Friday, December 31, 2004

Joe Straczynski rocks my comic collection

I just finished reading three trade paperback comics my wife bought me for Christmas, from Joe Straczynski's run on "Amazing Spider-man." At this point, I've declared open season on anything he's written and am preparing to admit that I might have misjudged "Babylon 5." His comics take a little while to get going, but when they take off, they're nothing short of incredible.

In the first ASM trade, Straczynski basically reinvents Spider-man's origins by suggesting it wasn't the radiation that gave Peter Parker his power, but the spider itself. From there he ventures into a story that explores the totemic nature not only of Spider-man but of a number of heroes and their villains. (That's why Captain America, a hero emblematic of America, has for an arch-enemy the Red Skull, who embodies Nazism, and so on.)

From there he goes on to reinvent the entire Spider-man mythos, in an entirely believable way. He revisits the guilt that drives the hero, completely alters his relationship with his aunt, and then gives the unassuming Peter Parker a long overdue measure of heroism, by having him become an inner-city high school science teacher.

That last part is one of the things I really enjoy about Straczynski's writing. In addition to his creativity in exploring the mythic aspects of his subject -- and changing Spider-man from a purely juvenile adventure comic to a more adult one -- he doesn't shy away from some of the more unpleasant parts of city life. Superhero comics all too often earn the rep as kiddie comics because they're fighting a different supervillain each month, dressed in costumes as silly as the ones the heroes themselves wear, and usually with some melodramatic and obviously evil goal, like conquering the world.

In Straczynski's comic, Parker is faced with serious issues like students coming to school with guns, with drug addiction and homelessness, and with society's indifference to those problems.

A few months ago I read another comic Straczynski wrote, called "Midnight Nation." It's published by Top Cow Comics (a division of Image) under the imprint Joe's Comics. It follows the experiences of an L.A. cop named David Grey after his soul is stolen by the Devil and he walks across the nation to New York (naturally) to get it back.

The only people Grey can see, and the only things he can use, are whatever has been abandoned. And there are plenty of people he meets: families with children, downsized manufacturing workers, runaways, ex-cons, and others of society's cast-offs.

I found the comic deeply moving on a spiritual level, particularly at the end, when the protagonist comes face to face with the Devil, hears the Devil's argument about why the rebellion against heaven is needed -- rather nicely, the Devil's argument is one based on compassion, that he can't stand the misery contained in God's creation -- and Grey has to decide whether he still wants his soul and which side of the war he wants to be on. It's not wholly biblical, as Christian orthodoxy holds that Satan's rebellion predates the Fall and the coming of death and misery into the world, but it is an excellent read, and you've got to give Straczynski kudos for dealing with these questions so honestly, even if the exact storyline he uses to raise them are debatable.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

random memory

My first-grade teacher made me write with my left hand. It wasn't until partway through the year that my parents discovered I was writing with one hand at home and with the other at school, and intervened.

I have no idea why she did this. My older brother is a lefty; perhaps she thought that meant I should be one too.

The possibility also has occurred to me from time to time, especially when my stutter is especially bad, that maybe she actually succeeded: that I actually was left-handed, but she managed to convince me that I was right-handed.

Mrs. Hlavsa was a witch. (No offense to Wiccans, past or present.) All I remember clearly about this particular issue is that one night at dinner my father had me write something with my left hand, and then with my right hand. After that he asked me which hand I preferred to write with, and I chose my right hand. That could be because I was right-handed, or it could be because Mrs. Hlavsa had me convinced that was the hand I was "supposed" to write with.

I mean what I said, though: She has got to be the all-time worst teacher I've ever had. It took me until last year to admit, however begrudgingly, that I do owe her some modicum of gratitude for teaching me how to read.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

god and morality

In a discussion thread over at CHRefugee, a friend asked, "Do actions contain an inherent moral value if God is not part of the equation?" His question was precipitated by an often-amusing and thought-provoking comic strip called Tom the Dancing Bug.

My understanding is that we can have morality without any sort of religious underpinnings, but unless morality is based on the character of Deity, then it is wholly arbitrary and relative.

In the Judeo-Christian worldview, it's God himself who is the standard by which we measure whether things are good or not. It's not a matter of a divine police officer or heavenly lawmaker saying "Do this" and "Don't do that." Goodness is neither laid down by God nor something that he appeals to; it is a self-evident characteristic of his, so that all things can be measured against him. Where our hearts deviate from his, we call that evil, or sin; when we conform to his likeness, we call it good.

Remove God from the equation, and there still can be good and evil, but they're a far paler and less hardy substitute. Do we determine goodness by man? Men change; we are fickle and capricious and what is good to us one day may not seem good to us the next. Do we determine good by common consensus? That's what society has chosen to do, and as a result, every moral compass we have is thrown out of whack and every person is left to follow an individual guide, to go along with the shifting sands of morality the rest of us make in aggregate, or to try to redefine morality for our generation by pushing the envelope in whatever direction suits us.

Even if there arises a great person, and all of us flock to him or her for a generation, and define our morals on that person, sooner or later that person dies, and we are left either to elect a new standard to follow, or to reinterpret the morals left us by the departed leader.

So while morals have nothing to do with Christianity -- Christ's concern is with our salvation and with the love we show for one another, not for our behaviors -- I don't think you can divorce morality from God in such a manner.

