Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Crimea River

Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America's Grasp

Remember summer of 2014, when Vladimir Putin’s swift, decisive action in Crimea channeled right-wing nostalgia for Reaganesque machismo in Guatemala and El Salvador? Global energy consultant Marin Katusa’s first book provides a TARDIS back to those days of manful moral absolutism. But now, as then, what appears efficacious in the near term demonstrates dire long-term consequences for both the invader and the invaded. Sadly, Katusa’s analysis, under two months after publication, is already badly outdated

Katusa mixes biography, recent history, and sociopolitical examination into, I concede, a fairly interesting analytical product. Despite periodic flashes like that surrounding recent Ukrainian protests and Putin’s store-bought invasions, post-Soviet Russia remains opaque to most American news-watchers. Most American news sources have no bureaus inside Russia itself, simply trusting Russian state-owned media sources to speak truthfully about themselves. American journalists substantially ignore Russia between flare-ups, even though Russia outsells Saudi Arabia on global petroleum markets.

Vladimir Putin, in Katusa’s account, provides the touchpoint transitioning Russia from post-Soviet anarchy and Yeltsin’s profound malaise, into a mostly modern state seriously challenging America and the EU for international status. Domestically, Putin utilizes personal charm, steady media manipulation, and nationalist fervor to maintain firm central control. Internationally, Putin’s hand on the taps of what some consider Earth’s largest petroleum, natural gas, and uranium reserves, gives him unprecedented capacity to blackmail world leaders into complicity.

Marin Katusa
I’ll buy that. However, that alone isn’t sufficient to support Katusa’s assertion that we’re witnessing the waning of what market watchers call the “petrodollar.” In my favorite passage from recent writing on social issues, Duncan J. Watts notes that many people who purpose to explain situations—economically, politically, artistically—instead merely describe them. Katusa, unfortunately, provides a prime example of this. Eager to pitch his own expertise, he completely fails to notice his personal viewpoint.

This book is the kind of sloppy wet kiss American conservative leaders blew Putin during the summer of 2014, when he challenged NATO in Crimea, and NATO flinched. Katusa admits he wrapped up writing “in midsummer 2014,” when Putin’s international prestige enjoyed its zenith. But by late 2014, declining demand, international opprobrium, and investor squeamishness broke Putin’s agenda. The ruble crashed in December, and American corporations fled, fearing repayment of legitimate debts in worthless paper.

Besides such sweeping categories, Katusa broadly writes without (we now know) complete command of the facts. His account of the Crimean annexation recounts Putin’s claim that no Russian troops abetted the rebellion, which Putin himself now admits was untrue. His analysis of global energy markets flatly excludes any possibility of significantly declining prices; many American markets, at this writing, enjoy the cheapest gasoline in twenty years. Katusa’s writing winds up looking like a time capsule.

I get frustrated with Katusa’s frequent omissions. Katusa never mentions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin’s demonstrations of his will to alienate global allies to appease Russian nationalism. He never mentions Russia’s expulsion from the G8, with its resulting economic ostracism. He gives only one fleeting mention, and no critical scrutiny, to Russia’s strategic BRICS alliance, which, quite recently, bemoaned the dollar’s status as global reserve currency, undermining Katusa’s key claim about the dollar’s imminent obsolescence.

As Watts notes, we frequently cannot see every factor contributing to whatever situation we scrutinize. Katusa, a global energy consultant, sees everything in world energy market terms. Therefore, he doesn’t see how Putin placed all Russia’s eggs in one basket. Notice the cover illustration: Obama and Putin staring down above an oil well, against a sunset colored like nuclear fallout. Putin has energy reserves, useless without international buyers, and has cultivated no other economic backbone.

Personally, I support Brookings’ Bruce Jones. Russia may eventually dominate global energy commerce; China’s aggregate economy may eventually outstrip America’s; Germany, via the Eurozone, may eventually pinch international currency markets. But they lack clout to truly dominate world affairs. America may never regain Eisenhower-era global hegemony, but only America has sufficient might, moral force, and wealth to exercise real leadership. Let Putin play bush-league Rockefeller. His people can’t eat oil reserves. He still needs America.

Six months ago, capitalists like Katusa, and Republicans like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, were all aflutter with admiration for Putin’s John Wayne lonerism. They praised his gumption and shoot-from-the-hip ethic. They extolled in Putin the characteristics, frankly, they once extolled in George W. Bush. But history may remember Autumn 2014 for Putin like it remembers Autumn 2007 for Bush, for largely the same reasons. Katusa’s book is ambitious, but just looks out of touch.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Domestic Mystery and a Mormon Drama

Mette Ivie Harrison,The Bishop's Wife

Carrie Helm is missing. Her community never realized anything was wrong, until one morning, her husband and daughter knocks on the bishop’s door, looking terrified that their seemingly good Mormon family is in freefall. Now Linda Wallheim, the bishop’s wife and mother of his five sons, finds herself torn. While her husband organizes the community’s spiritual confrontation, Linda channels her inner Miss Marple, testing evidence and asking questions a sedate Utah town doesn’t want asked.

Reading the official description, you’d expect a Mormon version of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl reset amid a religious community that Americans widely know, but largely misunderstand. Not so. Though packaged as a mystery, this novel is essentially a character drama. Carrie’s disappearance upsets first-person protagonist Linda’s life, but that life continues amid her community’s continuing commitments and her personal struggles with Mormonism’s patriarchy. If Jan Karon rewrote her Mitford novels as thrillers, they’d resemble this.

Poor Linda cannot absorb the Helms family’s struggle. Husband Jared gives conflicting signs, first controlling and harsh, next a loving father and bereaved victim of media swarms. Carrie, vanished before page one, could be terrified for her safety and, in Mormon cosmology, her eternal soul; she could, however, suffer terrible paranoid delusions and tyrannize her family. Her crusading father and cowed, shrinking mother don’t simplify matters. And then there’s five-year-old Kelly, driven pillar to post.

But life continues amid this folderol. As bishop’s wife, Linda serves as spiritual surrogate mother to tiny Draper, Utah, thirty minutes outside Provo. So when a teenage wedding causes unexpected trouble at the bride’s house, Linda provides comfort. When a go-getter young wife admits her untreatable infertility, in a church that prizes marriage and childbearing above all else, Linda faces questions she cannot answer. Linda’s church role piles massive responsibility atop her already expanding doubts.

