Friday, April 27, 2012

Late Nights with the Hipster in Chief

President Obama's duet with Jimmy Fallon drew praise
and blame from entirely predictable circles.
The brouhaha over President Obama’s appearance this week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon followed predictable lines. Fox News commentators claimed Obama has cheapened the office. Their opposite numbers at MSNBC rallied to the President’s defense, to nobody’s surprise. Lawrence O’Donnell coupled the Obama/Fallon footage with the first President to appear on a scripted entertainment show, Richard Nixon on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Unaddressed amid this artificial controversy lingers the real question: what is the role of the American President in today’s world? Should the person elected to that office hold himself (or herself) aloof from the glitz of entertainment? Or is the President a celebrity on a par with rock stars and actors? The answer, if we look at who voters have favored all the way back to the Founders’ time, seems plain: the President, for good or ill, is very much a pop culture figure.

When Nixon appeared on Laugh-In, he was considered an accidental candidate, likely to win only because his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, couldn’t wash off the stink of Lyndon Johnson. Voters in that newly technicolor world remembered Nixon’s televised 1960 debate with John Kennedy, when Nixon’s disdain for stage makeup made him resemble a pile of old socks. Appearing on Laugh-In let America see he was in on the joke—that he was their President.

Nixon had the aid, that year, of former Mike Douglas producer Roger Ailes. Later, Ailes would produce Rush Limbaugh’s ill-considered TV program, before shepherding Fox News into existence. Ailes brought his TV experience to bear on his political goals, and helped bring politics into the television age. If one man holds the bag for weird on-camera behavior by candidates and office-holders, that man is Roger Ailes.

Candidate Nixon made his age, unhipness,
and confusion the very heart of the joke.
But Ailes didn’t have a patch on Ronald Reagan. Though many commentators note Reagan’s background in Hollywood, his wartime contribution to America’s PR machine is much more interesting for his political career. Though he never faced a live bullet during World War II, Reagan had the benefit of a high-pressure education in how to tweak an audience’s feelings. He knew how to make us laugh, cheer, cry, cuss, and fall in love—on command, like a puppy.

Admirers called Reagan the Great Communicator, but reread his most celebrated speeches. He produced stirring quotes in abundance (“Well, there you go again;” “Tear down this wall!”), yet few policy statements. And Americans rewarded him for that. Compared to the notoriously inarticulate Jimmy Carter, or the stultifying Walter Mondale, Reagan won votes by giving tired, overloaded voters something exciting and unambiguous to hang onto.

The techniques Reagan pioneered found their ne plus ultra in George W. Bush. Twice Bush ran against knowledgeable but dull opponents, and won, as much as anything, on the fact that he looked like a real human beside starched shirts like Gore and Kerry. Even his supporters admitted Bush ran vague campaigns (though he seemed a model of specificity compared to Barack Obama), but he played the right emotional keys to keep voters’ eyes and ears on him.

Few Presidents have courted the media so blatantly as to appear on a midnight comedy talk show (though John Kerry, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill and Hillary Clinton [separately] talked politics with Jay Leno). But over a dozen Presidents from both parties have attended the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Many have tried stand-up comedy. And why shouldn’t they? Candidates and office-holders perform for journalists regularly.

Comedy has always weighed in on politics;
turnabout is fair play.
My examples to now have focused on Presidents in living memory, though that’s been more expedient than deliberate. Because Presidents have copious camera time, we simply have more to observe today than prior generations. Yet Presidents have always made pop culture statements. Abraham Lincoln did not make classic speeches for posterity; transcripts of slick language in newspapers made him worth remembering centuries later.

Even Thomas Jefferson, often painted as stiff and doctrinaire, could work a crowd. His decision to ride his own horse in his inaugural parade, with neither a hat nor a powdered wig, made a deliberate statement as to who he believed he had been elected to serve. This marked a turning point in American history, when pretense became a political liability. But it was also a high-water mark in deliberate messaging.

President Obama simply continued the tradition of using the tools of his time to carry the message where it needs to go. How many people who would tune out another Presidential speech paid attention because of the format and venue? Sure, slow jamming the news lacks the faux gravitas of Disney’s Hall of Presidents. But it carries the mark of communications genius, and refined cultural savvy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Joy of Middles and Unfinished Ends

I discovered fantasy literature as a kid when I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Derived from Welsh myth, and utilizing the episodic story structure of The Mabinogion, Alexander created an arc in which the dreams all children share (what if my destiny looms larger than my circumstances?) come true for one youth. Though laced with magic and adventure, these elements really matter mainly as they help our hero discover his true adult identity.

The first four volumes each ended with the promise that the story would continue. The hope of more, that somehow this epic could unfold in any direction. So it came as a shock when the end came. Narnia ended, I felt, when the story had played itself out, but Prydain wasn’t done. Alexander even made that plain in his explanation that more took place after the final chapter. We just didn’t get to see it. The story was done, and all the possibilities closed down.

Lloyd Alexander
This was the first time I spotted a reality that eventually became the largest concept in my treasury of literary axioms: middles are the best part of any book. I will go to the mat with you on any book you name. Beginnings carry the need to explain character, situation, and conflict, while endings have the burden of putting a bow on all those concepts. Middles simply revel in untrammeled possibility. When we imagine books we love, we always recall the middle.

