Saturday, March 30, 2013

How the Economy Hit Bottom—and What Comes Next

Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
and John Authers, Europe's Financial Crisis: A Short Guide to How the Euro Fell Into Crisis and the Consequences for the World

The recently announced EU bailout of the Republic of Cyprus had immediate benefits, but not for ordinary Cypriots. The mainly German monetary transfusion caused bounces in major world stock markets, while bond dealers stopped their massive Cypriot money exodus. Banks that sank depositor money into crazily risky Greek investments will remain afloat, but the state must introduce “capital controls” so common citizens can’t access their own money.

This is a microcosm of the entire world economy since the banking crisis of 2007-2008. And it serves as an important cautionary tale about how we might work going forward, because many of the controls the European Central Bank imposed in Cyprus, Greece, and Spain perfectly mirror controls already implemented in Britain, and which have been proposed in America. And if we don’t understand the current economy, these controls look surprisingly appealing.

We cannot understand current economics if our horizons stop at national borders. Financial journalist John Authers titles his latest book Europe’s Financial Crisis, yet he leaves Europe for entire chapters, because the influences jeopardizing the Eurozone have causes, and effects, in America, China, Brazil, and elsewhere. Europe’s hybrid economy, rife with compromise, couldn’t withstand transnational forces which had no known precedent.

But we also mustn’t mistake how the crisis occurred. Political economist Mark Blyth first notes that this financial crunch, like many others, began when banks overleveraged themselves, then let the state backstop their debt. In other words, ours is essentially a private-sector collapse. Second, Blyth explicates the history of the idea that cutting the state opens the economy—and what real consequences financial austerity has had over the ages.

No one economic explanation suffices. The common parables of capitalist decay and moral failure don't explain how different firms and nations took different hits. No, Blyth and Authers see a single effect with many causes. This includes American investment banks blinded by fallacies of composition, and European economies shackled with one currency but seventeen fiscal policies. Blyth calls this "too big to fail" versus "too big to bail."

The Euro meant to bring Europe into a single integrated economy, but didn’t address underlying gaps. Seventeen nations shared a currency, but did not tie their fortunes together. Thus the Eurozone has one monetary policy, but seventeen fiscal policies, meaning member states had no autonomous recourse when financial markets did anything outside the accepted model.

When the European Central Bank, governed by fiscally conservative Germans, saw Greece, Portugal, and Ireland in such dire straits, it demanded a single fix, even though different economies had different problems. But the ECB's mandatory austerity didn't work, so it demanded even more austerity. Not surprisingly, this made a bad situation even worse. What economists initially termed a "haircut" turned into a scalping.

The desire to slash governments goes clear back to the late Seventeenth Century, with the rise of early capitalism. But as Blyth notes, economic circumstances differed then. England and America had only salutary competition, and states were led by self-serving monarchs. When competition became more fierce, firms needed governments to take a coordinating hand. Laissez faire only works in limited circumstances.

Only in the Twentieth Century have states become big enough to cut. But when nations do so, results have been disputable. Though capitalist purists claim small states encourage trade, look at today’s Eurozone: massive youth unemployment, skyrocketing debt, anarchic markets, and widespread suffering. Cutting the state hurts most those who can absorb hardship the least.

The problems were exacerbated by transnational supply lines and Internet banking. The global financiers who stuck money in Euro-American markets while the sun shone moved their money posthaste at the first sign of weakness. State-based financial policy proved unprepared for such foundational surprises, and conventional remedies crumpled. This was worsened by the fact that Eurozone nations can't print their own money to control supplies.

These books don’t make easy reading. Though Blyth and Authers translate complex economic principles into plain English, they use a lot of ideas, which readers must keep in mind indefinitely. These authors do their best to remain accessible, and inject them with moments of unexpected humor, but readers should prepare to invest a healthy chunk of time into the reading process.

But for those willing to make such an investment, they makes a complex case regarding how we reached this impasse, and where we go from here. We have to know the economy as it is, not as our ideologies make it. Only then can we solve the economic bleed that puts us all at risk.

See also: High Noon For the Economic Assassins

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Methinks the Limey Doth Attempt Too Much

Robert Wilson, Capital Punishment

When beautiful, evasive Alyshia D’Cruz vanishes from a crowded Islington street, her Indian industrialist father hires Charles Boxer, London’s best kidnap consultant. But these kidnappers don’t demand ransom, or anything else. As Boxer and the D’Cruz family watch, they seemingly just torture Alyshia for fun. Boxer desperately calls in cards with the Met, MI5, and several crime syndicates, before they break a young woman’s already precarious sanity.

British novelist Robert Wilson’s eleventh novel attempts to kick-start a new series, and starts off quite well, with an edge of psychological horror based on casual sadism. But around the halfway mark, he veers hard left, dumping everything into the stew: the Pakistani ISI, London chavs with excessive self-regard, a Muslim versus Hindu turf war in Mumbai, heroin, class war, and the kitchen sink. A taut thriller metamorphoses into a chaotic Guy Ritchie knockoff.

