Monday, October 31, 2011

The Many Faces of Merlin

I love a good fantasy. Swords, sorcerers, and savagery get my blood pumping. And, in the tradition that the old ways are the best ways, I’ll rush out for a well-made take on the Matter of Britain. But the high quality of two recent, but very different, Kings Arthur makes me wonder: why do writers look backward when they want to retell a good story?

The BBC’s Merlin and Starz’ Camelot share a young, fair-haired, and very pretty Arthur who proves his manhood against seemingly insurmountable odds, and there the similarity ends. They tell very different stories, for very different audiences, with wildly divergent morals, and incompatible tones. Comparing these two stories says a great deal about the needs modern audiences bring to myth and legend.

Start with the heroes of each story. Merlin, as the title suggests, foregrounds the wizard whose exploits parallels Arthur’s. The first episode features a fresh-faced Merlin entering Camelot to find his adult role. He quickly discovers that his innate magical talents make him a fugitive, even as he finds his way into the king’s court, and discovers a prophecy that entwines his future with that of arrogant, untested Prince Arthur.

Arthur (Bradley James) and Merlin
(Colin Morgan) in the BBC's Merlin
Camelot, by contrast, centers Arthur against a Merlin who reveals little of himself, but carries a crushing pain that becomes incrementally visible.  This Arthur has more in common with the prince of Le Morte d’Arthur or The Once and Future King, entering untested into an inheritance he never anticipated. This amplifies the scope and consequence of even minor failures, since he has no chance to learn from errors in security.

The world depicted in Camelot is much grittier than the one in Merlin. Camelot comprises many more drystone walls, thatched cottages, and dirt-smeared peasants. Merlin looks more like the Fantasy Village at Disneyland. Where the title fortress in Camelot is a Roman ruin whose gradual reconstruction mirrors the growth of the kingdom, the fortress in Merlin is an elaborate French fairy-tale confection, layered like a wedding cake.

I mean that as no insult against Merlin. Rather, it self-consciously tells a story of boyish bravado in which young men test their legs in relative safety. It makes no pretense of recounting a history that might have happened to real people in a real place. Camelot, despite the narrative use of magic, essentially presents Britain as it may well have looked in the Fifth Century CE. Merlin increases romance; Camelot expunges it.

Moreover, Merlin offers a story with not one but two father figures. Merlin shelters with royal physician Gaius (a role created for the series), while Arthur learns kingship from his father, King Uther. These two paternal figures guide their wards into adulthood gradually, imparting lessons of self-restraint and discretion from which the show’s intended young audience can also learn.

Camelot, by contrast, has no paternal figures whatsoever. Patriarchal, yes: King Uther is a domineering barbarian who threatens his children and bullies dissenters. While Merlin bears more interest in justice and the common good, he relies on realpolitik and expediency. This Merlin, whose external scars reflect his cynical soul, resembles Otto von Bismarck more than Obi-Wan Kenobi.

These contrasting visions of Arthuriana woo different audiences. The BBC produces Merlin for children and youth. Starz, a pay cable network, uses its freedom from censorship to tell a grown-up story. Merlin’s Arthur enjoys a chaste romance with Guinevere, a servant with a heart of gold. Camelot’s Arthur has an adulterous, and boldly sexual, relationship with Guinevere, wife of his greatest champion.

Not that Camelot shows the exhibitionistic streak underlying other pay cable shows like True Blood. Despite nudity, sex, and language, it never feels like the creative team is being merely dirty. It just pitches for an audience older, and more sexually aware, than Merlin courts.

So the question becomes: why do creative types feel the need to look backward to create new content?

Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Merlin
(Joseph Fiennes) in Starz' Camelot
As I've written before, our society’s new “mythology” is proprietary. No one but the creators or their authorized agents can add anything to the canon. Sure, we have two versions of Battlestar Galactica, but note that they were created a quarter century apart, and only under license. Can you imagine Homer trying to trademark Odysseus and charge Sophocles a licensing fee to write Philoctetes?

No, you can’t. Because we don’t spin myths anymore; we manufacture commodities. So as much as I enjoy these Kings Arthur, they display the loss of folk traditions that permitted Western society’s greatest classic artworks. What a shame.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pro-Life, Pro-Family, and Pro-Adpotion: The Rosatis' Pro-Active Plan

Kelly Rosati, a pro-life leader and ranking executive with Focus on the Family, has taken on a new role, advocating for possibly the most overlooked corner of pro-life philosophy, adoption. After all, if we insist that children, once conceived, must be born, Christians must also make room for those children whose parents can’t care for them. In her debut memoir, Wait No More, she describes, with husband and co-author John, how she has lived out that mission.

After years of devoted but childless marriage, the Rosatis, then living in Hawaii for John’s Air Force assignment, took in a foster daughter. Though that first attempt at Christian obedience went sour (Kelly’s storytelling is poignant), it opened their hearts to reaching out for children in need. After all, Scripture calls believers to provide love and nurturance to orphans. When a toddler with severe early circumstances came her way, they made their home his home too.

That was only the first. The Rosatis ultimately adopted four children, and Kelly tells each story with incisive, intelligent panache. All come from troubled origins, including drugs, mental illness, and abuse. Some came to the Rosatis after months or years in the foster care system, while one came to them only days after birth. And while the large household is unified in its fervor to serve God, the Rosati family is perhaps the most beautifully multi-ethnic you’ve ever seen.