Since I’ve already mentioned fantasy, consider Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Though arguably the Twentieth Century’s most influential book, it lags in both the early and late chapters. Tolkein felt the need for such intricate introductions and explanations that the Council of Elrond runs nearly as long as some entire novels. And observe how filmmaker Peter Jackson elided Tolkein’s long, talky denouement. Only the middle doesn’t suffer from either scene-setting or resolution.

If you want a more mainstream example, consider Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness and Nostromo, acknowledged classics both, present us with lush stories that probe at the inner recesses of the human soul. They also don’t so much resolve as peter out. By his own admission, Conrad had difficulty writing endings, but this didn’t stop him feeling the need to close every door he opened. Thus these masterworks sputter in the final pages.

Joseph Conrad
Many classic writers understood this truth, and thus didn’t try to enforce pat endings. Shakespeare left so many doors open in Hamlet that uncounted authors have tried to write sequels. What happened to Horatio and Fortinbras after the final curtain? What happened to the state of Denmark after every claimant to the throne killed every other claimant? The very unsolved nature of these questions gives it power.

Unfortunately, most sequels have been undisputed stinkers. I blame the authors’ evident need to solve every debate definitively. Only Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which butters its bread with existential ambiguity and, if anything, asks even more questions, merits our time. Nor is this problem unique to Shakespeare; consider all the authors who write sequels to the Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice—and how few are actually are worth reading.

Shakespeare, Homer, and Austen knew that, if they left important plot threads open, we would write our own stories. Even if we don’t literally put pen to paper, we tell stories to ourselves. We ask questions, we speculate on possibilities, and we put ourselves into the shoes of our favorite protagonists. We make meaning not from the completion of every concept the authors put on the page, but in the ability to join the story, which we can only do if the story remains open.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Based on that, I will make one exception to my axiom about middles. Perhaps you’ve thought of favorite stories that only ramp up in the final pages, like Virgil’s Aeneid, Goethe’s Faust, or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. All these books have earned their reputation over the course of generations, even millennia. And they share one common trait: all three were left incomplete at their authors’ deaths. They don’t have endings, only middles.

Perhaps that’s why ongoing series novels dominate the current publishing domain. Maybe audiences like middles so much that they want stories to hang on. Though one particular conflict may resolve, our characters’ arcs remain intact, and continue to live in a world where anything can happen. Because we want to believe anything can happen in our world, as Lloyd Alexander taught me to hope so many years ago.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Jane Shore's Incisive Images and Daring Verse

Jane Shore, That Said: New and Selected Poems

Poets publish collections like this one when they are preparing how they want to be remembered. These little surveys of their careers allow them to create the image they hope will follow them when they cannot write anything new. Jane Shore has done a good job at that, charting her path from young poet to insightful elder with deft grace. She presents herself here as somebody well worth remembering.

Based now at George Washington University, Shore’s career , excerpted here, has taken her all over the contemporary American poetry map. Her earliest poems reflect the image-driven tone in Twentieth Century poetry. Verses like "The Lifeguard" and "Clock" present a world viewed through a lens of such unique content that she could not be mistaken for anyone else. Shore openly acknowledges her debt to Elizabeth Bishop in some poems, and lovingly quotes from Emily Dickinson and Randall Jarrell. Yet notice the casual intimacy of these lines from "Young Woman on the Flying Trapeze":

Shooting with his Bolex,
my father kept nature in perspective.
He caught the trapeze artist catching
his partner in midair, swinging

in and out of my line of sight.
I was five. In nightmares, the body
falls straight into the dreamer's eye;
he wakes before hitting bottom.

Did I blink then, did I glance away,
the moment that she tumbled
like an angel out of heaven?
I don't remember, but I saw her fall.

I particularly like how these opening lines to a much longer poem emphasize not only memory, but also the memory of memory. This duality, of self as observer of self, reflects the inner turmoil that accompanies modern Jewish life; that is, the knowledge of oneself as both a member of a community, and an outsider. Shore is at once joined with others, and separated, a divide that makes its way into many of her best poems.

Shore expands on this layered approach in her mid-career poems, which have a primarily autobiographical thrust. The memory of a Garment District childhood cantilevers images to recreate the tension between urban American life and Shore's Jewish heritage. Christianity permeates her poetry, like it does in our culture, making her innate difference a choice which she must make fresh every day, as in these lines from "The Holiday Season":

The electric eye of the mezuzah
guarded our apartment over the store,
as innocent of Christmas
as heaven, where God lived,
how many stories above the world?
Was He angry when He saw
all the windows on my street—
the assimilated grocer's, druggist's,
even my father's store—
lit up like an Advent calendar?

I enjoy Shore's early and mid-career poems, but I have to admit, in a poetry market that has more writers than readers, not much makes these conventional verses stand out from the crowd. Beyond a doubt, the best poems in this book are the most recent. I can't excerpt from these poems like from her prior career stages, because they have a very different structure. And that's what makes them most readable.

