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Friday, September 23, 2016

Happy Birthday, Antoinette



Happy Birthday Antoinette.

It is your second birthday since you left. Your fourth birthday since your diagnosis.

That feels so weird to say. There was something very now about that phone call from your daughter.

I had just gotten in from school. I was unpacking my bags. I saw that your daughter was calling me. And I knew.

This is what happens to people like me -- and you -- who never use the phone. The only time it rings is to toll the bell of mortality. And so we both came to fear and hate the phone more and more.

Anyway, that moment felt very now. To say that it occurred years ago feels wrong. This moment I am living right now, in the aftermath of so much destruction, feels part of some ancient and irredeemable past.

Both of our birthdays fall on minor autumn holidays. Your birthday is the first full day of fall.

And so I cannot help but think of you.

You were a bad sister, I know I was nothing to you, and I miss you more than I can say. I no longer cry every day. Every third day. People are not loved in direct relation either to how worthy they are to receive love or to how they felt about us.

Your daughter asked me what you would think of Trump. I replied that you were nothing if not a highly intelligent woman.

After someone dies, everyone offers up his one- or two-sentence eulogy. When people were doing that for you, I kept hearing the same adjectives over and over, in this order of frequency:

Smart

Funny

Pretty

Hard working

Sarcastic

Good with money, which is just another way of saying smart.

And so, I told your daughter, you would despise Trump and Trump-ismo.

But you were also, as I am, allergic to hypocrisy, full of righteous anger, and a contrarian born on the fringe – born on an ice floe, actually, as we all were, an ice floe, a distant penal colony, a wilderness of honey and wild locusts – and you were on fire with rage against the excesses on the left that paved the way for Trump.

I think you'd probably adopt a "a pox on all their houses" approach and use your investment earnings to buy more land in remote hideaways for when human folly results in the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

I think of these following little shards of our sisterhood.

Two Paul Newmans for you. One with shirt; one without. Did you know his mother was Slovak, like ours? Seriously, he looks like he could be one of our brothers. A cross between Mike and Greg. 
Ferrara Torrone Honey Almond Nougat. I once gave you a pound box for Christmas. You opened it Christmas Eve and it was all gone before midnight mass. And you stayed a skinny beanpole till your first bout with cancer and the drugs they gave you that caused weight gain. It's a wonder you had any teeth. 
You wanted brie toward the end. I gave you just a small slice and you protested. Someone else might say, "She has limited time; indulge her."

But that's not what you were to me. You were not a limited creature who could go by lesser rules. I wanted to behave with you as if you had forever, and you had to keep your figure. And I knew someone else would give you all the brie you wanted after I left that day. 

German's chocolate cake, what we used to make for each other's birthdays. We would always have to open the package of German's sweet chocolate in the supermarket in order to read the recipe listing the ingredients we had to buy. We felt so naughty doing that -- opening a product before we had purchased it.

We did save that recipe but it was in a chaotic jumble of saved recipes so when it came time to use it we didn't know where it was. 


Skylands. The last time we were there was a bit less than a year before you left us. I can still taste the bittersweet flavor of that visit. 



All those Golden Age Hollywood movies watched over and over on a black and white TV until we had them memorized. It was so disappointing to grow up and enter the world and realize that virtually no one appreciates a woman who can trade repartee as well as any Billy Wilder heroine. At least with each other we could be fast-talking dames.

Hillsboro innkeeper: "You're a stranger here, ain'tcha? Would you like a nice, clean place to stay?" 


EK Hornbeck (Gene Kelly): "I had a nice, clean place to stay, madame, and I left it to come here."

Maid Marian (Olivia De Havilland): "Why, you speak treason!"

Robin Hood (Errol Flynn): "Fluently." 


Oscar Shapely (Roscoe Karns): "You know, there's nothing I like better than to meet a high-class mama that can snap 'em back at ya. 'Cause the colder they are, the hotter they get. That's what I always say. Yes, sir, when a cold mama gets hot, boy, how she sizzles."

Pirate Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone): "You know this? It is called the rosary of pain. It is possible to screw a man's eyes out of his head."

Lord Willoughby (Henry Stevenson) : "Very well. Do your worst." 

Northwest Passage explorer (Walter Brennan): "What have you got in that bag? If it's food, fetch it out!"

More Wild-eyed Northwest Passage explorer, laughing maniacally (Addison Richards): "You're not hungry enough yet!" 

You'd gone the previous ten years virtually without talking to me but when Marlon Brando died you called me up as if nothing had ever come between us and "reminisced" about our cinematic acquaintance. "I couldda been a contenda!" 

In spite of your phone phobia and mine, and the silence and hatred and hurt, you also phoned me on 9-11. That phone call is actually one of my most vivid memories of that day. I said, "No matter what, I love you." 

You said that when the buildings fell, you felt it was your fault, and you had to fix it. 

Now, see, who but the six of us would understand that? 

Maybe Cousin Greg. I saw him some years back and it was as if the intervening years of not seeing each other had never happened. He mentioned that he misses Phil everyday, which touched me so much. 

I told Greg that once I had a visitor at my house, and she was boiling some water for tea, and I had to stifle the urge to yell at her, because she was boiling the water wrong. 

Greg understood that completely. Maybe Aunt Phyllis was like Mommy in that respect. 

Raise kids with an exaggerated sense of responsibility. 

It sounds abusive, and yet, I *like* that about us. The kind of people who never call in sick at work. 

You don't have to acquire a passport to experience culture shock. You can do culture shock in your own country. I meet people who have zero sense of responsibility. They could never understand my entire culture, my entire world. They are a different species. 



Your beloved Jersey Shore. You would rent shore houses and invite me and always kick me out after a day or two. I'd have to hitchhike back to North Jersey. We were so different. 



