Monday, June 25, 2007

the man they called jayne

Behind the Name, a good go-to web site for the meanings and histories of names, has a ratings feature that allows visitors to the site to rate names on all sorts of factors, including whether the name is for boys or for girls.
 
If you've ever seen "Firefly," I'm sure you can appreciate it when I say that Jayne is a man's name. I am asking all "Firefly" fans who come across this blog entry to visit the entry for Jayne and a cast a vote in favor of using it for men.
 

area 51

Surrounded by miles of barren sand, hidden deep within the borders of New Mexico, lies a state-of-the-art military facility. Everybody knows that the facility is an Air Force base, and everyone knows that its electronic eyes are turned forever toward the heavens, searching for life extraterrestrial. Located near Roswell, New Mexico, it is Area 51, the best-known top secret military base in the world. The U.S. government, in the surest sign of the base’s existence, denies knowing anything about it.

Captain Jack Rackham, stationed at Area 51 for nine months, pounded the floor as he raced toward the landing pad of the Air Force base. The hallways echoed with red light as the intruder alarm blared. In a moment, Rackham and a detail of shore police burst through the door, surrounded a two-person plane that had just landed, and pointed their guns at the pilot as he opened the cockpit and emerged.

“Hey, I’m almost out of fuel. I nearly crashed out there,” said Emil Earthart, the pilot. “Do you take MasterCard or Visa? I left my American Express card at home. Hey. what’s with all the guns? Is this Area 51 or something?”

“No,” said Rackham. “This is a secret government facility. It is not Area 51.”

“Actually, captain, it is,” one of the SP’s said.

“There is no such place!” Rackham shouted. Everyone self-consciously tried to avoid staring at his ID badge, which clearly stated “Captain Jack Rackham, U.S. Air Force, Area 51.”

“But ―”

“That’s an order!” A vein in Rackham’s forehead throbbed dangerously close to bursting. “It ― does ― not ― exist!”

“If I don’t really work for Area 51, can I still get paid?” asked the SP.

Earhart promptly was whisked inside the base to the interrogation room, past another room occupied by a strange creature with an elongated head and two mouths, one set inside the other. As Earhart passed, the creature rushed to the observation window and held up a sign that said: “Help! I’ve been held here without legal representation since 1957!” In the next room, a horde of little green people with three eyes and an antenna each jumped up and down and squealed in unison in an attempt to get his attention.

“Ha ha,” Rackham laughed as they walked past. “That Red Squad. They’re such jokers.”

The interrogation room itself was a small, crowded place. Just inside the door was something that looked like a large blue Police Call Box that used to be found on street corners in London. Leaning against the far wall was a display case, filled with a wide variety of items Earhart couldn’t see any pattern to. There was a metal cap made from a fine a silver mesh, shaped it seemed to match the contours of a human skull. Next to it was a headpiece that looked like a giant set of prosthetic ears and a bald headcap. On the middle shelf, lying atop a large tiger hide, were a green ring and an equally green Coleman lantern, next to a silver surfboard. Hanging on the outside of the case was a large blue pair of pajamas with a red cape and the letter S emblazoned on the chest. Next to it stood an imposing robot with a steely visage that looked like it could make the earth stand still.

“Oh, I see you’ve spotted our trophies,” Rackham said awkwardly. “We got those for beating the Army in the annual bowling tournaments. I believe we keep the stuffed elephant with fingers on its trunk, and the giant three-legged all-terrain transport in one of the other rooms because of their size.”

In the end, Earhart was able to convince them that he was just what he said he was: a private pilot who got lost after a weekend gambling in Las Vegas and who had considered himself lucky to find any place to refuel. Air crews gassed up his airplane; Rackham gave him a terrifying “Even if this base did exist, which it certainly doesn’t, you didn’t see it” debriefing, coupled with threats of late-night abductions and medical probing; base personnel gave him the heading for Sante Fe; posed for a group picture in which Lieutentant Iverson had to be told three times to stop making bunny ears behind the heads of the enlisted men; and he was sent him on his way.

The next day, to the total disbelief of Rackham and the other personnel stationed at the base, Earhart’s Piper returned. Once again, the SPs surrounded the plane, only this time there was a woman in the plane with Earhart. Earhart jumped out and said, “Do anything you want to me, but my wife is in the plane now and you have to tell her where I was last night!”



