Men Who Stare at Goats

Jon Ronson is one of my favourite authors, and I've just finished his book The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Ronson specialises in writing discomfiting essays and investigative pieces on groups and people who might be funny, but are actually quite disturbing. And the same is true in this book.
It starts out as a funny look at a bunch of old soldiers and others connected to the military in the Unites States who spent their careers investigating the possibilities of psychic soldiery. These are men who have spent a lifetime attempting to walk through walls or staring at farm animals in an effort to kill them using only their thought-waves. He also goes into Remote Viewing, a CIA sponsored program to spy on the enemies of the United States using psychic methods. I used to work in a New Age bookshop, and books about Remote Viewing were always popular. It seems that several of the key remote viewers went public and have created something of a market for their special blend of conspiracy theory, macho heroics and the occult.
And while this is all very funny (Ronson has an accomplished comic talent), somehere half-way through the book things start to get a little uncomfortably creepy and morally complex. Ronson realises that many of these amusing techniques from the 70s had morphed into the psychological torture that has marred US military operations in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, among other places.
This makes for troubling reading - especially the chapter dealing with the man who has spent his whole life trying to avenge the murder of his father at the hands of the CIA. As he points out, we all want to have a bit of a giggle about the paranoid days of the Cold War and the wicked things the CIA might have done, but we don't want to explore the moral implications of a government willing to kill its own people in the name of a greater, more amorphous, sense of 'security'. And what makes us think it's not still going on today?

Thich Nhat Hanh

Probably one of my greatest spiritual influences has been the Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
I remember being very young and travelling around Thailand reading over and over again a tattered copy of his great classic Peace is Every Step, and imagining that I was becoming some sort of spiritual giant. I later realised that one actually has to do more than read.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a truly remarkable person. A polyglot Buddhist academic, Master Nhat Hanh was a social radical in Vietnam in the era of the American war, and had the distinction of getting up the nose of both sides of the conflict. His vision of a socially engaged, inclusive form of Buddhism that embraced the ideas of modernity was simply too radical for the Vietnamese Buddhist establishment of the time, and Thich Nhat Hanh eventually found himself living in exile abroad.

He established a world-famous monastery in France, and is still one of the most prolific authors on Buddhist subjects in English.

Plum Village, his monastery in France, serves as a retreat centre and people flock there from all over the world. Probably one of the best (and most honest) accounts of life at Plum Village is to be found in Mary Rose O'Reilley's The Barn at the End of the World - a brilliant book that I can't recommend highly enough.
Thich Nhat Hanh is 83 this year, but still going strong. I doubt we'll ever see him in Australia now, which is a great shame. But I still read every one of his books as they are released, and am still constantly inspired by his simple and relentlessly practical approach to Buddhism and spiritual living.

Let Me Finish....

I've just finished the most extraordinary book, called Let Me Finish.
It is a collection of suicide notes collected by an academic and journalist called Udo Grashoff. Such a peculiar collection of bathetic misery! What comes across overwhelmingly is how absolutely petty most of the reasons were for suicide. And how self-important the letter-writers appeared to be.
Mr. Grashoff's minimalist commentary follows each letter and sets out the circumstances of the suicide and the events leading up to it. Mental illness seems to be a dominant factor, followed (or accompanied) by job loss and relationship breakdown. Each letter serves as its own stark little story and moral lesson.
What is most remarkable is how the people writing the letters, just before they swallow the poison or leap off the bridge, make the time to note the most mundane necessities for those left behind. Details of unpaid bills, instructions to keep up a scrapbook of film-star pictures and discussions of insurance cover are still of monumental importance in the final moments.
There were two letters that particularly affected me.
One closed with a simple, but heartbreaking, postscript:
"You couldn't help me."
And another was from a man in prison who'd fallen in love with one of his cellmates, but who felt this love was unrequited. "I've wanted to talk to you but I didn't dare because I was afraid of what your answer would be," he wrote.
It's hard to imagine being so desperate that the only attractive solution would be to drive your car into a pylon or jump off a merchant ship into arctic waters.
And yet people do that sort of thing all the time.
Tonight I send out a prayer to all of those poor, lost souls.

