Thursday, January 31, 2008

hell

There are at least four words I know of that the Bible uses to describe hell: sheol, gehenna, Hades and Tartaros.

Sheol is the Hebrew term used throughout the Tanakh, often it is translated "the grave," and is understood to refer to the final resting place of all the dead, both righteous and wicked. Gehenna is an Aramaic term that refers to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem (?), where worms gnawed on the refuse and where the heat of the decay would keep things constantly smoldering.

Tartaros and Hades both come from Greek, specifically from Greek myth. Hades is equivalent to Sheol, while Tartaros is used in the book of Jude, where the writer borrows the image from Greco-Roman myth of the Titans, bound in chains beneath the earth for resisting Zeus, to describe what God did to the angels who rebelled.

When the book of Revelation says that death and hell are thrown into the Lake of Fire, it means that death and Hades are thrown into Gehenna.

I'm aware of the Adventist doctrine of annihilation, that the damned simply cease to be after judgment, but I don't quite buy it. It doesn't square with my understanding of what Scripture presents, anyway.

But I find the notion of eternal hell, whether it's as picturesque as Dante and popular imagination makes it out to be, or not, odious. I don't like the concept of hell, and I especially hate how it's been depicted in popular culture, whether by cartoonists or by Pentecostal preachers pushing some twisted "Halloween alternative" like Hell Night.

It's one of those things about the faith that I find uncomfortable. There are many of them, and I suppose if I'm honest I'm looking for a reason not to believe them -- but I haven't found a valid one not to yet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

more on mike

Mike and I walk not in lockstep together, but pretty closely. One of Lynn's kinder comments about me came last year, when she observed, "God gave you Dave Learn so you wouldn't be alone."

He stopped going to church sometime last summer, I think, around the same time I also took a lengthy sabbatical, for pretty much the same reasons: finding that much of what was preached, shared, and celebrated in church lacks spiritual depth and honesty, and often gives a Hallmark gloss to what the Scriptures actually say and talk about. (You know the drill, "victorious Christian living," using faith to deny or hide from unpleasant aspects of life, rather than to confront them; and endless assertions about Truth with nothing to back them up.) I guess you could say that he was tired of hearing people pontificate about how Jesus was the answer when they weren't even bothering to hear the question.

I've talked with Mike, and I'm confident that he's still in Christ, but he's seeking a deeper and truer revelation than what he's forced himself to be content with.

I do hope that his church is not disowning him, although in my limited experience, the Christian community is not always the most supportive of transgendered folks.)

The specifics of his situation are not widely known yet, but I expect when some people find out, they're going to freak. There are always a few cretins who feel they need to "speak the Truth in love" and who need to make it clear that such people aren't welcome because of their openly sinful lifestyle and the need to Protect the Children from such a confusing message. And of course, many of us will find it easier just to say and do nothing, and wait for Mike to go away so we can get on with our lives and mourn the tragic mistake he made, from a safe distance.

On the other hand, he's told a few people and been deeply moved by how supportive they've been. So who can tell? I'm praying for the best -- whatever that may be -- and praying that I'll be the friend Mike needs me to be.

my friend mike

I got a disturbing e-mail from my friend Mike late last night.

To the point: Mike is a transgendered man who, about nine months ago, reached the point that he realized he was either going to kill himself if he remained in the situation he was in, or he was going to start taking steps to resolve his gender dysphoria. Since he was not going to kill himself, he began taking small steps toward transitioning, under the guidance of a therapist.

I should mention at this point that Mike is married to a fairly conservative and traditional woman named Lynn. Lynn has known of Mike's gender dysphoria for about seventeen years, and was aware of it when they married fifteen years ago. I think, from what I know of Lynn, that she either shuttled the GID thing to one side and tried not to think about it, or regarded it as a sin that God would cure him of if they had enough faith.

His decision to start taking those steps toward transitioning met with Lynn's cautious ... well, I don't want to say support, so perhaps I should say "tolerance." She had seen that the limits she had placed on him were killing him inside, and decided she needed to back off and let God sort the situation out.

Lynn reached the end of her tolerance about three days ago, it appears. That's when Mike started taking anti-androgens -- not even estrogen, just something to suppress the male hormones -- and something broke that had survived 15 years of a sometimes tumultuous marriage. They've been taking turns sleeping on the couch, and she's told him that she expects him to begin making plans to move out. As he put it in his e-mail, even if he were to stop taking the anti-androgens at this post, it seems unlikely the marriage will survive.

They have three children, the oldest of whom turns 13 this year.

To be honest, I understand where Lynn is coming from.* I've known Mike for 19 years, more than half my life, and he's been one of those quiet but steady rocks that have helped me get through some of the roughest times in my life, but this is outside my comfort zone as well. (I do appreciate the irony that fundamentalist Iran offers tremendous material support for people in his shoes -- the government actually pays for the surgery and everything over there, because "It's no one's fault, it's just how Allah made them.")

I wrote him back, expressed my sympathy for what he and his family are going through, told him how I'm feeling about the whole thing myself -- he knows me well enough to know that anyway -- and said the same thing I've said before: "I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere. We're going to get through this together."

Prayers appreciated for everyone for what is going to be a very difficult time, one that is only going to get worse. Their kids already know what is going on, and are doing their best to cope with it. One is in therapy but not talking about it, the second has asked to start going to therapy, and the third one seems to be avoiding the subject when it comes up. Mike's parents, to my knowledge, have no idea of any of this. His mom was devastated when he told her he wasn't going to church anymore, and I can only imagine how she'll react to this.


* I know this sounds outrageous to people who identify solely with the wrong they perceive being visited upon Mike in this situation, but I stand by it.

Understand that Mike is my best friend. I met him my first week away at college, and the two of us have been close ever since. We were in each other's wedding parties, we continue to exchange Christmas and birthday presents long after I stopped doing it with my own brothers, and we think closely enough alike that we've been known to drive each other into a murderous rage just for fun. If Aristotle was right about the nature of friendship, then I don't hesitate to say that part of my soul inhabits his body.

But Mike is preparing to change the sex he lives as, an act that is going to redefine every relationship he has, including the one he has with me. I have no frame of reference for that to understand it, and it makes me uncomfortable. This whole experience is going to test me sorely on my commitment to love as unconditionally as Christ does, and I don't have nearly as much at stake in my relationship with Mike as Lynn does -- no 15 years of marriage, and no kids whose male role model is going to become a female.

You're right that Lynn knew what she was getting into -- as much as anyone who is 21 years old can possibly understand what she's getting into when she intertwines her life and her identity with another person and all their issues. I was 28 and Niki was 23 when we got married, and I don't think we really knew either what we were doing. I doubt anyone you know who is married had a clue what it really meant, though I'm sure we all thought so at the time.

What was she thinking? Probably that it was something he would grow out of as they grew together, or that it was an indication of his spiritual immaturity and that as he grew older and more mature, God would straighten it out. From what Mike tells me, she still sees it much that way -- that he's giving up, instead of letting God take care of this and heal him. It's naive, it shows a lack of understanding of how deeply rooted gender dysphoria and other issues pertaining to sexual identity, really are, but it's where she was, and despite some really remarkable growth on her own part, it's where she still is. It's her personality.

