Church Chat with the All Souls board over the settlement reached with Rev. Lee Devoe through arbitration.  On this matter, there was little more the Board could report on than that the Arbitration Committee had found the All Souls Board that terminated Rev. Devoe in breach of contract, and that All Souls was directed to pay Rev. Devoe the remainder of her salary for the past year.  The member on the committee who was to represent All Souls was unavailable for further comment, so there may be more details on the decision forthcoming in late August or September — stay tuned.

There were two points in the meeting that I found interesting.  When Gary Miles put forth his view that Rev. Lee Devoe was hounded from the church, and that she was not given a fair shake, there was a great deal of anxiety in the room.  The others in the room (excluding myself and perhaps one other) claimed to support the board in its actions and voiced the belief that the board had done correctly.  Some emphasized that Mr. Miles’ view was simply his opinion.  Whenever I hear someone say “That’s your opinion!”  I get the feeling that what is unsaid is, “but you’re wrong!”  I would have to say that those who seemed to jump on Gary’s point (it seemed to me that some jumped on him for expresssing his view, but that is only the way it felt to me, and I will not vouch for its validity as independent truth) were also expressing only their opinion.  Someone seemed to suggest that the majority of the church feels that Lee Devoe was rightly terminated, and that majority rules.  Well, truth cannot be quantified in that way.  The majority of people in Galileo’s day, including university professors, felt that he was wrong about the whole heliocentrism thing, but, as it turns out, they, the great majority, were wrong, at least as far as science now states, and the evidence seems to suggest.  Galileo was even forced to recant “the truth” by the Catholic Church, a church I was told was the “true religion” when I was growing up.  Clearly the majority (in the case of the Catholic world of Galileo’s day, we’re probably talking about 99% here) was wrong in that case.  It would be interesting to have the members of the church polled.  I’m not so sure that a majority of the members was in favor of Rev. Devoe’s dismissal, or the way it was done.  The majority of people in that room (90% or so) were sure.  If there was a majority, that does not make the majority right.  And if there was a majority, which I’m not so sure of, it was not a supermajority, such as condemned Galileo, which would suggest to me that the whole majority matter here doesn’t carry much weight.  Also, there are some who do feel that Rev. Devoe was wrongly dismissed, but have, since the decision was made, and there was no undoing it, may now support the board, or refuse to speak out against the board, now that it’s a done deal.  So the whole matter of who had a majority of members (and some members have since left, so the numbers are now different) in their favor cannot be proven — we’re left with just a matter of opinion. 

Asked, at the end of the session, what they thought of the Arbitration Committee’s decision, the four board members there stated they were “stunned” and “disappointed.”  Each claimed that she did everything to work with Rev. Devoe.  Perhaps they did, but from my position, it did not seem so.  Some of what I state can only be that of a member of the church who is not a member of the board.  Members of the board may deny the validity of my position, and they have the right to argue their own point of view or opinion.  From speaking with people who had direct knowledge, I get the sense that some on the board were intent on dismissing Rev. Devoe before the last church year began.  I have no reason to doubt the people who shared such information with me.  Conversely, some of those board members have every reason to see it differently — those who had ill intent cannot admit to it, as such an admission undercuts their position and authority.  From what I have been able to gather, there were some on the board, who managed to convince a majority on the board to so tailor discussions with Rev. Devoe to give her a clear sense of a hostile mindset.  In a hostile environment, it is tough for anyone to do his/her job.  The particulars I’ve heard against Rev. Devoe might very well be seen as due to her unwillingness and inability to work in a hostile environment.  When Gary Miles reported that he heard members of the Nominating Committee discussing how to get rid of Rev. Devoe, I nodded my head.  I don’t know that what Gary reported is “the truth.”  I’m sure that what he said is the truth as he sees it, even if no  one else in that room believed him.  I also believe that what he said is plausible and does not run counter to other things I have heard.  There is nothing that can be done absolutely to determine the truth conclusively here.  That would require a godlike omniscience we do not have.  But just as I have no way of proving absolutely that Gary’s assertions were true, I heard nothing from anyone else in that room that proved them false.

On another point Gary raised — that many young adults  do not feel welcome at All Souls — yesterday was probably not the time to have that discussion.  I do hope, though, when that discussion is held, and I hope it will be held, that those who enter that discussion do so with open hearts and open minds.  I too get the sense that many of the YAs might very well feel unwelcome at All Souls.  In some cases it may be that All Souls often seems to me the 800 pound humanist gorilla, and, if you are not humanist, you may very well feel unwelcome.  I’ve heard more than one person declare that Christian UUs should go to some Christian church, and I’ve heard one person say so more than once.  Such sentiments do not help All Souls to realize the promise offered in its very name.  I was a bit concerned by the reaction to Gary’s suggestion.  Diann did suggest that this was something that deserved discussion, but not in that forum, but others seemed quite exasperated with Gary which makes me wonder if they will listen to other points of view with loving ears, or be thinking, even if they aren’t saying so, “That’s just stupid!”  I hope they will.  When I joined All Souls years ago, I was told about the flinty quality of many members, and the sometimes intolerance of other points of view.  To the extent that I can, I try to work past that, and not make any assumptions going in to a discussion.  I have heard from some people, though, who feel that I have every right to agree with them, that a free discussion ends up being a debate with a winner and a loser, and that they plan to be on the winning side.  I sometimes feel this way too and it requires a conscious effort on my part to listen with both ears and with an open heart. 

What I would say to the young people who do not feel welcome at All Souls, act as if All Souls were your church, for it is!  If you do not feel welcomed by some at the church, look past that — remain true to your convictions and do not be bullied or shamed by anyone who cannot see the beauty of your soul.  To the humanists at All Souls, I would say that I very much appreciate the thinking and writings of humanists.  Based on the descriptions I’ve seen of humanists, I’m one myself.  That said, I do not believe that humanism (or any construct imagined by humans) is “the truth.”  Giving up “the true religion” of Roman Catholicism for the “truth” of dogmatic humanism is no advance in my mind. 

So, I’ve been asked what I’m gonna do, that I should stop complaining and do something.  Well, for the time being, I plan on being an occasional presence at All Souls, and I plan on being a witness to what goes on at the church as it begins its new year,  and I plan to see if I can be of some assistance to those at All Souls who want their vision heard and honored.   I think All Souls will do well to take a page from conservative Christians in seeing fellow members (not just the ones you like) as brothers and sisters.