Monthly Archives: November 2017

Popularity for Purchase

I only watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with one eye. Since my office is just two blocks from the store, it’s a little too much like work. Still, I can’t help but hear the music and announcements. Is it just me, or are most of these floats and balloons trying to sell me something? Okay, so it takes a while for the light to dawn—it is Macy’s parade, after all. This is the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Santa Claus is the greatest shopper of them all. We are a nation that defines itself not by what it can produce, but what it can consume. Conspicuous wealth. Showing what you’ve got. I’m afraid I just don’t get it.

Those of us who grew up poor, so the thinking goes, should want to display our accomplishments like a peacock. We should want to show others that we’ve made it. That we can play the spending game just like everybody else. We’ll always have the poor with us, so why not demonstrate to them the vapidness to which they can aspire?

An old-fashioned guy, I check my email on a computer. Gmail divides my messages up into three tabs so that I can pay attention to people who actually want to contact me. The third tab is reserved for those seeking my money. Sitting in a waiting area, I decide to check my email on my phone. It says I have close to two-thousand messages. It’s that third tab. I tend to ignore it since I already know what everyone wants me to play. The messages in tab three build up to biblical proportions while I try to figure out how to handle all the other things I have to do.

Not only did I grow up poor, I was also a small guy. That meant when teams were being picked in gym class I was always among the last selected. I’m not aggressive. The indigent know their place. My religion taught me that this was about right. Seeking for one’s self instead of for others is wrong. Although I’ve been through advanced training since then, those early lessons remain with me. When those who have goods to offer discover my email address, they crowd it full, hoping that I’ll be one of many to spend the little I earn on them. Instead, I remember standing on the vacant lot while the neighborhood kids are dividing up into teams. The lines are getting small, and I’m awaiting someone to notice my potential. Of course, they’ll have to wait until I get through all of this email because, in reality, I’m obviously quite a popular guy.

More than Baptism

Few things distinguish American Christianity as much as its divisions. These aren’t precise, however, and often the borders are fuzzy and held more by cultural history than by theological outlook. One of the denominations—indeed, the umbrella for the single largest Protestant denomination in America—often faces the question of its identity. Who are the Baptists? Many Protestant groups can trace their histories to defining moments; consider Martin Luther and his hammer, according to the Lutheran origin myth. Baptists are a little tricker to pin down. Dissenters, yes, convinced that adult baptism should accompany conversation, yes, but beyond that widely divergent. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have provided a service by writing Baptists in America: A History. Going back before America, they trace the origins of the sect and quickly bring it into the context in which it would thrive.

Persecuted early in American life, Baptists grew in numbers and recognition during the period commonly known as the Great Awakenings. Suited to frontier individualism, non-doctrinal, and advocating for freedom of conscience, the Baptists gained large sums of converts in this era. With their congregational polity, Baptist cultural influence really only took off when mass media gave its more aggressive preachers a venue not limited by church walls. As Kidd and Hankins point out, however, the denomination proved friable. Splitting apart over various issues, the number of Baptist denominations grew. Their political influence would also grow so that they would become a force with which to be reckoned even today. Few, however, really understand who the Baptists are.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It defines itself by a radical conservatism that masquerades as “orthodoxy.” Heavily biblical, many in the tradition have a strong preference for inerrancy. Social causes that appear outdated to most modern people are do-or-die issues for this sect within a sect. Baptists in America does a good job showing how contradictory Baptists can be. They were, after all, dissenters from the beginning. Their championing of religious freedom often doesn’t apply outside their own borders. The more political of the denomination know very well how to game a democratic system. Perhaps the lesson they’ve learned most acutely is that being unseen carries with it great advantages. They play the sport of legislative chess very well. In a culture that loudly and repeatedly claims that religion no longer matters, those with conviction have a natural hiding place. From there pieces are easily moved to positions of power.

Holiday Season

It was just after dark and the red and blue lights were shredding the night in Wallkill, New York. We’d driven past this mall just over an hour ago to take our daughter home after a too brief Thanksgiving break. Now there were police cars lined up along the length of the Orange Country Galleria Mall, and my wife said, “I hope it’s not a shooting.” Life in America’s that way. About two hours later we were home and yes, it had been a shooting incident. For reasons nobody knows, a man discharged a handgun into the floor at the crowded shopping center, injuring two. Police had not located the shooter, and no motive was known. The mall was evacuated and holiday shoppers feared for their lives.

Just a few months ago I was in Penn Station, New York when a similar panic ensued. Rail police had used a taser gun on a passenger who’d gotten out of hand. As we were entering the station to catch our train, scores of people were running out in a panic. It had sounded like a gunshot. Clothes and personal effects littered the floor of the station once we got inside. This is the world in which we live. A world enamored of weapons. A world where we hate and distrust the stranger. A world where our government receives support from gun lobbies and refuses to put controls on the sale and ownership of firearms. A world where a peaceful Sunday night on the busiest shopping weekend of the year ends in panic and tears.