Shore's newest poems tend to start in a light, conversational tone, as though surprised to find themselves forced into verse format. But as they progress, they ascend into higher, more incisive language that, in the closing lines, takes the reader by surprise. Shore's "big finish" generally consists of subverting our expectations, or juxtaposing two unexpected truths, or just saying what we need to hear in a way only Jane Shore could say it.

These progressions through the author’s stages are driven by subtle, concise image. When Shore talks about, for example, her beloved Chatty Cathy doll, which demands to be fed, but which she must not feed, she never has to say the word “futility.” The knowledge of her doomed actions permeates every image she draws out. And when Shore’s childhood recollection gives into that futility, we feel her sense of disappointment keenly, without ever needing to be told.

Thirty-five years after her first book, Shore has a robust career to look back on. Her highlight book, though slim, contains no useless or ornamental poems. She probably will not receive the recognition she deserves, in a society grown indifferent to poetry. So perhaps I can pay her no greater compliment than to say that reading this book inspired me to get up off my dusty sofa and write some new poetry of my own. I hope it lives up to the high standard she sets.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sober, Naked, and Bleeding in an Orange County Sunset

Dan Barden, The Next Right Thing

Some days a good man can't catch a break. I mean, hell. You’d think, if your Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor died with smack in his arm, people would stop coming after you long enough to mourn. And that’s where you’d be wrong, bucko. Because an ex-cop with an assault jacket can’t leave that happy crappy alone. He has to poke where it hurts. He has to find the truth. And if the truth drives everyone away, well, ain’t nothing comes free in this world.

The best mystery protagonists have some monkey on their backs, and Dan Barden’s Randy Chalmers, is no different. But unlike the noir tradition, Randy cannot hide his self-destruction behind the savoire faire of drink and womanizing. That would blow the AA cool he’s spent eight years building. So his risks become outsized, his death wish exaggerated to the point of rueful comedy. Randy reads like the bastard son of Sam Spade and Brother Bill W.

Barden’s nihilistic, mordantly slapstick novel takes a simple premise, of a man with a question he needs answered, and pushes it as far as it will go. As Randy pursues his quest with relentless aggression, he blinds himself to what everyone else can see: that his demand to know the truth has become a substitute for his addiction. He embodies how disaster begets disaster. Yet we cannot help but respect his single-minded devotion to the mentor he loves.

Because that “once a junkie, always a junkie” bull he’s getting from the cops is no damn good. Randy’s sponsor, Terry Elias, had too much reason to live. He took no shellack of anyone, and he punched through everybody else’s pretenses, so Randy won’t believe he just tossed over fifteen years of sobriety for a syringe full of fake happiness. Come the heck on. Why would the guy who punctured everybody else’s pretenses die wrapped up in his own?

Dan Barden
In addition to an excellent character, Barden hits us with remarkable voice. Randy’s foul-mouthed attempts to justify his behavior take on the ring of poetry, as he buries his own motivations in a Chinese puzzle box of self-delusion and moralisms. We know we can’t trust him to tell the truth about himself, yet we can’t help but listen to him spin his line of malarkey. He just does it so well.

Randy reminds me of that friend we all have, the one where we cover our faces because we can’t believe he just did what he just did, yet we peek through our fingers to see what he’ll do next. You know the guy I mean. The same inappropriate tendencies that tell us to hold him at arm’s length also keep us coming back for more. Randy Chalmers’ very public flame-out is just too funny and charismatic for us to stay away.

Like the best tragedy, Randy has far to fall when he collapses into himself, and he takes a lot of people with him. After nearly beating a perp to death as a Santa Ana patrol cop, and losing his marriage and daugther to the bottle, he struggled his way to the top. He’s now an award-winning home designer, hired by the cream of Laguna Beach society. So when he goes off on a dry drunk, ignoring all the warnings, he becomes almost Sophoclean in his pathos.

In short, Randy Chalmers is a completely awful human being—and we can’t help rooting for him all the way. We want him to survive this horrible death spiral, even though we know he won’t. I can’t recall how long since I last saw a character of such compelling public amorality.

Unfortunately, Barden flinches at the end. After we watch Randy destroy everyone he loves in pursuit of the truth, we get two long, talky chapters in which he explains how he didn’t really lose everything. This concluding reversal suggests Barden couldn’t completely commit to his nihilistic vision. He has to slap a bandage on everything that came before. He did so well right up to that conclusion, that it feels soft for him to salve his character in the denouement.

That limitation notwithstanding, Dan Barden has created a book that isn’t quite like anything else on the market today. I can forgive him a flinch after the risks he took in the story up to that point. A character like this, in an edgy story that mostly doesn’t let us look away, is a rare enough bird to stand out in today’s competitive book space.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Movie Maker Learns To Type

Kevin Fox, Until the Next Time

Ever since Sidney Sheldon spooled a sheet of Boise Cascade into his old manual typewriter, every movie maker has wanted to write a book. In the back matter of his second novel, The Disappeared, MR Hall admits he started novel writing because it lends him perceived legitimacy. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as such; Stef Penney proved a good writer is a good writer, regardless of medium.