Charles Boxer makes a good antihero. Raised by a seemingly bipolar single mum, he joined the Army young, where his misplaced aggression became an asset. Now he saves other people’s children, and apparently sidelines as a contract enforcer. But he hardly knows his own daughter, and catches himself repeating his father’s mistakes. He sees his own death spiral, but wonders if he has the strength to pull himself out in time.

But instead of entrusting Boxer with a single mystery, Wilson has Alyshia re-kidnapped, first by two layabout Eastenders who want to get rich quick, then by an ISI general whose zeal has morphed into megalomania. Police specialists, intelligence agents, the Mayor of London, and everyone but the Queen’s Horse Guards get involved in the investigation, which turns out to involve vengeance, electric cars, and dirty bombs.

This is all a shame, because for the first 200 pages, Wilson really had a winner. I wanted to know what dark secrets the kidnappers were trying to torture out of poor Alyshia, and what sordid past Frank D’Cruz wanted to conceal so badly that he would consider letting his daughter die. Wilson tossed us enough pieces that I wanted to assemble the whole jigsaw. I thought: this is really good. Everyone should read this taut, smart thriller.

Wilson admits that absent fathers are a recurrent theme in his writing. Charles Boxer’s father vanished when he was a kid, and now Charles is trying to avoid vanishing from his daughter’s life. But this theme has its obverse: Alyshia D’Cruz is fleeing her father, for reasons that Boxer teases out only with great difficulty. And Boxer’s daughter, Amy, won’t let her father get close after years of absence; she resents him so much, she’d rather punish herself than let him in.

These tensions drive much of the plot. How do you kidnap and adult who doesn’t want to be found? How do you psychologically punish somebody who seemingly has no conscience? As people do in extreme situations, these characters reveal their true colors, the inner identities they’ve tried to hide even from themselves. Not surprisingly, what they uncover often is not pretty. Heroes and villains trade places; people kill strangers to keep their families together.

Then Wilson turned on the cast of thousands, turning a cerebral drama into a London farce. Not that I mind London farce; Snatch is a classic film. But the change in tone is so jarring that this feels like two books, awkwardly stitched together, like reverse Siamese twins. Maybe that second book would have been good, too, if I’d just known it was coming. But when this novel should have opened into something profound, Wilson chose to kick readers in the teeth.

It feels as though Wilson doesn’t trust himself. He creates smart psychological tension, but seems afraid that, without a broad physical confrontation, readers won’t stick with him. So, just as we reach what looks like a turning point, where smothered secrets will finally see the light of day, he swerves, giving us a gun battle, followed by moments of low comedy. He has us sitting on the edge of our seats, and then he has us throwing our hands up, screaming “No he didn’t!”

This book has many admirable qualities, and I suspect a stern editor could have turned it into a smart nail-biter—or that and a sequel, each with their own strengths. I’m not sorry I read it, and I’m piqued to see more of Wilson’s books. But Wilson just tries to do too much, and as a result spreads his narrative thin. I like plenty about this book; I just don’t love it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tech Is Boring

So the other day, the fellas and I were sitting around a table, comparing smartphones. We took great pride in our storage mass and connectivity, and showed off how many pages our app selections occupied. (Okay, beer may have been involved.) But after several minutes, the truth came out: among our millions of apps, none of us ever used more than two or three.

When the iPhone hit the market in 2007, the buzz insisted that we had entered a new phase of human connectivity. Massive quantities of content could cross continents instantaneously; we could video chat, move texts longer than dictionaries, and have global conference calls at the flick of a screen. Yet how often do any of us do these? And how often do we upload YouTube videos of our cats?

Don’t get me wrong. I like having Pandora and Words With Friends on my Android. But the potential implications of advancing smartphone technology remain just that: potential. Although the major corporations roll out their latest releases with great fanfare, actual improvement has been, at best, incremental. As New Yorker blogger Matt Buchanan aptly puts it, Phones Are Boring.

But the problem runs much deeper than phones. My sci-fi buddies may pillory me for publicly stating such blatant heresy, but the promise of technology has fallen flat. Far from creating either the whiz-bang paradise or the bleak dystopia long envisioned by the genre classics, technology has proven mundane. And I think even the people who create the technology have noticed this disappointing trend.

Every so often, big tech companies—Apple, Samsung, Intel—conduct a blockbuster product launch, accompanied by the multimedia pageantry once reserved for car makers and movie studios. Each of them tries to recapture the excitement Steve Jobs notoriously created even for insignificant new advances. News media treat each product launch like a papal inauguration.

But Jobs was a consummate showman. He knew how to anticipate unmet needs, and pitch a product as though it plugged a hole in our lives. His launch extravaganzas for the iPod and iPad, which focused on utility and convenience while showering their figurehead monarch with nigh-divine praise, are textbook examples of smart, forward-thinking business.

