Monday, March 31, 2008

why not just call them 'whorses'?

About a week and a half ago, I wrote about Struts, the toy inspired by Mattel's recent direct-to-video movie, "Barbie in 'Equus.'" I finally got a response from Playmates, the manufacturer of the toy, and it was pretty much what you would expect. They offered at once to destroy the line, fire everyone involved in their manufacture and development, and burn down the factories where they produced them:

Thank you for contacting Playmates Toys Inc. regarding the Struts horse and fashion play products. We appreciate your feedback regarding the Struts Product.

When we originally envisioned the product line we wanted to create a fashion doll that combined the two things that girls love to play with the most – fashion and horse play. We tested the concepts and learned from moms that they felt that it was indeed an innocent way for girls to play with fashion by dressing up a horse and not a doll. We wanted to give girls a different option from aspiration fashion doll play to fantasy dress up horse play. In addition, we overlaid the modeling concept giving it a silly – outrageous twist to the brand.

Thank you for contacting us with your concerns on the brand, we value all opinions and will consider your comments for future projects.

Paula Billingsley
Consumer Services
Playmates Toys Inc.

For a form letter that doesn't show she even read my initial e-mail, Billingsley's response was polite enough, so I won't share her e-mail address or corporate telephone number, even though both were included in her response. I have still have that much common decency left in my soul.

Still, I repeat my call for parents and other people related to children to contact Playmates Toys yourself and urge them not to bring these things to the shelves. (You also can e-mail them, if you prefer.) If more of us speak up, and not just at the cash register, we can get toy manufacturers to give us fewer bimbo toys and more toys that actually are worth having, toys like these.

Friday, March 28, 2008

My second choice for president

If I can't have Barack Obama for president, this guy is my second choice. After all, he stands for freedom, democracy and stuff.

In other news, I told Evangeline last night the story of Deep Thought, the computer that calculated the answer to life, the universe, and everything. She didn't get it at first, but when she did, she was amused.

Monday, March 24, 2008

the artist's new skill set

I don't know what other people did on Easter, but I spent a good chunk of the afternoon teaching Evangeline how to burn down the driveway.

The actual intent was to teach her a little applied optics, and show her how to use a magnifying glass to focus the sun's rays and do a little wood-burning. We have a cord or more of uncut firewood lying in the driveway from a tree we had cut down last fall, and I figured this would be a fun way to mix science and art.

That was my intent, but intent and practice so rarely meet that I suppose I should have known better.

What happened was this: I showed her a magnifying glass works by focusing the sun's light into a point so focused that it provides enough energy to burn wood. I burnt my initials into a large log, and then let her have a go.

What happened next is my own fault. Being the sort of father I am, once I saw that Evangeline had the idea, I started doing little things to aggravate her, like putting a stray crayon into her makeshift laser and making it melt. "Da-ad!" she moaned. (I've not quite stopped being "daddy" where she's concerned, but I'm afraid it's happening.)

Once she finished her first initial, I got the glass back so I could over my initials again and make them more solid. And she got back at me. Almost immediately, she slid a dry leaf into the beam and then gave a small cry of surprise as the leaf burst into flames.

Duly impressed with the power of a magnifying glass, Evangeline and I both avoided doing anything else of the sort the rest of the afternoon. She finished her initials, saw the other applications of starting a campfire without matches and of burning actual art into wood, and went back inside with me, appreciating that the firestarting power of a magnifying glass is like that of matches: Use neither without an adult's supervision, and don't play with them.

But I'm wondering about the other lessons I've been teaching her. First it was burglary. Now it's arson.

I'm afraid to find out what's next.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 21, 2008

how tasteless can a toy get?

If you cross Barbie with My Pretty Pony, will the offspring be a plastic Minotaur, or will it be the hot new toy?

The artist's rendering of the entire line is even more disquieting.
For parents worried that the toys being marketed toward their young daughters have been too focused on encouraging them to use their imagination, explore the world, and create new things, Playmates Toys has created the ideal toy. It's Struts, an equestrian streetwalker to bring out the JonBenet in every young girl.

Unveiled at the recent New York Toy Fair, Struts is a horse that comes with fashion accessories: frilly dresses, halter tops, makeup and platform shoes.

If you don't believe me, you can see for yourself.

When I heard about Struts, I did what I hope many other people do. I wrote to Playmates Toys and expressed my dismay with this toy, as a father of girls.

I am writing to express my deep concern over the new line of "Struts" horse toys that your company recently unveiled at the New York Toy Fair.

Simply put, I find it in extremely poor taste to eroticize toys marketed to elementary school grades, as is the case with these glammed-up "Struts." Girls regularly are bombarded with messages that place primary value on their appearance and glamour; far too few toys marketed at young girls encourage them to use their imaginations, to solve problems, or to create things. Sleek, eroticized toy horses with fashion accessories do nothing these more enduring and more valuable traits. They do, however, encourage young girls to focus on their physical appearance at an age when such a degree of glamour is wholly inapprorpriate.