Mette Ivie Harrison
See, Linda’s growing dissatisfied with Mormonism’s staunch, implacable absolutism. Though confident in her faith, her church’s rigid temple system, its patriarchal leadership system, and its demand for female submission even in the hereafter, don’t jibe with Linda’s ethics. A self-professed Obama voter and social moderate, Linda faces challenges from a church hierarchy that remains essentially unchanged since before the Civil War. How can she comfort bereaved parents when her church considers her role basically invisible?

Harrison provides an insider’s view of a powerful but widely misunderstood religion. Critics disparage Mormonism’s sometimes inexplicable beliefs, deafness to science, and general insularity. But Harrison demonstrates how shared beliefs, and their public expression, bind individuals together, making them a people. Emile Durkheim wrote that religion unifies the people first, satisfies their spiritual hunger only later. Mormons, like Amish or Hasidim, are a people as much as a faith. Harrison shows that from ground level.

Readers anticipating excitement and Hollywood-style suspense may find Harrison’s approach trying. Carrie Helm remains missing for chapter upon chapter, and Linda coaxes information from sources incrementally, buying their support with home-baked cinnamon rolls and sympathy. Harrison’s pace runs slower, her narrative runs talkier, than typical paperback mysteries. For Harrison, though, the story’s heart lies outside the unresolved enigma which kick-starts her story. Characters, and the conflicts that drive them, motivate Harrison more than boilerplate thrills.

Therefore, readers weaned on gritty backdrops, physical confrontations, and “just the facts” dialog could find this book jarring. Despite its noir-ish premise of the wronged wife and the morally ambiguous husband, Harrison’s gentle tone, and Linda’s ruminative narration, give this novel an almost Jane Austen texture. Linda romances her husband, but sex is always implicit. Jared Helm might be abusive, but it’s primarily verbal. and religious. Linda, as amateur sleuth, would rather think before acting.

Reading this, I recalled the oversized paperback mysteries, written primarily by women, marketed in Christian bookstores nationwide. Though some crime generally initiates the story, these novels would rather immerse readers in their protagonists’ lives, eschewing nightmarish thrills in favor of deep empathy. I confess, those novels, and this one, aren’t my taste. But why should they be? Should everyone like only what I like?  I’m not arrogant enough to consider myself the yardstick of merit.

For its intended audience, this novel is quite good. Harrison creates a viewpoint narrator, and a community rife with hidden struggles, that her intended audience can vanish into for hours at once. Being largely unaware of Mormon culture, I cannot say whether Harrison has a waiting market of readers for this novel. But judging by the largely female, largely Protestant audience gobbling up similar character mysteries, she probably does. Harrison gives them what they want.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Who Killed Good Music?

We were four hours into our shift when our local Top 40 station began playing Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” for the fifth time. Not an exaggeration. They play that song, on average, once every forty-five minutes. That’s an average, though; I’ve heard them play it twice inside fifteen minutes. Christopher, another line worker who’s been a semi-pro musician, looked over at me. We rolled our eyes in unison. No words even needed spoken.

Andre 3000 in Outkast's "Hey Ya" video
Late in The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes how record executives salvaged Outkast’s genre-bending single “Hey Ya” from collapse. Though it’d later spend eight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, in Duhigg’s telling, it languished at low levels, embraced by neither audiences nor DJs, for quite some time. This despite having been analyzed by studio executives, music professionals, and elaborate computer models, and deemed a surefire hit. The song’s incipient failure puzzled everyone.

Duhigg focuses his storytelling on how music professionals turned it around, which, from a psychological perspective, is downright fascinating. Yet the fact that credentialed professionals, not the music-buying public, really stuck in my mind. “Hey Ya” is, in fairness, a really good song, and deserves its success. But its success didn’t arise because ordinary customers enjoyed the song; it happened because corporate executives, with the radio industry’s tacit collusion, manipulated the market behind the scenes.

First, they analyzed “Hey Ya” through sophisticated computer algorithms that compared it to known past hits. According to Duhigg, Arista Records’ proprietary software determined that it sufficiently resembled significant ranking hits that audiences would, supposedly, embrace it. A computer simulation, y’all! Arista records believes they can distill your aggregate buying habits into a predictable template, predict your opinions, and make artistic decisions based on that outcome. Artistic initiative? Independent creativity? Screw you, who needs ‘em.

Anybody who has actual musical taste will understand why, in Duhigg’s account, “Hey Ya” initially failed: it wasn’t bland enough. Top-40 audiences seek comfort, familiarity, and harmlessness. The frustrating part is, when audiences initially failed to embrace the song, industry executives didn’t accept that their predictions were wrong. For all today’s rhetoric about the ineluctable will of free markets, when massed humanity expresses its particular tastes, the powerful respond by attempting to change the market.

Duncan J. Watts recounts running an experiment made possible only by advanced Internet technology. By collecting thousands of participants into groups, and keeping each blind to the others’ choices, he successfully recreated the digital music market. This allowed him to run the same songs through statistically similar populations and assemble significant results. Music listeners completely blind to anybody else’s buying choices gave good indications of which songs were actually “good.” But that wasn’t the end.

None of Watts’ artificial music markets made bestsellers of actually bad music. But being merely good didn’t guarantee market success. Buyers made decisions based on multiple factors: which songs got streamed frequently, what others bought, what fellow buyers recommended in conversation. Published bestseller lists caused bandwagon buying. Importantly, no two markets created identical, or even statistically similar, bestseller lists. No response, not even positive acclaim, was a foregone conclusion… assuming buyers made their own decisions.

Meghan Trainor didn't actually kill good music;
she's just an accessory after the fact
Arista Records couldn’t accept such unpredictability. If markets didn’t embrace their determined product, markets needed manipulated. So, using technocratic interventions designed to integrate edgy new content into their subconscious, and attracting the collusion of DJs and other cultural gatekeepers, they simply got listeners accustomed to “Hey Ya,” until it joined the panoply of other, interchangeable, mundane songs populating our heads. They created a hit by defanging it, deadening its impact upon its intended mass audience.

“All About That Bass” is a guided tour of everything safe, cozy, and bland about contemporary music. Its synth-driven backbeat, highly repetitive lyrics, and extensively borrowed musical motifs, are designed to get audiences dancing, without particularly paying attention. One co-worker thought “That Bass” meant the rhythm. Listening to this music is an abnegation of taste, an abnegation abetted by top-down social engineering which only wealthy, powerful corporations can perpetrate. It’s a failure of aesthetic capitalism.

