The Speech of the Oh So Wise

I’m mildly interested in politics and yet feel incompetent to say anything about it. The politicians themselves and pundits seem to say enough, or more than enough. What I am interested in The Word and words.

Thomas Franks' recent essay in Harper’s Weekly, entitled “Broken English,” tackles the worn out cliches of political speech — words often divorced from a context that has been forgotten, making them seem oddly misplaced if you know their original context. He also attacks contingent-speak, as when a commentator or politician says “one might argue” such and such, a distancing effect, “an extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject.” He concludes that this oh so wise usage is “a kind of shortcut to objectivity, and suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere.” This kind of roundabout speech, always with an escape hatch, is, he says, intended to cue the audience to the presence of a professional, or an elite if you will, one undoubtedly “complicated.” Right.

Do me a favor: If you hear me talk like this, call me on it. This ranks on my list of barely tolerable speech, like that of publicists and music business A&R people who always tell you what you want to hear, and then quietly act otherwise. Or people who seem unable to commit to a date (dinner, Friday?) because something better may come along and they may be left out (FOMO). Say what you mean people! Say it with love, if you can, but say it.

My parents didn’t speak like this. They never said “It might be a good idea if you cleaned your room.” It was just “Clean your room.” They also never said “one might argue that doing your homework is a good idea.” Just “Sit down and do your homework.” Their directives were few (actually, clean your room was not on the list) but. . . well. . . direct, meant to be obeyed. Indeed, words were often unnecessary; the code was written on my heart. (Ok, so I didn’t always obey, but there was no contingency.)

Which brings me to cliches, the refuge of the pundit and politician: Stop. Like “lay down a marker.” Heard that enough? Users of the phrase, Franks notes, have no idea that it originated in gambling parlance, likely popularized by a famous line from a musical, Guys and Dolls, where “the gambler Nathan Detroit utters this famous line: ‘A marker is the one pledge a guy cannot welsh on, never.'” All of which gives enhanced meaning to the statement that “voting for such and such politician may be quite a gamble.” Or how about when pundits talk about one politician “eviscerating” another? Really? Disembowelment? It’s an over-the-top husk of a phrase that should be consigned to the word dump. Somewhat tongue in cheek Franks concludes that all of “[t]his lingo is the jittery patter of a would-be democratic aristocracy, utterly incapable of introspection and yet better than the rest of us in every way.” I can't listen.

There. I’ve said nothing about politics and something about words. But I leave you with the unstated biblical truth of what Franks is saying: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37). Simple-speak is disarming and refreshing. Indeed, one might argue that this biblical exhortation is good advice.


Changing the Weather

Cover_May2013_120-04-15-2013-101005There are chilly winds blowing in the world.  And yet we have a way of selectively reading reality, filtering out or minimizing the things we don't want to think about, turning up our collar to a frigid truth if we venture out, warming ourselves by the glow of hearth and home.  But sometimes reality gushes in, and we realize that indeed a hard rain is falling.

Two recent articles in First Things changed the normally sunny weather I travel in.  In one by Wesley J. Smith, entitled "Medicinal Murder," the author documents the steady expansion of euthanasia in Europe.  As case in point, he cites Belgium, where suicides are termed by many in the medical community as a "beautiful death," not merely suicides of terminally ill persons but even of those who, because of depression or lack of will to live, are ready to end it all.  Furthermore, he documents the ungodly linkage of euthanasia with organ harvesting.  Society now benefits from mercy killings.  And when there are legal violations of euthanasia laws, enforcement is lax or nonexistent.  Thus, a cultural shift has ocurred where death is celebrated as one more benefit of human autonomy: you can choose when to die, and society and the medical profession will help you and even profit from your death.  Smith notes that once euthanasia is legalized, the categories of people eligible for it expand, but the rest of society ceases to think it matters.  He believes this trend is symptomatic of cultural nihilism.