Yeah, I can understand where she's coming from. She's concerned for her kids and the health and integrity of the home they'll have growing up, and she's probably also concerned that Mike has left the fold completely, that he prefers becoming a woman over following God. Wrong-headed? I think so. But I can hardly take the dust out of her own eye when I've also assumed on one time or another that God feels the same way that I do about things and that he'll make sure everything works out the way that I feel they should.

I can't muster any rage at Lynn, or Mike, or anyone else who is caught in this situation, with all that they have at stake in it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

'tin man'

One of the greatest facets of any storytelling tradition is the ability to bring an old story to new life by recasting it in some way.

Cast your line into a different point of the story, like Gregory Maguire did in “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” and not only is the resulting story a tremendous catch in its own right, it can even swim upstream and forever change the source where it was spawned. There’s an art to this, known only to the best writers.

But often another writer with a smaller vision will visit the fishing hole, reel in a story, and put it in another pond. To be sure, it’s a feat to make the story survive the transplant into a new setting, but if you want readers, viewers or other writers to start making pilgrimages to your new story, you have to make sure the story fits in its new setting.

That was how I felt recently watching the Sci-Fi Network’s “Tin Man,” recorded and recommended to me by my friend Rob the musician. It was clever way to retell “The Wizard of Oz,” but by the time we had finished watching the miniseries, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. .

The story starts well enough to get your hopes up that it will be an interesting story, as the Dorothy character, D.G. (Zooey Deschanel), is disturbed by a nightmare ― “The Dream,” her father ominously calls it, when D.G. isn’t around ― and before long, she and her parents are whisked off through a cyclone to the Outer Zone.

The Outer Zone is a world under the tyrannical rule of Azkadelia, this story’s version of the Wicked Witch of the West. From this point of the story on, the main source of entertainment is looking for the nods, winks, and sly references to the 1939 MGM movie, spotting the Scarecrow in an apparent felon who had half his brain removed, the Tin Man in a resistance fighter who has been imprisoned in an iron suit for several years, and so on.

Some of these are clever enough to laugh at ― Toto, it turns out is a child’s mispronunciation of “tutor,” the job this particular character had fourteen years ago ― but the story itself flounders on the flat acting the principals offer, the evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil behavior of the witch, and the failure of the story to transcend its source material.

What’s worse, some times it fails even to reach the level of sophistication of the MGM movie, and if you’ve seen the MGM movie, you know what a statement that is. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion find the brains, heart, and courage to rescue Dorothy from the witch; here, D.G. has to tell them that they have those things in a scene that carries none of the growth, none of the realization, and none of the meaning of its parallel scene.

When he wrote “Wicked,” Maguire so transformed the Wizard of Oz that the witch’s name became “Elphaba” once and for all. Similarly, the wizard was forever recast as a brutally fascist dictator.

“Tin Man” could have done that. The miniseries skims across the surface of a story to the title character that could have remarkable depth, where some truly tremendous fish are waiting to be reeled in. Unfortunately, while what they did catch wasn’t floating upside-down, it wasn’t in good shape at all.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

hell and damnit

So I watched this classic Sylvester and Tweety cartoon this afternoon with Rachel, without much regard going in for its soteriology, because I crack up every time I see Sylvester starts running through his lives at the shooting gallery.

Woodenjaknowit, we're barely a minute into the cartoon when Rachel asks why heaven looks so scary. And once I explain that Sylvester didn't go to heaven, she wants to know why not, and then I have to explain that he went to hell because "he was a bad old puddy tat." Too late I'm remembering that this cartoon gave me nightmares the first time I saw it, nearly 30 years ago, and that it called into question a lot of the Pleasant Old Guy associations I had picked up from God in Sunday school.

But I'm already in too deep, and it's getting deeper by the moment, because her next question is the one that I think every parent with faith secretly dreads: Is there really a hell?

I hate the very notion of hell. Too much, I want to scream. It serves no purpose, provides no balance, comes too late to make a difference or matter. I can trot out a thousand justifications for its existence, drilled into my head so I could parrot them back so I could bypass the discomfort the doctrine always causes me. I can even provide arguments to mitigate the sheer awfulness of a world where the sun never sets and rest never comes to the weary. It's not a Dantesque place of unspeakable torments that go on day and night without stop for all eternity; it's not a place that has fired the imaginations of poets and fundamentalists, with Sisyphus pushing a rock endlessly uphill, Tantalos trying to satisfy hunger and thirst with food and drink that remain just-so-barely out of reach, or where false priests wear robes of gold to punish them for their simony.

I want to tell her that hell, if it exists, is a garbage dump where the fire never ceases to smolder, and worms never cease to chew, and that nothing in gehenna is really what it once was, but it's no use. The more fantastic images remained indelibly ingrained in our culture, and all my protestations to the contrary sound empty and trite before they clear my throat, and so they die there, unvoiced and unheard.

I hate the very notion of hell. I wish I had never heard of it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

the day the music died

Don McLean has never come out and said exactly what "American Pie" is about, and though the most common (and probable) explanation is that the song chronicles the upheaval of the 1960s as seen through pop music, beginning with the death with Buddy Holly and ending with the Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway, I've seen interpretations of varying degrees of improbability, ranging from the assassination of President Kennedy to an unlikely dissertation on the spirtual dissolution traditional Christians see in the 1960s' rejection of the outward-seeming righteousness of the 1950s.

My girls know the chorus and parts of the verses to "American Pie" and belt them out with great enthusiasm. They know who The Beatles are, and who Bob Dylan is, but they've never heard a song by the Stones, by Buddy Holly, or by a number of the other groups mentioned in the song. (Evangeline does know a different cover of "Turn, Turn, Turn" from the one covered by the Byrds.)

I think for a lot of people, the music died when John Lennon was assassinated. I wonder if someone more familiar with pop music than I could compose lyrics connected to 9-11 and the fall of the Twin Towers, which ignited a cultural shift in many ways as profound as the one spearheaded 40 years ago by The Beatles.

But I think it likely that the music died, either with the debut of "Funkytown" or some other discoworthy moment; or during some period of horror during the 1980s, such as the debut of "The Best of Tiffany" on 8-track, or perhaps with the onset of the career of Rick Astley.

But whenever it kicked the bucket, I think it's been dead on the table for a while now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

an eye on rebuilding

If we look at the book of Nehemiah as a story, as Tim has been challenging us to do, then the latter half of Chapter 2 is where we're finally past the introduction and the plot is beginning to assume a life of its own.

Under the cover of night, Nehemiah surveys the situation around Jerusalem, traveling from gate to gate and from well to well, studying the state of the wall and seeing the lay of the land. From there he goes to the other leaders of Jerusalem and makes his appeal to them, to begin the work, which they agree to wholeheartedly.

I think every time I've studied Nehemiah in a small group setting, the study leader has the point to make of advance planning; that is, Nehemiah didn't just start a building effort, he made sure he knew the scale of the problem, and then, once he knew what would be involved in a rebuilding effort, he asked the other leaders in the city to get on board with him.

