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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pope Benedict's Regensburg University Speech; Muslim and Christian Concepts of God



On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk at Germany's Regensburg University. The Holy Father quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos' assessment of Islam, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Reaction was immediate, negative, and threatening. Iraq issued a statement urging Muslims "not to harm" Christians. That such a statement was issued in itself speaks volumes. In fact Christians are subject to murder in Iraq and their numbers there have decreased dramatically since the overthrow of Sadam Hussein. Similarly, Indonesia urged its citizens to "self-restraint." Malaysia said that the Vatican would be held responsible for whatever transpired. Pakistan said that the Pope had injured Muslims, thus justifying Muslim retaliation against Christians.

I was amazed when the Holy Father made the statement. I was impressed by his frankness. I was disappointed when he issued what sounded like an apology. I also thought, Gee, Benedict must be rather naïve. Because anyone familiar with international conversations about faith would know that a pope including that quote in a speech was throwing down a gauntlet.

All that aside, his speech is excellent. It is, as the Vatican said, "a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come." What's not to like?

In his speech, Benedict presented two conceptions of God. Benedict argued that in Christianity, God is reason, and reasonable. In Islam, God is not bound by reason. Benedict concluded that "It is to the great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures."

The God described by the Judeo-Christian tradition and the God described in Islam are not the same. I don't need Pope Benedict to tell me that. I grew up, and currently live, in Passaic County, often identified as having America's second largest Muslim population. I grew up with Arabs, Muslims, and Islam, as well as people from every other continent and almost every other major faith.

My friend Narin was one of the most spectacularly beautiful women I've ever met. She was Circassian, home to legendarily beautiful women. Narin was a gentle, quiet girl. We sat next to each other in class. She would doodle endless arabesques in her notebook, in lieu of taking notes. Her spontaneous illuminated notebooks were as beautiful as she. Both drew forth my awe.

I vividly remember the day she told me she would kill me when the time for jihad came. I remember her telling me that if she were to doubt Allah for only a second, she would burn in Hell for all eternity.

I'm reading Ibn Warraq's "Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out." Warraq is himself a scholar and a former Muslim. Warraq identifies himself as an atheist and he is often rather contemptuous of any religious faith, including Christian. On page 92 of "Leaving Islam," Warraq describes how Muslims who convert to Christianity compare the Muslim concept of God with which they are familiar, and the Christian concept that causes them to convert.

"Muslims who have converted to Christianity would be deemed, by Muslims who are now atheists and humanists, to have left one form of unreason only to adopt another. But what reasons do Muslim converts to Christianity give for their conversion? These converts evidently found something in Christianity that they felt was lacking in Islam.

Many are attracted by the figure of Jesus, others find the Christian dogma of forgiveness of sins comforting, and still others are impressed by the charitable behavior of individual Christians around them.

But if there is a common thread running through these conversion testimonies, it is that Christianity preaches the love of Christ and God, whereas Islam is forever threatening hellfire for disobeying, and obsessively holds up the wrath of God in front of the believer.

In other words, the two religions have totally different conceptions of God: In the former, God is near, loving, and protective, God the father. In the latter, God is a remote, angry, tyrannical figure to be obeyed blindly. Or, as one Muslim convert to Christianity was quoted as saying in a truly astonishing article that appeared in the Algerian Arabic daily El Youm in December, 2000, 'Christianity is life; Islam is death."

The full text of Benedict's 2006 Regensburg lecture is here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Can't My Students Understand EE Cummings' Position on Righteous Revenge v. Passionate Adultery?

Aphrodite and Ares, caught by Hephaestus' supersnare of resistless metal 
I love the incredibly stupid look on Aphrodite's face here.

I want to know why my students can't understand poet E.E. Cummings' position on righteous, if sadistic and jealous, revenge versus adulterous passion.

I've just finished lecturing about Ancient Greece. I compare it to Ancient Egypt. There's a blog post about the Greece lecture here, and a bit about Ancient Egypt lecture here.

I close out the lecture with modern-day poems inspired by Greek myths. My goal is to emphasize that the Ancient Greeks made a contribution to the world that lasts to this day; their myths still inspire our artists.

These are the poems we read:

We read William Butler Yeats' "Leda and the Swan," a graphic depiction of a beautiful girl being raped by a swan, and the unintended consequence – the catastrophic Trojan War – that Zeus' momentary lust engenders.

We read Edna St. Vincent Millay's heartbreakingly lovely poem, "Prayer to Persephone," in which Millay begs Persephone, who is herself trapped in Hell, to take good care of a dead girl Millay had a crush on.

We read one of the grimmest poems ever written, W.H. Auden's "The Shield of Achilles," whose main message is, "Life is a bitch and then you die." Only it's even worse than that.

It's E.E. Cummings' poem "In Heavenly Realms of Hellas" that confounds my students.

(By the way, I know I am supposed to type Cummings' name in lower case letters. I am dyslexic and selectively breaking orthographic rules like that is just too hard for me.)

The basic plot: Hephaestus, the blacksmith, the one ugly Olympian, is married to Aphrodite, supremely beautiful, the goddess of love. She cheats on Hephaestus with Ares, the handsome war god.

Hephaestus gets his revenge. At his forge, he fashions a very fine net that he throws over the pair while they are making love. He summons the other gods to come and watch the trapped pair, to laugh, and to ridicule.

Hephaestus' act is very cruel. But of course it was very cruel for Aphrodite to cheat on him.

In Cummings' poem, he superficially praises Hephaestus as virtuous, but it's obvious – to me – that he despises Hephaestus, and sides with the adulterous lovers.

My students don't get this at all. They don't get this after I explain it to them. They insist that Cummings is on Hephaestus' side.

This bothers me.

Why don't my students get this? What is it? Is it vocabulary? My students don't use dictionaries. They don't look up words they don't know. I tell them to. Doesn't work.

And … is their inability to read between the lines here symptomatic of some larger problem? I do not know.

Cummings' poem, below:

***
in heavenly realms of hellas dwelt
two very different sons of zeus:
one, handsome strong and born to dare
--a fighter to his eyelashes--
the other,cunning ugly lame;
but as you'll shortly comprehend
a marvellous artificer

now Ugly was the husband of
(as happens every now and then
upon a merely human plane)
someone completely beautiful;
and Beautiful,who(truth to sing)
could never quite tell right from wrong,
took brother Fearless by the eyes
and did the deed of joy with him

then Cunning forged a web so subtle
air is comparatively crude;
an indestructible occult
supersnare of resistless metal:
and(stealing toward the blissful pair)
skilfully wafted over them-
selves this implacable unthing

next,our illustrious scientist
petitions the celestial host
to scrutinize his handiwork:
they(summoned by that savage yell
from shining realms of regions dark)
laugh long at Beautiful and Brave
--wildly who rage,vainly who strive;
and being finally released
flee one another like the pest

thus did immortal jealousy
quell divine generosity,
thus reason vanquished instinct and
matter became the slave of mind;
thus virtue triumphed over vice
and beauty bowed to ugliness
and logic thwarted life:and thus--
but look around you,friends and foes

my tragic tale concludes herewith:
soldier,beware of mrs smith

Greek myths inspire artists today. Leda and the Swan. source
Leda and the Swan by James LeGros source

On Being Labeled "Idolatrous" by a Protestant Friend for whom I Had Been Praying

Idolatry, Hollywood Style. The Ten Commandments 
Catholics are idolators? Really?

