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Last weekend I went to see “The Imitation Game” and it’s a terrific film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a terrific job portraying Alan Turing, the often forgotten  hero of WWII who cracked the Nazi transmission code thus saving millions of lives and shortening the war by an estimated two years while practically inventing the computer in the process. Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke is just as good, in her portrayal of a woman capable of matching and in some ways exceeding Turin’s wit at a time women weren’t believed capable of  the science-heavy  work she was most certainly doing and doing well. “The Imitation Game” was one of the films I didn’t have a chance to see before the end of the year and thus was unable to weigh as consideration in my list of best films of the year. “The Theory of Everything” “Boyhood” and “Selma” waited far too late to show up in my neck of the woods as well but I plan on seeing each and expect each to be phenomenal. These films, along with “Birdman” (which I loved) “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper” are all nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I expect that “Sniper” is solid  in that Cooper is an incredible actor and Eastwood has rarely disappointed as a director. “American Sniper”  has generated quite a bit of political controversy which I’ll weigh in on later in this piece. “Budapest” is probably fine, I’m just not a Wes Anderson fan and find all of his films to be basically the same pretentious thing.

I love films and I maintain that good movies are good movies whatever their topic, target, or  intent. Some movies are popcorn-friendly summer smashes that are sheer entertainment; sometimes such films work in deeper content and purpose and when they do that’s great though it’s not always important. Sometimes big summer movies are just asinine garbage, but if someone enjoys them enough to stop worrying about their mortgage or ISIS for 2 hours then no harm done. Fall and Winter are the months reserved for the “serious” films to unroll, those award show contenders. It’s my overall favorite period of the movie-going year and most of my ticket money is reserved for the end of the year and the first part of the new year when the specialty market films finally trickle to the exurbs. Many people complain about this way of fielding films, that some are “serious” and “contenders” and that critics point the way to which those are and award them to their own preferences in a subjective way while unfairly (or elitely) dismissing others. It’s like this with any type of art criticism–literary, music or film–and certainly what one likes eventually boils down to a matter of subjectivity. I’ve defended the role of critics in the past, and I still think film criticism is a worthy task. If you’re paid to watch movies all the time seeing hundreds a year, have studied the history and techniques of film and have devoted much of your life and time to films and appreciating “good” films, then I have a good idea that one you run across in a typical year that you find warrants praise, your opinion is probably worth at least a little consideration. If there’s a growing consensus on certain pictures being worth our time as a viewer, if enough people who devote their time to film agree on certain pictures, I believe those pictures are likely good movies whether they’re suited to everyone’s tastes or not. On the other hand, I have no doubts at all that some truly worthwhile and entertaining films are critically rejected out of hand from pure snobbery, particularly “genre” films far too many critics feel “above.”  So the way I’ve always seen it, those universally raved works are probably good and at least worth a watch while simultaneously not everything panned is necessarily that bad or unworthy of my own consideration.