Christopher and I shook our heads, not because our co-workers jammed along with a deeply unimaginative song, but because that jamming represented a willful obfuscation of art. Sinatra and the Beatles made music which was often tough listening, but rewarded audiences with artistic integrity and improved taste. That ethic, in today’s very wealthy music industry, is dead. If Top-40 programming sounds like a barrage of repetitive insipidity, that isn’t accidental. Industry is killing our taste.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gypsy Armageddon

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 43
Charles de Lint, Mulengro


In a comfortable middle-class Ottawa neighborhood, a prosperous Eastern European immigrant’s house burns quickly, the flames almost obscuring a strange rune painted along the walls. Janfri la Yayal saves his fiddle, and, to his neighbors’ consternation, just walks away. Across town, two detectives examine a body so savagely mauled, it sickens even veteran cops. It appears the work of feral pack animals, but signs of human presence make them suspect something darker afoot.

In the 1980s, Charles de Lint pioneered urban fantasy, long before paperback publishers repackaged the genre as hardboiled mystery spin-offs. His works generally ran toward gentle, thoughtful humanism and understated psychological drama, coincidentally starring demigods and pixies. This book stands out from most of de Lint's canon of work by being mainly a horror novel. Okay, dark fantasy really, but it scares you badly and reminds you why you love being alive, because it could disappear so quickly.

Janfri la Yayal has a secret his shocked Canadian neighbors don’t know. They think he’s a professional Hungarian fiddler, but he’s secretly Romany, the people also called Gypsies. He’s become famous playing his people’s tunes, selling Gypsy culture at a mark-up. And he recognizes the mysterious rune on his burning house: “Unclean.” He’s been violently exiled from the one people who’ve been exiled more than Jews, leaving him completely alone. Now he only wants to clear his name.

Briggs and Sandler, Ottawa municipal police, want to bring the killer to justice. But clues give conflicting direction: their killer might be human, beast, or something altogether different.Their research uncovers Romany myths of the monstrous Mulengro, a human master controlling bound spirits, driven by purposes unique and inscrutable. The lawmen seek Ottawa’s marginalized Gypsy community— only to discover they’ve suddenly vanished, shrouded in darkness, a caravan of black sedans and anonymous camper vans.

Charles de Lint
These stories lead quickly into one of Charles de Lint’s trademarks, the Cast of Thousands who don’t realize they share converging quests. Ola Faher, an aging Gypsy, manages to delay the Mulengro, though afterward, she knows she's an imminent target. Jeff Owen, a journalist, Dr. Rainbow, a yurt-dwelling hippie shaman, and Yojo la Kore, a gypsy youth readying for her last stand, want to stand up for the people they love.

And the mysterious Mulengro wants to purge his people. Like all good villains, the Mulengro believes himself the hero of his odyssey. His disfigured face and entourage of destructive spirits conceal motivations downright Nietzschean in their savage purity. He kills to serve goals beyond others’ ken. But behind everything, he remains tortured by the past. A survivor of incomprehensible evil, the Mulengro remembers firsthand the moment his Romany people very nearly became extinct.

This book, first released in 1985, predates Newford, the catchall Canadian city that dominated de Lint’s work throughout the 1990s and 2000s. De Lint pioneered the technique, now common, of situating his stories in one shared world, and one could imagine this fitting into that setting. When Ottawa's close-knit Gypsy community begins dying violently, several independent stories originate, converging on a forest cabin where an apocalyptic showdown determines whether the punishments of history continue into the contemporary world.

This reads like something Stephen King might have written back before his work became tiresome and repetitive. I don’t make this comparison lightly. De Lint shares King’s mobius story structures, and love of history impinging on today. The further along you get, the harder it becomes to put the book down. Nothing feels extraneous, nothing feels like a misfire. This is a prime book for people who have never touched fantasy, horror, or Charles de Lint in their lives.

De Lint’s substantial Gypsy content is key to the story. he Romany hold massive audience appeal largely because, even today, they remain largely invisible, dwelling secretly in society’s margins. Therefore, they remain often opaque to outsiders’ romantic, ahistorical notions. Many people demand accuracy in this sort of thing, but the Gypsies are so notoriously secretive that fact-checking isn't an issue. What matters is this: I can imagine these characters, in these situations, performing exactly these actions.

It's amazing, with the slim amount of narrative and the beautifully cinematic characters and situations, that this hasn't been adapted before now. Perhaps soon. De Lint paints an elaborate, fast-moving image for the mind’s eye, and a masterpiece of pacing. Modern technology could turn this into the most beautiful dark fantasy film in history, no problem. Easily readable and worth a second look, this book is one that will become a treasured part of your library in short order.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sam Spade Stalks the Massive Data Sprawl

Reece Hirsch, Intrusion

You ever have that experience where you dive into a book, love its ideas, commit yourself to reading… then find the book leaves you really, really tired? This book is like that. Reece Hirsch, a career digital privacy attorney, writes a novel about a digital security attorney taking on Earth’s best international online saboteurs. It melds classic science fiction imagery with gritty noir. It addresses today’s top international security concerns. What could go wrong?

Plenty.

Attorney Chris Bruen knows something’s up when Zapper, America’s biggest search engine, phones after midnight. Seems hackers have stolen Zapper’s nigh-priceless proprietary algorithms. Hackers employed by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Zapper has assembled dozens of Earth’s top security specialists to plug the leak, but they need their lawyer to squelch possible market-destroying damage. Bruen boldly proposes personally visiting Shanghai.

Reviewers can’t make this shit up. A Silicon Valley attorney proposes personally infiltrating the PLA and bringing stolen data home, like Jack Damn Ryan or something. He admits having no plan, only outdated Chinese connections, and sketchy Mandarin. Yet, the next morning, Bruen arrives in Shanghai, tracking the PLA’s most secure cell, while outrunning Chinese counterintelligence. Either he’s a superhero, or he’ll die doing 25-to-life in Qincheng Prison.

Early on, I had a flash. Hirsch describes an assassin tracking a corporate executive through Tokyo’s neon-lit Shinjuku district, and I realized: this is just like William Gibson’s multiple award-winning novel Neuromancer (best opening line ever!). Hirsch’s present-day setting purges sci-fi trappings like “sprawl cowboys” and “wetware,” but advancing technology means that, exactly thirty years on, what Gibson originally postulated as science fiction, has become disturbingly real.

Reece Hirsch
Twenty pages later, looking down a rain-slicked Shanghai streetscape, Chris Bruen has a flash: this looks just like a William Gibson novel! Though he’s right, I jumped, thinking: “WTF? Did Hirsch just intrude and tell me how to perceive his narration?” Yes, son. Yes he did. I forgave this hiccup, figuring anybody can make mistakes once. Sure, writing coaches encourage Padawans to avoid getting between audiences and their narration. But surely everyone’s occasionally gaffed that way.