Most people have heard of the Air Force's ultra-high-security, super-secret base in Nevada, known simply as “Area 51.” Late one afternoon, the Air Force folks out at Area 51 were very surprised to see a Piper landing at their “secret” base. They immediately impounded the aircraft and hauled the pilot into an interrogation room.

The pilot's story was that he took off from Las Vegas, got lost, and spotted the Base just as he was about to run out of fuel. The Air Force requested a full FBI background check on the pilot and held him overnight during the investigation

By the next day, they were finally convinced that the pilot really was lost and wasn't a spy. They gassed up his airplane, gave him a terrifying “you-did-not-see-a-base” briefing, complete with threats of spending the rest of his life in prison, told him Las Vegas was that-a-way on such-and-such a heading, and sent him on his way.

The next day, to the total disbelief of the Air Force, the same Piper showed up again. Once again, the SPs surrounded the plane... only this time there were two people inside. The same pilot jumped out and said, “Do anything you want to me, but my wife is in the plane now and you have to tell her where I was last night!”

who’s laughing now?

Luke Jennings was an attorney in New Orleans trying to get a loan from the Federal Housing Administration for a client. He was told the loan would be granted if he could prove satisfactory title to a parcel of property his client was offering as collateral. It took him three months to do it, but Jennings eventually was able to trace the title to the property back to 1803.

He sent the information to the FHA, and a month later, he received the following reply:

Upon review of your letter adjoining your client's loan application, we note that the request is supported by an Abstract of Title. While we are impressed with the able manner in which you have prepared and presented the application, we must point out that you have only cleared title to the proposed collateral back to 1803. Before final approval can be accorded, it will be necessary to clear the title back to its origin.

Jennings wasn’t just frustrated, he was annoyed. It was like the time the IRS had disbelieved his claim to be the father of thirteen children and had required him to provide birth certificates for each one. (The worst part, he reflected, was that Anastasia and Sebastian had decided to pretend they didn’t know who he was, and he’d spent three weeks in jail until his wife had been able to straighten the whole thing out.) He took pen to paper and wrote the following response:

Your letter regarding title in Case No. 847965 has been received. I note that you wish to have title extended further than the 204 years covered by the present application.

I was unaware that any educated person in this country, particularly those working in the property area, would not know that Louisiana was purchased by the United States from France in 1803, the year of origin identified in our application.

For the edification of uninformed FHA bureaucrats, the United States took title to the property from France, which had acquired it by Right of Conquest from Spain. The land came into possession of Spain by Right of Discovery in the year 1492 by a sea captain named Christopher Columbus, who had been granted the privilege of seeking a new route to India by the then-reigning monarch, Queen Isabelle.

The good queen, being a pious woman and careful about titles, almost as much as the
FHA, took the precaution of securing the blessing of the pope before she sold her jewels to fund Columbus' expedition. Now the pope, as I'm sure you know, is the emissary of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And God, it is commonly accepted, created this world. Therefore, I believe it is safe to presume that he also made that part of the world called Louisiana; therefore the property can be assumed to have originated with him. I trust you will find his claim to be satisfactory.

Now, can we have the lousy loan?

Jennings smiled as he placed the letter in an envelope, and as he dropped the letter in the mailbox as he went out for lunch. He was still smiling a month later, when he got the response from the FHA, which said:

Application denied. Who’s laughing now, smartass?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

cam and nancy

Solving mysteries is a popular interest in my family.
 
This is due in no small part to the debut of the new "Nancy Drew" movie starring Emma Roberts, which Evangeline saw on Saturday with one of her friends from school. She came back from the movies, excited by the story, which apparently has updated Nancy into a slightly more modern girl who ziplines out of harm's way, performs emergency tracheotomies on the spot, and solves a 25-year-old murder mystery in Los Angeles, of all places.
 
Rachel, a bit younger than Evangeline, has been busy enjoying the kiddie detective adventures of Cam Jansen, an elementary school student who uses her photographic memory to solve mysteries with the click of her mental camera.
 
I started thinking about Cam Jansen and Nancy Drew, in high school together and hating one another passionately. I picture them trying to solve the same mysteries, tampering with the evidence and creating false clues for one another to follow. It seems to me that this would be a film of extreme interest to the movie-going public.
 
If any studio heads are interested in producing this movie, I'd be more than happy to write the screenplay.

crying over the chapel

I’m not getting much out of church lately. I find myself dreading the thought of going there from one week to the next.