This year, and certainly not for the first time but perhaps more than usual, race has become a major topic in relation to awards-season and these critical “gate-keepers.” Race has been a large topic in everything this year and with good reason so it is certainly worth bringing to the discussion table regarding film, awards, and Hollywood today. The minute after the Academy nominations were released it became quickly evident and commentated on that there is very little diversity among the nominations. Not a single actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress or director nominated is African-American.  The director of “Birdman” is a Mexican-born film-maker but that’s pretty much it in terms of non-white diversity. “Selma” is of course about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement but its African American lead actor is absent from consideration as its female African-American director. This comes shortly after some of the leaked documents from the Sony hack showcased Hollywood agents and shot-callers displaying a deep (if unconcerned) knowledge of racial disparity in Hollywood as they joked about the President’s likely favorite films (Kevin Hart movies) or discussed why Denzel Washington shouldn’t be cast in a particular film due to the potential loss of overseas returns due to a foreign audience’s perceived racism.
Chris Rock recently discussed racism in Hollywood in a deft piece for the “Hollywood Reporter”. Film buff and critic that he is, he makes the valid point that studio heads have to go out of their way not to hire Hispanics in Hollywood while hardly any Hispanics work on any set or movie company above the janitorial level. Rock himself, whose “Top 5” was one of the best pictures of 2014, is not immune to allegations of racism.*  He describes “Top 5” as one of the “blackest” films ever nationally released yet one that is so naturally and is not a “race” picture. Which of course is the area which needs growth; when Hollywood awards a black film it’s usually a “race” film dealing with slavery, civil rights, or race as a central topic rather than by simply featuring a diverse cast and profiling their lives and adventures naturally.
So is Hollywood racist? Rock details a scene he ultimately cut from “Top 5” in which a black agent (played by Kevin Hart) complains about studio racism (he’s not invited to a meeting) by exclaiming “and these people are liberals, this isn’t the KKK!” Racism certainly exists in Hollywood like it exists everywhere else. White-privilege works itself out by layering a power system at the top of every business, corporation, or political party in the same way it has in the media through concentrating generations of wealthy white male power at the top. Perhaps some of this is unintentional and a product of its formative time. It’s certainly time to shake up the membership of the Academy and bring down the overwhelmingly white, old, and male membership percentage and to boost diversity. Of course, Academy members have to invite diverse people into the academy on a member-to-member basis as that system works and to do that they have to socialize with a diverse crowd in the first place (a fault more than one industry and community shares). More films need to be made showcasing diversity, but ultimately in a natural way that isn’t overt and political. Hollywood isn’t a nonprofit so ultimately an audience has to vote with its dollars. Did those complaining about lack of diversity  pay to go see “Selma” “Top Five” or “Fruitvale Station”? Should it even be their (or our) responsibility? Going to the movies is expensive and even the most politically active diversity-seeking person around might not want to spend their time and money on something just to increase diversity when they may instead just want to see something fun and easy. What Hollywood can do is cast more African- Americans and Hispanics in roles where race is irrelevant (as was done in the great casting choice of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in an upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie). If foreign audiences have a race problem and won’t bother to see a character-driven piece about black life in America or even a romantic comedy starring a black couple, perhaps they will be unable to avoid that multimillion dollar summer action blockbuster even if it is peopled with a diverse cast. Hollywood will still make their money and foreign audiences will be subtly acclimated to diversity and recognition that people are in some ways all the same.

The problem seems to be a mixture. It’s that not enough quality films are made with diverse casts on one end. Should this year’s nominations have not been recognized as top-quality simply because they’re not diverse enough? A lot of wonderful films this year lacked diversity but that’s no reason to boycott good films or to refuse to recognize their excellence or quality. I’m neither gay nor British and did not serve in WWII but can thoroughly enjoy “Imitation Game” much the same way I’m not black nor a comedian but can enjoy “Top Five.” Audiences nor studios can be asked to subsidize films for activism’s sake. Yet those who love film and independently make films can certainly take more risks as they so often do. What films that were made were slighted this year? The glaring omissions by concensus seem to be “Selma’s” director and lead actor. Which others?

And what about that “American Sniper” controversy? Politics most certainly do play a role in who goes to see and praise a move after all, do they not? Some left-leaning critics decried the perceived glorification of war and that a character based on real life with depictions of real war was played for heroic effect. The real life American sniper this film was based on labels the natives of the country he does battle in less than admirably in his book. Many who turned out to see “Sniper” did so in an odd sort of patriotic support of our military. This became an “issues” movie. Oddly, stats show evangelical Christians turned out in significantly higher numbers to see “Sniper” than they did that notable movie about a Baptist preacher living out his faith to lead an equality movement. Yet should such a movie as “Sniper” not be made? Of course not. War is indeed an ugly thing and there is danger in glorifying it and unconditionally praising soldiers regardless of what they may have done in combat and for what reason De-facto. There have been great war movies; ones on the one hand that portray it starkly, realistically, and troublingly. On the other hand, there have been those that white-wash it and portray it as good vs. evil, which is difficult to do with any war effort post-WWII. I haven’t seen “Sniper” yet and can’t personally offer my opinion but I do find the discussion interesting, particularly the fact that for those who don’t see a difference between fantasy violence and violence based on real life narratives and real life violence don’t see why there’s even a discussion over this film.

