Sunday, March 31, 2013

'From Hell'

Well, I finished "From Hell" last night, around four in the morning after getting it in the mail that afternoon, so I think I have to give it a thumbs-up.

The book is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell about Jack the Ripper. Detailing events leading up to the infamous Whitechapel murders and an ensuing coverup, "From Hell" is a tightly scripted piece of historical fiction.

As an on/off fan of Moore's work -- I loved his run on "Saga of the Swamp Thing," was blown away by"his V for Vendetta," and found "Watchmen*" to be amazing, but was unimpressed with "Tom Strong" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" -- I've been looking forward to reading this one.

The book did not disappoint. It was a tightly written graphic novel, as meticulously plotted as I've come to expect from Alan Moore, and thoroughly researched. The book is structured around a widely dismissed conspiracy theory that Jack the Ripper's actions were a plot orchestrated by the Freemasons to protect the British Crown during the reign of Queen Victoria from a scandal involving her grandson Albert.

The action is gruesome -- this is a story about Jack the Ripper, after all -- but Moore's ability to tap into the power of symbolism and to further imbue those symbols with the semblance of deeper order and power, drives some of the most absorbing sections of the book, such as Sir William Gull's taxi ride back and forth across London as he completes an arcane circuit of the city's churches and landmarks.

On the downside, the artwork did make it difficult at times to differentiate among the characters, particularly given the size of the cast; and as an American reader unfamiliar with 19th-century London slang, customs or culture, I had to consult Wikipedia at times to make sure I was following the story correctly. (I also had to re-read the first two chapters, since I found I didn't understand properly what was happening in the fourth chapter, when the story started to progress.)

The artwork also was explicit, not just in terms of the violence, but also regarding human sexuality. Jack the Ripper, after all, wasn't just a serial killer; he was driven by psychosexual demons that led him to prey upon prostitutes in the Whitechapel district with a particularly vicious sexual violence. As a result, I doubt I'll be letting my daughter read this anytime soon. Maybe around the time I let her read my "Swamp Thing" collections, which I've summed up previously as "When you're older, and I'm dead."

I do recommend it, although if you've decided you're not an Alan Moore fan, I concede that you probably won't like it.

* I think I finally enjoyed "Watchmen" on the fifth or sixth time through. To be fair, on first reading I think I initially was expecting a superhero comic, and wasn't ready for the superhero deconstructed. By the time I was in my early 30s, though, I was finally able to see myself a little in Nite Owl, and could appreciate better what Moore had done with the other nonheroic "superheroes" like Dr. Manhattan and Rorshach.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Life of Cesar Chavez celebrated on Easter, people freak out

My faith is in shambles today, because Google honored Cesar Chavez today instead of celebrating Easter. Or at least so the Christian Right would have it.

Google has a custom of altering the logo on its main page to mark major holidays, significant events and anniversaries, and just because it can. A lot of these doodles are fun, like the time it replaced the Google logo with a functioning Pac-Man game. (My daughter still plays that.) Others are educational, like the time Google honored M.C. Escher. Other times, they're just odd, like the logo honoring the 150th birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto. (For what it's worth, I speak the language, and just shrugged at that one.)

But heck, it's their logo, they can do whatever they want with it. Right?

Apparently not. On Easter Sunday this year, Google honored Cesar Chavez, a labor activist born on March 31, 1927, and not the Resurrection, and that, apparently, was too much. Glenn Beck got all snarky at the imagined disrespect; other Twitterfolk suggested that Google was elevating Chavez over Christ, or even found it a tremendous insult to their religion.

Come on, really?

I fully understand that Christians on Easter may greet one another with cries of "He is risen!" and "He is risen indeed!" But it's silly, it's pointless, it's completely un-Christlike, to demand that everyone else celebrate the Resurrection with us, and to take offense when a corporation like Google, with users who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Jainist, Shinto, Sikh and Wiccan as well as Christian, does not take the time to affirm our particular set of religious beliefs, or even to celebrate our holiday with us.

The empty tomb on the first Easter is foundational to my faith. It is the basis for my belief that Jesus is the Son of God, the foundation of my hope that one day I too will rise from the dead, and for my conviction that God's dream is for us one day to live in a world free of pain, disease, death and infirmity, for us to walk with him as his people and for him to walk with us as our God.

I don't need a Google Doodle to affirm my faith today, and even if Google actually savaged Christians today with a doodle that declared "He's dead, you nitwits," my faith would be unrattled. (Though at least in that case I could understand being upset.)

But, in fact, Google's choice of doodles today is one that affirms my faith, and if you're a Christian you also should find it encouraging.

Cesar Chavez, after all, was a tireless advocate for the rights of poor workers. Himself an American farm worker, Chavez was a leader in the labor movement in the 1960s and also worked for civil rights, encouraging Mexican Americans to become registered voters involved with the political process.

With Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, a labor union that worked to ensure laborers were paid well and treated with dignity. One of the hallmarks of his activism was his strict commitment to nonviolence.

Chavez, it should be noted, was a devote Christian, He drew his inspiration for all these stands and for his actions from the person, the teachings and the life of Jesus Christ.

And isn't a transformed life the best way to honor the man we believe rose from the dead?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The 'Djesus Uncrossed' flipout

So were you offended by “DjesusUncrossed,” Saturday Night Live's riff on Quentin Tarantino's latest film?

I wasn't, but judging by the reaction of the nation's culture warriors, I should have been. Once the sketch aired last weekend, the Internet erupted with the predictable cries of foul. Fox News ran an opinion piece by Todd Starnes melodramatically claiming “NBC Declares War on Christians.” Michael Farris, chancellor of of Patrick Henry College called it the “worst possible attack on the person and character of Jesus Christ.” Seriously?

For its part, the American Family Association, in its official statement, essentially consigned those involved with the sketch to the flames of hell.

Something is missing amid all this outrage: a sense of perspective.

“Saturday Night Live” hasn't stayed on the air the past 40 years for its biblical scholarship. It is a variety show built around short comedy sketches. Comedy works on its ability to surprise us, and the strength of its surprise often lies in the unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, especially if the link breaks a taboo.

That is why we laugh at a faux commercial for edible Pampers. This is why it was funny to listen to a Eddie Murphy and a reggae band sing about killing white people, at an American Legion fund-raiser. The images are too bizarre, too contradictory, too exaggerated. They make no sense. So we laugh.

In the case of “Djesus Uncrossed,” the writers at Saturday Night Live link the excessive and gratuitous violence of Quentin Tarantino's movies – “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds” specifically – to the figure of Jesus. The joke requires viewers the recognize the jarring disconnect between the violence of “Djesus Uncrossed” and the essential pacifism of Jesus in the gospels.

Quentin Tarantino's movies routinely make a spectacle of violence. Compare that to Jesus, who went peacefully when he was arrested, rebuked his disciples when they raised arms, and told his followers “Do not resist an evil person.” Pairing Jesus with Tarantino's love of violence isn't blasphemous; it's humorous. It works because we know that Jesus isn't the kind to cut someone's head in half.

Put simply: The joke would fail if the writers didn't count on us to respect Jesus as a peaceful man. Where's the blasphemy in that?

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live used the likeness of Jesus in a manner that doesn't match the preapproved evangelical manner? That's a narrow attitude to take. Christianity has provided the framework for Western thought for nearly 1,700 years. In America its influence predates the founding of the Republic.

With that sort of legacy, it's only natural to use the language and the symbols of Christianity to communicate and to critique Western thought, civilization and art.

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live portrayed Jesus specifically in a violent manner? Perhaps it is. Either way, I think we have deeper problems than “Djesus Uncrossed.”

Years ago, some people complained that Jesus too often was being portrayed in popular culture as a hippie sort of flower child, powerless and weak, the sort of guy who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach.

The Jesus pushed by the Right has the opposite problem. The Right too often has used Jesus to stoke up people's anger, to justify invading Iraq and other Muslim countries, to marginalize gays and lesbians, and even to deny women access to contraceptives. This Jesus is no milquetoast; he's the guy who's going to kick sand in your face at the beach.

The difference is that Saturday Night Live portrayed the vengeful Jesus as a joke, while the Right is completely serious about theirs. Who's committing blasphemy now?

About the only stereotype missing from Harry Hanukkah is that he wasn't a lawyer.
Starnes asks rhetorically why Saturday Night Live never pokes fun at Judaism – I guess he never saw“Harry Hanukkah Saves Christmas” – and never tells jokes about Islam. I'd wager it's not because they're afraid of offending Muslim viewers, nor because they hold a special regard for Islam, as much as that it's rude to pick on the little guy.

Because the truth is, in America at least, Islam remains a minority religion, with only about 2.6 million adherents in a nation of 300 million people. For all the complaints of the Religious Right that Christianity in America is under siege, Christianity remains the dominant narrative of our culture. Christmas is a federal holiday, not Eid al-Fitr. Everyone in America knows what Easter celebrates; I doubt you'll find one Christian in 10 who knows what Shavuot is, or what its relationship is to the Day of Pentecost.

The Religious Right loves to play the persecution card. The message it has been hammering for years is pretty simple: Be afraid. There's a war on Christianity, and we're losing. Liberals are attacking God. Our culture, our heritage, our legacy, are all under attack.

Faith should lead us to reach out to other people and to forge connections with them. If the most it inspires someone to do, is to tell you to be afraid, do yourself a favor.

Tune them out. Their attitude is the most offensive thing of all.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.