But Penney and Hall learned the difference between writing media. Books, which tell their stories with language and operate on a slow-moving part of the audience’s psyche, are not interchangeable with the screen. TV and movies, based on images and movement, speak to our reptile brains, which is why Will Ferrell is no PG Wodehouse. TV writer Kevin Fox, who produced Lie to Me, one of my favorite recent shows, proves that knife cuts both ways.

You can read Fox’s debut novel one of two ways. If you treat it like the suspense thriller the marketing boyos purport, you have an anarchic mishmash of stereotypes, boilerplate storytelling techniques, and short, frenetic scenes better suited to the big screen than to fixed type. If you treat it like a Monty Pythonesque satire of the thriller genre, then the confusing formulaic building blocks become part of the joke. I just can’t tell which approach Fox intends.

On his twenty-first birthday, Sean Corrigan inherits the journal of an uncle he didn’t know he had, along with a stack of cash, an airline ticket to Ireland, and a sacred mission to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, several pages are missing from the journal—apparently the pages containing the most important secrets of his fugitive uncle’s life. Every time Sean buttonholes somebody relevant to the decades-old mystery, he repeats some variation on this dialog:

“Your uncle bore some dark, threatening secrets.”
“Can you tell me about him and his secrets, please?”
“It doesn’t matter, and it’s not my place to tell.”

It got to where I couldn’t decide who I wanted to slap more, Sean or his various interlocutors. On the one hand, Sean’s frustrating passivity made me want to grab his lapels and shout at him to grow a pair. On the other hand, everyone around him wants to burden Sean knows something about him, to the point where it strains credibility. Dick Nixon wanted to hang Uncle Mike out to dry, and Sean never heard that story? From anybody? Ever? Please.

The bog standard foreshadowing becomes so tedious that the book descends into parody territory. Sean reads the entire journal in one sitting, yet releases it to us in dribs and drabs, so not only does everyone know more than Sean, but Sean knows more than us. The story intercuts between the past and present so furiously that you can hear the soap operatic organ music at scene changes. No character steps outside safe movie stereotypes at any point.

Fox offsets this shortcoming, at least somewhat, with his Mamet-like language. Because this novel alternates between two first person narrators, it would be easy for a writer unused to differing voices to write both parallel narratives in largely the same voice. Instead, Uncle Mike speaks like a hard-bitten cop from the Cool Disco age, while Sean really does sound like a confused Clinton-era slacker. And both speak like they’re talking, not typing.

Unfortunately, this virtue underscores my problem with the rest of the book. Fox creates a story that caroms through its paces with the clip of a TV miniseries. Characters who supposedly loom large in the protagonists’ lives exist only in glimpses brief enough to fit in a single take of film. Life-altering exchanges take only one or two pages. This is TV pace, not novel pace. The characters speak so well because Fox is writing TV dialog.

With its concise scenes and eager clip, I bet this would make good television. It easily mixes gothic suspense, police procedure, family drama, and even comedy. The language is so natural and easy that it would require very little adaptation. And, though it’s too long to compress into a single feature film, the TV miniseries format would let the camera explore Fox’s subtle, mordant world view.

But this book, as a book, is either a joke notable for masterful deadpan, or the reductio ad absurdum of its genre. Because of the author’s background in TV drama, I think he means it seriously. But that can’t be, because it’s so banal. Okay, then, joke it must be. Wokka wokka.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Revelation Will Not Be Trivialized

Evan Angler, Swipe

Despite a fondness for technology, science fiction more often distrusts change than embraces it. Science and tech regularly threaten to destroy, assimilate, alienate, or consume humans. This goes double for Christian sci-fi, a small but growing market dominated until now by Stephen Lawhead. But a new force has loped onto the scene in the form of debut novelist Evan Angler.

Logan Langly looks forward to his thirteenth birthday, when he will receive his Mark and become an adult. American Union citizens need the Mark to buy, sell, work, or vote. But Erin Arbitor, new girl in school and daughter of a government spy, learns that a party of Markless refuseniks has Logan atop their hit list. Suddenly Logan finds himself immersed in a plot involving domestic terrorists, high finance, and the fate of the Global Union.

Savvy readers will recognize the premise from the Bible, specifically Revelation 13:16-18. Yet I would not call this an exclusively Christian novel. Drawing on influences as diverse as Blade Runner, CS Lewis, Judge Dredd, and classic Doctor Who, Angler assembles a taut all-ages science fiction thriller that simply takes a Christian premise seriously. It makes easy reading, but will stick with you long after you put the book down.

Notwithstanding the comic book names (Logan Langly, Erin Arbitor, Hailey Phoenix, Peck and the Markless Threat), Angler’s characters have psychological complexity that propels the story, separate from the plot. Where many spiritual novelists hold characters hostage to the plot, Angler’s characters drive his story. They combine normal teen ambitions, like popularity and hormone-driven romance, with political needs that cut them no slack.

Angler creates a society of stifling conformity and massive technological alienation. In a world of massive ecological devastation and the ravages of war, a benign but autocratic government has cornered its people into choosing whether to survive or know freedom—and, as so often happens, citizens have voted with their Gut rather than their Head. Now America is divided into a two-tiered society, yet people don’t even notice what they have given up.