Monday, December 27, 2004

an end to abortion

A friend of mine and I recently got into a spirited debate about the role of Christians in the political arena, which is why there are a few entries on the subject here. Greg made the claim that since the abortion issue flared up in the legal arena first, that the courts are where the push to stop abortion should take place. (Just to explain his argument, it was Roe v. Wade that made abortion a constitutional right in the United States, not a law passed by Congress or a state legislative body. It was entirely by judicial fiat, although later abortion laws have come from legislators.)

My take? The rot in America's soul that led to Roe v. Wade didn't begin in the court. It began in the American people, and it's among the American people that we have to fight to reverse Roe v. Wade -- not through legislative means, but through the spiritual weapons Christ gave us, namely prayer, fasting and love -- again, not the charitable feeling sort of love, but the hardcore love that allows us to open up our homes and lives to people in crisis pregnancies.

Lobbying is about mustering political muscle and getting politicians to vote a certain way because they hear one set of voices screaming the loudest. That's a lousy way to make changes, because other people can scream loudly too, and when all the screaming is finally done, you're left with hurt and division where there didn't used to be. Heck, I'm pro-life and I get turned off by the blistering pro-life comments I hear and read.

If we -- the church, pro-lifers, sanctity of marriage people, whatever label we affix for the sake of argument -- get things changed legally without winning the hearts of the people, we've lost more ground than we've gained in the most important battle before us.

I won't say political effort is wrong, but I am concerned -- deeply concerned -- that it seems like so much effort, and such a loud effort at that, goes into politics these days, when the church is at its most effective when it quietly goes about doing God's work and allows that sort of committed lifestyle to rock society to its core.

jesus and politics

There's a piece in Boundless magazine by a J. Budziszewski that deals with the issue of whether Jesus should be considered a liberal. Budziszewski makes several points, which I'm going to address one at a time:

1) Jesus cannot be described solely as liberal nor solely as conservative. Absolutely. I've said that before, but it's also a rather facile statement, as the writer makes the point of later on. On most core values, conservatives and liberals in America generally are in agreement. Few conservatives favor segregation, letting the homeless starve, or beating gays to death. Those who do are regarded as a fringe group or (with the exception of indifference to the poor) are regarded as criminal. Similarly, I think it's safe to say that most liberals do not regard abortion as a Good Thing -- safe, rare, legal and rare is the mantra -- and neither do they hate Christmas and Easter, nor believe pornography should be in the hands of everyone.

Jesus' defining personality trait was compassion. He regarded compassion for the suffering as so holy that it was the best way to honor the sabbath; he gave of himself even when he was exhausted and had gone away to get a moment's rest; and his followers included a motley bunch of insurrectionists, traitors, religious zealots, the educated, working class laborers and so on. He would go out of his way to spend time with a tax-collecting Gentile female prostitute with leprosy.

As far as Christians go, the chief distinction between Right and Left is the question of how to demonstrate that compassion. Like many conservatives, I believe that the best response to the growing disparity between haves and have-nots is personal relationships and involvement with other people. Unlike me, many conservatives consider increased government effort in that arena to be wrong, because of the risk of an entitlement mentality. (I don't consider it very good, but I think it beats the pants off letting people languish without what they need.)

2) "Good" Christians. I'm uncomfortable with Budziszewski's statements about what someone can do and be a "good Christian." Yes, choosing a political philosophy or lifestyle that is in conflict with Christ's character eventually will force a person to choose between the two, but the assignation of "good Christian" and "bad Christian" based on belief usually matches up with our own personal biases. There are degrees of maturity, but that maturity usually comes in different areas of our life at different rates. It strikes me as proud and judgmental to designate others as "good Christians" or "bad Christians" based on bits of their behavior that we can see, especially in as sweeping a manner as Budziszewski does here.

I'll probably lose points for this, but a person's position in Christ is unaffected even by being a Nazi, being a slave-owner and supporting abortion on demand. It's Christ alone who makes any of us good Christians.

While it's a fair statement to say those things are grossly inconsistent with the character of Christ and that someone who is following Christ eventually is going to find a conflict between faith and practice, if those practices make someone "not a good Christian," then I have no basis for saying that I'm a good Christian because my own sins are pretty foul, themselves.

My point is that all of us are sinners, whether we're Nazis, Republicans, Democrats or unable to tell a difference. If I say that you're not as good a Christian as I because you commit a sin that I don't sin, I'm forgetting my place.

Obviously everyone who is following Christ wants to be in his will. My experience has taught me that being in his will often has less to do with external circumstances (the touted "calling") than with the inward heart and how it aligns with Christ. Working for Acme or Friz Cola often is less of an issue to God than how I serve Christ during my employment at either of those places.

So can you be a Nazi, a slave owner, or an abortionist and be a good Christian? As surely as you can commit adultery and be a good Christian, get a divorce and be a good Christian, tell a lie and be a good Christian, or hold a grudge and be a good Christian. It's only by the grace of God that any of us may hope to be considered good in heaven's eyes.

3) The abortion issue. No dispute here -- almost. I think Budziszewski is oversimplifying the position. I'm against abortion, except when it is medically necessary to save the mother, but I remain unconvinced that the massive political effort we've put in through the pro-life movement is the best way to end abortion. One of Bush's best position statements on abortion was that a country that can pass a constitutional ban on abortion doesn't need one.

