Thursday, November 20, 2014

All My Idols Are Losers

Bill Cosby

I grew up on Bill Cosby.

After I Spy, but before Fat Albert, Bill Cosby had his own sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, which ran from 1969-1971. He played a PE teacher. I can't remember any other particulars about the show, but I do remember my eight-year-old self having a warm feeling for its star. When he appeared on The Electric Company, a PBS show for graduates of Sesame Street, I was already beyond its demographic, but still enjoyed seeing him there. When he took his Fat Albert stories to Saturday morning TV, I tried not to miss an episode; and my favorite moments were when the show would break away from the animated story to hear some whimsical wisdom from live-action Bill. As an adult, I roared with laughter at his comedy albums, and The Cosby Show came out at just the right time for a young father starting a family. Once that show left the air, and as Cosby matured into his senior years, I stopped following him; but seeing a still from The Cosby Show still stirs feelings of warmth in me.

There were many things I loved about Bill Cosby. He was a brilliant storyteller, and as a preacher, I took inspiration from him and his white counterpart in the craft, Garrison Keillor. I appreciated the way his work consistently, gently, and humorously opened up African-American culture to white small town boys like me. And most of all, I couldn't help loving his fatherly TV persona, a man who willingly shares power with his wife and presides over a large family with a firm but gentle hand. There was so much to love about this man.

But then, a few years ago, I began seeing stories about the seamy underbelly of Cosby's career. There were allegations that he had drugged and raped a series of women throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The number of women making these claims has grown to a dozen, and while Cosby has officially denied that any of these incidents occurred, I am finding it harder and harder to believe him.

And just like that, another idol bites the dust.

This has been happening to me repeatedly throughout my adulthood. As a teenager and young adult, I had great respect for a pastor named Bill Walker. Walker's preaching was reminiscent of Cosby's storytelling. Out of the pulpit, he projected profound compassion, and radiated empathy. He climbed through the ranks of the Methodist ministry, becoming a superintendent, running for (but not winning) bishop, and finally settling into a large (for Oregon) church pastorate, from which he retired in 1991. He died soon after, the official cause of death being cancer. In the fall of 1992, the bishop called a meeting of all pastors in the Portland area, at which he revealed that Walker had not, in fact, died of cancer, but rather of AIDS, contracted from the double life he had led having casual gay sex with strangers. That was not all: a growing tide of young men began coming forward after he died, saying they had been molested by him when they were teenagers. Finally, his wife, who preceded him in death, had not died of cancer, but of AIDS that he had given her.

Bill Walker and First United Methodist Church of Eugene, the last congregation he served.

Like almost everyone else in that room, I had no idea why we had been called together until the bishop stepped into the pulpit and said Bill Walker's name. The moment he did, something in me knew what followed was going to be horrible, and I began to weep.

This was not my first experience of having an idol torn from my heart. Beverly Sawyer, dean of student life at my seminary, funny, empathetic, creative, intelligent, and a brilliant storyteller (do you see a pattern?), had a hidden life of which I had not an inkling until, while on internship, I learned that she had gone into the seminary chapel's pulpit drunk. Rather than seek help, she left her position at SMU and returned to her native Arkansas. Two years later, she was killed in a crosswalk. Learning first of her fall from grace and then of her death wounded me deeply.

I have one other fallen idol to add to this roll call: President Bill Clinton. When, in January 1998, he appeared on national television to insist he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, I believed him. I kept believing him for many months, until finally the Starr report came out, and there could be no longer any doubt that Clinton had parsed the meaning of "sexual relations" to a fare-thee-well. I had been naive to trust his adamant denial. Seeing how he had twisted the English language to conceal his own misdeeds, I now accepted that the pre-election stories of "Slick Willy" were also true, that he had been serially adulterous. Why should I ever trust another politician?


However adamantly he may have denied it, we now know just where Bill Clinton's finger has been.

So it has gone with every idol I've ever had: their feet are clay, their stories are false, their promises are made to be broken. Look up to anyone trustingly enough, and you will find yourself horribly disappointed.

Somewhere in a box in my parents' attic is Bev Sawyer's book of prayers, Singer of Seasons. There was a time when I used that book as a devotional; but I haven't opened it in decades. There are pictures in one of my photo albums of Bill Walker from his time as chaplain of a camp I counseled; I haven't looked at them in almost as long. Nowadays when Bill Clinton speaks, there are still plenty of fawning political junkies hanging on his every word; I, however, have no time for the man, and while I will vote for his wife should she be the Democratic nominee for President, I'm not looking forward to having him back in the White House in any capacity.

And Bill Cosby? That one is still fresh and raw. I see that the rerun network, TV Land, has pulled The Cosby Show, and while I haven't watched an episode since it left prime time, I feel intensely sad about this. That series did so much good, not just for race relations, but for feminism, for children with dyslexia, for parents, for Black colleges, for so very many good causes. And now I see that there was a rot at its core.

Almost two thousand years ago, the early church was faced with a dilemma: a bishop had been anathematized for preaching heresy. The question arose immediately: what about all those hundreds of people he had baptized? Did the baptism count, or were they still lost souls? And had those of them who had already died gone to hell for having been baptized by a heretic? The church council handling the controversy arrived at a pastoral solution that made everyone breathe easier: baptism is a sacrament of God, and regardless of what cleric presides over the ceremony, it is actually God who performs the rite. Every baptism, then, is valid, and all those who had been baptized by the rogue bishop were just as sanctified as anyone else.

There has to be a way to accept the good works done by corrupt human beings. Bill Cosby has done so much good over the course of his life. However horrible the crimes of his younger self against women may have been, his work in the media have changed thousands, perhaps millions, of lives for the better. Bill Clinton's work in the public sphere has done so much good for the world that it almost compensates for his open fly and slippery lips. Almost.

And Bill Walker and Bev Sawyer? However broken, however flawed they may have been, they had a powerful impact on my young adulthood. That their inner demons drove them to tragic ends and, Walker's case, turned him into a monster does not belie the good they did for me.

I understand all of this intellectually. I just wish I could believe it. I wish I could turn on a Cosby rerun right now and delight in the lessons he delivers with humor and wisdom. But I can't. I just can't look at the man's face and not see a serial rapist whose frat boy morality wreaked havoc on the lives of young women for at least a decade. Maybe someday that'll change; but until then, I am finished with Fat Albert, The Chicken Heart that Ate Chicago, and Cliff Huxtable.

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