It’s odd, and it’s puzzling to feel this way, especially given how much there is to like about this church and how I’ve felt at home here in the past, but the last month or more, I’ve felt virtually no interest in it and had virtually no desire to attend.

Partly it’s the worship, I suppose. The worship team is more than passionate for leading worship ― they also are skilled musicians ― but the worship does absolutely nothing for me. Around me I see people who feel as though they have been transported into the presence of God; for myself, I feel like an idiot, standing around with my hands in my pockets. There was a time when all I could do was to go through the motions of worship, and since that was all I had to offer, that was what I gave. Nowadays I don’t have even that much to offer.

The worship is loud, and I don’t mean it’s because everyone in the church is singing enthusiastically. I feel much like I expect I would if I were watching The Who: The music pounds its electric rhythms from the speakers, assaulting my body in one relentless wave after another, darkening my mood, bruising my head, and driving me out and away from the church, instead of closer to God. Some people find that exciting, and equate that excitement with an up-close encounter with God. I don’t; having realized that even secular music with that same pounding beat produces the same effect, I can’t convince myself that God is in the music. Perhaps he uses the music to draw some people to him, but he does not draw me in that way. I can’t even stand to be in the auditorium most times the worship team is playing; it’s that loud.

“I thought once that God was in the music, but when I looked, I found the same void that I had known all my life, and the notes that came from it were sweet but empty, and so I walked on.”

The preaching is good. Each of the pastors usually brings some good insight about the culture the Bible was written in, one that makes the Bible make more sense, and one that brings relevance from the text to our lives.

Part of it may be the growth. Natasha and I have been at this church for about two years, and have seen some tremendous growth take place. As the church has grown, we’ve seen the relationships we have with other members of the church change in some substantial ways, and I don’t mean that we’ve become closer to other couples and other families, either. Quite the opposite. I used to talk with CaoimhĂ­n and with Tom on a regular basis, almost weekly. I used to be involved in planning the Sunday services, and knew many of the people in the church at least on a first-name basis.

That’s no longer the case. The church divided last fall, spinning off a Norde Bastille congregation, and merging the Nova Bastille congregation with the college congregation. In that time, the Nova Bastille membership has shriveled to myself and possibly one or two other people, leaving me at the Nova Bastille church with a dozen or more people I barely know and have virtually nothing in common with. The Norde Bastille congregation meantime has swelled from a handful of people to about a hundred, through a few well-timed and well-considered promotional efforts. In the process, with all the sudden new arrivals, the relationships I’d had with other people suddenly are diluted and pulled apart as my friends and associates, who are better at striking up relationships with people, suddenly are spending their time with the new arrivals, making them feel welcome and so on.

There’s also the issue of who has been drawn. At first I thought it was nice to see the people we used to worship with at Community Gospel Church, and maybe for a time it was. Not so much now. Now I have to admit that I find myself resenting things that happened at the end of CGC and the way people failed us so dramatically.

It’s not easy for me to trust people completely. I maintain a healthy sheath of skepticism and cynicism to keep people from cutting me too deeply when they fail to deliver what they promised they would. I learned early on that people like to think the best of themselves, rationalize their failings, and dance their way out of promises and commitments. I thought CGC was different, I really did. I thought, “This is a church of people who know what it is like to be burned by the world and by other believers,” and as we were involved in CGC under Mark McGrath and then later, as Crosspointe Community Church under Abner Bosheth, I felt comfortable with the other people there. We went on double dates with them, invited them to our wedding, to our housewarming, and other special events in our family.

The collapse of the church under Abner put the lie to that illusion. People who had been a major part of our lives stopped being a part. They didn’t return our phone calls, they didn’t come by any more, and as time went on, we realized we were left alone.

The worst part of this was what happened around Isaac. When we opened up our home to him, we were given assurances that we were not doing this on our own. The entire church, we were told, was with us in the entire experience, and would pitch in to help us when we needed it.

In the end, we were alone.