That's certainly a good lesson to draw here; one that I draw is "Know your part in the story." Taking the time to understand the situation and to plan what to do is in large part a facet of Nehemiah's personality; we've already seen how he did that in chapters 1 and 2, where the reminder of the state of the walls around Jerusalem moved him to prayer, and to lengthy reflection on what would be needed to rebuild the walls, so that when the king asked him what he would need, he was ready. Given a different personality, Nehemiah could have approached the problem differently, yet still have seen the walls rebuilt.

From what the book indicates, Nehemiah wasn't a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah cheerleader sort of guy. He knew his strengths and how to use them so his goals would be received well. Other people may be better at other forms of persuasion, all just as valid, and while it doesn't hurt to know how to use Nehemiah's planning strategy, it's good to know what your strengths are. It's easy to imagine another leader emerging, if Nehemiah hadn't, who would know how to sell a planner/organizer on the idea of rebuilding the wall; or even someone else entirely, like a go-getter who would just start rebuilding the wall and whose example would galvanize other people into action at his side.

Again on the nature of the walls: These were defensive bulwarks, meant to hold marauders and bandits at bay. The siege of Jerusalem under Sennecharib in 2 Kings lasted for years because the Assyrian army couldn't get through them, and the siege under Nebuchadnezzar ultimately succeeded because his army set the gates afire and was able to breach the walls. Because the defenses were down, the city was subject to invasion and attack and any number of other breaches in safety and security because of the holes.

As we continue as a church to consider what walls we need to rebuild, we should ask ourselves what problems we are seeing in our lives personally, in our church, and in the larger culture, and then ask ourselves what walls are damaged to allow that sort of threat to be roaming free. Our country has been beset in recent months with a rash of financial problems that are snowballing into a recession and possible stagflation, among other problems. Is there a wall that we've allowed to topple that has led to people forgetting that basic economics rule, "Don't buy stuff you can't afford"? Has handing our culture over to materialism and crass consumerism cost us in other fronts? The U.S. trade imbalance, subprime loans, massive credit card debt, and even the environmental problems we're only beginning to grasp and to see, all have their roots in the American nightmare of "more, more, more, now, now, now." (One wonders where we should begin rebuilding that wall, though I'm sure it has nothing to do with whether we call our major retail season "Christmas" or "the holidays.")

Nehemiah 2 ends with some of the other officials in Judea asking Nehemiah if he intends to commit treason against Artaxerxes. This isn't just an idle question. Under Cyrus, work on the Temple had been stopped because of concerns that the area had had a history of being ungovernable. Hezekiah had sided with Egypt against Assyria, and the last kings of Judah had been defiant enough of Nebuchadnezzar that he took the strong measure of relocating the entire upper class of the city to Babylon to quell notions of further rebellion. When Nehemiah launched his enterprise of rebuilding the wall, he made it clear to the people that he wanted to build at their side, as one of their equalsm rather than by edict, as their governor. If word gets to Artaxerxes that his new provincal governor is planning a revolt, Nehemiah will be bringing ruin down not only on his own head, but upon the very people whose lives he wanted to improve.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

king of the golden mountain

One of the nice things about fairy tales is that it’s usually not that hard to find something redemptive about them if you make that your focus.

Whether it’s because there’s something archetypal about the divine Logos and its story of redemption that has permeated the whole of creation, or it’s because Christianity has become so foundational to Western civilization, philosophy and literature the past 1,700 years, the fairy tales that we’re familiar with in Europe and North America lend themselves readily to a christocentric interpretation.

Thus we can see Christ figures in the Prince Charmings who awaken Snow White and Sleeping Beauty from deathlike sleeps, or who free Cinderella from a life of bitter slavery and oppression in a family where she doesn’t belong, and in each of those women we can see types of the church, pining for redemption at the hands of its true bridegroom.

Less overtly, fairy tales often contain lessons about justice, fidelity and courage, or even simple warnings about the dangers of evil. Messages often convey themselves through anthropomorphic animals or magical enchantments, but if you listen to the story, it's easy to find rich veins of meaning just waiting to be mined.

“The King of the Golden Mountain” is a curious exception.

This story, told by the Brothers Grimm, begins much the same way as the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast,” with a merchant who has lost his wealth in a series of shipping disasters. As the tale begins, he makes one of those Faustian bargains common to folklore with a dwarf, or manikin, promising to restore the man’s wealth if in 12 years he gives him the first thing to rub against his leg when he returns home that day. The man agrees and, of course, that thing turns out to be his son.

As the story goes, the manikin is unable to hold his claim to the boy when the 12 years have passed, and the boy is set adrift down a river, where he ultimately comes to an enchanted castle, complete with a princess under an enchantment, at the Golden Mountain.

There the youth has to suffer a series of indignities in silence over three nights, ending in his death, without ever breaking his silence. When he completes this act, the spell is broken and the enchanted princess and has been freed, she pours the Water of Life on the dead youth and restores him to life.

Tom Stoppard once wrote that any story, if you let it go long enough, will end in death. That’s a great thing for tragedies, but the truth is that stories end best if you know when to stop telling them. “The King of the Golden Mountain” would be a much better story if this were where it ended, with the enchanted princess rescued, the youth restored to life, and the two of them happily married.

Alas, the story continues.

What happens next is that after more time has gone by and the youth is a father, he convinces his wife against her better judgment to let him visit his parents. She does, by presenting him with a magic ring that will transport him anywhere by twisting it and wishing to be there ― with the condition that he promise not to use it to wish her and their son there.

Being a fairy tale, he ends up doing just that, and it turns his wife against him, so that her love turns to contempt and she returns to the mountain with their son by using the magic ring. During the rest of the story he has to work his way back to the Golden Mountain, which he accomplishes by stealing the inheritance of a trio of giants. When he returns home, he finds his wife about to marry someone new, prompting him to kill everyone.

I like to deconstruct fairy tales when I read them to my girls, because it makes it easier to retell them later on. This is a story where it’s hard to find any way to do that reasonably.

The man dies to free the princess and her castle from enchantment; there’s definite Christ imagery there, especially when you consider his resurrection. The princess brings him back to life, and that’s Christ imagery too. Despite these obvious connections, there’s virtually nothing Christlike about these people.

The king's behavior is monstrous. He steals the inheritance of three orphans, breaks an oath to his wife, and then slaughters dozens of wedding guests and his wife.

The wife is jealous and petty. She has no reason for her husband not to see his family, but she hates the idea anyway, and then abandons him far from their home when he lapses in his judgment and magically whisks her to his side despite his promise.

This is one of those stories where no one is commendable, decent, or noble, and it makes a piss-poor story unless you just want a story with lots of fantastic things happening with seven-league boots, magic rings, and dwarfs. As an adventure story, it could work with some embellishment, but there’s still nothing satisfying about the protagonist unless there is some sense of moral compass added to him beyond getting what he wants.

You could embellish the tale of the three nights in the castle, and the torment he goes through to free the enchanted princess, and that could be a good story if it ends on their wedding, or even with her release, whether she restores him to life or not.

That actually would be an interesting story, to be honest; where a hero does the right thing, dies by it, and never gets to experience the joys his victory brings to others.

Or if there something more to the several-years marriage between the man and the princess that explains why she is so incensed by his breach of promise. I’d welcome that story too, where he throws away everything she gave him and has to win it back ― as opposed to conquering it back.