People who know nothing else about you know that you were a hair twirler.

You read The Exorcist while alone in an isolated cabin. You loved it. You went to see the film and laughed all the way through it. You were actually possessed by Satan, weren't you? No other way to explain some things you did. I never read the book and had to leave the theater after about ten minutes. 


I'd be next to you in the passenger seat. The key in the ignition, engine starts, and with it loud radio: "It's getting near dawn bum bum bum ba da dum. I'll be with you my love ... till my seas are dried ..."

"Do you know what that means? Do you?"

Of course I didn't know what it means. I was a kid. You explained. I wanted to puke. 


I tried, in vain, to introduce you to Eastern European folk music, classical, Sinatra ... anything but the head banging I had to listen to when I drove with you. 



Bologna sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise. Classic poor white kid sandwich. You used to love them. One day we were visiting someone with a swing set and you ate your favorite sandwich and went at the swings with a bit too much enthusiasm and you threw up your favorite sandwich and you could never eat it again. This was a lesson -- the bologna sandwich lesson. 

Who do I tell this story to now? 


I will never forget -- and neither will you -- that Christmas you finally gave up on giving me feminine-smelling lotions as presents and finally gave me something that I actually wanted -- a Swiss Army Knife. Of course I immediately burst into tears, I was so touched and happy, and of course you made fun of me. 



You, tall, me, short, and the precociously beautiful Linda Ackerman, I think, the girl from across the street, standing behind us.

You're only six years old once, and you have only one time to play dress up with an older sister, and you never forget the older sister that fate hands you. 

Never. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Light Between Oceans" 2016 Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander. Review


"The Light Between Oceans" is a pretentious, manipulative, anti-art exercise in pseudo-art. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran returning from World War I to Australia. He gets a job as a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock. He meets and falls in love with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander).

Stop right there. Tom's last name is "Sherbourne," pronounced as "share born." Isabel's last name is "Graysmark," as in "gray area." Janus is the ancient god with two faces; January is named after him. He looks in two directions.

Are you taking notes yet? You need to be taking notes. There will be a quiz. Tom's last name is "share born" because he will share a child with another woman. Isabel's last name is "gray mark" because she is meant to get us thinking about the gray areas in moral questions. Janus Rock is named after Janus because the story is meant to get us thinking about how there is more than one way to look at a question.

Are you bored yet? Do you yet see how you are being manipulated and talked down to? Wait, there's more.

Isabel suffers miscarriages. At the exact moment that she is weeping over the grave of one of her miscarriages, a rowboat washes up. It contains a living newborn and a dead man.

At this point I have to ask, how stupid do Stedman and director Derek Cianfrance think we are? This key scene is utterly implausible. Have a healthy, live neonate and a dead man in a rowboat ever washed up on the shore of an ocean where a mother, at that moment, is grieving a miscarriage? Yes, yes, we all know that movies are not real. The point is that movies have art at their service, and they use art to make us either believe, or not care about, implausible plot elements.

The film makes no attempt to explain why or how a husband and father would leave his wife, put his newborn baby into a rowboat, and head out onto open ocean. It never attempts to explain how the husband died and the newborn baby survived. Think about it. Did a seagull drop a very heavy clam shell that hit the father in the head but missed the child? We know seagulls are obnoxious, but are they really that malicious? Is their aim that expert?

It is later explained that the father was German – the very people Tom had killed in WW I – and a victim of prejudice, prejudice he was trying to escape. In a rowboat? On the ocean? With a newborn baby? Leaving his wife on shore? No. This plot element serves one purpose only. To lecture the audience about what a bad, bad thing prejudice is, including prejudice against Germans, the folks we all, since WW II, love to hate, especially when we are at the movies. And Tom killed Germans!!!

Tom and Isabel bury the dead man and keep the baby, never telling anyone of this kidnapping. Then there are more utterly implausible plot elements, in which every character does several things that completely defy any expectation of them the flimsy plot has managed to build up in the viewer. It is painfully clear that these stick figure characters exist only as an attempt to make the book's author and the film's director look like deep people asking big, heavy questions.

Michael Fassbender is an interesting actor but he is given nothing to do here. He gazes at the ocean and looks sad. That's it. His facial expression does not change for two hours. Alicia Vikander similarly can't bring Isabel to life. Fassbender looks about 45 and Vikander looks 15. Weird. Although, after this film, they became a real life couple, they don't strike any onscreen sparks.

Cianfrance's direction is flatfooted. I hoped for spectacular ocean and sky imagery. No luck. The sky is often flat gray. The ocean shots are not innovative or mesmerizing. While watching the film I reflected that landlubbers like me find the sound of waves crashing on shore to be soothing. I realized that if I lived on Janus Rock I'd come to find that sound oppressive, in that one cannot escape from it. Cianfrance does nothing with this contrast between a civilized person's assessment of a remote island, and the feelings of someone more or less condemned to solitary confinement on such a place.

The narrative structure of this film is simply wrong. We see Tom return to Australia, apply for the lighthouse job, meet Isabel, meet Isabel again and propose marriage to her, Isabel get pregnant, Isabel have a miscarriage, etc. Anyone who has seen the trailer for the film knows that all these scenes are merely buildup to the ultimate showdown over who gets custody of the shipwrecked baby. The entire first hour of the film should have been eliminated. The film should have begun with Tom, Isabel, and the baby confronting their ultimate fate. That's where the drama of the film is. That's how we could have gotten to know, and care about, the characters.


Ironically, a narrative that pretends to be deep and important is constructed in such a manner that we are never allowed access to Tom's, Isabel's, or other key characters deepest thoughts, emotions, and motivations. The small moments of conversation, court testimony, facial expressions, body language, clinging or rejecting, that could have made this story come alive are never seen. All we get are stick figures moving around Stedman's and Cianfrance's pompous ambition. 