It's possible, although fairly unlikely at this point, I think, that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. That is not going to change the predominantly pro-choice belief of America, particularly in states like New Jersey where ANY attempt at modulation is seen as undermining abortion rights. That's because Americans by and large haven't had the spiritual awakening to see abortion for what it is, and such moral and spiritual strengths not only must be earned instead of being legislated, they are undermined when we attempt to mandate a policy through legislation.

So yes, I'm pro-life. I've attended marches on Washington. I've marched in front of a hospital that performs abortions in Allentown, Pa., and I pray for abortion to end. I've yet to be convinced by anyone that the ongoing political effort to end abortion is going to accomplish that goal, nor that it won't cost us dearly on many other fronts.

A far superior way to that end is through compassion and personal involvement. That's how the first-century Church ended infanticide in the Roman Empire, after all. Not by getting the Senate to condemn the practice, but by making nightly trips through the city and rescuing abandoned infants, and then raising them.

Compassion has a moral force that politics can't even come close to.

4) The judgment issue. Okay, here's the part that mildly cheeses me off even as I acknowledge there is some truth in what the professor says. It's a writing issue. Yes, a liberal could be saying "Jesus was a liberal, because liberals are more than those no-good stinking conservatives." However, the professor character, who appears to speak for Budziszewski, never acknowledges the flip side of the coin: A conservative could say, "Jesus was a conservative, because conservatives are ore than those no-good stinking liberals." And because the liberal character the top is knocked down easily here with no chance for reasonable representation, I see him as a caricature, and find that the article is less reasonable/balanced than it pretends to be.

What's the message readers are going to take away from this article? I see three of them in this section: Liberals don't have a good reason for supporting the social programs they do; liberals don't have a good reason for opposing war; and liberals are judgmental hypocrites (although I'll allow that I'm overstating that one myself).

To sum up, my reading of the article is that, although it claims to present a balanced view of things, it still reflects a brias toward one side of the debate. As I said, I could easily write a piece where the grad student -- who really does act like he's in high school -- is confused because a friend of his had a bumper sticker that says, "Jesus was a conservative."

And really, what prompted this piece? It's the growing number of people in the U.S. like me who identify themselves as liberals and as Christians -- and the reminder that Jesus doesn't belong to the Religious Right, which I think is the presumption we've seen played out for the past few presidential elections. The truth of course is that both Religious Left and Religious Right belong to the Lord, and woe to any of us who try to own him.

religion and politics

Political manuvering reforms society with all the grace and delicacy that a sledgehammer produces fine sculpture. We set up certain rules that require certain forms of behavior, and force everyone into that mold whether they will or no. Control and requirements are the world's way of doing things.

In my understanding of the kingdom of God, that's not how we're supposed to work. A rule that is fine for one situation will not work in another, and love is to be our law -- not the disinterested sort Plato wrote about, but the up-close and personal kind that Christ modeled. The world uses legislation and judicial fiat and such because control is what the world understands; as children of God, we are called to get to love the people in this miserable world and through the force of Christ's love, chnage them and the societies we live in.

I have little to no faith in political action committees, lobbyists or any other agency to stop abortion or to right the other wrongs facing our society, and I get concerned when I see the amount of effort Christians, churches and parachurches put into the political process. We could elect thousands of Christians into office, and it won't move our country away from a spiritual precipice, or we could pass thousands of laws to enforce our notions of morality, and nothing would change. People would still go to hell, only now they'd curse us as they do it.

Friday, December 24, 2004

the fine art of holiday torture

When I was growing up, my parents had a Christmas tree ornament that would chirp like a bird every five seconds. To whoever bought it, this must have been a mildly entertaining amusement. In the hands of myself and my brothers, it was an instrument of the keenest torture.

We would hide the ornament some place near the tree but maddeningly out of sight, plug it in and then take the dog out for a walk. By the time we returned, the entire house would have been turned upside-down in a futile attempt to find the ornament and stop the chirp-chirp-chirping before it drove everyone mad.

Remember how the steady drip-drip-drip of the water torture is said to break the mind of even the strongest prisoner? Compared to Tweety, it's a dip in the kiddy pool. The tolling of the EdgarAllen Poe's bells, bells, bells that fills the city with fear? A light tinkling of brass.

This ornament was the surest way to drive anyone to the brink of madness, and we all used it to that end for many years. At last Tweety took a mysterious trip out of the house in the bottom of the wastebasket and was seen no more. For the first time in years, there was something resembling peace in the Learn household on Christmas Day.

In the aftermath, we all agreed on one important point: That was as bad as it got. There was no Christmas ornament imaginable that could top the chirping Christmas bulb for pure irritation.

Fortunately, for those of us who revel in irritating one another, there is good news. The good people at research and development have not stopped producing new Christmas decorations. Whether it's inflatable Santas of nightmarish proportions who loom menacingly over children and threaten to block out the sun, or a singing and dancing Grinch Claus who croons the theme song from "The Grinch," the opportunities to irritate brothers, to annoy friends and to scar young children for life are better than ever.

