Tuesday, December 16, 2008

canto iv

Canto IV begins as Dante awakens in the first of nine circles of hell.

There are no levels of hell mentioned in the Bible, which generally assumes hell to be a miserable place, if not a place of actual, eternal torment. The Greek word most commonly translated as hell in the New Testament is hades, which is more or less equivalent to the Hebrew sheol used in the Old Testament. The term refers to a more or less universal destination for the dead; good, bad or indifferent, everyone ends up here.

Whether Alighieri based his detailed soteriography of hell on ideas he inherited, or created it from scratch, I have no idea. The hell of “Inferno” is an inverted cone of nine concentric circles, gouged into the earth by the impact of Satan when he was cast out of heaven. Overseen by devils who see that the damned are appropriately tormented for their sins, each circle is marked by the type of sin that defined the character of those imprisoned there, with the sin worsening the deeper into hell you go.

Damnation in the First Circle isn't that bad, all things considered; actually, eternal separation from God is easier for those imprisoned here than for the undecideds whom Dante saw chasing the banner in Canto III.

That's because the First Circle is home to the righteous pagans and unbaptized infants, people who would have believed in God if they had been given the chance. In their commentary novel “Inferno,” Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle remark that this is the saddest circle of all because the absence of torment allows those imprisoned here to maintain an illusion of contentment.

It's here that we see the first actual example of any sort of biblical teaching about hell. Dante, hearing the woe-begotten sighs of those confined to the First Circle, asks his guide if any have ever left this circle. Those whom Virgil names are a brief Who's Who of personalities of the Tanakh, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and David.

Church teaching is that the Old Testament saints, some of whom Virgil names, waited in Limbo until the coming of Christ, whom the Apostle Paul wrote descended into hell (Greek hades) and freed those imprisoned there.

But it wouldn't be much fun to have Limbo empty save for the souls of unbaptized infants, so Alighieri fills the First Circle of hell, many unnamed souls packed so thick that he compares them to a wood, until he comes to a castle that houses a laundry list of exalted ancients. On the way there, he is greeted by a group of ancient poets who (naturally) hail Virgil as their chief.

The castle is an interesting thing. Dante notes that it has seven walls circling it, each with a gate that leads inward, and at the center is a meadow filled with the somber, quiet shades of the most righteous. This probably is the Elysian Fields, where Virgil claimed in “The Aeneid” is where the virtuous dead reside, which makes his pre-eminence among the dead here ironically appropriate.

The dead whom Dante names here are an interesting mix. He begins with heroes, mixing mythological figures like Hector and Aeneas, with historical figures like Caesar and Brutus -- not the Brutus who killed Julius Caesar, but the Brutus who liberated Rome from the Tarquins.

Surprisingly, at least to me, he also includes here Saladin, a Muslim leader who fought the Crusaders during the Middle Ages, and who was so well known for his compassion and dignity that there were legends that he actually was a secret Christian. (According to one story, when Richard Lionheart became ill, Saladin not only refused to press an advantage against him, he sent supplies and medical help to his ailing foe.)

Following the warlike souls, Dante notes the philosophers: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and others who are noted for laying the foundations of mathematic and scientific disciplines, like Euclid and Ptolemy, and Galen the physician, and a few other classic names like Cicero and Seneca and the mythical singer Orpheus.

We are told that these people are in Limbo because they were great thinkers whose name and fame remained until Dante's time. As a consequence for this, God was inclined to be merciful and spared them any punishment beyond the oblique sadness that permeates the First Circle. And that is telling about Alighieri.

While a lot of the sins depicted in his hell get a poetic comeuppance in their punishment, it seems he's only too willing to make exceptions for those he likes and approves of, since, like the rest of us, he supposes that God must feel the same way that he does. Thus the damned souls are damned for the actions that he believes are worthy of damnation, and those who are granted respite or a commuted sentence get it because he believes they should.

If that's revealing about Dante, it's revealing about all of us who are quick to pronounce God's judgment on others. Too often, it's not God's judgment that we are pronouncing, but our own, and the presumption we have in ascribing to God our own petty biases and hatred should chill us to the bone.

After he beholds all those magnificent souls in the castle of the First Circle, Dante takes his leave of the First Circle and, with Virgil as his guide, follows the path to a region where nothing shines.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

canto iii

The third canto contains what the most recognizable line in "The Divine Comedy," and possibly one of the best-known lines in Western literature. It is the sign above the entrance to hell: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."

That line encapsulates the miserific vision of hell: no hope, no escape, just unrelenting torment, day after day, year after year, until even the mountains have been worn down to grains of sand, and even then, there is no relief. The finality of such a sentence is one of the reasons I don't particularly care for the doctrine of hell.

As avoidable a fate as it may be to those who set the doctrines, an eternity of searing torment is still too much, too late. The torments of Dante's hell offer no redemption to those incarcerated there, as the sufferings of this life may; nor is there an escape, as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle provide in their own "Inferno" novel.

And yet readers have returned to "The Divine Comedy" for centuries, despite objections to the severity of hell.

A lot of the reason for the poem's appeal begins to come clear in this very canto. Alighieri uses some apocalyptic imagery in Canto I, placing savage animals in Dante's path that commentators see as representing both political states and worldly vices; and Canto II saw garden-variety mysticism in the intercession Beatrice makes on Dante's account to rescue him from the dark wood; but so far we have seen none of the turn-your-head sorts of images that we associate with "The Inferno." Until now.

Here at the entrance to the land of the dead, unearthly moans assault Dante's ears with a din that he renders in a manner both poignant and unsettling. The people uttering these tormented cries run through the vestibule of hell, stung by hornets and wasps as they chase a banner that flutters in the breeze, just beyond their reach. Their tears mix with blood as they fall to the ground, where they are consumed by worms.

And this picturesque torment is just what occurs in the vestibule to hell. The sin for which these people are being tormented is merely one of cowardice. Those punished could not bring themselves either to follow God nor to live lives of open sin. Virgil likens them to angels who neither fought with God when Satan rebelled, nor sided with the devil. The price of their cowardice is that neither heaven nor hell will admit them.

And in this procession of banner-chasers is where we find a cipher for one layer of interpretation of "The Inferno." Dante claims to recognize several members of the crowd, but comments only on one, whom he accuses of "cowardice in making the great refusal." Alighieri makes no further comment on this, but commentators apparently believe it was Pope Celestine V, who resigned the papal office five months later and gave it to Pope Boniface VIII..

From what I can tell, Celestine V's papcy is remarkable only for its brevity. The issue Alighieri has with Celestine seems to be solely that he relinquished his papal office. And to a man like Dante, who took a bullet not once, briefly, but over much of his adult life, for his views, that decision to reject the Seat of Peter must have been not only incomprehensible, but reprehensible as well.

And, after all, what is hell is all about? Setting aside our theological basis for hell, the people we most would like to see in hell are the people who are unlike us. A hundred years ago in the United States, native fundamentalists conflated dislike of hard-drinking Irish workers and Italian immigrants, with religious differences that Protestants have the Roman Catholic Church, and condemn them all.

Today it's not uncommon to hear conservative preachers calling down God's wrath upon pro-choices, gays and lesbians, and environmentalists; or for liberal Christians to get snarky and suggest that when things go wrong for the GOP, it's because conservatives aren't following God. Hell's a great place to send people who aren't like us, because they clearly deserve it. If they didn't, they would be more like us.

Canto III is also where we see Alighieri begin to draw more fully upon Greco-Roman mythology to flesh out his vision of hell, from its soteriography to its personalities. Virgil here refers to the Acheron, one of the rivers that flowed through Hades; and Dante himself beholds Charon, the ancient oarsman whose job it was to ferry the dead across the River Styx.

A widely held religious view in the Middle Ages was that anyone who worshiped pagan gods actually was worshiping a devil, a belief Alighieri indulges in his poem, if not actually embracing it. He portrays Charon not just as an old man, but as a devil "with eyes of glowing coal," with no patience or pity for any who dawdle.