Perhaps you know this.  Perhaps the essay only confirms what we already know.  But it is worth reading for the last paragraph, where Smith offers the antidote:

What is the antidote?  Love.  We all age.  We fall ill.  We grow weak.  We become disabled.  Life can get very hard.  Euthanasia raises the fundamental question of whether our culture will retain the moral capacity to sustain a culture of care for those who have entered life's most difficult stages.  On that question, it seems to me, hangs the moral future of Western civilization.  For as the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne has cogently warned: "A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death.  A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

So that's it?  Love?  Not taking to the courts, mounting advocacy for life, passing laws to protect the elderly and infirm?  Just love?

In that same issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Lena Dunhams's Inviolable Self," Alan Jacobs contrasts the moral world of Jane Austen and the apparently amoral world of Girls, an HBO series in its first season.  He describes a sexual fantasy that one of the main characters, Adam, has about his rape of an 11-year old heroin addict.  As shocking as this is, what Jacobs focuses on is even more shocking: In all the reviews of the show none of the journalists admit to the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's reverie.  And apparently fans have no problem with all this either.  They continue to watch.  This is in contrast to the moral world of Jane Austen, where there are categories of right and wrong and we all know what they are.

Once again, however, the antidote to this amorality is not, Jacobs says, to meet it head on.  He concludes: "To someone who thinks Adam's fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say.  I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability." In other words, these two worlds do not connect.  As I said to someone I was having a heated discussion with many years ago, we have lost the ability to communicate, at least propositionally, as we do not share the same understanding of the world and, in a sense, the same language.  We talk past each other.

So what do we do?  Jacobs says that what we need "is not condemnation. . . but better art and better stories --- better fictional worlds. . . . [N]ot the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths."  Rather than simply condemning the fictive world of Girls, we can write and film truer stories that capture the imagination, that give viewers or readers a vision of a different reality.  Rather than shows about the "beautiful death" of assisted suicide, we offer up excellent stories of the reverberating compassion and love that might surround the disabled or aged, stories that help people imagine that compassion grows in the face of suffering, in standing with the dying, not in ending their lives.

We may reach some people by arguing propositional truth.  But in this time we may reach more by telling better stories, by opening a portal to the True Truth at the heart of Reality.  In a culture that no longer speaks our language, our venue for persuasion has shifted.

A decade ago I was standing at the back of the Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival when a muddied grunge-rock fan ambled up.  He stood gaping at what he heard.  "This is beautiful, man, just beautiful.  What is it?"  The acoustic, story-driven songs resonated with him.  All he had heard was the loud and gutteral screaming of the bands playing in the tent next door.  He was mesmerized by the different reality of the Acoustic Stage.  And as a result, I was able to tell him what he was hearing.

"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." "Tell it slant," said Emily Dickenson.  Christians, get busy lying.  And get busy loving.  That's the antidote for a culture gone wrong.  That just might change the weather.




Life On the Edge (Day 31): The Sins of the Fathers

desktop_adama_800 I recently rented Season 1, Episode One of Battlestar Gallactica, a show I have never watched on television but have always been interested in seeing, especially since Barbara Nicolosi, a Hollywood scriptwriter and blogger at Church of the Masses, raved about it here.  It's full of complex moral issues, good acting, and even religious themes.  In the first episode I watched tonight, it was simply serendipitous that the overarching theme (and one overtly stated) was how the "sins of the fathers are visited on the children," when that is part of the passage that Stephen Smallman focuses on in today's reading.

Like Smallman, I used to fret about the meaning of and justice of this pronouncement in scripture.  Shouldn't people be held responsible for their sins, not the sins of others?  But his conclusion is the only one that makes sense: God is telling us the nature of the world, as it is, not as it has to be or even as He wills it.  He is not punishing our children for our sins but simply stating that our sins have consequences that even run through generations (like the abused child who becomes the abuser).  The world may be bent, may be subject to the law of entropy (a tendency toward disorder), yet there are contrary forces at work, whether via common grace or special grace.  The Gospel is transformative for all things, because God is at work reconciling to Himself all things (Col. 1:20).  It's all about grace in the end.