Politics and Race affect what movies are made, what movies are praised, who sees what movies, and often what someone thinks of a particular movie. This is a reflection of society at large. So ultimately, the issue must be resolved in larger society as a whole and then these reflections will follow suit. Of course, often a bottom-up approach of fixing the symptomatic expressions of racism and class-ism is easier and more effective than seismic large-scale change. So it’s good that we as a society are having this discussion now. Hopefully by addressing it, the coming years will see more diversity in film simply because it’s been so noticed now. In the meantime, as art is always an expression of the place its overall society finds itself, I maintain that good movies are good movies even in the midst of troubling power-structures. They represent their era in explicit and implicit, intentional and subconscious ways. Nothing precludes “Selma” and “American Sniper” from both being good films but maybe watching either should lead to a discussion for the viewers.

Your thoughts?

* A quick note on the allegations of racism towards Rock. The ones I’ve heard in most recent months oddly attack him for stand-up material he made popular more than 20 years ago as much of that re-surfaced in a misappropriated manner by white “fans” in the form of social media posts following Ferguson. Simply put, like Chappelle and Pryor, Rock is one of the funniest comedians to ever do comedy and all three have made race a loud, often uncomfortable, but prophetic topic. Sadly a certain white frat-boy culture always misappropriates and wrongly quote such material but I find that hard to be the comedian’s fault. Rock has always been accused of class-ism too, as he has done well for himself and does come from a middle class background. Check Rock now–his most recent stand-ups, his comedy round-table contributions, “Top Five”, and his “Hollywood Reporter” piece to see where he is now. Acknowledging race and tackling racism as always, trying to give a hand-up to other new black comics, etc.

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I’m still heading in the direction I hinted at in my last post, but in honor of February and Martin Luther King Day I want to take a step back and discuss King and later, race just a bit. I will admit that anytime a white male discusses race perils loom from every angle as opportunities for missteps abound; and it’s up for debate whether those who haven’t lived experiences themselves even have a place in such conversation in the first place.That being said, I’m going ahead to do so at least in two posts. The first is an appreciation of Martin Luther King Jr. directly related to my last post. The second will be a discussion of film in relation to race in 2015 (“Good Films are Good Films–What’s Race [or politics] got to do with It?”).

So here goes. I’ve written about King in the past in honor of the holiday we’ve named after him. I focused then on his passionate embrace of nonviolence, rejection of militarization, and the prophetic voice he gives even now decades after his assassination. The “whitewashing” of King remains a danger in popular culture, especially from conservative pundits. It’s easier to celebrate King in a US holiday for a perceived rosy “we’re all one family there is no race” stance. It’s harder for some to acknowledge his struggle to redress poverty, to decry the violence of rampant unchecked capitalism, his opposition to Vietnam, his staunch active nonviolence. This is the man who preached non-violence but kept a hand-gun in his house before receiving his first death threat. At which point he connected the dots and realized he had to live non-violence on a personal level just as he expected society to do so–so against the advice of his companions in the civil rights struggle, he got rid of it. Who does that? Who decides to give up their previously owned firearm at the very moment where even many who refuse to have one consider acquiring one? Dr. King does that–he lived out a “Christian” example of radicality that quickly illuminates the fact that very few real “Christians” have ever lived. It’s hard for mainstream America to celebrate that King.

In the days of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it’s easy to imagine for any scholar or student of King and his legacy where his voice and mission would lay vis-a-vis such events. The reactions provoked and expressed in recent months have quickly shown that in some ways, we haven’t really made as much progress as we’d hoped in the US in regards to race relations. I’m sure the racism and anger expressed by so much of the media and the average white populations throughout the country in recent months seemed eerily familiar to those who lived through the civil rights movement. It’s easy to admire King posthumously–to say what you would have done, how you would have helped and how you would have viewed the overall milieu of King and his action in its heyday now, divorced from that atmosphere. So many who claim they would have been on board with King have clearly shown by their reactions to Ferguson and the conversation it’s brought to the spotlight that they most certainly would not have been on King’s side or active in the civil rights movement even on a vocal level of support.

