Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part One)

Sanctifying Civilian Justice

Parents watching superhero films or reading comics may note that many brightly colored superheroes perform acts they specifically forbid their children to mimic.  Superheroes think their fists can solve problems.  Superheroes hit back.  Superheroes even hit first.  Yet somehow the Spandex costumes and brightly colored symbols exonerate them from their behavior.  And no superhero gets broader latitude than Batman.

Batman, like his peer Superman, arose in the late Depression, when rampant corruption caused Americans to feel desperate over their perceived personal powerlessness.  During and after Prohibition, cops were often on the take, elected officials could be bought and sold by union officials and capital interests, and America’s perceived power structures teetered on the verge of collapse.  Unlike other periods of mass corruption, like Teapot Dome or Tammany Hall, this was not a time when upper echelons appeared corrupt; everyone, it seemed, was tainted.

Therefore artists created someone who could enforce a vision of justice.  Where Jerry Seigel (may have) invented a bulletproof man in answer to his father’s death Bob Kane and Bill Finger invented an avenging angel.  Unlike Superman, who stands above corruption in patriotic colors, with chin upthrust, Batman’s depiction often resembles the full armor in which Renaissance artists depicted the Archangel Michael casting out Satan.

As a figure without official standing, Batman remains incorruptible, a psychological alternative to ordinary authority.  Swooping from on high, his well-placed creative violence “fills the hungry, and sends the rich away empty.”  His displays of righteous force in the interest of protecting the poor and downtrodden, tacitly supported across many media, resemble two of his peers: the Green Hornet and—no kidding—Fleischer Studios’ Popeye cartoons.

But to maintain his role, Batman needs a constant supply of enemies.  Even as crime declines nationwide, and cities like New York and Los Angeles, formerly synonymous with crime, have become safe and family-friendly, mythic Gotham requires constant renewal in its grotesque grittiness.  It is never free to improve.  Whether in comics, Tim Burton’s opera bouffe exaggerations, or Christopher Nolan’s urban nihilism, Gotham never seems to get better.

Under a near-constant pall of night, Gotham’s criminals fester, even as the Bat and the rump force of good cops struggle constantly.  Notice, in Nolan’s Batman Begins, that virtuous Sergeant Gordan lives in a shoddy tenement, while the Brooks Brother-clad commissioner wants to arrest the Bat, and Gordon’s slickly garbed partner Fless is on the take.

If Batman’s raison d’etre is to root out crime and corruption, he needs these to exist.  He relies on criminals as much as law-abiding citizens depend on him.  In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne ruminates on the opportunity to shed his Bat persona and resume ordinary life; yet he suits up, because as a symbol, he has become his city’s patron saint.  If anything ever recovers, his purposepeters out.

This limitation is not unique to the movie environment.  Over the last twenty years, the Batman of the comics has struggled to cope with age, and even death.  Bruce Wayne comes and goes, suffering through crippling injury and the limitations of encroaching age.  But retirement never comes, because Batman—not the criminals he resists, nor the civilians he defends—shapes his city’s ethos.

In such an environment, violence becomes a righteous act.  Neither reason nor law can keep Gotham safe, rendering only force effective.  The city, and Batman himself, rely on his nearly constant righteous anger.  But, as anybody who has ever faced someone trumpeting “righteous anger” can attest, this usually means my anger.  Clearly my cause is righteous.  Clearly I fight on the side of the angels.  Therefore, if I put pain on those who transgress, I become heroic.

But this advances another significant problem.  When violence is sanctified in pursuit of justice, justice often gets compromised.  This is further complicated because we lack a meaningful definition of justice.  Philosophers going back to Plato have failed to define justice usefully.  In Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes differentiates vengeance, a self-gratifying act, from justice, which restores harmony.  Yet that glittering generality is too broad to be useful.

Batman’s ethic obtains because he does not appear to enrich himself.  He appears heroic because he stands aloof from the atmosphere of hunger and desperation that spawn organized criminals.  But this sanctimony is only possible because of Bruce Wayne’s apparently inexhaustible wealth.  Nolan briefly addresses, then discards, the question of how Wayne would deal with true hunger and desperation.

Next week I want to reconsider: is Carmine Falcone perhaps the more heroic character in this universe?

Part Two: Defining Justice in a Nihilistic Universe
Part Three: Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

Monday, June 27, 2011

Three Books for a Christian World

Having recently questioned iffy Christian reasoning, and cast aspersions on more new-fangled spirituality, maybe it’s time I explain what I support. Throwing bricks is easy; building foundations is hard. Three Christian books that recently crossed my desk give me that opportunity.

Megachurch pastor Kyle Idleman has grown weary of fair-weather Christians whose loyalty runs no deeper than that to their favorite team. In Not a Fan, Idleman describes a life lived in complete submission to God’s will and Christ’s mission. While many call themselves Christian because they were baptized and attend church, Idleman wants believers to examine their hearts and their Scriptures for how that means they ought to live.

Idleman takes as his text Luke 9:23—“Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” He intricately parses this scripture to find that we become truly Christian only when we die to those desires which aggrandize ourselves, but prove as fleeting as the wind. Only a life founded on God’s will can give us the meaning most of us constantly seek.

Little of what Idleman says is new; Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship addresses the same topics, but Idleman states them in language meant for lay readers. From an earthly viewpoint, Bonhoeffer and Idleman agree, Christianity makes little sense. What other philosophy calls its followers to die? Yet our short-term desires leave souls ultimately unfulfilled; only when we die to those desires can we take on the nourishing spiritual life.

