Religion looks like this - Richard Rodriguez

Religion looks like this – Richard Rodriguez

Earlier this week Bwog contributor and  earner of frequent (lecture) flier miles Fainan Lakha attended a talk given by an author some of you may be familiar with: Richard Rodriguez.  Below is his account:

This past Thursday I saw a talk given at Union Theological Seminary by Richard Rodriguez, author of, among several works, an essay entitled “The Third Man,” which is standard assigned reading for UWriting. He came speaking on his recently published book Darling.  The book focuses on two points, his relationship to religion and a trip he recently took to the Middle East to learn more about the origins of Abrahamic faith, and his relationship to women.  Tied into this is not only Rodriguez’s homosexuality but also his attachment to the Roman Catholic Church and his being an American.

As he walks in, a Mexican friend I had come to the talk with whispers in my ear, “he reminds me so much of my grandfather!” The statement doesn’t just refer to his ethnic appearance; Rodriguez is an intense but comforting figure—a grandfatherly figure.  I have to say that his comb-over and thick-striped suit had something to do with it, though I’m not sure exactly how.  Tonight, his individualism was reflected in his choice of brightly colored striped socks.  Yes, they do totally clash with that suit.

Rodriguez beings the talk with one of the first significant recognitions he had upon coming to the Middle East.  It is the word “ojala,” a Spanish word that can be roughly translated to “hopefully.”  Rodriguez speaks to how it was a word he attached to his mother, who employed the word daily.  There in the Arab world, far from his Californian upbringing he found his mother again in the root of “ojala,” the Arabic phrase “Inshallah,” meaning, “if Allah wills it”.  There it was in front him, his Catholic mother repeating the Muslim name of God, over and over.

This leads him to talk about women.  His book speaks a lot about his friend who went to dinner with him the evening of her divorce.  It reminds him of an association that exists in religious sentiment, an association between gay marriage and abortion.  The association is between the rights of women and the rights of homosexuals, and it is somehow a religious context.  Discussing the suffrage movement in Europe he says, “I think my movement out of the closet as having been anticipated by those women moving out of the parlor.”

On this topic, Rodriguez moves toward something more challenging and controversial, the role of women in religion.  He mentions traditional Judaism and the role of the house as the center-point of religion far more than the temple ever was.  He gets at the idea that the pursuit of female ministry fails to address how we are supposed to bring faith into our homes, it values a perceived equality over a kind of spiritual one.  Of course, Rodriguez is touching on stereotypes and structures of inequality we may not find wholly palatable, but he is resting on the idea of structure.  In the case of women, it is the family structure, but he also spoke candidly about what the Church did for him in that sense.

One of the most poignant things he says is “there was no DisneyLand that could give me more than that Church gave me.”  It is because of the structure that it provided.  More than just being a pattern it allowed him to experience the deep complexities of life, he says “this institution brought me this mystery, this dynamism.”  Rodriguez gives the example of being an altar boy and leaving school during lunch to help with a funeral.  At the funeral, he meditated on the weight of the body, and the weight of death in his life.  Juxtaposed against this was his reality twenty minutes later back on the playground, a world away from the enigma of life.

According to my notes it is at this point that he begins discussing the desert.  Las Vegas.  A giant city built upon a desert in a completely pointless way.  Las Vegas, he says, is the result of American secularism.  It is a pure madness whose whole point is playing with death.  A city doesn’t belong in the desert.  There is a huge Fairmont hotel overlooking the Muslim holy city of Mecca, there is nothing okay about that.  This is a human escapism that we are participating in right now.  I think the idea is fascinating, that the desert is a place of transience and that death exists as a natural part of it.  It’s a huge departure from the Hellenic tradition Rodriguez says we are a part of, a tradition of having time of plenty and time for leisure more than the intensity of the desert.

Rodriguez talks about American consumerism as a need for constant connection, he repeats several times “I think we’ve invented Steve Jobs.”  I’ll leave that statement to you.

Rodriguez ends his talk with a reminder of what it was like to be at UTS during the protests at Columbia.  His wisdom: “social revolution doesn’t mean you barricade the front door. It means you leave it open…the real question is who can leave it open the widest.”

I can’t say for sure what the ultimate point of his talk was, his reading was certainly quite different from his lecture, but it was a fascinating walk through an exploration of worldview.  It was totally worth it.

Obvious desert stuff via Wikimedia Commons