Let's start with the inflatable colossus now seen in front yards across the state. There are those who, correctly believing a 900-foot blow-up ornament to be tacky, see no use for the thing. The problem here is not with a snowman big enough to qualify for its own ZIP code, it is a lack of imagination.

Gemmy, which markets the inflatable mammoths, sells no fewer than 47 of them on its Web site. In addition to the Santa and snowman monoliths, the collection features other holiday stalwarts like Scooby Doo and SpongeBob SquarePants. As a special literary treat, the assortment also includes something that once might have been a reindeer before it stumbled upon the secret isle of Dr. Moreau.

A smaller one nicely blocks all view of the street from your front windows. Plant one of the larger models out front, and you'll have complete privacy. Pesky neighbors, uninvited relatives and bill collectors won't be able to find your house. Best of all, you'll be providing the perfect cover for the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man if he ever comes to town.

For maximum scare effect, set up some lighting behind the beastie — this works especially well with the unfortunate reindeer — and wait until dark. Now as little Timmy comes over to see if your son can play, turn the lights on, give the goliath a push and make the appropriate growl from deep in your throat. Watch little as Timmy jumps into the air and runs withershins around the front yard three times before conking out under the oak tree. This is the life.

True, you can still get fairly traditional Christmas decorations like a light-up snowman for about $20, but why would you want to? They're not nearly as much fun.

From time to time, of course, someone is going to make it inside the house: your children, for example. For maximum damage, and to give them something interesting to tell their therapists in 30 years, it's important to go for the big guns.

First, get the kids as they come in the door with a 5-foot Dancing Grinch, also by Gemmy. There's no better way to keep the Christmas spirit than to have the Grinch twisting away and crooning the words to his theme song. Better yet, flank the door with the Grinch and his partner in crime, a 5-foot bear who sings your favorite Christmas jingles from hell, including "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," "Up on the Rooftop" and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

Next fill the house liberally with more musical toys. For $13, you can get a Holiday Time Sing and Dance Santa who joyfully croons, "I'm Santa Claus" to the tune of "The Wanderer." Other marvels include a singing dog who howls his way through "O Christmas Tree" and "Deck the Halls," and a Coca-Cola polar bear who wails on the saxophone in a way to make even the staunchest Republican yearn for the days of President Clinton. Don't worry — even if they play the same song, they're guaranteed to play it at slightly different pitches and slightly different speeds.

Even though everyone knows what will happen, no one can resist the siren call of the buttons that activate the singing. If you're really good with eBay, you might be able to dig up one of the motion-activated talking Christmas trees from the early 1990s. In no time at all, you'll be creating Christmas memories that will last a lifetime.

If you're lucky, you might even survive the experience.

Monday, December 20, 2004

harry potter and magic

I've pointed out to some people that the magic in Harry Potter has no resemblance to actual magick as it is practiced in the real world. (It includes ingredients such as powdered unicorn horn, phoenix feathers, and similarly fantastic ingredients. I mean, really, if we're going to be that wary of Harry Potter, we need to be wary of Greco-Roman mythology too.) The main magic of Harry Potter is the imagination that it fires in its readers, a witchcraft we need more of.

A second point is the virtues it teaches. Children who read Harry Potter are going to see courage, loyalty, friendship and sacrificial love played out in a very dramatic and believable way. It's easier for us to believe in virtue and bravery when we've seen them lived out, even if the person living them out was fictional.

Third, Harry Potter (like any good fantasy) awakens in all of us an awareness of the spiritual world. I'd say that's important in a world as material as ours. The person who is dead to the spiritual world and lives consumed with thoughts of daily bread and self-indulgence is not a person who is going to think about the sublime wonders that surround him on a day-to-day basis, and will forget Beauty and other spiritual things. A person who is aware of the spirit also is open to the Spirit.

Fourthly, I stress the Christian imagery contained in the novels. I have no idea if that's deliberate on Rowling's part, or if it's just because she's writing within a culture that has over two thousand years of Christian influence and in a language shaped by the Bible, but either way there's some heady stuff, such as the way Harry's mother died to save him, thus destroying Voldemort's reign of terror and giving Harry an immunity to Voldemort (sacrificial love that parallels Christ's sacrifice.) In "Chamber of Secrets," there's even more symbolism, as Harry descends into Tom Riddle (Voldemort's) lair to save Ginny Weasley, fights and defeats a basilisk, drawing aid and comfort by professing his faith in Albus Dumbledore.

Lastly, I just accept that some people are going to disagree. I knew one woman who was aghast that I saw nothing wrong with Spider-man. (He walks on walls.) That's their prerogative. When my grandmother saw me reading comic books, and expressed her disapproval to my mother, my mom responded that at least I was reading. I've applied that principle myself a few times: You raised me, and now I'm raising my children.

If I'm feeling really ornery, I might point out that people who are scared of being led into the occult by the Harry Potter novels probably should stay away from the Bible. In just the first 50 chapters, I find people engaging in adultery, incest, rape, genocide, rank deceit, murder, inhospitality and attempted fratricide. This is a pattern of behavior that repeats throughout the rest of canon, with the worst offenders often held up as role models.

In other words, it's a meaningless objection.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


My wife doesn't wear any makeup, so naturally Evangeline has virtually no interest in it. About two weeks ago, we were at a birthday party for the son of some friends ours, and the son's older sisters and cousins were putting on makeup. Evangeline asked what it was, they told her, and the look on her face remained utterly clueless.