That's good news.  It's good news for people because as bodies age and minds slow it's an assurance that the best of who we are is preserved and the worst transformed in eternity.  It's good news for the ordinary landscapes that John Stilgore pedals through as well, that they too will be transformed and not forever bear the consequences of neglect or despoiling done by people or even wild nature, that the land itself and dogs and cats and all the variegated wonder of the animal and plant kingdoms will be preserved, transformed, and brought to fulfillment one day that everything in Creation will be all of what God intended, that once more He can say "It is good."

All of this is a future hope and a present comfort.  God is saying what is (sin and it's consequences) but also what He is doing (reversing those consequences through people who love Him).  The sins of the fathers may be visited on their children, but thankfully the Love of the Father takes up residence in His people and His world.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]

Math With the Kettles

MaThis weekend my kids and I watched some movies that I remember from my childhood, movies that were even "old" movies then. Between 1947 and 1957, before I was born, Universal released 11 of these popular movies about two hillbillies (Ma and Pa Kettle) and their 15 children. They're funny, clean, and yes, sometimes corny, but if you liked the Beverly Hillbillies you'll like these. The first movie, "The Egg and I," kicked it off with a very young Fred MacMurray ("My Three Sons") and Claudette Colbert, city folk, moving to the country to start a chicken farm, where they meet the Kettles. Here's a bit of the humor to give you a taste of what it's like. In this clip, Pa, Ma, and a neighbor are wrangling on how to split up the money from a buyout of their farm by the Government due to the mistaken belief that there was uranium buried on it:

Someone at a recent conference I went to incorporated this clip into an otherwise dull presentation. It loosened things up a bit! I think the universal theme of two families from different ways of life encountering one another always resonates with people, and if you have a particularly large family, you might identify with the Kettles.

There are two collections of the movies which are out. This clip was from Vol. 1.

Christy: The Complete Season

ChristyThough I have never read the book, my wife refers to it as her favorite book of her teenage years, fondly recalling reading it for the first time at 14 on vacation with her family in the Virgin Islands. I can imagine her there, soaking up the story, living it vacariously as you do with any good book, there on the bow of a sailboat. And here is my daughter now reading the same story, quite in love with it.

The book I am referring to is Catherine Marshal's Christy, a classic tale of a young woman who left a life of privilege to teach at a mission school in the primitive community of Cutters Gap, deep in the Smoky Mountains. The book was written over 40 years ago and though billed as fiction is actually based on the life of Catherine Marshall's mother.

The thing that precipitated our renewed interest in the book is the release last week of the short-lived PAX Network series of the same name on DVD. This is excellent family entertainment with substance. Christy has faith and yet struggles with doubt and evil. It is a good picture of a faith that while real needs maturing as she deals with ignorance, superstition, suffering, and hardship in a poor mountain community. The scenery and people seem real, filmed as it was in and around Townsend, Tennessee.

Kellie Martin does a great job playing Christy in all her wide-eyed innocence and zeal as city gal meets Apppalachia (before it was called that). Tyne Daley (the Lacey in the cop show Cagney and Lacey) plays the mission head, a wise Quaker woman. Tess Harper plays a woman who becomes one of Christy's best friends.

These shows are not sappy or sentimental to a large extent. Sin abounds. There's feuding between clans, a narrowly averted lynching by a kangaroo court, ignorance and superstition that causes the death of a child, and hatred on display. There's also love, as Christy becomes a love interest of both the young pastor and the atheist doctor who begrudgingly accepts her presence in the community. And yet there's nothing here I can't watch with my almost 13 daughter, even though I smile as I know that part of her interest in the show and the book is the romance that is evident. It's a good way for her to learn about love and romance. There are plenty of series about sin, but little that show both the effects of the Fall and the redemptive power of love in the same program. You'll find that here.