Unfortunately, Idleman focuses a smidge too much on what faith calls us away from, less on what it calls us toward. But Mark Batterson stands ready to step into that gap.  In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day uses a nearly forgotten image, deep in 2 Samuel, to show how God gives us all a choice. We can step out boldly, confident that God has given us a life of constant opportunity; or we can huddle in man-made security and watch life pass by.

Notice how often, in Scripture, God’s opportunities look terrifying: a flood, a giant, a cross. But victory falls to those who seek God’s instructions and never let earthly fears part them from their goals. Not that God makes everything easy. Remember, Paul fled Ephesus fearing the crowd. But even that boldness helped found one cornerstone congregation of the early Church.

Like Idleman, Batterson doesn’t want Sunday morning pew warmers. Christianity, to him, gives believers courage to step beyond the known, secure, and comfortable, and change their world. Christ did not come to write sermons, but to fill us with boldness and steer us to act. If we would honor God, Batterson says we must first find God’s opportunities, and face up to them wrapped in Godly courage.

Batterson chooses a few wobbly terms to express his belief. Early on, he says that “God is in the résumé-building business,” and implies that God’s opportunities build us up. He corrects himself later, thankfully, before lukewarm believers can distort his meaning. Batterson’s spiritual heart is clearly in the right place; his tongue, unfortunately, makes some statements I wish he could take back.

If we submit ourselves to God and act boldly, our family will be the first to notice. Christian counselors John Trent and Gary Smalley noticed this, and derived the idea of The Blessing so parents can pass on the strength their children need in our complex, discouraging world. Our society tells parents not to get too close to their kids; but if we’ve died to the world, what do we care?

Trent and Smalley craft a step-by-step process, modeled on the blessings passed from father to son in the Hebrew Scripture, and from Jesus to His followers in the Gospels. Their process is simple yet sound, requiring nothing risky or dangerous, but demanding that parents commit to their children. On the surface, it seems simple, even obvious; but since modern society treasures autonomy and tells parents to keep their distance, it’s actually revolutionary.

Indeed, by limiting themselves to parents, Trent and Smalley sell themselves short. Modified to suit cultural standards, the Blessing could transform how teachers relate to students, bosses to workers, politicians to constituents, and neighbors to each other. By sharing strength and giving each other a vision to pursue, the Blessing could give us a stronger, more community-minded world.

And between these three writers, they build a world I want to inhabit. God willing.

Also in this review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Secret Keepers—Death of Free Society

This episode of PBS’ Frontline, “The Warning,” runs an hour, yet bears attentive viewing. Aired in 2009, as we only began to comprehend the 2008 financial meltdown, the producers spotlight Brooksley Born, an insightful official who anticipated the crash a decade in advance. But I flashed on one statement, buried around 18:30, that—as early as 1996—financial regulators already had let major financial markets drift into complete obscurity.

When we think of black markets, we often imagine drugs and guns, or peasants outwitting Communist oppressors. Yet white-shirt bankers in New York’s shiniest corner offices established an entire parallel economy operating in the dark. Our economy was jeopardized, and ultimately pushed to the brink of catastrophe, by financiers who danced the razor’s edge in secret. All this passed muster under the veneer of “free markets.”

Secrecy is the prime domain of terrorists, Mafiosi, and adulterers. While secrets may serve altruistic purposes, like planning surprise parties or conducting undercover law enforcement, these occasions happen infrequently, usually on an ad hoc basis. Secrecy always entails unequal distribution of information, and especially when stakes escalate, as happened on Wall Street during the go-go Clinton/Bush years, inequality is a licence to rob banks.

That goes double when you own the bank.

Joshua Holland, author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy, claims that free markets absolutely rely on honest transparency. Workers cannot negotiate honest wages if they don’t know their employer’s income, parity margin, and what comparable workers with comparable experience make in comparable jobs. That’s why the government bans securities trading on insider information. To conceal is to lie.

We could take that even further. Consider secret activities we’ve accepted in our society: papal elections. CIA Cold War atrocities. Supreme Court deliberations. Now consider the consequences of such secrecy: a man with a history of concealing clergy sex abuse elected leader of humankind’s largest religion. The death of Patrice Lumumba. The Citizens United decision. Secrecy has a poor track record.

Remember when Barack Obama promised, back in 2008, to bring greater transparency to the White House? He has successfully incorporated more information distribution and swifter press notification onto the White House website. But this didn’t stop both Obama and Hillary Clinton from angrily denouncing WikiLeaks and Julian Assange when he took them at their word and published American documents and position papers online.

Disclosing troop movements that jeopardize American soldiers would be irresponsible; but Assange’s information wasn’t nearly so extreme. Instead, he’s published footage of Baghdad air strikes, friendly fire and civilian casualty numbers in Afghanistan, and old diplomatic cables from Washington and London. Yet apparently these embarass the administration enough that Hillary Clinton has used the word “treason” in association with Assange.

Not all secrets are malign. TV networks conceal their fall lineup, and software designers keep new video games under lock and key, in a harmless attempt to make mundane products seem scarce and valuable. JK Rowling withheld Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so readers worldwide could enjoy the big reveal together. To avoid a fruitless value conflict, my mother doesn’t need to know how often I have a beer with the fellas.

But notice how little is at stake in these examples. Rowling writes uplifting children’s fantasy, not the key to Mideast peace. If she withheld that, even for magnanimous reasons, people would feel justly offended. And I drink so infrequently that mine is a minor secret. Were I a chronic abusive drunk, concealing frequent daytime beer runs, my mother should intrude upon my secrets and shine the light of day on my habits.