The entire experience is too much for poor Dante. Although he had resolved at the end of Canto II to put aside fear, he notes that even years after this experience occurred, he still trembles at its mere recollection. Now having crossed the Styx a living man, he is witness an earthquake accompanied by a bright light, and he passes out.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

canto ii

The first time I ever tried the high dive, I was too scared to jump.

It was agonizing. The whole time we had been at the pool, I had been watching one kid after another climb the ladder, walk or even run the length of the board, and then dive in. Some of them had jumped. Some of them had cannonballed. A few actually had dived, arms stretched out to part the water before them. It looked like a lot of fun, and so I had decided to give it a shot.

It didn't feel as easy as it looked, though. For one thing, the top of the ladder seemed much higher off the ground than when I was on the ground. And the diving board didn't feel very safe once I was standing on it. I walked carefully out to the end of the board, and froze. There were kids down in the water, playing and splashing about, and having a grand old time, and I knew that it was perfectly safe just to jump off.

But I couldn't do it. Heart in my throat, I carefully turned around and walked back to the ladder, which I climbed back down to terra firma.

So I think I can understand the reaction Dante has at the start of Canto II. At this point, he is still in the dark wood, in sight of the holy mountain and not yet on his way down into the circles of hell. It's at this point that Dante has the only sensible reaction anyone can have at the mouth of hell: What am I thinking? I can't go down there!

When I stood at the end of the diving board, I'm fairly sure I tried to psych myself into making the jump. I'd been off regular diving boards plenty of times. I'd seen dozens of kids jump off the high-dive that day alone. (I had the same problem trying the zip line at an Afs camp in New Zealand in 1987.)

Dante does the same thing. Journeys into hell are a pretty common thing in literature, after all. Odysseus made such a trip in “The Odyssey”; Heracles went there at least twice; the Bible teaches that Jesus descended into hell to free all those who had died in faith; and so on. Dante calls to mind two other such stories, in an attempt to put his impending descent into perspective.

The first tale he mentions is Virgil's own “Aeneid.” In that poem, Aeneas, one of the surviving members of the royal family of Troy, visits hell and discovers that he is destined to be the ancestor of the Roman Empire, which will restore a golden age to the earth under the august leadership of its first emperor. (Coincidentally, I'm sure, Virgil wrote “The Aeneid” during the reign of Augustus Caesar.) The other tale Dante mentions, which I've never read, comes from a medieval account of a vision of the Apostle Paul descending into hell. (2 Corinthians 12 tells of Paul having a vision of heaven.)

What's interesting about these reminders is that, to Dante, they underscore his unworthiness of such an undertaking, which he is sure he will regret. He is neither a great Trojan lord, nor a hero of the faith, like Paul, and he is fairly sure he is going to regret such an undertaking once it has begun.

Perhaps it would be useful here to differentiate between Dante the character in the poem, and Dante Alighieri the poet. Dante the character is practically shaking with fear here, humbly considering himself unworthy of the task set before him. Dante Alighieri is using this to lay the foundation for declaring his worthiness to his readers.

And that justification comes swiftly from the mouth of Virgil, who as the premiere poet of ancient Rome naturally is going to make an impression on Dante. Virgil explains that he was in Limbo, the first circle of hell, where, as Alighieri explains in a later canto, virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants go when they die.

Virgil explains to Dante that he was sent to his side from Limbo by Beatrice, who came to him straight out of heaven to see him lead Dante away from the wild beasts that had been threatening him on the hillside. And not only Beatrice, but two other women from heaven, are calling for him. (Though I count three besides Beatrice: the Virgin Mary, Lucia and Rachel.)

Dante finds this heavenly encouragement more than enough, and he resolves anew to go into hell, with Virgil as his guide.

So what's at work here is that Alighieri, in presenting his Dante avatar as fearful and unnerved by the trip, essentially is casting himself as a humble sort of fellow who would never presume on his own to say any of what follows in the remaining cantos of his own poem. As a result, the journey he takes, the things he claims to see, and the political ramifications of what he finds there – such as political foes suffering the torments of the damned – acquire a gloss of greater credibility.

The closest I've ever come to hell was attending middle school for three years, but at the time, that high dive felt pretty close. I tried it again later that same day, and after some of the other kids in line teased me for wanting to chicken out a second time, I made the jump.

Unlike Dante, I had a blast.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

canto i

Probably one of the most important things to remember as we started reading "Inferno" is that it's about a man who is going through a mid-life crisis.

The first canto of "Inferno" sets the story at halfway through Dante's life, roughly around the time he was 35. Dante's family were associated with the White Guelfs, which political alliance had fallen out of favor with the ruling class in Florence, forcing him into exile away from his wife and children. To some extent, though the poem is thoroughly imbued with religious meaning, the despair that marks this first canto reflects the sense of grievous wrong Dante feels he has suffered and his hopes that justice one day will prevail, both spiritually and politically.

The canto begins in a dark wood, where Dante has been suffering deeply, and where he encounters a brace of wild animals. First, a beautiful leopard blocks his way for all that it is enchanting to look at; secondly, a fierce lion; and lastly a terrifying she-wolf also oppose him. The animals all keep Dante from mounting the hill that he is trying to climb, presumably to escape the fearsome woods and gain some perspective on where he is.

It's a common device to use animals to represent either an attitude that matches that animal's demeanor, or at least a person who possesses that attitude. The notes in my copy of "Infero" mention that these animals all represent political powers -- the leopard, Florence; the lion, the royal house of France; and the wolf, no less than the papal see. Yet the same three also correspond to mortal vices: worldly pleasure, ambition, and avarice.

At this point, Virgil arrives and explains to Dante that he can never make it up the hill, because the she-wolf (Rome and avarice) eats all who pass that way and becomes only the hungrier for having eaten. Dante's only escape is downward, through the depths of hell, where he will witness the torments of those confined to eternal fire; but of greater importance to the poet Dante, it seems, is the coming of the Greyhound that will destroy the she-wolf and return her to hell from whence she was set loose, and that will deliver Italy.

The writing about this Greyhound is decidedly messianic in style, to the point that the greyhound feeds on virtues like wisdom, love and "manfulness," which fits the other apocalyptic imagery of the canto. But it also works on a political level, apparently, since it may refer to any number of other political figures from Dante's life, especially given the rather limited range of the Greyhound's dominion.

I've always found Dante's choice of Virgil for his guide to be interesting, but in many regards it makes sense. Dante was Italian, and Virgil himself was an Italian, from the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. As a scholar, Dante doubtless had studied Virgil's "Aeneied" extensively, and in any event, he refers to himself as Virgil's disciple and student.

One thing that is mildly worth noting: Virgil's epic "Aeneid" also depicted a trip to the Underworld, as Aeneas sought counsel from the shade his father Anchises, as the Greek hero Odysseus also once had done. Anchises spoke of a coming golden age for Aeneas' descendants. The terms of Virgil's prophecy were clearly intended to describe Augustus Caesar, but some people have tried to interpret them around Christ.

Which of course is only fitting. The messianic expectation is archetypal, common to all people; just as we all believe that things used to better Once Upon a Time, we all have the hope that One Day Things Will Be Better Again.

And I suppose, when we're in a situation where our hopes and dreams have been thwarted by political machinations and bad luck, as many of Dante's had been, such an expectation and hope only makes sense.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

blogging through 'inferno'

If you read back over the past few years that I've been blogging, you're quickly going to reach a few conclusions:
  1. I write a lot.
  2. I write about a lot of things.
  3. Some of the things that I write about, I write about a lot, like a man picking at a sore, or like a man who is hopelessly in love. (Sometimes even like a man hopelessly in love with picking at a sore.)
  4. If something about my writing has struck your fancy, it can be hard to deal with all the other crap on the blog to follow the thread all the way through.
I decided tonight that I want to try something different. Starting tomorrow, I want to blog exclusively about Dante's "Inferno," one canto a night, until I have finished. Then, perhaps, I will continue through the rest of "The Divine Comedy," although the last time I tried reading Dante's masterpiece, I never made it more than halfway through "Paradiso."