Alone. Can you understand how that felt? We had a child who had moved into our homes with extreme special needs because of the abuse he had endured. The state did almost nothing to give us the support we could have used; we had to find out about that through other sources and pursue it on our own, and some of it we never even heard about until after he had gone. Our church had promised to be with us, but when push came to shove, no one was there. We tried to get babysitters from time to time, so Natasha and I could get out of the house and spend some time together, but no one would babysit for us. There were times we wanted just to get together with other families in the church, because the group setting relieved the pressure on us, and in the case of the family with Isaac's biological sister, it encouraged a relationship between the two, and the answer almost all the time was no. Toward the end, because she was pregnant with Rachel, Natasha called family after family, one person after another, and begged people to babysit the kids ― just to babysit Evangeline, while Isaac was with his parents ― so she could get a gynecological exam, and family after family, person after person, they all said no. Everyone praised us for our willingness to give a home to a child who needed us, but in the end, they were more interested in praising us than in helping us out or making it easier for us to save our marriage.

And now some of these are the same people who are coming to church with us and worshiping at our side. They act toward me as though nothing has changed, and all the while I see an unbridgeable gulf separating us. I wonder if they realize the distance their distance has created, and I wonder if they care.

Maybe I’m feeling sorry for myself, and that’s the problem. It wouldn’t be the first time, and I doubt it would be the last. I think it’s a common failing of humanity that we are all pulled toward narcissism by a personal gravity that we have no wish to fight.

Maybe I’m just unwilling to forgive; maybe my heart is hard and I’m harboring resentment over the indifferent wrongs people have committed against my family without ever knowing it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve dealt with unforgiveness either.

But I know I’m weary. I want something different, and I want something better from this. I’m tired of going to church, and I’d much rather sleep in.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

the secret message of jesus

If you have never read "The Secret Message of Jesus" by Brian McLaren, I highly recommend that you make your way to a decent brick-and-mortar bookstore and get yourself a copy of it.

The book has taken some hits in evangelical circles because it pushes a deeper and more compelling understanding of the gospel than the sort popularized by groups like Campus Crusade for Christ with its four spiritual laws, and the much-touted sinner's prayer, which reduces the gospel to a prayer for forgiveness and automatic entry into heaven.

McLaren's one of the leaders in the "emerging church" movement, and the book was definitely groundbreaking in its interpretation and application of the Bible. Back when I was an evangelical, I heard a lot of stuff that boiled the gospel down to "Believe in Jesus, and God will take away all your sins so that when you die, you can go to heaven and be with him forever; now go and tell everyone else about it too."

McLaren proceeds from the Christus Victor understanding of the gospel, and argues that the Kingdom of God as seen by the prophets is not some distant, post-Armageddon experience, but a reality that arrived in the person of Jesus, and spreads from person to person as we choose to live in the reality of the Incarnation.

A quick example that set the first H-bomb off in my head: I've always been taught that Isaiah and Micah, when they saw a time when the nations would gather by the river, beat their swords into plowshares and study war no longer, were seeing a period after Christ had returned, established his kingdom on earth, and was ruling unopposed.

McLaren notes that when Jesus arrived, his message was not that the Kingdom of God was coming, but that it had arrived, in his person. If Isaiah and Micah, and the other prophets saw a glorious kingdom off in the distance, Jesus was announcing that it could be found now, through faith, in him.

For me, this was a revolutionary thought. Back in college, I had called myself a pacifist mostly because I hated the idea of being called up to fight and risk getting killed if the government felt a need to draft Selective Service registrants. I eventually acknowledge that cowardice, rather than conviction, was driving my stand, and was willing to argue about whether a war was just or not. But if the Kingdom of God has arrived in the person of Christ, then the question of "just war" is no longer a valid one. War itself must be seen as a gross abrogation of the fundamental purposes that God created humanity for, and in direct conflict of the gospel, which seeks reconciliation between God and humanity, and between the different peoples of the earth.

Of course, it's always easier to make war than it is to zealously pursue peace, because war allows the stronger to impose their will upon the weaker, while peace requires becoming weaker and surrendering your will for the good of someone you might not even love. (This is not to say that a Christian cannot join the military and fight in the service of king and country; this is a matter of individual conscience.)

As I was discussing with a friend, it's something you can see in how we view the different leaders we've had. FDR and Churchill are well regarded as wartime leaders, but the respect we have for them generally pales in comparison to the awe and reverence we have for Mahatma Gandhi and men like him who stood their ground with unbowed heads and unraised hands when much stronger forces came against them.