I urge you to reconsider your decision to market these toys. I will not be getting Struts horses for either of my daughters, nor will I allow others to buy such toys for them.

Thank you for your attention.

Particularly if you have a daughter yourself, but even if you don't, I'd urge you to contact Playmates Toys yourself and urge them not to bring these things to the shelves. (You also can e-mail them, if you prefer.) Far too many toys for girls focus on appearances and hair, and not enough of them encourage the traits that we truly value. If more of us speak up, and not just at the cash register, we will be heard.
I noticed several years ago in the American church that it had its message backward: We keep telling society to repent, and we tell other Christians how much God loves us. (In the Bible, particularly in the life of Jesus, the harshest invective is reserved for believers, while those on the outside are told how much God loves them and wants them to come home.)

Last Sunday, a friend of mine pointed out something else that's backward: the church's approach to evangelism.

Mark talked about the time, as the pastor of a startup church in a city, he started to prepare for a presentation he was going to give his church members on how to evangelize. His talk was going to draw on the Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, the ABCs of the gospel.

You know the drill: You're a sinner, your sins have separated you from God, Jesus is the provision God has made to reconnect you with himself, and by confessing your sins and placing your faith in him, you can be forgiven and reconciled to God.

He hit trouble when he started looking at how Jesus and the early church used this model to share the gospel with other people. To his amazement (and consternation, since he was doing his talk the next morning), he couldn't find a single instance where anyone in Scripture did this.

What he found instead was this: Every time the disciples told nonbelievers about Jesus, their message was the Resurrection, and their call was to follow Jesus.

That was it. Jesus told people to follow him — sometimes giving them specific directions of what that meant, like "Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and then, follow me" — but he also spoke of his Resurrection.

All the teaching about what happened on the Cross -- how Christ became our sin, how he died in our place, the mechanism of our forgiveness -- is delineated by Paul, in his letters to believers. When he preached the gospel to a group of nonbelievers, Paul argued that Jesus was the promised messiah, and he preached the Resurrection as proof of that. There's no indication that he spent his time telling people that they were sinners and were separated from God.

I have to admit, Mark makes an interesting and compelling argument that we're substituting mechanism for message. And certainly haranguing people about their sins, real or imagined, doesn't really make them interested in the gospel nearly as much as hearing its real-world relevance in more organic arenas.

It makes me wonder how much we -- I -- have that's still all screwed up. It makes me think of the proverb, "Even a fool is thought wise when he remains silent"; and I remember that Paul himself waited something like 14 years after his conversion on the road to Damascus before he started preaching.

God only knows how many people I alienated over the years, by speaking of what I neither knew nor understood.

St. Francis of Assisi once said to "preach the gospel always, but use words only when necessary"; unfortunately, it was ruined for me some years ago by a Jesus Junk manufacturer who used it to tout a line of often obnoxious T-shirts. (Clearly, you don't need to use words yourself if you have a pithy saying on your T-shirt like "This is your brain in hell ... any questions?"

What struck me about Mark's comments, though, is how pervasive this inversion of the gospel has become in evangelical churches. There's the political power-brokering of the titans in our parents' generation, in lieu of actual engagement with society; there's the endless public moralizing over other people's peccadilloes and our resentment over media depictions of Christians that make us look imperfect; and there's this, making the mechanism our message rather than preaching the message that Jesus himself had.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Behold the dead christ

From Faith and Theology:

For one Holy Week forget about the suffering of Jesus, the courage of Jesus, the wickedness of it all. Forget even about the dying of Jesus: it is not to the crucifix, or even to the deposition, that I would direct you – no! Rather look at the man – dead – gaze upon the corpse of Christ, fix your eyes on his cold and rigid body, laid out on a slab, already showing signs of decomposition.

viral bibliomancy

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal...along with these instructions.
"In the meantime, Mrs Joe put clean white curtains up, and tacked a new-flowered flounce across the wide chimney to replace the old one, and uncovered the little state parlour across the passage, which was never uncovered at any other time, but passed the rest of the year in a cool haze of silver paper, which even extended to the four little white crockery poodles on the mantelshelf, each with a black nose and a basket of flowers in his mouth, and each the counterpart if the other."
Nope. No wisdom. Maybe there would be a neater effect if the nearest book weren't "Great Expectations."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

'garfield' sans the cat

I have a confession to make: I don't like "Garfield." In fact, I've never liked "Garfield."

It's a stupid strip, not worth the space it takes in the paper. It has four basic jokes: Garfield's owner is a putz, Odie the dog is stupid, Garfield is fat, and Mondays are horrible. I understand the strip is written more than a year in advance. If Jim Davis were to start rerunning old strips, I doubt anyone would even notice. When the Sunday paper pulled it, I was thrilled, since it meant there was a chance that the replacement strip might actually be worth reading.