I’ve read a lot of books about Martin Luther King Jr. and I’ve read a fair share of his original writings, letters, and sermons. He’s been a hero of mine since I can remember. I truly think that learning about him at an impressionable age formulated my views of race and instilled in me the primal feeling that racism is basically just ignorance–and irrational. I truly spoke up about issues of race when I was fairly young and my big mouth often got me into trouble. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in the schools I grew up in, and I remember the racist jokes on the bus and in the lunchroom. I remember how I reacted to those jokes and statements as well. Unfortunately I fermented my own prejudices in doing so that I can sense in me to this day. My reaction to a “redneck” telling such a joke or story was to make fun of them, call them every name I could think of, and usually get punched–I was pretty small before my growth spurt and it took me several punches and altercations to realize that making fun of someone isn’t the best way to advance your cause. My prejudice that formed in such early experiences was a hatred of “rednecks” and I became quite fond of labeling many people “white trash,” which when you think about such words is a pretty de-humanizing phrase.

Michael Eric Dyson wrote a wonderful book on King, “I May Not Get There With You.” He received a fair share of flack for presenting King warts-and-all and tackling head-on the scandals and less glamorous aspects of Dr. King. What emerges is a completely human man full of faults and frailties–but one who was nevertheless a man who accomplished tremendous things, vowed himself to the highest of causes and selflessly pursued the path of justice. Dyson concludes after mulling over every possible “dark” aspect of King’s character and legacy that nevertheless, King was (and to this day remains) the greatest American to live. He accomplished more for the future and made the world a better place far more so than any US President. He accomplished what he did as a private citizen–he exemplified civic responsibility (even when that responsibility means protest) to the fullest and he lived out a love greater than any one we’ve seen in our country’s history to this point. Recognizing King as a real human being with struggles of his own elevates humanity and showcases the potential we all have. Breaking him free from the shackles of a motionless icon and into a living breathing human is an antidote to the cult of personality and the idleness of hero worship.

My struggle with King now relates to my struggle with faith and religion. Dr. King has always been the example I point to when someone claims religion is the root of evil and destructiveness. Sure there are civil rights advocates outside of organized religion; some  have even been overlooked for their contributions because of their different views (folks like Baynard Rustin). King may have earned a PhD in systematic theology but if that’s all he had done he would be a footnote. He earned his place in history by living out systematic theology. He saw justice as the overall arc of the universe. love as the motivating force, and God intimately concerned in those who populated this earth. He saw his work as being the hands and feet of Christ and he organized with an entire community of faith to bring about great change and progress through radical love. Can such greatness be achieved if it is just rooted in secular humanism? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to explore that in upcoming posts but I welcome your thoughts now.

This is an odd post for me in terms of format. I invited your general comments here and stated I was going to try blogging again but from a new vantage point. Here’s where I start doing that, but as it’s the first such attempt it’s quite scatter-shot. I want to throw out every line of thought I have on these events as seeds for my future series of posts which will address controversial art and culture, different conceptions of “God” and how they work themselves out in society, etc. This piece is quite lengthy too and I’m sure by speaking on Hedbo and Boko Haram I will anger someone though that is not my point. So as a warning here it is in case my lines of argument meander: I am thoroughly anti-terror; anti-extremism; pro-pluralism; pro-free speech; anti-Islamaphobia; anti-racist; anti-hate speech; and a few other things along the way. Here goes.