With Hirsch, though, it isn’t occasional. He lards his prose with long, discursive soliloquies about, say, China’s mix of authoritative government and semi-free-market capitalism, or how China erects cities cheaply and hastily, backfilling with high-tech architecture once jobs arrive. This doesn’t surprise me; I’ve read Xuefei Ren. Chinese inequality particularly bothers Bruen, Hirsch’s viewpoint character. (Hirsch says Bruen lives in San Francisco, Americas second most unequal city, after NYC.)

Seriously, this continues for pages upon pages upon pages. Also, secondary characters discourse lengthily upon IRC protocols, Chinese prisons, and computer security techniques. Popular thriller writers like Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell use technical descriptions to advance stories while convincing readers they’re learning something. But Hirsch doesn’t explain, he lectures, often in explicitly moralistic terms. He doesn’t want to guide audiences, he wants to dictate their responses.

But any response requires audiences accepting extreme unlikelihoods. Once, captured by a PLA cell, Bruen (again, a Frisco attorney) kills two hackers and their PLA handler, despite having a broken arm and possible concussion. Yeah, right. He then steals the hackers’ laptop and, on the return train to Shanghai, commences unlocking the hackers’ lengthy data trail. With a broken arm. Still. Anyone who’s ever broken a limb knows you can’t just power through, not without a splint and fistfuls of Tylenol.

Hirsch simultaneously intensively researches China’s situation, and demands readers accept staggering Hail Marys. In a nation of staggering urban poverty, Bruen never meets anybody who doesn’t speak either English or Mandarin, even in Cantonese-speaking regions. Though China notoriously surveils nearly all visiting foreign nationals, Bruen stakes out a PLA division HQ for two days, then follows key employees home, without attracting visible attention.

What does the bull say?

This story arguably deserves told. Chinese data piracy increasingly overshadows nuclear proliferation or religious extremism as America’s biggest national security threat. In an epigraph, Hirsch quotes two federal data security specialists saying: any corporation which hasn’t seen data piracy isn’t looking hard enough. If it isn’t already, data security will soon become modern life’s biggest, most persistent force of international instability.

One wonders whether Hirsch might prefer writing New Yorker articles over novels. He’s flush with facts and carefully differentiated information, but his story feels anemic. He lectures us eagerly, while Xerox characters describe various jigsaw puzzle pieces which events gradually assemble. Hirsch proves himself a masterful researcher with wonderfully panoptic view; sadly, he proves himself a really lackluster storyteller.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ascension To Nowhere

Syfy, the vowel-friendly network that once openly courted nerds but wanted a bigger audience, hasn’t had an out-and-out hit since Battlestar Galactica ended. Its attempts at reality TV attract tepid audiences, and lacking any clear ratings winners, it’s mortgaged prime weeknight time to WWE pageantry. Based on advance publicity, they clearly hope to close that gap with the convoluted, set-bound spectacle of Ascension. And the tedious wait continues.

Back in 1963, six hundred people boarded a rocket bound for Proxima Centauri. In 2014, the original crew’s children and grandchildren continue their mission. Having lost Earth, suffering history’s worst cabin fever, they persevere because doing otherwise is impossible. Until, that is, their ship suffers its first-ever murder. The sheer unlikelihood shocks the population… and their Earthbound handlers, who remain strangely aware of everything aboard a ship two light-years away.

Initially, the show centers on the inhabitants of USS Ascension, deeply claustrophobic and immune to cultural change. The murder which initiates events proves a Macguffin; the real story investigates the science and morality of human eugenics in deep-space colonization, and how Earth manipulates events from afar. Within a few scenes, however, focus drifts onto humanity’s last true hope, a little girl whose abilities meld Stephen King’s Carrie with River Tam from Firefly.

I’ll resist the temptation to disclose the first episode’s big concluding plot twist. That’s too easy. However, despite the actors in special features extolling its “mind-blowing” nature, I predicted it around the one-hour mark. It’s such a well-worn science fiction standby that, when novelist Christian Cantrell recycled it elsewhere, many reviewers responded with derisive laughter. Heinlein and Asimov wore the shine off this apple, which dates back to René Descartes, even Plato.

Tricia Helfer
This proves something I’ve long suspected: today’s mass media product creators don’t read. Though it drags revelations out interminably to maintain otherwise nonexistent suspense, veteran genre fans will recognize Ascension as a massive spittoon of pre-chewed science fiction lard. Not even the good stuff, either; besides The Matrix and Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire, it openly ransacks Brendan Fraser’s lukewarm concept comedy Blast From the Past.

George Lucas at least had the decency to read Hero With a Thousand Faces before writing his naked Flash Gordon pilferage.

Ascension attempts crafty social awareness. Important conflicts derive from “lower deckers,” sweat-stained machinists who persistently challenge the officers’ corps. Tricia Helfer, playing a slightly aged version of her BSG character, brokers power through her “stewardesses,” a euphemism for an elaborate whorehouse. Helfer selects apprentices through anorexia-inducing weigh-ins. The stewardesses’ loyalty oath includes the pledge: “We are wife, mother, and caregiver to all.”

Shudder.

Yet somehow, this social conscience feels hollow. The population remains stuck in a pre-Beatles culture, staunchly unenlightened on sexual matters (men evidently think butt slaps are playful), yet somehow progressive enough to promote African American command officers. They’ve never composed one new song? Never staged one community theatre play? Yet some changes are okay. Particularly those changes that make casting directors look broad-minded and worldly.

Creator Adrian Cruz basically assumes that, without the specific influences that molded our culture, his ship would remain a time capsule, immune to social pressures or human thirst for novelty. Somebody, somewhere, would’ve written interesting poetry. Somebody, somewhere, would’ve organized labor movements and forced concessions by pinching the water supply in a closed environment. Considering how often people disrobe on this show, somebody, somewhere, would’ve invented the underwire.

Even the physical design looks strangely ordinary. Despite Frankie and Annette-ish fashions, stars could wear their costumes into any big-city rockabilly bar today without changing their tastefully outdated knickers. The ship, all sleek plastic and swooping angles, looks copied from Gene Roddenberry’s design studio. Notably, despite fifty-one years aloft, the ship (and Earth’s masterfully hidden spy cameras) remain apparently immune to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Where’s the damn dirt?

Brandon P. Bell
So we have recycled plot elements, recycled cultures, and recycled actors phoning in recycled performances. Everything starts seeming rather pointless. Murky screen images, deaths you could time with a stopwatch, and scenes already pre-satirized in Galaxy Quest leave me feeling headyachy. When target audiences, like me, would rather spend time fault-finding the onscreen picture than joining the characters’ development arc, that shark’s probably jumped.