But then there's the Internet. And somewhere on the Internet, someone asked, what happens if you take out the cat?
Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness in a quiet American suburb.
I present "Garfield Minus Garfield," probably the only time I have laughed out loud at a Garfield comic so hard I nearly peed myself. This is the strip the newspapers should be running. The strip literally is the "Garfield" comic but with that annoying cat digitally removed. The effect is that the strip centers on Jon Arbuckle, a man whose mind is unraveling before our eyes, a man who talks to the open air, frets over nothings, and rejoices in the smallest triumph, all before an audience of nobody.

I honestly can't think of a better strip than this one. I wish Davis had written it from the get-go.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

too much fun

No brainer question: Does God want us to enjoy ourselves -- have fun, that is?

I raise the question not because I'm concerned my life has become a hotbed of hedonism, nor because I fear I've been flagellating myself too frequently, but because there historically has been a wide range of reactions to pleasure and its role in the faith.

The Puritans get a bad rap for being so serious-minded and hating carnal pleasures like dancing, but the truth is that they loved their fermented apple cider, and felt that if husbands and wives weren't having sex on a regular basis that marital trouble was brewing.

Then there were groups, like the Shakers, who prided themselves so heavily on their self-control and took such a dim view of sexual pleasure, that they developed a serious fetish about abstinence and being marvelously asexual. All their sensuality was channeled into religious expression and ecstacy, and they visualized the return to Paradise as a time when men would have no sexual organs.

And then there are the mystics in Christianity, such as those in the Philippines who have themselves literally crucified during the Passion week, or the famously dour monastic orders who sought to mortify the flesh with fasting, flagellation, grueling vows of poverty/silence/other.

In "Crime and Punishment" Dostoevsky includes a character who falsely confesses to a murder because he considers that the physical suffering inflicted by the law's judgment will be good for him because he's done other things worth punishing.

That sort of suspicion of pleasure continues to permeate Western Christianity. Fundamentalist sects decry dancing as a carnal pleasure, and I've known Christians to feel guilty over enjoying something "too much" when it was not avowedly religious or spiritual.

Catholics and many mainline Protestants during the Lenten season feel an obligation to give up something, as though there is something superior about giving up a pleasure, whether it's meat on Fridays or some other sacrifice we feel compelled to make.

A student of mine at Central Christian Academy actually dropped out of the chess club because it was "distracting him from his relationship with God." (Alex was one of the most religious kids I've ever known, and chess club took all of ninety minutes per week, tops. His mom made him start going again two weeks later.)

I think God intends for us to enjoy ourselves, as evidenced by the number of feasts and celebrations included in the Torah, and the gospels' own depiction of Jesus as someone whose critics could accuse of being a glutton and a drunkard (not saying that he was -- but evidently he enjoyed his food and his wine).

open theism and prophecy

1) Certain things inescapably are brought about by the will of God; i.e., they are predestined. The Incarnation was one of those, since I believe God always intended that he would walk among us and share our lives; the Crucifixion was a response to sin, so that Christ would identify with us in our deaths so that we could identify with him in his Resurrection. This is Christus Victor theology, and is nothing new. If God predestines it, then he knows it will happen, even if it takes some unexpected shapes.

2) Even if God does not know exactly what shape the future will take, he knows how to read the signs. I felt the air getting cold today, and saw clouds gathering and said, "It's going to rain." If I had told Rachel about it, she doubtless could have impressed her friends with her prognosticatory abilities.

Thus God can see trouble brewing in the empires, hatred stewing for Paul, and know with certainty "Thus-and-such will happen." If God knows all that can be known, he can still hazard a pretty good guess about things are going to work out in the forseeable future, right? Many of them would fall under "absolute certainty."

3) I'm not describing the Almighty as a clockmaker who created the world and is letting it run down on its own. He is an Author who remains inextricably involved with his story, and who is capable of nudging things in whatever direction he chooses to send them.

He is a Musician leading a free-form jam session, guided by the rules and structure that separate music from mere noise, yet still capable of guiding the band through crescendos and decrescendos, across movements and toward a final fermata where he wants it.

He is a Choreographer, set upon the stage with his troupe in an improvisational dance; yet though he dances among them, they follow his lead through moves we have no name for. History remains his to guide and direct, and he can do that through a miracle that sounds as a trumpet blast that tears the caps off mountains, or through the quiet voice that whispers in our hearts.

If he wants something to happen, he can make it do so.

4) Many prophecies concerning Christ were not solely concerned with him. The prophecy "The almah [maiden, virgin] shall be with child," for instance, referred to the events in the reign of Ahaz; later, the gospels writers saw something in that that spoke to them of Christ, and they included it. That we associate it primarily with the birth of Jesus and not with the promise of deliverance from the Assyrians that Isaiah made, is due to the emphasis our liturgical calendar places on that verse in light of its citation as a messianic prophecy.