Personally, I find the idea of makeup to be generally gross, but it doesn't bother me when it's applied decently. Bright and garish makeup, as has been the custom in our culture at various points in my life, just turns me off.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

losing man's best friend

"Of course you have to work hard to offend Christians. By nature Christians are the most forgiving, understanding and thoughtful group of people I've ever dealt with. They never assume the worst at the get-go, they appreciate the importance of having different perspectives, they're slow to anger, quick to forgive and almost never make rash judgments or act in anything less than a spirit of total love.

"No, wait -- I'm thinking of Labrador retrievers."

I wrote that in 1998, after a friend of mine was catching grief over the jokes he had been including in his "Fishers of Grin" humor mailing for Everyone gets the dig about Christians and our often-graceless manner, but what I've always enjoyed about it is its dead-on depictions of Labs. They really are a saintly breed.

I bought my second black Lab in late 1994, when I was living in Bethlehem, Pa. I recently had returned from living as a missionary in Haiti, where I had been forced to leave behind my previous dog, also a black Lab.

Once I bought Hamlet, we were inseparable. I took him with me all around the Lehigh Valley. He accompanied me when I went to visit my family in Pittsburgh, and he always came up to Lafayette College from 1995 to 1997, when we would visit my girlfriend during her undergraduate days there. Everybody knew him as the dog who spoke Haitian Kreyol, because that was the language I had used to train him.

Hamlet was the first dog of mine ever to have his own entry in the phone book -- Ma Bell gave me two entries for the same flat rate, and who was I to waste one of them? -- and also the first dog of mine ever to be listed as a friend of a church I was attending. (I don't think the elders were amused when they found out.)

He was a brilliant, stubborn, energetic and often destructive dog. He chewed holes in furniture, ripped up favorite books of mine, and broke out of his cage I don't know how many times, even when it was padlocked.

He also played a part in my romance with my girlfriend, whom I later married. One time the three of us were walking along a stream in Bethlehem, and Hamlet -- off his leash and galavanting along the streambed as he was wont to do -- wouldn't come back. So I threatened that if he didn't come back, I would push her into the water. She had enough time to voice a quick protest, and then I delivered on what I had promised.

Walking him was an experience -- I swear he made my arm a good six inches longer as he pulled at the leash with all the force of a man o'war -- but it was also invariably a pleasant one, since through Hamlet I discovered the other inhabitants of Easton, from the other dog owners out for a stroll in the morning, to the children who wanted to play with him, to the homeless man who stopped to scratch him behind the ears.

I don't think I've ever loved a dog more than I loved him.

About six years ago, when my wife and I got an apartment here in Nova Bastille, we realized we didn't have enough space for him. Labs are made to run, and our apartment had no yard and even less free space inside.

So Hamlet moved in with my parents, who have a huge yard and who discovered they enjoyed having a dog again. If he had a good life with me, he's had a great one with my parents, and they've enjoyed having him around as well.

Because Hamlet was born on Halloween, my father has developed a tradition of having trick-or-treaters sing "Happy birthday" to Hamlet before they can have any of the treats being passed out to celebrate. I'm told Hamlet's birthday is a hit with children all around the neighborhood.

Nothing good lasts forever. Now a little more than 10 years old, Hamlet has been in a lot of pain lately. He has no interest in eating, doesn't like to walk, and spends most of his time lying around and licking his leg. Friday night, the vet announced he had found a malignant and inoperable cancer behind one of Hamlet's hips.

I love him, and can't let him go on suffering each day. I'm probably going to call my parents on Saturday and tell them to go ahead and have him put down.

We're planning to visit my parents for Christmas, and my daughter loves seeing Hamlet, who admittedly is a lot more fun to play with than our dog Sandy, the dog we have here in our home.

I don't want to have to tell her that Hamlet has died, and that he won't be there for her on Christmas. I want to give her one last time to see him and play with him, and I want that for myself too. I want to be there with him, and hold him one last time as he goes to sleep, so he knows that he's loved, even as he drifts off.

It's not going to happen, and that really bites.

Copyright © 2004 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

thematic progressions in mark

Being going through the gospel of Mark again, not for a formal study this time but to get a sense of its overview, for a project I'm working on. I'm looking for the themes and events as they develop and unfold in the gospel, and I noticed some stuff on Sunday that really caught me by surprise.

It's the progression. Jesus starts out fairly simply; he arrives back in town from being in the wilderness for 40 days, and picks a couple disciples. They're fairly respectable, hardworking chaps too: the sons of a priest, and a couple brothers who work as fishermen. He goes into Capernaum, casts out a demon and performs a bunch of healings. Fairly (ahem) unremarkable stuff.

But the next day, after he has spent some time in prayer, his ministry takes a new approach. In Capernaum again, he doesn't heal a paralytic -- he starts out by saying, "Your sins are forgiven" -- and then heals the man. The religious leaders, who surely were intrigued by his miracles, now are mortified.

And then he steps it up again. He picks a new disciple -- someone who has been collaborating with the Roman occupiers and making himself wealthy by extorting money from his countrymen.