While this was going on, Kelly also rose through the ranks of Hawaii’s Christian pro-family movement. She quickly had the ears of governors, legislators, and lobbyists throughout the islands. For a blonde haole from Wisconsin to reach such heights in Hawaii, America’s least white state, is remarkable. But she climbed so high without stepping on any toes, respecting Hawaii’s unique culture the whole way.

Indeed, despite a brief sojourn in Wisconsin, the Rosatis’ adoption journey took place entirely in the Fiftieth State. Nowhere else in America, Kelly suggests, could a family so diverse meld together so seamlessly. Kelly and John describe their struggles as adoptive parents—some of which are appalling, considering the low circumstances where their children were born. And they admit that many of their struggles are not yet over.

Kelly and John Rosati
But God’s grace gave this solid, loving couple a heart to parent those who have no parents of their own. Over ten years into their journey, their children have become strong Christians, solid ambassadors of Godly values, and models of how well adoption can turn out. The Rosatis have taken their mission into the larger world, and their organization, also called Wait No More, has facilitated new adoptions and blended families throughout America.

The Rosatis don’t write for a general audience. Their repeated references to God, Scripture, and Christ don’t bother reaching out to the secular world. Instead, they write for Christians, particularly those in the pro-life camp, which is often narrowly focused on anti-abortion causes without worrying about life after birth. The Rosatis call their fellow travelers to open their hearts to the whole of Scripture, and open their homes to lives that have already begun.

Importantly, they provide an intriguing antidote to certain attitudes which have circulated about conservative Christianity, particularly Focus on the Family. Following the lead of George Lakoff, many outside the conservative Christian camp have characterized those on the inside for their stern, moralistic outlook. Focus founder James Dobson advocates for stern parental discipline, including spanking. Lakoff has not bothered to probe any deeper.

By contrast, the Rosatis emphasize that stern discipline demonstrates, not dominance and authority, but love for those not yet capable of making their own best decisions. Christian parents, like the Rosatis, embody good moral direction for their children, setting guideposts until they become able to make choices on their own. And the kids’ stated eagerness for Kelly to keep up her advocacy says they’ve inherited the best of their parents’ moral compass.

Even their family structure flies in the face of outside caricatures. Kelly worked tirelessly, even as her husband made enough to feed the family, sometimes working from home when her kids needed her present. Now she has a nationwide advocacy campaign while her husband, retired from the Air Force, is a full-time dad. Thus they can embody conservative Christian values without rehashing outdated, repressive social models.

The Rosatis’ inspiring story should hopefully energize a long-neglected aspect of the pro-life debate. Their narrative should widen the narrative in American social discussion. God has been with them, and through them, God has given a gift to us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rodney Jones and the Living Poetic Heritage

As much as I love poetry, and spend time around it where I can, it’s grown harder and harder to find anything I truly enjoy. As a writing teacher, I spend my days elbow-deep in my own and others’ words, and perhaps I’ve grown cynical. But I prefer to think my standards have just grown more lofty. So I enjoy finding writers who live up to my expectations.

The title of Rodney Jones' newest collection, Imaginary Logic, reflects his dreamlike narrative structure. His language comes together with the languid internal consistency of the human subconscious, and invites readers along on a journey in which sequence is only an invited guest, not a host. Consider these striking, representative lines from "Cathedral":

What I do not know is here.
I worship wood and the instant.
What is over, I cannot finish.
The angel of work is sweat.

Jones’ short, direct lines, laced as they are with seemingly contradictory images, work primarily by ducking under the cover of the reader’s consciousness and delivering their messages before we even realize they’ve arrived. Not all his verses rely on this quick one-sentence lines, though I particularly like how they work in this specifically introspective poem. For contrast, compare this more flowing stanza from “The Elementary Principles of Rhetoric”:

Coos, grunts, glurs, germs of manifestos,
cries of the Valkyrie and warrior cults,
or laws streaming out of baby monitors
before words mount their charge
and end the dictatorship of the infant.

Rodney Jones
The first line’s rhythmic onomatopoeia transitions into the more intricate imagistic subsequent lines. I particularly appreciate this, since too many poets I’ve read lately focus exclusively on their lines as only units of information, no regard for the words as sound units Even reading them off the page, these lines create a multisensory experience that goes beyond more ordinary poets.

The back cover copy cites a poem that appropriates Dante's classic imagery of Hell, but that sets the bar too low. I see poems that pastiche Seamus Heaney, C.K. Williams, Maurice Manning, Ciaran Carson, and other poets. Images, lines, and structures from other poets infuse Jones’ work, making him almost a road map to contemporary and historical poetry.

This unusually self-conscious placement amid extant poetic tradition may put off readers more accustomed to work that exists only as it is, but for more seasoned readers, it carries the reward of advancing the ongoing poetic debate. Jones' strongest poems transform other writers' images and style, setting them sideways and forcing us to reevaluate what we take for granted in writing. This makes Jones sometimes challenging, but always rewarding.

Jones homes in on key concepts that define our time, viewing them through a prism that makes the familiar new. In so doing, he forces us to reimagine ourselves. After all, if what we take for granted becomes new, surely it follows that we too become new, as in these lines from "North Alabama Endtime," in which even the clichés seem innovative:

"You're too negative about
the end of time," says Earlie.
"It's like anything different.
You have to give it a chance,
strike while the iron is hot.
And it's hot, it's very hot.
The battle of Armageddon
has probably already started."