Someone I care about a lot has been ill. Day after day. Not getting better. The body is supposed to get better, supposed to recover. I worried. I said, "Go to a doctor." My comment was ignored. I begged. I ordered. "Go to a doctor!"

I have contact with this person mostly via email. You can't really order someone to go to a doctor via email. It just doesn't carry any weight.

Eventually even this workaholic realized he had to go to a doctor.

He broke the news to me via email. He told me what the diagnosis was.

I googled the term. I wanted to poop my pants.

The very first webpage I clicked on felt like a slap in the face. "Irreversible … no recovery … discuss end-of-life plans now with your doctor."

A new human rights violation: abuse by webpage.

I keep my rosary right next to the door. I got up and got it and left the apartment.

I felt lead to pray to Our Lady of Lourdes. I prayed for this man's complete recovery.

On February 11, 1858, a "beautiful lady," subsequently identified as Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a poor and chronically ill 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in Lourdes, France. Miraculous healings have taken place at Lourdes.

I've never accepted Bernadette's story uncritically. I talk about my best understanding of what transpired there in "Save Send Delete". I also talk about my attempts to understand the Lourdes apparition in my Amazon review of Franz Werfel's excellent book, "Song of Bernadette." You can read that review here.

Franz Werfel was a prize-winning Jewish writer from Prague, friend to Franz Kafka and Martin Buber. He published work that mocked Hitler. Werfel was escaping from the Holocaust when he, inspired by a trip to Lourdes in his escape, took a vow to write something that would honor what he experienced there.

I felt lead to pray to Our Lady of Lourdes, and I did. I prayed that the recently diagnosed man recover completely. Through facebook, I asked others to pray, as well. I asked them to pray regardless of their faith, or lack of faith.

I mentioned Our Lady of Lourdes and I posted artist Hector Garrido's depiction of her, as described by Bernadette. It's a beautiful, comforting image of a serene, praying woman in a rocky landscape, similar to the Masabielle grotto where Bernadette first saw her beautiful lady. I thought that persons of many faiths might find such an image conducive to prayer. I watched a youtube video about a woman who was cured of a painful illness at Lourdes. And I prayed some more.

The man for whom I was praying wrote back eight days later. He had been given further tests. They withdrew the previous diagnosis. He didn't have the dread disease they thought he had.

I exhaled. I rejoiced. I thanked Our Lady of Lourdes.

I wrote to this man. I told him I'd been praying for a miracle to our Lady of Lourdes.

He wrote back. "I'm Protestant."

I was a bit stunned.

I wrote back. "I've been praying to her for you. I felt lead to pray to her for you."

He wrote back, "We believe that's idolatry."

I was stunned.

Our Lady of Lourdes by Hector Garrido
My mother lost two sons in the prime of life. My brother Phil was killed on my birthday.

My brother Mike had been a loudmouthed atheist. He would, predictably, cause a ruckus at family reunions, insisting that there is no God. Then he found God. He became a Protestant.

While I was serving in Peace Corps in Nepal, Mike became terminally ill. I flew back and visited him in the hospital.

"Everyone is praying for you, Mike! All my friends! Hindus, Buddhists – "

"God does not hear the prayers of a Jew," Mike said, quoting Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convetion.

I didn't witness this, but I was told this story. I was told that one of Mike's Protestant friends approached my mother at Mike's funeral, and said to her, "It's such a shame that you are Catholic and will go to Hell. You will never be reunited with Mike in Heaven."

***

About seven years ago, I applied for a teaching job at a Christian university. The job description excited me more than I can say.

The school phoned me for an interview. I was thrilled. Through the roof, happy, excited, hopeful.

At some point in the process it came out that I am Catholic.

"We don't hire Catholics at our Christian university."

I was so hurt I wrote a ten-page letter. And I mailed it, too.

***

As I mention in "Save Send Delete," I'm not much of a Christian or a Catholic. I "curse God and die" on a daily basis. I regularly commit a very predictable catalogue of sins.

I wrote the book defending my faith because I see the best in the Judeo-Christian under constant, dangerous, and destructive attack. A child of Eastern European immigrants, I lived in the atheist paradise the Soviets attempted to create. I saw that Brave New World and it is monstrous. Even if I were not a believing Christian, I would have to acknowledge that that Judeo-Christian tradition makes the world a better place.

I grew up in working class New Jersey where Protestants looked down on Catholics because of class snobbery, not theological doctrine. Catholics were, largely, blue collar; Protestants, more frequently, white collar. Catholic last name ended in vowels. We were the more recent, low-rent immigrants from Poland and Italy. Protestants were stiffer folk from northwestern Europe. The Protestants who looked down on us might not have known a thing about transubstantiation, but they knew very well what side of the tracks we came from. As a Protestant friend memorably said to me once after giving me a ride home and seeing where I lived, "My car costs more than your house."

I so wish that Protestant snobbery toward Catholics would wither and die a long overdue death. I so wish my Protestant brothers and sisters would get it that Christianity is under attack from several forces, including Political Correctness, Jihad – see the treatment of Copts in Egypt, men like Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran and the exodus of Christians from Iraq – and secularism. I so wish that the seriousness of these challenges would cause my Protestant brothers and sisters to recognize that their snobbery toward Catholics is utterly trivial in comparison to the real challenges we face.

***

If you do a Google image search of the word "idolatry," some of the first images you find are of Catholics, specifically Polish Catholics, including the two below. I am so saddened that so many Protestants devote so much energy to demonizing Catholics. One might think that they would find bigger fish to fry. 


Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Cairo Time": Inept and Inert, A Criminal Waste of Talent



"Cairo Time" is inept and inert, a criminal waste of talent and material. Alexander Siddig is handsome and charismatic as Tareq, an Egyptian café owner who shepherds a married American tourist, Juliette, (Patricia Clarkson) around Cairo. Patricia Clarkson is beautiful and wears her many dresses well.

The film's publicity compares it to "Brief Encounter." Not a chance. There is no chemistry between Tareq and Juliette. This is the fault of Ruba Nadda's lifeless script and direction so inert you wonder if she has fallen asleep behind the camera and the actors are too polite to wake her.