"Bridget Jones' Baby" 2016 Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey. Review.


"Bridget Jones' Baby" is a surprisingly funny, smart, adorable romantic comedy. Yes, really.

When I heard that there was going to be another Bridget Jones movie I thought, wow, that is going to be the worst film of the year. The previous two Bridget Jones movies combined comedic and romantic highpoints and low points.

In the first film, "Bridget Jones' Diary," there is the legendary "I like you just as you are" staircase scene, where the impeccable and quite possibly inhumanly perfect Colin Firth (as Mark Darcy) walks down a staircase that showcases his luscious long legs and tells plump, goofy, perpetually self-sabotaging Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) that he likes her just as she is.

If you've never seen the film, you can watch that scene – over and over – on youtube, where fans have posted multiple copies of it, and watched and re-watched it hundreds of thousands of times. How to find it? Just start typing "I like you just as…" and Google will finish the sentence for you. There's also a scene where Mark Darcy cooks dinner with Bridget Jones. If I die watching that scene, I will die happy.

The Bridget Jones movies also include hysterically funny fistfights between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as the two men vying for Bridget's affections.

But for all their perfect moments, the Bridget Jones movies also included cringe-worthy, masochist, misogynist scenes where Bridget is made out to be the butt of highly humiliating jokes.

And "Bridget Jones Diary" was released *fifteen years ago.* Renee Zellweger was already in her thirties. Part of the point of the film was that she was a spinster who had not found a man and was desperate to do so. Fifteen years later, Renee Zellweger is 47, subject of a tsunami of articles and internet posts arguing that she has committed the unforgiveable sin, in a woman, of aging. She is too damn old, fanboys and girls stamp and shout. She should be retired to a remote, cloistered nunnery; if she must venture out, it is only with a bag firmly affixed over her old-lady face.

Zellweger had plastic surgery and it ruined her, some allege. Others are enraged that she didn't have enough plastic surgery. Everyone is ready with pitchforks and torches to burn the lady for surviving past age 25.

And, finally, a romantic comedy about a woman in her forties who gets pregnant and does not know who the father is? Yuck.

In spite of all my misgivings, I went to the theater anyway, and "Bridget Jones' Baby" rapidly eliminated all my resistance. I laughed out loud throughout this movie, and I can't remember the last time I laughed so much during a first run Hollywood comedy. In "Bridget Jones' Baby," the emphasis is much more on comedy than it is on romance. Everything is played for laughs. The jokes are broad, low-brow, and slapstick. Don't expect sophisticated wit. Think nekkid bums and b00bs.

Bridget Jones is a TV producer. She is single. She and Mark made a go of it, but separated. He is now married to someone else. Bridget has a couple of one-night stands and relies on outdated, ecologically friendly prophylactics. Emma Thompson is her gynecologist. Go see this movie for Thompson's performance alone. If you don't laugh at her, I don't want to know you.

Patrick Dempsey is the other potential father. During every scene he's in, all I could think was, did his mother dip him in a magical river shortly after he was born? Dempsey is so obscenely handsome. He also comes across as being such a nice guy. He's just pure pleasure. His fireplace-warm and crackly good humor keeps the potentially awkward plot bouncing along, never getting too serious or painful.

I really think it's a human rights abuse that not every woman is issued her very own Colin Firth. He is arguably the perfect man. He may be the last living actor who can convincingly play a gentleman. Again, the film is played for laughs, but there is one scene that is heartbreakingly real. Firth is informed that Bridget is pregnant. He is so overwhelmed with emotion that he must leave the room. It's a small moment, but a poignant one, amidst the rest of the bedroom farce.

Renee Zellweger has aged, as have we all. But she's great. She inhabits Bridget, and steals our hearts.

The rest of the cast includes Bridget's funny, wacky mom, who is involved in an election meant to mirror current politics. Those brief scenes are as funny as the rest of the movie. Bridget's gang of friends are onhand, and seeing them feels as good as a reunion with your own old gang with whom you raised heck when you were young. As for the Hugh Grant character … go see the film. I don't want to spoil it for you.



Monday, September 12, 2016

Homosexuality and the Bible and The Death of Matthew Shephard



This morning I am chatting with my friend Joe about my FrontPage review of Nabeel Qureshi's new book, No God but One: Jesus or Allah? You can read that review here.

Joe wrote in response that Christianity, not just Islam, also kills. Joe wrote, "As a gay man I have witnessed, with actual blood and death (not hyperbole) what the Catholic church can do to the mind, body, and soul. You don't have to blow someone up to destroy a life. I walked in on an ex trying to kill himself in a pool of his own blood once because 'god hated him'"

I mentioned to Joe that though I am not myself gay, I became involved with gay rights in Bloomington, Indiana, exactly because homophobes used Christianity to bash and even threaten the lives of gay people.

It was Jesus' command to love one another that prompted my involvement. I attended PFLAG meetings for ten years. Our meetings were most frequently held in Christian churches. One of our leaders was a Lutheran minister and a gay man.

I do not deny that many use Christianity as a cudgel to demean gay people.

For many others, though, including me, Christianity has been what has urged us on to stand up for gay rights.

Below are two products of my involvement. One is an essay expressing my thoughts about homosexuality as discussed in the Bible. The other is a short piece about Matthew Shepard that aired via WFIU, the Bloomington NPR affiliate.

Homosexuality and the Bible
First appeared in The Bloomington Voice VI:23 (July 3, 1997): 4.