Jones' languorous, and often quite long, poems force us to slow our own mode of thinking. Like religious music, we find his rhythms attuning our minds to something greater than ourselves. Their power comes in Jones' ability to blindside us, transform what we take for granted, and make us evaluate our what and why. This especially comes across in the long poems late in the collection, like “The Moons: Notes on the Formation of Self”:

What do you think? Do you have a self, a soul, an option
all your own and not just what others received
and passed on to you, installing it in you as one ape
will cry and another ape take it and make the same noise—
And is it fair to include the Moons’ cries among the ape cries?

I often disparage such declarative poetry, with its tone of lecture rather than inquiry, yet Jones links it in a successful portmanteau of poetic heritage. After recent complaints about poets who jump into the tradition without paying dues, I appreciate a poet who understands the audience he courts and the history he joins. Rodney Jones represents the best in contemporary poetry. And he gives me hope that good, ambitious verse is still being written today.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Making a Buck to Save the World: Rupert Scofield on Social Entrepreneurship

Much has been written recently about social entrepreneurship, the effort to harness market forces to noble, world-changing ideals. Most commentators have lionized the visionaries whose gift for seeing old problems with new eyes makes such efforts possible. But Rupert Scofield, in The Social Entrepreneur's Handbook, turns his attention to the nuts-and-bolts managers who turn visions into reality.

Scofield, whose leadership guided the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA) to maturity, brings an entire career's experience to the question: what makes for successful social entrepreneurship? The answer certainly isn’t depth of vision. FINCA founder John Hatch had scads of ideas, but not the business acumen to make them reality. And not money, since FINCA has flourished though fat times and lean alike.

According to Scofield, we must never forget that a benevolent business is still a business. True believers may get so enamored of their founding vision that they lose sight of fiscal realities. Ideals must never impede social entrepreneurs’ bottom line, and social entrepreneurs must practice good business to pay for their ongoing good works. Scofield, a former Peace Corps volunteer with a psych degree, had to earn his business stripes the hard way.

But a benevolent business isn’t like other businesses. It’s driven by a vision, not by grasping shareholders. And while it must see a return on its investments, such a business is not profit driven. Scofield warns that social entrepreneurs must prepare themselves for some hungry times. Social entrepreneurs, in Scofield’s telling, walk a fine line between Wall Street economics and big-hearted charity.

Such a line makes for circuitous walking. Scofield recounts lessons learned the hard way in selling the complex reality of charitable finance. Many people come to him at the conclusion of long, illustrious careers, hoping to give back to the world that has made them rich. Younger candidates want to do good while making their names and kick-starting their careers. Both have something to offer, and both bring severe risks to the table.

Because nobody can do everything in a complex social enterprise alone, social entrepreneurs rely on allies, employees, and benefactors. While ground-level administrators handle the company’s actual community charity, the entrepreneur spends the most time cultivating these complex, subtle relationships. Because they provide minefields new entrepreneurs can’t foresee, Scofield explains how to negotiate this strange territory with minimal risk.

In hiring, for instance, the entrepreneur must find candidates who share the company’s vision and have salient skills. Finding just one of these is hard enough; finding both can be exhausting. And once the entrepreneur recruits such winners, managing and retaining them can require as much energy as finding them in the first place. But targeted investments of time and strength make it possible.

Benefactors, likewise, come in three stripes: private donors, public spending, and internal resources. Each has its own demands. Private donors, for instance, often give with strings attached. They may want their money spent on specific projects, or resent any funds going to administrative costs. Public money can shift with the political winds. And internal resources must be stewarded with care.

And alliances can depend on culture. Americans, for instance, trust individual initiative, and their giving reflects a sense of private duty. Europeans, by contrast, believe the government should take responsibility for uplifting the downtrodden, and resist private charity. And many Asian cultures, now recovering from years of Communist dominion, have little notion of philanthropy. The social entrepreneur must be culturally multilingual.

Conventional business sense would dictate that only a person with a background in business, religion, and international affairs should attempt so complex an enterprise. But social entrepreneurs jump into arenas for which they lack standard credentials, often learning on their feet, because they believe it’s simply right. Scofield doesn’t pretend he can make things any easier, but he does try to soften some of the hard edges.

Despite the title, Scofield doesn’t present a “handbook” entrepreneurs can browse as needed. Rather, it’s more of an umbrella guide of the challenges entrepreneurs face, the pitfalls they must endure, and the shortcuts that make the job possible. Sometimes Scofield shares advice others gave him; other times, he offers discoveries he made at great cost, so you can avoid his mistakes.

Our society today trusts both human goodness and market inevitability. Social entrepreneurship offers the hope of wedding these two seemingly contradictory principles. But it will do so only with leaders’ skill and dexterity. Rupert Scofield lets us believe that we, as individuals, can aspire to such optimistic unity.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Hard Lessons of a Credit-Based Economy

An NPR report yesterday discussed an unpublished government white paper from the year 2000, speculating on the consequences of a then-anticipated payoff of the US federal debt. The Clinton-era mix of spending priorities and progressive taxes resulted in anticipations that the debt, which my generation grew up hearing grim prophecies about, would end by 2012. What could be finer?

Well, quite a lot, actually. As reporter David Kestenbaum discovered, America’s federal debt is backed with Treasury bills, in which the government sells futures on revenue it expects to raise. Take a look at the report for more details, but the upshot is simple: without a certain amount of government debt, the government has no ability to control economic variables. It has no ability to plan for the future.

But that seems the problem with our current economic structure.