Now he starts breaking the Sabbath laws of the day. His disciples pick grain on the Sabbath to eat, and he defends them. He heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Now there are plots to kill him, so what does he do? He go and picks out 12 apostles, a move that is surely going to drive people bonkers with the seditious overtones of a new (or renewed) Israel. Sure enough, the priests claim he's in league with the Devil and his own mother tries to stop him, apologetically telling everyone, "He's out of his mind."

Now that he has everyone's attention, Jesus launches into a number of parables about what the Kingdom of God is like -- and then demonstrates what it is, by violating the established order and heading into the most unclean region possible for a Jew -- a cemetery in Gentile territory, where a man is kept captive by a thousand demons, and near a herd of swine. After that, the gospel mentions that Jesus returned to Judea and raised Jairus' daughter Tamar from the dead.

In those opening chapters, Mark set the tone for the rest of his gospel, from the coming of Christ and the failure of the priests to recognize him as the fulfillment of the Law, down to his descent into hell (a symbolic interpretation of the madman of Ganesseret) and the defeat of Satan, followed by his rescuing the prisoners in hell and ultimate triumph over death.

It's interesting. I never saw this progression before. I should try skimming the New Testament more frequently.

'strangers in paradise'

I got turned off SiP around the time of "Tropic of Desire," since it seemed to be going nowhere. It was pretty much the same old back-and-forth, with loads of Francine introspection and internal growth but very little change in her situation, and loads of plot threads Terry had dropped in the middle, as if he had forgotten about them. (Francine's job with the ad agency, for one; Freddie's former secretary who was now letting Francine and Katchoo stay in her garage apartment, and so on.)

And he kept trying to top the original Darcy Parker story, with the result that things kept getting more and more melodramatic and less and less what originally attracted me the comic. (That's not to say the comic didn't still have some strengths. That plane crash was brutal, and I'll never forget the issue about Freddie's divorce.)

Anyway, there's still the Natasha factor. Although she has read several other comics I've encouraged her to -- "Sandman" being most notable -- she at times has hounded me to get the latest trade edition of SiP. So last year, she bought me three new SiP trades for herself for Christmas. He finally brought Francine's story arc to its conclusion, did something interesting with Casey, changed Katchoo's situation from the bored artist waiting for Francine and REALLY developed David Qin's character.

So I'm reading it again.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

the temptations of christ

I've been doing some thinking lately about the nature of the temptations Christ faced in the wilderness. Because while we may gain some insight into Christ from the temptations, it occurs to me that we also should be able to draw some spiritual meaning for ourselves from the passages in Scripture that deal with them, beyond the mere "Christ was tempted just like us, but did not sin."

The first temptation Satan brought before Christ was to turn stones into bread, if he was the Son of God. By this time, Jesus had been fasting for 40 days. If he's hungry now, it's because he's begun to starve. It's no sin to feed yourself to hold of starving to death. (Well, it might be stupid to eat bread if it's been 40 days since you've eaten, but I don't think Satan was tempting Jesus toward constipation and/or vomiting.)

I *think* the temptation was more along the lines of using his divine authority for his own advantage, or, given Jesus' response, a temptation to indulge earthly needs before the pressing spiritual need -- such as "Who am I, and what is this incredible stirring within my soul that drove me out here forty days ago?" -- before him. So the application for us should lie along a similar theme. Not "turn stones to bread if you think you're the Son of God" (since I *don't* think I'm the Son of God), but allowing an earthly need -- even a pressing one -- to take precedence over a spiritual need that must be addressed immediately.

The second temptation Christ faced was to throw himself down from the Temple, so that the angels would catch him. One reading of this I've come across, in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," in the movie "The Miracle Maker" and in Graham Green's "Monsignor Quixote" is that Satan was trying to eliminate the role of faith in the salvation equation -- being caught by angels as he fell in front of a presumably crowded Temple would make it pretty obvious that Jesus had God's seal of approval. No faith means no salvation, for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, et cetera, et cetera. (Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor actually had a similar understanding of the bread temptation.)

The weakest interpretation on the jump-off-the-Temple temptation was that Satan was tempting Christ to kill himself. I don't buy that, since he specifically mentions the promise that God would command his angels concerning his Holy One.

The thing is, I can't see how this is a temptation that applies to us with such a reading. Is it just a temptation to take the easy road out? That gets covered in the third temptation, when Satan offers Christ all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his worship.

The last temptation -- and I want everyone to know what an effort it was not to write "The last temptation of Christ" right there -- is easy to see the connection for us. It's fame, success, power, getting the ability to order things the way we want them ordered. it's also, ironically, the most shallow one, since if Satan has the kingdoms of the world and can give them to Jesus in exchange for worship, he really hasn't lost anything, but he's gained Christ in the process.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


The big two enemies of quality in journalism are, ironically, deadline and competition. You see, everyone wants to get The Story, and to get it, we have to get it *first.* That means we scramble to get the information pulled together, and if it seems like it's credible, we run with it. If it's big, we let our excitement get the better of us sometimes, and we don't stop to consider how noncredible it might be, especially if we hear that somebody else is working on the same story. Even working at weeklies, I've fallen guilty to this, to my shame, just because I knew that a reporter from a daily newspaper was there.