Despite nearly a century of evidence that financiers who do dealings unseen are up to no good, an appalling number of American legislators, regulators, and voters have pushed to let banks continue conducting occult transactions with no oversight. Significant government business still occurs off the books. People responsible for our health, security, and spiritual well-being think we needn’t know how they do business.

My parents taught me early that “friends don’t keep secrets and secrets don’t keep friends.” French historian and theologian Jacques Ellul put it more eloquently when he said: “Propaganda begins when dialogue ends.” When people in power do not listen to us, communicate with us, or make their dealings known, their intentions are almost always pernicious. We must refuse such treatment.

Because, as Brooksley Born warns on Frontline, conditions exist for another catastrophic meltdown. And if it happens again, we’ll have no one to blame this time but ourselves.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Believing in Everything, Believing in Nothing

“Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it.”
—Isaiah 46:6
Statistics indicate that “Spiritual but not religious” may be America’s fastest growing faith category.  People clearly hunger to experience closeness to something beyond themselves; but our society distrusts convention, tradition, and our shared heritage.  Thus many people cast about for any attempt to make meaning in their lives.  Yet I fear many trust something tragically artificial.

For some, scientific developments forbid them to accept religious dogma.  As the late Richard Feynman pointed out, the essence of scientific thought is doubt; we jettison certainty, and seek to reduce doubt to the smallest possible fragment.  Therefore we can believe nothing without question.  The scientific mind tests everything, even itself.

But this great hypothesis seldom describes real life.  Many people understand science so poorly that skillful hucksters pitching the lingo make us believe the opposite of empirical reason.  David Che, for instance, asks us not only to believe him without question in Total Law of Attraction, he requires us to trust theories disproved over a century ago.  This isn’t just unscientific, it’s dangerous.

The Law of Attraction enjoys faddish popularity based on quasi-scientific theories that “like attracts like.”  Rhonda Byrne, who popularized the idea, claims our ideas draw commensurate consequences through magnetic attraction.  But rudimentary physics says that magnetic poles don’t work that way.  In magnetism, opposites attract, so to gain wealth, I should wail and lament my poverty.

Che pushes this obtuseness even further.  For instance, his hypothesis requires us to believe in the luminiferous aether.  Che says: “Although science will say it’s been proven no such Ether exists, you’ll have to put aside that notion and firmly believe it to be true.”  This naked appeal to ignorance characterizes not only Che’s book, but this avenue of belief.  Che trusts ideas which contradict testable external reality.

Similarly, Banzai Vitale correlates metaphysics with science in The Burning Spirit.  His long, rambling memoir proclaims its author understands higher reality than the rest of us.  He spins yarns, drops bromides, and regales us with travelogues, all of which promulgate a system of belief based on agreeing that everything which enters his head must be transcendent inspiration.

Vitale’s rambling, undifferentiated anecdotes represent complete relaxation of judgment.  He confirms nothing; neither facts nor logic sway his steps.  Every life experience, every journal entry, and every Ecstasy trip merits our time.  In short, Vitale sanctifies himself and his life experiences.  He seeks out spirituality with no foundation, and becomes the very sinner Isaiah decries above.

Whenever spiritual seekers approach a religion or philosophy, they ask: how should I live?  The universe gives me this one life, so how do I live it in a way that makes meaning?  Such diverse seekers as Thomas Merton and Friedrich Nietzsche answer that question in ways that change society.  David Che and Banzai Vitale answer that question by ducking it and aggrandizing themselves.

Perhaps go-go technological people can’t afford to change their lives.  The great religious traditions that bolster society have threatened people, derailed their life plans, and forced them to deny themselves.  From the classics to modern writers like Shane Claiborne and Rabbi Heschel, those who found spirituality couldn’t remain on the same path.  But modern spirituality sanctifies self-service.

Which makes Ryuho Okawa a modern icon.  Having published over 500 books in Japanese, his Happy Science movement (there’s that pesky “science” again) are now making inroads in the West.  The Next Great Awakening, weighing barely 100 pages, introduces several important ideas.  And most of them appear plagiarized from X-Files scripts.

Like the biblical prophets, Okawa claims to have a direct line to God, and thus communicates divine will.  But his story offers little hope or direction.  His story of spirits creating life elsewhere, seeding Earth, and driving our destiny comes whole from countless prior science fiction storylines.  But maybe that’s the point.  Okawa doesn’t have to tell us how to live; his narrative lets us continue unimpeded

Maybe that’s the lesson of the “spiritual but not religious” movement.  Religion requires us to change.  It requires us to live for someone besides ourselves.  Modern, self-infatuated society can’t accept that.  So we find ways to sanctify ourselves, right where we are.

“The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?”
—Jeremiah 5:31

Monday, June 20, 2011

27th Precinct Book Club—Nicely Noir

Detective Lammers yanked the stainless-steel chair back and sat, propping his elbows on the interview table.  Countless interrogations like this with his sleeves rolled up had turned his elbows leathery.  Under the hot lights sat Hargreave, the unlicensed PI who’d given Lammers’ precinct the hot squats for the last year.  Hargreave laced his fingers over his ample gut, pretending to stay cool as a cucumber despite the sweat trickling down his collar.

“So,” Lammers finally said.  “Whaddya got for me?”

Hargreave grinned as he popped his attaché.  “First one,” he drawled, sliding a book across the table, “is Barney Rostaing’s Breeders.  I’d call this an unconventional crime novel.  There’s no detective story or heist as such.  It circles some questionable characters as they mesh themselves in a constant dance of moral compromise.  Each sellout causes one more, and one more, and one more, until they discover they’ve sold their souls.”

Lammers studied the cover art.  “Jockeys on horses,” he said, stabbing it with his finger.  “Something about racing, I gather?”