When President Obama was elected in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, he promised to “restore” American confidence in the economy, and when he couldn’t deliver on that promise in his first two years, the electorate gave the House of Representatives to the opposition party, hoping they could do what the President couldn’t. The Republicans have also failed. Neither seem to wonder why.

Perhaps they have failed to take into consideration that the prior economy was based on credit, which, when stripped of terminology, is a promise of how good things will be in the future. The housing bubble relied on cheap loans which people hoped to pay off in the indefinite future, while the tech-stock boom gambled that websites would create or distribute information in a way that added value. Both proved unrealistic.

Both failed, I contend, because they want to live in the present on the rewards of future effort. Credit cards allow users to put effect before cause. Collateralized debt devices and related derivatives, which propelled the economy during the rah-rah Bush administration, let buyers live in the future output of others’ labor. The entire pre-meltdown economy existed in the present tense.

Parents raising children try to reinforce that we cannot have our rewards before we invest our effort. We cannot earn our allowance until we’ve completed our chores. We cannot get our grades until we do our homework. This early lesson in applied ethics should, hopefully, carry this ethic into adult life and professional roles.

At the factory every day, I see people socking money away, accepting overtime, and taking on labor they don’t need but could use for future rewards. These blue-collar types have remembered their parents’ lessons about ethics. They do not live on credit, in many cases because they cannot. They enjoy the reward only after they have invested their efforts.

Reading the financial pages, I can only wish these lessons carried over for the people who manage our monetary investments. The whole of modern high-stakes finance relies on getting money now for investments that exist only hypothetically. When people leverage one promise on top of another, we shouldn’t act surprised when people who haven’t internalized their childhood ethics jump ship.

The word “economy” comes from a Greek term meaning “the management of a household.” It refers to the idea that we handle money and distribute resources according to a value system intended to increase well-being without empty effort. Aristotle said that an economy is a moral instrument. People forget that Adam Smith, father of capitalism, wasn’t an economist, but a professor of morals and ethics.

The Bible does not permit the kind of collateralized debt we accept today. Exodus 22 and Leviticus 25 make plain that anyone who charges interest on the poor has violated the will of God. Accepting a worker’s house, land, or clothing to secure a debt, according to the Books of the Law, puts a loan holder in opposition to the people. These millennia-old principles are motivating the current economic protests.

To discover that the government cannot function, to discover that we cannot balance our society’s obligations without selling promises on the future, breaks my heart. Our society really cannot function, in its current arrangement, without ignoring the lessons learned at our parents’ knees. The organizing power structure in modern America fundamentally violates our private ethical premises.

I only hope the implications penetrate for those who, according to Kestenbaum, chose to keep the 2000 draft report under wraps. If our society is so fundamentally unethical, we need to take a hard look and what we want, and whether it reflects our values. Right now, we fail that basic test.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Cleverbot Proves Computers Should Remain Stupid

British mathematician Alan Turing, whose code-breaking helped the Allies win World War II, proposed in 1950 that we could consider computers intelligent when they successfully mimic human behavior, particularly conversation, in blind experiments. This has remained the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence research for over six decades. And despite incremental gains, this triumph remains just out of reach after all that time.

I remembered this when my friend and fellow writer Jerry J. Davis recently reported his attempt at conversation with an AI simulator, Cleverbot. This program has a built-in learning heuristic, allowing it to increase in human-like behavior. According to tech writers, at a recent exhibition, it came within five points of a human control group in presenting realistic dialog. Dialog, perhaps, such as this example from its conversation with Jerry:

I considered interviewing Cleverbot myself, just to test how persuasive this “intelligent” system really is. I’ve done it before, and gotten some laughs, on a now defunct website. The machine tended toward non sequiturs, an appallingly brief attention span, and a fondness for answering questions with questions, like a newly minted psychologist desperate to keep the conversation going. It was funny, but not particularly enlightening.

But why shoot fish in a barrel?

A programmed heuristic always stumbles because computers reason in short numerical bursts. If new concepts fit the alphanumeric learning system, the heuristic can learn them. If they don’t, it can’t. We call this “deductive reasoning,” meaning that for any question, the answer is inherent in the premise. If all Greeks are bald, and Socrates is Greek, we need add nothing to the equation to say that Socrates is bald.

Humans, by contrast, think in images and abstractions. This is why mathematicians love histograms and flow charts, because to them, numbers signify something greater. We make connections, draw conclusions, and perform leaps of faith. We call this “inductive reasoning,” meaning the answer exceeds the question. Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism is not inherent in its numbers, yet human insight can supply the missing concepts.

Let me restate that briefly, because you probably missed the upshot: human reasoning works because it’s necessarily irrational.

When we surpass obvious truths and take risks in our thinking, we can turn sparse, incomplete, or lopsided information into real, useful meaning. Mathematics, biology, physics, and all the “hard” sciences rely on the same human impulse to close the gap that enables art and philosophy. Sometimes this leads to false conclusions, as with medieval “medicine,” but it also lets us comprehend life in all its imperceptible grandeur.

Post-Enlightenment thinking has often assumed that humans are rational. It assumes we plug knowable facts into prepared slots. This is why much 19th Century philosophy tried to exclude literature and religion from serious discussion, because both rely on principles we cannot separate and test.

This train of thought largely ended when putatively “scientific” justifications led to the catastrophe of World War I. Yet it somehow persists in language studies. Noam Chomsky’s theory of Generative Grammar assumes that children learning their native language analyze grammar like little engines; computer scientists assume they can reproduce such concepts digitally.