Dante's epic poem is a phenomenal piece of literature. Although he did not invent the doctrine of hell, nor even create the doctrines and images expressed in it, there can be no doubt that it is his vision of hell; his beautifully haunting pictures of the circles and cornices of hell, filled with the damned who are buffeted by gale-force winds, submerged in muck, burned in fire or frozen in ice; that has defined hell in popular understanding for all the centuries since.

Some of the details are changed -- Satan is more commonly seen as king in hell, rather than a prisoner there, each of his three mouths chewing on a different traitor -- but our grotesquely exaggerated sense of elaborate punishments, too ironically chosen for the person's defining sins, has its deepest root in Dante's poem. The Wood of Suicides appears in "Sandman"; Dr. Strange once led Marvel's band of mutants through the Nine Circles in the pages of "Uncanny X-men," and authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were once inspired to journey through hell themselves, in their own "Inferno."

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to hell. I hope you come with me.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

the big easy

Finishing up here in New Orleans tonight. The city has been absolutely amazing, and I've loved how relaxed a lot of the city is where music and entertainers are concerned. Even now, months from Carnival and Mardi Gras, you can't go anywhere without encountering live jazz music, often from amateur musicians playing for tips.

It's been tremendous. We've loved pretty much every minute of it.

Of course, tonight we visited Bourbon Street for dinner with the extended family. Probably a place I would have enjoyed more if I were 14 years younger and didn't have impressionable young girls with me.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

waiting for hammerfall

The Dow is around 8500 now. So I think it's a fair question; what do we do for work, if layoffs happen?

Me, I'm simultaneously looking for work and trying to build my free-lance client base so I can have the bases covered either way. And if my clientele builds, theoretically I can recommend friends for other work, like web design, photography or illustration that are related to what I do but outside my ability set.

And because Natasha and I own our own house, live in a city with a high demand for rental property, and still are making our mortgage payments, we've talked briefly about letting the spare room or -- if we can find a way to make it work -- potentially the entire house, though I'd prefer to avoid that alternative if we can.

The big thing right now is to reduce expenses however we can. We make our own bread, and as many of our meals from scratch as we can, which has kept our food bill fairly steady the past year, particularly with the garden providing beans, tomatoes, and some other vegetables. I've been relying on the library more than ever for books and movies, and expect that if it comes to it during the winter, I'll probably spend most of the day there as well, using the WiFi connection to get my work done in a building where I don't have to foot the heating bill myself.

Some friends of ours came up with a great way to reduce their expenses, by sharing a house with another family. It gives them all full access to an entire house (for the most part), for half the price. Utilities are cut in two, food becomes cheaper per person because of the economies of scale, and the hosting family gets extra money for their mortgage while the second family is saving on their rent.

One perspective that I have found helps is to consider that everything you buy assumes the intrinsic value of the money you spent buying it. Thus, if I spend $14 on a pair of pants, those pants are worth $14 even if I can't wear them anymore. So, rather than throwing them out (and tossing my money into a landfill) or simply recycling them (thereby tossing my money into a recycling bin), I find some other use for the material, to get more bang for my buck.

Thus I have a rug made of old jeans; a tote bag also made from denim that saves me 2 cents every time I use it at the supermarket; a blanket-in-progress made from socks and other clothes too worn out to be useful as clothes, but quite warm as a blanket.

Our trash output has dropped to one garbage can every month, or less; we spend no money on fertilizer, because we compost so much; and I'm in the process of turning an old vanity sink into a game cabinet because I saw a new use for the wood and basic structure, with a few alterations.

If more of us had this attitude, and for a longer time -- it used to be standard practice for Americans, as in the rest of the world as well -- we probably wouldn't be in quite the dire straits that we're in now.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

there's no one as irish ...

... as Barack O'Bama


I just realized yesterday that when I applied for a certain position at the university, I attached a cover letter for a different position I was applying for elsewhere at the university.

Somehow, I don't think I'm going to get the interview.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

random memory

Back in 1987, I attended the former Edmund Ignatius Rice College in Rotorua, New Zealand, while I was living there as an exchange student with AFS.

I have a lot of memories of the place, from David Baines beating up two of the fourth-formers who had been giving me a hard time; and Mark Wirihana teaching me how to use a taiaha; down to learning the Hail Mary, despite being Protestant and saying "mumble mumble mumble" during chapel whenever we were called upon to pray in unison. But one memory stands out right now, for whatever reason.

My sixth-form homeroom teacher was Brother Philip, a decent enough guy, all things considered. He was long on patience, which you had to be at an all-boys high school that was about to merge with an all-girls high school and your job was one that probably would face the ax when the music stopped. Actually, you had to be long on patience in being a teacher at an all-boys high school.

One fine afternoon, at the end of the school day, I took it upon myself to stack all the desks in Brother Philip's room. I would pick up one, and lay it flat atop another. I would then pick up a third, and carefully balance its feet atop the feet of the upended desk. After that came a fourth desk, which also would be placed, upside-down, so that in short order there were four desks stacked together, nearly touching the ceiling.

Now repeat the process until every last desk in the room has been placed into these rather awkward arrangements.

Just as I began to survey my work, it suddenly hit me: School wasn't over, and it was time for maths class. So I grabbed my bookbag, exited through the door and went down the hallway into Ms. Gosnell's class, where we were about to have a test. It didn't even occur to me to go through the door that joined the two rooms, which is probably just as well, considering what happened next.

About ten minutes into the test, Brother Philip entered the room, looking slightly aggrieved. He walked over to Ms. Goswell, spoke to her in hushed tones for a minute, and after she shook her head in dismay, left the room as quietly as he had entered.

A day or two later it hit me that he had been trying to figure out who had left him with such a mess to straighten out. At the time, I was hard at work on surds or the Pythagorean theorem or some other bit of math that I had mastered a year or two earlier back in the States, so while I registered his presence in the room, it never occurred to me to snicker or giggle, which surely would have given me away.

If they were asked, none of my classmates ratted me out. And I never told a soul that it had been me. Until now.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, October 06, 2008

small acts of decency

Next month my friend Shelly is turning 40.

She's going through a difficult time right now, separated from her wife, marginalized by her own parents, and feeling at times quite alone in the world. She's my best friend; I've known her for 20 years, more than half my lifetime. So I sent her a note and asked her if she wanted to get together next month to celebrate her birthday.

You would have thought from her reaction that I had just paid off her mortgage.

My friend Walks in the Rain, who I am sure will keep me from ever getting conceited or feeling special about myself, recently told me, "Congratulations, you're a decent human being. which makes you above average." It calls to mind the many times I have failed even these basic acts of decency, and how far below the standard I really am.

How can we stand to live like this, where a simple kindness is above average? How can we bear to look at ourselves in the mirror?


A friend of mine is planning to get married next year, and not surprisingly, she's getting some pressure from family to keep it traditional.

Well, bollocks to that. Couples should do what works for them, and never mind what their parents think. Wear a purple wedding dress, wear ripped or stone-washed jeans, or wear red-orange fezes. Whatever you like, whatever works for you, it's all fine. It's your wedding day, and you should enjoy yourselves.

We kept our own wedding pretty simple -- six groomsmen and a groomsmaid, plus five bridesmaids and two bridesmen -- but I wish in many ways it had been even simpler. By the time the wedding rolled around, I would have been more than happy to drop at least one of my groomsmen. My brother and his wife kept their wedding party to just themselves, and their guests strictly to family.

I'd also have settled for more unusual. Some couples get married in an underground chapel in the Crystal Cave, just outside Hellertown, Pa., on Halloween. That would be amazing, though the wedding party would be small.

One of the traditional items is the Unity candle, where the parents of the bride and groom light candles to represent their grown children, which the children bring together to light one large candle to symbolize their new life together. We didn't do that. Instead we celebrated Communion together, just the two of us. We also took our marriage vows from the issue of the Fantastic Four where John Storm and Alicia Masters got married.