“Yep.  Everyone’s so busy looking for juice in baseball and cycling, seems we never knew how crooked horseracing is.  But when millions ride on breeding rights, which only go to winners, people will cross unbelievable lengths to make their horses win.  Rules, laws, and common human decency stop mattering.”  Hargreave leaned in toward Lammers, flashing an expensively white smile.  “But that ain’t even the best bit.”

“No?”  Lammers scootched back slightly from Hargreave’s stale cabbage breath.  “What is?”

“Race.”  Hargreave leaned back, smug like he’d flipped trip aces.  “The gentility of America’s whitest sport hides some pretty grotesque racism.  Black stablehands, Hispanic jockeys, and the first black trainer in a really, really white sport.  It’s a seething cauldron of subsumed hatred.  Plus old money, new money, sexuality...”  Hargreave tapped his knuckle on the book.  “If you can imagine something to make people hate each other, this world has it.”

“Sounds good,” Lammers said, nodding slowly.  “What else you got?”

Hargreave flourished a second book.  “Tony Lindsay’s More Boy Than Girl stars Chicago’s only girl pimp.  Dai Break Jones was born royalty to the Emperors of Game, and she don’t mind being the only woman in a hyper-masculine world.  She just wants what’s hers.  So she joins her daddy’s gang, pushing crack and raiding townie joints.  But she has a side income running two ho’es [sic] and showing them who’s boss.”

“Sweet,” Lammers said.  “And slim, too.  I like it already.”

“Wait a minute,” Hargreave said, flashing a stop gesture.  “Hold on.  Because this one has an awesome concept, great characters, and mean black urban English.  But just as it promises us a mind-blowing mix of Superfly and Donnie Brasco, it stops.  Really, just boom.  It’s slim because the end reads like Lindsay got tired.  So many excellent story threads, and he doesn’t finish them.”

Lammers nodded.  “Maybe I’ll wait.  Anything else?”

“One last.”  Hargreave produced a thick paperback and tossed it to Lammers.  “Randy Singer’s False Witness mixes John Grisham tension with breakthrough technology to create something familiar, yet nothing like anything I’ve seen before.  LA bail bondsman Clark Shealy has forty-eight hours to find Dr. Kumari, whose algorithm could invalidate global Internet security.  If Shealy can’t find Kumari, the Chinese Triad starts cutting on his wife.”

“Ooh, sounds gripping,” Lammers said.

“That’s just the first part.  Four years later, Atlanta law student Jamie Brock inherits a runaway defendant with Triad ties.  Seems they think Brock, too, can access this priceless information, and they don’t mind torturing her within inches of her sanity.  But just as she turns her razor-sharp mind on bringing the Triad down, she realizes the very people she most depends on may not deserve her trust.”

“I like it,” Lammers said, grinning.  “I bet it has all the classics: conspiracies, action, romance.”

“Well, the romance is pretty chaste,” Hargreave said.  “This comes from a Christian publishing house.”

Lammers’ face fell.  “Christian?  So this book is full of Jesus talk?”

“No, not really.  There’s a sermon around page 280, and a subplot about the persecuted church in India, but Singer tells a good story.  He isn’t preachy, he’s a really, really good storyteller who happens to be Christian.”

Lammers studied the book in his hand.  “I’ll give it a try.”

“You should,” Hargreave said.  “It’s excellent.”

Lammers squinted at Hargreave as he tucked the books under his arm.  “Awright then,” he said.  “Same time next week?”

“I’ll be on you like a bad rash,” Hargreave agreed, as Lammers turned and strode purposefully from the interview room.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George Barna and the Question of Christian Deceit

At the top of one page in Futurecast, Christian pollster George Barna says that for every two marriages entered in America today, one ends.  At the bottom of the next page, without comment, he says that only 33 percent of Americans who have ever married have also divorced.  I’m no statistician, but one-third does not equal one-half.  Yet such innumeracy seems epidemic in general society, and no less in Christian thinking.

Four-fifths of American businesses fail in five years, and half of new college enrollees never complete a degree, but two-thirds of Americans who marry stay married.  This seems like cause for celebration.  Yet Barna says “divorce has become a natural part of the American lifestyle.”  Really?  The discrepant numbers suggest either a serial wedlock subculture, or that second marriages prove remarkably stable.  But not in Barna's accounts.

Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics provides a veritable smorgasbord of rubber number techniques, and Barna uses several.  My favorites include selective reporting, comparing the incomparable, and assuming correlation implies causation.  And he’s aggressive with them, piling statistic on statistic despite a putatively neutral viewpoint, drawing conclusions that no reasonable look at the numbers supports.

In lamenting divorce’s social costs, Barna claims that sixty percent of American prisoners, and seventy percent of minors in custody, come from fatherless homes.  He does not say explicitly that divorce causes crime and incarceration, but he estimates that divorce costs society $122 billion annually in “antipoverty programs, criminal justice expenses, additional educational costs, and lost tax revenue.”

This stat reeks of omission.  First, it’s half a continuum—while sixty percent of prisoners come from fatherless homes, what percentage of fatherless homes produce prisoners?  And are fatherless homes always, as Barna implies, headed by divorced mothers?  What about children raised by grandparents, foster parents, or widowed mothers?  The father’s mere absence says little about the household where a child grows up.

Likewise, Barna claims that cohabitation is widespread, while marriage steadily declines.  He bolsters that claim by estimating that 6 to 8 million couples cohabit, while only 2.2 million couples marry annually.  Notice, though: he compares couples who are cohabiting, both those who start cohabiting and those who have done so for years, with people starting married life.  How many couples remain married each year?  I don’t know, Barna doesn’t say.

