October 27, 2010

What I like about you

My church has been offering a Sunday School class comparing the Bible with the Quran. I suppose the first most surprising thing about that sentence might be that I go to church, but it’s true. It has been a little tricky to rationalize the endeavor considering the fact that, if one were to apply conventional definitions, I am an atheist.

On the other hand, recognizing a panoply of brilliant mysteries within this (so-called) reality, I have devised a personal response that recognizes a kind of divinity that makes church attendance appropriate — it has do with the possibility that people can communicate and find common ground more easily when judgments are stripped away and replaced with a standard acknowledgement for the dignity of the human condition. Are we not all the same in our desire for acceptance? I suppose there are some people who are so selfish that the question is beneath them, but I imagine that even people like that have moments of weakness. Or maybe not.

I had been wondering about the Quran for a long while, but I was reluctant to pick up a copy and read it cold because I figured the experience might best be undertaken with a guide, and I didn’t feel comfortable walking into a mosque to find a teacher. I might want to get on an airplane again someday, after all. (That’s a joke, by the way, aimed at the unfortunate atmosphere of distrust of people who go to mosques; I don’t actually think all Muslim people are terrorists.)

I was really excited when I heard that a member of my church would be leading a class on the topic. Not only would I be learning about something I really wanted to study, but I would be doing so among friends.

Meanwhile, the folks responsible for “Community” — am I the only person watching this show at 8 p.m. on Thursday nights on NBC? — have hit the synchronistic bull’s-eye once again. On Oct. 21, an episode titled “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” addressed the problem of re-evaluating the story of Jesus for the YouTube generation.

To summarize: Shirley, an African-American student with a strong Christian faith background, asks Abed, a Muslim film student, to help her make a religious video designed to reach the widest possible audience with the message of the New Testament. Initially reluctant to do so, Abed reads the New Testament, finds the story worth retelling and agrees to “make a Jesus movie for the post-post-modern world.” Shirley denounces his efforts almost immediately, but Abed persists; he casts himself as the Messiah and starts to address the crowds gathering to observe his efforts as if they are the masses in need of his spiritual guidance. It turns into a big mess, loaded with a chaotic mix of biblical references and comments about how it is “meta.” Things come to a head as the filmmaker proselytizes on the idea that all movies deal with death and resurrection, citing “The Matrix,“ “RoboCop” and “Superman Returns.”

Thereafter, he realizes how convoluted his work has become, and he prays to God to have the project taken away from him. Ultimately, Shirley acts as the deus ex machina and destroys Abed’s work, and he helps her finish the rap-style treatment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that she had originally hoped for.

Curiously, among the ideas presented in my Sunday School class was the fact that Mohammad’s retelling of various biblical stories seems to have been specifically influenced by his own personal experiences. That would seem to be an obvious point; any writer’s work would necessarily be slathered with the influence of his or her singular perspective, but Mohammad seems to have added details from his own life in order to emphasize certain points about the path of righteousness.

I am certainly no expert upon this topic, but as the two religions have so very much in common, it seems that it might do well to educate ourselves as to the variety of belief systems that are exercised by our fellow citizens. Can’t hurt, right?

For next time: Be sure to catch up on the fourth season of “Mad Men” as soon as possible, as we will be discussing buyer’s remorse over the next several months. And if you haven’t heard Daniel Johnston’s song “Retired Boxer,” see if you can’t find it some place; it seems appropriate for some reason.