This despite the fact that no significant evidence bolsters Generative Grammar. It perseveres because Chomsky, an excellent salesman, insists it should. Anyone who has ever raised a kid through the delicate language-learning years knows that children learn to speak in a much more hit-or-miss manner than Chomsky’s analytic approach would permit.

Do we really want a computer capable of this same irrational reasoning? We like computers’ ability to compile statistics, retain data, and search facts quickly and efficiently. A machine that goes off on an artistic tangent or becomes fixed on a dead-end idea, as humans often do, would only compound our difficulties. Personally, I like my machines dim and compliant, because I can transfer the data-crunching to them, and make my own meaning.

In Yiddish myth, a person of surpassing righteousness could build a Golem, a rudimentary human made from clay. This was possible because righteousness make that person similar to G-d. But because limited humans can never be as righteous as G-d, the Golem can never speak, because humans cannot invest our creations with souls.

These Hebrews probably never imagined they had prophesied the computer’s false goals. But perhaps we could take a lesson from them: thinking machines may not rebel against us, as in science fiction, but they could easily become useless. Let machines be machines. Humans, in all our flawed glory, can close the gaps for ourselves.

Monday, October 17, 2011

#OCCUPY the Bible

Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
    —Leviticus 19:13

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
    —Matthew 25:41-43

One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
  another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
    —Proverbs 11:24

The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.
    —Ezekiel 22:29

Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
    —Romans 13:7

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.
    —Deuteronomy 24:14-15

Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.
    —Luke 10:7

The poor plead for mercy,
  but the rich answer harshly.
    —Proverbs 18:23

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
    —Romans 4:4

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.
    —Deuteronomy 15:7-8

The LORD works righteousness
  and justice for all the oppressed.
    —Psalm 103:6

For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
    —1 Timothy 5:18

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.
    —Exodus 22:25

Rich and poor have this in common:
  The LORD is the Maker of them all.
    —Proverbs 22:2

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
    —James 5:1-6

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
  and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
  and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
  and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
  and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
    —Isaiah 58:6-7

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
    —Acts 2:44-45

But woe to you who are rich,
  for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
  for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
  for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
  for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
    —Luke 6:24-26

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
  And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
  and to walk humbly with your God.
    —Micah 6:8

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
    —Luke 16:14-15

All passages from the New International Version, © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011, by Biblica

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Mansfield, and the Spirits of the Age

Oprah Winfrey richly deserves her reputation as an interviewer. Her natural curiosity and gift of gab combine to elevate even mundane conversations to the realm of intimate revelation. No wonder Oprah’s slightest endorsement can turn innovators into superstars overnight. Unfortunately, as Stephen Mansfield asserts in Where Has Oprah Taken Us?, she has turned this same influence to peddling spiritual silliness that may eventually have dire consequences.

From 1994 until her retirement, TV’s most beloved woman made her show a haven for spiritual seekers and enlightenment merchants of every stripe. Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne rode Oprah’s grandeur to their own overnight success. Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra, already famous, became cultural powerhouses with Oprah’s help. But she has often accepted grandiose claims with an appalling lack of critical thought.

Mansfield combines biography, sociology, and comparative religion to look into how Oprah became dangerously credulous, and what implications her gurus’ theologies may have. Where it would be easy for such a writer to cast aspersions, Mansfield’s approach is strikingly gentle. He shows Oprah great respect, even fondness. He critiques her discoveries, but with an air more of sadness than anger, and certainly not condemnation.

Raised in an environment where being poor and black made life dangerous, Oprah resolved to improve herself. Blessedly, she had the gifts, courage, and timing to accomplish these goals. But along the road, she lost her once-firm religious footing. When she invited her TV audience along on her journey to rediscover belief, they witnessed her investigate new paths with wide-eyed wonder, but without asking important questions.

Mansfield doesn’t limit himself to Oprah; he sees her as an emblem of her generation. America’s post-war kids inherited a morally hollow nation numbed on triumph. When they sought answers to eternal questions, Christianity unfortunately chose expedience and conformity over truth. This left a disenfranchised generation ripe for exploitation by self-made swamis proselytizing egocentric faiths.

Hinduism in particular appealed to a generation, but not real Hinduism, which relies on principles which seem bizarre, even offensive, to Westerners. Instead, hucksters pitched a sanitized Hinduism diluted with self-help bromides. Key spiritual concepts came to mean the exact opposite of their historical precedent. The spongy product let seekers feel spiritual without having to live for anything larger than themselves.

Christianity and other faith heritages failed to provide a relevant counter-narrative. Who, really, can blame Oprah’s generation for seeking its beliefs among charismatic, reverent eminences? And when TV’s ultimate best friend lent her support to spiritual leaders who ratified her own empowerment principles, crowds flocked to the likes of Gary Zukav and Iyanla Vanzant in hopes of sharing her sacred intimacy.

As Mansfield demonstrates, these gurus’ principles lead to chilling conclusions. If my thoughts create reality, as Rhonda Byrne attests, then I cause any disease, violence, or tragedy I suffer. If I am God, as Marianne Williamson suggests, then I save or condemn myself, but how? No answer is forthcoming. And the less said about Deepak Chopra’s “medicine,” much of which involves drinking or washing with our own urine, the better.

By Mansfield’s reckoning, Oprah does not provide a soapbox for such untenable silliness for malign reasons. She just wants answers, like we all do. But instead of seeking some larger point to which we can anchor our lives, such as Christianity or Islam offer, she places her trust in forms of self-actualization. She’s less interested in knowing God or the gods than in knowing and advancing herself.