My favorite claims that “In 2008, a new record was set: Slightly less than 41 percent of all births were to single women.  In 1963, the year before President Johnson initiated the ‘war on poverty,’ just 7 percent of births happened apart from marriage.”  My head hurts at the magnitude of deceit in this quote.  Start with the fact that, in 1963, shotgun marriages were common.  Forget unmarried births, do we have any stats on unmarried conceptions?

Or how about the reference to President Johnson.  Barna never contextualizes it, leaving the plausible deniability that he never claimed the “war on poverty” caused a spike in unmarried births; but by placing them together, he implies it.  Indeed, by saying that the “war on poverty” preceded the rise in unmarried births, he suggests (without saying anything) that President Johnson caused a needless and shameful rise in illegitimacy.

But did he?  1963 is a completely arbitrary baseline, and we can’t draw a line from 1963 to 2008 as though we’re witnessing a geometric trend.  According to the CDC, numbers fluctuate, hitting a trough in 2002 and peaking in 2007.  Reading Barna’s stats from another angle, women enjoy more liberty, as we no longer treat unmarried pregnant women like shameful emblems, unload them on distant cousins, or call their children bastards.

George Barna
Barna has made a career of reading social stats from an evangelical Christian perspective.  But Jesus calls Christians to love our neighbors, and to do so, we must know them, not generate categories.  All the marriage and family stats in the world say nothing about my friend Judy, whose ex-husband used her kids as weapons to impede her education.  Judy is a Christian and a child of God, not a divorce statistic.

I chose my examples from Barna’s marriage and family chapter, because that most raised my hackles.  But he abuses statistics throughout.  Barna’s numbers, and perhaps any numbers at all, keep humans at arm’s length.  If we would change the world, live God’s mission, and make a difference, we must abandon numbers and face each other as individuals.  Only then do people become real to each other; only then can we save the world.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Women, Hope, Tension, and the Future

Women, by far, produce and consume more literature in America than men; but the review books crossing my desk each week are mostly by men.  Sorry, I don’t pick ’em.  But I do believe in fairness, so I was glad when, in quick succession, several books by women hit my desk.  And for the most part, I was glad to read them, too.

If Emily Brontë and Agatha Christie co-wrote a novel, it might resemble Rosamund Lupton’s Sister.  Already a British bestseller, this book hits American shores with copious praise, and lives up to its reputation swimmingly.  Lupton’s story combines mystery with family drama— no one will doubt a woman wrote this book— to create prickly tension that is not gender-specific, but keeps readers guessing.

Beatrice is living well, but unhappily, in New York, when her free-spirited, pregnant sister vanishes in London.  Always loyal (or is there another reason?), Bea drops everything to fly home and hunt for Tess.  But Tess may have had her own reasons for disappearing.  Between her lecherous art professor, a very sick baby, and a controlling mother, Tess may have wanted to flee.

But the real reason proves even darker.

As our narrator, Beatrice has a strange relationship with truth.  When everyone assumes her pursuit of Tess's killer is a delusion, Bea has to nurture that delusion to unlock the truth. This selective blindness gives her a vivid personality, which contrasts with the other characters.  But her final discovery, blending medicine, law, and ethics, amply rewards our willingness to stick with her.

Lupton’s unreliable narrator makes us work for our reward, which proves more than worth it.  I wish I could say the same for Pamela Cory’s Hassie Calhoun.  Instead, this book’s interesting premise bogs down in predictable preaching and unearned sentiment.  Hey, I said I was glad to receive books by women, I didn’t say they all succeeded.

Young Hassie escapes her brutal small-town life for Vegas in the heyday of the Sands Hotel.  Against the background of the Rat Pack and JFK, Hassie tries to make a name in cabaret singing.  Instead, she finds what she takes for love, only to fall under her boss’s increasingly jealous control.  Then, just as she gets away safely, her hypnotic lover finds a way to draw her back.

Cory has such possibility at her fingertips, and she squanders it.  A musician herself, Cory finds moments of real human compassion when she puts Hassie on stage, but these moments come very late.  And to get to those moments, we endure a litany of predictable encounters, derivative emotions, and a storyline in which nothing unexpected ever happens.

I’ll give Cory one plaudit: she highlights how good Lupton is.  Where Lupton kept me on tenterhooks, turning page after page, Cory denatures everything.  She reduces Frank Sinatra to a mere cipher, renders a Vegas cabaret safe and sanitary, and presents a romance free of passion.  Hassie’s relationship feels compressed, and her sex reads like a business transaction.

Yet perhaps the book I feel the strongest about is also the simplest.  In The Waiting Place, columnist Eileen Button recounts a life seemingly without drama, yet reveals how she finds hope, spirituality, and grace in the moments when everything seems to stop.  The moments of desperation, when we’ll do anything for a few moments’ peace, are the moments when Button realizes we’re the least alone.

Raised in a working-class home in upstate New York, Button felt pulled between her mother’s desire for a glamorous daughter and her father’s hardworking Polish heritage.  Later in life, as a pastor’s wife, mother of three, and college teacher, she continued to struggle with questions of who she was and what she believed.  But when barriers seem most imposing, her faith and her family give her strength to wait out life’s trials.

Though this book’s arc creates a memoir, from childhood to present, Button actually presents a series of personal essays.  Some of them seem remarkably intimate, such as her struggles to deal with her youngest child’s birth defect.  She opens herself to a degree that would terrify most writers into hedging and deflecting.  Other essays seem more philosophical or spiritual.  Button makes writing almost a form of prayer.