Some of Angler’s themes will not surprise anyone who reads Christian fiction. He distrusts earthly authorities, especially centralized government, which entangles citizens in others’ vision. Governments may grant stability, but what the state gives, the state takes away. And he sees the loss of tradition as a diminution of human potential. Logan Langly rebels against a culture that exists entirely to feed short-term wants.

Nonetheless, Angler embraces themes that would make many Christian writers queasy. He accepts that man-made environmental catastrophe may hasten an apocalypse more than demonic influence. He does not turn to the supernatural to demolish the world, as LaHaye and Jenkins do; he seems more inclined to think that, with our sinful nature, humankind doesn’t need supernatural assistance to subvert God’s creation.

He also doesn’t reflexively trust authority. While authors like CS Lewis or Barkley Briggs may demonstrate that a king or state has feet of clay, Christian rebellion seldom casts doubt on civilization’s entire foundation. Some authority persists, whether a Church or a charismatic leader or a father. But for Angler, the Church is subsumed, the state is autocratic, and adults are universally dim. Everything Christian readers expect abandons them.

Christian fiction is overwhelmingly conservative. Observe how the shelves of Bible bookstores teem with Amish romances and World War II thrillers; it appears Christian novelists live in the past. Not Evan Angler. He would rather tell a story of real psychological impact, even if it leaves comfort behind, than soothe readers with more of what they’ve seen a million times before.

My views on apocalyptic literature are well documented. Too many writers want to end the world, but don’t know what it means when a world ends. The ground below our feet may survive, but a world ends when everything we take for granted turns to dust. And that’s what happens to Logan Langly: in bringing down the Markless and supporting the Union, he thinks he’s on the side of the angels. Only later does he learn how wrong he was.

For lack of a better analogy, I would call this The Hunger Games for the Christian set, or perhaps the Revelation for a dystopian malaise. Like the best science fiction thrillers, it keeps readers guessing through its kaleidoscope of shifting loyalties and bleak reversals. Though written for teens, adults will find plenty to like about it. And though it doesn’t sermonize, it leaves you with heavy ideas to ponder long after you close the covers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Captain MidNite's Political Decoder Ring

When the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign divided the state of Virginia into the “real Virginia” of the rural, agrarian south and an undeclared shadow Virginia in the north, they drew predictable jeers like John Stewart’s, above. Yet while Stewart says nothing incorrect in the above clip, his response reflects exactly the problem with current political discourse. People of good value and noble intent simply talk past each other without realizing it.

Obery Hendricks asserts that the values we treat as absolute are frequently positional. Most Americans agree on work’s ennobling quality, that holding a full-time job is an emblem of a responsible and mature personality. But we disagree on the meaning of the word “work.” Manual laborers—farmers, factory workers, janitors, and such—often regard desk and office jobs as not “real work.” Conversely, educated professionals tend to consider manual labor as menial.

The problem is not that one definition is more “right,” but that these positions have contradictory definitions for the same word. Manual workers consider their labor admirable; professionals regard manual work as something to escape. Neither is more correct, though some people are better disposed by psychology and culture to one or the other. But instead of seeing past that divergence, the parties often turn defensive and treat each other as opponents.

When the McCain campaign called rural southern Virginia “real,” the educated professionals of the urban north, many of whom were born elsewhere, took that as a challenge, a declaration that they should pack their bags and leave. Whether McCain and his deputies believed that is a matter for debate. But I believe that calling the south “real” doesn’t imply that the north is “fake,” so much as that it defines reality as accord with the speaker’s own values.

Let’s pause to see the world from that perspective. Sarah Palin has claimed, following her doomed national campaign, that her humble roots and relative lack of sophistication make her uniquely qualified to represent Americans in Washington. Urban magazines like the New Yorker easily deride that attitude, since it implies any schlub off the farm could be President. Yet I think Palin means nothing of the sort.

Rather, I think she means that career Washington professionals are different from you and I, and she has the skills necessary to translate our goals and aspirations into their language. Leaving aside the question of accuracy (this overeducated progressive disagrees), this claim bears a certain validity. I do not mean it is correct, but that if we accept her major premise and her minor premise, the conclusion makes sense.

People who dispute Palin’s premises must play what critic Peter Elbow calls the “believing game.” Let’s view her position from another perspective: bureaucrats are not Bolsheviks, but skilled professionals who want to earn a living while contributing to society. But their various aims must be corralled by a superior who answers to voters every four years. Thus, a plainspoken, folksy candidate makes less sense than one who grasps Washingtonian lingo.

Linguist George Lakoff, in Whose Freedom?, explains that two people, using the same word, can have two very different meanings. We see this when candidates use words like “patriotism,” “honor,” and “family.” Non-verbal symbols are even worse. Images of the flag, Abraham Lincoln, the Rocky Mountains, and a farmer in a checked shirt stir warm bipartisan feelings, yet have wildly divergent meanings according to the audience’s prior philosophy.

A key scene in Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed illustrates this point. He claims that Intelligent Design, because it supposes an active creator, encourages moral living, while godless Darwinian evolution justifies Nazi atrocities. This is a reversal of assertions by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But history says Hitler was a consummate chameleon, purloining the jargons of Christianity and science while embracing the tenets of neither.