We cannot say the same about the new machines rolling out since Jobs’ passing. When the big news surrounding the latest version of the Samsung Galaxy smartphone is that its screen runs 0.03 inches smaller than the prior model, I shrug and return to my beer. When the newest Kindle manages to abolish the QWERTY keyboard, I feel a strong urge to go grab a paper book.

I lay the blame, not on the individuals responsible for the new developments, but on the corporate mindset that has overtaken technology. In 1940, “inventor” was a job category on US Census forms; that field vanished in 1950. The process of creating new tech has fallen into the hands of corporate R&D departments which, with their bottom-line mentality, are notoriously risk-averse.

This results in mere refinements of existing technology. Smartphones merge wireless communications with imprinted circuits for a useful hybrid, but it isn’t really new. The Internet relies on ARPANet technology that has changed only in magnitude since it debuted in 1969. As “development” has edged out “invention” as the motivating factor in technology, the classic jet-age wonder has worn away.

Insofar as new tech fires human imagination, it comes from self-motivated outsiders, not corporate shills. Rollo Carpenter, whose Cleverbot program has come close to passing the Turing Test, has worked for various start-ups, but remains substantially a free agent. Philo Farnsworth, who invented the earliest television, had an adversarial relationship with corporations, which repeatedly plagiarized from an inventor they considered a back-country farmboy.

Saying this, I acknowledge that technology has reached a point where garage hobbyists can only do so much. Without access to industrial technology, they cannot imprint a circuit board, for instance. But if tech companies would really innovate, as Jobs and Gates once did, they might start by giving in-house inventors freer rein, letting them pursue private passions, and follow cow paths that pay off only after prior attempts have failed.

The persistent popularity of space opera and cyberpunk, the forms of science fiction least bound by near-term realism, bespeaks a continuing belief that technology can produce a sense of wonder and gape-jawed excitement. Deep down, many of us want our flying cars and neural-net implants. But the people who actually make technology have come to dream small. It’s up to outsiders to demand more.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Slippery Rhymes and Fleeting Poetic Truths

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Twelve
A.E. Stallings, Olives: Poems

The first trait new readers will discover when they crack her books is that A.E. Stallings rhymes. Though a handful of living poets like Dana Gioia and (to a lesser degree) Paul Muldoon use rhyme in their verse, the poetry establishment, readers and writers alike, substantially frown on direct end rhyme. Such aesthetic conservatism doesn’t sit well with the in-crowd these days.

But in reading, one gets the feeling Stallings doesn’t write for the in-crowd. Despite her use of conventional forms, especially sonnets, villanelles, and terza rima, her poetry is plainspoken, humble, and vernacular. Her blend of casual language and sophisticated form embodies what I think Wordsworth meant when he advocated a modern poetry in the language of the people.

Indeed, Stallings’ poems rely on such contradictions. She makes the timeless artifacts of her adopted homeland, Greece, vanish into the banal backdrop of a continuing memoir, while at the same time adding unexpected grandeur to ordinary events: making a phone call, a baby spitting up. Reading her verses, we feel the ground of our expectations shift violently under our feet.

In such an environment of unexpected paradox, her use of comprehensible rhyme gives us something firm to grasp. We follow her ideas’ volatile movement by the guideposts of her deceptively comforting language. This especially comes across when she talks about transcendent verities, as in this passage from her villanelle “Burned”:
You cannot unburn what is burned.
Although you scrape the ruined toast,
You can’t go back. It’s time you learned

The butter cannot be unchurned.
You can’t unmail the morning post,
You cannot unburn what is burned
Sometimes the rhyme is less obvious. Sometimes she’s oblique, rhyming “glass” with “vast,” a rhyme so fleeting that you miss it if you aren’t looking. Or in “Alice in the Looking Glass,” her rhymes are thematic rather than sonic: “pass” rhymes with “stay,” “bottom” with “top,” “here” with “there.” Only when you recognize the parallels do you spot the pseudo-rhyme.

We trained poets find it easy to mock readers who demand that poetry must rhyme, perhaps, because we think of words and verses as units of meaning. Because we write silently, expecting audiences to read silently, we lose sight of what I think rhyme’s layman advocates love: that language is comprised, not of the ideas we would convey, but at its most basic, of sound.

Stallings understands this. As a classicist rather than a trained poet, she handles the words of poets who wrote so that their work could be read aloud. Greek and Latin poetry was never read silently; poets were orators, and their verse was written for speech. We get a feeling for this when Stallings writes something that bridges the ages, like this from “Persephone to Psyche”:
Me and my man, we tried a spell,
A pharmacopoeia of charms,
And yet... When I am lonesome, well,
I rock the stillborns in my arms.
But Stallings does not merely recreate the splendors of the past. Poetry students have to be trained out of recreating their favorite highlights from Shakespeare or Browning, but Stallings accomplishes what students strive after. She shifts effortlessly between the linguistic panache of her poetic forebears, and her contemporary world. Consider this from “Sea Girls”:
“Not gulls, girls.” You frown, and you insist—
Between two languages, you work at words.
(R’s and L’s, it’s hard to get them right.)
We watch the heavens’ flotsam: garbage-white
Above the island dump (just out of sight),
Dirty, common, greedy—only birds.
OK, I acquiesce, too tired to banter.
This story starts out with Stallings attempting to teach her son to pronounce circumflex consonants correctly. But as it progresses, the similarity of words in a child’s mouth unlocks the essential similarity of concepts, the ways in which seagulls somehow resemble vibrant young women. Language proves slippery, not because of ideas, but because of sound.