Terrorists committed acts of senseless violence in Paris and Nigeria in the name of Islam once again. Once again, people are pondering what role freedom of speech, censorship, and religion plays in all of this. But are we talking about the right things and are we talking about them in the right context? I have studied Islam for many years. I’ve studied religion as a whole even longer. It’s impossible to know if I would have initially studied Islam as intensely as I did if not for 9/11, but I know that event certainly caused me to look deeper into a religion I before knew very little about. Yet the things that sustained my interest in Islam and kept me pouring so deeply over its texts—the Quran, hadiths, as well as books on Islam’s history, theology, and ethics, not to mention Sufi poetry and works on Arab, Persian, and “Islamic” culture—was much deeper, richer, and more complex than current events and terrorism. What kept my attention was this concept of a stark, complete Monotheism; monotheism of a sort that was somehow mystical and holistic, and really quite sensible as far as religious beliefs go even if it never was my own belief. What kept me studying and working around Islam in some way was becoming aware of the progress, cultural development, and unique history of inventiveness in Islamic history and culture so often overlooked by the west and left silent in most western history classes and textbooks. It was the way Islam intertwined science, philosophy, theology, art, and a type of de facto pluralism for so many years during their brightest hours. It was a host of writers, Muslim and Non-Muslim who had a love and deep knowledge of the subject on deft display in their work: Rumi, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Seyyed Nasr, Khaled Abou El Fadl, W. Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Iqbal, Abdualiziz Sachedina, G. Willow Wilson, Malcolm X, Eboo Patel, Marshall Hodgson, and many other writers, theologians, teachers and students ancient and current. And of course, it also became the friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years who identify as Muslims—students, teachers, and coworkers who are diverse, passionate, funny, forward-thinking and devout. Every time a tragedy like these recent events occur I think of those folks I’ve met over the years who work so hard to make progress—progress in religious study, science, academia, non-profits and society as a whole who time and time again find themselves pressed to defend their culture, their religion and ultimately their own identity in a way Christians and secularists never are when violence is done in the name of Christ or rationalism. Admittedly right here right now radical Islam certainly has a huge corner of much of the market on extremist violence in the way those other ideologies at the moment do not—but there are many factors for this and I hope to get there in this series of posts. Inter-religious dialogue, inter-faith action, and religious pluralism were (and in many ways remain) passionate interests and objectives of mine. I think these areas must also include dialogue and cooperation with atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists though.

So I want to talk about violence as it pertains to religion. I want to be as honest as I can and welcome as much comment as is given. This is the first of many in this new set of dialogues, so give me time to get there.

During my own spiritual development I have been many things. I was a southern Baptist as a child for reasons most people are what they are—because that’s what my parents were and that’s how they raised me. In my late teens I was nothing for awhile, but not adamantly nothing. I was “Christian” but disillusioned with church. I wanted something that seemed real to me. Then I became an Episcopalian as a twenty-something, in love with ritual, symbolism and seemingly ancient styles of worship on the one hand and progressive theology on the other. I attended a Presbyterian seminary sometime after, pursuing a Masters in religious studies. I then attended Unitarian Universalist churches but never committed. I’ve attended so many places of worship as a student, visitor, and inter-faith participant—synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and practically every Christian denomination. When visiting most places of worship regardless of the type I’ve always been fascinated with what I see and met the kindest people, but as a whole I have never “felt” those services. For me, I have to reinterpret and re-contextualize so much of what I encounter in a place of worship to make what is presented something palatable and relatable, so much so that at the end of that effort I no longer recognize it as that which it really is. So I guess I’m secular now. The thing is, some of those I debated early on—on this blog, in classrooms, and elsewhere—likely felt this was the only place I could end up. I was adamantly in the “progressive Christian” camp for awhile, arguing it on paper and in person quite thoroughly. Those on the more conservative end of the spectrum saw it as a slippery slope to where I find myself now. They likely saw this result as inevitable. But I really know that the place I was arguing from was a real and authentic place even if part of me knew even then I was eventually to move out of that space. I know so many heartfelt, intelligent, active individuals working to make the world a better place fervently and cognitively in that camp now and they’ve been there longer than I was and will likely remain there. I’m always hesitant to word things in a way that makes it seem like I have “evolved” past particular viewpoints because I don’t see it that way and wouldn’t want those folks to think I did either. Part of me wishes I could still claim that same territory as my own but I can’t and the most I can say even close to negative for those who can is that I am unable to see how they remain there sometimes. But I digress. Secular Humanism is yet another label though and I’m increasingly wary of religious (and irreligious) labels. I know that I am (perhaps doomed is a strong word) to remain in conversation with religion on a deep level forever. It intrigues me, abhors me, invites me. Many of my heroes and many of those I see making the most positive impact on the world continue to be religious people. Certainly scientists and rationalists make huge impacts but the work of heroes like MLK Jr. were so intrinsically interwoven with their own faith in all that I could never write off the power and promise of unabashed religion.