"The Secret Message of Jesus" is an excellent book. Bump it up to the top of your list.

remembering jennifer

A friend of mine, in Texas once for some sort of news conference or seminar, had the misfortune of being pegged as a liberal Northeaster in need of being rescued from her evil ways. Or perhaps those so pegging her were misfortunate; when they regaled her with the horrors of abortion and then asked her how she could support such a thing, Jennifer replied that she doesn't support abortion. Instead, she said, she prefers to impale the heads of little babies on spikes.

They left her alone after that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

james madison and states rights

But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm... But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?

-- James Madison (Federalist No. 46, 29 January 1788)

Of course, Madison wrote (said?) this in a country that no longer exists, except in the sense of continuity of entity. The Southern states, having ratified the Constitution to enter the union, reasonably enough claimed that they had the right to de-ratify it and thereby secede. Lincoln disagreed and by means of the Civil War fundamentally changed the terms of states rights forever.

And many federal mandates today use the carrot-and-stick approach, so that states voluntarily cede their rights to set standards et al, in order to receive federal funding and grants, albeit not always in the areas covered by the mandate. (School officials just *love* unfunded federal mandates.)
How far we've come! Was it in the right direction? A friend of mine who is a major proponent of states rights and who favors a weak federal government acknowledges that, in a sense, the question is moot. But he also argues that it's a question we should be asking ourselves. (With the implication, I presume, that the answer is no, it was not.)
I'm not particularly wed to either a Republican or a Federalist view of government. You might as well ask if it's a good thing that today was overcast and threatened rain but none came until late in the evening. It's a thing that is neither good nor bad; it just is. Because it was overcast, the day was considerably cooler than it might otherwise have been ... but it also was darker, and therefore people didn't get the full ameliorative effects of a sunny day.
Same thing with the way our government and society have changed over the last two hundred years. Madison's view of big government was affected by his experiences under the British Crown, and that in turn was affected by King George's own bad ideas and the ill advice he received, and by the popular agitation toward rebellion by a number of the patriots in Boston and elsewhere.
I don't think Madison ever would have dreamed of things like tyranny by big business, nor could he see that a strong federal government would have the potential to protect its citizenry from that sort of tyranny. (Or make it worse, admittedly, but that gets into what I'm saying about the pros and cons.)
And a weak federal government didn't exactly do us great things under the Articles of Confederation, nor under a number of presidential administrations prior to Lincoln's that allowed the barbaric practice of slavery to continue. Buchanan's weak presidency and inability to exert any sort of federal authority did far more to make the nation ripe for civil war than Lincoln did.
I can't see any inherent advantage in a weak federal government, or in a strong one. Each depends on the decency of people to make it work, and relying overmuch on either one to mend society's ills (or blaming either one overmuch for society's ills) is a grave mistake and a gross abnegation of personal responsibility.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

firefly

Well, I have to admit: It looks like I misjudged this series. Despite a slow and relatively unimpressive beginning, "Firefly" has really turned out to be something worth watching.
Created by Joss Whedon, best known for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly" has been billed as a hybrid of the science fiction and western genres. It's set aboard a small smuggling vessel with an eight-member crew that spends most of its time on the frontier of interstellar civilization, at some indeterminate point in the distant future. Like most good sci-fi, the series focuses on the people on board the ship rather than its technology, so there's no talk of how the ship moves from one planet to another between episodes. The captain of the ship was on the losing side of a civil war and has decided to make his career as far from the winning side as he can.
Natasha and I are about three-quarters of our way through the series, which was smothered less than halfway through its first season. Monday night we watched the episode where Simon, the ship's doctor, hired the crew to sneak him and his sister River into the hospital on the planet Ariel so he could learn exactly what had been done to River to make her so unpredictable in her behavior. The ongoing development of the characters themselves, and the relationships among them, have made the show compelling despite some of the oddities in the way the concept was executed. (I think I mentioned before that the show seemed too spaghetti western, given that it's supposed to be at the very least several hundred years in the future.)
Aside from the characters, one of the things I've found interesting about the show is the way it centers on a group of outlaws -- noble outlaws, perhaps, in the spirit of Robin Hood, but outlaws nonetheless -- who do some pretty shocking things, like stealing medicine from a hospital, easily gunning down other people, and even at times betraying or trying to kill one another. Star Trek, this ain't.
As my oldest brother predicted when I told him of my initial dissatisfaction with the series, the preacher Book is turning out to be an interesting and mysterious character. But I have to admit that I find Jayne a thoroughly intriguing character if for no other reason than he's the least honorable of the outlaws on board Serenity, very clearly in it for the money, and yet even he has a conscience that bothers him when he knows he's wronged a companion and that tears him up when he discovers that he's become a folk hero on Canton because the mud farmers misjudged his motives in dropping a fortune in their midst four years back. (And what a kicking folk song they have about him, too. Any idea where I can get a copy of it, without the dialogue mixed in?)
I'd have to say my favorite epsiodes so far have been "Out of Gas," where life support on board fails; and the one where they rob the hospital, though I liked parts of "Shindig," where Mal unintentionally challenges someone to a duel; and "Our Mrs. Reynolds," where he finds out he's married. (I was really disappointed with the way they got themselves out of that mess; I thought the initial premise for the episode was much more interesting.)
So it's been a good show, so far. I expect Natasha and I will buy a copy of "Serenity" when we get around to it, and we will consign Fox execs to a special hell -- one normally reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater -- for not giving the series a chance. There at least they can join the execs from ABC who killed Star Trek and the execs from Paramount who killed the Trek franchise.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