Button’s generosity in sharing gives us all hope that, when life seems stalled, we can find grace and meaning.  She may lack Lupton’s drama, but Button has rewards the rest of us can only hope for.  And most important, she gives us reason to keep on striving.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Changing Face of Modern Werewolves

If we believe Susannah Clements’ claim that vampires provide a barometer of cultural morals, werewolves hold a different sort of mirror to our culture. Vampires and werewolves have been fellow travelers for generations, whether as allies, adversaries, or even the same beast. So how should we read the werewolf representations in Being Human, the third season of True Blood, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood?

Being Human's George (Russell Tovey)
begins a painful transformation
Though wolfmen tales date back at least to Greco-Roman writers like Ovid and Hesiod, the distinct werewolf myth didn’t exist until the early 20th Century.  Dracula had the ability to turn into a wolf, as well as a bat and— everyone forgets this—a rabbit. But the special effects proved cumbersome in Hamilton Deane's play, and the wolf got separated. This relatively recent origin lets werewolves contrast with vampires in symbolic terms.

Being Human and True Blood pit supernaturals against one another. The two species, both series claim, have a longstanding rivalry, dominated by the more physically imposing vampires. This rivalry should surprise nobody: vampiric ardor and lupine rage both create a rush of blood to the abdomen, a spike in blood pressure and adrenaline, and a need for immediate, visceral satisfaction.

If, as I’ve suggested, Being Human is an essentially religious narrative, then vampire Mitchell embodies lust (the the first episode features him losing control and consuming a woman in bed), while werewolf George represents wrath, making ghost Annie acedia. George’s werewolf identity epitomizes uncontrolled rage, little more than an angry stomach, lashing out. And George lives in fear of what he has done.

This conventional depiction turns contrary when George tries to manipulate the wolf. In season one, caught in his girlfriend Nina’s office prio to changing, demure George turns aggressively sexual, a theme which recurs in season three. More importantly, in season two, George uses pharmaceutical sedatives to silence the wolf. On awakening, he suffers violent outbursts and lashes out at inopportune moments, finally admitting he needs to free the wolf from time to time.

Interestingly, True Blood werewolves are played
by actual wolves, not CGI models
Essentially, in Being Human, the wolf represents shame, which characters express by fleeing themselves in different ways.  True Blood wolves are appetite unadulterated: the show depicts them eager addicted to vampire blood, which has both narcotic and medicinal properties. Werewolves under a vampire’s influence show remarkable strength and determination in pursuit of assigned goals. But they behave like DARE brochure models: strung out, asleep in their clothes, mindless of little but the next fix.

More important, unlike George, these wolves retain conscious control during the rampage. They take pleasure in destruction. According to Alcide Herveaux, a putatively civilized werewolf, werewolves lapse into unthinking violence if not strictly controlled. One wolf pounces on a female character, shifts into human form, and arches his back to howl, in a posture that looks unmistakably like anal penetration.

Both of these creatures essentially exist to eat. The Red Riding Hood wolf seems more interested in power. The villagers in the unnamed forest hamlet believe they’ve been under siege from the same wolf for generations, attributing to it remarkable skills of strategy and survival. Every full moon, the wolf enforces a sort of sabbath, when all trade and activity cease, and people huddle in their homes with their families.

Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) and Peter (Shiloh Fernandez)
tempt the wolf into yet another attack.
The wolf picks significant moments to strike. Whenever Valerie, the title Red Riding Hood, feels amorous toward her woodcutter sweetheart, or dances in the village square, or shows the least willfulness or ambition, someone dies under the wolf’s paws. Inevitably, villagers suspect Valerie of being the wolf, and pillory her in public like a fresh spring lamb— not a casual metaphor.

THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS. After much guessing, the wolf is unmasked as Valerie’s father. After several point-of-view shots in which the wolf watched Valerie having sex, and after propositioning her with power in a low, sensuous baritone, her father’s offer to make her a werewolf and share in glory with her seems distinctly incestuous. This is only amplified when Valerie’s lover is bitten and becomes a werewolf, but Valerie still sleeps with him.

As pop culture has fundamentally domesticated vampires, their psychological significance lingers. We can’t stop mythically representing our dark impulses just because we’ve lost an external source for public morality. Thus the werewolf, previously only a vestigial myth, has assumed the task of bearing our moral guilt. Like Jekyll and Hyde, we’ve accepted our dark sides by splitting ourselves in two.

I wonder: since Stephanie Meyer has already begun the process, what happens when we also domesticate the werewolf?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fathers, Sons, and the Art of Sport

Fathers and sons have long bonded over sports.  I remember playing catch with my dad for hours.  Sure, I never fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional ballplayer, but a part-time blogger is almost as good, right?  So, with Father’s Day coming up, several sports memoirs have hit the rack in recent weeks.  No one should act surprised.

Davis Phinney says he’s won more professional cycling titles than any other American.  But that helped not one whit when, at only forty, the first Parkinson’s tremors halted his post-professional entrepreneurial career.  The Happiness of Pursuit details, in an unusual convergent fashion, the career that led him to the top, and the sources of strength guiding his decline.

Phinney’s father, an engineer whom he calls Damon, resisted his son’s career in “mere” athletics—until young Davis proved he had the grit to outpace seasoned professionals on road and track.  But Phinney didn’t realise how much he learned from his father until cancer started eating Damon’s body.  Damon’s refusal to let cancer run him is an inspiring tale in its own right.

But determination runs in the family.  Just as Phinney’s body crashed, his son Taylor discovered he, too, had meteoric cycling talent.  Phinney might have let the disease steal his ability to walk, talk, and care for himself; but his son needed him.  So he dug deep, found the humor and grace to keep fighting, and sat in the stands when Taylor raced in the Beijing Olympics.