Public debate on gender is frequently saturated with voices claiming the Bible as basis for political resistance to civil rights for homosexuals.  Policy-makers may conclude that all constituents of faith demand public hostility to homosexuals.  To spiritual seekers it may seem that the Judeo-Christian tradition was founded on and is obsessed with such hostility.  This essay outlines one heterosexual Christian’s reading of scripture to understand anti-gay discrimination as profoundly contrary to the spirit and truth of the Bible.

Opponents of civil rights for homosexuals typically cite three Biblical passages understood to condemn homosexuality, and then declare that these three passages should direct public policy.  Putting aside this tactic’s violation of the principle of the separation of church and state, this Christian finds two flaws in it: it is anti-Biblical, and, it is belied by the religious practices of the homophobes themselves.

The cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a traffic signal, nor is it a Marine drill sergeant.  God did not choose to direct this tradition with the kind of stimulus that requires blind obedience. Our guide, rather, is a lengthy book, which must be studied and discussed as books are studied and discussed.

One can no more abstract one sentence from the Bible and understand it in isolation than one can abstract one sentence from War and Peace or any other complex work.  This approach is folly on a Swiftian scale.  It does great disservice to the Bible.  Shaving, wearing of mixed fabrics, intercropping -- isolated Bible verses can be found to condemn all.  Menstruation is “abomination,” the same word used to describe homogenital acts.  Couples intimate during menstruation are condemned to exile.   Verses can be found to support human sacrifice, the veiling of women, the genital mutilation of corpses, the exile of victims of skin disease, absolute communism under pain of death, slavery, racism, the blood guilt of Jews, and consumption of poison as proof of marital fidelity or Christian faith.  Unless and until the homophobes follow all these verses literally, they demonstrate their own argument as without merit.

Given that isolated Bible verses can be found to support any number of heinous or exotic policies, one might be tempted to jettison the Bible and dismiss Jews and Christians as primitive lunatics.  This Christian feels no such temptation.  Rather, logic demands that each idiosyncratic interpretation and application of Scripture answer for itself.  So-called Fundamentalists must announce why they promulgate verses condemning homogenital acts as central; those of us who do not must provide our criteria.

This Christian would offer two supports for her rejection of homophobia as a Biblically supportable position.  One, the Bible itself offers a check to literalism.  The Bible, to this Christian, is true; it is just not true in the way the homophobes need it to be.  Too, advances in knowledge demand that we engage with the Bible, testing everything we read in it against what it is and what we have come to learn since it was set down.

Selection of one verse as foundation for public policy applies a literalist concept of “truth” that is anti-Biblical, secular, and anachronistic.  And it is sin. Fundamentalists apply to the Bible the approach to words that evolved after the invention of texts like package instructions, legal documents, and science experiments.  Such texts, and the mindset that produced them, altered how people processed words. Fundamentalists now -- sinfully, foolishly, unsuccessfully -- apply that secular approach to sacred words that were once heard in a very different way.

A Native American, testifying in a trial, was adjured to tell the truth. He hesitated and said, “I don’t know if I can tell you the truth.  I can only tell you what I know.”  Paul encapsulated the concept this way:  “We know in part and we prophesy in part...We see as in a glass, darkly.”  Folk cultures tacitly accept that truth, like the oral canon, has versions and variants. The Bible, from the secular, anachronistic standpoint adopted by homophobes, “lies” beginning in Genesis, which offers two different versions of the creation story.  Berkeley folklore scholar Alan Dundes has demonstrated that every major Biblical passage, from basic prayers like Judaism’s “Hear, oh Israel” and Christianity’s “Our Father,” to historical accounts like that of Jesus’ death, is recorded in at least two differing versions. The folk concept of truth that allows for such variation is not antiquated; post-Heisenberg physics and postmodern philosophy support it.

The check the Bible offers to self-serving applications of literalist concepts of “truth” is a strong condemnation (Mat 26:61; Mark 14:58; John 2:20).  Further, in Matthew 23, Jesus literally damns righteous hypocrites who, like modern homophobes, attempt to assassinate the immortal spirit of God’s word while denying the Kingdom of Heaven to those who do not measure up to the dead letter of the law.

Argumentation, rather than blind obedience, is the model offered by Biblical heroes.  Abraham, Mary, and Jesus are but prominent examples of the Biblical model of debating the absolute commandments of God.  Abraham changes God’s mind about the number of good men that can redeem a town; Mary defies Jesus’ resistance and nags him into performing his first miracle.  Jesus openly disobeyed tenants of the meticulous and rigid law.  When asked directly, Jesus selected some commandments as being worthy to follow, to the exclusion of others (Mat. 19:18-22).  Jesus explained that the law was made for man, not the other way around.  The law’s test and proof was love of God and love of others (Mark 2: 27; Mat. 22:35-40).  Love, in Jesus’ radical approach, was to be granted even to those his contemporaries had been trained to hate because of accidents of birth (Luke 10, 25-37).  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus depicted a despised minority group member as superior to a priest and a high caste Levite.  It is the Samaritan who obeys the spirit of the law, and rescues a brutalized stranger.  Application of the tenets of this parable to homophobia exposes homophobia as anti-Biblical.

In any case, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.  The word is never used.  Three passages condemn male homogenital acts performed a part of gang rape, temple prostitution, or idolatry.  These verses are few, especially when compared to the Biblical torrent of words lambasting greed, gluttony, and power without conscience. Lesbianism is never mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality or homogenital acts.  Bible scholars argue that the reason the Bible does not address homosexuality as such is that homosexuality was not fully understood by the ancients.

The three passages repeatedly cited by homophobes need to be understood in context.  For example, homophobes cite the Sodom story as evidence of Biblical condemnation of homosexuals.  The Bible, in fact, reports the sins of Sodom as pride, gluttony, ease, and greed (Ezekiel 16:49).  An illuminating version of the Sodom story appears in Judges. There the predatory gang, mistakenly identified by modern homophobes as homosexuals, rapes a woman sacrificed to protect her male companions (Judges 19:22-26).  Clearly, gang rape, rather than homosexuality, was these men’s crime.