Psalm 22 unquestionably resonates with the experience of Christ on the Cross, but so do virtually all the psalms about how the psalmist feels abandoned by God.

I don't know what David was thinking when he wrote that psalm -- it could easily have been written about his experience fleeing from Absalom after the prince had wrested the kingdom from him -- but my point remains the same: David's suffering and anguish over being defenseless before his enemies resonates with Christ's suffering and anguish on the Cross, much in the same way that we can identify with his suffering when the chips are rock-bottom down for us.

Friday, March 14, 2008

second thoughts

Evangeline and I had a long talk this afternoon about school and how dissatisfied she's become with it.

A few weeks ago, Rachel had asked Evangeline whether she preferred being homeschooled, or attending the charter school. Since she had felt so isolated from other children while she was homeschooled and was so thrilled to attend a real school, I was floored when Evangeline answered, "There's some good and bad for each." Today when I picked her up from school, she asked a question or two about whether there would be an advantage in going back to homeschool, academically speaking.

So, once we were all home, the two of us went out for a walk around the university campus, and had a long, honest talk about our options for her education, and what the merits and pitfalls were of each.

Essentially, here's what she told me about the charter school: She likes seeing her friends at school, she enjoys recess, and she likes to eat lunch. She also likes her teacher, but she's bored by the reading and language arts part of her work plan, is not challenged by her math section, and remembers going over the latest science lesson (on the water cycle) with me when she was in kindergarten. The homework is more challenging, but that's because she's getting the homework for fourth- and fifth-graders, and even then, it's only the math that's more challenging, and she generally is mastering those concepts quickly. The biggest challenge she's having with it is getting it all done, because it's so voluminous.

What she misliked about homeschooling was that most of her time was with me and her younger sister. Play dates were hard to come by, because the co-op we hooked up with was based in Princeton, and none of the other kids was local for us. Otherwise, she remembers being interested, reading some good books, and learning all sorts of new things. (I was starting her on multiplcation when she began first grade.)

And even though she didn't use the word "voluminous," that still seems articulate for an 8-year-old.

We started weighing the pros and cons together, and I told her that if she were to transfer out of the charter school for fourth grade, that she still could see her friends -- but she wouldn't see them every day, and probably not even every week, although she would always be welcome to call them and initiate a playdate or sleepover if she wanted. And of course, there's no guarantee that she could transfer back in later on if she decided she regretted her decision, because spaces for the upper grades become available only if someone doesn't stay in, and you can't count on that.

On the flip side, there is a very active homeschooling group here in the Nova Bastille area that we have learned about. Rachel and I go to weekly co-op events with varying degrees of structure and activities, and there are other activities in the area besides that one, including a 4-H homeschooling group that we really haven't been involved with, because it conflicts with when we pick Evangeline up from school.

And we can always supplement the last music and P.E. with private lessons and musician studies of our own, along with sports participation, which we'd like her to do anyway.

I also mentioned the possbility of attending a private school, but cautioned her that attending one would depend on a scholarship and finding one that was good, since there's no guarantee we'd find one that we like or that will keep her challenged and interested. She was intrigued by the notion of a Catholic school, but I figure that's probably because she's never attended one. (I did, for a year.)

She decided she wants to keep her options right now -- combination of smarts, I think, and plain old reluctance to make a decision and commit to a course of action -- but we're going to explore our options and see what exactly is out there. I don't feel inclined to enroll her at the nearby Christian school in Piscataway because of the distance and because I have a pretty dim view of Christian schools in general, but I suppose I should check it out and see if they're using some abominable curriculum by A Beka or Bob Jones University before I rule it out completely.

In the meantime, as a board member at the charter school, I'm going to push really hard for the school to put more effort into retaining gifted, talented, and high-performing students. We do a good job of meeting the needs of kids who need basic skills instruction, who don't speak English at home, or who have special education needs, and we do all right with kids who fall squarely in the middle of the bell-curve distribution, but I'm not the only parent who has felt dissatisfied with the program where exceptionally bright children are concerned. If we're going to retain them through eighth grade, which I would think we would want, we're going to need to do more to make it worth their while to stay.


Gary Barker is a good charter school. It's one of the best in Iowa, to be honest. We use the Montessori model of education, so a lot of the learning is student-directed. Evangeline theoretically can go at her own pace, pick projects to work on that she's interested, and find the learning style that engages her the most. But she is so far out of the middle that the school doesn't really seem to know what to do with her.

It's frustrating, because if she doesn't feel engaged, she won't want to stick with it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

an early start on a career of crime

Evangeline has a promising career in burglary awaiting her.

I discovered this Friday afternoon when we were trying to leave the charter school. We had gone inside for Rachel to use the bathroom, and while I was waiting for the girls to finish up, I learned that the nurse had locked her keys in her office.