It’d even be decent as fairy tales go if it follows the story the Brothers Grimm set, and after he regains his kingdom ― which is his only stated concern when he sets out again, not to find his wife and child ― and his existence proves empty and barren without his wife and child, and all these people’s ghosts haunting him. That, too, would be a nice story.

I like all those retellings to an extent, but I keep finding myself drawn back to the Water of Life the princess uses to restore her rescuer after he is beheaded on the third night. The water, which in another story restores an ailing king to his full health, is a typological reference of Christ, whom the gospels say brings life to the dead, sight to blind, and so on.

I haven’t taken the potential for retelling as far with this as the other options, but the story might have an interesting reinterpretation lying in the opportunity the water itself brings for new life, a new beginning ... and the ways we often squander those new beginnings. Redemption and forgiveness are so easy to find, and yet we too often pass it by when the chance comes.


Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

britney spears media circus

Geez, give it a rest already.

It's not that Britney hasn't invited some of the attention. I get it. In choosing to live a public life, we invite public scrutiny. That's a fair and reasonable policy, and I think it generally has served our country well, not just with our political leaders, but with our business, spiritual, moral and cultural leaders as well. And when media representatives cross the line of acceptable behavior -- as papparazzi often do -- they also often face penalties for invading the privacy of celebrities. (Not jail time, but fines or litigation, though I imagine insurance and profits usually take the sting out of that.)

The fault doesn't lie with the law, nor with its application; the fault lies with us as a society for having a voracious appetite for gossip about the high priests and priestesses of our culture, and for our disturbing love of watching them fall and self-destruct. You'll find that that's the case with Spears; all the coverage for the past year or so has been a self-righteous "look how far she's gone now, and how messed-up she has become." Writers call her a pop tart, and the headlines on the supermarket tabloids scream things like "She's INSANE!"

That exploitation and disregard for common decency is what bothers me about this whole circus. The Spearses invited some of the attention intially, by seeking celebrity and by holding themselves out as moral role models to be followed, but by this point Britney Spears is famous only for the disaster she's made of her life. The only reason a celebrity magazine has to cover this is for the salacious details that let us feel self-righteously better than Spears (or self-righteously better than those who follow it with glee, because we're so_oo_oo above that). For mainstream media especially, this is a breach of the sacred responsibility that is central to journalism, of advancing the public good.

I wish the media who do follow this would let it go away and let her suffer in peace, like any other person would be allowed to do, simply because she's a fellow human being. But the only way that will happen is if people get outraged; right now we're either too interested in the latest dirt, or too aloof to be bothered.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

disappointing customer service

Dear Snapfish representative:
 
I was very disappointed around 5:15 p.m. Saturday to discover that such an important part of your site was taken down for maintenance, especially as this is the final day of your sale.
 
I realize the sale already was extended, but frankly, this is the first chance I've had at all since Wednesday to get online for any length, and as you'll see if you check the records of my account, I've been trying repeatedly to get the right configuration of a graphic to make a T-shirt that would work properly.
 
To have the site go offline so unexpectedly, mere minutes after the Snapfish customer service line closed for the night, is frustrating, to say the least. It's also contrary to the generally high reputation Snapfish has for customer service.
 
I'm disappointed. This is something I would have expected from Verizon, not from Snapfish.
 
Is anything going to be done to make amends for this? As I said, I've been working much of the afternoon today to pull together a a gift for a few people, and I would deeply appreciate the opportunity to proceed with it at the price that was indicated in your sale -- a price that unceremoniously has been yanked from reach when it was still advertised as being valid.
 
Thank you for your concern, and for your swift response.
 
 
Yours truly,

 
 
David Learn

'the golden compass'

We ended up not seeing the movie at the theaters, movie tickets costing what they do, but we hope to rectify that fault when the movie comes out on DVD. A friend of mine out here who saw the movie called it one of the best he's seen since "Fellowship of the Ring," and since we've lent him Natahsa's copy of "Measure for Measure," he's going to lend us his copy of the DVD once he buys it.

I will say we've read the first two books of the trilogy, in no small part due to the ironic endorsement of those opposed to the movie, and we've enjoyed it immensely. Pullman is exploring deep themes in his work, about the nature of the soul, knowledge, God, faith, authority, innocence, and plenty else. I just checked out "The Amber Spyglass" from the library, and we probably will start it tonight. (Though maybe not. We're also watching "Tin Man.")

I can understand why some Christians find the book offensive. Pullman essentially subverts the entire Edenic myth into a fall upward, toward greater knowledge and maturity; and his depiction of the church is dishonest, taking its worst moments and traits and putting them forth as examples of the church at its best. He ignores the church's work for peace, women's rights, equality, education and child welfar in favor of its dark record of colonialism, subjugation, castration, and so on.

But in doing this, he actually is doing the church a great favor by forcing us to confront many of the things we have done (and may still do) but have never really come to terms with and made recompense for. Like any good book -- and "His Dark Materials" is a very good trilogy, despite the weaknesses in its writing and in its science-- it points us Truthward, and can stir the soul toward a better understanding of our own sin, greater repentance, and even greater commitment to doing what is right.

I could go on, and I'm sure I will, since it's a deep book and I'm still trying to process everything we've read, but there is one irony that amuses me immensely: A number of the people in the book claim a measure of moral superiority over the other parties. The Magisterium claims superiority because it is the leadership of the church, and thereby privy to an understanding of the Authority that allows it to commit unspeakable acts against children and other people in pursuit of a higher good (just as the church in our world often has done); those opposing the Magisterium just as frequently reveal themselves to be as capable of cold-hearted indifference when they pursue the greater good.

One final thing for now: Pullman's trilogy is essentially a well-written critique of authoritarianism, specifically of the religious sort. And when "The Golden Compass" came to the theaters, the first response of several outspoken religious authorities (and, I'm sure, many of less prominence) was to tell their followers not to see it -- exactly what the Magisterium would have done in Pullman's imaginary world.

I'm sure that's an irony Pullman has enjoyed immensely.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

stealing ideas

A friend of mine writes, "I stand by the postulate that immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." (Goethe would certainly agree. "Everything that is written," he once said, "is mine!") While I cannot claim that I am cleverly working Anthony's blog entry into my own prose, I am nonetheless stealing a portion of it because I thought it was deceptively simple and thereby deeply true.

As Anthony noted, "Genius is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one. Wisdom is the capacity to see one thing where the genius sees ten." Therefore, I leave you with the following koan, which I understand in a christocentric manner, just to spite him:
Ryokan, a zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him.
"You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift."
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon."

getting there

So at long last I feel like my brain is getting back into the homeschooling process properly.
 
I don't know what the problem has been; I feel like I've been teaching through a fog for the last five months, and while Rachel's reading skills are advancing nicely, whille she's getting good at making connections and recurring motifs in literature, and while she's doing decently in math, I've still been frustrated with the lack of anything that's really engaged her -- or that felt like I was particularly engaged with her, for that matter.
 
There are a lot of things that could be behind that. I suspect that I had some sort of breakdown following the loss of our son five years ago, and the resultant strain on just about everything else that matters. The spiritual breakdown this spring certainly had a lot of its roots in that, as well.
 