The Bible does record extraordinary love between members of the same gender.  Perhaps the most poignant love vow in world literature was spoken by Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:16, 17).  Jonathan risked and sacrificed incalculably for David, with whom he exchanged numerous love vows, and whom he loved as he loved his own life (1 Samuel 20, 17).  When Jonathan died, David said, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

Study reveals that the Bible is not the gay bashing handbook so-called Fundamentalists would like to pretend it to be.  The Bible’s text erodes the Fundamentalist position;  the kind of document the Bible is erodes their position even further.  Jesuit Walter J. Ong, Eric Havelock, and other scholars of oral cultures tell us that folk literature served as encyclopedia.  In the absence of libraries and computers, sacred scripture, memorized by tribe members, had to encapsulate every byte of data deemed important to the tribe.  Modern Christians dismiss much of such data found in the Bible as simply inaccurate.  No Christian physician would tell his patient, as the Bible does, to cure illness by drinking alcohol (Timothy 5:23).  No contemporary preacher calls for the incarceration and torture of Stephen Hawking, although Galileo once suffered such a fate under the church because his findings contradicted the Biblical concept of the solar system.

The Bible is not the contemporary Christian’s physician’s Desk Reference -- hydrocortisone works better for eczema than forcing the itchy to muss their hair, dwell apart, and shout, “Unclean!”  The Bible is not our political system - we can rejoice that we no longer practice the slavery so vigorously defended by Paul.  Christian historians seeking the truth of Jesus’ life must juggle competing and contradictory versions of his genealogy in Mathew and Luke; versions that, it is openly acknowledged, were written to appeal to special interest groups.  The Bible as databank of secular knowledge has lost ground. To ask the Bible to teach us about aspects of human sexuality that were deeply misunderstood in ancient times is to torture the book, to force it to perform tasks it cannot do.

Sister Wendy Beckett has pointed out that art starts at the top; that today’s art may be different from the cave paintings of Lascaux, but it is no better.  Spiritual writing, too, starts at the top.  Nothing written today surpasses the spiritual classics.  The Bible remains an inspiration for modern Christians and Jews, and that inspiration is found in words like, “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself; that is the law and the prophets.”  To reject such words because of the politicized application of their neighbors is to unnecessarily impoverish ourselves, to surrender to the forces of oppression and cruelty, and to lie to ourselves about our birthright.

It is not enough to claim the Bible; one must also live it.  In The Good Book, Reverend Peter J. Gomes describes how so-called Christian rhetoric directed against homosexuals makes fertile the ground for brutal beatings and, yes, even religion inspired murder. The Bible’s overall message, the Bible’s repeated warnings against a crafty, self serving literalism, adjure Christians and Jews to speak up and out when scripture is prostituted to serve homophobic campaigns of violence and hate. 

1998 Martyrdom and Matthew Shepard

Aired on WFIU, Bloomington, Indiana

This is Danusha Goska.

When I was as little girl in Catholic school, I was taught how important martyrs and martyrdom are to our understanding of our faith.

I found the idea unappealing. Why did there have to be such suffering? Why couldn't our moral universe encompass only sweetness and light?

As I grew older, I pondered another question: how could the average decent person, people like my friends, like myself, have supported systems like slavery and Jim Crow?

The martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, like the four little girls murdered in a bomb blast in a Birmingham church, may have taught me something about both questions.

Maybe ugly injustice is not exclusively the product of fanatics. Maybe ugly injustice is a product we all create. There are the fanatics leading the parade, of course, but the rest of us just go along. We say nothing, after someone tells a joke that offends us, we do nothing when the institutions we work for deny equal benefits to selected groups of our fellow employees, we hear nothing when our religious leaders preach a discrimination that Jesus never practiced.

I again ponder martyrdom and the education of the average, decent person in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a college student, around five foot tall, around a hundred pounds, who was tricked into a pick up truck, beaten, burned, and tied to a fence in a position typical of crucifixion. Later, his funeral was picketed by church members carrying signs reading, "Fag Matt in Hell."

We are shocked. Shocked. After the shock wears off, I hope Matthew's death can teach us as only martyrdom can, what the true face of homophobia is.



For Speak Your Mind, this has been Danusha Goska.

***

Interesting poll results 


Source
Here's another interesting chart. These charts make it clear that saying that there is no difference between Catholicism and Catholics and Islam and Muslims when it comes to homosexuality is not factual. 

Source


Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete

Saturday, September 10, 2016

No God But One: Allah or Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. Book Review


This review first appeared in FrontPage Magazine here.

Islam is currently protected from critique. This was not always so. Thomas Jefferson could declare that Muslims believe "that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." John Quincy Adams could acknowledge that Muhammad "degraded" the female sex and "declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind." Winston Churchill could write of Islam, "No stronger retrograde force exists in the world." Pope Callixtus III could assess Islam as "diabolical."

Such critique is taboo today. A few days after 9-11, then-president George Bush declared that "Islam is peace." In February, 2015, after ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage, President Obama attempted to redirect outrage towards the Crusades. In 2016, Pope Francis said, "If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence … there is always a small group of fundamentalists … Terrorism grows when there are no other options, and when the center of the global economy is the god of money and not the person."

This no-go-zone surrounding Islam, where all critics are vaporized by ever-vigilant thought police, was erected and is maintained by a variety of forces. One of those forces is capital-A Atheism, that is Atheism as a proselytizing belief system.