You or I might feel resentful, losing our bodies to a disease that usually afflicts men two decades Phinney’s senior.  But he unlocks the passion and grace to keep living.  Now an advocate for Parkinson’s victims, he’d be a hero even if he hadn’t raced in the Los Angeles Olympics.

Chris Herren fell faster and harder than Phinney, and worked even harder to pick himself up.  Herren was only sixteen when Bill Reynolds’ Fall River Dreams made him a celebrity, hastening his decline into self-destruction.  Basketball Junkie describes how far Herren fell, and how he found spine enough to reclaim his life.

When the mills left Fall River, Massachusetts, only the high school basketball team unified the community.  Chris Herren scored over 2,000 points in his high school career, and was courted by America’s best universities.  But he never wanted to play; his father and community chose basketball for him.  So he fled his success by drinking and drugging his body into submission.

From high school, through college, the NBA, and a steady decline into minor league ignominy, Herren used drugs to assert his autonomy against a succession of dictatorial father figures.  Jerry Tarkanian and Pat Riley became Herren’s appointed “bad fathers.”  And when Herren married and started a family young, his drugs punished his life’s final father figure: himself.

Herren’s writing style runs rocky—by his own admission, he was an indifferent student.  But if dedicated readers persevere through the occasionally distracting English, Herren tells a sober, affecting story of struggle.  And more important, he provides hope that, although a young man begins a spiral of self-destruction, he can still reclaim control and rejoin the human race.

Steve Friedman didn’t overcome disease or drugs.  He just found himself facing fifty, looking in the mirror, and realizing he needed to better understand the man he’d come to resemble: his father.  Driving Lessons describes Friedman getting to know his father through golf, the one skill his dad most wanted to teach, and Friedman most dreaded to learn.

Come on, men, you know it: we hope to be half the man Pop was, even as we fear living his faults and repeating his errors.  No matter the age, nobody makes a man feel ten feet tall, or smaller than a bug, like his father.  Friedman feels both as his dad teaches him to chip from the green.  A simple three-day golf holiday walks Friedman down a highly conflicted memory lane: joys and disappointments, hope and disappointment.  His parents’ love, and his parents’ divorce.

In a personal e-mail, Friedman told me that “Rodale publishing asked me expand a magazine article I had written for Travel & Leisure Golf about seven years ago,” and you can tell.  Know before buying that this is a very short book for its price.  But it’s also compact and tightly knit, telling an engaging story in a voice any grown son will immediately recognize.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call my dad.  We have some important catch to play.

Also in this review: Bill Reynolds, Fall River Dreams.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Casey Anthony's Bad Bad Momma Blues

Only a jury should decide if Casey Anthony killed her daughter Caylee. The general public cannot witness the evidence against her, nor should we. Whether American justice condemns or exonerates Casey, her family must confront the lingering consequences of Caylee’s death, Casey’s public humiliation, and Casey’s possible guilt. We should respectfully let them face these circumstances in relative privacy.

But the general public has a moral responsibility to question the vampire-like glee with which our media purveys, and we consume, Casey’s trial coverage. The lurid focus on Casey’s party life, and the poorly sublimated condemnation of a woman who defines herself as anything but a mother, don’t just reflect Casey Anthony or the mass media. They conceal truths we cannot accept about ourselves and our society.

Quite apart from the actual investigation, the media circus accruing to the case since 2008, calling into question the fairness of any trial—especially one with capital punishment on the line—speaks volumes about our national values. From supermarket tabloids to network television to respectable papers, the media foregrounds every image of Casey Anthony having a drink, attending a party, or looking happy after Caylee’s death as implicit proof of her guilt, and more importantly, her wickedness.

We could dismiss this as mere yellow journalism if it arose from expected quarters. Late-night crap TV and crass websites butter their bread with sensationalism. But reputable CNN anchors and network analysts attempt to maintain stone-faced solemnity. Then, while the live feed flashes stock images of Casey’s party-girl persona, they can hardly keep the grins from their voices, like amateur comedians trying not to laugh at their own jokes.

This trial hardly pioneers such excess. Sociologist Barry Glassner, in The Culture of Fear, names prior cases where “infanticidal mothers are routinely depicted by the media as depraved beyond what any of us can imagine about ourselves or our friends and relatives.” Monstrous moms, Glassner asserts (citing Bruno Bettelheim), shield our purity. If depraved women like Casey Anthony exist, we reason, then my childrearing techniques, and my mother’s, seem fairly okay.

Yet there’s more at play. From a cultural mythology perspective, murderous mothers exonerate our whole culture from responsibility for suffering children. Among major economies, America’s gap between rich and poor is second only to China. Most of our legislators, employers, and other leaders come from wealthy backgrounds. No one suffers more under this inequality than children.

The CIA World Factbook, hardly a bleeding heart propaganda rag, says: “The onrush of technology largely explains the gradual development of a ‘two-tier labor market’ in which those at the bottom lack the education and the professional/technical skills of those at the top and, more and more, fail to get comparable pay raises, health insurance coverage, and other benefits.” Children born on the lower tier can expect to work disrespected jobs all their lives, and pass such circumstances to their own children.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, children are more likely than any other group to live in poverty, lack health insurance, and eat an unbalanced diet. One in five children live below the poverty line. Children are more likely to die of diseases adults consider routine, like diarrhea and the flu, but little research goes toward these illnesses. Unfortunately, while these numbers improved from 1993 to 2000, they have trended worse in the new millennium, and continue to do so.