This produces an informal, ethically squishy faith—and, worse, an egocentric approach to life’s spiritual risks. Christians love God and their neighbors, while Muslims submit to Allah’s will and Buddhists seek to abolish suffering through enlightenment. Oprah’s spirituality merely feeds selfish appetites. No wonder she keeps seeking novelty through new gurus, even after decades of experience.

According to Mansfield, Oprah is a product of a conflicted time in history, and as such we can’t hold her culpable for society’s current spiritual goofiness. However, her almost unprecedented reach and proven economic might give her influence that evangelists and emperors would envy. And she’s used that influence to push some inexcusable spiritual products on a disturbingly credulous audience.

Mansfield doesn’t oppose Oprah. In places, he even admires her intelligence and ingenuity. But he also urges Oprah, and her audience, to approach spiritual claims more critically. Believing in something isn’t enough. In today’s spiritually risky world, we must also believe to something. That puts the onus on Oprah, and on us, to know not just what we believe, but why.

On a related topic: Believing in Everything, Believing in Nothing

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Larry Woiwode on the Christian as Active Reader

During a brief e-mail exchange with Susannah Clements, we discussed whether any Christian literary theory exists today. Clements explained that “Among Christians themselves, there's some controversy over whether the theory approach is the best way of dealing with literature at all.” Christian criticism has focused on close reading and exegesis; theory, Christian critics believe, is too constraining.

I wondered whether I really believed this, until I discovered Larry Woiwode. Poet and novelist, Woiwode turns his hand to criticism in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture. And he proves that, to an artist, Christianity provides more than a tool to dismantle others’ work. Christianity gives us a vantage point from which to examine the larger world, one informed by a spirit of hope and clarity.

In ten essays, ranging from five to forty pages, Woiwode reads the world around him like a prophet, charged to uphold the admirable and disparage the inexcusable. This gives him a hard edge that may bother some readers, but it also gives him a real position, which I appreciate after years in academia, where equivocation has become necessary. Woiwode is refreshing because he actually stands for something.

And, unlike other bold Christians I've read recently, Woiwode opens doors without falsely attempting to close them. He takes sides, but does not believe (with one exception) that his positions conclude the debate. For Woiwode, Christianity and literature provide twinned opportunities to explore a larger and more exciting world than the alternative can provide.

Woiwode turns an impressive range of insight onto a range of subjects. Some, like John Updike and John Gardner, deal in areas which critics have exhausted. Gardner, whom Woiwode admits he knew and admired, merits two essays, one a sweeping remembrance, the other an in-depth examination of one novel so esoteric that most critics won’t touch it. Woiwode treats even such well-handled subjects with fresh vision.

Other topics seem more surprising. Comparing Bob Dylan and CNN as newsgatherers, he finds conventional journalism wanting in terms of speaking the truths that undergird events. He draws attention to a nearly forgotten aspect of novelist Reynolds Price’s corpus, innovative and sagacious translations of the Koine Gospels. And, in examination of America’s firearms culture, he finds this lineage as rich for examination as any literature.

Larry Woiwode
Covering three decades in the author’s life, these essays provide a shifting intellectual biography, as Woiwode moves from his straightforward description of Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, through a more aggressive stance on public education, to a remarkably mature and nuanced rumination on the truths inherent in Shakespeare’s tragedies. But these changes aren’t merely incidental. Woiwode’s development urges us to season our own thinking, too.

As a Christian, Woiwode approaches criticism not supposing that we should grasp literature in its own right, but that literature can throw light on its readers and their calling. We can understand ourselves in relation to our neighbors and our God through the lens of great reading. Therefore he reads literature with intent to illuminate humans in culture, just as he reads culture as a manifestation of humanity’s better angels.

Don’t misunderstand the word “Christian.” Woiwode is broad-minded and inquisitive. In his discursion on Bob Dylan, he seems more interested in Dylan’s younger, more insurrectionary period than his later “Born Again” doldrums. He feels no need to discuss the highly moralistic John Gardner’s serial marriages. Woiwode would rather engage with God’s world than condemn those living in it.

This Christianity does get somewhat high-handed when he addresses the public sphere. Woiwode adopts the siege mentality that afflicts certain Evangelical churches, and occasionally lets it infect his criticism. He insists, for instance, that John Updike never won the Nobel Prize in part because of his professed Christianity. The Academy’s longstanding anti-Americanism seems a more likely explanation.

But that’s small beer. In only one essay does Woiwode let Christianity conflict with lucid thought. In “Deconstructing God,” an exhortation against secularization in public schools, he doesn’t seem to recognize his stated contradictions. If both 19th Century pietism and 20th Century secularism authorized public prejudices, why should we believe reenrolling God will alleviate the problem?

Besides, we know that nothing dampens students’ ardor for a topic like making it mandatory.

That limitation notwithstanding, Woiwode provides a good model for how the Christian engages critically with the word and the world. His curiosity and insight, leavened with dry humor, make reading him both educational and pleasant. If more critics, and more Christians, wrote like this, criticism might attract a broader, brighter audience.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Eric Balkan's Binary Politics

Psychology has made great strides lately in understanding the values that guide our political decisions. Activist Eric Balkan compiles the most relevant—and the most useful—in his book Why Liberalism?: How our Sense of Empathy and Fairness Determines our Political Orientation. But for all its clarity and utility, Balkan’s otherwise insightful analysis falls victim to binary thinking.