How Do We Feel God?

My dear friend the Rev. Julian Duckworth is giving a talk this month at the Swedenborg Centre in North Ryde, and if anyone is free it will be a night well worth attending. Julian is a brilliant speaker and one of the most inspirational people I know. If intelligent, thoughtful spirituality is your thing, then this talk will be most rewarding. Details below:

How Do We Feel God?

Speaker: Julian Duckworth
FRIDAY 27TH MARCH 2009 at 7.45
Swedenborg Centre, 1 Avon Road, North Ryde
Cost: $7; concession $5 (including refreshments)

We will be working in the area of personal experience and devotional life in this presentation as well as using our minds. We will cover a number of ways in which certain people have felt that they have experienced God, either directly or indirectly. We will also look closely at what we mean when we make use of the word "God". Other topics in the evening's sharing of this fascinating theme will include: does God feel us? are there things we can do to help us feel God more than we normally do? Isn't God something we can only think about? and, does everyone have the ability as a human being to be conscious of God and therefore be able to feel God? There will be interactive moments during the presentation. Bring your ideas, experiences and feelings along with you.

Julian Duckworth is the Minister at the New Church in Roseville, a Swedenborgian-based church which sees the Bible and Christian teachings through Swedenborg’s spiritual writings. He has regularly presented talks at both the Swedenborg Centre and around New South Wales and further afield, and he enjoys spreading out to come into contact with many other rich and wholesome spiritual approaches, while valuing the Swedenborg base he feels privileged to have received.

Prophet Jones


I first found out about Prophet Jones while reading GLQ magazine. The article (a very good one by one Tim Retzloff) details the sad life of Prophet Jones, a flamboyant church leader from 1950s Detroit who was one of the great characters of his day, but was eventually destroyed by the homophobic society in which he tried to succeed.  

The Prophet was a tall, colourfully dressed black man from the deep south with a dodgy past. He grew fabulously rich with his preaching, and was one of the first to use radio and television to propagate his ministry. 

The fabulous Ms. Aretha Franklin recalls as a child loving his Detroit mansion, which the Prophet had re-painted in bright colours every season. The Prophet's eccentric brand of religion was miles apart from the sober Baptist ministry of Aretha's own father. Jones also kept company with the equally wonderfully named - and these days better remembered - Father Divine, and the two formed something of a mutual admiration society. 

Prophet Jones kept a bevy of good looking male secretaries and sailed dangerously close to the moral wind of his times, telling the press that he had no intention of ever marrying and posing for publicity photos coyly wrapped in satin dressing gowns. Eventually such daring proved his downfall, and Prophet Jones was despised by other black leaders for his flamboyance and eccentricity. He was called Prophet for good reason: he was inclined to make prophetic utterances as a small boy, but his mature prophecy was marked by a distinct lack of accuracy. Poor old Prophet Jones fell foul of the law eventually, being accused of seducing an undercover policeman who was sent to seek spiritual healing for a mythical bad back. 

The ensuing court case became a press frenzy, and Prophet Jones was sunk for good. I can't believe that such a wonderful figure isn't better remembered. He really should be resurrected as a queer icon, and wouldn't it make a fabulous movie? Actually, I believe an attempt was made to represent him on film - does anyone remember Richard Pryor's turn as the flamboyant, money-loving preacher in that fabulous 70s film Carwash, with the Pointer Sisters as his sexy back-up choir? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm quite sure that that was a reference to Prophet Jones. But feel free to let me know other names if you think it is a reference to someone else. 

This is an area that interests me very much. So a little prayer today for Prophet Jones, man of God and queer martyr. Rarely has religion been so fabulous.

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