Sunday, August 10, 2014

My First Sermon: "In Praise of Idolatry"

This sermon was preached on August 10, 2014 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.

The Bible says “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” (Exodus)

In fact, as far as I know the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are the only ones that forbid the creation and worship of idols. We find many “idols” in other religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, African religions, Native American religions, et cetera.

I don't know about you, but I was brought up to believe that all those other religions were false. My parents didn't make a big deal about religion – they didn't go to church – but I didn't get any education about world religions either. And the information I picked up from the people around me was that you only had two religious options: you could be a Christian or an atheist. That's it.

Now many of us here are aware that there are other options. In this sermon I'd like to go back and re-examine some of the things that the Bible says about idolatry and the worship of “other gods.” I'd like to suggest that maybe idols are not exactly what the Bible says they are. And that other gods can be acceptable too.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of idol is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly: a false god.” Who gets to decide which gods are true and which gods are false? Idolatry means the worship of idols. idolatry is defined as “the worship of a picture or object as a god.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Paul Henreid, or Everything was Better Back in the Day.

Recently I've developed more appreciation for Paul Henreid. You know him as the actor who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. He preferred to be known for his role as Bette Davis' lover in Now, Voyager (which is a very weird movie and I should blog about it.) Anyway, after watching a few of his films I became interested enough to read his autobiography, Ladies Man.

In order to understand why I am so susceptible, you must know that my favorite historical era runs from approximately 1885-1935, in England and Europe. Henreid was born in 1908, which is almost exactly at the midpoint of this period, and brought up in Vienna. Vienna before the war - is there any more romantic city?

The fact is that Henreid doesn't say much about his early childhood; the book begins with an anecdote from 1921, when he was thirteen. As a young man, he received a thorough theatrical education:
Acting in Austria in those days was considered as much a profession as medicine or law. You had to attend school and study [for three years] and eventually take an examination to determine not only whether you could act, but also how much you knew about makeup and the theater, its lore and its history. You had to know the leading parts in eight plays by heart - four classical and four modern ones. Of the classics, two had to be in prose and two in verse. Of the modern plays, two must be comedies and two dramas.
In 1935, he had a successful stage career and was starting to break into films. When the famous German film studio, Ufa, asked him to sign a contract he was overjoyed. He went to Berlin, saw the studio . . . and when he sat down to sign the contract, discovered that he was required to become a member of the Nazi party. He refused, and went back to Vienna.

Soon he discovered that he had been blacklisted by the Nazis. (Ironically, just 12 years later he would be blacklisted again, by HUAC.) When the film he had just completed was shown in Germany, his name was removed from the credits. No one else in the German-speaking film industry would hire him. Remarking that unlike many people, he wasn't deeply attached to Vienna, he began to look farther afield.

He got a part in an English play (not allowing the fact that he knew no English to slow him down.) One role led to another, and when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Henreid and his wife were both in England.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Portrait of Mr. W.H."

I recently acquired an edition of the complete works of Oscar Wilde, and I've read most of it. I used not to think too highly of Mr. Wilde. But no one can read De Profundis and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" without being affected.

I also recently happened to watch two filmed versions of "Dorian Gray." Both of them suffered from clunky dialog and slow pacing - but the 1976 version with Sir John Gielgud at least has plenty of homoeroticism. The other one I saw was the 1945 film, which has its moments but some of those moments were added heterosexual interest. Also, although it's a black-and-white film, the sinister portrait appears in color, with psychedelic bubbles on it. (I haven't seen the recent version with Colin Firth yet.)

Despite its flaws, I think it was while I was watching the BBC version that I realized there's a connection between the story of Dorian Gray and Wilde's semi-fictional essay about Mr. W.H., the man to whom Shakespeare's sonnets were dedicated. Wilde (or his characters) argue that the lovely young man of the sonnets was a boy actor in Shakespeare's company.

Dorian Gray's life of evil begins when he becomes infatuated with a Shakespearean actress and then abruptly falls out of love with her. I believe that Wilde portrays her sympathetically, and yet the fact remains that she is an interloper. It's not for her that the parts of Juliet, Portia, or Ophelia were written. After reading "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." I start to ask myself if Dorian fell in love with the idea of a boy in girl's clothes (not the other way round.)

Anyway, the point is: read some Oscar Wilde. It will make you sad.