Atheists have long promulgated their unique twist on cultural relativism. In 2005, an Atheist invented The Flying Spaghetti Monster. The larger point of his project: all religions are importantly identical; that is, they are all equally ridiculous. A deity invented out of spaghetti and meatballs has as much depth, truth value and relevance as any other.

After atrocities committed in the name of Islam, one encounters Atheists promoting this relativistic worldview. The flying-spaghetti-monster argument can be paraphrased thus, "It is racist to express outrage at Islamic atrocity in any way that indicates that it is different from other atrocities. In America we have Christian Taliban who are just as oppressive and violent as Muslims. They blow up abortion clinics. Christians murdered innocents during the Crusades. Singling out Islam vitiates the larger war against all religion."

In 2006, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion. Critics pointed out that Dawkins revealed an abysmal ignorance of Christianity. The Dawkins camp replied that he didn't need to know such material; it was all flying-spaghetti-monster grade nonsense. Not so, Dawkins' critics replied. One may believe that there is no God, but there are certainly such things as scripture, history, and theology, and to misrepresent these actual facts is to obscure truths that have an impact on all lives. An excellent example of this public debate can be read in Terry Eagleton's piece "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching" that appeared in the London Review of Books," on October 19, 2006.

In fact, even to Atheists, the differences between religions matter. They are reflected in the real world. Look at a map plotting high sex ratios. Women and girls have a much better chance of living a full human lifespan if they are born in cultures shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition than they do if they are born into Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian countries. In those lands, females are more likely to die young, or simply to be aborted before birth.

Too, "Islam has bloody borders" as well as "bloody innards." Muslim populations are more likely to be in armed conflict with their neighbors than non-Muslim populations, according to Samuel P. Huntington.

American students who descend from ancestors from countries affected by Confucianism, or who were actually born in such countries, that is China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, often do better on standardized tests than other students. Jews, never more than one percent of the world's population, have a vastly disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes. The Catholic Church is said to be the largest single provider of social services in the world, and it played a key role in the development of the university, the hospital, and international law. It doesn't really matter if Richard Dawkins believes in Jesus or Confucius. Millions of people do, and those beliefs have an impact in the real world, including an impact on the lives of Atheists.

It behooves everyone, Atheist or believer, who wants to understand the daily news or the presidential race, to understand the difference between Christianity and Islam. Nabeel Qureshi's August, 2016 book No God But One: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity, published by Zondervan, is a must-read, even for Atheists. In the simplest and most accessible terms possible, Qureshi outlines major theological differences between Islam and Christianity. Qureshi's stated goal, which he meets: "I hope to elucidate two overarching matters in particular: that the differences between Islam and Christianity have great implications, and that the evidence of history strongly supports the Christian claims." Qureshi's conclusion: Christianity can withstand historical examination and ethical interrogation. Islam cannot – in fact, neither Islam nor the Quran live up to their own stated criteria for themselves. Further, Muhammad, as depicted in canonical Muslim sources, is not the man Islamic propaganda makes him out to be.

Nabeel Qureshi is a Pakistani-American. He was born to a devout Muslim family. In college he met David Wood, who challenged his faith. Qureshi described his conversion to Christianity in his 2014 bestseller, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Qureshi is a brilliant and ambitious man. He holds an MD, two MAs in religious studies, and is pursuing an Oxford PhD in New Testament studies. On August 30, 2016, Qureshi revealed on Facebook that he has recently been diagnosed with "advanced stomach cancer." One hopes, and some of us pray, for his rapid and thorough recovery.

No God But One maintains an excruciatingly polite tone and a high-school sentence length and vocabulary level. Qureshi is thorough in his takedown of Islam, but he is never anything but kind. One is aware that this is a man who lived most of his life as a Muslim, and whose beloved family members are still Muslims. Those resorting to charges of "Islamophobia" to silence critique of Islam need to read Qureshi.

Chapters are a few pages long, limiting themselves to basic questions and answers, with bold headings guiding the reader. You could read – and understand – this book in the bathtub or in a crowded subway car. Chapters address topics like the differences between Muhammad and Jesus, between the Quran and the Bible, and jihad and the Crusades.

Anyone reading Qureshi's book will be introduced to facts that reduce the Atheist spaghetti-monster relativist dogma to shreds. Qureshi points out, and scholars of Christianity have long known, that the consensus among historians is that there was a real Jew named Jesus, he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and his followers believed that they witnessed him alive after his death. One does not have to stray from historical documents or scholarship to accept these basic tenets of Christianity.

Muhammad, Qureshi claims, is another story. There are no records from the early days of the Arab Conquest, from either Arabs or those they conquered, mentioning a prophet named Muhammad, a scripture called the Quran, or the word "Muslim." The description of Mecca in the Quran does not mesh with historical or geographic realities, and early mosques faced Jerusalem or Petra, not Mecca. Robert Spencer's 2012 book, Did Muhammad Exist? covers this scholarship.

The earliest written documents about Jesus date, Qureshi convincingly argues, to within a decade or so of his death. Christians rapidly copied these documents and disseminated them throughout the Classical World. We have fragments dating back to the first half of the second century, and we have thousands of fragments and copies, more than for any other Ancient document. Gary Habermas wrote, "The New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing." Any wholesale recall and centrally-dictated change to these documents would have been logistically impossible.

The earliest biography of Muhammad dates to 140 years after his death, and even that late book was lost. The extant biography of Muhammad, its author admits, was bowdlerized to eliminate potentially offensive material. Muslims insist that the Quran that exists today is exactly the same message that Allah conveyed to Muhammad. In fact, Qureshi points out, Islam's own history proves this false. As attested in Muslim sources, the Quran has undergone alterations right up to the twentieth century.