There are shots of the pyramids. There are scenes where characters stroll through an exotic bazaar, smoke hookahs, and dance at a wedding. There is a scene where men harass Juliette on the street. Juliette almost seems to like it; this takes on an ugly tone in the wake of the notorious Tahrir Square assault on Lara Logan. There is an entirely gratuitous scene that depicts Israelis in a negative way. Remarkable, because the film has no plot to speak of, but the director managed to work in her prejudices. These scenes ramble without reaching any point. There is zero dramatic tension. You don't wonder what's going to happen next – you pretty much know that *nothing* is going to happen next.

"Cairo Time" is an extraordinary waste of talent and material. Alexander Siddig is a charismatic star. I wish he had been given something, anything, to do. There is so much potential in the material. Say something about a potential romance between a Muslim man and an American woman. Say something about the potential of extramarital love. Say something at all! The film never does.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"The Flying Spaghetti Monster": Cutesy New Face on a Deadly Atheist Project


Dung beetles. Egyptians worshipped them because their round balls of manure reminded Egyptians of the roundness of the sun. This is the principle of sympathetic magic. Like objects have power over each other. 
Baboons worshipping a dung beetle above a sun disc, or ball of manure. 

In her book "Mythology," classics scholar Edith Hamilton uses the illustration, above, to explain why the Greeks mattered to us today in a way that the Egyptians, for all their monuments, never could. The Greeks made their gods into men, and their men into gods. It matters what we worship; it matters what myths we tell ourselves. 

Father Piotr Sosnowski murdered by Nazis near Tuchola, 1939. Source
The French Revolution guillotines cloistered Carmelite nuns, July  17th, 1794
China is committing a cultural genocide against Buddhist Tibet. Source 
Miguel Pro, Mexican priest executed for the crime of belief. Source
Soviet mass graves. It is estimated that 100,000 priests, monks, and nuns were executed in the Soviet mass terror of 1937-38 Source
Photo source. The Khmer Rouge massacred tens of thousands of Buddhist monks. source
The pictures, above, all reference persons of various faiths murdered by regimes who justify their actions with atheist ideologies. It matters what we worship. It matters what myths we tell ourselves. 

source

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is an atheist project. Its goal is to communicate that religions are indistinguishable, but all religions are silly, ridiculous, and without merit. Its message is false. It does matter what we worship; it does matter what myths we tell ourselves. 


"The Flying Spaghetti Monster" is a recent invention by atheists. It sounds cute and harmless and possibly funny.

I open this blog post with a series of photos of persons of faith murdered by self-professed atheists, who justified their murders with atheist philosophies. These photos are serious and depressing.

Why illustrate a topic as funny sounding as "The Flying Spaghetti Monster" with pictures of atheists murdering people of faith?

I'll try to explain, below.

***

"The Flying Spaghetti Monster" argument goes something like this: religions are really weird and ridiculous and stupid, and people who believe in God are really weird and ridiculous and stupid. These weird, ridiculous and stupid people who believe in God tell weird, ridiculous and stupid stories – myths. Society makes us respect these religions. We don't want to respect them, so let's invent our own god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When we demand respect for our obviously ridiculous deity, we will reveal exactly how weird, ridiculous, and stupid religion really is.

***

In "Save Send Delete" I talk about my relationship with a media atheist. I call him "Rand," a pseudonym. Rand loved the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He didn't see any difference between a parody of religion invented in 2005, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, or any other religion.

Rand told me he didn't much like poetry. He had problems with language. He liked science. He liked sentences in which words named concrete, easily identifiable nouns. He didn't like metaphors. He didn't like allusions. He liked numbers. You always know exactly what a number stands for. Three always means three. Not two. Not four. Three. You didn't have to guess. You didn't have to untether your thoughts from the material world and follow the mystery paths that insight opens.

The Psalms were completely worthless to Rand. Shakespeare. Rumi. All that fussing around with language. What was the point? If you want to say something, just say it directly.

If I tried to tell Rand that societies accomplish what they accomplish in large part because of the myths they tell themselves, he wouldn't get it, at all. To him, if you wanted to accomplish something, you just got up and did it.

History tells us that Rand was missing the point. Entirely.

***

The Flying Spaghetti Monster was invented by Bobby Henderson, a 24 year old physics student. I suspect that physics student Henderson has the same problem with what are traditionally thought of as right-brain functions that Rand had. What is poetry to Bobby Henderson? Metaphor? Imagination? Myth? Its power?

Too, like Rand, Henderson may have become used to thinking of himself as smarter than other people, and thinking of other people as just plain stupid.

If your brain performs only what are thought of as left-brain functions, it would be easy to say that the creation story in the book of Genesis is just plain silly. Why would any deity banish his beloved creations because they ate a piece of fruit?

Those of us not so entrapped in the left brain understand that Genesis is one of the most profound stories ever told, and it's not about apples. But the depth of the story remains obscured to Bobby Henderson and his followers.

Not understanding the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition, they mock it. They insist that all religion is silly – because they don't understand it – and that all religious people are stupid – because they don't understand people of faith.

And they have allies.

Political Correctness insists on the dogma of Cultural Relativism. All cultures are equally valid and worthy. To say otherwise is to be a racist, imperialist, oppressor.

You cannot say that the Judeo-Christian tradition offers anything that any other tradition does not offer. You cannot say that the Judeo-Christian tradition is any better than the religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Political Correctness is so pervasive that many of my students have no idea what the phrase "Western Civilization" means. Many of my fellow PhDs, never mind students, associate slavery exclusively with the relatively short-lived Atlantic Slave Trade. They know nothing of the Muslim Slave trade, which lasted centuries longer, into the current day, and enslaved millions more victims. They don't know, or don't want to hear about, the role that the Judeo-Christian tradition of "let my people go" played in the Abolition movement. They don't want to know about the liberatory force that early Christianity exercised on women's lives.

When I confront my students with the differences between oppression and freedom, they fall back on an atheist dogma: Human Progress. People inevitably get better as time goes on. An unseen hand, evolution, just nudges people inevitably forward. Rand believed in this.

This idea, that life inevitably gets better because evolution nudges humans forward, is patently and obviously false. We see humans go backward every day. The atheist concept of inevitable human progress should be exposed for the faith-based fallacy that it is.

Rather, it is a society's religion – its faith – its myth or master narrative – that determines what that society accomplishes.

***

Five thousand years ago, ancient Egypt was a tremendously wealthy, advanced society. It produced monuments that still arouse awe. Pharaonic Egypt lasted for three thousand years. To what end did ancient Egypt devote its prodigious energies? One end: ensuring that the god king pharaoh enjoyed a cushy afterlife.

Mummification was necessary for a good afterlife. The slaves who built the pyramids were not mummified. No afterlife for them! The pharaoh's pets were mummified. Pets over people. This approach makes for some very impressive tombs. It also made for three thousand years of slavery for uncounted, nameless human beings.