Rather than admit our culpability for these disgraceful trends, we let the media direct our wrath onto “wicked witches” like Casey Anthony. Like the biblical scapegoat, she receives our sins, and is cast into the wilderness. Thus, she serves purposes of ritual purification, but if, after the ritual, we maintain our sinful ways—and history proves we will—then we will need a new dedicated recipient of our society’s sins.

Barely out of childhood herself, Casey Anthony stands accused in the court of public opinion, not of killing her child, but of embodying our collective guilt. While Americans enjoy the gleeful schadenfreude of watching her private life publicly catalogued, we wear blinders, refusing to acknowledge that raising children is a more than full time job. If we require women to do it alone, denying them human fulfillment in favor of constant self-abnegation, such cases will only recur.

We must unplug the television, take a hard look at ourselves, and face our conduct. Otherwise, when this circus folds its tent, we will search out the next diversion, and the next, while festering in our own sins.

Follow-up: The Difference Between Justice and Rage

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is Thor Kenneth Branagh's Nordic Messiah?

CAUTION: This essay contains spoilers.

Chris Hemsworth (right) as Thor;
Anthony Hopkins as Odin

The son of the Father comes to Earth in human flesh, where new-found limitations grant him insight into the human condition—and show mere mortals the reality of Heaven.  But when the time comes, he must die at the Destroyer’s hand, a reality he accepts but his people cannot.  Only after he dies can he overcome the Deceiver and restore order and justice to all Creation.

Sound familiar?  It should if you saw Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Thor, the latest live-action film using computer graphic technology to recreate popular comic books.  Yet I can’t help thinking this narrative sounds familiar from someplace.  Someplace... I don’t know... older, perhaps, with a powerful mythic component.  Let’s decipher it together.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the firstborn son of Odin All-Father, an honored warrior who sees his power purged by his father before he falls to Earth.  His first sight on opening human eyes is Natalie Portman, and we should all be so lucky.  Portman, as astrophysicist Jane Foster, believes only empirical evidence, so there must be a reason a muscular Swede just fell unharmed from the sky.

Much intervening content doesn’t matter here, since it isn’t a review.  Suffice it to say, if you like science fiction, fantasy, or mythic epics, this movie utilizes all three genres to create everything you expect in a comic book film directed by a man who founded his own Shakespeare company.  Only on second viewing, however, did I realize how much Joseph Campbell could mine from this film.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Near the end of Act II, Thor acknowledges his limitations. Though he still outdrinks Stellan Skarsgård and awakens without a hangover, he can’t lift his hammer, outfight human soldiers, or return to Asgard. Several of his warrior friends come to retreive him, decked in full Nordic regalia, but he accepts his new lot: a recognition, perhaps, of humility as one necessary Earthly lesson.

Now mythology intrudes: Thor’s brother Loki sends a faceless humanoid creation, the Destroyer, to Earth to prevent Thor’s return. Loki orders it to “destroy everything.” It complies, pulverizing anything between it and Thor. It proves impervious to both human armaments and Asgardian strategy. Thor abandons his initial plan to evacuate the town, realizing only one action can save humanity.

When Thor plants himself between the Destroyer and the human race, no one should act surprised when it strikes him down. With his limited human frame, a blow like one that merely dazed his Asgardian friends shatters Thor’s body. As he lies dying in a dusty New Mexico street, Thor tells Portman—wait for it—“It’s over.” Twice!

Knowing what we do about human mythology, when a divine son says “It is finished” and dies, resurrection is inevitable.  The hammer Thor couldn’t lift the prior evening flies to his hand of its own volition, and Thor rises.  Not only is his body intact, but he wears the armor his father stripped from him.  Thor stands, glimmering in the sun, a god restored to his former glory.

Chris Hemsworth (right) as Thor;
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
Having died and returned in full form, Thor now has the ability no one else previously had to shatter the Destroyer.  But that’s not enough, since there’s a war under weigh in Heaven, or Asgard at any rate.  Thus Thor must ascend back to his father.  But before he goes, he promises Portman that, when the time is right and his duty is discharged, he will return for her.

Many comics, books, and movies utilize redemptive violence.  Neo in The Matrix had to die before overcoming the agents, and Harry Potter could not best Voldemort until he, too, died and was resurrected.  Neo is, of course, overtly messianic, seeking to redeem humankind from captivity, while Harry Potter derives from J.K. Rowling’s devout Christianity.  Thor is more problematic.

C.S. Lewis believed resurrection images permeate myth—Orpheus in Hades, Baldur in Hel—because God wanted to prepare humanity for Christ’s appearing.  Joseph Campbell took a more pragmatic angle, claiming that passing through death presaged assuming new, redemptive roles.  For him, resurrection symbolized a rudimentary Freudian progression from id-driven infancy to adult fulfillment.

Thor’s messianism is easier to observe than categorize.  He certainly saves humanity from the Destroyer, and Asgard from the Deceiver (portrayed by his brother Loki).  But he does not promise to save or return to everyone, only Portman’s character.  And unlike Jesus, he did not choose humanity, nor “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death.”  He came as punishment for disobedience.

Perhaps we can place Thor’s significance by his film’s conclusion.  Having defeated all enemies and restored order, Thor has severed his ties to Earth, and cannot reach Portman.  He asks all-seeing Heimdall if he can see Portman on Earth.  As the camera surveys Portman’s lab, Heimdall intones: “She searches for you.”

As perhaps, in our own way, do we all.

Acknowledgment:  This essay would not be possible without the generous contributions of Reverends Baron and Nancy Cole, and of Sarah Cole (Hi, Honey!).