Balkan’s argument relies primarily on the “Empathy-Fairness Graph” (EFG), a histogram you’ve probably seen online. It relies on an XY graph in which one axis runs from fairness to stability, and the other runs from empathy to self-interest. Identifying where a person lies on each axis categorizes a person’s political beliefs. Conservatives, Balkan says, score high on self-interest and social stability, while liberals value fairness and empathy.

So far, so good. Conservatives generally desire continuity and regard individual desires as paramount. Liberals generally seek to reconcile conflicting interests based on equality and rights. Though we may need to juggle vocabulary, most people would agree that these value judgments distinguish the primary political poles.

But Balkan himself admits his definitions don’t always hold. Some putatively liberal issues run against fairness, as when environmental concerns conflict with blue-collar jobs. Conservatism, meanwhile, requires us to value others’ self-interest as equal to our own. Which means the EFG gives us a foundation that only goes about so far.

Eric Balkan
Politics, with its relationship between individuals to groups, always means attempting to communicate complex concepts in an attempt to create some unity. Therefore, we must find ways to translate our values into others’ language. If I can stage the social safety net in terms of stability rather than fairness, or if I can present tax cuts, a self-interest issue, in terms of empathy, we can like one set of political values with another.

Unfortunately, Balkan has his own set of blinders on. In the introduction, he admits he wrote this book after struggling to understand why he couldn’t persuade more people to his progressive views. He might check his own prejudices about conservatives. He describes them as “narrow minded,” “not self aware,” and “ignorant of the facts.” He at least has the courage to concede some limits of his own position, but minimizes them in light of conservative limitations.

Like me, Balkan calls himself a former libertarian who could no longer sustain certain contradictions. So he should know that libertarians see self-interest as a fairness issue: that is, what’s mine is mine, and any levy on it is theft, which could happen to anyone and thus should be stopped. But Balkan puts these two values on completely different axes.

Perhaps Balkan should observe his own stipulations. He concedes that that the frequent overlap between fairness and empathy makes defining borders impossible. But that applies all around the graph. Without clear, unambiguous definitions, we cannot say where anyone falls on the spectrum. When my fairness becomes your arrogance, or my order becomes your tyranny, we lose the ability to communicate.

This is not a made-up issue. The culture war has been waged in largest part by people who redefine values on new cores. During FDR’s administration, I doubt anyone would have dreamed that workers would vote for politicians who promised to cut millionaires’ taxes. But by redefining group identity away from jobs and economic standings, people who would previously have served as liberalism’s core voting bloc have become overwhelmingly conservative.

Thus, Balkan’s system is simultaneously not wrong and not right. The fundamental values have persisted since time out of mind, yet the applications have shifted so that workers’ issues get served by the rich, it’s unfair to say anyone owes the prior generation for its gifts, and the difference between duty and burden depends on who’s asking. This layering of values, though both natural and inevitable, confuses an already confusing domain.

Perhaps the problem lies in trying to reduce complex questions of power and society to either-or binaries. But our winner-take-all electoral system rewards such simplification. Nations that rely on proportional representation permit more nuanced politics, as demonstrated for instance by Germany’s historic reliance on coalition governments. This both allows more substantial debate and has prevented a recurrence of 1928.

Balkan’s pamphlet-sized book raises several important points that can help advance the debate. Understanding the psychology of political discourse will permit more productive resolution to problems. But this provides only a foundation, not a complete edifice, and we must keep addressing political controversies on a case-by-case basis. Only this will permit sufficient subtlety to resolve our deeply human conflicts.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tony D'Souza's Generation Drift

Of the images in Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, none haunts me like JoJo Bear. When failed writer Jeff Lasseter moves several pounds of prime NorCal kush through Austin to Tallahassee, he brings his infant daughter’s teddy, with a digital talking chip in its belly. Every time the road gets dangerous, he squeezes JoJo Bear, whose plaintive “I love you” gives him strength to face down miles, cops, and an increasingly dangerous network of buyers and sellers.

Yet I think that bear represents something greater. The fact that a married man with one kid, and another on the way, needs a teddy bear to nursemaid him through the risks he takes to stave off poverty, says he isn’t facing life as an adult. He comes from a generation that expected infinitely growing wealth, bet everything on houses and tech stocks, and had no skills to face desperation. Now, resisting the limitations of incipient adulthood, he gambles everything he loves for the money.

Half Douglas Coupland and half Hunter S. Thompson, D’Souza’s third novel tries to externalize the angst his generation has felt over the last five years as the promises we grew up with proved built on sand. Unfortunately, for all his intricate symbolism—the patchy beard, the miles of road burn, and JoJo Bear’s quiet desperation—this remains a remarkably internal novel. His alter ego, progagonist Jeff Lasseter, is a man in love with his own internal monologue.

Lasseter’s carefully constructed writing résumé proves useless when publishing dries up in advance of the 2008 crash. Newly married and expecting, with skills of limited market viability, he moves to a cabin in his wife’s home area, California’s rural northern Siskiyou county. There he finds a commodity outsiders would pay money for: some of America’s best organic cannabis. You can’t eat principles, so a domestic drug runner is born.

Tony D'Souza
Six very long chapters describe Lasseter’s descent into a world where arcane honor codes excuse moral compromise and a novice can earn truly magnificent paydays, as long as they accept cash only. The run from California to Texas to Florida comes to dominate his life. He finds himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, yet beholden to a brutal operator who holds his family as collateral. The money that once bought his freedom soon owns him completely.

