Art, Religion, and David Bowie

pilateBowie

 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

There’s nothing more American

Coke

The Coca-Cola commercial that was aired during the Super Bowl this year had it exactly right. America is beautiful, because people from all over the world have always come here. They bring their languages and their customs and their foods and their traditions with them, and they hold onto them because it’s what they know best. But their children, and every generation after them, will be Americans, both in word and in deed.

Those who object to the Coke commercial need a lesson in what America really is. But Coke appears to understand it, and I’m proud to be a stockholder in this most American of businesses.

#MLB got it wrong

For last night’s 9/11 remembrance game in New York, which was broadcast by ESPN and was basically the capstone of the 10 year commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001, Major League baseball got wind of a plan by the players. The full story is here, but essentially the Mets’ players wanted to honor the first responders of the NYPD and others by wearing their logos, rather than the Mets logo, on their caps during the game last night.

It isn’t like MLB and ESPN weren’t going all out anyway, with the pregame ceremonies and everything else. The players wanted to get in on it, too. A small gesture, but important for the city they play in and align themselves with. A no-brainer, right?

Apparently not. The powers that be in Major League Baseball–which is headquartered in New York City, I might add–sent Joe Torre out to deliver the news that this gesture would not be allowed. Then, they took it one step further, according to Mets’ pitcher R.A. Dickey’s tweets, by confiscating the players’ hats. So, unlike the actions of Steve Trachsel, John Franco, and the other Mets players who defied a similar mandate in 2001, this time MLB decided to be proactive in heading off any dissent from the players.

When I saw this story in today’s news, I thought immediately of the Steve Trachsel card shown above. Trachsel was a Cub for many years, and played for the Mets during the 2001 season and several years thereafter. And that’s where it gets interesting. The card above appeared in a set of cards put out by Upper Deck in 2007. More than five years had gone by since Trachsel and his teammates had worn these caps–consequences be damned–and this action was still making its way into baseball card sets. The “FDNY” jumps right off the card, and the reason why he has it on is clear to everyone who remembers that day’s events.

When this card was released, in the Spring of 2007, Steve Trachsel was technically a free agent. He could have signed with the Mets again, but there was no guarantee that he would do so. In fact, Trachsel signed with the Baltimore Orioles, presumably after this card came out, and a second card with Trachsel in an Orioles uniform was released later that year. But it seems as if someone at Upper Deck, with probably lots of Steve Trachsel images to choose from, chose to use an image from five years earlier, either to commemorate Trachsel for defying MLB’s rule, or possibly to honor the first responders themselves.

And now, with the memories and the pain of 9/11 brought to the surface again, MLB cut its players off at the knees. It feels petty on their part, and I will suggest that any negative reaction they get from this will be richly deserved.