Another friend of mine, when he got married, he and his wife did air Communion. Ken's explanation was that he and his wife had planned to take Communion together. Unfortunately, the person in charge of Communion had forgotten to place either element in the appropriate place, with the result that they had to "fake it." They went through the motions of taking Communion, drinking nonexistent juice from empty cups, and eating nonexistent bread from empty trays.

Do whatever works for you, even if it means you have to fake it.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

a chain letter for good luck

Do not throw this letter away. It has the power to bring you good luck and prosperity; failing to follow its directions could lead to disaster. This letter has been around the world nineteen times and has been translated into twenty-three languages.

It began in late 1864, when it was dictated to Mary Todd Lincoln, U.S. President Lincoln's wife, through a medium, by the spirit of her late son Tadd Lincoln. Despite Mary Lincoln's great belief in the spiritual world, her husband would not let her follow its instructions, and early in 1865, President Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. Mary Lincoln went mad with grief and eventually was consigned to an asylum.

After President Lincoln's assassination, the letter was discovered by his vice president and successor, President Andrew Johnson. President Johnson neglected the letter and was impeached, but at the last moment he remembered the letter, and sent out 10 copies to various heads of state and childhood friends, and he was acquitted by one vote.

This is not a hoax; the chain letter has power from the spirit world. Hundreds of people have ignored it and suffered the consequences. In 1892, Pierre Jean Hugo received a copy of the French version of the letter and threw it out, and broke his leg the next day after falling down the stairs. A neighbor of his, Francois Duchatellier, also received a copy. Monsieur Duchatellier sent out ten copies and a week later inherited a chicken farm outside Digne. His great-grandson later sold the chicken farm for $10 million to Frank Perdue of Perdue Chickens.

In the early twentieth century, the archbishop of Sarajevo received a copy of the letter, and thinking himself immune to such letters, rejected it. Six months later, he was assassinated and Europe was plunged into World War I, perhaps the bloodiest conflagration the world has ever seen. But when Jafar Abu-Shabazz in Kenya received a Swahili version of the letter in 1938 and sent out ten copies, he not only married his childhood sweetheart, but he escaped World War II when several of his friends and neighbors were conscripted and died in the military.

Send no money; money has no place in spiritual matters. Simply make ten copies of this letter and send them to friends, relatives or strangers via e-mail or a regular postal service within one week, then sit back and wait for your luck to change. U.S. President George Bush didn't believe in chain letters, but when he mailed ten copies in early 1991, he was able to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War with minimal casualties. President Bush sent a copy to Ted Turner, and as a result of his own diligence, Ted Turner was able to establish CNN as a credible news organization with its spot coverage of the Gulf War.

Ten copies are all that is needed to bring good fortune. Don't be like Northwood High junior Michael Rogerstein who failed to copy the letter in 1963. He broke his leg two weeks later and was unable to attend the prom with his girlfriend. Instead, she went with Virgil Forrest and married him instead, and didn't even invite Michael to the wedding. Gillian Anderson sent out copies and as a result has become a famous actress for her performance as Dana Scully on the X-Files.

Just send out ten copies. It works!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

romans 14

In this chapter, Paul frames the issue of acceptance in terms of our appetites, focusing on meat and vegetables.

I've heard that the issue here is that the meat had been offered as a sacrifice to idols, and now was being sold in the market for people to eat. (I seem to recall that the Greek word translated as "unclean" in the latter half of chapter 14 is different from the Greek word used elsewhere with regards to kosher law, but I won't swear to it, and my concordance is buried somewhere right now, out of reach.)

Some Christians regarded the meat as spiritually polluted, tainted from its association with pagan deities. Others saw it quite sensibly as meat that they could buy more cheaply than the best cuts the supermarket offered. (I may be conflating this with 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul also talks about such matters.)

There are plenty of parallels I can think of in contemporary Christian circles today: music, movies, TV, liturgical and worship styles, and just about everything else. I've heard Christians wax eloquent about the spiritual taint of secular worship (or rock music), of secular movies and programs, and of church services that remind them negatively of churches they used to attend.

Getting personal, to this day, organ music at church kills any interest I have in the service. Acoustic guitar ramps me right up, although electric guitars kill it off again because of the volume and the shrill tone.

What I find interesting is that while most preachers I've heard have indicated that the people who wouldn't eat the meat were the ones with "weak faith," Paul never says so. Maybe those who refused to eat meat had weak faith because they feared defiling themselves with meat sacrificed to idols; but maybe those who ate the meat had weak faith, because they took too much license and supported a pagan temple system.

Paul frames the issue of weakness and strength in terms of appetites, specifically an appetite for food. Food is one of those basic drives in all of us, more fundamental than enjoyment of beauty, more primal than the sex drive. Leave a person without food and she becomes grumpy and irritable, but once you give her something to eat, it's amazing how high those gustatory sensations can take you.

Food is one of the basic identifying things of a culture, along with dress and language. American food is high in meats and starches; Mexican food is high on peppers, corn and beans. We'll eat foods that feel relatively familiar to us, such as Chinese or Italian foods; but if it gets too unfamiliar, we want nothing to do with it. Food is one of the ways we can judge who is "in" and who is "out."

And Paul is saying that whatever you think about your food, be firmly convinced in your own mind, but give a break to your neighbor who just doesn't get it as well as you do. Eat their meat to avoid causing them to stumble; don't eat your meat so that you don't offend them needlessly. (And don't you love that he prefaces this whole weak-and-strong-faith discussion with the counsel to love one another?)

I'm also struck by the placement he gives this along with the Sabbath, and the issue of holy days. Whether it's your base appetite, or the loftier matters of holy days and religious observance, his message is the same: Work with one another, and don't be quick to beat your breast and wail over your brother's sinfulness in not getting it as well as you do, since Christ has accepted each of you.

That would, conceivably, mean breaking one of your religious rules -- or following one of somebody else's -- to avoid causing difficulty for them.

I believe C.S. Lewis wrote about this in "The Screwtape Letters," about how, but for careful work and planning, the Church of England might have become a hotbed of charity, goodwill, and understanding.




I remember a brief conversation a couple months ago, where the Bible study leader asked us what made us disinclined to like another person, and it played into the issue of clean and unclean. Paul is making the same argument here, or at least a rather related one, that we have no right to shrink away or look down on other people because of those little things that seem so important to us. (Tattoos, preferring Pete Seeger to Tammy Trent, or actually enjoying listening to Jerry Decker on the Christian radio.)

Another example is one of dress. I remember hearing criticism when I was younger about the way "young people" dressed so inappropriately. Paul essentially would be saying here, "Don't sweat it so much. It's not a case of what is inappropriate to you must also be considered inappropriate for her. Each age group has its own standards of modesty and propriety."

In my experience, this sort of thing often has been central to discussions of  how to tell if someone is "really" a Christian. There are behaviors and attitudes people exhibit that cause others to suspect that they are only culturally or nominally a Christian, and not as committed or as legitimate a follower as those observing the behavior.

I have a few friends who are staunchly conservative. One in particular talks about Patriarchy Done Right, the way God wants it; he supports the government's use of torture as an interrogation technique; and regularly talks about culture wars, and how God has chosen to bless the Republican Party because it has a culture of life. He also has no problem with the government's rescue plan giving $700 billion to wealthy corporations and their heads, because "that's how the world works."

Meanwhile, I see patriarchy as fundamentally at odds with the Kingdom of God, believe that anyone who tortures another person for any reason effectively is torturing Christ, believe the Republican Party's policies often are at odds with Scripture and the priorities of God. Also, giving tax breaks to the wealthy and powerful is an act of oppression to the weak and powerless.

I'm sure we both regularly shake our heads in disbelief at each other. That in no way render the faith either of us professes as illegitimate.