Sadly, there was only one season of Christy, but I heartily recommend the DVD and my wife recommends the book to you. One warning: there are a series of Christy movies that followed the series. However, fans almost universally dislike the films for their allegedly poor plots and the fact that a different actress plays Christy. I do not recall the films, but it's something to consider.

Thinking Locally, Acting Locally?

TvIn a post entitled "My Village, My Problem," Catherine Claire wonders to what extent being well-informed about the world outside our local community is productive or even biblical. Her thinking on this is prompted by a letter written by C.S. Lewis, where he considers the same question and says, in part, this: "It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know)" (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume II, Letter of Dec. 20, 1946). It's worth considering to what information we need to subject ourselves and to what end.

A year or so ago I read, rather belatedly, the late Neil Postman's critique of televison, particularly network news, entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. His point was that most televsion news was not to inform, but to entertain. We find it titillating. There is little to nothing we can do about what we see and yet we continue to watch, almost voyeuristically. Well, I found myself in agreement. I quit the news. Now when I see it I find it repulsive and annoying. The sensationalistic stories, the cult of personality, the jabbering heads, and the lack of any serious in depth coverage is terrible. Mostly, I do not watch.

Despite its drawbacks and editorial bias, I do read the local newspaper. There are useful articles with some depth at times (I'm not talking about USA Today, which is like TV), and there is local information that I may be able to do something with (like an article about good hikes in the area). I also read Time (which has more in depth coverage than TV news) and World Magazine (for a decidedly and admitted Christian perspective on the news. I do find some things I can pray for this way, and I am helped in an understanding and appreciation of my community and world.

I suppose what I object to is the immediacy of network news, or even internet news. It makes everything seem urgent or important. It may not be. And it certainly may not be something I need to worry about. You know, I can do very little about global warming, whatever its cause. But I can listen to a friend's problem, help a needy family, and pick up trash in the park near our home. That's thinking locally and acting locally.

(A Very Good) Crime Story

Cap008"When this is over, I'm gonna find what you love the most and I'm gonna kill it."  (Chicago Detective Mike Torello, to bad-guy/weasel Pauli Taglia, in the Pilot for the TV series Crime Story.)

That kind of comment from Lt. Torello is par for the course in this gritty two-season cop drama from 1986-1988.  I remember it well, from the opening music, "Runaway," sung by Del Shannon, to the good acting by all concerned, to the music soundtrack from Todd Rundgren. 

Cap006Crime Story was set in the Chicago of 1963 and pits the boys of the Chicago PD's Major Crime Unit, headed by Lt. Mike Torello (played by Dennis Farina who, before his acting days, had actually been a Chicago cop for 18 years!) against a young, ruthless rising mobster, Ray Luca (played by Anthony John Denison).  It's good versus evil, and yet these cops do things good cops now don't generally do.  A few examples from the Pilot episode will give you the gist of it:  Torello lies on the stand in a courtroom hearing, roughs up a thug (an uncharged thug, that is), kidnaps another mobster and ties him to a water tower high above the city, and beats down doors and searches house sans warrant.  And these are the good guys!

Then again, it's 1963 and its Chicago, where judges can be bribed, the mob runs much of the city, and we did not yet know all that the Constitution really meant (that is, the Supreme Court, headed by Earl Warren, enlightened us).  And evil is so plainly evil here.  In the Pilot alone, Ray Luca whacks (that is, cold-bloodedly murders) no less than four people, even people who thought him a friend and partner (like Johnny O'Donnell, played by the red-haired Danny Caruso, who would go on to play in the first seasons of NYPD Blue).

But, for all the gritty realism, I like the show.  The characters seem real to me, and besides, I love period pieces and cop stories.  Indeed, the actor who played mobster Pauli Taglia, John Santucci, had actually been one of Chicago's most notorious criminals in the 1960s!)  I recommend Crime Story, now available on DVD, for any fan of NYPD Blue, Homicide, Law and Order, or their forerunner, Hill Street Blues.  When good prevails, we can applaud.