As a character, Jeff Lasseter symbolizes his generation because he will only accept change on his own terms. He tries to manipulate his circumstances, and when he can’t, he feels helpless. Muling, for him, is a way to assert the continuity of the economic dream he grew up with. Unfortunately, in an economy grown volatile, change has its way, with or without Lasseter’s permission. The tighter he squeezes the sand in the hourglass, the more slips between his fingers.

Lasseter’s CV bears a striking resemblance to D’Souza himself, and it’s tempting, at least early, to read this as a roman á clef. But as Lasseter’s muling escalates into bloodlust, then extortion, then kingpinning, we realize this isn’t D’Souza’s life. This is D’Souza’s nightmare about what life could become in times like these. Sure, he’s an educated and respected man who has served in the Peace Corps. But does such a man necessarily have a bottom limit when desperation sets in?

And can we really even call it desperation? In less than a year, Lasseter earns more than some blue-collar workers make in a decade, yet he and his wife become enamored of what that money can buy them. Lasseter talks lovingly of his house, his European vacations, his social connections, until we realize: his dirty job gives him the veneer of high standing and security against a volatile world. But that security and standing prove fragile.

D’Souza’s thriller chops lack a little. External events that could shake Lasseter’s core get glossed over. Lasseter gets jacked at gunpoint, but once it’s over, the event never merits a second mention. And despite three good opportunities for a resolution in the best Sophoclean tradition, the ending arrives almost accidentally, reducing the previously active Lasseter to a mere victim of circumstance.

Yet I can’t forget JoJo Bear. D’Souza’s Lasseter is essentially a big kid living out the dreams his generation, which is also mine, was promised. He remains a picture of frustrated desires. He only wants what economic forces took from him, the same things they took from you and me. And he makes us ask: where would I draw the line? How low is too low?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Why Johnny and Janie Can't Lose Weight


Second only to controlling our budgets, Americans resolve to do more about weight than any other personal issue. Tomorrow. Right away. As soon as I have this or that resolved. Part of the problem is that conflicting demands hit us coming and going. Carbs or proteins? Aerobics or cardio? Starvation or willpower? Three new books only compound the problem.

Ed Boullianne, in You Can't Outsource Weight Loss, tackles the question from the most common angles. The author, hit with bad news about his weight and lifespan as he prepared to retire from the Navy, educated himself on the intricacies of weight science. Now he’s compiled his discoveries so we can all read and learn from him. His approach is entirely conventional, and proud of it.

Dian and Tom Griesel, in TurboCharged, believe Boulliane has everything wrong. They disdain the commonplaces, relying on surprising new discoveries that suggest everything we believe about human metabolism is counterfactual. They present a regimen that forces dieters to reevaluate everything we keep in our kitchens, every workout habit, and every assumption about our bodily needs.

And Kristen Volk Funk, in As Thin As You Think, suggests we pack on weight, and can’t shed it, not because of diet and exercise, but because of learned habits and mental scripts that reinforce bad behavior. A clinical counselor and hypnotherapist, Volk Funk believes that reprogramming our brains will make the difference. Only when we focus inward will we recognize and redress our problems.

We can learn as much from these books’ similarities as from their differences. Most important, they all demand we approach food consciously. Too often, we put on pounds, and can’t keep them off, because passive attitudes let us eat fatty processed filth without thinking. If we pay as much attention to our food as to our finances, we could bank health like we bank our paychecks.

That’s why commercial weight programs fail. They let us pop pills, stick TV dinners in the microwave, or otherwise continue not thinking about how we feed our bodies. Then, when we hit our goals, we resume eating as we did before. Meanwhile, our bodies have new set points against perceived famine. Not surprisingly, every pound we shed springs right back.

Therefore, we must plan not for those pesky pounds we want to shed, but for a lifetime of better health. If we only think of looking good for swimsuit season, we won’t make a lasting difference. Only when we plan for long-term health through nutrition and physical activity will we not only lose weight, but maintain our bodies. Only then will we really live healthfully.

But these authors disagree about how we should take an active approach to our metabolisms. Boulliane, for instance, wants us to police what we take into our bodies. He examines American eating habits, especially in restaurants, and what he finds is appalling. Many prepared beverages have as many calories as a healthy adult male should consume in a day. That says nothing about, for instance, our chronic lack of sleep.

The Griesel siblings think Boulliane’s calorie counts obscure our real problems. They think we often eat when we aren’t hungry, eat foods that don’t satisfy, and confuse weight with real health. Their process involves significant changes drinking water, eating food, and planning exercise. They sneer at intensive workouts, preferring a structured plan of a few minutes a day. And they want us to slam water regularly, not carry a bottle and sip daintily.

Volk Funk thinks neither plan will make a meaningful difference alone. We gain weight, and can’t shed it, because we consider ourselves fat, doomed to fail at any regimen. Only when we acknowledge our inner Thin You (spelled thus, with the capital letters) and nourish that identity with affirmative thoughts, will any change in diet and exercise make meaningful differences.

Reading these books side by side, I realize: not everybody gains weight the same way. Some people eat right and exercise, and still pork up. Others keep relatively svelte while eating like refugees. My food and exercise haven’t changed significantly in years, yet my waistline inflated around my thirtieth birthday. If we don’t gain weight for the same reason, surely we don’t lose it the same way, either.

These books make good companions, because they let readers evaluate different issues, screen themselves, and draw meaningful conclusions. If we take an honest look inward, we can identify how we put on weight. Only then can we read selectively, choosing the aggregate approach that works for our weight. If we gained weight passively, we won’t lose it by passively taking gurus at their word.