Monday, November 22, 2010

How Not to Win a Religious Argument

Religious doctrine has made the news again. This time it's the Catholic Church's hard-line stand against birth control. The current Pope has caused a stir with his assertion that condoms may be useful in the battle against AIDS. The use of condoms specifically to prevent pregnancy, he's quick to add, is still a mortal sin.

The comments attached to the Yahoo!News article on this subject are even more entertaining, in a grotesque way, than the article itself. When last I looked there were over three thousand -- a fair number from Catholics scandalized that their Pope should start down a slippery slope that could lead to the acceptance of birth control, a good many from atheists seizing the opportunity to claim the Pope's statement as evidence that all religion is B.S., and a few eager Catholic-bashers asserting that every priest, including the Pope, is a pervert. So many comments, and -- as far as I had time to read -- nary a sane word among them. What source of friction is more maddening than dispute over religious doctrine?

Arguments over religion are nearly impossible to engage in wisely -- one of the reasons many people think they're best avoided. I don't know the right way to handle oneself in such disputes, but like the always-muddled Stephen Blackpool in Dickens' Hard Times, I have a pretty good idea what not to do.
(WARNING: I will be expressing my own religious views in this blog. If you don't care to read them, back out now.)

In a political chat room I used to frequent I read this proclamation: "A good sermon is one that makes the heathen run screaming into the night." This goes sharply against the Christian faith that I was raised with, which averred that it was never God's will that any soul should be lost, and that God would seek to reach sinners (that is, all of us) with the same urgency that a housewife turns the house upside down in search of a lost coin. From this perspective, a good sermon would not make the heathen run screaming into the night. Rather, it would make them sit down and listen. It would make them think.

(The writer of the original statement had obviously forgotten that many of the most eloquent spokesmen for Christianity, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis, were "heathens" into their adulthood, and therefore knew well from their own experience how God seeks out the lost. Many Christians are a good deal wiser today because no fire-and-brimstone sermon sent such men screaming into the night.)

But those who perceive the "heathen" as enemies to be driven away are dedicated to affirming the all too human proposition of "I'm right, you're wrong, any questions?" For them, proclaiming religious doctrine isn't about doing God's will; it's about winning, often at all costs. This approach can do a great deal of harm, often undesired.

A friend of mine from my Auburn days told me about a girl she knew, whose parents raised her in the Baptist Church and made sure she went to Sunday School regularly. The family had a good friend whom the little girl adored, who happened to be Jewish. When the man died suddenly, she was plunged into grief. The following Sunday, she was at Sunday School as usual. The lesson topic happened to be "Christianity as the only true path to heaven." The little girl listened closely, absorbing the lesson, working up the courage to ask a question. Finally she raised her hand. "Ma'am, does this mean my friend is in hell?"

The Sunday School leader looked her dead in the eye and answered, "Yes."

I'm not sure what the right answer would have been. Certainly this woman was simply speaking the truth as she saw it. But her failure to factor the feelings of a grieving girl into her equation had a result she did not intend: the girl turned her back on the church and on her faith, never returning to either. Isn't there a Bible verse somewhere that says something to the effect that a fate worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone around the neck awaits anyone who causes a little child to stumble in her faith?

I had a similar experience once, on the aforementioned political website, and, as it happens, on the subject of birth control. In the course of a discussion I got very tired of posters conflating abortion and pre-conceptual birth control, and asserting that people use birth control for casual sex alone. I believed I had a story that could prove them wrong. A couple I know and love very dearly, just a generation ahead of the Baby Boom, had been, for the first five years of their marriage, in a highly unstable financial situation (like many couples). They fully intended to become parents, but wanted to wait until they were more financially secure. So they used birth control. When they were ready, they stopped, and they were blessed with a healthy baby girl. Their use of birth control during those early years of their marriage was not a rejection of parenthood (although I see nothing wrong at all with married couples deciding parenthood is simply not for them). However, my friends have told me that those five years proved a blessing, because they had a chance to solidify as Husband and Wife before becoming Mom and Dad. It may be one reason why they are still married after almost fifty years, while so many couples of their generation endured divorces.

When I posted their story, hoping my point might take, I received this reply: "Birth control is a mortal sin, as your friends will find out on the Day of Judgment."

This poster honestly believed she could persuade me of the rightness of her stance, by telling me that two of the people I love most in the world are going to hell. Far from convincing me, such a statement would push me deeper into Perdition. I wonder how many God-fearing Christians drive people further away from God on a regular basis, simply from their eagerness to be right, and to make disputes over faith a matter of winning and losing rather than arriving at true understanding.