Conversely, critique of religion and art that stands in defiance of the religious culture it finds itself in, particularly of the excesses and hypocrisies of that religion have always attracted me. In hindsight, were it not for my love of rock, metal, and hip hop music as a young teen I might not have challenged my church’s agenda on almost every issue as I did. I loved my Metallica CDs so much so that my youth leader’s insistence that such music was evil and that as Christians we should only listen to music that explicitly praises God forced me to step back, re-evaluate, and argue against a slew of church party-lines. This reached a height of debate that was totally out of place as I look back on it yet that was instrumental on practically everything else I’ve done regarding religion ever since. I would show up to youth group meetings prepared to debate the issues. I had studied scripture, other interpretations of that scripture, and how other churches related differently to the issues and I would fight my point. Not raising my voice, not intentionally being disrespectful, but always arguing. I argued women in ministry (pro), evolution (pro), “hell houses” (anti), Bill Clinton (pro) and more than anything music, movies and art (pro). This was really an odd way to spend youth group and Sunday school as a 14-16 year old kid, but that’s how it went for me. All credit due to the church leaders for not simply tossing me out. One in particular always welcomed my engagement and argued his opposing view in a friendly, paternal way. Another, no t so much. Yet if it weren’t for my deep love of music, music which might shock, offend, or engage, but more than anything, music that was just willing to address every type of emotion or thought without filter or censorship I might never have truly evaluated what I thought about my religious beliefs.

So now, I step back to really think about some things in this regard. A lot of conservative commentators have dredged up the old “piss Christ” artwork from several years ago that caused a stir but certainly wasn’t attacked, defaced or even de-funded. Conservative pundits have complained of the American press’s defense of such art and their criticism and perceived ridicule of religious conservatives angry over such things in contrast to those same voices now claiming Charlie Hedbo overstepped boundaries. Why have blasphemous artwork in public museums and in media archives but not reprint the controversial Hedbo cartoons? I can’t help but think of myself; how Islamaphobic comments have always made me bristle, especially since getting to know so many great Muslim people and studying so much of Islam’s rich history and modern theology. I’ve always been vocal that terrorists do not represent Islam and that most loud criticisms of Islam—from Bill Maher or the late Christopher Hitchens—sadly misunderstand and lampoon authentic Islam. Yet on the other hand, I’ve never had a problem with art or music that radically challenges Christianity even when I was at my most “Christian.” Be it Ennis’ graphic novel “Preacher,” Kevin Smith’s film “Dogma” or Marilyn Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar,” (looking back at time-appropriate references to my teen years) I’ve always found such work served a purpose even if I disagreed with the specifics of the statements being made. In fact, I’ve always been drawn to pop culture that directly addresses such matters even if from what many would consider an offensive vantage point. Metal music fascinates me because of this—few avenues of popular culture or art address, critique, and deconstruct religion of all kinds and in every way as much as extreme metal has over the years. But here’s the thing. Christianity in the modern west functions much differently than Islam in the modern Middle East or Africa or even in Europe. We’re all born into a subtle Christian culture which is all around us even when not spoken of It’s just assumed that one is Christian in America and this has provoked much of the reaction against it. It seems to play a role in very selective political issues, often with hypocritical irony. Usually those that criticize Christianity in places of power come from nominally Christian backgrounds even if they reject that religion. Yet if we in the west are to criticize Islam on the same grounds in the same way, we do so as outsiders of that culture and tradition and often without true understanding of that religion or the cultural and ethnic identities inherently tied up with and born into that religion. The staff of Charlie Hedbo did not deserve the violence that was inflicted upon them; but they were not criticizing Islam in the same way or with the same impetus and method as say Marilyn Manson attacked Christianity in the 1990s. They lampooned Islam from an outside perspective, isolating and provoking a minority community in France and often with racial overtones. Should they have had that right? Sure. Yet it’s not quite the same thing as, say, Nergal of Behemoth writing “The Satanist” in response to being charged with blasphemy for “non-Christian activity” in his native Poland; especially since he’s on record as happy to continue to be surrounded by Christians as long as there’s diversity and he can defy their viewpoints in his art. And at least his work is steeped in the knowledge of the text and traditions he is criticizing. He goaded a majority from a minority standpoint, primarily in a way to emphasize individuality, liberty, and personal rights; the Hedbo cartoons played on xenophobia, racism, and Islamaphobia. They did so in a very volatile milieu under steady threat and as such stuck to their guns bravely, but I feel a bit ambivalent about defending such work in an argument on free speech. Yet I mourn their death and decry the acts of terror.