This conversational tone makes poetry, a notoriously opaque literature beloved most often by those who create it, accessible to those outside the academy. Stallings creates verses that speak in regular language, without sacrificing the complexity that makes the best verse feel so substantive. Her work rewards casual reading or intense scrutiny.

Hopefully, Stallings represents a vanguard, a “new” breed of poet who writes for the audience, not the tenure committee. But even if she proves a minor oasis in the poetic desert, she has positioned her work amid her generation. Whether she produces a new verse movement or not, she has claimed a place in her audience’s spirit.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What Happens In Fantasyland, Part 2

Vicki Pettersson, The Lost (Celestial Blues, Book 2)
This review is a follow-up to What Happens In Fantasyland Stays In Fantasyland.
Avenging angel Griffin “Grif” Shaw gets tapped to escort a suffering addict to his eternal rest. But Grif’s human honey, journalist Katherine “Kit” Craig, can’t let a lonely teen die in squalor, and tries to intervene. Deep inside a Las Vegas drug den, Kit discovers a new drug that causes a long, stuporous high, but rots the flesh from tweakers’ bones. To Grif’s horror, the drug does something worse: it provides a gateway for demons to take human flesh.

Unlike the first book in Pettersson’s “Celestial Blues” series, The Taken, in which supernatural gumshoe solves a human crime, this second volume more carefully integrates the transcendent and the earthly. The human characters see Sin City boiling into a gang war between Russians and Cubans. They don’t realize that their anger, venality, and selfish ambition open doors for powerful creatures that feed off sins. Be careful what you call; you may not like who answers.

Following the first book, Kit Craig and Grif Shaw have fallen into a comfortable relationship of sex, breaking hot stories, and taking the dead onto the next life. But tension exists. Grif, who died in 1960 and returned in the prior book (the explanation is not brief), has spent over fifty years amid transcendent beings who see the whole of time. Kit remains an idealist at twenty-nine years of age. This gulf colors their relationship, pushing their buttons at awkward moments.

Grif remains fixated on solving the mystery of his first life: who killed him and his wife one late Vegas night? This perfectly reasonable quest interferes with his relationship with Kit. Meanwhile, Kit so desires to do the right thing that she doesn’t think about what the right thing is in the long haul. Kit’s aggressive idealism appears flighty to Grif, while Grif’s desire to right erstwhile wrongs looks to Kit like he cannot commit to the present. Both want to do right, but talk past one another.

Kit and Grif’s investigation comes to include the police (Kit has a remarkable symbiotic relationship with an affable cop), but also two violent gangs who shadow the two heroes. In trying to do the right thing, in other words, the heroes help hasten a violent confrontation, a conflagration that threatens to bring Vegas down. Pettersson presents Sin City as gangrene on the face of the earth, which Kit and Grif must excise if they would save the patient.

Pettersson’s writing propels the characters through a strange, yet entirely natural, plot. As a dead soul made flesh from 1960, Grif is a man out of his time, a refugee from postwar noir classics. Kit, a “rockabilly” devotee, tries to recreate herself as a woman of Grif’s time, yet remains part of the Twenty-First century. Where most urban fantasies awkwardly try to tell Dashiell Hammett stories in the present without saying so, Pettersson makes her anachronisms explicit.

This extends to Pettersson’s language. Like many urban fantasy novelists, Pettersson cherry-picks plot stylings from romance writing, with its florid linguistic ornamentation. (Her sex scenes are much more judiciously written than Delilah Devlin's.) But her mystery elements reflect terse, laconic mid-century prose. At times, this shift really draws attention to itself: does anybody. Really. Talk. Like. This? But mostly, Pettersson manages the split well.

Fantasy generally flourishes by its reliance on larger-than-life events in a world transcending the ordinary. Urban fantasy has enjoyed faddish popularity by folding mythic content into real-world settings. But too many urban fantasists produce small, quotidian stories. Vicki Pettersson straddles the line: she gives us realistic, plausible crimes, but parallel stories of transcendent might. Not everyone will like this dualism, but it at least bespeaks willingness to take risks.

This book exceeds the first one, in that it’s more integrated. Maybe Pettersson needed to write the first book to set the stage, because many of the threads that bind this immensely complex story together come from what she wrote before. This means it’s hard to come into the story cold, even though this second novel is clearly stronger, more confident, and more thoroughly constructed than the first. But if you’ve read the first, this one makes a good payoff.