The obsession with the pharaoh's afterlife lead Egyptians to worship, inter alia, the dung beetle and the ibis.

Egyptians worshipped the dung beetle because dung beetles push balls of manure around on the ground. The roundness of the balls reminded Egyptians of the sun. Egyptians worshipped the ibis because the ibis' beak is curved, like the curved crescent moon. This is the logic of sympathetic magic: something like something else has power over that something else. Round balls of poop have power over the sun; bird beaks have power over the moon. This is the logic of ancient Egypt, a society dedicated to giving one man, the pharaoh, a happy afterlife.

Egyptians mummified millions of ibises. Millions. Millions! But not the countless human beings whose blood, sweat and tears created the pharaoh's monuments. Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt, reported that "Whosoever shall kill an ibis or a hawk, whether it be with his will or against his will, must die." Egyptian priorities for you.

***

Compare three thousand years of Egyptian thought to the couple of hundred years sometimes called the "Greek Miracle." During their relatively brief Golden Age, the ancient Greeks produced Euclid's geometry, the Hippocratic oath, Artistotle's "Poetics," Socratic philosophy, Archimedes' physics and engineering, Greek architecture, the Olympics, democracy, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, etc.

What's the difference between ancient Egypt and ancient Greece? Greece didn't make these advances because of some inevitable, evolutionary progress. Greece made these advances because it was telling itself a different story, living by a different myth, following a different religion, than ancient Egypt. Egypt made the pharaoh the center of the universe. Greece made "man the measure of all things."

Two different sets of myths. Two different sets of accomplishments.

Do we really want to agree with the Flying Spaghetti Monster atheists that all religions are the same?

***

In "Save Send Delete" I do my puny best to state: as an amateur student of history, as someone who has lived and worked in Africa, Asia, Europe, both in the West and under the Soviets, as someone who has lived and worked with Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Pagans, I believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition makes the world a better place. I would believe that even if I were not a Christian.

People much better qualified than I, of course, have advanced the same argument. I first came across the quote, below, in Rodney Stark's book "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Lead to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success."

A member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences tries to account for the success of the West:

"One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.

***

Don't throw away Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition, is all I'm saying.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Making of a Sadhu

Poras Chaudhary's amazing photo of the making of a Sadhu, or Hindu Holy Man.
The goal is to disable the male organ through this mistreatment.
Sadhus are detached from the concerns of everyday life.
Please visit Poras Chaudhary's website for more Kumbh Mela photos: Poras Chaudhary

In Save Send Delete I talk about living in the Indian subcontinent. I had wanted to live there since I was a little kid. As I describe in the book, I greatly admire the depth of the spiritual search in the Hindu-Buddhist world. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Breaking Taboos; Talking to Students about Ancient Greece

Reporters without Borders. Source
Nike of Samothrace. Source

I'm talking to my students about the heritage of ancient Greece.

I always keep one ear on the door, to listen for the approach of the Thought Police.

Political Correctness discourages me from saying what I have to say.

The Doctrine of Cultural Relativism urges me to say that all cultures are equal, except, of course, that The West is really bad – hegemonic, colonial, oppressive, androcentric, racist, sexist, homophobic. And the rest of the world is all about peace, love, and enlightenment, a never-ending chorus of "Kumbaya." I'm supposed to teach this to my students.

I've lived in Africa and Asia and I speak an African and an Asian language. I've taught animists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists … Political Correctness is incorrect. The non-Western world is not a never-ending chorus of "Kumbaya." There's clitoredectomy in Africa and female infanticide in Asia and the caste system and tribal warfare and despotism and lots of other problems.

Edward Said's book "Orientalism" forbids any Westerner from saying … well, much of anything. Said argues, paraphrase, that all Westerners are racists and that our racism immediately invalidates anything we say. In fact, even the word "Orient" has been outlawed. Just using it, even in passing, even by mistake, identifies the speaker as a backward, racist oppressor.

I met Edward Said once. He was the single most charming, handsome, and well-dressed scholar I'd ever met. I approached him with the intention to argue with him. I am a firm supporter of Israel; he's a Palestinian who worked against Israel. I just barely managed to tell him who I was, when he interrupted me and took my hand. "You are Polish! I have a soft spot in my heart for the Poles." I melted. I thought he was just soft-soaping me, but I discovered that he wrote his dissertation on Joseph Conrad.

***

What is the impact of PC norms on education?

About a decade ago, I realized that my students didn't know what the words "The West" mean. They didn't realize what happened in Ancient Greece. They had no idea what "The East" is. They had no idea that people who did not grow up in a Western culture see the world differently than they do.

And so I had to teach them.

And I feel like I'm breaking some taboo by doing so.

I'm a Christian, and in "Save Send Delete" I do my best to present the case for my own Christian faith. I say good things about Christianity. Well, sure, you might think. You're a Christian.

When I talk to my students about Ancient Greece, I say good things about Ancient Greece. I'm not a Pagan. I'm not Greek.

I'm just aware of the miracle that occurred in Greece over two thousand years ago. I don't want the barbarians, even tenured ones, to erase it, or ruin it for future generations.

***

Some quotes I share with my students:

"As against the Oriental exaltation of one God-king far above all natural proportions (which expresses a metaphysical view of life totally foreign to us) and the Oriental suppression of the great mass of the people (which is a corollary of that quasi-religious exaltation of the monarch), the beginning of Greek history appears to be the beginning of a new conception of the value of the individual.

And it is difficult to refrain from identifying that new conception with the belief – which Christianity did most to spread – that each soul is in itself an end of infinite value, and with the ideal proclaimed during and after the Renaissance, that every individual is a law to himself."

Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, New York: Oxford University Press, 1945

"Man is the measure of all things," Protagoras

"Know thyself" Temple of Apollo at Delphi

"The self becomes of first importance, and as man comes to full self-awareness, he necessarily becomes aware of nature, as well…From the Paleolithic Age we have been surveying man in a world dominated by the great beasts – threatened by them, fighting them, dependent upon them, worshipping them, conceding their might and his own weakness. Now, in Greece, he asserts that he own peculiar power – the power of intelligence – puts him afar about the beasts. But the Greek knows well the forces of the irrational against which reason must struggle constantly…

The Greeks made their gods into men and their men into gods." - Gardner's Art through the Ages

"We Greeks are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness," Thucydides, quoting Pericles

I contrast these quotes about Ancient Greece with quotes about the self from India, and about polity from Islam.