As a Muslim child, Qureshi learned that Muhammad was "Al-Insān al-Kāmil," the perfect human, worthy of emulation. Muhammad was humble, peaceful, and kind. Through research of Muslim canonical sources, Qureshi learned that in fact Muhammad loved and praised war as the highest act (eg Bukhari 4:52:50, 4:52:44, 4:52:72). He also ordered assassinations, torture, mass murder, and rape of female captives.

Islam, Qureshi argues, is based on blind obedience to a deity, Allah, who is not interested in or capable of either intimacy or love. Christianity, on the other hand, promises an intimate relationship with a loving Father God. This difference in valuation of love and power inevitably is reflected in the societies where Christianity and Islam predominate. "Obedience under the shadow of threat is hardly obedience at all, but compulsion," he writes. "Christian obedience," he argues, is "rooted in love."

Muslims frequently believe that their Allah is loving, but there is no support for this in the Quran. In an attempt to depict Allah as loving, Qureshi says, Muslims cite that Allah is closer to a man than his own jugular vein (Quran 50:16). This is not an expression of intimacy, subsequent verses show, but rather a warning: Allah knows what bad things man has done, and will punish him when the time comes. The jugular vein is found in the neck, and the Quran tells believers to strike at the neck. Allah aims for the same target.

The Trinity is a very tough topic. Qureshi handles it well. I will not attempt to recapitulate his argument here. I will say that he does cite quantum physics to help the reader understand how the Biblical God could conceivably be one entity made up of three persons: father, son, and holy spirit. Qureshi also uses linguistic support to argue that the concept of the Trinity is hinted at in the Old Testament. In historical fact, some Jews did believe in a God of more than one person; after the rise of Christianity, that understanding was condemned as heretical in Judaism.

The Quran promotes a garbled version of the Trinity, insisting that Christians worship God the father, Jesus, and Mary. Jews, the Quran claims, worship Ezra, an Old Testament scribe, as God. In fact Jews do not worship Ezra, and Mary has never been part of the Trinity.

Early Muslims debated whether or not the Quran was created or eternal. Beginning in 833 AD, during a process called the Mihna, Muslims who believed that the Quran was eternal were persecuted, imprisoned, and killed. Today most Muslims insist that the Quran is eternal and uncreated, granting it a status reserved for gods. This belief contradicts the doctrine that only Allah is god; Muslims don't seem to care. This reverence for the Quran is not reflected in Muslims' relationship to it. Most Muslims don't read, refer to, or attempt to understand the Quran. Its language is opaque to them, and Muslims fear that they may be clinging to a verse that has been abrogated, or canceled out, a Quranic doctrine whereby some verses become obsolete, but are retained in the text.

Qureshi is rather gentle in his critique of the Quran. He writes off its incoherence as a result of it having been first oral rather than written. That won't wash. The Iliad and the Odyssey were originally oral, and they are magnificent. Qureshi should read Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato, an examination of oral societies. The oral mind was a different mind, but not inferior. The Quran's incoherence can't be blamed on orality.

Those seeking a tougher critique of the Quran will want to read Don Richardson's Secrets of the Koran. Richardson points out that the Quran is so repetitious that if all its repeated material were removed, it would be 40% shorter. The Quran is so violent that it contains at least 109 jihad verses; one of every 55 verses is a jihad verse. One of every eight verses is a threat of damnation or a graphic description of sadistic tortures in hell for infidels. By contrast, the Old Testament mentions Hell once in every 774 verses, and Hell is never described with as much lip-smacking sadism as it is in the Quran.

The Quran is written in one language; the Bible was written in three languages. The Quran is the product of a much shorter period of composition than the Bible. The Quran is approximately 77,000 words long; the Bible is approximately 800,000 words long. The Quran offers much less elbow room for alternate interpretations than the Bible. The Quran itself offers no escape from its own demands for violence.

There is no analog to jihad in the Bible. The advancing Israelites do claim Canaan through military conquest. That conquest is limited by geography and time. But the Bible also includes repeated calls for mercy (Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8) and respect for the stranger (Exodus 22:21). The Moabite Ruth, and Rahab the Harlot, both originally non-Jewish outsiders, become heroines. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin argues that "righteous Gentiles" are essential to the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus depicts the ultimate outsider, the Good Samaritan, as an exemplar of conduct.

The Quran, in contrast, adjures Muslims to be harsh with non-Muslims and not take them as friends (66:9, 48:29, 3:28, 5:51, 9:28, etc). The Atheist flying-spaghetti-monster myth just doesn't work here. The Bible and the Quran are very different books. They cannot be relativized into sameness.

The Quran offers garbled versions of the life of Jesus. The Quran appeared at least six hundred years after Jesus died, over six hundred miles away from his life and death, and in a language foreign to what Jesus and his apostles spoke. Its fables about Jesus' life are cribbed from non-Biblical, pop versions – Qureshi calls them "fan fiction" – that were circulating in the seventh century. Further, the frequently stated Muslim belief that the Quran contains secret, advanced, scientific knowledge or mysterious number codes is easily debunked.

Ironically, the one miracle Muhammad attributed to himself was the Quran. No one could ever write a book comparable to the Quran, the Quran says. Christians produced al-Furqan al-Haqq, a book that presents Biblical teaching in Quranic style. Muslims mistook it for the Quran. It is convincing enough that it is banned in some countries, and many websites warn Muslims not to read it. The ease with which a book that is like the Quran was created disproves the Quran's statement about itself, that no one could create anything like it.