I suspect this series was written with a Blake Snyder textbook, a Sinatra Pandora stream, and a case of 5-Hour Energy Shots. The writers need, however, some John Varley paperbacks and a Scientific American subscription. Methinks America’s over-busy cable media is approaching terminal saturation. Ascension may be our last warning.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Looking Backward To Move American Schools Forward

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 42
Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, and various authors,Quadrivium: The Four Classical Liberal Arts of Number, Geometry, Music, & Cosmology

Seems like, every few years, Americans hear again the interminable debate about reforming schools, equipping American schoolchildren better for the global market. Some push higher standards in mathematics, natural sciences, and STEM job skills. Others piously demand public schools include prayer, theology, and seven-day creationism. Various other suggestions ballyhoo themselves into an already overcrowded echo chamber. Many demands resound; nothing gets done. Meanwhile I lean back and ask: what happened to good old-fashioned Liberal Arts?

Educational theorists latterly have devalued Liberal Arts as a retrograde throwback and mere medieval nicety. Land-grant universities award Liberal Arts degrees to students who have enough credits to graduate, but no thematic core. “Liberal Arts” has become synonymous with an unpalatable slumgullion of intellectual waste. But it wasn’t always so.The term “Liberal Arts” describes seven specific disciplines dedicated to clear communication and logical thought. All educated persons, once, were expected to understand these fields.

Sister Miriam Joseph, CSC, PhD, devised her text on the Trivium based on her intensive course at Saint Mary’s College. One hour per day, five days per week, for their entire first year, Freshmen studied the skills of logic, rhetoric, and grammar. But if, like me, you hear “grammar” and flinch to think sentence diagrams, or “rhetoric” and imagine fine-sounding but meaningless political discourse, welcome to the surprise. These topics look nothing like we remember.

The Sister leads readers through a comprehensive survey of English language construction, from early times through the present. (Sister Miriam began academic life as a Shakespeare scholar.) Writing before Generative Grammar added new layers of boredom to writing instruction, the Sister instead focuses on ways we adapt language for situations and audiences. Starting with simple sentence construction, she advances through arrangement of ideas, propositional structures, and syllogisms, and into higher forms of advanced critical thinking.

These aren’t topics for mere memorization. The Sister defines nouns and prepositions, but not to simply identify them in somebody else’s pre-made sentences. She establishes early that this information only matters once you incorporate it into new sentences. We don’t study case endings, disjunctive propositions, or synecdoche to answer Trivial Pursuit questions. Clear communication is the same as clear thinking. We study language arts because, without them, we can comprehend and communicate nothing else altogether.

Where the Trivium helps students organize their thinking, the Quadrivium helps them organize the universe. Ancient Greek and Sanskrit texts recognize dynamic relationships between numbers that exist only inside our heads, and empirical phenomena in the world. Waterfalls behave in predictable patterns; anyone possessing the skill can compute comet recurrences and solar eclipses. Yet modern math courses often render these relationships opaque, leaving confused students believing mathematics is too hard, too meaningless for their lives.

School boards anymore target music first when budget-chopping time rolls around, and mostly punt astronomy into colleges and community clubs. Yet this book reclaims these topics’ scientific origins. Musical notes have strict arithmetic relationships, and our night sky demonstrates complex geometric patterns. Our ancestors recognized that music and astronomy demonstrated real-world manifestations of arithmetic and geometry, respectively. This book helps curious general readers reclaim these relationships in ways that modern classroom textbooks have long forgotten.

Indeed, harnessing newer discoveries, like harmonographs, Chladni patterns, and Harmoniae Mundi, this book exceeds Greek texts. Musical tones, which have arithmetic origins, exhibit geometric patterns on plane surfaces. Johannes Kepler proved what Aristotle only speculated, that one can compute planetary orbits on the musical scale. Our universe organizes itself in mathematically harmonic patterns, in ways even my college textbooks ignored. If students could see the profound mathematics around themselves daily, surely they’d do their homework.

These books weren’t written for twinned consumption. Sister Miriam Joseph wrote a textbook for college students, while Wooden Books has compiled, essentially, an art book. The Quadrivium book is more primarily descriptive, fleshed out with copious illustrations and diagrams, where the Trivium book remains fairly dry, without pictures. Yet, as the only two books for general readers covering what Plato or Newton studied, they offer the potential to uncover what education meant to our forebears.

“Education is the highest of arts,” writes Sister Miriam Joseph, “in the sense that it imposes forms (ideas and ideals) not on matter… but on mind. These forms are received by the student not passively but through active cooperation.” That is, education should make students think well. The Trivium guides students into better communication, while the Quadrivium coaches them to think scientifically. This, rather than skills-based or issues-driven schooling, would prepare students for modern life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rick Perry, Biblical Ignoramus

Presidental hopeful Rick Perry loves quoting
the Bible. Thinking about it, not so much.
Outgoing Texas governor Rick Perry, openly tooling himself up for another Presidential run in 2016 despite currently being under indictment for public corruption, granted the Washington Post a not-very-in-depth interview regarding his long-term policy position and aspiring national agenda. The resultant low-tension puff piece is particularly galling because Washington’s greatest lawmakers read the Post daily. Perry’s festival of ignorance would appear merely half-assed in regional urban newspapers. In Washington, such worshipful fawning becomes outright dangerous.

One quote is particularly galling. Asked about efforts to address poverty in Texas, Perry gave the verbal equivalent of a pious shrug: “Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion.” This line, beloved of conservative Christian politicians everywhere, recurs whenever somebody questions whether government, as the embodiment of popular will, should undertake efforts to alleviate poverty. It derives from Matthew 26:11, spoken by Christ just before the Crucifixion.

Serious theologians debate what this citation means; I cannot resolve millennia-old debates here. However, the response to Perry’s statement widely overlooks that Jesus, in this passage, quotes Deuteronomy 15. Matthew, considered the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels, includes frequent references to the Torah, the Books of the Law. Matthew assumes throughgoing Biblical literacy which his First-Century Jewish audience could’ve taken for granted, but which many modern audiences, including conservative Christians, just don’t share.

The Evangelist Matthew's mainly Jewish audience
studied Scripture the way we study writing and math
Most of Deuteronomy 15 addresses issues of indebtedness among Hebrews. (Five verses deal with animal sacrifice.) Then as now, powerful people used debts as instruments of social control, encouraging poor to cover old debts through further borrowing—the Insta-Cash Advance companies of ancient Canaan. Hebrew Scripture unambiguously declares lending at interest sinful, because the recipient of such loans becomes subservient to the debt owner, an unacceptable form of peonage. Americans holding underwater mortgages can sympathize.