"The Indian ego is underdeveloped. The world of magic and animistic ways of thinking lie close to the surface. ... This underdeveloped ego is created by the detailed social organization of Indian life, and fits into that life. The mother functions as the external ego of the child for a much longer period than is customary in the West, and many of the ego functions concerned with reality are later transferred from mother to the family and other social institutions. Caste and clan are more than brotherhoods; they define the individual completely. The individual is never on his own. He is always fundamentally a member of his group, with a complex apparatus of rules, rituals, taboos. Every detail of behaviour is regulated. Relationships are codified. And religion and religious practices lock everything in place. The need, then, for individual observation and judgment is reduced. Something close to a purely instinctive life becomes possible." VS Naipaul, India, a Wounded Civilization

"The political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy…it was authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical. There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law." Communism and Islam, Bernard Lewis, 1954

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Why We Left Islam: Former Muslims Speak Out


"Why We Left Islam: Former Muslims Speak Out," edited by Susan Crimp and Joel Richardson, addresses an important topic with gut-churning, first-person accounts of Muslims who left Islam. It is a flawed book in that it is not very well edited, but, given the importance of the topic, it is worth the read.

"Why We Left Islam" compiles twenty first-person accounts. Speakers come from Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, England, Germany, Morocco, Israel, Egypt, Bangladesh, and the United States. There is an overwhelming depiction of thoroughgoing misogyny. Yagmur Dursun, a Turk, describes watching her sister being stoned to death by a mob that included her father. A Saudi man who has watched, helplessly, as his father destroys his sisters' lives, refers to Saudi Arabia as a prison for women.

Parvin Darabi, an Iranian woman, salutes her sister, pediatrician Homa Darabi. Iranian parents would beg Homa to classify their daughters as mentally ill so that the daughters would not be whipped by the Islamic police – 150 lashes for wearing make-up. Eventually Dr. Darabi was refused the right to work because she would not wear a chador. A month after a 16-year-old girl was shot to death in Tehran for wearing lipstick, Homa Darabi set herself on fire to protest oppression of women. Parvin despairs at a religion that recommends that, ideally, a man marry a girl before she even has her first menstrual period. She recalls with "shivers down her spine" the marriage of an eleven-year-old girl to a man who had sons older than his new bride.

Parvin's faith in Islam cracked slowly. She remembers being told that Allah spoke only Arabic, not her own language, Farsi. She had to wonder about a God that spoke only Arabic. Parvin was horrified by "sigeh," temporary marriage, which allows men to have sex with whomever they choose, as long as they are "temporarily" married to the woman. She describes the "mohalel," a man paid to have sex with a divorced woman in order that she may return to her husband. Only after she has had sex with another man may a woman do so. Mullahs demand that Iranian police systematically rape young females sentenced to death, in order to ensure that they will go to hell. Had they been virgins at death, they would have gone to heaven.

Again and again, former Muslims emphasize that many Muslims have never read the Koran, and, given that the Koran must not be translated, many non-Arabic Muslims have no idea what the Koran says. The former Muslims in this book report shock when they finally did read the Koran. They had no idea of its relative incoherence, and its emphasis on violence, hate, torture, and punishment of non-believers. Parvin reports that when she finally read the Koran, she was "appalled." "My mind just exploded. How could so many people follow a womanizer and a child molester?"

Egyptian Ahmed Awny Shalakamy offers a shameless account of his putrid activities for a Muslim group in Egypt that practices Jihad by ensnaring Coptic, Christian girls. One of his tactics: drugging an Egyptian Christian girl and video-recording her as he stripped her naked in her drugged, defenseless state, and using the video to blackmail her to convert to Islam.

Khaled Waleed, a Saudi, reports that the sermons he heard in mosques were exactly the kind of sermons that would inspire a man to become a 9-11 style mass murderer. "Most of our people support and love Osama bin Laden dearly. He is an ideal Muslim. He is simply following his religion to the letter."

Khaled began to doubt when he read in the Koran of Zu-Alqarnain reaching the place where the sun sets. The earth is not flat, and a walker cannot reach sunset, Khaled realized. Khaled questioned further: the Koran calls Allah "merciful," but Allah repeats over and over that Muslims are to hate and torture Christians and Jews, "grandsons of monkeys and pigs." Finally, Khaled realized that freedom and prosperity were to be found, for the most part, in non-Muslim countries.

The single richest account in the book is also the longest. Ali Sina, an Iranian internet activist, tells a vivid tale of his own divorce from Islam. Again, he reports, few of his Iranian Muslim friends had actually read the Koran. Thus, they were able to fantasize that Islam was about peace and equality, and that the more devout were wrong to insist on a violent, intolerant faith.

Visiting Italy, Ali was troubled – Italians were generous and hospitable, but the Koran told him not to take "Jews and Christians" as friends. The Koran "teaches hate," he reports. "There are many verses that call believers to hate non-believers, fight them, call them unclean, subdue and humiliate them, chop off their heads and limbs, crucify them, and kill them." Ali questioned Koran 8:12, which admonishes believers to chop off the fingers of non-believers. What kind of a God would want his followers to chop off other people's fingers?

Further, Koran 47:4 recommends, after a "wide slaughter, carefully tie up the remaining captives." These didn't strike Ali as divine words. Koran 22:9 describes the tortures of hell. "Sadistic," Ali concludes. "There was no misunderstanding. The Koran was overwhelmingly inhumane." Ali offers a profound, brilliant argument as to why he left Islam. It begins, "I do not want to be killed … then why did [Mohammed] kill so many innocents? Why did he rape the women he captured in war? Why did he enslave so many?" In his fearless search to the answers for these and other questions, Ali found his escape from Islam.

These former Muslims chastise Western apologists for Islam. The Muslim world is rife with human rights abuses. Western Islam apologists use their freedom, not to speak out against these human rights abuses, but to make excuses for Islam. They thus support oppression, and help it to continue.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Can a Vegetarian Take Animal-Based Medication? Giving up Candy for Lent? Thoughts on Choosing Suffering

Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law. Rembrandt van Rijn 
Opus Dei members wear a cilice, a barbed belt, to cause themselves pain. Sourcecho
A friend just received a grim medical diagnosis. As I type this, he is in the hospital.

Google, not God, may be the first thing one turns to after a grim medical diagnosis – either in oneself or in a friend.

Google terrorized me. The first, merciless, webpage I came to felt like a series of slaps in the face. "Irreversible … cannot recover." I didn't have to scroll down once to come to this: "make end-of-life plans with your doctor now."

This is one of those diseases where it matters a lot how the person treats his own body. Daily walks are recommended. I warmed to that. I'm a firm believer in walking.

A medication is recommended. The medication is animal-based. I went out and bought some of this medication. It was expensive for me. I liked that. I liked spending what is, for me, a lot of money for the sake of my friend, and his survival.

My friend is a vegetarian.

I gift wrapped the medication. I presented it to my friend. He was smiling when he received the gift-wrapped package. He stopped smiling when he unwrapped the medication. I think he was angry.

"You know I'm a vegetarian."

I started crying.

This is one of those this-will-kill-you-eventually illnesses where it matters how the patient treats his own body. I want my friend to do everything he can to live as long as he can. If he balks at taking this simple medication because he's a vegetarian – well, God knows what else he'll balk at. Stupid. Petty. Stubborn. Perverse. One foot in the grave of his own digging.