So, despite his years of experience, I think Rather made a really stupid mistake because he wanted to get it first and he didn't bother to take the time to make sure his source was reliable and his information was accurate before he went to press with it. And then, like every other human being on this planet, his pride got in the way and he refused to admit that he had made a mistake. He stuck by his story, even though I'm sure he realized there was reason not to. His supervisors stuck by his story, even though they had to realize there was reason not to. Why? Because of stupid human pride and an unwillingness to admit that even as one of the highest-profile telejournalists in the world, you can make really stupid mistakes, just like a first-year reporter, because you got all excited over an exclusive and forgot to get it right before you got it first.

Remember Alexandra Polier? There was a big sex scandal surrounding her and Kerry back during the primary, claiming that she and Kerry had had an affair while she was an intern on his campaign. Only one problem: It never happened. There was some innuendo, some rumor-mongering and an overactive press corps digging into her life making things miserable for her as they linked her to Kerry in a big rush to get a big news story.

Shoddy reporting happens a lot, and it's not just because of a liberal bias or a conservative bias. It's because sometimes enthusiasm and bloodlust for the next Big Story gets the better of every journalist.

I don't think there's a conscious effort afoot to smear Bush, which is what many conservatives seem to believe. My understanding of reporters stationed overseas -- no personal experience, but I knew missionaries who were interviewed with them in the days leading up to Clinton's invasion of Haiti in 1994 -- is that they're required to file at least one story each day. Editors then decide which stories to use, and which to hold "for a rainy day." Often, those rainy days never come because the news never stops happening, which very well could mean that some of the stories you want to see are being filed away indefinitely because an editor sees something of local or regional interest as more pressing and more newsworthy than the other stories coming from Iraq.

I'll go a step further: To an extent, I think conservative groups (including evangelicals) have had heard "liberal media bias" repeated so often that they see it even when it doesn't exist. Generally the view I get from conservative Christians is that Clinton basked in the warm glow of love that came from the liberal media, while the liberal media is trying to roast Bush alive.

BUT! I remember quite clearly that several commentators were looking at the media treatment of the Clinton presidency while he was in office, and were struck by how hostile the media were toward him. (Time magazine did a cover story on this one month, in 1994 or 1995, I think.) And during the 2000 primary, the media often were willing to overlook the way Bush treated McCain and presented him fairly positively, while regularly casting Gore as robotlike and as an undesirable presidential candidate. (That's because Bush treated the reporters decently, would talk with them about the Yankees and the Mets, and Gore talked over people's heads.)

I don't think Rather's resignation was unwarranted; even if his motives were not based on personal political beliefs, the lack of sound judgment is so monumental that, given his prominence, he should beat an exit from the world of reporting and retire.

We all take sides, after all -- even as a reporter, I had feelings on whom the paper should endorse, even if I never voiced them even to the editor -- but chasing stories solely because of how they fit political leanings is despicable.

Much perceived bias, though, can be attributed to laziness, shoddy reporting or a lack of clear vision and guidance from up top, rather than to a calculated effort to advance a specific agenda.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

that horrid little man

My wife and I recently watched the entire Rowan Atkinson "Blackadder" series, courtesy of a friend who has loads and loads of DVDs he doesn't watch and is only too happy to lend them out while he is not watching them.

I first saw part of "Blackadder" season one while I was an exchange student living in New Zealand in 1987. I find that over all, I prefer the second series. In the first one, they were still getting their footing, and not surprisingly, the BBC nearly canceled it.

In the second series, Blackadder had a certain sophistication -- mixed with the family vindictiveness, of course -- that was required for keeping his head in Elizabeth's court. That gave him a level of class and appeal that was lacking in the first series and that was diminished in the third and fourth series. (My wife did note that each Edmund Blackadder appeared to be smarter than his ancestors, even as he was lower in class ranking. I couldn't help but wonder if that was more or less deliberate.)

On the whole, I'm feeling rather proud of myself. When I started dating my wife, she had seen all three "Wallace and Gromit" episodes and knew Monty Python solely from "The Quest for the Holy Grail." Since then, I've made her into a "Flying Circus" fan, and shown her the joys of "Red Dwarf," "Blackadder" and "Fawlty Towers."

I wonder what my chances are of getting her hooked on "Dr. Who" (relatively slim, I should think, given the comparatively low production values and writing that varied immensely in strength, but I suppose it's worth trying).

Tom Baker is the definitive Dr. Who for most American fans. The production values on Pertwee's episodes were really low, but it *was* the late 1960s, so that's not too horribly surprising. On the other hand, his were the most down-to-earth science fiction, since the Time Lords had stranded the Doctor on Earth as punishment for his crimes, a sentence that was commuted after the events of "The Three Doctors."

The problem is I have exactly TWO episodes on tape -- "The Deadly Assassin" and "The Five Doctors." The latter is an episode for the fans, and would be too confusing for a neophyte; the former might make a good introduction, although again, by that time in the show's run there was a fair amount of history the writers just assumed everyone knew. Not sure how well it would fly either.

I might have other episodes I recorded off PBS my first summer home from college. I'd have to check.

One episode I really would like to see is "Doctor Who and the Fatal Death." It stars Rowan Atkinson as the Ninth Doctor. The setup is that the Doctor is preparing to settle down and marry, but first must deal with the return of the Master. Unfortunately, the Doctor keeps getting killed and uses up his remaining lives very quickly, and with some very unusual personalities emerging ....