Urban fantasy often suffers from unimaginative, wheezy storytelling. Pettersson provides the noir paradigms readers have come to expect, the romantic encounters readers enjoy, and the hocus pocus that makes us dream. But she also steps outside her genre’s comfy confines and takes a shot in the dark. This whole genre is imperfect, but Petterson flourishes by taking smart chances.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I Got Them Old Retro Jazz Blues Again Mama

Doug MacDonald, ReORGANized Quartet

The first track on Doug MacDonald’s latest album, “G Jazz Blues,” kicks off with a four-instrument flourish that signals clearly what you can expect from the entire album. This mix of original instrumentals and well-traveled classics, anchored on the tension between MacDonald’s George Benson-ish guitar and Bobby Pierce’s organ, channels the best of mid-20th Century lounge blues not much heard since Roy Milton folded his tent.

A longtime Los Angeles live music mainstay, MacDonald has perfected a warm, understated playing technique that utilizes the best of electric small-band swing without sounding too derivative. Jazz journalist Bill Milkowski’s liner notes name-check influences like John Coltrane and Grant Green, but that seems facile. Though MacDonald’s influences remain close to the surface, he isn’t derivative; he’s the best Doug MacDonald he could ever be.

This mostly instrumental outing allows the play between tight composition and playful improv that drives the best jazz. MacDonald’s fondness for breezy chord changes and eccentric, syncopated rhythms makes this album feel at once comfortingly familiar, like some favorite sweater, and somehow new. Easy listening this ain’t, but MacDonald sure makes for some pleasant music for close times, deep thoughts, and romantic connections.

MacDonald’s “Man Outside His Time” instrumentation shows influence not only from mid-century swing, but also flashes of his Hawaiian youth and, if I’m not mistaken, moments of rockabilly. The twilight turns on “Bat Into Hell” or “I’ve Got the Minor Blues” showcase a nostalgia which underpins his entire sound. Such retro grooves don’t call attention to themselves on more upbeat numbers like “Indecisive” or “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” but they’re always there.

Importantly, this nostalgia influences both MacDonald’s cover versions, which comprise about half the album, and his new compositions. “Bandera,” a MacDonald original, has a ‘50s Brazilian vibe, rich with complex harmonies that may shift suddenly, though constantly held together by soft, hip-shaking percussion. Play it beside his take on the Gershwin standard “Isn’t It a Pity,” and you couldn’t tell which was original, which the classic.

Though this is a quartet album, the most insightful track must surely be Macdonald’s solo turn on “Moon River/Moonlight In Vermont.” This medley of standards gives MacDonald the opportunity to flex his chops—an expression that takes on new meaning when his percussive chords hit like a backwoodsman splitting cordwood. This subdued solo extravaganza highlights what Joel Mabus, himself no stranger to improvisational fever, meant when he called the guitar “a band in a box.”

Jazz aficionados like to say that the real magic happens between the notes. By this, they mean that where other genres showcase virtuoso playing, jazz lives and dies by the tension between the instruments. Listen flippantly, and it may sound like the sax and organ are playing in different time signatures, or like MacDonald’s guitar is half a measure behind. But this album rewards active listening, to note just how perfectly integrated the full quartet really is.

This back-and-forth gives MacDonald’s small ensemble an orchestral feel. Though this album has an intimate vibe, it feels close without ever feeling small, because the tension across instruments makes the sound swell beyond its seemingly close parameters. MacDonald’s arrangements give each instrument sufficient play to create a Miles Davis midnight jam session vibe even though it only ever includes four instruments.

The two songs with vocals are probably this album’s weakest tracks. “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” made famous by Lou Rawls and BB King, and Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You,” feel like perfunctory nods to audience expectations. Organist Pierce and drummer Harold Acey have pleasant but ordinary voices, overshadowed by the more adventurous instrumentation. We keep waiting for a bridge so the music can resume center stage.

By contrast, several of the best tracks feature tenor sax in the usual vocal role. The liner cites two saxophonists, Clarence Webb and Roger Neumann, but they clearly trade off. And both are so well integrated into the sound that we never think “there’s Clarence. And there’s Roger!” Instead, both make their instruments sing, Billie Holiday-style, in a manner familiar to jazz fans and accessible to newcomers.

Doug MacDonald is no showboater. He carefully vanishes into his quartet, creating a sound so integrated that even on his solo turn, you have to listen twice to notice he doesn’t have the band behind him. This modesty, coupled with his bold arrangements and affable playing style, give his quartet a muscular but sound that will attract veteran jazz listeners and keep new audiences coming back for more.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Time For a NewER Testament?

Hal Taussig, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts

The Christian canon known as the New Testament has surely worn out its newness over two millennia. Whether through rote familiarity, changing social mores, or academic obscurantism, the Christian Scriptures have become overgrown with eons of baggage. Reverend Hal Taussig thinks he has the solution: we need to reopen the Christian canon. Yes, that’s right. Reverend Taussig wants to rewrite the Bible.