I couldn't stop crying.

***

After my crying, and his anger, subsided, we talked. We're working class, from New Jersey. Our parents were Eastern European immigrants and World War II survivors. We're blunt. We cut to the chase.

"You don't respect me," he said.

"I think you suffer from scrupulosity," I said.

I love being Catholic. Catholics have been thinking about all the big stuff for a long time, and we have a term for it, usually in Latin.

"Scrupulosity is where people get fixated on trivial questions of sin and virtue. It isn't real morality. It's like obsessive compulsive disorder, but over questions of religious right and wrong. Saint Ignatius Loyola obsessed on stepping on two straws that had fallen into the shape of a cross.

Ignatius recognized that stepping on a cross shape was not a sin, but that Satan was tempting him – not with sin but with thoughts of sin. Tempting him to lose his sense of perspective and proportion. Tempting him to obsess on small matters, to be so blinded that he thought that small matters deserve the attention that big matters deserve."

My friend said that he does not want to kill.

That's good. Not wanting to kill is good.

"But we're talking about animals," I said. "God gives dominion to man over animals in Genesis. We are of greater value to God than animals. In the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says that we are of greater value to God than the birds of the air, whom God also loves and values. In the book of Acts, God orders Peter to kill and eat animals."

My friend looked at me dubiously. I think he concluded that I was making all these verses up just to win an argument. But they are in the Bible. And while I like, and even insist on, winning arguments, seeing my friend survive for as long as he can was my real desire.

He knows I'm Catholic. He played what he thought was his trump card. "St. Francis was a vegetarian."

Now, here's my little secret. Yes, I am Catholic. Proudly so. Yes, I went to St. Francis School. But I've got some issues with St. Francis.

My friend is not Catholic. He probably didn't know what I was about to tell him. "Did you know that St. Francis used to get naked and roll around in snow?" I asked. "Did you know that he used to get naked and roll around in thorns? Did you know that he made himself sick with all this self-abuse? And what good did that do anyone? St. Francis took such poor care of himself that, after receiving medical treatment in three different cities, he died at 43. How much better it would have been for his friends if they didn't have to schlep his abused body all over medieval Italy, spending all their time worrying about this self-injuring man. How much better it would have been for the church had he lived longer."

***

As a Catholic, I grew up with graphic invitations to masochism. The stained glass window that we sat next to in church every Sunday featured a beautiful young woman, St. Cecilia, with a blade at her neck. She was a martyr; she may have been decapitated.

I respect St. Cecilia's martyrdom.

I don't respect elective pain.

Example: members of Opus Dei wear a barbed belt around their thighs in order to cause themselves pain.

Chosen pain angers me. I feel contempt for it.

I've suffered in my life: child abuse, chronic illness, poverty, professional sabotage.

I hate it. I don't like it. I want much less suffering in my life. I want to be happy. I want a full tummy and bright, sunshiny days and laughter. I want my life to be a Vincent Minnelli, M-G-M musical comedy. I'm so sick of suffering.

I really can't stand it when people who live blessed lives – lives of unearned good fortune – announce that they are giving up candy for Lent or going on a lengthy fast or spending an hour a week in a food bank in order to suffer, in order to share in the suffering of the world.

They can't share in the suffering of the world. They don't know the great spiritual insight that Golden Age Hollywood director Preston Sturges knew when he made "Sullivan's Travels." If you can stop it when you want to stop it, if you can return to your fortunate life at will, YOU ARE NOT SUFFERING.

Those of us who have lived unlucky lives didn't choose suffering. It was forced on us. We can't stop the suffering when we want to; that lack of volition and power, that agony of claustrophobic frustration, is part of the suffering!

Those lucky people who think that giving up candy for Lent brings them closer to the wretched of the earth – they are poseurs. They are trying to steal the definition and the experience of suffering that belongs to others, and that they do not deserve.

***

I am not a vegetarian. God ordained that the human body benefit from eating dead plants and animals. I believe that announcing that I am better than that plan makes me, not virtuous, but scrupulous, that is, one who suffers from scrupulosity.

One of the things I really like about Christianity – Jesus died for my sins. I don't have to. I can't, by being virtuous, make myself worthy of God's love. God handles that. I just get to stumble along, being the imperfect creature I am. God made me a creature that flourishes on food from dead things: dead animals, dead plants. I'm glad I'm not a Jain, a religion so scrupulous, Jains are not to eat roots – harvesting a root kills the whole plant.

I'm already an obsessive-compulsive house cleaner. I've never (really, never) been able to finish a meal without immediately doing the dishes. I can't write in the morning if I see dust under the desk. I recognize this as a foible to be overcome, not a virtue to be cultivated. 



Thursday, February 14, 2013

God, Atheism, Travel, Suffering, and Email Love: Invite Me to Speak to Your Church, School, Library, or Club

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by Johannes Vermeer source: Wikipedia

I read last night from "Save Send Delete" at the Montville Library. It was a profound experience for me. Because I am a little-known writer, it is always a miracle for me when I encounter a complete stranger who has read my work. It is a revelation to see the work anew through someone else's eyes. That happened for me last night.

Please consider inviting me to speak about "Save Send Delete" to your church, school, library or club. I don't expect payment.

Librarian Regina A. Bohn told me that patrons continued to give her positive feedback days after my talk at the Preakness library. After I spoke on his campus, Prof. Jay Bergman wrote, "My wife and I liked your talk immensely and learned a great deal from it. It took guts. Your students are very fortunate to have you as a teacher!" Arlene Scala, programming chair at the UU Church of the Palisades commented, "Clearly your presentation moved people. Afterwards, you were surrounded by congregants who wanted to speak with you!"

"Save Send Delete" is a true story. Some years back, I was wrestling with the big, hard questions. Is there a God? Why is there suffering? I contacted a celebrity atheist I saw on television. Our email exchange began as a debate on the existence of God. It blossomed into a love affair.

Bestselling authors have endorsed "Save Send Delete":

"Goska is a lyrical, forceful writer with a huge heart and talent to burn. Her inspiring observations embody the best vision of which we humans are capable. Goska deserves widespread attention."
– Larry Dossey, MD author, "Reinventing Medicine"

"I was very affected by the love story. The last twenty pages really had me biting my nails."
– Robert Ellsberg author of "All Saints"

"Danusha Goska writes with flair, vividness, and depth about two faith systems; two levels of consciousness; yet in each sentence, she searches for grandeur, wholeness and transcendence in both."
– Charles Ades Fishman, poet, "Chopin's Piano."

"Cheeky, mystical, merry, dark, and deep, Goska's wit, intelligence, and faith shimmer on every page."
– Jim Leary author, "So Ole Says to Lena"

"A powerful and evocative reflective journey."
– Paul Loeb, author, "Soul of a Citizen."

