Saturday, December 25, 2010

Atheism, Jesus, Miley Cyrus, Short Skirts and the Festive Season

Brooke Fraser is on C4 for about the 750 gazzillionth time today.  (Such are the joys of spam in the popular music media, but don’t even get me started.) “That’s an awfully short skirt she’s wearing,” one of the energetically Anglican youths that seems to virtually live in my lounge comments, “for a Christian.”
...Say what?!
Firstly, this is hardly the pinnacle of cleavage bearing, coke snorting, reputation destroying, rock n roll. Cite Miley Cyrus’ latest music video, for those of you who have had the misfortune of viewing it, as the quintessential of evangelical pop-star gone wayward. This is wholesome, Kiwi bred, World Vision endorsing, widely respected Brooke Fraser we’re talking about here. As for the skirt in question- certainly a little sexier than a chorister’s cassock, but well within the realms of appropriate hemlines.
But, before I get into the details of the extensive frustration this comment caused me, spare me some time for a little disclaimer. I must emphasise that don’t profess to be any authority on religion whatsoever. There are countless important matters on which I wish I could be fierce and forthright in expressing my own opinion instead of wallowing in some apologetic stage of indecision. But religion is not one of them.  I will always, always attempt to be as open minded as possible about religion. In fact I change my views on religion like I change my underwear, which, I reassure you, is regularly. So the following is just a reflection of my recent train of thought regarding that forever contentious topic. You may disagree, you may want to yell at me for being so senselessly stupid, in fact I’m not entirely convinced that I agree with myself. You may find my argument flawed, hypocritical, or utterly ignorant, in which case I would be delighted for you to show me the error of my ways. 
I divulge. I promised you a tantalising piece on Jesus and short skirts.  I may be over-analysing this particular comment but I believe a person’s piety or spirituality shouldn’t be expressed in abstinence or measured in Church attendance. I know too many people who profess strong theological beliefs in equality, charity and acceptance, yet are the first to make rude and judgemental remarks behind peoples’ backs. People who preach family values on a religious basis, yet regularly cheat on their girlfriends. I personally believe that religion, should you choose to embrace it (and I have no problem with other people doing so), should be about the big things in life, not a pedantic set of guidelines that constrict your drinking and your hemlines.  I understand that religion isn’t always a pick ‘n’ mix smorgasbord which you can approach delicately with a pair of tongs to deliberately and carefully select certain appetising aspects. I also appreciate that we are all human and, I for one, am frequently and ashamedly guilty of often being far from the person I desire to be. I don’t necessarily have a problem with people making decisions regarding drugs, sex or how they spend their Sunday on a religious basis, but it truly pains me when these people live in a walking cloud of religious self-righteousness while committing as many mortal sins as the rest of us. If we are unable to master a messianic perfection of a pious life, surely we should attempt to focus on the important parts- doing to one another as we would have done to ourselves, loving thy neighbour, forgiving your enemies. Hell, do I sound naive and idealistic.
But as I’ve already bolted dangerously along the road of my idealistic circular argument, I won’t repent now. My potentially brash assumption is that it is perfectly possible live charitably, act kindly, love unreservedly, and forgive wholeheartedly without adhering to any specific religious guidelines. There are thousands of different theologies in the world, and yet the majority of them, while certainly allowing for variation, seem to follow one basic principal. While I am very nervous about suggesting such a notion as “universal values,” I do believe that there is one basic, fundamental human value that, however cheesily, supersedes religion, political loyalty, culture and ethnicity- Love.  It is perfectly possible, I maintain, for an atheist to live a wholesome life that benefits and brings joy to others. There is nothing, whatsoever to suggest that a person with no religious conviction is unable to contribute to the world a saint-like virtuosity.
Certainly I think that a large number of religious doctrines are well grounded and entirely sensible. But something instinctively suggests to me that we don’t need to be walking embodiments of Christianity, Islam or any other religion to know that it is wrong to kill, or to hurt others. (Or maybe I feel this way because my upbringing in a Western, liberally Christian society has instilled such values into me, but I’m not convinced by this, and I’m already ranting too much to get into chicken and egg arguments).

I am aware that in my comparatively privileged, middle class New Zealand world, it is naively easy for me to deny any strict or doctrinal manifestation of religion in my life. For people who have experienced greater tragedy or greater suffering than myself, perhaps religion inspires a sense of hope, or identity that otherwise alludes them. I am perfectly willing to accept that for many individuals, and even entire communities, religion serves a strong and valuable purpose, to band people together at times of crisis, to give people hope in their darkest hour, to provide a sense of purpose and belonging to the lost. But I guess the crux of my entire, long-winded argument, is that nobody has the right to present themselves as superior because of their own religiosity and, if we are to act “morally,” or kindly, it should because we desire to love and to be loved, not because of proscribed doctrine, religious or otherwise.  I think it is vitally important to find the desire to love within ourselves, and though we may find external sources from which to derive ideas and values, we must ultimately find our own personal justification and impetus for the actions that come to represent our characters. “It is not your beliefs that make you a spiritual person. It is your actions. The decisions you make and how you treat other humans, animals and nature, the way you live your life.”

Some of you may be trying to read into the significance of me publishing this at Christmas time. I can assure there is none. I’m not the Grinch. This is a piece that I began quite some time ago, and purely coincidentally have happened to finish at Christmas. I do, in fact, love Christmas. I still feel a little bit of the magic that kids experience when they wake up and outrageous hours of the morning to discover in delight a stuffed Santa stocking at the foot of the bed. I love the family time, the giving, the food, and even the carols. Fucking hypocrite.
Merry Christmas kids.
I hope it's wonderful, whether you choose to celebrate Jesus or not.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Stranger and/or Friend

Stranger- an individual that one is not acquainted with.