"I'm right, you're wrong, any questions?" Matters of faith are rarely that simple, because God speaks to us as individuals whose souls are complex, not as mobs or herds whose drives are animalistically instinctual. Forgetting that complex individuality in the person to whom we're speaking is, in a nutshell, the very way not to win a religious argument.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On My Writing: The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

As much as I enjoy working on my novels, I have to swallow a painful truth: they may never be published. I continue to beaver away at them because I can't help myself; the daydreams are inside me and they have to come out. But I can't help knowing, in the back of my mind, that they may never mean anything to anyone besides myself and those nearest and dearest who have generously agreed to read the rough tomes.

Fortunately for my sanity and self-esteem, my drive towards story-making has another outlet, with much more immediate results. I am a writer for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company (www. artc. org). I may not be a published writer, but I am a produced one.

My experience with ARTC began Labor Day Weekend 2003 -- my first DragonCon. My strongest suit as an actress has always been my voice, and when I saw ARTC perform at DragonCon, my heart pounded with longing to join the group and warmed with certainty that I had something to offer it. I was just beginning a Fall semester in which I taught a Monday/Wednesday evening class, and ARTC rehearsed on Wednesdays, so my longing had to be deferred. But I would not forget the power, the dramatic intensity of what I'd heard when those gifted actors spoke into their microphones, and I would not give up my dream to be part of it. So in January 2004, I ventured to my first rehearsal at the house of Bill Ritch, ARTC's Chief and owner of the most impressive collection of books, CDs, and DVDs I have ever seen. I had only to look at that collection to know I belonged there.

On the nature of my belonging, however, I was slightly mistaken. I thought I would make my principal mark on the company as an actress. I have been acting with ARTC regularly for six years now, starting with a bit role in Fiona K. Leonard's Kissed By a Stranger (which gave me a chance to do my Edna May Oliver impression) and continuing through chatty robot detectives, femme fatale mad scientists, hapless Christmas pageant directors, Deputy Mayors, devilish brain-implant discs and more. In my favorite role, demon-possessed Egyptologist Chrissy Simpson in Bill Ritch's Doom of the Mummy, I got to use four separate voices. It was intoxicating.

But after my first rehearsal, I discovered that as much as I wanted to act for ARTC, even more I wanted to write for them. The performers' voices were unlocking stories in my imagination. Characters were shaping themselves, demanding release. Listening to Megan C. Tindale perform the heroine of Kissed By a Stranger, I began to envision a very different sort of heroine, a pock-marked musician Cinderella -- and I went home and started work on the first of my scripts that ARTC would produce, The House Across the Way. On hearing Sketch MacQuinor play the role of a stuffy Britisher to a comic fare-thee-well, I started thinking about a knight whose efforts at heroism often go astray, Don Quixote-style, but who, through a combination of nerve and skill and a resourceful sidekick, eventually becomes the hero he longs to be. So I began work on The Challenges of Brave Ragnar, which headlined ARTC's performance at DragonCon in 2007.

I couldn't have known it at the time, but when I descended the stairs into Bill Ritch's basement that fateful Wednesday night in January, I walked into a roomful of Muses. Granted, the characters I create for my ARTC plays are not always portrayed by the actors who first inspired them; interestingly, when a different actor plays such a character, he or she often draws into the light aspects of the character even I failed to see. But my heart always gives credit to the ones who, with a particular phrasing or inflection, put the ideas in my head.

I'm not the only one who finds the company members quite literally amusing. At a recent rehearsal, one of our number, Ethan Hulbert, mentioned that he could hardly look at a movie villain without an image of Hal Wiedeman -- ARTC's villain-in-chief, most recently heard as the twisted Dr. Moreau at the Academy Theatre in Avondale Estates, October 23 and 24 -- superimposing itself. When I penned my Beauty-and-the-Beast variant Nothing-at-All, Hal was my first and only choice to play the evil wizard. When I expanded the story into the novel Atterwald and gave the wizard a much broader character range, I still heard Hal's voice with each line of dialogue I penned. His is one of those deep, resonant voices you can't get out of your head, and I was gratified by the results of an experiment I tried with my newest script: instead of handing him the villain, I asked him to try out the role of the dissipated, cynical hero. Needless to say, he played it beautifully.

Since I joined ARTC, I've had eleven scripts of varying lengths produced and performed. Ragnar has gotten three airings, twice as episodes from the serial version and once as a stand-alone version. The House Across the Way, my first script, was recently resurrected and performed twice in the past year, first in March at the Academy Theatre and then again at DragonCon. For this coming year I have two scripts that have already been read at rehearsals and been given positive feedback, and God and the company willing, they will find their way into shows this year. I have yet another story idea I mean to hammer into shape during the Christmas holidays, hopefully to bring my total up to Lucky Fourteen.

A roomful of Muses, and the ideas keep coming.

What more could a writer ask for?

(Note for the curious: if you visit ARTC's website and click on the podcast link, you can hear performances of three of my scripts: Nothing-at-All, Christmas Rose, and The Worst Good Woman in the World. I hope you enjoy them.)