I have an MA from UC Berkeley and a PhD from Indiana University. My writing has won the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Grant, the PAHA Halecki Award, and others, and it's been published by Oxford University Press, Basic Books, Beliefnet, etc.

You can view the Amazon page for "Save Send Delete" here

Saturday, February 9, 2013

FREE BOOKS!


FREE BOOKS!

I love books and like to see them going to a good home rather than moldering unwanted on a Goodwill shelf.

If you want any of these books, it is yours. I ask only that you send me five bucks to cover postage and a padded mailer envelope.

CHILDREN'S LIT

The Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature by Margaret Martignoni

The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, Sixth Edition

ATHEIST

Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

NEPALI FOLKLORE

Mani Rimdu Nepal by Mario Fantin

Six other illustrated books about Nepali folklore

LITERATURE

Brothers Karamazov with illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. Sells for $35 on Amazon

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg

Calling Home: Working Class Women's Writings: An Anthology by Janet Zandy

The Novel in Antiquity by Tomas Hagg

FOLKLORE

Forests of the Vampire Slavic Myth

The Evil Eye by Alan Dundes

American Folklore Scholarship by Rosemary Zumwalt

Death by Envy by George RA Aquaro

Don't Bet on the Prince by Jack Zipes

RELIGION

Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics by Robert Spencer

PSYCHIC

Never Letting Go by Mark Anthony

MOVIES

Richard Burton a Life by Melvyn Bragg

From Reverence to Rape the Treatment of Women in the Movies by Molly Haskell

Issues in Feminist Film Criticism Edited by Patricia Erens

PUBLIC POLICY

Same Sex Marriage Pro and Con a Reader by Andrew Sullivan

Friday, February 8, 2013

You Cannot Use the Word ____ In a Christian Book!

Eric Drooker. Source
Source
Source
I performed a Google image search of "Christian family." I found the photos, above, typical of Christian websites. These folks are so blindingly white ... not just their skins and teeth are white, their clothes and walls are white. 

Source
I performed a Google image search of "Paterson, NJ," the city I live in. I found the photo, above. These folks are Christians, too. 

Some years back I was watching a televised discussion about the existence of God. I felt compelled to email the atheist participant. To my great surprise, he responded. Our exchange continued for a year. We debated the existence of God, and we fell in love.

Two years after our relationship ended, I wrote "
Save Send Delete," an account of our email debate and affair. It was an act of courage for me to argue, in the book, for my Christian faith. I am an imperfect and unorthodox Christian. I actively support gay rights. I am a feminist. I am critical of the Catholic Church that baptized and educated me and that collects my donations in its weekly baskets. I lay claim to no Christian celebrity. I possess no snapshot of myself with the pope. I don't even have a photo of myself with my parish priest. What right do I have to argue for Christian faith?

Upon reflection, I realized that it was my very imperfections, unorthodoxy, and plebian status that might lend value to my work. "Save Send Delete" isn't about the Christ, or the Christianity, of power, perfection or piety. "Save Send Delete" is about one flesh-and-blood seeker's encounter with Jesus Christ.

I sent the manuscript to secular publishers. They attacked. I received a typical rejection from the publisher of a small but trendy house, one with one of those offbeat and pretentious-in-its-lack-of-pretentiousness names, something like Used Handkerchief Publishing or Chipped Coffee Cup Press. Or maybe it was the one with the outdoorsy, New Age label – Clouds of Bodhisattva Books or Cougar's Spit Ink.

This trendy publisher's rejection leaked more corrosion than an abandoned car battery. This was a practically audible email, with its own volume – eleven – and its own pitch – fever. It's a truism among writers that literary agents, editors and publishers have no time. Once they reject your work, you are not to linger in their inbox, not to send any follow-up messages, and not to expect any. I sent a follow-up message: "Having a bad day?"

He wrote back. Immediately. More outrage. It's Christians like you, he insisted, who stone gays, and prevent evolution from being taught in schools, and burn witches.

"It is?" I responded. Just those two, two-letter words were enough to bait him into a page and a half of fresh outrage.

I wrote back. "May I help you?" You bet he wrote back. Five times.

I began sending query letters to Christian presses. I received equally impassioned but differently reasoned rejections. One publisher sent a lengthy letter praising my writing. He said that "Save Send Delete" "emasculates" atheist arguments. But then he brought the hammer down, in a sentence I don't think I'll ever forget. "You can't use the word ____ in a Christian book."

My first reaction – had I used the word ____? I checked. There it was, on the third page of the manuscript. I suddenly remembered a previous rejection. That one had said that people like me didn't do Christianity any good, and "I recoiled from the stunt you pulled on page three." At the time, I was blank. What "stunt" on page three? Now I understood.

In the 1943 novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," about the lives of impoverished Irish immigrants, young Francie Nolan submits to her teacher writing assignments that describe her own, real life. "Poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly," this teacher tells little Francie. "We admit these things exist, but one doesn't write about them…The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty, always…stop writing these sordid little stories."

Francie must look up the word "sordid." She discovers it means "filthy." She is crushed.

I felt like Francie Nolan. I'm also the child of immigrants. I did not realize that snooty Christian editors, my presumed social superiors, would assess my natural speech patterns as "filthy."

Ephesians 4:29 counsels against "foul" language, but, it continues, speak "only such as is good for needed edification." Colossians 4:6 says, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one." Each of these verses emphasizes that speech must be honed to fit its context. The Amplified Bible makes this most clear in its translation of Ephesians 4:29: proper speech "is fitting to the need and the occasion."

I'm a working class girl from New Jersey. We use the conventional swearwords more than many other demographics. These are basic words that translate, variously, as "Ouch," "I'm shocked," "Listen," or "Nonsense!" Used judiciously, these words are not foul, but, rather, serve excellently for needed edification. We value grace in speech, and we value the seasoning, the salt.

In 2005, Princeton University Press (in New Jersey!) published Prof. Harry Frankfurt's book entitled "On Bullshit." Frankfurt and Princeton argued that no other word could have communicated exactly what "bullshit" communicated. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," said Mark Twain. Words are power, power Christians are commanded by God to harness.

If Christians decide not to mention, when mention is called for, a given aspect of life, their speech is not edifying, it is not seasoned with salt. Jesus modeled this in his longest recorded conversation, the conversation with the Woman at the Well. In John 4:18, with the mercilessness of a film noir antihero, Jesus states the erotic facts of this woman's life. It's hard not to be shocked by his bluntness, but it is his bluntness that causes her to state, in the very next verse, "I can see that you are a prophet."

After the rejection that accused me of pulling a "stunt," I thought of the graphics on the webpages of Christian publishers. Puppies and kittens. Ponies and daisies. Soft focus and airbrushed. These warm and fuzzy graphics communicated Christianity-as-Barcalounger, Christianity as a soft, fat piece of furniture one could occupy when one wanted to feel sheltered and smug.