The lock is tempermental enough that the master keys wouldn't open the door, so a group of us adults stood around, trying to figure out ways to get in. The janitor fetched a stepladder, figuring on lifting the ceiling tiles, climbing through, and dropping down into her office. When he ruled that out as impractical, I took my expired driver's license and tried to open the lock like I've seen done on movies.

I must have tried for about 15 or 20 minutes, with no luck. The nurse had gone into the main office to see if she could contact someone to pick her up, and I was ready to give up myself, when Evangeline asked if she could try something. I handed her the card, and stood back to give her room.

She slid the card into the doorframe by the handle, turned the handle and pushed. The door swung open, the lock having been released by my little 8-year-old burglar.

Evangeline was a hit with the nurse, and with every other adult at the school who has heard the tale, but I'm keeping my old license under lock and key. Or I would, if I thought that would hold her off.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

ultimate iron man

So after a blitz of reading heavyweight books like "Who Wrote the Bible?" and poems like "The Song of Hiawatha," I turned my attention this weekend to the first "Ultimate Iron Man" trade paperback, written by Orson Scott Card.

Despite his multiple Hugos and Nebulas, I haven't really been able to get into Card's work. Because it was so highly rated, I gave "Ender's Game" a try, and then read "Speaker for the Dead" and "Xenocide," but it never really clicked for me. Still, when I saw that he had tackled Iron Man for Marvel's Ultimates line, I was intrigued enough to give it a try, once I could find a copy that I could read for free.
Most of the actual origin was the standard throwaway stuff you find in superhero comics: A prenatal Tony Stark inadvertantly was genetically altered so that every neuron in his body functions as brain tissue, making him unnaturally intelligent and regenerating his body  from any injury. He also has a subcutaneous bioarmor that makes him impervious to blunt force trauma. The downside is that he suffers chronic pain because the armor eats his body tissues, which are constantly regrowing. Yada yada yada.

The comic depicts the initial meeting between Stark and James Rhodes, and shows their relationship growing from mildly adversarial to actual friendship as equals. It also provides a reasonable explanation for Stark's alcoholism. Because he's always in some moderate pain from that bioarmor, alcohol when he discovers it at a cocktail party provides him with the first meaningful release from that pain in his life.

I really enjoyed Obadiah Stane.

If you're a comics geek like me, you will remember Obadiah Stane from what is probably the greatest Iron Man story arc ever told, back in the early to mid-1980s. Stane was a ruthless businessman determined to complete a hostile takeover of Stark Industries, which he accomplished by driving Tony Stark, a recovering alcoholic, to the bottle through a series of orchestrated personal disasters.

As the story arc unfolded, Stark gave the Iron Man identity to James Rhodes and ended up drinking himself from being the millionaire CEO and principal owner of a major industrial firm to a wino out on the street who nearly froze to death in a blizzard.

Card brought Stane into the story right from the start, even before Tony was born. In his treatment, Stane's parents are Zebediah Stane and the first wife of Howard Stark, Tony's father. Obadiah Stane and Tony Stark are born around the same time, to parents who had been married, and make natural dramatic foils for one another while they are still young. I've no idea how this has played out since in the Ultimate universe, but the storytelling potential is tremendous.

The Iron Man comic went back to the library today. But if I see some time that they have a second volume, I wouldn't be surprised if I were to pick it up for a light read too.

I need something to do between the heavier tomes I've been reading.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'the last temptation'

I never cared much for Alice Cooper, not even when he appeared on "The Muppet Show."

My younger brother liked him enough that he actually went out and bought the album "Alice Cooper Goes to Hell" after seeing the episode -- to this day I'm amazed that our mother consented to let him buy it, let alone listen to it -- but I never really "got" him. Over the years, I've read a few articles and interviews with Cooper that have piqued my interest a little, but never enough actually to listen to anything he's recorded.

Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, I can't get enough of.

So it was Saturday afternoon that I got my first exposure to Alice Cooper in more than 25 years when I saw a Dark Horse Comics trade paperback at the library. The title was "The Last Temptation," and as it turns out, the comic is based on a concept album that Alice Cooper did several years ago with Neil Gaiman. (I kid you not.)

The plot's pretty straightforward, really. A young boy named Steven is at that most awkward age, when he is neither a boy nor even properly speaking a teen. He's too old for childhood activities like trick-or-treating; and he's just at that age where he's starting to notice a je-nais-c'est-quoi about girls that he finds enticing, almost titillating.

Steven feels trapped and unsure of what comes next, when a mysterious showman appears. Amid a theater of horrors the showman offers him the opportunity to become a rock star in exchange for his future.

Standard Faustian stuff, really. The chief difference is that the Steven's good angel is watching out for him, and Steven discovers the dark truth about the showman and his history. He not only escapes the theater of the damned, he also destroys all that the showman has accomplished over the years.

Not a great comic, to be honest. It was worth borrowing from the library and reading once, I suppose, but I returned it Tuesday afternoon with a ton of other books. The best part was Gaiman's foreword. It was creepy and crack-up-out-loud funny at turns, but that alone isn't worth the price of buying a graphic novel.