Let’s follow the logic:

  1. I am different from Hitler; and
  2. I am different from those people over there; therefore
  3. Hitler is similar to those people over there

Hitler enters this story as neither a historical figure nor a person with real, if distorted, motivations. He simply illustrates my identity versus theirs.

When Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum argue who is the real conservative, or Barack Obama trades snipes with either of them over who is authentically American, they don’t speak the same language. The lack of shared suppositions prevents them not only resolving their differences, but even debating productively. Until we share the same code, the partisan nastiness of current politics will only become ever more ingrown. Surely nobody wants that.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Cautionary Tale in How to Write Historical

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill's Secretary

Historical fiction writers have to walk a fine line: how much detail is too much? Historical mystery writers have double that problem. After all, history is about sharing detail, while mystery relies on withholding detail until just the right moment. Authors can find it easy to share too little, keeping audiences confused, or hitting readers with a firehose of undifferentiated information. Sadly, in her debut novel, Susan Elia MacNeal chooses the latter option.

British born but American raised, Maggie Hope only intended to stay in London long enough to sell her late grandmother’s house. But the outbreak of World War II reawakens her “King and Country” sentiments. She joins the staff at 10 Downing Street, only to find that her old family secrets are less than secret in the halls of power. As war moves from possibility to reality, she becomes enmeshed in the inner workings of a country she still hardly knows.

Halfway through this book, one member of Maggie’s inner circle accuses another of a years-old rape. These two have sat to dinner together, carried on political conversations, and attended parties, without a hint of animosity. Neither character gives any hint of a prior history until two pages before the secret comes spilling out. This revelation occurs, I suspect, simply because the author thinks thinks we need one at this juncture.

Understand, please: this happens at the midpoint of a putative mystery, though no detection takes place. Despite a teaser intro about the murder of a member of Winston Churchill’s typing pool, the death occupies less than five of the subsequent 170 pages. A secondary plot about the IRA, Nazi sympathizers, and fifth columnists feels tacked on from another, possibly better book. The author’s attempts to sandwich in some red herrings are painfully obvious.

Instead, MacNeal barrages us with hundreds of pages of historical detail. This includes windy street scenes, descriptions of London before and during the Blitz, the privations of living in Britain on the brink of war, romances that begin and end with precious little detail, and extended soirees and assorted nightlife vignettes. While a few such scenes might have made interesting background, they swell to occupy numerous, interminable chapters. I could have read this in any war memoir.

Between these scenes, MacNeal continues to bury us. Several pages brim with transcripts of Churchill’s speeches to Commons, larded out with many authorial insertions about the characters’ emotional responses. In other places, characters have long, windy conversations about then-current affairs. Partway through one such discussion, which ran over ten pages, I realized the characters weren’t really talking to each other; they were explaining the history to me.

Then, while flooding us with so many external details, MacNeal withholds personal detail. One major part of this story deals with Maggie Hope’s elusive father, whom she believes dead. So many characters state so many times that she must not discover the truth, that I think I break no confidences to say that Maggie discovers he did not die when she thought, and everything she believed about him is false. MacNeal practically signals this fact with jazz hands.

Sometimes I praise books for their “cinematic quality.” Usually I mean that details are well realized, and the author communicates important points in actions rather than telling us what to think. I don’t mean a compliment this time, though. Scenes consistently break on cliffhangers, and so many chapters end with sudden revelations that readers can practically hear the cheesy organ music. This doesn’t read like a book so much as a treatment for an unproduced movie.

Prior to this novel, MacNeal’s greatest literary triumph was a book of recipes for mixed drinks. For some reason, she has chosen to move from the world of how-to, in which everything must be spelled out as explicitly as possible, to the world of literature, in which authors must make choices. Unfortunately, she still writes like every thought, image, and detail which occurs to her deserves a place on the page.

An author like Charles Todd uses history as milieu for an active story. For MacNeal, history is the story. Todd gives enough historic context to keep readers engaged, and focused on the characters. MacNeal uses the characters as authorial sock puppets to explain the history, and never quite gets around to her own story. I blush to admit, after the unearned midpoint revelation, I put this book down, and now can’t bring myself to pick it up again. And I see no reason I should.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ancient Sins in a Modern Society

Todd D. Hunter, Our Favorite Sins: The Sins We Commit and How You Can Quit

According to new research, the majority of Americans, and between a third and half of Christians, do nothing when faced with temptation. No spiritual discipline, no accountability measures, just wing it. And that “wing it” often consists of ad hoc solutions, like distracting oneself, which don’t solve the underlying problem, or else giving in and feeding the beast. No wonder we’ve become a fat, procrastinating, media-addicted nation on a historic scale.

Todd Hunter, Anglican priest and recovering vice addict, believes we could do better. But he sees it as no coincidence that our vices have run rampant as pop psychology and cultural messages have devalued the concept of sin. Until we recognize where temptation comes from, and how it transforms from a fleeting thought into a sin, can we redress the problem. And it is a problem, no matter what talk show psychologists say. Sin arises from a deeply disordered spirit.