Bill Maher says we should hold all religions up to ridicule because that’s what they deserve. The problem is that we will not solve anything by doing so. Secular humanists and atheists should certainly work in partnership with Christians and Muslims to solve problems but they cannot do so by agitating and ridiculing on-edge communities and they cannot do so by lumping an entire culture into a false stereotype. The only way to stem the tide of Islamic extremism is by fostering a healthy and vibrant progressive Islam. Those who attack religious conventions in societies where a monolithic religion reigns around them do so because their outsider status in that community is isolating. Rejecting, attacking, and critiquing the overall religious environment they find themselves in is healthy even when the specifics of the statements are problematic. Attacking a minority religion from a majority perspective is dangerous.

Now, as I write this the horrific events in Nigeria have been reported. I’m reminded of one additional fact in considering the carnage and senseless acts of terror that were perpetrated there—Muslims are the biggest victim of terrorism. Extremist Muslims violate every religious law they claim to follow on a consistent basis. From the Muslim security guard murdered in the Charlie Hedbo shooting and the Muslims slaughtered by Boko Haram as direct victims at the hands of those misguidedly claiming the same religion to the millions of cultural, ethnic, and practicing Muslims around the world who continuously find themselves asked to defend their religion and identity; not to mention the outside violence and retaliation terrorism brings back to Muslim homelands. By and away the largest victims of Islamic extremists are average Muslims.

So I’m conflicted. I believe in freedom of speech intensely. I believe any religious or ideological thought or belief is fair game for critique in the court of public discourse. Yet I do not believe in castigating someone’s identity and culture in a marginalizing way that heightens tension and increases the potential for violence. I also do not believe that the way to bring about an end to extremism lies in forcing a group to ridicule its own identity. In this entire conversation I think we are not talking about the right things. We’re not talking about the inherent identity of religion– that for most people religious identity is determined by birth place and parents. We’re not talking about how Islam is a diverse, complex religion and its adherents vary drastically around the world. We’re not emphasizing that so many of the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves. We’re not reporting the huge number of Muslims and Muslim groups who are speaking out against terrorism and working actively against it in partnership with other religions and secularists. We’re not talking about our role—the West’s—in helping form and spread modern religious extremism. That’s it. That’s what I’ve got right now. When I continue I will be more focused and to the point; this time it was all about throwing out every conflicted thought I had on these events in preparation for a more focused future approach and series of posts. I invite your comments below; please be aware I am not trying to be authoritative on any of what I’ve said above other than the part about my own religious journey. I welcome opposing viewpoints but please don’t approach it as if I’ve issued the “right” answer and will tackle a formal defense. Thanks for reading.

This is a temporary post that I will revise soon. I had been planning a new series of posts which would hopefully incorporate dialogue and conversation and help me continue this blog in a way that makes sense to me. I am in a much different place than I was when I began it seven years ago and what I have to write now will not be from the same perspective of what I wrote back then nor for the same intent. Yet everything I’ve written is part of my thought and development process so I will likely incorporate much of the same topics in many of the same often contradictory ways. Anyway, with self-conscious pretensions aside, I am asking for any readers to give me a few comments at the bottom. The series I had planned works perfectly, unfortunately with some recent events.

Tell me what you think of when you hear the word “God” if you are able. Tell me what that word, concept or person means to you divorced from all social and religious expectations from without–tell me what you personally as an individual conjure up when you hear that word in church, mosque or synagogue or in the courthouse or city hall, in a song, or out in the street. If you work, live, or are otherwise affiliated with one such institution listed above and that is how I know you–and you’d rather not use your name and let your congregants and work buddies google your connection some way to your comment if it is in conflict with the party line, feel free to be anonymous.

Then (or instead) give me your thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. So much ink (digital and otherwise) has already been spilled on this terrorist attack in such a short time but many of the points being raised are valid. What do you think about punditry, satire, art, or comedy that provocates intentionally, particularly as pertains to organized religion? Does it make a difference if the religion is one’s (or one’s culture) own or an outside religion? What about if the religion is a minority religion in a particular society or a predominantly “ethnic” (i.e. tied up intrinsically with one’s geographic birth or nationality)religion? Does society have a responsibility to police such thought or art? Does a person have the responsibility to self-censor? Just give me some general thoughts if you like.