Wallkill, New York, is not exactly a metropolitan area. Upstate, as we’ve been learning for the last several years, is pretty big. Small population centers dot an impressive landscape of Catskills, Finger Lakes, and beautifully wooded hills. The people are generally friendly, less brusk than they tend to be in New York City. It seems that where two or three are gathered together there’s a handgun in their midst, however. Trusting ourselves to be good people, we want to arm ourselves to shoot the “bad guy.” Meanwhile Congress still tries to pass legislation to reduce health care since, I guess, too many people are getting shot. It can be a real drain on the economy if the wealthy have to chip in. It’s upstate New York. We have about two hours to go before we can rest at home. Galleria Mall is in lockdown. The rest of the nation is too.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.

Astronomers and Pirates

In an effort not to travel, the internet offers a great resource while it’s still free. If you don’t want to wander from home, it brings movies you might’ve missed right to your domicile. This year has been so busy that we’d missed completely Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I know, as the Pirate movies spin on and on they become more special effects extravaganzas with insipid, if complex, plots. Still, we’ve been watching from the beginning, so last night we decided to see it through. The movies are fun, if less well written than they were at the beginning (and the movie began without a script). There are moments worth attention, however.

The story follows Carina Smyth as she attempts to discover her father through following his diary. This, of course, brings her path across that of Captain Jack Sparrow. Smyth is an astronomer and horologist. Because she’s female and this is the eighteenth century, she’s labeled a witch. Both the proximate and ultimate cause of the accusation is her gender. Although she proves to be the real hero of the film, the men can’t help thinking she’s a witch although she’s using science to find answers. In fact, if a male astronomer did the same things she did, there’d be no story here. This is a post-Galileo world. It’s also post-Salem. We don’t watch these films for history, of course, but it is true that although the witchcraft trials ended at the turn of that century, the accusations continued for some time after. The woman of science is a threat to the male establishment. She alone, however, discerns the truth.

Swashbuckler cinema was a male invention. Still, even in the twenty-first century too much of it comes at the expense of women. Jack Sparrow’s famous compass, for example, is passed on to him aboard a ship called the “Wicked Wench.” Surely this is meant to be funny, but at whose expense? The other women in the movie hardly come off better. Shansa actually is a witch, working for the establishment. Beatrice Kelly, in Jack Sparrow’s noose wedding, is portrayed as an undesirable bride, purely for laughs. Disney is famous for its princesses, but also for its wicked women. Even the strong female characters such as Mulan, Moana, and Anna find themselves being helped to success by male characters. Obviously the genders do interact in real life, and as recent history has shown us, men will demonize women if it helps them get ahead. You might think a movie of anti-heroes, however, would show the most intelligent character receiving a bit more respect. Especially since she’s a woman in a pirate’s world.

Predestined?

This particular doctrine struck me as evil. It violated every experience and thought I’d ever had, even raised as an unquestioning Christian as I was. Then, at Grove City College I was faced with it for the first time—predestination. If free will is an illusion, what crueler God can be conceived? I couldn’t avoid such thoughts upon re-reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. A non-conforming non-conformist at the college assigned it in a science fiction class, so it has been decades since I’d read it. Now I found it perhaps more profound than before. Much has happened since my initial reading of the book, o my brothers. (And sisters.)

The framework of the story is well known. Alex and his friends are teenage punks who love ultra-violence. Alex is betrayed and imprisoned. Considered incorrigible, he’s reprogrammed to the point that he can’t even defend himself in a society that’s grown even worse during his time in jail. In the hospital after a suicide attempt, he awakes to find his old self restored, whether this is a good thing or not. The main point that’s behind this, it seems, is that without free will, repentance means nothing. In fact, in my edition of the book, an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman makes the point that some interpret A Clockwork Orange as a fictional defense of Christianity. Certainly the comparisons are there, from Judas through Jesus, healing, sin, and suffering. How much it actually meets that idyllic vision of God in Heaven directing the lives of individuals is, of course, an open question.

The idea that human beings are born as Hell-fodder posits a cruel and sadistic deity. Not only are the majority of human beings going to face eternal punishment for matters beyond their control, there is a divinity who planned it that way. We are all, literally, puppets in a universal morality play written by a being whose moral compass is horribly skewed. Indeed, even at Grove City some of the faculty would state that philosophically there could be no contest—free will was right. But, they would add, tapping the Bible, it’s not true because the Word of God says so. When I protested, it was declared, without irony, that even my protest had been predestined. In other words, in this clockwork universe I was clearly an Alex. Upon closer inspection, however, the truer analogy would be that we are all the victims of Alex and his droogs. But only if we have the freedom to make such an observation.