Hunter examines the misplaced priorities and riotous desires that foster temptation. Not all wants are temptations, he says; only when desire matches offer does temptation arise. In other words, I’m not tempted by Las Vegas indulgences or plush circumstances, as some people are, but I am tempted to stay in bed an extra hour, do today’s work tomorrow, and plug the holes in my soul with food. And you have your own set of temptations.

No less an authority than Thomas Aquinas asserts that things themselves—even vilified things like sex, food, and leisure—have no moral weight of their own. Only our relationship to those things makes them good or bad. It is we, and not something external, that turns the morally inert substance of this earth into lust, gluttony, or sloth. And recovery from our bad relationships marks the beginning of our recovery from temptation.

I am not the first to notice our culture's diminishment of the concept of "sin." Because sin and redemption lack the economic cachet of illness and recovery, pop psychologists like Dr. Phil treat us like colds that need cured. But Todd Hunter asserts we are souls which need aligned to a source that can give us meaning. In this opinion he has the backing of such august sources as John Chrysostom, CS Lewis, Saint Anthony, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Once we know how we reached this position, Hunter examines how we can emerge to a life of freedom and productivity. He contrasts “modern and futile” solutions, which in his telling are mere rationalizations, to the “ancient and fruitful” traditions which have stood the test of time. His solutions come from Christianity (and in a few cases, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, even earlier), yet they speak to the disorder at the heart of our modern struggle.

I especially appreciate two choices Hunter makes in this book. The first is that he doesn’t prettify common sins in euphemism. Many Christian writers seem queasy when they need to talk about sex in particular, as though Christian audiences are made up of Victorian schoolmarms. Hunter not only speaks frankly about sex, but he doesn’t blush to admit his former struggles with porn, as well as food. This honesty makes a remarkable, and refreshing, change.

Second, I appreciate Hunter’s emphasis on silence and solitude as the beginning of spiritual realignment. We cannot put our spirits right if we continue to immerse ourselves in the noisy, crowded environment that fostered our original disordered desires. Many evangelists create multimedia extravaganzas to stir our emotions, but don’t give us a moment’s peace to speak with God. In this, Hunter jibes with what I've said before about the need for Godly silence.

Hunter offers us difficult, unhip options that will cause us discomfort and suffering, at least in the near term. But he admits this early and often. Christians used to embrace suffering and privation as signs of growing sanctification. Hunter urges Christians regain the ideal of self-sacrifice, in the sense of striving to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Anyone offering easy, painless redemption is an advertiser who wants to part you from your money.

In a world of pat solutions and eager justifications, Hunter offers hope that we need not live at the whim of momentary appetites. We needn’t enslave ourselves to somebody else’s vision of happiness and prosperity. Hunter’s time-tested Christian solutions encourage motivated readers to take responsibility for their choices. More important, it reminds us where we can’t take such responsibility, and so turn it over to the only one who can.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Quiet Christians in a Church that Won't Shut Up

Author Susan Cain caught my attention with a quote in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. In a passage on the extroverted nature of Evangelical Christianity, she quotes one priest’s advice to churches seeking a new pastor: he tells them to first check an applicant’s Myers-Briggs score. “‘If the first letter isn’t an “E” [for extrovert],’ he tells them, ‘think twice... I’m sure our Lord was [an extrovert].’” (Brackets and ellipsis in the original.)

I wonder if this priest means the Jesus who spent forty days alone in the desert; the Jesus whom Peter couldn’t find when the crowd clamored for His attention; the Jesus who repeatedly throughout the Gospel of Mark admonishes the apostles to keep His secrets; the Jesus who crossed the Sea of Galilee when the crowd got too noisy; the Jesus who, hours before His arrest, had the apostles wait outside the Garden of Gethsemane so He could pray alone.

Extraversion has become mandatory in most white American churches. From the public prayer and stem-winding sermons to the “passing of the peace” to the concluding coffee hour, parishioners are packed shoulder to shoulder, and not permitted a moment of quiet time alone with God. The near-constant stimulus of language, music, and human company makes church feel oppressive for those of us who would like a moment to talk honestly with God.

Even “silent prayer,” which in traditional monastic liturgy could occupy half the service, has been whittled in most churches to about thirty pre-scheduled seconds. Congregational prayers are primarily scripted. Times in the service when prior generations could expect an opportunity for private thoughts, like Communion, have become venues for one more hymn, soloist, or anthem. Programmed talk and music comprise nearly the whole liturgy.

As Cain notes, many “seeker friendly” congregations no longer have pew Bibles. This means Christians cannot even grab a copy of the Good Book and read passages like that where Jesus warns believers not to pray on street corners like Pharisees, for “they have already received their reward.” Or the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where Jesus extols the soft-spoken prayer of a broken heart over the loud trumpeting of the self-righteous.

Though I lack evidence to support this, I blame the culture of televangelism. As many churches see volunteerism and other involvement steadily decrease, most parishioners see their flesh-and-blood pastors only one hour a week. However, the ubiquity of Christian radio and television means that many people have some form of message streaming at them for hours every day. Unfortunately, now as in Marshall McLuhan’s day, the medium is the message.