There's also the issue of the Tyranny of the Easily Offended. I'm sure you're familiar with it; it's the sort of thing that makes it difficult to say even "damn" or "hell" in a room of adults, because of a misapplication of Ephesians 5:4; or the discomfort that ensues when grown men have long hair or earrings; or when respectable people have piercings or tattoos.

For that matter, there's also the issue of how this affects how we approach sharing our faith. What parts of our lives should we be willing to adjust in order to include others outside of our faith. What is not negotiable? I'd say issues of justice, but that's about it.

My best friend of 20 years is transgendered. His parents have disowned him, his mother claiming a spiritual obligation to do so; and his wife has pushed him out of the house and done a lot to cut him out of her life, to the point that she didn't want to do anything with him for her birthday, but went out with his parents. Earlier, she and his sister planned an entire family visit without telling him about it or involving him at all.

I don't fault my friend's wife, entirely. It's a difficult situation she's in, and very painful for her. But there's more moralizing and judgment going on here than an attempt to embrace him as he is and seek a solution together. It's more of a parting of the ways, breaking into two camps and disavowing the legitimacy of the other, and failing to seek a resolution that is not in line with her (and her mother- and sister-in-law's) understanding of what proper Christian behavior from him should entail.

I had a friend in college who on principle wouldn't congratulate someone on having a baby out of wedlock, because they had been sinning. I didn't even think about it. I congratulated this person at once. I also read the names of AIDS victims when the AIDS quilt came to town, because people had died, leaving holes in the communities where they had lived, and it made sense to grieve with them that grieve. Same reaction when a friend was decloseted to her parents before she was ready, and her life became a living hell while they all reeled at her perceived immorality.

Justice, we can't be silent on. "Justice, justice you shall pursue," the rabbis conclude is the message of the Torah, and it makes sense to me. Writing a column for the newspaper, you get a feel after a while for what makes people stand up and take notice. I discovered that you can talk frankly about your faith, and people will react in a positive way if you're saying something meaningful. You can even talk about the True Meaning of Christmas and call people to repentance, and people not only listen, they'll respect what you have to say.

To an extent, though, how much does this matter in our church? It's like a sermon series I heard on the book of Galatians two years ago. I don't recall seeing that much of a works theology at work in our church, nor such rampant legalism. I'm not cognizant of any real dissonance over doctrine, not like I saw back in college, where every little thing is a matter of Absolute Truth. Or maybe I'm just projecting, because it doesn't matter to me for the most part, so I don't notice when it matters to others until they make it matter to me.

And I'm sufficiently disengaged from evangelical culture to know if doctrinal matters like eternal security, glossolalia, prelapsarianism, and dispensational theology really command people's attention like they did when I was in college and people considered me unteachable and unspiritual because I rejected hardline Calvinist thinking. At least I never hear people talking about these things after the service. (Maybe they do in other settings,)

The closest I've come is finding some people uncomfortable over my views on biblical inspiration and literalism because they're not properly evangelical, and far as that goes, Matt Nolan got a kick out of seeing how much he and I agreed on such issues.

Friday, October 03, 2008

faith at a child's level

God shows up in some astonishing ways when we're opening to seeing him.

Like many children, my daughter Evangeline has plenty of stuffed animals, none of which has mattered much at all to her. That changed when her grandmother died. Suddenly, Evangeline bonded with a handmade stuffed rabbit that she has had since she was born, which she calls Cinderabbit. Evangeline has slept with Cinderabbit every night since Grandma's funeral, and for a while took her everywhere she went as well.

As my friend Rykie once observed about the divine love that shone through her own imaginary friends, so I have seen with Evangeline and Cinderabbit. Cinderabbit demands nothing in return from Evangeline for the comfort she gives. She stays as close as Evangeline wants, loves her unconditionally, and listens to the moans and sighs Evangeline doesn't know the words to express.

She is the very expression of God's love in my daughter's life, and couldn't be any more real if her coat were made of velveteen.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

veep debate

Sarah Palin did surprisingly well in the vice presidential debate with Joe Biden

I was struck by a few jabs Gov. Palin not only managed to get in, but also to twist about. She correctly pointed out that Sen. Biden had criticized Barack Obama on several points and now was professing agreement with him; as well as another point or two that my mind is blanking on right now.

But by and large, Palin succeeded primarily in the sense that she did not ever become totally incomprehensible, and never had to use a lifeline. For the most part, she stuck to campaign talking points, and I was disappointed to hear her repeat things that Sen. John McCain had argued in his debate with Sen. Obama, and things that Sen. Obama had deflected satisfactorily at the time. (Voting against funding the war, for instance.)

The gap between Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCain is widening, and in Sen. Obama's favor. If this continues, I've little doubt that he's going to win the popular vote. Whether that carries into winning the election as well may be another matter.

Let's hope it is. We don't want a repeat of that again.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'old yeller' and grief

"Your mother told me about the dog" remains one of the best understated lines I've ever come across in a children's book.

The line comes of course from "Old Yeller," one of the best stories ever told in the English language about a boy and his dog. The book is set in Texas, not long after the Civil War. The boy's name is Travis, his little brother's name is Arliss; and the dog comes into their lives while the father is on a cattle drive up north. Even if you've never read the book, you probably know what happens to the dog, and what Travis' mother told his father once he returned from the cattle drive.

My daughter Evangeline didn't cry when Old Yeller died,* but then she didn't cry over "The Bridge to Terabithia" either.

It was something of a surprise to me that she didn't cry when Travis had to shoot the dog, but then she does internalize a lot of her grief and then express it through other ways, particularly in art.

When we lost Isaac, she took to drawing with a passion she hadn't shown in months. When we attended her grandmother's funeral, Evangeline merely grew very quiet when it was time to scatter her ashes, and said nothing at all on the subject until a few hours later, when she finally broached the subject with me in private.

She has inadvertently reminded me of something a friend had said once, about God reaching out to children through their imaginary friends.

Until her grandmother died, none of Evangeline's stuffed animals mattered much at all to her. Then, suddenly, she bonded to a handmade stuffed rabbit she had had since she was born, which she calls Cinderabbit. Evangeline has slept with Cinderabbit every night since Grandma's funeral, and for a while took her everywhere she went as well.

As Rykie observed with her imaginary friends, so I have seen with Evangeline and Cinderabbit. Cinderabbit demands nothing in return from Evangeline for the comfort she gives. She stays as close as Evangeline wants, loves her unconditionally, and listens to the moans and sighs Evangeline doesn't know the words to express. She couldn't be any more real if her coat were made of velveteen.

* She isn't a John Wayne fan, either.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

dear governor

It's new-CLEAR, not new-KEW-ler.

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

We now return to the debate, coming live over NPR.

books to ban

I was perusing the list of most commonly challenged books in the U.S. on Wikipedia and noted that "James and the Giant Peach" was number 56 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books of the 1990s.

I'm sorry, but did I miss something when I read that book? It's like any number of other children's books, particularly by Roald Dahl. Boy has a miserable life. Someone intervenes, and the boy is able to escape his misery. He goes on an adventure, where there are dangers, but his quick mind and resourcefulness save both him and his companions. What's wrong with that?

Perhaps it is the anti-rhino views expressed by the author.

Hemingway made the list three times, and Mark Twain twice. I could be mistaken, but I expect that's because Twain uses the N-word, which use has overshadowed the remarkably nonracist sentiments expressed in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" particularly; and because Hemingway often writes about wounded men unable to have sex.

What I did find striking is the books that didn't show up, at least when I casually skimmed the list. "Mein Kampf," for instance.

It floors me when people want to ban books. I haven't read all the books on that list, but I've read a good deal of them, and none of them seemed remotely worthy of being banned. I can't even see them as objectionable. Many of these are books that I would consider "must-reads." Many others fall under "Yeah, I really ought to read that."

I read "Old Yeller" to Evangeline when she was in first or second grade; and this past summer we were cracking up together over "The Canterbury Tales." "All's Quiet on the Western Front" might be a little heavy for her as a bedtime story, but that's more of an age-appropriate issue, sort of like not letting her watch "Blazing Saddles" or read "Lord of the Flies" until she's older.