Maybe I should get a copy for my younger brother. He always did seem to like that Alice Cooper album when we were little.

open mouth, insert feet

I don't like to blog when I'm angry. It's too easy to say something I'll regret when I've had a chance to cool down, and by that time there's no telling who will have read it, or if I'll remember to take it down.
So I've waited a few days to get over my initial reaction, and I just want to say: It sounded really ignorant when someone I know said that if Barack Obama is elected to the presidency, "He would make a good role model for black people." Or "I don't think other nations would take us seriously if we had a woman for a president."
Really ignorant. I'd like to say I understand what this person meant, but I'm afraid I don't.
Yes, I suppose Obama would be -- is -- "a good role model for black people." He's been that already, as an advocate for the poor in Chicago, with the respect and grace he's shown his opponents even when they haven't reciprocated, and with his ability to get along with people on both sides of the party divide. But that's just ... demeaning ... to summarize his campaign as though he were running to be a "role model for black people," or as though black people needed a role model more than people of any other skin color.
Good grief. I've known this person for years, and have never considered this person to be racist. Where the heck did this comment come from?
And the one about Senator Clinton. Not take us seriously if we had a woman for a president? If I wanted to be snarky, I could point out that no one on the world stage takes us very seriously right now with the man we have as president, so there's not much to lose, but I'm trying hard not to be snarky.
So let me point out that in Pakistan, they took Bhutto seriously enough that her opponents assassinated her. In Europe, they seem to take Chancellor Angela Merkel pretty seriously, no one condescended to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of Great Britain, and in fact there have been a number of women to assume positions of national leadership in other countries, and no one dismissed them out of hand. We're one of the last Western nations not to have a woman fill the top spot of national leadership; I'd take our claims of equality more seriously if we had a woman in the Oval Office more often, and not just as first lady or an adviser.
Good grief. How do otherwise intelligent people come up with these statements?
There but for the grace of God go I.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

gender hell

I hesitate to describe any of my experiences as gender hell, nor even as gender-driven. At best, there have been moments when I have run afoul of a parent's expectations on how I should dress, what I should study, or what career I should pick.

There was the parental shock when I decided at age 17 to have my ear pierced, but I think this generally went along with their disapproval of the way I prefer to dress. (My father almost always wears a dress shirt, slacks and shoes; I'm never entirely at ease unless I'm dressed comfortably, by which I mean jeans, sneakers and a nice nonbuttoned shirt.) That's partly a generational thing, but mostly an area of social expectation. I started wearing an earring in 1987, when it was still linked with gay men. I also wasn't (and still am not) terribly interested in sports nor in competition in general. I don't know if my parents ever worried that I was gay, but I suppose they might have. If they did, they never said anything.

Same reaction to my long hair, whether it was in high school, at college, or after I returned from Haiti and up until I finally had it cut off for good a few years ago because of the cancer. It was more that I was going against their ideas of what was "proper" and was rebelling, rather than a fear that I was not being masculine enough.

And I think that continues to the present day. I'm living against their sense of proper gender roles to this day, being a stay-at-home father while Natasha works and brings home the bacon. My mom has said in the past that this isn't what she imagined I would do with my college degree, and my dad flat-out told me two weeks ago that he considers me to have wasted his money on my college education, and pretty much said that I'm proving to be a big disappointment to him by staying at home with the girls. (He also didn't approve of my major, English, and laughed out loud when he heard I was doing a senior honors thesis on Classic Star Trek and its religious themes.)

So I'd have to say that, as a guy, I've encountered some negative reactions from my parents in particular over gender issues. The hair was a sticking point for a long time, because men aren't supposed to have long hair, but that was largely tolerated because I was working as a newspaper editor, winning professional recognition and moving up the ladder somewhat. (I might have climbed farther if I were more professional, but there you have it.)

But while my parents have voiced anything from ambivalence to disappointment in my choice to be a stay-at-home dad, I can't say that's a reaction I've encountered much elsewhere. I did have one fellow from college presume to give me a lecture about my God-appointed duties to provide for my family, complete with the "Go seek godly counsel and pray about this so you can know what God would want" (i.e., go pray about it until you agree with me), but by and large people have been pretty accepting and open to this. A number of men have told me that they wish they could do what I've done (or wish they had when their kids were younger), and a number of women have been impressed that I'm comfortable enough with myself to jump out of my career in the middle of the stream. One or two gave me the come-hither eyes, but that's another matter.

The only negative reaction I've had from women in general has been at places like preschool or on the playground, where my attempts to make conversation or to ask them if they would be interested in play dates sometimes have been seen as "predatory man hitting on me." But I've also found that after they get to know me, even if it takes a play date or two, they realize that no, I'm not awash in testosterone, I'm not angling to sleep with them, and in fact I have many women I count as friends.