Witness the progression of concepts through Deuteronomy 15:
Verse 4: “[T]here need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you…”

Verse 7: “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.”

Verse 11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
That’s quite the trajectory. From “no poor” to “if” to “always.” Apparently God, Moses, or whoever realized that a gap exists between humanitarian ideals and reality, especially where money intrudes. Yet, even amid these changing qualifiers, one point remains constant: how we treat the poor among us matters.

Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and others have recently justified deep cuts in America’s poverty protection network, claiming that defunding food stamps and AFDC empowers poor citizens to find jobs. This tortured logic makes perfect sense among people substantially untouched by recent economic circumstances. America’s financial magnates gamble recklessly on paper debt instruments, ship manufacturing jobs overseas, manipulate loopholes to evade lawful and moral taxes—then subsidize legislators to say: “If you’re poor, get a job.”

Teapublicans like Rand Paul love Biblical language.
They're somewhat squishier on the actual Bible.
Oh, and don’t they love Biblical quotations to create retrospective moral justifications. Besides Perry’s misuse of Matthew, many love citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” These references always get flung willy-nilly, without contextual reference, mere orphan quotes. They provide moral armor for actions which, taken otherwise, would offend citizens’ standards of common decency. But they subvert what the passages mean, which undermines shared faith in Biblical authority.

Rhetoricians call this “quote mining”; Biblical scholars call it “prooftexting.” Theologians have another word for such naked misuse of Scripture: “heresy.” Do nominal Christians like Perry really start out finding ways to empower poor Americans, and progress to slashing the safety net? Of course not. They want steep tax reductions for their backers, subsidized by undercutting public services. Biblical citations permit them to cover their asses retrospectively, a cynical behavior completely antithetical to Biblical ethics.

Perry uses Biblical language to fatalistically opt against meaningful action. But his source specifically requires responsibility for the less fortunate. Public conservatives love quoting Biblical law regarding sexual and reproductive issues; yet if we truly believe American law derives from Scripture, that means all of Scripture, not just whatever makes well-heeled white guys feel righteous. The Torah spends pages and pages on how we treat the poor. Come Judgment Day, ignorance will provide no defense.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dear Christians: Please Stop Boring the World

Phil Rehberg, The Road to New Life: The Way Of Jesus Of Nazareth

Many moons ago, my local pastor offered what he called a “Bible 101” course for all congregants interested in learning more about the Good Book. He even opened it to community members, including interested unbelievers. Though I suspected he’d lowball his lessons (and he did), I attended, and found it periodically enlightening. Then, six months later, he offered Bible 101 again. And six months later. And six months after that. “Bible 102” was never forthcoming.

I’m unsure how to review this book. At only eighty pages plus back matter, it’s barely a pamphlet, but brevity serves its purpose. Attorney turned pastor Phil Rehberg pretty comprehensively summarizes his brand of charismatic Protestant theology for spiritual seekers and recent converts. But he breaks no new ground. He just circles popular homiletic points longtime Christians have heard for years, and even curious unbelievers have previously encountered in a society saturated with religious language.

Don’t misunderstand me. Rehberg says nothing out-and-out wrong. His exegesis accords with broadly Calvinist soteriology, backed with solid Biblical citations. I cannot dispute statements like: “Unfortunately, Christian leaders often ask people to decide to follow Jesus before they have considered him.” Or: “If you decide to follow Jesus, you are choosing to join his family, live in his kingdom, and let him be your King.” To pinch a theological cliché, This Is Most Certainly True.

It’s also really ordinary. Not only does Rehberg declare rudimentary Christian principles without any form of rhetorical clarification, as the quotes above demonstrate, he uses short sentences and few polysyllabic words. The language approaches a middle school level, with gentle, soothing cadences Christian readers probably remember from Sunday School handouts. Despite Rehberg’s brevity, and his generally agreeable thesis, I found holding focus very difficult, because his theological simplification and Mister Rogers-like intonation made me sleepy.

Recently I read an essay insisting that Christian worship traditions must change, that liturgy itself drives believers away. One recommendation really stood out: the author insisted sermons needed to go, because they’re a mere relic of pre-literate civilization. Christians today can read theological books, watch theological TV, and generally absorb theological teaching broadly. Old-school homiletics, according to this argument, is functionally obsolete anymore. Anybody, this writer claimed, can read theology and witness the truth thereof.

I respond: they can, but do they? We can argue the theological heft of Christian TV. But even Christian bookstores won’t stock difficult theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or William Lane Craig. Writers with bite, like GK Chesterton and Watchman Nee, vanish into the “Catholic Interest” and “Charismatic” sections, guaranteed to go unread by anybody not specifically seeking them. Forget classics like Augustine, Aquinas, or John of the Cross. You might find pretty gift editions. Maybe.

Instead, Christian bookstores, and Christian sections of mainstream booksellers, are dominated by writers like Johnnie Moore and Terry Smith, popularizers who desperately pitch to the middle. Or Amish romances. Lots and lots of Amish romances. Christian publishing has become hostage to a mindset that being pious means being polite, anodyne, and unobtrusive. The BBC's history of British Sunday School notes that Parliament once tried to ban Sunday School as dangerous. When did Christianity become safe?

Phil Rehberg joins legions of recent Christian leaders keeping curious Christians stuck at “Bible 101” levels. Surely they don’t mean any malice. They don’t revel in their congregations’ bland habits and freshman-level Biblical literacy. However, at least since the 1990s, when “Seeker Friendly” became Protestantism’s watchword, Christian leaders have fallen into a groove of presenting the same information, mostly the same way, time and time again. Meanwhile, “no religion” has become America’s fastest-growing religious category.

Then, irregularly, Rehberg tosses in the kind of awkward flourish that actually alienates Bible-believing Christians from evangelical churches. One really stood out: “Your relationship with God is like a romance. God is pursuing you.” David Murrow complains, with some justification, that such “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” language, common especially in evangelical praise songs, specifically alienates men. Today’s society has strict gender divisions, right or wrong. While I believe God seeks us, romantic rhetoric is offputting.