Taussig keeps the existing twenty-seven New Testament books, removing nothing, though he does resequence the books to support newer scholarship. He supplements the existing Christian canon with ten “new” books, mostly from the Nag Hammadi library, rediscovered in Egypt in 1942. Most of Taussig’s “new” books run under ten pages, meaning he adds only brief new content.

Christians will enjoy plenty about these rediscovered books. The Odes of Solomon, early Christian worship songs, are mellifluous, and may inspire new hymns. The Gospel of Mary and “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” open the door to overlooked feminine aspects of Christian thought. His inclusion of First- and Second-Century prayers gives readers insights into early Christian traditions of community and shared experience.

I don’t object that Taussig makes these books available in lucid English translations. I object that Taussig wants to add “new” books to the Bible, just because he and his hand-selected “council” of nineteen theologians likes them. He focuses on perceived profundity, overlooking questions I would consider important. Where did these books come from? Do they accord with existing Scripture? Will they solve problems, or create new ones?

If nothing else, we have the problem of attestation. Approximately 5,000 Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian copies of the canonical Gospels exist from the first two centuries CE. Compare that to only two intact copies of Thucydides’ History. At a time when books had to be hand-copied, this is a remarkable collection. The canonical New Testament is, by any measure, the best-attested book of Antiquity.

Taussig writes in his introduction: “There is no reason... to think that the Gospel of Thomas... was read any less in the first and second centuries than the Gospel of John.” But there is a reason: because only one intact copy of Thomas exists, and that recovered after being lost for 1,500 years. Early Christian transcriptionists voted with their effort, and they clearly didn’t consider Thomas as worthy as John of distribution.

Not that Thomas isn’t artful, profound, and maybe even inspired. But it’s also short, disorganized, and frequently opaque. It consists entirely of sayings, with no mention of Christ’s ministry, final week, death, or resurrection—which the Church Fathers agreed were mandatory components of “true” gospels. Thomas is magnificent and deserves reading. But early Christians surely omitted it from the canon for a reason.

Some of Taussig’s selections are even shakier. The Gospel of Mary, which Taussig asserts received the most unanimous support for inclusion, is missing so much material that the translation in this edition barely cracks two pages. “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” never mentions Christ, and may precede His birth. The Secret Revelation of John is a Neoplatonic manifesto disguised as a Christian vision.

Much of Taussig’s “new” content is hardly new anyway. Elaine Pagels advocated as early as 1979 that the Nag Hammadi library should be used to amplify the canon. Try to ignore the fact that the Egyptian youth who uncovered the collection handled it so poorly that his mother used several leaves as kindling.

Taussig’s lengthy, Dan Brown-ish afterword, which explains how he crafted his New New Testament, reads like a parody. He thinks a Methodist pastor from Philly has the right to call an ecumenical council. He makes ahistorical claims about the canon process, omitting that Origen and the Muratorian Fragment suggest the current canon existed as early as the year 200. He privileges flimsy, moddish scholarship over centuries of church history.

Perhaps Taussig isn’t kidding. Perhaps he thinks he knows better than 1,700 years of Christians, including Athanasius, Eusebius, and the Councils of Nicaea and Carthage. Perhaps he really believes that Twenty-First Century Americans are more attuned to God’s will than the Church Fathers. And that scares me, because that such “I know best” absolutism has fired such religious monomaniacs as Jim Jones and David Koresh.

John Dominic Crossan, in his foreword, suggests these added pseudepigrapha can help us understand the process of canon, and why some books are not included. I couldn’t agree more. Many of Taussig’s suggested books are insightful, educational, and even beautiful. But does that mean they belong in the Bible? That does not follow.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Australian Frontier and the Meaning of Justice

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Eleven
Chloe Hooper, Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee

On Friday, November 19, 2004, Sergeant Chris Hurley, at the end of his second year in the Aboriginal settlement at Palm Island, Queensland, Australia, arrested Cameron Doomadgee for cursing at him and another officer. Doomadgee was drunk at ten a.m. Forty minutes later, Doomadgee was dead, with injuries consistent with a massive car crash. What happened in those forty minutes would bind up the Australian court system for the next three years.

Chloe Hooper combines gripping narrative with harrowing reportage to convey an act of violence in a land of stunning brutality. When an Aboriginal man dies in custody on an island off Australia's Queensland coast, the event becomes national news after a pathologist renders a flippant report and the white police want to write off the event, so the locals riot. It has been a long time since a book has moved me as deeply as this book does.

In Hooper's heartrending language, Palm Island mixes the worst aspects of an Indian reservation, a penal colony, and Hell. Though Hooper conducts her reportage with the help of Doomadgee's family, her frankness creates a world of moral compromise, stunning melding of honorable and shameful traits, and a people wracked with generations of pain and abjection. There is enough in this book to stun and appall anybody of any social or political point of view.

Sergeant Hurley comes across one moment as a sterling lawman who builds bridges between white government and poor black Aborigines, then as an evasive, angry bigot. Cameron Doomadgee is a loving father and leader, and at the same time a chronic drunk with a brutal temper. The trial to see who was responsible for what drags out an entire province's buried racism as well as its higher ideals. Australian frontier justice is swift, sure, and unforgiving.

