Beliefnet
Idol Chatter

The only thing America loves more than a winner is an underdog. Andre Agassi has been the former AND the latter… twice.

Monday night, I had to stay up past midnight to watch him win a 4-set match in the opening round of the U.S Open tennis tournament. Years ago, I sat on a hill and watched him–at the time an ex-pro–play a Tier 3 qualifying match at McCambridge Rec Center in Burbank. This would be like Michael Jordan showing up at the local YMCA looking for a game. But Andre was there because the rules of tennis insist that a player win his way back to the pro tour. Michael just showed up back in Chicago. Andre had to earn it.

He’s played a tournament career spanning two hairstyles and then no hair. He’s been an underdog, then champion, then underdog, then champion… and again he’s now an underdog. Everyone (at least in America) wants him to win. Most of us think he’ll lose anytime.

I wonder what it is that causes us to root for someone who’s made more money than us, is more secure than we are, and who’s legacy will last longer than most of ours. Perhaps it goes back to the Garden. Perhaps it goes back to the Incarnation. Most everyone I know–including the networks, the United States Tennis Associatuon, and my friends who’ve flown to New York–just want him to go forward a little while longer.

While not necessarily a huge fan of his music, I have been reading with great interest the different interpretations that publications like Rolling Stone and the New York Times have been giving the “Modern Times”, the new CD by iconic blues-rocker Bob Dylan, which dropped in stores this week. It seems no one can miss the dark apocalyptic tone of “Times” and the way it marks a return by Dylan to overtly spiritual musings about the meaning of life. But while God does make an appearance in a few of the songs, anyone looking for an answer to the years of speculation over Dylan’s much publicized conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s–and the subsequent debate as to whether he has held to that faith, returned to his Jewish roots, or abandoned all of the above–will not find the answer here.

On listening to “Modern Times” the first time through, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed. I didn’t feel the urgency and vibrancy of some of Dylan’s early music, and several of the songs seem to center around his love-hate relationship with women. But on a second listen, the real depth of Dylan’s lyrics started to sink in, and I realized anew that Dylan is not someone you can appreciate on the surface level; he requires you to dig deeper.

In the song “When The Deal Goes Down,” lines like “We all wear the same thorny crown / Soul to soul, our shadows roll / And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down” could be referring to a a human relationship or a relationship with God. Similarly, in the song “Beyond the Horizon,” Dylan seems like he is talking about a human relationship until the end of the song, when he states, “I’m wounded, I’m weary / My repentance is plain / Beyond the horizon o’r the treacherous sea / I still can’t believe that you have set aside your love for me.” At that moment , these poetic images turn the meaning of the song around and indicate this is really a love song to God.

When Dylan is not preocupied with love in some shape or form, he certainly is fixated on how our world is coming to an end, and if this CD is any indication, Dylan believes the world’s demise is soon. The prophetic “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is the CD’s shining moment, song not only about what happened in New Orleans a year ago, but which also serves as Dylan’s warning that worse times are ahead. He laments: “If it keeps on rainin’, the levee’s gonna break / Some people still sleepin’, some people are wide awake.”

Overall, the thoughts and images that Dylan creates through his songs on “Modern Times” are subtle and mesmerizing. While Dylan doesn’t answer the question of exactly where his spiritual sensibilities are these days, he does make a statement to all of those who are wondering. In his last song, “Ain’t Talkin’, Just Walkin,'” Dylan quietly croons, “I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbor and do good unto others / But oh, mother, things ain’t going well / Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ / through the world mysterious and vague.”

So am I, Mr. Dylan. So am I.

Last night’s Primetime ran a segment called “The Outsiders” that focused on what most Americans consider to be religious groups with “outsider” status: the Amish, fundamentalist Mormons, and the Children of God.

Three stories were documented by ABC: (1) Mary Byler, an Amish woman who defied Amish law by calling police to arrest her brothers, who’d raped her repeatedly; (2) Warren Jeffs, the recently arrested fundamentalist Mormon leader who advocated underage polygamist marriage; and (3) Ricky Rodriguez, a defector from the Children of God whose sexual abuse drove him to kill one of his former predators, and eventually himself.

Even though I’ve never read “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton, the coming-of-age themes of heartache, violence (including sexual), loss of innocence, tragedy, and conflicts with authority were prevalent in the featured profiles. What’s fascinating is how most mainstream Americans already see these and many other sects as fringe societies who live in bubbles that espouse “strange” religious ideals. I myself have been guilty of traveling to Pennsylvania to gawk at the Amish, in their long, old-world garments and somber horse-drawn buggies. Even while the Mormon majority have disavowed polygamy, it’s still a matter of widespread curiosity; see HBO’s “Big Love.” Plus, while most people probably haven’t heard of the Children of God, the founding philosophy of free love is rooted in the hippie past of the 1960s.

By being part of “outsider” groups, Mary, Warren, and Ricky are once-removed from mainstream society, but by defying basic tenets of their own faiths and wandering outside of their own faith communities, they are twice-removed from even that outsider status; they are outsiders in their own outsider cultures. Yet, strangely enough, despite being outsiders, the crimes and passions that drove them into being outsiders are the very same crimes and passions prevalent in most mainstream religious groups and secular societies today.

Forget “Shame on Tom.” How about “shame on us.”

In reading several articles and blog pieces–including Idol Chatter’s reliable Kris Rasumussen’s–I think almost everyone has missed the real point. Tom’s exit from Paramount wasn’t due as much to his behavior or their greed as much as it was due to our behavior and our greed.

Our behavior was to watch a young actor come out of his choreographed shell and reveal more of his actual character and personality–and then decide not to go to his movies as much. It’s not as if he was some sort balanced character leader or upstanding citizen before he jumped up on Oprah’s couch or shared his pseudoreligious beliefs; we just didn’t know any better. As he got more authentic, we stayed away from his recent releases.

The result? The business entity charged with making a profit (Paramount Studios) made an assessment based on data that he wasn’t the market force he used to be. Correct? Yes. But it didn’t have to be.

What if throngs of citizens had shown up in greater droves, as if to say, “We truly value authenticity off screen while loving great entertainment on screen.” The problem, of course, is that many of us can’t separate the two, and we want too much to believe in (and vicariously connect with) the on-screen personas of celebrities, who lose value for us when they stray from what we want to conceive them as.

And this isn’t new. Humphrey Bogart tried to be the tragic hero in “The Caine Mutiny.” John Wayne got old in “Rooster Cogburn.” Robert Redford got vulnerable (finally) in “Indecent Proposal” and later “The Clearing.” Harrison Ford moved from the trilogies (“Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones”) to artsy stuff like “Mosquito Coast” and later tried to play a Russian in “K-19: The Widowmaker.” Cruise is the latest in a line of famous male actors who’ve tried to climb out of the box that made them famous–whether on-screen or off. It’s not that it’s bad, or wrong. It’s just that we (the public) don’t tend to respond well to it and thus the studios don’t want to pay them for it.

It’s just business, really. But deeper than that, it’s spiritual: We say we long for authenticity and honesty, but we don’t like it when we see it.

And that’s when every actor realizes he or she is really just another commodity.