Anyway, I think I'm on the road to getting all my marbles back into the right places. Hopefully I haven't screwed up too much other stuff by having no one tend the shop for as long as I have.
 
The cogs that clicked into place today were a moment of inspiration that came while I was lamenting how I haven't taught Rachel much of any science. I thought of a chart I'd seen at Gary Barker recently that detailed the phases of matter (gas, solid, liquid, for anyone keeping track). It was a handmade chart, the sort of thing any teacher can whip up in a minute or less, and fill in with student participation.
 
All at once it came to me, a chart of the five different kinds of vertebrates, with Rachel writing different examples under each category.
 
How to get her interested? Not a problem. I had her pull out a set of wooden blocks we own for a memory/matching game, with different animals on each block, then asked her to sort them out however she wanted. After she had sorted them, we started discussing why she had grouped them the way she had -- she had grouped dogs and cats together; put the snake, worm, snail and turtle in another group; and linked lions and tigers in a third, for example -- and as we went, she started regrouping them so the classification would make more sense.
 
Once that was finished and we agreed that her classification made sense -- and it was involved, with turtles now being placed next to the snails (both have shells) but not in the same column, since turtles have legs, while snails, snakes and worms slither -- I asked if I could regroup them again. Which I did, based on the kind of ear each creature had.
 
That cracked her up, and once we finished, Rachel reordered them once again, based on whether she liked them, and we went back and forth a few times, until I was confident she got the idea and was enjoying it.
 
And that was when I trotted out the concept of taxonomy, told her that scientists had ordered life into five kingdoms, including plants and animals, and that those kingdoms were each broken down into smaller groups. Once that was done, we discussed what made something a mammal, and pulled out each mammal from the assortment of blocks. Then Rachel and I made a chart, and she wrote the names of some mammals under the appropriate category.
 
Tomorrow I figure we'll review, and then we'll work on reptiles. We'll also start drawing some pictures of the animals (art), and eventually visit the county zoo over on River Road.
 
What with my earlier brainstorm about using Looney Tunes for music appreciation, I think I'm getting my wits back.

no frustration so keen

Things are not always what they seem.
 
My friend Drew is involved in a situation at work that I would categorize as "rats eating his brain." He's been taking part in an effort to improve the caliber of the newspapers he and his co-workers are producing. This is entirely an employee effort; management is not behind it, and doesn't care one way or the other who's involved with it, as long as the papers get produced each week. Because it's employee-initiated, it's not like it's even a career-building move, except potentially for improved journalistic skills, showing extra initiative, and things like that.
 
Here's the problem: Jeff Zuckerman, the fellow who came up with this effort, has no idea what he's doing, from everything Drew has told me. I've met Zuckerman myself, back in my own newspaper days, and I agree that he's a likeable fellow and believes in the importance of the press and everything. He's a believer in the importance of media as the Fourth Estate, representing the interests of the public and advocating on their behalf.
 
The problem I saw with his writing, and what Drew is seeing with his leadership in this meeting thing, is that Zuckerman lacks imagination. His writing is flat and uninspired, and never gets beyond the merely obvious of who, what, where and when to get into the why and the how -- and his leadership in the reporters' meetings is like that as well.
 
Rather than looking at any individual stories and soliciting feedback from the rest of the group on how to follow through with a deeper line of questions, or anything like that, his leadership consists of general questions like "What did everything think of the papers?" or "Does anyone have any ideas?" They're not bad questions in themselves, but when that's all he asks -- and it is -- discussion flounders and goes nowhere, and no one learns anything, although everyone's become good at parroting what the editor said at the staff meeting.
 
So, as I say, Drew feels like rats are eating his brains at these meetings. He started going to them in hopes to contribute something to the newsroom environment, and hoping he could deepen the professional relationships he has with his co-workers, but the banality of Zuckerman's questions is driving him up the wall. He essentially feels that to use the time productively, he either has to stop going to Zuckerman's meetings, or he has to bring his own ideas of what to do and usurp control of the meeting without appearing to do so.
 
Frustrating, and I feel his pain.
 
Things are not always what they seem.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

the walls are down

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Nehemiah that we overlook -- interesting because it is so overlooked -- is the nature of what it is he did.

Christians almost always spiritualize the book of Nehemiah and, as we're doing on Sundays and in our weekly Bible studies, we talk about metaphorical walls that have been knocked down and need to be repaired, such as as justice, racial equality, and the environment. This is valid, and instructive, but Nehemiah wasn't messing about with a metaphor: The wall that concerned him was real, it was solid, and it was needed for defending the city against invaders and brigands.

And Nehemiah's interest in rebuilding it wasn't driven by a spiritual pursuit of the Absolute. It was, I would argue, driven by nationalism (or perhaps, more generously, by its sister, patriotism). To Nehemiah, it was a sign of shame to the Jewish people that the city walls were in ruins and the people of Jerusalem were less protected from marauders than they might have been. Rebuilding the wall was an act of civil service, both to his fellows in people, and to King Artaxerxes, under whose authority Nehemiah became governor of Judea during the ensuing twelve years.

(Incidentally, I think that's the cause of Nehemiah's fear at the start of Chapter 2: He's asking to leave his post as a trusted servant in the king's household, a servant with a lot of authority over the household, and to be transferred to one of the king's distant vassal territories, and there to become its governor. He's not asking to rebuild the city of the king's enemies, although a previous Artaxerxes did find that Judea had been a difficult province in earlier times, as much as he's asking the king to allow a potentially major disruption in the smooth operation of his household, to rebuild the capital city of a remote province in the empire.)

That's the setup of the story that's about to unfold. The book of Nehemiah is in unusual in the canon in that it's one of two (I think) books written in Aramaic, along with Ezra; the rest of the Tanakh is written in Hebrew. It's also written in the first person, and has a much greater sense of God's distance and noninvolvement in the story than we find elsewhere in the Tanakh. The writers of the prophetic books regularly put words into the mouth of the Almighty, and draw moraland spiritual lessons from the events they depict. Not so in Nehemiah. Here you find the sort of statements about God you might hear on "testimony night" at a church, like "God was with us, and no one attacked us the entire trip," and you encounter statements about non-Jewish neighbors of the city and how they are to have no part of the rebuilt city because it is only for God's people.

That, I think, was an error on Nehemiah's part, since it creates enemies of people who wanted to help, and it (again) reflects a nationalist understanding that runs counter to the message we find in books like Ruth and that ultimately finds expression in the life and ministry of Christ.

Monday, January 14, 2008

a narnia bible study

A Bible study based on the Chronicles of Narnia.

I guess my initial thought, without having looked at it, is that it scarcely makes sense to do a Bible study based on the Chronicles of Narnia when there are 66 books in the Protestant canon that are much worthier of study, and that actually are the canon, rather than one man's children's version of a relatively small segment, mixed in with his own understanding of doctrine.

There is an appalling amount of biblical illteracy in the American church, particularly among evangelicals who claim that the Bible is the basis for their faith. The best way to correct that is to read the Bible, not the Chronicles of Narnia.

It's also interesting to note that almost every sermon and particularly every online Christian article C. S. Lewis is quoted, like he is the only person that has ever written about Christ. It's ironic, because in the introduction to "Mere Christianity," C.S. Lewis himself wrote about that very problem.