Maybe part of the issue is ambiguity in what the ALA means by "banned books." There's banning in the sense that firemen come to your house and douse your private library with kerosense, and there's banning in the sense of "I don't want that in my house" or "You shouldn't read that." Perhaps "banning" is too strong a word for that sense, but in any event I can't see telling people not to read most of these books either.

I don't think there's a book in existence that deserves to be destroyed, with the possible exception of "Jane Eyre."

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

who'll stop the rain (new lyrics)

Long as I remember, rain's been coming down.
Clouds of mystery throwing confusion on the ground
Must be ten years gone now, trying to find the sun,
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain.

I went to Virginia, seeking shelter from the storm.
Caught up in the fable, I watched the tower burn.
Broken vows and new starts never loose the chains,
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain.

Heard the children singing, how we cheered for more.
We huddled close together, trying to keep warm.
Still the rain kept falling, pouring on our ears,
And I wonder, still I wonder, how to stop the rain.

lightsabers and adamantium

What the world needs is a discussion of whether lightsabers can cut through adamantium. And thank goodness, Fark is there to provide us with that discussion.

As every Star Wars fan knows, lightsabers can cut through everything. And as every comics fanboy knows, adamantium is the nearly indestructible metal used in Marvel Comics. Ultron the genocidal robot has been made of it since the alloy was first discovered. Wolverine's skeleton is laced with it, which makes him even tougher. Just about anyone whom the writers and editors at Marvel want to make more dangerous, has access to it.

Still, while adamantium is nearly indestructible, the key word is "nearly." The metallurgist who created it did so in an attempt to recreate the unique alloy in Captain America's shield. He failed. In the Marvel Universe, the shield remains the strongest alloy in existence.

The shield has been broken only once that I'm aware of. At the conclusion of the 11th issue of the Secret Wars miniseries back in the 1984, Doctor Doom killed Spider-man, the Hulk, and those members of the Fantastic Four, X-men and Avengers who were present with a single bolt from the blue. When they were all restored to life in issue 12, Captain America's shield had a long shard missing.

Doom succeeded in breaking the shield only because he had stolen the power of the Beyonder, a being so powerful that Marvel editors at the time equated him with God himself. Captain America was able to restore it at the conclusion of the issue, owing to residual omnipotence in the air following Doom's defeat.

So the real question isn't whether a lightsaber can cut through adamantium. It's whether it can cut through a metal so tough that only God can break a piece off.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

bailout blues

I'm not opposed to the government stepping in and bailing out some of the financial giants that have gone down the past week. When your patient has gone into cardiac arrest, you need to keep the heart functioning. The financial sector is the heart of our economy.

What I object to is that there has been little effort made to provide support for Joe and Jane America who have lost their homes in this bubble burst. The benefit they will receive from this will amount to the "trickle down," which is to say that it does not exist. Those who do stand to benefit are the power brokers and uberwealthy whose decisions and actions put the economy into this mess. This is the government once more taking the side of the wealthy.

The economic effect of the bailout would have the same effect by bailing out homeowners, with the additional benefit of allowing working class homeowners to remain in their homes. This has been rejected for reasons that elude me. Discussions instead center on allowing homeowners to be thrown out of their homes, and protecting the brokers whose irresponsibility created the market crash.

From what I understand of the bailout that was rejected Monday -- and I can't imagine the one being considered now differs much in this regard -- is that it would have allowed no golden parachutes for CEO's hired after the bailout. Those who presided over the worse financial collapse in 70 years, however, still get theirs.

In other words, it still protects the wealthy malefactors while managing to screw over the little guy. What a country.

This may be how the world works, and how it always has worked, but I see no reason why we should tolerate or accept it, nor that we should facilitate it. Our government was founded to protect the people from tyranny, and that includes economic and financial tyranny as well as political. It is within the purview of the government, in granting the emergency aid, to lay down stipulations for receiving that aid. That includes "No bonus for failing."

The people who have presided over the crash of WaMu, Lehman Bros., AIG and the others are not entitled to turn a hefty profit over their greed and incompetence. The U.S. Government was, the last I knew, planning a rescue operation that would reward them personally for their failure, and then close the barn door after all the horses had left, so there would be no more golden parachutes for later failures.

I call that wrong. Anyone with me?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
-- William Shakespeare

Monday, September 29, 2008


When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"
— Revelation 6:5-6

Am I being a bit dramatic here? Maybe.

On the other hand, you try living on unemployment checks, a little part-time work that has dried up, and the odd free-lance assignment you can find, for three months, with no insurance for two months. See how calmly you take it when the economy goes to hell in a handbag while leaders of both parties preen and posture and prepare to bail out the wealthy power-brokers who screwed it all up, while accusing each other of posturing and telling the people who need help the most, "Sorry, you have made your bed and now you must lie in it."

Yeah, I'm a little preoccupied about the mess, and I've been praying for grace and faith for myself, wisdom and compassion for our congressional leaders, and common sense and compassion for the fat cats who have driven us to this point.

Still, it's hard not to see some divine action in here. God has used us to judge and lay low a number of empires and evil regimes the last hundred years or more. It's not hard to picture him saying, "And now I shall judge the ax."

We have done a lot on the international scene that we have felt justified in doing simply because we could and it was in our "national interest," as though that meant it automatically was in everyone's best interests -- wholesale destruction of the American Indian nations, for starters, without getting into our colonialesque behaviors in Africa and Asia.

And if I'm being melodramatic and expecting the worst, let me just say that expecting the worst means you're rarely disappointed, and occasionally surprised in a pleasant manner.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

alcohol and me

I got drunk, once. Not out-and-out drunk, but it was the most serious buzz I've ever had, and I'm sure it showed.

A group of us had taken a tour of a private school with LEEDS Platinum certification, to get a sense of what could be done to make the charter school greener. We went back to the house of the new principal to debrief and discuss our impressions, and he offered a variety of wines and beers. I picked a beer, and although I thought I went slowly, I also hadn't eaten anything all day.

Bad move. I realized about halfway down the bottle that my eyes were semi-glazed, and I was having trouble sitting up in the chair. I immediately slowed down on the drinking, said little, and waited for my head to clear. We finally left the house about 90 minutes later, so I had plenty of time to detox.

No one said anything, so I don't know if they even noticed. but I'm forever grateful that I had hitched a ride with another board member.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

truer than fiction

It's been observed many times by many people that nothing ruins a book quite like being told you have to read it.

There is, however, one book that stands out as an exception to this rule. Not even English class at John Paul College could dim the torch of this book as its light flickered through the dreary annals of required reading. That book was William Golding's "Lord of the Flies."

It's a short book, probably not even 200 pages, but I remember being fascinated by the stark realism that permeated the book. As the story begins, a group of boys has been stranded on an island with no adults. The boys, three of whom are named after major characters in "Coral Island," plan to establish a utopian society on this island while they wait for adults to come and rescue them. There's fresh water to drink, there are pigs they can kill for meat, and fruit they can eat, and one of the boys has Coke bottle glasses they can use to start fires when they need to.

But there are signs early on that their society will be less utopian than they intend. Without the restraining influence of adults, the boys' behavior becomes wilder, more dangerous, and angrier. Soon there is Betrayal. Torture. Murder. The boys soon split into two tribes, and under the sway of their leader, the tribe of choirboys launches a war of extinction against the other.

Eric Ziolkowski, my religion professor freshman year of college, cited "Lord of the Flies" as an example of the Christian doctrine that human nature is depraved. With a chuckle he described the book's view as pessimistic, and got a huge laugh. From what I could tell, I was the only one in the class to think Golding's depiction of human nature was pretty accurate.

It would be nice to think that violence and hatred -- and their close cousin, callous indifference -- don't come naturally to us, that, as Lieutenant Joe declaims in "South Pacific," such values have to be carefully instilled. It would be nice to believe in the noble savage, ruined by corrupt civilization. Life has taught me otherwise. It is not society that is corrupt but we ourselves. Society, if anything, acts as a deterrent. The evidence lies no farther away than the nearest school.