The word poses a little linguistic intrigue. The term implies something of which we are often guilty - assuming there is something strange about strangers. It’s a habit for which, ruefully, I am reprehensible. It is so easy to assume things about another’s character; to judge people without knowing them, to stereotype, categorise, label, and all those horrible and unfortunate human tendencies. Occasionally I catch myself being a snob- a snobby Wellingtonian, a snobby Nga Tawa girl,... Eugh. And believe me, I hate myself in those moments. Snobbery is a characteristic that, in my opinion, is unrivalled in its unattractiveness. There is nothing that can tarnish a beautiful face more than a curled upper lip, but there is nothing that can obscure and spoil one’s view of the world more than looking at it down one’s nose. Things work both ways I suppose.

There is infinite value in being nice to people. Infinite goodness taking just a second of your time to look up and thank the person at the counter who’s just served their one hundred and sixty first irritable Christmas shopper of the day. I believe that above academic achievement, good looks, or style there is nothing that provides a greater insight into a person’s true character than the way they treat others. Your soul is exposed in the way you address the person behind the counter at McDonalds, or your response when approached by the poor, clipboard bearing Greenpeace staff given their unenviable job of converting the pinstriped swaths of impatient and unsympathetic Lambton Quay businessmen. Tragically, and yet somewhat magically, it is those with the least to give that are the most generous. It is the families who struggle to buy their children a pair of school shoes who will gladly drop an extra dollar into the donation box, while the rich brush hastily past outstretched collectors’ buckets as though bright coloured t-shirts and charitable causes pose some intolerable interjection into their  hurried professional lives, and the primacy of an office timetable.  Sometimes I see these people and wonder how they can genuinely be so unhappy with the world.

I think that the faces of strangers, whether they be at shop counters, behind bars, or simply walking down the street, are like mirrors. How we treat them reflects, not only on how we are are treated in return, but subsequently on our own demeanours, or dispositions, our very own satisfaction with life.

So have a bit of time for others. It is often not that we mean to be rude or demeaning, but we occasionally all get caught up in the hectic self-important, riotous chaos that is our day to day lives and forget to spare a smile for others, especially as we get older. And I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

 I guess it is easier to live by ideals when you’re young. To follow our passions, ideologies and beliefs, whether they be socialism or environmentalism, before our optimistic balloon string is dragged down by the leaden weight of responsibility in a profit orientated world. But, as an optimist, or maybe as a naive and idealistic youth, I believe that there is still more to life than the nine to five rat race. That, even if it is only in the very smallest of things- in opening a door for a parent struggling with a pram, or in helping a little old lady with her shopping bags- there is great potential for goodness in the human race, no matter how shallow or materialistic we may become. The shape of society is dictated entirely by how we see it, and I firmly believe that it can be a positive and beautiful place. Indeed, we do not know anything about the lives and circumstances of strangers but that is all the more reason to do good to them- we never know how much a small smile might mean. A smile is the easiest thing to give, but it is also the most powerful, the most appreciated and the most gracious. Sometimes a smile may not come easily, we may be tired, or grumpy or simply want to be left alone, but it's worth the effort. It’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake. And, after all, perhaps strangers are not strange, but friends we are yet to meet.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ode to Summer

There is nothing so wonderful for the soul as cloudless blue skies. Days when the sky is not simply blue, but a stretching infinity of pristine azure that banishes even the smallest white cloud tufts and with them all the worries of the world. The magic of summer is to me indescribable. It leaves me absolutely brimming with a seemingly boundless joy that lifts my feet to skip in delight and the corners of my mouth perpetually drawn into an eye-twinkling smile that swells from the very inner core of my being. “If summer could talk,” said Bern Williams, “it would boast it invented romance.” But summer can talk. It speaks in Pohutukawa flowers, the throbbing hum of cicadas, cool cotton dresses and the laughter of friends around backyards and barbeques caught on whispers of breeze well into the long and balmy embrace of dusky twilights.
There is nothing so close to perfection as a summer’s evening. Pearls of condensation glisten exquisitely on pints of alluringly cold lager, then, as though overcome with sheer exhaustion in the summer heat, drop rapidly down, leaving streaks of wheaten golden goodness. I love those glorious, deep-toned days of summer. When, from dawnings of amber to amethyst eves, you can’t help but smile and feel like everything is right with the world. Paradise is in those depths of summer when sun scatters its golden wealth with boundless generosity and there is simply nothing to do but shed worries like clothes and immerse oneself in the sea. Some of my fondest memories are of walking home from the beach on a summer’s evening, sand in sea-spun hair, salt on skin, listening to the syncopated thwack of friends’ jandals with one’s own. After a day of football on the sand, punctuated by episodes of screaming splashes of delight in the surf or audacious swims out to the harbour pontoon, it is impossible not to be contented with life and the warmth the sun’s rose kiss.

Summer is a time for friends to rub sunblock on your back, or chase you in mock indignation after you soak them unawares with a great splash of sea water. Summer is a time for Katchafire and the crisp and utterly divine sound of opening a bottle of cider. Summer is a time to savour- the leisure, the weather, our youth and those tantalising dribbles of icecream that escape over the edge of the cone. But most of all- summer is a time to smile. True summer is not in the climate, but in the happy dispositions the season brings. 
That is the romance of summer.

Summer time an' the livin' is easy, Fish are jumpin' an' the cotton is high. Oh, yo' daddy's rich, and yo' ma' is good-lookin', So hush, little baby, don' yo' cry. 
Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward

In every girls life; there's a boy she'll never forget and a summer where it all began. - Anonymous.

Summer is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces up, snow is exhilarating; there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. - John Ruskin

Summer is the time when one sheds one's tensions with one's clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all's right with the world. - Ada Louise Huxtable.