More seriously, I think it's due to a few factors:

  1. Lewis is more contemporary and accessible than many of the great Christian apologists from years past, and although he was an Oxford don, he wrote for the common masses.
  2. Many of us who are now adults and leaders in some capacity within the church were raised on Narnia, and as we grew, we find more Lewis books waiting for us, from "The Great Divorce" to "Mere Christianity" and "The Problem of Pain." The guy wrote a lot.
  3. As I said, we're an illiterate bunch, especially when it comes to the Bible. It's an ancient document, and it doesn't fit our pleasant little doctrines nearly as much as we pretend it does, so it's easier to read a book by J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, or C.S. Lewis, and then feel that we understand the faith. (Which we might, after a fashion, but not as well nor as purely as if we took the time to study the Scriptures themselves for us.)
  4. Lewis wrote at a time when the British church was at a similar point to where the American church now finds itself. People were no longer taking the church as an authority morally or spiritually, and were leaving in droves. Society was moving from primarily Christian to primarily post-Christian. Thus, his writing as a Christian in that context speaks to us in ours.
What irritates me about these things is how consumeristic they are. It's enough to have the Bible to study, we need to have our flavor, and to market as many flavors as we can to create a need that we can feel good about filling. Thus we have books like The Gospel According to Peanuts, to the Simpsons, to Harry Potter; and Bible studies based on the scriptural principles of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia and (no joke) The Andy Griffith Show.

Mind that I'm deliberately taking an overstrident position just to provoke the discussion, but in basing the study on another book -- another story, really! -- don't we in fact turn the Bible into a cipher for understanding Narnia? Sure, Lewis does some interesting stuff, and I've had some great discussion about his use of pagan imagery in concepts in Narnia and "Till We Have Faces," but Narnia isn't Scripture. If we want to use his books as a springboard to discussion of larger biblical issues -- Is Aslan's liberation of those enstatued in the White Witch's castle an accurate representation of what happened when Christ descended into hell? What are some ways we've been ensorceled by society like Prince Rilian was? -- I say, that's fine.

But especially when it comes to the allegorical elements of "Wardrobe," the eschatological matters of "The Last Battle," the depiction of Aslan and even the presence of Emeth in "The Last Battle," we need to remember that these are Lewis' understandings of what the Bible teaches, and he may in fact be wrong. Using his writings as the underpinnings for a Bible study means projecting his views, conceits, and doctrines back onto the biblical texts, and that's a risky proposition.

Just my 2 cents.

looney toons appreciation

My children had a revelation the other day: Music can be almost as important to a story as words and pictures,
 
The three of us arrived at the conclusion by a roundabout way that begins at Gary Barker Charter School, where I'm on the board of trustees. In his monthly report to the board -- and may I say how sympathetic I am to everyone tangled up with such mind-dulling bureaucratic requirements -- the music teacher shared how he is introducing his youngest students to composer Maurice Ravel.
 
I had never heard of Ravel before reading Mike DeBlasio's report, and still have no idea what his music is like for having read it, but DeBlasio explained that his youngest students will be studying Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite. He writes: "It is the musical setting of five well-known fairy tales, and students will be exploring how music can tell a story just as well as words."
 
That's a technique I've heard of before, particularly with Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Peter and the Wolf," but I have to admit that it's not something that ever exactly "worked" for me when I was a child. I didn't see a wolf, a young boy, his grandfather or anything else I was supposed to; I heard a bunch of instruments, and resented having to listen to such crap in music class when I'd rather read a book.
 
(By the time I reached high school, I was a little more in tune with musical symbology and could follow the general flow of Napoleon's invasion of Russia as it was depicted in "The 1812 Overture," particularly since I was in the brass section and we really got to belt out the Russian victory.)
 
Still, DeBlasio's comments triggered some thoughts in me. I had noticed in "High-Diving Hare" and some of the other Bugs Bunny shorts what an integral role the music played. There are the standard sound effects of sawing wood, and splashes and so on, but the soundtrack on these old cartoons is a seamless and indispensible part of the experience. Every time Yosemite Sam climbs the ladder, it's accompanied, step-by-step by notes that also climb one step at a time. Every expression, every movement, every action and mood has its own set of notes that accompany it and both develop and maintain the character.
 
So as we watched some Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, I started pointing out to the children how the music picked up its tempo with the chase sequences, and how Sylvester's movements were accompanied by a lower register than Tweety's. By the time the second cartoon started, they were noticing the relationship between the action and the music as well, and even noticed the use of Tweety's them in different arrangements, at different times, for different purposes.
 
I won't say that they've decided to become professional composers, but they made the connection, and it's sticking. We were listening to John Williams' "Star Wars" soundtrack this morning while getting ready for school, and Evangeline recognized Leia's theme when it played, and correctly deduced when there was action, intensity, or calm in the story -- all from the music.
 

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

'measure for measure'

One of the highlights of Christmas this year was giving my wife a copy of "Measure of Measure."
 
This is a video adaptation of the play that we each saw in college during a Shakespeare course we took. It was made in 1979 during a BCC effort to produce movie versions of each of Shakespeare's plays. It is, for reasons that defy explanation, the only one of those movies that is out of print in the United States, even though it is widely hailed as an excellent video production of the play. (The rest of the series is uneven and usually panned.)
 
Whenever the movie has come up in casual discusson, Natasha has always spoken highly of it, so this past Thanksgiving I realized I had to get her a copy. I did mention that it's out of print, didn't I?
 
I checked at Barnes & Noble, on Amazon, and on eBay, all to avail. I searched BBC America, and even wrote to a professor at the English department, begging for help in finding a copy. She had no idea where I could get one.
 
I put about a billion feelers out, and with less than a week to go, one of them got a nibble, and I was able to reel in a copy of the movie.
 
The story begins in Venice. As the reigning duke is about to embark on affairs of state, he appoints to rule in his place a strict enforcer of the law named Angelo. Over the past seventeen years, the duke has enforced issues of justice well, but he has let slip matters where the law governs morality, a lapse that Angelo sees fit to rectify, pulling down whorehouses in the suburbs and in the city as well.
 
He also sentences to die a young man named Claudio who has got his fiancee pregnant; he has, after all, broken the law, and it is pointless to complain that the law has gone unenforced these past seventeen years when it has remained the law the entire time.
 
As he is imprisoned, Claudio sends word through a friend of him to his sister, Isabella, who is about to become a nun, and asks for her to plead for clemency. She does, in a stunning set of arguments about the meaning and value of justice and mercy. Then comes the stunning twist: Angelo agrees to spare her brother's life, on one condition: She must sleep with him.
 
These developments come to the notice of the duke, who has not left on affairs of state at all, but who has remained in Venice to see how Angelo conducts himself with his new power. The duke, disguised as a friar, conspires with Isabella to have her agree to Angelo's demands, only to have Angelo's spurned former fiancee take Isabella's place at the tryst.
 
What follows is a further complication: Angelo, not wanting anyone to delve too deeply into the reasons for his change of heart, orders Claudio executed anyway. Shortly afterward, the duke "returns" to Venice, resumes his power, and lets the whole scandal come out. Since Angelo has slept with Marianna, he now orders him to marry her, and then, because Angelo ordered Claudio executed for the very offense he himself has committed, he orders Angelo to be taken away and executed as well.
 