Qureshi's treatment of the Crusades irked me. Like many Protestants, he mentions Catholics only in a negative sense: Catholics, he reports, unlike Protestants, are similar to Muslims in their view of scripture (298). Qureshi does not cite a single Catholic source to back up this unfriendly generalization. Qureshi depicts Pope Urban II as a genocidal maniac. He relativizes Crusaders and jihadis and repeats, three times in as many pages, the plainly hyperbolic statement that Crusaders traveled through Muslim blood up to their ankles, knees, or the knees of their horses. He tosses off a reference to the Spanish Inquisition; apparently he is unaware that that misrepresented period, often used to malign Catholics, has been completely redefined by modern scholarship. Good sources on the topic of the Muslim presence in Spain include Dario Fernandez-Morera's 2016 book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise and Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. Both Crusaders and Muslims "committed inexcusable atrocities," Qureshi relativizes. Incorrect, as Dr. Bill Warner's Jihad v Crusades video demonstrates.

All quibbles aside, No God But One is a very accessible and necessary read not just for Christians and Muslims, but for Atheists, as well.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete



Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Trump, Parasitic Wasps, and My Vote

Emerald Cockroach Wasp Ampulex Compressa Lenny Worthington, Photographer. 
People say you never change anyone's mind on the internet. Not true. I seek to have my mind changed through the internet and any other source of information.

When the Republican primary debates began, I watched them eagerly. I knew almost nothing about Donald Trump and I was ready to vote for him if he proved himself worthy of my vote. I defended him against Facebook friends who called him a Nazi. Ask Facebook friend Maria Elena Gonzalez, who denounced me in melodramatic terms.

It was only after Trump revealed his mind and character that I realized I didn't want to vote for him.

After the primaries ended and it became clear that Trump and Clinton would be the major party nominees, I read Facebook eagerly. I wanted to know if my anti-Clinton Facebook friends were correct. Was she the anti-Christ, and should I vote for a third party candidate, or at least plan an insurrection?

I followed the links my anti-Clinton Facebook friends posted. I rapidly discovered three things:

Anti-Trump links tended to be to mainstream news sources, from the NYT to the Wa Po, to CNN. Anti-Clinton links tended to be to fringe websites overloaded with ads that made my anti-virus software kick into "danger, danger" gear.

Anti-Clinton links were accompanied by physically unattractive photos that emphasized that she is an older woman with wrinkled and sagging flesh. You can photograph an older person to make them look wise and deep. You can also photograph them to make them look hideous. Facebook friends, strangely enough including older women, were choosing photos of Clinton that made her look like a bag of sag, a hag.

The third thing about these links: a good percentage were outright false. That Clinton had "recently" "fallen" and that that "fall" revealed that she was dying. False. That she had paid Khizr Khan $375,000 to speak at the DNC. False. That she had announced plans to rescind the second amendment. False. That she had embraced sharia as pro-woman. False.

I rapidly lost faith in anti-Clinton articles. She may well be the anti-Christ; the boy-who-cried-wolf principle applies.

I was still ready to be convinced, if not to vote for Trump, at the very least to vote *against* Clinton. The anti-Clinton posts in my Facebook feed, relying, as they did on fringe falsehoods and misogyny, swayed me closer to voting *for* her.

Because I disagree with Clinton about so very much, I continue to ask myself, "Can I / should I vote Trump?" Yes. I do. I still ask myself that.

Yesterday, Facebook friend Joe Palinsky shared a Rolling Stone article, "How Donald Trump Lost His Mojo," by Matt Taibbi. Taibbi outlined how Trump's stump speeches are now confused: He occasionally bursts out in the incoherent, abrasive braggadocio that won him his fans, but he also slips into politically correct embraces of blacks and Hispanics. During a recent speech, Trump shouted that during his administration, "African-American citizens and Latino citizens will have the time of their life!"

Noting Trump's current brown-nosing of the very special interest groups he had previously spoken down to, The Atlantic Monthly published, "The Cowardice of Donald Trump." That article carefully documents Trump saying scathingly critical things about blacks and Hispanics – when speaking to white audiences – and then praising and sucking up to blacks and Hispanics when speaking to blacks and Hispanics.

And this is where amupulex compressa, the emerald cockroach wasp, comes in.

Anti-Hillary voices have been insisting to me, "Sure, Donald Trump is a buffoon and we all wish he were not the nominee, but he is the will of the people. But that's okay, because we will control him. We will tell him whom to place on the Supreme Court. We will be driving the car. He will merely be a figurehead, or bobble-head, to entertain the ignorant masses who chose him."

And *that* is supposed to be *less* diabolical and safer for our nation than voting for Hillary Clinton.

The powers-that-be, the men-behind-the-curtain, the unseen-hands, have been trying to bring Trump to heel for months now. Paul Manafort couldn't do it; he was kicked out. Corey Lewandwoski, who notoriously manhandled a female reporter couldn't do it.

Who is doing it?

A parasitic wasp has finally gained entry to Trump's brain.

Parasitic wasps inject a neurotoxin into the brains of the insects they parasitize. Ampulex compressa parasitizes cockroaches. After subduing the cockroach, the wasp lays her eggs in the zombie-fied cockroach. The cockroach lives long enough to do the wasp's will. Once its mission is finished and her eggs hatch, the cockroach dies.

Who is now controlling Donald Trump? Ironically enough, it is, like the much vilified Hillary Clinton, an older, unattractive woman: Kellyanne Conway. She is the new campaign manager who is steering around this new, neutered version of Trump, the mojo-less Trump who sucks up to blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and migrating Muslims, as documented in Rolling Stone and The Atlantic.

And *this,* ladies and gentlemen, is supposed to be less diabolical than electing Hillary Clinton, a woman who has been in the public eye for most of her life, and whom we all know. She's obnoxious; we all agree. I disagree with her on just about everything, except the necessity for public professionalism and behind-the-scenes competence.

No. I cannot vote for a shell being manipulated by the unseen, and unvetted machinations of parasitic wasps.