deucalion and pyrrha, and noah

The Greeks told the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha that follows lines similar to the biblical account of Noah. The story goes that the gods saw the abundant wickedness of humanity and destroyed everyone but Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, with a great flood. It's the same basic myth as Noah, though Deucalion and Pyrrha did not save any animals and brought no children with them.

Like the story of Noah, the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha is a myth of divine judgment on wickedness, but it lacks the redemptive theme of the Noah story. There is no new beginning, no redemption of the human race, no new start seen through the lives of their children and grandchildren. Deucalion and Pyrrha see their world annihilated and watch a new race usurp their place in the world. (Noah and his wife took their sons and daughters-in-law on the Ark; Deucalion and Pyrrha watch as the gods create an entirely new race of humanity from the rocks the two of them throw over their shoulders.)

Imagine the grief they must have felt. They witnessed the genocide of their entire human species, and then watch as their land was taken over by a new people whom they had no relationship with. To make it more insulting, they were the instruments chosen to create their replacements.

Like the Greeks, the Hebrew writer of Genesis also imbued the tale with a moral meaning -- unlike in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the Deluge came because a god was being kept awake by humanity's noise, the Genesis account links the Deluge to humanity's wickedness -- but the author of Genesis gives the Supreme Being a level of compassion and commitment notably lacking in Zeus. Yes, the mythological Noah witnesses the destruction of his whole world, but he also sees a God who is committed to his creation, and who gives it a second chance. There's a pledge that there will be no other Flood, but there's also repetition of the Eden commands to fill the earth and subdue it, to be fruitful and to multiply, with the implication that the earth has been renewed. (The Apostle Peter refers to this in one of his epistles, where he links the Flood to baptism, which in Christian circles is seen as a symbol of cleansing and resurrection.)

And unlike Zeus, who wipes his original human race off the slate, God keeps Adam's race in the running.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

deep space 9

Now that I've seen the entire run of "Deep Space 9" from start to finish, I have to say that it is far and away the best of the Star Trek franchise.

Part of it's the characters. They were much more fully developed and better nuanced than in Classic Trek or TNG, with dark sides, aspirations, and a wider range of motivations than ever had been shown on Trek before. There were little things, like Sisko's love of baseball; to Odo's uncertain motivation first as someone who didn't know his origins and then as someone who rejected all that his people had done; the moral ambiguity of Quark, who in some episodes seemed decidedly corrupt and amoral and yet who consistently came out on the right side; and there were some really intriguing interactions among the characters, between Garak and Bashir, the repressed attraction between Dax and Sisko, the elaborate dance between Odo and Quark as constable and perpetual criminal suspect, and so on. (And the sheer range of characters! I lost track of how many supporting characters there were, from the station itself, to Bajor, to Cardassia, and the other Ferengi...)

But mostly it was the storytelling. There were some false starts, with the issues surrounding Bajor's assimilation into the Federation, but once the writers got going and started to figure out what the Dominion was and how it worked, the show just kept getting better. Seeing the Klingons as nasties again was a treat, and seeing humanity portrayed honestly on Star Trek for a change -- like in the episode where Garak blows up a Romulan vessel to support Sisko's lie that the Dominion plans to attack the Romulan Empire, and Sisko realizes he's OK with that -- was unforgettable. (And of course there was the episode that suggests the entire Star Trek franchise could be the product of the imagination of a black 1950s science fiction writer...)