Rehberg’s brief, accurate, basically harmless pamphlet might make a decent textbook for adult catechumens. To his credit, Rehberg avoids the “one and done” salvation model beloved on Christian AM radio. He just says nothing to inspire Bible-believing Christians beyond the “Bible 101” level. It’s a theological teething ring, and says little congregants won’t internalize after a few Sunday sermons. People who buy books expect something more, something weightier. Rehberg, sadly, just doesn’t push hard enough.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Undeath is Even Scarier In Rhyme

Poems Dead and Undead (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets)

Long before Lovecraft developed a secular cult by describing a world where nature’s gear-wheels fell off, or Stephen King got rich translating Jungian fears into supernatural terrors, humans looked into the darkness and knew fear. That which we cannot predict or control has always terrified us, and somehow, that terror has always been… well… fun. So versifiers, from ancient bards to modern professor-poets, have long buttered their bread telling spooky stories with the lights off.

With the highly commercialized veneer surrounding horror literature today, themes of terror and unlife seem far removed from schoolbook poetry. But death, the ultimate unpredictable force, has always lingered in poetry, often as an active force—even more so before humans discovered penicillin. Compilers Barnstone and Mitchell-Foust find examples of blood-chilling dread throughout poetic history, including Egyptian funerary texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and this bleak prize-winner from Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey”:
Thus to assuage the nations of the dead
I pledged these rites, then slashed the lamb and ewe,
letting their black blood stream into the well pit.
Now the souls gathered, stirring out of Erebus,
brides and young men, and men grown old in pain,
and tender girls whose hearts were new to grief;
many were there, too, torn by brazen lanceheads,
battle-slain, bearing still their bloody gear.
From every side they came and sought the pit
with rustling cries; and I grew sick with fear.
Hans Baldburg Grien, "Death and the Maiden"
Horror in these poems generally arises when death’s sudden implacability collides with human illusions of control. Whether that means literal death, as in Homer, or more metaphorical death, horror inevitably arises because we hoard power reserved exclusively for God, Nature, or whatever. Many poems herein have religious meaning; Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot call for God, one piously, another desperately. But other poets, like Goethe and Baudelaire, invert religious meaning, creating mindscapes where despair becomes downright transcendent.

Some classic poets included herein are renowned for utilizing horrifying themes. French Décadents like Baudelaire and Rimbaud frequently described death, monsters, and shambling unlife in their works, while Poe and Christina Rossetti are known for little else (unfair though that is). That undergraduate staple, Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” deservedly gets included here. But some poets, often sanitized and squeaky-clean for high school textbooks, demonstrate surprising horror traits when de-bowdlerized, like this, from Lord Byron’s “Manfred”:
From thy false tears I did distil
An essence which hath strength to kill;
From thy own heart I then did wring
The black blood in its blackest spring;
From thy own smile I snatch’d the snake,
For there it coil’d as in a brake;
From thy own lip I drew the charm
which gave all these their chiefest harm;
In proving every poison known,
I found the strongest was thine own.
Somehow, despite having studied poetry myself, I didn’t anticipate these themes extending into living times. Besides a few dedicated genre poets like Bruce Boston, I didn’t know anybody still wrote that way, not when most poets teach college courses and winsomely court the tenure committee. Therefore, most surprising of all, nearly half this collection derives from poets currently, or recently, living. One doesn’t think “horror” when teachers and other eminences name Rita Dove, Billy Collins, or Ciarán Carson. Maybe we should.

These contemporary poets, however, simply feel different from their classical precursors. Modern horror poetry, like modern poetry generally, deals less in universal truths and broad archetypes; it favors greater intimacy. That is, it would rather bare the poet’s soul than describe humanity generally. Yet despite this intimacy, these poems are surprisingly humane and inclusive. George Bernard Shaw said only the deeply personal is ever truly universal. That certainly conveys in poems like Bryan Dietrich’s “Zombies”:
                                                 Beside a tombstone
you make your final stand. Stealing the arm, shoulder
and all, from one who may have been your father, you fend
them off for a while, waving his limb before you
the way you would a dowsing rod, a hand of glory.
Living, you tire. Fighting, you fall. Past lovers
get to you first, their mouths glorious, their bums hot.
What teeth they have to rip rivulets down your shins.
With our medicine, science, and technology, we today delude ourselves that we’ve established control. We exclude chance and mortality from our decisions, screaming YOLO while simultaneously stockpiling our retirement accounts, believing we’re eternal. But poetry, itself innately anti-modern, obstinately reminds us our illusions fool only ourselves. This collection, a mere sampling of poems designed to cause fear, channels a world our spirits cannot forget.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Why Aren't You Listening To Meg Myers?

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part One
Meg Myers, Daughter In The Choir and Make A Shadow



The first time I heard “Adelaide,” I stopped everything. I was cooking dinner at the time, and I admit, I burned the bacon. However, when Meg Myers’ voice, bold and resonant, forcibly contrasted itself to the introductory toy piano, I knew I’d begun hearing something revolutionary. As the percussion takes Myers’ side against the deceptively gentle piano, demonstrating Myers’ conflict with someone she only calls “boy,” she proved my initial opinion correct. She’s something new.

Recent years have seen the revival of breathy female vocal stylings so annoying, back in the 1990s, that it made my teeth hurt. When Selena Gomez or Carrie Underwood comes on the radio, I cringe, wishing they’d put more larynx, less lungs, into their vocals. Not that every female top-forty singer sounds wispy and girlish, but too many do. In “Adelaide,” Meg Myers sings with such full-throated bravado, I feel her singing in my chest.



Which made it doubly surprising when I purchased Myers’ debut EP, Daughter In the Choir, where “Adelaide” is track two. Track one, “Curbstomp,” has exactly that breathy style which annoys me from pop stars, and I cringed inwardly. Then, the second time through, I bothered listening to the lyrics:
I'm a sinner, I’m a liar
Want forgiveness, but I'm tired
I'm addicted to the fire
Let go, I'm ready for it
Let go, I’m ready
The lyrics, particularly coupled with Myers’ vocal tone, suggest a powerful woman who’s had the fight kicked out of her. Particularly since those last two lines, the song’s semi-refrain, sound very different: Myers’ beefier, more self-assured tone intrudes, though clouded through layers of distortion, like some nihilistic Jiminy Cricket. In a media environment where Strong Women are so ubiquitous that critics mock them, Meg Myers sounds different. She isn’t “Strong”; she just won’t be broken.

Among her many virtues, Meg Myers’ voice is so protean, she almost sounds like different artists on different songs. She uses this to remarkable effect. “Desire,” the first track and lead single from her second EP, Make a Shadow, mimics the breathy, besotted tone much loved by demure female pop stars. However, backed with a muscular, synth-driven backbeat and Myers’ frankly disturbing lyrics, she becomes the antimatter version of the crinkum-crankum songstresses she’s clearly mocking.

