From Iran to Vegas

Reflections on the difference between a radically muslim country and las vegas, the iconic american city of freedom..
Last Monday morning at 3am I arrived in Iran. Its a great country, with a rich history. Known as Persia in Biblical times, Iran was a center of learning, with great medical knowledge, philosophy, and especially poetry. When the Arab Muslims overran the Persians they destroyed many of the Persian libraries and much of their art when they converted them, but still the Iranians remember this heritage and much of it still remains. Often Iranians will tell me that they are Persians who are Muslim (persians first). So Iranians are not arab. They are also not Sunni muslims, as most arabs are. Saudis and Kuwaitis are Sunni Muslims. Iranians and Lebaneese and the majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslim– followers of Ali, Mohammed’s brother in law. Of course both Sunni and Shia muslims follow their prophet Mohammed and the Koran. They just differ on a few other issues. The Iran-Iraq war was between Shia Iran and Ayatollah Khomeni on the one side, and Sadam Hussein the Sunni ruler with his Basque minority Sunni group ruling over the Shia majority of Iraqis. ( Shia also don’t have one supreme leaders– followers choose which Imam to follow.
Iranians tend to love American culture, and always tell me that they like Americans. They just don’t like our government. I tell them many Americans feel exactly that way about Iranians, although many Americans don’t know anything about Iranians at all apart from what the Iranian president says. (I had a fortunate opportunity to meet the current Iranian president and shake his hand when he was still the Mayor of Tehran in 2004. Not realizing he would become president, I gave him a copy of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” as a gift) Anyway, there is a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust unfortunately between our countries.

Iran is much less conservative than Saudi Arabia. For example, women do not have to cover their face, but only wear a scarf over their hair/head. You will often find that the women are wearing jeans (under their long coat which is standard expectation for women there). You also can find many recent movies, Iranian rap music on TV, and BMWs and Mercedes Benz’s in the streets. I saw Gucci and Addidas stores in the market, and there are McDonald’s knockoffs even. What I noticed in the youth is that often they are adopting American style without understanding it very well. That is unfortunate because if there is anything we probably shouldn’t be exporting abroad from the US it is our pop culture. When you realize that much of the middle east’s notion of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ really is seen by many to mean libertine attitudes towards sex and freedom to not follow rules, it becomes easier to see why Iranians religious leaders are not excited about America having an influence in their society and culture. (By the way, the Sunni’s have their radicals– Osama Bin Laden– and the Shia have theirs– Hezbollah.

I’ve noticed that Las Vegas is different than Iran. I got to Las Vegas tonight (Saturday).  I’ve been coming here for 5 years for this class I teach on Vegas and LA, and I’m getting used to this place. Not that I like the Gambling or the sexual overtones which are everywhere– they are annoying and I find gambling boring myself…but this is a unique city which appeals to something in a lot of people, and it is probably the wrong sense of freedom which many foreigners confuse with liberty– libertineism. Vegas is where people come to be anonymous and do anonymously stupid things. Of course thats not all its about, but it is a prototype of the commodification of our culture– where you can buy happiness and obtain a license to do what otherwise you would be embarrassed to do. Its a place of extreme leisure and extreme vacation. Here many take what William James used to call a ‘moral holliday’.

In the last couple of years Vegas has come to be known even more pointedly as a place of excess which has led to phenomenal default rates on mortgages. The real estate bubble burst hit here particularly hard as people (in traditional vegas fashion) overbet their hand and ended up with upside down mortgages (owing for example 300,000 on a house which now is valued at less than 200,000).

In a city of Image, Neon and Glitter, it can sometimes be difficult to find substance, solidity, and real meaning. Vegas is a city of hyperrealities– of images of reality which are in some ways better than reality. Like an airbrushed photo on the cover of Vogue, the New York New York casino is much cleaner and safer than its actual counterpart on the east coast, and the Venetian Hotel and Casino has canals with Gondolla boats which are cleaner and much cheaper than the actual ones of Italy which it Mimicks.

Next weekend we go out into the wilderness desert to the south for a few hours and arrive at Joshua Tree National Park. That is a desert wasteland– a beautiful desert wasteland– which is similar to what was here before Vegas came to be created. Joshua Tree is the reality which has been covered over by the concrete, steel and neon of vegas.

Strangely, that desert of Joshua Tree is quite similar to the desert countryside south of Tehran in Iran as well. The desert is where the early church fathers used to escape to to get away from the crowds and the busyness of the cities. Being in Vegas, its pretty easy to relate to that desire in the early church fathers…

May God have mercy on us all…



2 responses to “From Iran to Vegas

  1. Welcome back Andy. Your words, “Vegas is where people come to be anonymous and do anonymously stupid things” is something I would tag on any large city. Jacques Ellul was very negative toward large cities suggesting that Cain initiated the first and cities have reflected his character ever since. I am glad you are ministering in the city and changing it a block at a time! God bless you bro!

  2. simplefreechurch

    Angus, its true that large cities can lead to an anonymity and then lack of responsibility to others. I believe Aristotle said a ‘polis’ could funciton well as a democracy so long as its population did not exceed 10,000 people. After that, the anonymity makes true democracy impossible.. interesting.

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