I thought of the view outside my window. I see garbage, a bar, gang members. I see my neighbor, a single mother from the Dominican Republic, with determined gait, heading to her job as a nurse's aide. I see her fatherless son, obese, leaning on a fence, far from any playing field, on his face the resignation of a caged animal, a life-form suspended by boredom and neglect till death or explosion.

I thought of the vocabulary necessary to converse with my students about their most pressing concerns. My students don't approach me to have urgent, one-on-one conversations about puppies or kittens. These conversations never require multi-syllable, abstract, Latin nouns: sola scriptura, actus purus, transubstantiation. My students need to talk about pain, and the obscene vocabulary of abuse, betrayal, and exploitation. They need to confess to the orgy at a tacky Route 3 motel, the boyfriend who impregnated, the girlfriend who teased, and then ran. They need to talk about mom's boyfriend who takes her daughter into the basement of the public housing complex and rapes her. They need to disgorge the words that name the unique nausea caused by the deaths of those who should not die. Nice words need not apply.

If Christians quarantine this vocabulary, they relegate these conversations to non-Christians who are all too ready to use these words. Atheists don't have any problem using the vocabulary needed to talk about sex or pain or bodily functions. And so my students, if turned away by me on the basis on of the inadmissibility of necessary words, would simply turn to atheists.

This relegation of discussion of the most intimate, the most intense, the most telling and testing moments of life to non-Christians is both tragic and farcical. If Jesus does not belong in that basement with that inner city girl being raped, Jesus does not belong anywhere.

Billy Graham used the word ____. Pope John Paul II used the word ____. Mother Teresa used the word ____. They've used the word, either out loud or internally, because it names an escapable part of life. Since we all know that we've all spoken, or at least thought, the word, a public pretense that we have never used it, or that we live on the planet where this vocabulary word is not necessary, suggests that we require phoniness in order to be Christian.

Thomas Friedman tells us that the world is flat and crowded. Technology places office workers in Kansas into competition with office workers in Bangalore. Technology also places Christianity into instant competition with ancient traditions like Hinduism, invented ones like Neo-Paganism, as well as atheism. Only a Christianity vital in its authenticity will survive these debates. On this playing field, we can't afford to anesthetize our language. We need to be able to address the panoply of human experience, as did Jesus himself.


This essay appears in the February 8 - March 14 issue of The Ryder magazine. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Win a Free Copy of "Save Send Delete"!


I'll be reading at the Montville Public Library on Wednesday, February 13th, at 7 pm. 

Tell your friends -- and if someone comes to the reading because you told him or her about it, you win a free copy of "Save Send Delete"! 

Directions to the Montville Public Library are here

The Amazon page for "Save Send Delete" is here

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Argo" May Very Well Be the Best Film of 2012


"Argo," among the nominees for the 2012 Best Picture Academy Awards, may very well be the best film of 2012, and Ben Affleck may very well be the best director. Unlike other frontrunners, "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo" is a movie-movie. Like those other two films, it tells a true story, but unlike those other two, disappointing films, "Argo" is not a starchy and lumpy docudrama. "Argo" is a smoothly running machine.

"Argo" tells a gripping story in a gripping way, never preaching ("Lincoln"), never getting too caught up in one aspect of the story to distort the narrative line ("Zero Dark Thirty" and "Lincoln.") "Argo" wants to entertain you, and it does. It's a thriller. My palms were sweating as much while watching this movie as while watching an old-fashioned suspense flick by Alfred Hitchcock, even though, like most viewers, I know how the story ends. I found the opening scene of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran so frightening I could hardly watch it. This is all the  more remarkable given that I'd heard a radio interview in which Affleck joked about finding only older actors to perform the part of the "students" storming the embassy.

"Argo"'s cast is full of actors I know well, have seen in many other films, and whom I like a lot: Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston. It's testimony to the film's power that I stopped thinking about these actors and got lost in the characters they were playing.

"Argo" tells the true story of a CIA plot to release six Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis. The plot: pretend that the six Americans are Canadians there to scout locations for an upcoming Sci-Fi flick.

John Goodman and Alan Arkin are utterly believable, funny, and moving as the Hollywood part of the team. There's a brilliant, throwaway scene in which Alan Arkin and Richard Kind bargain over the price of a movie script. The scene doesn't advance the plot, but the dialogue is perfect and fast. It's just a witty respite in a tense movie about a life-and-death situation. Ben Affleck is perfect as a CIA operative. He keeps his cards very close to his chest.

Farshad Farahat plays an amazingly hairy airport guard. He screams in Farsi. Most audience members, not speaking Farsi, will have no idea what this man is saying – there are no subtitles. Even so, we are terrified. Farahat deserves an award for his brief but pivotal performance as the face and voice of the enemy the entire world now confronts, an enemy driven by incoherent, focused, murderous rage.

"Argo" has a little bit of heartwarming family drama, a little bit of arcane CIA in-shop detail, a little bit of Hollywood behind-the-scenes banter, a very little bit of nightmarish torture. It never lingers in one type of scene too long; it just glides along, telling its story as economically and movingly as possible.
***
If you liked "Argo," you'll like "Save Send Delete;" it will provide you with provocative discussion of Islam. 

"Warm Bodies" 2013, Review: Only Lukewarm


"Warm Bodies" is only lukewarm. A zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult) eats the brains of Perry (Dave Franco) and thereby falls in love with Perry's girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer). The movie is meant to be a bit scary, a bit funny, and a bit romantic, but I wasn't much scared, I didn't laugh, and the romance was stale and flatfooted.

Julie and R jump into a sports car to escape from menacing zombies and skeletons. The top is down; it begins to rain. They drive into an abandoned, post-Apocalyptic suburban neighborhood. Julie is cold; she has to take off her clothes. She does so in front of R. Teresa Palmer is a very beautiful young woman. R is a frustrated teen zombie madly in love with Julie. The director does absolutely nothing with this scene. There's no special lighting; the camera doesn't show us Julie's beauty as desperate, lovestruck R would see it.

There are multiple chase scenes, none of which make much sense. Julie sees her well-armed father in a convoy and does nothing to join him, but later escapes on her own to join him, a much riskier trip. Why didn't she go earlier? No explanation.

If you're looking for a funny zombie movie, check out "Shaun of the Dead," and "Zombieland." If you're looking for a fully realized romance between a living woman and a dead man, watch "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "Truly Madly Deeply." If you like romances between women and monsters, see Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," or "King Kong."

"Warm Bodies" isn't a bad movie. It has its moments. R whines to his fellow zombie, Rob Corddry, about Julie, and Corddry's one word responses is the funniest line in the movie. The movie's conclusion is heartwarming if a bit half-baked.

***

If you like romances between opposites – the living and the dead, for example – check out "Save Send Delete," a love story between and atheist and a believer.