I've often suspected that people who talk about socialization as a benefit of public education either didn't attend a public school, or were part of the group that made it hell for the rest of us. In my recollection, at least, it was no picnic. It was in sixth grade that one of my classmates decided it would be funny to put pins into the cap of his pen and stab people in the rear end with them between classes, when teachers couldn't see what he was doing. Another schoolmate, when he was 17, picked up two 12-year-old girls at the mall, and took them both back to his home where he raped and murdered them both. It wasn't just where I grew up, either. A few years ago, a senior in Norde Bastille beat a freshman so badly the younger student had to be taken to the hospital, all because he had moved the senior's book bag out of the way so he could seat down and eat lunch. If it was anything like the fights they used to have in my high school, teachers had to force their way through a crowd of spectators packed shoulder to shoulder at least six people deep.

Nobody has to teach children to hog all the best toys and refuse to share. That's just natural and -- God help us -- even logical. It makes sense. At least to some degree, we have to be selfish in order to survive. But human nature goes deeper than that. No one needs to teach us how to be petty, cruel and vicious either. Every child wants to be well liked, but for some reason most children also want to decrease the popularity, esteem and success of others.

When we enter preschool or kindergarten, I doubt very many of us are reminded by our parents to call another child a "poo-poo head." We just do it. The school bully who shakes down smaller kids for their lunch money isn't strapped for cash. He's doing it because he enjoys the rush he gets from causing fear and humiliation.

And that's what is so engaging and so chilling about "The Lord of the Flies." We live it. It doesn't matter if you're in church, Sunday school, or at a soccer game. Children are never more than a few minutes from anarchy and savagery. All that holds them in check is the presence of a mature adult to remind them how they should behave. Let the adult leave the room for a minute, and the savagery emerges. Sometimes it's only spitballs and cruel names, but sometimes it's much more. And sometimes, it doesn't even matter if the adult has left the room.

You're not going to find "Lord of the Flies" kept in a genre any more specific than fiction, or (more deservedly) literature, but the truth is that it's horror through and through. Literary convention may have persuaded us that a book must use preternatural monsters to externalize the human condition, but those boys show a true face of humanity, unpleasant as it is. The phrase "man's inhumanity to man" is a strange one, as "inhumanity" seems to be one of the hallmarks of humanity.

A week after we marked the seventh anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers, Jon Stewart made a sobering point on The Daily Show about 9-11 and all the battles that have been waged because of it. "Nineteen people flew into the towers. It seems hard for me to imagine that we could go to war enough to make the world safe enough that nineteen people wouldn't want to do harm to us."

Obviously, we can't. We won't stop violence by answering it with more violence, but we also won't stop it by ignoring it. The truth is, we simply won't stop it, period. All it takes for violence to occur is a single man with a gun, or even a kid with a baseball bat.

And that is a level of horror that fiction can never reach.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

This post was re-written from a similar post by The Brucker. Anyone who reads it should feel free to re-write it again, and keep the meme going.

Friday, September 26, 2008

romans 7

Romans 7 contains one of the most human pictures in this epistle so far. In the middle of some intriguing but admittedly abstract explication upon the relationships among Law, sin and God, Paul shoves theology aside for a moment and explains something that anyone, of any religion, can relate to.

In a couple sentences, he sums up the frustration of every child who wants to please her parents; of every husband who wants to do right by his wife; of every person who wants to do what she knows she should, but finds it easier and more natural to do something else instead. Here's how Paul puts it:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Paul answers his question in verse 25, when he says “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And of course there are plenty of examples of dramatic changes touted by deliverance ministries. You know the sort of thing: the drug addict who suddenly finds that heroin no longer holds an attraction; the alcoholic who stops drinking cold turkey; the abuser who suddenly realizes what a cad he's been to his family, and changes.

You can find them, but a large part of my spirit positively recoils at the thought of them, as they remind me of the slick salesmanship of Pentecostal preachers who use them as an example of how following Jesus ends all your problems and makes your life hunky-dory.

A better example might be of the Apostles, who bickered and fought for three years over which of them was greater in the Kingdom of God, which of them had given up more, and which of them was more faithful. It took a while, but they eventually grew out of it and discovered the heart of Jesus' message as he saw it, to the point that Matthew the collaborator and Simon the zealot were united in martyrs' deaths.

Of course, since Romans is Paul's letter, if we want a character-driven example of change, we might want to look at Paul himself. Romans undeniably is a book of theology, but it's more than that: It's a book of Pauline theology, chronicling Paul's own ruminations and insights into the nature of God, growing out of his own frustration with the Law and his inability to be faithful as he knew he ought to be.

I see Paul as someone who, as a Pharisee, earnestly desired to know God. He studied the Torah, memorized whole portions of the Tanakh, and undoubtedly was recognized as an up-and-coming rabbinical authority. His ambition was to serve God zealously by jealously observing the Torah and allowing no sin to enter his life.

And yet he found that the Law that was meant to bring him life instead brought him only condemnation; and that sin seized upon the opportunity provided it by the Law and blossomed into death within him.

From what I've read in his letters and in the book of Acts, I think Paul was so vehemently opposed to the Way, not because it held that Jesus was the Son of God, but because its teachings about grace and forgiveness (rather than strict observance of Torah) ran counter to everything that he believed. And on the road to Damascus, he came face to face with the failure of his reliance on observance of Torah, and the house of cards collapsed.

The change that took place in him led to a reordering not just of his epistemology, but also to his relationships. His wife either separated from him or asked for a divorce, and many of the men he had been close to now became his opponents.

Jesus talks about change as well, obviously, a shift from outward adherence to a code, to inward attention to the heart and the attitudes that manifest themselves in behaviors. Don't just keep from killing people; you also have to avoid hating them. Don't just settle for only the just penalty the law allows (an eye for an eye was actually a rather liberal, soft-on-crime position for that point in history, where you could kill someone for personal injury); instead, forgive those who hurt you.

I've always understood this passage of Romans to refer to the struggle with sin, that even though our spirits are redeemed, our flesh remains corrupt and struggles with the sin nature -- but Christ, who has redeemed the spirit, also will redeem the body. Thus I see it as redemption as an ongoing journey, which is why Paul gives thanks to Jesus for delivering us from this body of death: beginning in this life, continuing through the rest of our lives, and then into the final redemption of the flesh.

It's easy to rely on the flesh, on our own earthly efforts or will, and to see it as evidence that God is working in us, to change us. I have a friend who gives great credit to Jesus for his formidable self-control. He has a tremendous problem with anger -- he can't stand when someone criticizes him or disagrees too sharply -- so over the years he has learned to tamp down the volcano of white-hot rage, which he sees as sanctification. He is, after all, not exploding at people – not usually, anyway – but you can see the anger simmering just beneath the surface.

In many ways he unwittingly has made a spiritual fetish out of his self-control, and he boasts as though it was a great accomplishment of the Holy Spirit in his life that he never wants to have sex with his wife, contents himself with bland food, and has managed to drive out many pleasures from his life because they're addictive or too worldly.

I was taught early on in my Christian years that Judaism was a dry and lifeless religion, obsessed with rules and laws that we aren't obligated to follow. Aside from mischaracterizing Judaism, the people pushing this particular view also often pushed strict rules and requirements in terms of Christian behavior. That's pretty minor stuff, though; I don't know that we have many people at our church who deal with legalism that shallow. To the extent that legalism is a problem, I expect it's more doctrinal and internal than behavioral.

I'm reminded of a book by Larry Crab called "The Pressure's Off." In it, Crab talks about people who ironically live lives of quiet subjugation to the Law, even as they claim to be free of it. Ask Natasha and myself about our children and why they're well-behaved, and you'll probably hear me say something about the amount of time we spend with them, reading books, playing games, involving them in running the household, and being involved with their lives. It's all by the grace of Christ that they're turning out so well, because we've been doing what we're supposed to as parents. (And I love to hear what a great dad I am, and that my kids are turning out great.)