I don't think I can say enough good about DS9. It was, all things considered, the high point of Trek. The franchise jumped the shark when they launched Voyager, and it never recovered. Maybe if they really do hire JMS to do a new series, but that's about the only way I can see.

Friday, June 01, 2007

a child's faith

I imagine the disciples walking along the road somewhere between towns, the dust rising from the ground as they walk and covering their feet, coating their robes, and getting into their faces and hair. Somewhere along the way, someone -- probably Peter, James or John -- mentions how much he's missed out on for this life he's chosen.
 
It's a mostly innocuous remark. Peter probably was thinking of the time he wasn't getting to spend with his wife; or John or James were thinking of the role they had had in the family business and what they stood to lose in terms of financial security. But the thought, once voiced, prompted a snort from someone else who had given up even more, and soon an idle complaint induced by the heat of the day and the weariness of the road had swollen into a top-this sort of argument over who had given up more. From there, it's only a matter of time until someone says, "Well, whatever I've given up, it was worth it to me. Following Jesus means that much to me, and I'd give up everything I have to follow him."
 
From there it just goes downhill. Everyone's got to prove that he loves Jesus more than the others do, and what it boils down to, though probably no one will say it, is simply this: Who's the greatest in the Kingdom of God?
 
I imagine that by this point Jesus is tired of the discussion. It's a favorite theme for the disciples, if the gospels are to be taken seriously, and we can only imagine how exasperating it must be to hear your twelve students once again picking up the refrain of "I love God more than you do" when a major part of your message is to forget yourself.
 
So Jesus, when he hears what they're quarreling about (again), and no doubt feeling a little exhausted from the road himself, sits down, puts a child on his lap and says, "Whoever wants to be first in my kingdom must be like this child."
 
I was taught for years that what he meant was he expects us to believe like children do: accepting what they're told at face value and not questioning it, and stuff like that. That's actually a great idea if you're trying to pass on an ideology or to maintain an institution, but it sure sucks for making intelligent people who can think for themselves. (Although it does encourage intelligent people to parrot what they've heard or to find incredibly well thought-out justifications and proofs for what they've beent told to believe.)
 
A couple things bother me about this understanding of Jesus' teaching. For one, it's terribly condescending to children in its assumption that they just believe whatever they're told. Children are smarter than we usually give them credit for, and they do get the difference between metaphor or fiction and reality if we let them. It doesn't take a particularly sharp kid to do the math and see the problems Noah would have getting two of every animal onto an ark, nor does it take a genius to see how far some people have gone in trying to make the Noah story sound rational and scientifically viable.
 
The other thing is that this interpretation focuses on the substance of faith and not its nature. It emphasizes the importance of believing a set of doctrines over the importance of actually putting faith into action. It suggests that having a set of intellectual attitudes and beliefs is more important than bringing those beliefs to bear in the real world. And that's just plain wrong.
 
What we often forget is that Christianity isn't a European or Western religion at all. It's an Eastern religion, and the culture it came from is a culture that was holistic before being holistic became trendy. Here in the West we have creeps saying things like "I love my wife and kids deep down, where it counts" while they betray them in adulterous relationships; or we have politicians flattering religious conservatives with talk about "family values" while they make it harder on working families to catch a break. In the West, we don't so readily see a disconnect there; in the East, where Christianity was born, they properly call that bullshit. You cannot love your family while you cheat on your wife; you cannot care about family values while you add burden after burden to families; and you cannot value truth if you lie.
 
This sort of outward display of righteousness comes fairly naturally to adults, but it's not that natural for kids, who bring a lot of enthusiasm to their faith. My kids love Jesus with an intensity that awes me. I've watched Evangeline struggle hard to incorporate his teachings into her life, seeking to do right by her classmates, even when they hassle her at school; and trying to intercede when her best friend retaliates on someone who's been picking on them. (Evangeline's actually taken some pretty big hits from her friend for trying to defuse that sort of situation.)

Compare that straightforward desire to love Jesus and live as he wants us to, with the faith adults have. We often rationalize our way out of forgiving, out of loving, out of giving, and too often are willing to tolerate or overlook injustice when it doesn't directly affect us and to tell ourselves that "there's nothing we can do" when there is -- if we were only willing to do it.
 
It seems to me that that natural, holistic approach to faith is what Jesus wants us to model.