And at this point, Marianna falls to her knees and begs Isabella to implore the duke for mercy for Angelo's sake.
 
It's a stunning play, in the true Shakespearean style, and I'm at a loss to understand why this video is out of print, or to why "Measure for Measure" is not peformed or filmed more frequently. Especially in today's political climate, where we have leaders claiming the moral high ground in demanding justice or denouncing sin, only to be rocked by scandal for the very behavior they have derided, it's a play we need to see more of.
 

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Should New Jersey apologize for its roll in slavery? (explain)
  • Yes
  • No
Vote in the poll!

More than that, the state is going to issue apologies for Bon Jovi, Christie Whitman, and for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as well. Still, while it may be true that New Jersey is crowded, and it has official corruption, high property taxes, and a high cost of living -- at least it's not New York. And thank God.

In all seriousness, my concern is that the apology won't go far enough, that it will merely be an intellectual statement of guilt but will not do anything to indicate true repentance or a desire to right the wrongs.

Invariably when this issue surfaces, as at the federal level a few years ago, someone objects on the grounds that slavery ended throughout the nation 140 years ago. All the slaveowners are dead, and every person who once was a slave has died. There is no one left, the argument goes, to apologize to, nor anyone left who owes an apology.

When we make those arguments, I think we miss an important spiritual truth: The sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. Slavery ended in the blood and fire of the Civil War, but it swiftly was replaced by more than a century of segregation and jim crow justice, and by a dark legacy of racism. Even today, when we have a serious contender for the presidency who is black, opportunities and education remain slanted very measurably on a racial basis. The sin that led to the institution of slavery remains.

although slavery was a disgusting thing, aren't most of the descendants in the US better off because of the slavery?

One of the common responses to this sort of proposal is to argue that African Americans are better off than they would have been had they been born in Africa. Who can say for certain? We only know the story we have, not the story that might have been told. The current state of many African nations doubtless is due in some part to their own role in the slave trade, and the heightened conflicts and predation that went into capturing people to sell as slaves. If the pre-existing conflicts had not been exacerbated by the slave trade, perhaps those nations would be stronger and more cohesive than they are now. I lack the training or knowledge to say with anything approaching certainty.

However, all things being equal, I'd have to say that they probably are. I remember back during the Rwanda genocide, reading an op-ed piece by a columnist whose ancestors entered the United States not through Ellis Island but in some unnamed port, and not looking forward to a life of freedom and opportunity but to one of brutal exploitation and degradation. Yet as this fellow looked at the mutilated bodies floating down the river, he was glad that they had come, because if they hadn't, he wouldn't be living where he was.

If it's true that some of America's contemporary wealth and state of advancement is due to the labor provided by slaves in the South before the Civil War, and in the Northern states before they proclaimed their own emancipations, it's also true that both blacks and whites have received those economic benefits.

God does bring good out of evil, and he can even sew a silk purse from a pig's ear. But that doesn't mean that the evil doesn't continue to exact its toll, nor that the silk purse does not in some manner remain a pig's ear.

For the apology to be more than empty words, it needs to be accompanied by some meaningful action: a stronger commitment to schools in urban areas, for instance; greater incentive for business and industry to invest in our inner cities; and a greater celebration of the African American culture than token nods its way with Black History Month and Kwanzaa. It's great that kids today know prominent black performers like Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey; it'd be much better if their knowledge extended back to Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Huston, to say nothing of the many blacks who have contributed to America's politics, military, civics and everything else.

If the New Jersey government really wants to make good on an apology for slavery, what it will need is to make a deliberate effort to serve the black community and elevate it to equal footing alongside the Caucasian community; i.e., "Our ancestors debased yours, and it was wrong. To correct the heritage we received from them, we will now abase ourselves before you and serve you."

president lincoln is dead

My friend Tom preached a sermon on Sunday about Nehemiah. He started out by talking about Nehemiah's reaction to the news of the broken walls and burnt gates in Jerusalem, and how odd it was. It would be, he said, as though we were all moved to tears today by a report that President Lincoln had been assassinated. This wasn't exactly news, after all; probably for his entire life, Nehemiah had heard about the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. He knew that Nebuchadnezzar had broken down the city walls and burnt the gates, much as we know about that fateful night in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth murdered the president.

Still, I want to suggest that the comparison isn't entirely right. The time frame is right, but Booth was hunted down and brought to justice, Lincoln was laid out in state, and his vice president was sworn in for the remainder of Lincoln's term. Since then we've had 27 presidential elections, and while arguably none of them has surpassed or even equaled Lincoln qua president, still they've been duly elected and served out their terms. To draw the parallel with Nehemiah's situation, it would be as though Lincoln were dead; no one had been brought to justice 140 years later; his body was still lying at Ford Theater during its latest theatrical production, with patrons nimbly stepping over and around it; and the country had had no one at the helm ever since.

What upset Nehemiah, I think, is that this is exactly what had happened. Jerusalem had been inhabited all this time but no one had repaired its walls or gates; possibly no one even had tried. And also, as a member of the diaspora, all his life he has heard about the glory of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish culture, national pride, and identity. It's an affront to the dignity of the Jewish people for the city to be thus.

It's important to remember in the chapters that unfold that Nehemiah isn't a stonemason, and probably has no real idea what would be involved in building a wall. His job title is "cupbearer to the king," something as far removed from stonemasonry as needlecraft is from the newspaper business. He is, however, somewhat wealthy and influential, and trusted; his job is to sample the king's food and drink against poisoning, and one presumes he gets cast-offs from the king, and while he probably is not taken into the king's confidences, they're close enough that Artaxerxes notices when Nehemiah's mood dips.

One of the things we should take away from this book is that the task came to Nehemiah solely because he's the one who started the ball rolling. There are other people 800 miles closer who have been upset by the wall's ruin for years, yet they have allowed themselves to be content with being upset and angry over it. Nehemiah is simply the guy who started to do something about it.

Another thing that we should perhaps stop to reflect on is the nature of responsibility that Nehemiah assumes for his people's sin. Invariably when Christians study this book, someone points out that he confesses the sin of the Jews in the first person, as though he is personally responsible, but we don't really go much further than pointing out and being impressed with that curious idiosyncrasy shown by him and other members of the Diaspora, like Daniel. I think we need to go a step further and ask ourselves if we should be doing the same thing.

You're probably aware that right now the New Jersey state Legislature is considering issuing an apology for the state's role in slavery. Invariably when this issue surfaces, as at the federal level a few years ago, someone objects on the grounds that slavery ended throughout the nation 140 years ago. All the slaveowners are dead, and every person who once was a slave has died. There is no one left, the argument goes, to apologize to, nor anyone left who owes an apology.