So, gender hell? Not for me, thanks. I'm afraid I've gone no deeper than the First Circle. Let's call it "Gender Heck."

Monday, March 10, 2008

divine foreknowledge

Does God know the future?

  • Yes
  • God knows all the possbilities, but not what will happen
  • God can see the broad strokes of the future, but not individual choice
  • God can see all possible outcomes and their probabilities, but not "the future"
Interesting question, isn't it? A fellow I've been getting to know through church is a philosophy professor at the university where Natasha works; I'm told he's also one of the foremost proponents of open theism in the country.

His contention is that God knows all things that are knowable; however, since the future has not yet happened, God merely knows what may happen: how we may choose to act, how things may fall out, and that the cat potentially is alive but potentially is dead also. To argue that God knows how we will choose also is to argue that our future actions can be known because they already are written, and therefore there is no free will.
I find that this squares well with a lot of Scripture, where we encounter God as a participant in history, discovering new things as history proceeds. In Genesis, he wants to see what Adam will name the animals; in Isaiah (?) he expresses surprise at them, claiming that in their wickedness they have done things that had never occurred to him they would do. Moreover, we see God changing his mind not once but several times: sparing Israel when Moses asks for clemency, extending Hezekiah's life when he already had said he would die, and turning aside from destroying Nineveh when the people repent.
God remains able to intervene in history, through miracles, through his prophets, and what else, but that doesn't mean that he has predestined the twists and turns its current takes. Prophecies of future events also fit in with this: God can intervene to make his will come about, and he also can see the steady march of humanity toward certain inevitable conclusions. Look at places of oppression, and it's not a stretch to see upheaval and rebellion, or race riots, or other such actions; look at famine, and it's not hard to see mass migrations of refugees.
The Hebrew texts in particular depict God as learning things, and even changing his chosen course of action after hearing argument from prophets or seeing how people respond to the prophets' message. And certainly the Incarnation was a new experience for him, and the gospels make no bones about it that Jesus was no Buddha -- he grew wiser as he grew older and experienced more.

I think you could make the argument that we are partners in writing history with the Almighty. As its Author, he set the stage and created the initial characters, but that doesn't mean that he knows everything that the characters will do, or how many of the subplots will play out.
I won't say that Dean's converted me to open theism, especially since we've barely talked about it. (The extent of my philosophical discussions with him have been mostly tongue-in-cheek about the nature of nonexistence, and how the nonexistence of a purely fantastical creature like a unicorn differs qualitatively from the nonexistence of a child who wasn't conceived, or from the nonexistence of the unicorn specifically mentioned in "The Once and Future King.") But I do find that open theism sits well with my understanding of God, and mostly puts a name to something I already have believed.

'who wrote the bible?' redux

A friend of mine took exception to my recent assetion that the Documentary Hypothesis of biblical authorship is widely accepted among biblical scholars. To the contrary, he says, the prevailing sentiment is that Moses wrote the books of the law, as tradition has held for thousands of years.

Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm not keyed into the debates going on at seminaries, and philosophy and religion departments today, but I haven't got the impression that JEDP is anything but widely accepted in scholarly circles. It's what my religion professors taught me back in the 1990s when I attended college, it's what I've read in history books on ancient Israel, and it's what I've read in every book like "Who Wrote the Bible?" that I've read.

Friedman, whose book I just finished two days ago, notes:
Until the past generation there were orthodox Christians and Jewish scholars who
contested the Documentary Hypothesis in scholarly circles. At present, however,
there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem
who would claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses -- or by any
one person.

He also comments in his endnotes:
There are many persons who claim to be biblical scholars. I refer to scholars
who have the necessary training in languages, biblical archaeology, and literary
and historical skills to work on the problem, and who meet, discuss, and debate
their ideas and research with other scholars through scholarly journals,
conferences, etc.
Now it may be that Friedman has defined "scholars" in such a way as to marginalize people who disagree with him. I can share from my own experience that generally the people the most hostile to the JEDP hypothesis are evangelicals or others who see it as undermining an article of faith where the inspiration or authority of Scripture is concerned. In such a situation, the argument for Mosaic authorship stems mostly from the notion of finding support for a traditional view rather than seeing where the evidence leads; i.e., seeking arguments to bolster a predetermined conclusion, which is intellectually dishonest.

As I've aged and grown less defensive about textual criticism, I've had to concede that JEDP makes a lot of sense and doesn't really affect my view or understanding of how God speaks through Scripture. It explains the doublets, the inconsistencies in the narrative (Jethro or Reuel, Sinai or Horeb, and so on), and the distance that often exists in the narrative voice. Phrases like "as it is to this day" reflect something that has endured, not something that just happened, as would have been the case were Moses the author; the death of Moses is hardly something Moses is likely to have reported himself; there is little reason for Moses to rehash the entire Torah in Deuteronomy, in some cases changing the rules governing one sacrifice or another; and on and on and on.