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

celebrating hanukkah

Count me and my family among the number of Christians making an effort to celebrate Hanukkah. It's partly to educate the girls about other cultures and ways of doing things, partly to educate them about Judaism, and partly to build their knowledge and appreciation of what God has done for his people.

My calendar has Dec. 8 marked as the first day of Hanukkah -- stupid Gentile that I am, I believed it, when I should have realized that Hanukkah would start at sundown Dec. 7. (Actually, I did suspect that, but failed to check.)

This afternoon, the girls and I went into a Judaica shop in the next town over and bought a menorah and candles. I think I inadvertantly misled the owner into thinking that I'm Jewish. I'm not sure, but I think so. For starters, I always say the opening H in Hanukkah like the "ch" sound at the end of Bach, which is how it's supposed to be pronounced. For a second thing, I explained to E and R in some detail the significance of the menorah and the shamash, told them time and again the story of Judah the Macabbee, and of course R also has a biblical name. I think the girls' curly hair also lent us the image, although R's hair is far blonder than I've ever seen on a Jewish person.

On the other hand, E kept asking me what Hanukkah is, even on the way out. Maybe they thought I haven't been a particularly observant Jew, especially since I acknowledged I was buying the menorah a day late, or maybe that I was a Gentile who had married a Jewish woman. No idea.

E found it enthralling when I lit the candles tonight and said the prayers, although she was mortified that I wouldn't blow the candles out before they melted away. (She overcame that, and decided it was neat to watch them melt that far.) No dreidel games, although E learned a dreidel song in preschool last year, and we did eat latkes. With shellfish and pasta admittedly, but I didn't feel inclined to keep kosher, especially since dinner was rushed so my wife could get to book club on time.

No traditional doughnuts, though. I've never liked jelly doughnuts, especially a kind I can't even spell or pronounce. I might get a more regular sort of doughnuts to share with the girls, and explain that it's also a tradition we've half-borrowed.

This is actually (sort of) the second Jewish holiday we've added to our family observance. Last Easter, I tried to structure the meal around something like a Hagaddah service, focusing on the Easter story rather than the Passover one. It was a total disaster, of course, but I'm trying again next year. It occurred to me some time a couple years ago that the annual Pesach ritual is an excellent way of preserving the Jewish religion, culture and identity in alien and often hostile cultures, and that I'd have to be an idiot not to want to do that with my own faith.

Last night as I was watching the candles on the menorah burn low, I thought about a friend of mine named Josh. Josh is the son of a cantor, and the two of us had a tremendous working relationship at WCN, where we talked about our faiths openly and safely. (He said that I was a puzzle to him -- he'd never known another Christian as deeply religious as me who wasn't always trying to convert him, who told jokes about his own religion, or who agreed the Tanakh made better reading than most of the New Testament.)

We had talked periodically about the kosher rules, and Josh found it hilarious when I mentioned the amendment an ex-girlfriend of mine had had about pork. It was that pork is never kosher, unless it's eaten at a Chinese restaurant. He loved that one.

He also told me that his father had told him about a group of lost Jews discovered in South America. Their great-grandparents or whoever had been so secretive about being Jews, for fear of persecution, that their descendants didn't realize it themselves. They celebrated Mass every Sunday, and prayed to the saints and all, but on every Friday evening, they turned the pictures of the saints around until sunset Saturday, and kept other traditions usually associated with Jews. "For example," I threw in, "every Christmas, they go out for Chinese food." "That's right," Josh said. "But they have no idea why they do it, since no one else does."

No particular relevance to Hanukkah, I suppose, but I thought about them and chuckled all the same.

We also read "The Christmas Menorahs," a true story about a whole town rallying around their Jewish families who were being targeted by neo-Nazis who were throwing stones through windows where they saw menorahs. It was a nice reminder about the power of courage and love, and E seemed to enjoy it, along with the traditional story about Judah the Macabbee.

She had a hard time understanding why somebody would hate another person for being Jewish. Good for her. I hope she feels that way her whole life.

Tomorrow should be better. I figure by the eighth day, I should have it down to a science. I'd really like to get to know more of the Jewish holidays and incorporate them into our family life to one degree or another. I've always had an interest in Judaism, and it's deepened with my faith. I think I'm becoming a messianic Gentile

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Wrinkle in Time'

I haven't seen it, but I think the most interesting review comes from Madeleine L'Engle, who said something to the effect of: "The director surpassed my original expectations for the movie. I thought it would be bad, but it wasn't -- it was much worse."

Friday, December 03, 2004

ditching the gadflies

Evangeline and I went to Babylon today -- Broadway, specifically, a couple blocks from Union Square. Someone tried to solicit money from me to protect the environment from President Bush -- I had no idea he was the greatest threat facing the environment, but I guess it makes sense since he's also the greatest threat to everything else -- but I managed to throw him off by speaking to him and Evangeline only in Creole, and left the poor bugger thoroughly confused.

Se obligasyon mwen, non?

I did that at Burger King once too. I wish I could have recorded the conversation, because the poor woman who was trying to take my order at the drive-through was so frazzled after my third attempt. "Mwen vle de chizbege, un laj pom fri e un koka, souple." (I want two cheeseburgers, a large fry and a Coke, please.) It seems pretty straightforward to me.