When we make those arguments, I think we miss a spiritual truth that Nehemiah grasped, even if just by rote instruction: The sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. Slavery ended in the blood and fire of the Civil War, but it swiftly was replaced by more than a century of segregation and jim crow justice, and by a dark legacy of racism. Even today, when we have a serious contender for the presidency who is black, opportunities and education remain slanted very measurably on a racial basis. The sin that led to the institution of slavery remains. If the New Jersey government really wants to make good on an apology for slavery, what it will need is to make a deliberate effort to serve the black community and elevate it to equal footing alongside the caucasian community; i.e., "Our ancestors debased yours, and it was wrong. To correct the heritage we received from them, we will now abase ourselves before you and serve you."

Tom asked us which broken-down walls we see, and as he said, we must begin doing what it takes to raise them up again.

Monday, January 07, 2008

driving back the rats

One of the perils of staying at home with the kids is that after a while rats begin to eat your brain.

I feel the progress of the rats in dozens of different ways: the difficulty I have in getting back into "the zone" and finding the mania that lets me write well, the steady consumption of my mind with minutiae and daily grindings, and the way I've had to remind myself that I really am an intelligent and articulate fellow with viewpoints that other people need to hear.

Reclaiming my cerebral cortex from the infestation of rodents takes deliberate effort. I need to set aside time to write, even if it's just a pissante little entry on my blog that only a few friends and relatives will read. I need to watch something a little deeper than the Bugs Bunny cartoons I've taught my daughters to love. And while it's OK to read a Brian Michael Bendis treatment of Daredevil, it doesn't exactly hurt to read an old German revenge epic like "The Nibelungenleid" every now and then either.

The rats are winning, and I need to drive them back.

Today I took my first art lesson at the art studio where Evangeline has been taking classes for the last three years. It was nothing particularly advanced; it was, in fact, foundational, dealing with the four basic shapes and simple shading techniques, as well as an introduction to basic artist vocabularly like "restating the line."

The first week went well. I'm learning to hold (and sharpen) a pencil all over again -- the way I've been doing it for the past 32 years is all wrong, and always has been, but no elementary school teacher ever was able to get me to change -- but I came in already knowing a little about perspective, about the importance of making a line with a single bold stroke, and having picked up a few tidbits from having an artistically gifted daughter.

Best of all, I'm taking the class with my other daughter, Rachel, and we're learning together.

I'm having a great time, and the rats are drawing back, even if just a little bit.



Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.





Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.

beowulf (spoilers)

One of the many pleasant surprises this Christmas past was a novelization of the movie "Beowulf."
 
I'm not particularly partial to novelizations, as they're usually derivative and less interesting than the movie, but in the case of "Beowulf" I'm willing to make an exception. The book is based on the recent Robert Zemeckis movie, which screenplay is written by Neil Gaiman. I've read exactly one book by Gaiman that disappointed, and many other stories that amazed me, moved me, inspired me, and just plain creeped me out. He is easily one of the foremost storytellers of this generation, and if he's involved with a project, I'm interested.
 
The story is based on the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem of the same title, which tells the tale of a fearless hero who delivers a Danish kingdom from the monster that has been terrorizing its ruler and his subjects during their revels. Following that, he also must fight the monster's mother, who comes to avenge him; and at life's end, a dragon.
 
The book begins immediately prior to the monster Grendel's first attack, as the Danish King Hrothgar and his thanes are celebrating the peace and stability in the land, in the newly constructed hall, Heorot. Hrothgar is something of a monster-slayer himself, having dispatched several of the beasts in order to claim the land for his people, including a dragon.
 
Still, all is not well in Heorot. Some of the thanes are concerned about a new Roman god they've heard about, named Jesus Christ. This is in itself a nice touch, as the original poem is largely pre-Christian in its praise of mortal strength and glory, although it contains a nice Christian gloss, as though the poet who recorded it either was trying to preserve the old ways and felt this approach would make it palatable to a new generation; or he was himself a convert and simply was trying to preserve the story within the new framework his people had received.
 
More important than the encroaching influence of Christianity -- which, predictably, gets a bad rap as a hateful and repressive religion, as though fanaticism and fundamentalism typify the beliefs and behaviors of Christians -- is the trouble near the throne. Hrothgar's young queen is cold to him, and not just because the king is an old, sodden mess who will never get the hero's welcome to Valhalla. The king has a connection to Grendel that only she and he know about, that largely constrains him from taking any meanngful action himself against the creature.
 
That connection, as the reader discovers when Beowulf confronts Grendel's mother, is that Hrothgar is Grendel's father. The monster's mother is an ancient mere-wife who, one presumes, has been engaging in the same destructive cycle of weregild for ages. A hero comes and slays a monster, then she comes and avenges her child's death. The hero then trails her to her lair, as Beowulf does, and she offers to make him a king whose every foe will quail at the sight of him -- if he gives her a son to replace the one that he slew. (She fails to mention that he will never sire another child.)
 
Hrothgar killed a dragon, then sired Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel, then sires the dragon who will beset him at the end of the story and nearly leaves his kingdom in ashes. The cycle leaves the throne of each king tainted by a bargain with the devil, and turns each hero's lust for glory and power back upon him so that he wreaks the mere-wife's revenge on himself for her, while robbing the hero of any chance at Valhalla, since anything less than a hero's death leads to Hel.
 
It is, in the end, an interesting treatment on the bargains we make to gain power and the prices we pay to seal those agreements. No one in the story who seeks glory or power ends well; every one ends badly. The only exception is the man who succeeds Beowulf. He has slain no monsters, brokered no deals with the merewife. He is named Beowulf's heir and receives the crown, and thus the cycle is ended.
 
And ironically, despite the book's stereotyped depiction of Christians, this is one area where I think it does the faith justice, though (ironically) through Beowulf, who remains a pagan until the end: It's Beowulf's struggle against the dragon, not for glory but for love of his people, that breaks the cycle. Hrothgar hid behind other heroes, many of whom Grendel killed, and so never confronted the monstrosity of his own sin and deal with the devil, and in the end he committed suicide. Beowulf acknowledges his relationship to the dragon, and makes it his burden and no one else's to put things to rights.
 
I hadn't expected the book, but it was worth the time it took to read. When it comes out on DVD, I plan to watch the movie as well.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

mccain

If I had to vote for someone whose political affiliation is opposite from my own, I would pick John McCain, hands down. He strikes me as an honest, straight-talking fellow, and has demonstrated a willingness to cross party lines (and to cross party bosses), and overall strikes me as a man of integrity and intelligence.

If we could vote in both primaries, I'd back Barack in the Democratic Party and McCain in the GOP.

Despite his socially liberal history on civil unions, as well as his record on support for immigrants, legal and illegal, and on teaching evolution in public schools, Giuliani is someone I couldn't vote for because of what he did while he was mayor in New York.

He did do a lot to clean up New York City and Times Square, to curb crime, and all that was great, but he was too willing to look the other way on police brutality, stood in opposition not just personally but politically to a museum when it had a painting he found offensive (he ordered its city funding cut), and pushed other policies that, in my opinion, were detrimental to individual rights in the name of "security" and "law and order."

(I'm thinking specificaly of his desire to seize vehicles of those who couldn't be convicted of DWI, even though they were *really* guilty in the eyes of the prosecutor. Gee, that'd be, roughly, everyone charged?) All bad precedents for someone aspiring to be commander in chief.

Not to mention that he's been a one-issue candidate so far, playing the 9-11 card for everything he could, as well as the odd cell phone fetish he's displayed.