Of course the truth is that you can do everything right and have it all go wrong, because no one really does it all correctly. I lose my temper at the girls, say stupid things to them, get annoyed when they act like children and overreact, and at times get too strict or too lax with them.

That my girls do as well as they do is an act of grace. I've known other parents who do everything right, and still have a horrifically hard time with their kids. The rule of influence remains in place, but the Law does not shape how things work; if it did, no adult would be functionally sane, because our parents all failed in crucial ways according to the Law.

And of course that can be crushingly painful. I have a dear friend in Georgia who is gay, and her mother seems to take it as a personal indictment of herself as a parent. "If I had done a better job, my daughter wouldn't be a lesbian."

And of course the appeal to Law -- I did everything right, so she should be straight -- has had a great effect on their relationship, since it turns the issue into one of my friend's supposed disobedience to God and rejection of the moral lessons her parents taught her, rather than walking through their relationship with grace and love.


If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we must stop condemning ourselves and one another for real or imagined failings where the Law is concerned, and instead work together. Evangeline and I have been reading Romans together at bedtime, and shortly after this is a passage about the gospel's ministry of reconciliation -- something Law does not allow, since Law only recognizes hitting the bullseye or the shame of missing the mark.

A side issue that comes up during these discussions is the fallacious trifurcation of Torah into three segments: the sacrificial law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law. While these are great descriptions of the different functions of Torah, the truth is that the Hebrews made no distinction as I've heard many evangelicals do.

You know the sort of thing I'm talking about: Christ fulfilled the sacrificial law, and the ceremonial law was only for a different dispensation, but the moral law remains in effect and binding upon us today, which is where we go to give one another all the tsursis we do over behaviors we find objectionable. The Israelites made no such distinction, and neither does Paul. His argument is that all the Torah was fulfilled in Christ, and so we are free from all its demands so that we may live in the Spirit instead.

Living in the Spirit therefore means living the sort of life modeled by Christ, what you also could refer to as living under his lordship. In a sense, it means approaching situations less from a right-wrong moralistic stand than from a good-bad perspective, where the good under consideration is how actions affect people.

I have a transgendered friend, for instance, whose mother was advised by her pastor that God would want her to disown him (!) -- a moralistic stand that takes no consideration of the relationship or how such personal rejection is going to play out on a person.

The adult who is addicted to pornography isn't in sin because she turns to pornography for sexual gratification, and the solution isn't just to remove her erotica from the house -- though that's not necessarily a bad idea -- but it's more in the lines of understanding what she is seeking from pornography, and where she can find it in a healthier, better context. Emotional intimacy with her husband, for instance.

Or to use the example of my TG friend. The moralistic stand is to say this right or wrong; a better, more christocentric response is to walk with my friend, stay close, and not let the moral issues of right or wrong enter the relationship. By seeing my friend as a person -- by seeing him as Christ, honestly, which he is either in acts of sin (which Christ has identified with), or in righteousness (for all our righteousness gains meaning in Christ) or really just in being human (for Christ became human and identified with us in all our shame) -- I can escape, hopefully, the pitfall of self-righteous judgmentalism, and be the voice of Christ in his life, because I don't cast him aside over something that I disagree with him on. The beauty of the gospel is that we all have beauty and value, no matter how we vote, what we eat, how we look, or what we do.

I always remind myself that prostitutes, thieves and extortionists, and even lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable talking to Jesus and asking him for help. The only people who didn't feel comfortable with him were religious people like me, who felt they were something special for being so religious or righteous.

I say this not as one who has perfected it, but it's an idea I've understood a long time, and it's one that has made me more socially liberal as time has gone on.

The struggle I find I have more is keeping the attitude of Jesus even toward people who encourage behavior or attitudes contrary to what he teaches. Political example, just because it's been on my mind a lot lately. We're engaged in a war right now, in Iraq, that is unjust by any standard I'm aware of for just wars. Iraq never attacked us, nor from what we can tell did it even pose any threat to us when we massed our troops at its borders and then spilled them in.

The war was encouraged and approved of by the cultural elite of our nation -- a people who are just as disproportionately not represented in the military as they are disproportionately represented in the halls of power where the decision to begin the war was made. Congress is overwhelmingly made of wealthy white leaders, while those fighting and being killed in Iraq are more largely (though not entirely) Hispanic and African American ... and remember, for a long time after the war started, they didn't have adequate protection.

That gets me angry, and it makes me even angrier when I recall that many ministers, including Franklin Graham, hailed the war as something that God approved of. And of course GWB did a great job of playing the faith card during two presidential elections to win the support of the Christian Right.

An economic example, since that is also on my mind a lot. Our nation has a problem with runaway consumerism and has for years. We consume vast amounts of the world's resources for no reason other than that we can, and to do it, we've pushed wages down abysmally low overseas. Workers drip sweat in the fields and children lose fingers in sweatshops so we can have low-cost clothing and DVD players that we'll throw out when we feel we've used them up.

Our own destructive spending habits have been further fueled by predatory lending practices in America that have allowed the middle class to feel prosperous even as wages stagnated, savings shriveled up, and debt ballooned.

And yet I still hear people spewing nonsense about it being our right to squander our resources, get exorbitant salaries and golden parachutes for failure. And despite the lip service we all give to protecting the environment, I don't see many people making even half the effort that my family and I have made to reduce the amount of trash we throw out. (Check the garbage can after church some day -- wasted food and drink, wasted paper that could have been recycled, and a barrel load of trash after a two-hour worship meeting. That just isn't right. Those are resources we're squandering.)

It's as though no one has made the connection between caring for creation and their lifestyles. We expect that by agreeing it's a shame that things are so bad, we somehow are part of the solution, even though we're not even taking baby steps toward solving the problems.

In many ways, all that makes me pretty angry too.

And yet, you know something I've noticed? Jesus can be pretty kind to the Pharisees too. He ate with them, accepted their invitations to go to their houses, and didn't mind having late-night discussions with them. He only got impatient with them over their judgmentalism. Aside from some admittedly spectacular repudiations, he treated them as kindly as he did the lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans who came to see him. He never even called Caiaphas or Annas names for arresting him.

John 14:15-16 gives another example of how the Spirit is the key to obeying God and to true transformation. In that example, the context is about Jesus being the Way to the Father, and the talk about vines and branches. "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

I don't know if I've said anything new. I wrote something related to this a few years ago, about how the Cross transforms every moment of our lives so that it becomes an experience of intimacy with God, and even the crummy moments testify to his love.

I think that one thing the Law does, is it keeps us focused on ourselves and our misguided sense of our own importance and righteousness. "I did what you wanted, why aren't you doing what I want?" And of course there's a whole cottage industry of this snake-oil in American Christianity. We have preachers telling us how to raise our children so they're guaranteed to turn out right, peddlers of a false gospel telling us how to make God make us rich, and other shysters and con men telling us how to be healed or delivered from our problems, and always if we fail, the answer is: It's your fault. You didn't have enough faith or follow what the Bible says.

Walking in the Spirit means being less concerned with how righteous someone is than being concerned with how they are -- which was always the intent of the Law, but not what sin has done with it. The Torah said not to commit adultery, so that we would not sow pain and heartache in our marriages; living in the Spirit means your goal is not to satisfy the requirements of the Torah, but your goal instead is not to hurt your wife and children, or (for that matter) the woman whom you would have involved in an illicit relationship based on falsehood and deception, which at its inception would have been steeped in corruption.

I think we drift to the Law because its measurable benchmarks are easier to relate to. It's easy to tell if you've committed adultery, and to pride yourself on not having done so. It's not so easy to say "I've never been drawn intensely to someone other than my spouse."

The Law also lets us wriggle out of our motives; i.e., "Yes, I'm insanely angry at this person, but it's his fault and here's why." The Spirit puts our hearts on the line and forces us to admit "Yes, I'm insanely angry at this person, and I need to repent of that anger."

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.