The story unfolds in a way comprehensible to world audiences. Comparisons to the Wild West and the American Civil War make the story of a crime on the far side of the planet feel as close as my own history. But this very clarity also makes this book such an impactful read. I can imagine having a beer with Chris Hurley, or a friendly dust-up with Cameron Doomadgee; and I can imagine having to choose sides when one dies in the other's custody.

Australia has a North like America has a South—a sun-baked land of beloved tradition and shocking bigotry. When Hooper quotes white Queenslanders’ casually racist attitudes about Aborigines, most Americans will find this language shockingly familiar. At a time when the US Supreme Court is seriously considering declaring race relations solved, and I keep hearing flip N-bombs at work and my favorite pub, this story reminds me that even bad ideas never truly die.

This makes Chris Hurley even more strangely compelling a character. According to his CV, he was long regarded as an unusually friendly white voice for Aborigines. Yet when he finally went to trial in 2006, he became the first white lawman ever tried for an Aborigine’s death in custody. He quickly became an emblem of a nation’s struggle with his own history. How do you assemble a jury for such a case in a state where people still drop racial epithets on the street?

Hooper unflinchingly depicts the story's participants as they are, with the glory and pain intact. In reading this, I was struck by one question: how different is this from America? Looking at suffering urban blacks or reservation Indians, and the way people who look like me deny that anguish while crushing those who dare rise up, I have to confess, maybe not much. But does that make the present culpable for the crimes of the past?

I can't say. And though she remarks on the parallels, Hooper mercifully refrains from trying to answer the questions she raises. These questions matter because they remain part of our cultural scene, an inextricable track through our history which we must resolve, as individuals and a people. Hooper shows us the road, without providing a facile map to the conclusion. We have to walk that road ourselves.

Hooper’s narrative brims with harrowing truths and hard-eyed views of human nature’s extremes, a story as moving as it is terrifying, as uplifting as it is appalling. It matters, not because it describes a decade-old crime in rural Australia, but because it holds a mirror up to us, here and now. What that mirror shows isn’t pretty, but it is ours, and we must own it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Christian Counterculture, Part Three

Mark Batterson, Draw the Circle: The 40 Day Prayer Challenge
This review follows A Manifesto for a Christian Counterculture and The Christian Counterculture, Part Two
As important as Christian knowledge is to developing our long-neglected counterculture, any culture relies not on what its members think, but upon what they do. As people called to the Kingdom of God through the message and person of Christ, we are defined by our beliefs, but known by our actions. Thus, to become and remain a Godly, unified people, we must spend time with the God who claims us as His own.

Like many Christians of his generation, Mark Batterson started out pursuing the love of God, but eschewing the trappings of church. When he founded his metropolitan DC parish, he held services at a movie multiplex, courted the media, and addressed lively current issues. But he did so from the conviction that Christians must live our beliefs, not just talk about them. He worked hard to make his church a real community of active, doing believers.

This latest book is part of Batterson’s Circle Maker curriculum, a positive way of “doing church” together even when we’re not seated in the same room. Nevertheless, it permits separate reading, and is intended as a daily devotional for a forty-day prayer vigil. Each chapter runs four to six pages, combining strict scriptural declarations on prayer with Batterson’s enthusiastic homiletic style. You won’t want to limit yourself to just one chapter per day.

A Protestant minister I know admitted that his seminary education included almost nothing on prayer. Churches place such emphasis on preaching and teaching—on knowing about God—that prayer, the act of knowing God, goes by the wayside. Not surprisingly, many Christians admit they spend little time actually praying outside church. We treat prayer as something we fling ourselves at, like bear wrestling. How discouraging.

By contrast, Batterson would rather help us approach prayer as a growth process, an act of developing our God-sense. Just as we struggled to walk, until we did it, we struggle with prayer, until we realize we’re talking directly to God. That’s why, like Jesus in the wilderness, he wants us to spend forty days on the process. Whether individually or as a body of believers, Batterson wants us to grow in our love of God, not succeed or fail all at once, right now.

Batterson is direct in addressing what lacks he thinks we believers suffer, which keep us from achieving our prayers. Small visions, timid voices, and the love of our neighbors’ good opinion prevent us from fully opening to God. To his credit, Batterson does not exempt himself from this criticism. Where many Evangelical leaders hold themselves aloof from criticism, Batterson turns his own fears and failings into object lessons for us.

If we believe, as Gabriel said, that “With God, all things are possible,” why do we limit our prayers to the mundane and the ordinary? Why do we ask for what we could get ourselves, while taking God’s tasks on our shoulders? As Christians, we have internalized the world’s definitions of busy-work, forgetting that the One within us is greater than the one who is in the world. So we neglect spending time with the One who has already won the greatest battles.