This reflects her general gist across her work.. “Heart Heart Head” starts softly, almost gently, though the music sounds less like a romantic ballad, more like a horror film soundtrack. By the end, Myers has ascended from gently husky lullaby, through gruff growling, into full-throated screams acidic enough to peel paint from metal. Her changing voice makes the superficially sweet lyrics, “You’re in my heart, you’re in my head,” a statement of undisguised animal terror.

We could apply such interpretations to every track, but more example will suffice. The song “Go” lets Myers use two voices in counterpoint. As her romance collapses, one voice timidly whispers: “Running away, running away.” Suddenly, the other, full-throated and brash, barks: “Go!” It becomes clear, these two voices represent one woman, and the pull between being good-girlish and being, well, herself. The song’s abrupt ending leaves us reeling—as, indeed, her romance leaves her.



I’ve seen Meg Myers in performance. She’s as dynamic and nervy as her songs imply. Not that she’s some fearless man-eater; as she sings songs of a woman asserting herself against the prissy roles society encourages in women, she looks terrified. But you quickly realize, she isn’t terrified of being judged. She’s terrified of the mighty power she’s discovered locked inside herself. She realizes, as if for the first time, that she could destroy you.

Myers is a fascinating performer. Watching her dance across the stage, between her guitarist and an electric cello player, I assumed she was improvising her moves. But Sarah beside me, who’d know, exclaimed: “She’s using belly dance moves!” Indeed, I quickly realized her moves were choreographed. One regional DJ observed that, where many alt-rock vocalists’ warm-ups involve slamming a beer, Myers actually does scales. Her passion is tightly controlled, which, if anything, makes her scarier.

Women’s roles come and go in rock music. Confident artists, from Wanda Jackson to Suzi Quatro to Aimee Mann, periodically assert themselves against the continuous thread of shrinking violets waiting for some man to complete them. Meg Myers is no shrinking violet. She has relationships, she loves men, but she won’t let them control her. The power in her songs asserts: I exist. Before you, without you, I exist. And nobody can take that away.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Apostle From India

Wisdom of the Sadhu: Teachings of Sundar Singh, Kim Comer, compiler

Born into a wealthy Sikh family and drawn to religious studies from an early age, Sundar Singh angrily rejected Western Christian missions into colonial India. He insulted missionaries, burned Bibles, and made his objections known. But as Hindu and Sikh beliefs left him feeling bereft, he contemplated suicide. Then a road-to-Damascus moment altered his path forevermore. Before his death in 1929, Sundar Singh became India’s most renowned Christ follower, and remains a national icon today.

Compiler Kim Comer selects representative samples from Sundar’s writings, numerous speeches, and moments recorded by his many followers. Like Rabbi Hillel or Saint Francis, Sundar Singh attracted enthusiastic followers and initiated a school of thought that survived his mortal life. He accomplished this, not by trumpeting himself, but by righteous teachings, unclouded thought, and (too rare among Christian leaders anymore) matching his actions to his words. Before long, his reputation transcended borders, religions, and cultures.

European Christian brethren trained Sundar for their idea of Christian missions. but despite his eager Gospel studies, he couldn’t embrace Christianity’s accrued cultural baggage. I can sympathize. Intensely attuned to his people, Sundar wanted only to become a Sadhu, an itinerant Indian holy man. Leaving the European school, he undertook a lifetime of humble wandering, Socratic questioning, and mindful prayer. He never sought renown, only clarity, but perhaps that’s why spreading renown soon found him.

Comer assembles Sundar’s words along a straightforward path intended to draw new readers into the Sadhu’s thinking. In Part One, “Scenes,” Comer pairs Sundar’s parables with autobiographical sketches, allowing the parables to illuminate important spiritual principles from the factual report. Part Two, “Conversations,” pairs these parables with what Westerners might call sermons, brief discursions on important transcendent concepts. Because Sundar uses Hindu terms like “karma” and “dhyanam,” jaded Western audiences can read with unhindered minds.

Sundar Singh, the Sadhu
By parables, I mean exactly what you think. Like Christ or Buddha, Sundar uses brief, allegorical stories to convey ideas too vast to speak as mere dictionary definitions. Narratives of a bereaved bridegroom or a fledgeling hawk touch first the heart, moving afterward to the head, where simply telling us something would prematurely strangle it in analysis. Sundar’s homiletic approach encourages audiences to apprehend his truth quickly, seeking factual confirmation and theological scrutiny only afterward.

Had Sundar not embraced Christ, he could’ve inherited vast fortunes—then as now, India’s Sikhs are generally wealthier than average. But like St. Jerome or John the Baptizer, Sundar abandoned easy urban comfort, preferring the company of society’s dispossessed. If anyone donated money, he shared generously with all around. He slept in borrowed beds and ate donated food. And though his teachings eventually brought lucrative European and American tours, he owned little besides his clothing.

Despite comparisons to Francis or Jerome, Sundar has transformative potential for Western Christianity because he abjures comfortable cultural touchpoints. The liturgical language Westerners often find boring, and must consciously strive to keep vital and new, doesn’t enter Sundar’s storytelling. His references come from Indian peasant life, Hindu practice, and the poor among whom Sundar lived. He strips away Christians’ learned pretenses, permitting us no cozy hiding hole. That which we consider dull, Sundar renders alien.

Stephen Mansfield writes that many spiritual hucksters have sold Westerners a sanitized Hinduism to solve Christianity’s recent failures. Hinduism provides the spiritual counter-narrative spiritual seekers want, and Christianity hasn’t much provided. But in doing so, these purveyors have scrubbed anything Westerners might find offensive, offering a spiritual elixir that makes people feel good without challenging them to do good. This creates an environment of spiritual self-sanctification, where we can believe everything while striving after nothing.

Not so with Sundar Singh. He’s bracing, difficult, even slightly dangerous. Like Christ or the Hebrew prophets, Sundar’s message reminds us that we, as we exist, have accomplished tragically little. Salvation isn’t a matter of belief, but new life. As a resolute non-Westerner, Sundar’s messages, pierce the protective cultural barriers Christians build themselves, demanding we separate what’s truly Gospel from mere cultural baggage. That isn’t easy. But stagnating Western Christianity definitely needs an outsider’s rebuke.

Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or John Calvin, Sundar Singh doesn’t write (and Kim Comer doesn’t compile) to convert unbelievers. Sundar rather calls believers to live actively what they speak verbally, and offers wanderers a spiritual home. Therefore this book appeals primarily to current Christians and the spiritually homeless. It illuminates Christ-like thought by erasing false cultural camouflage. Seeing faith through Sundar’s eyes, it appears as dangerous today as that upstart Christ must’ve seemed two millennia ago.