Media critic Neil Postman observed a quarter century ago, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that television had cheapened Christian discourse. Because Christian sermons now enter our homes through the same devices that deliver old Seinfeld reruns and bawdy country ballads, they occupy the same space in our psyches. And if the TV and radio Christians don’t entertain, we will find somebody else who will deliver.

Too many pastors, reared in that televangelistic culture, fall into the trap of trying to secure ratings. Because a live church service, mainly made possible by volunteers, can never have the spectacle value of million-dollar multimedia extravaganzas, congregations try to close the gap with the stimulation of dozens—nay, hundreds—of bodies in proximity. For people seeking that elusive “worship high,” this tactic probably works.

Yet this goes right to what I've said before about the first person singular emphasis in modern worship. As long as my need to have my senses stimulated trumps our need to pray, or God’s need for a place in our hearts, church will remain an unsatisfying place for those who seek meaningful spirituality. Not for nothing has church attendance diminished as Christianity has gotten noisier, and religions like Wicca or Buddhism, which reward solitude, have grown.

Some people will say that Christianity is not a solitary pursuit, and they’re right. The church described in Acts is unmistakably communitarian; and many parachurch organizations have sprung up recently to emulate that community. But groups like Rutba House, Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way, and other modern monastic groups give members rooms where they can, as Christ said, close their doors and pray in secret.

As Christians, we are all in this together. But that “together” consists of individuals, not a mass. Until we reclaim our right and ability to be quiet, together, we will wander in search of the ministry most of us know in our hearts that we have lost.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Firefly's Shepherd Book—Faith and Fistfights in the Final Frontier

In “Serenity,” the pilot episode for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Shepherd Book looks like the show’s biggest misfire. Though he leaves his abbey to seek the world, this monk seems unprepared for the conflict, moral compromise, and violence he encounters. In his final scene, he confesses to another character: “I think I’m on the wrong ship.” Anyone who has spent time around most pastors (“pastor” translates to English as “shepherd”) would roll their eyes.

Perhaps, in this story, Whedon hadn’t yet found the voice he wanted for Book. Or perhaps he focused more on the Western myth he appropriated for his story arc. Religion usually intrudes on the frontier, taming the wild spirit and bringing the emasculating effects of urban civility. As Lee Marvin caterwauls in Lerner and Lowe’s cowboy musical Paint Your Wagon: “When I see a parson, I gotta put my arse on a wagon that follows the tail of a crow.”

More likely, Whedon, an avowed atheist, probably didn’t know many religious professionals. As one pastor I know says: “God calls those He most needs to keep an eye on.” Far from the blandly beatific figures much loved by mockers like Richard Dawkins or George Bernard Shaw, most pastors I’ve known struggle to maintain staid public faces for their parishioners, then in trusted company, prove able to cuss and tell bawdy jokes as well as any sailor on shore leave.

By the second Firefly episode, “The Train Job,” Whedon evidently twigged to this, and incorporates it into his mythos. Though an early comment makes clear that Book regards the smuggling vessel Serenity as his new mission field, later in the episode, he knows a crime boss by name, and proves able to help organize a breakout from a guarded police facility. This only presages how complex the character eventually becomes.

As the series progresses, Book demonstrates familiarity with military protocol, and in one episode, proves to have an ID card that gets him preferential treatment on a military vessel. He knows how to use firearms, and though he must first construct a convoluted moral justification, he proves both willing to shoot to defend his colleagues, and quite the sharpshooter. Combined with his well-marbled physique, these showcase Shepherd Book as a man of action.

Yet he is no mere actor, nor is his Christianity a veneer. In times of stress or fear for his life, he reaches first for his Bible. He is able to quote Scripture and conventional forms of theology, and when River Tam tries to critique the Bible from a scientific perspective, he provides a strong defense of why we should not read Scripture literally. In short, despite his violence, he also makes a good poster boy for modern Christian humanism.

Like much of Firefly, this is not new; Whedon didn’t so much break new ground as adapt myths in a spirited, inventive way. The Avenging Christian has good standing in Western Mythology, in movies like Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider or albums like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The preacher, normally a civilizing influence, must conform himself (it’s always a man) to the ways of the savage West, keeping one foot in the frontier, the other in the church.

Notably, the Avenging Christian is always a man of mystery. Both Pale Rider and Red Headed Stranger feature a protagonist known only as “Preacher.” Firefly identifies the character only as Book, a presumably a characternym for his Biblical influence, with no first name. A concluding scene in the sequel film Serenity shows Book’s tombstone with the first name Derrial, but the comic books Whedon wrote to complete his story arc reveal this is a lie.

These comics reveal what the TV series only implies, that Shepherd Book became a Christian to deal with his overwhelming guilt. Like Augustine or Francis, Book needs God as a path to make peace with his own past. But unlike these and other church leaders whose testimony make up key parts of their ministry, Book keeps his past secret. He proves quite the raconteur about monastic life, but turns evasive about anything that came before.

In essence, Shepherd Book presents Christianity not as a form of thought, but as a way of life. Faced with the vastness of space, he turns to God as a source of continuity that brings him safely through the tough times. And if he doesn’t always live up to the highest Gospel ideals, he at least proves that it’s possible to live for something greater than ourselves.