Not that prayer always needs to be profound, and demand that mountains move. Taking a cue from Brother Lawrence, Batterson reminds us that every act we perform daily—washing dishes, nurturing our kids, earning a living—can be a form of prayer. And asking God to keep a hand on our children, leading them home when their spirits stray, is not a small request. Indeed, intercession may be the biggest prayer a believing Christian can make.

I especially appreciate Batterson’s statements on the limitations of prayer. We must not give into magical thinking, expecting that if we don’t receive our requests, that God has turned away from us. Sometimes what sounds like “no” to us may be God saying “not yet.” Even more important, that apparent “no” may be God telling us that through faith, we are made strong; we cannot let prayer justify our own refusal to act on the mission God lays before us.

Batterson intends that small groups, or even entire congregations, should undertake this prayer challenge together. But he does not exclude the likelihood that, at some point, we may have to take his prayer challenge alone. Whether on your own, or as part of a mission revival, Batterson’s devotional can help Christians with possibly the most overlooked aspect of their faith journey. I intend to keep using it on my path.

For a prior Mark Batterson review, see:
Three Books for a Christian World

Friday, March 1, 2013

Country Drunks and the New Public Death Spectacle

Mindy McCready
Back in 1996, Mindy McCready appeared on The Tonight Show to promote her only chartbuster single, “Guys Do It All the Time.” In the interview after her performance, McCready confessed that, in deference to her conservative Christian upbringing, she had never gotten her ears pierced, even at the peak of stardom. Then she got a huge audience reaction by lifting her shirt to show a national TV audience her newly pierced navel.

This gulf demonstrates the massive gap inherent in country music. Rock stars revel in public displays of wretched excess, and a drug-fueled death like that of Jim Morrison is practically a mark of distinction—bonus points for a dramatic suicide like Kurt Cobain or Ian Curtis. Country musicians, by contrast, maintain a double standard. Their white suits, Christian rhetoric, and Republican affiliations mask profoundly indulgent, even self-destructive tendencies.

After McCready topped the Billboard country charts, at the absurd age of twenty, she became better known for her personal excess than her music. Her multiple engagements, suicide attempts, drug abuse, and two sons by two fathers became relentless tabloid fodder. Meanwhile, her four albums after her debut failed to crease even country audiences’ attention. The closest she came to later stardom was her stint on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

Tammy Wynette & George Jones
This makes a remarkable contrast with prior country stars—say, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Though it was an open secret during their marriage that George’s alcoholism had caused him to progress from manipulation to bullying to violence, fans never had the extent of the problem confirmed for them until Tammy filed for divorce. Even when they saw how dangerous Jones had become, fans wouldn’t forgive Wynette for her actions.

On the surface, country fans, who run to moral conservatism, blamed Wynette for seeking a divorce. This was specious anyway, as she’d recorded “Stand By Your Man” after her second marriage collapsed, before Jones. But as details of their marriage became public, including Jones threatening her with a gun and chasing her on a lawn tractor when she took his car keys, fans only increased their anger at her. Basically, they blamed her for breaking the silence.

Country fans like their stars broken. Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe got “rural route cred” for their time in the hoosegow. Loretta Lynn turned her child marriage, struggles with a drunken husband, and repeated money struggles into gorgeous songs, a movie deal, and plenty of money. Recent implosions, like Sara Evans and Shania Twain, have breathed new life into flagging careers.

Yet this brokenness was, until recently, supposed to remain implicit. Wynette broke that contract, violating her and Jones’ glittering stage presence. When Loretta Lynn sang classics like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’” or “One’s On the Way,” she did so with a carefully constructed stage glamour. Footage from her career peak shows her emulating rural poverty while looking about as impoverished as a Holly Hobby doll:

The romanticism surrounding brokenness goes back almost all the way to country music’s origins. Hank Williams pioneered the honky-tonk drinking song as a way to incorporate his increasing drug dependency into his act. This was a way to prevent blowback from his rural Christian audience as his vices cost him his Opry slot. “See,” he told his audience, “this is part of the act. We’re all in on this together.”

Notably, though, Williams became a drunk and opiate addict because the rigors of the road exacerbated an old back injury. He only wanted to control the pain. At least he had the decency to act embarrassed when his habits got out of control: though deeply Christian, he recorded his Gospel songs under the pseudonym “Luke the Drifter” so his addictions wouldn’t color how audiences received his message.

Hank Williams
Compare that to the arc since. Despite 1970’s flirtations with outlaw music, when Jim Stafford got on stage drunk and Jessi Colter sidelined her career to save her husband Waylon Jennings from cocaine abuse, country has had difficulty acknowledging the split between its squeaky clean public image and its abusive culture. The industry has hidden Tanya Tucker, and her abuses, from public view, while Keith Whitley’s booze-soaked death took everyone by surprise.

The schadenfreude surrounding Mindy McCready and her years-long death spiral feels like something new in the country industry. After her early success, the industry shepherded her into a lifestyle in which her self-destruction was essentially assured, then turned her pain into a commodity. And this change, not her death itself, represents a dark turn from which country music may not recover.