Still, as I said, I don't keep my ears to the debates in scholarly circles as much as I might if I were in seminary or in a religion department. If anyone reading this is aware of compelling arguments that Moses really did author the Penteteuch, I'd be interested in hearing them.

Friday, March 07, 2008

'who wrote the bible?'

I'm about halfway through the book "Who Wrote the Bible?" and am finding it to be a rather fascinating exploration of textual criticism.

Probably everyone here knows the JEDP hypothesis; if not, allow me to summarize. Bible scholars commonly accept that there are four main voices in the Tanakh, known eponymously as J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist) and P (the Priest).

J and E commonly are accepted as the authors of most of the Torah. The passages where God is called Yahweh are credited to the Yahwist, and where is referred to as Elohim, to the Elohist. As I'm sure everyone is aware, Genesis in particular is full of doublets: a story where Elohim creates the world in six days, and one where Yahweh plants a garden and places humanity there; two stories where God establishes a covenant with Abraham, two stories where they receive the promise of Isaac, and on and on. About a hundred-some years ago, someone realized that you could separate the Elohim verses from the Yahweh verses, and have two independent stories that each made complete sense on their own.

The Deuteronomist repeats most of the law from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, brings the story of Moses to a close, and lays out the rest of the nation's history, from Joshua down to King Josiah, giving comments on which kings pleased God and which didn't, and why, and on and on. (The author makes the claim that the Deuteronomist originally ended the story with King Josiah -- it was during his reign that the book of the Law "was found after having been lost" -- and a later editor followed through all the way to the bitter end of the southern kingdom.)

The priestly writer gives us all the details of how priests are supposed to dress and act, and lays out the ceremonial law.

None of this is particularly new or ground-breaking. What is pleasant about the book is how READABLE it is. The author is treating it sensibly enough like a mystery, and explaining how and why scholars have sought to learn as much as possible about the biblical authors. Just as it helps to know when you're reading "Twice Told Tales" that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrestled with his Puritan heritage his whole life, it's good to know the background, standing and views of the people who first put Holy Writ to parchment.

Toward the end of the book -- and I admit, I've sneaked a peak -- the author makes the contention that Jeremiah is the Deuteronomost, and that Ezra is the redactor who put a lot of the Tanakh into its final form. In which case, I guess I may owe Ezra something of an apology. He may have been a lout in a lot of ways, but I have to say I'm a big fan of this book he may have had a major editorial hand in.

As luck would have it, I recently started a book club. We just read the novelization of the "Beowulf" movie -- surprisingly good for a movie novelization, actually -- and we're supposed to read a certain spiritual thriller for this month's meeting. I'm waiting for the guy who picked the book to lend it to me, though, so I can continue to undermine the U.S. economy. "Who Wrote the Bible?" is an excellent book to read in its own right, though; if this were a church-based book club, it'd be my pick, hands down.

rip, gary gygax

I presume everyone knows that Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible.
A friend of mine shared this memorial cartoon with me, and I immediately thought of all those gaming sessions where Chris and Tom have struggled with grapple checks.

Monday, March 03, 2008

noah's flood

The Deluge is a remarkable story. Its source and inspiration is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh; in that story, the god Shamash sent a flood upon the earth because humanity had become so numerous that their noise was keeping him awake when he wanted to sleep.

The Hebrew writer took a familiar story and instead of a capricious deity, attributed moral reasons to God as the motivation for the story. You have to view it in the larger context of its literary antecedents and within the framework of the Scripture, not just on its own.

And it also stands from other flood myths in other ways. Pyrrha and Deucalion were the last of their race ever to exist. They saw the earth populated by an entire new race of humans with no relationship to the old one. God instead is depicted as maintaining a relationship with humanity and extending mercy on the righteous, appointing them to repopulate the earth in an echo of the Eden story.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

sufferin' until suffrage

"Sufferin' Until Suffrage" is a great song. I'm trying to teach the girls all the lyrics to it.

A rather conservative friend of mine complains that the song provides no justification for the anti-suffragette thinking that dominated the nation before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. I can see a simple reason why the doesn't explain why these dour old men thought the way they did: There was no reason for they way they thought. It's a familiar story, really. The System exists the way it does, and at some point, someone notices something is wrong with the System, and they call out in a loud voice, "Why are we doing things this way?" And no one can think of a very good reason, except that It's Always Been Done That Way, and Boy We Sure Were Happy Until You Mentioned It.

Dr. King got a lot of grief over this during the Civil Rights Era. He addressed it beautifully in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. There was simply no reason for segregation, no reason for denying blacks their right to vote, and yet this uppity black man had the gall to insist that the unjust system be stopped, and he outraged plenty of people, mostly because they had no reason for perpetuating the system they had.

I'm sure they had plenty of rationalizations to justify it, just as the establishment had plenty of rationalizations for opposing suffrage.

But no reasons.