Follow by Email

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Promise 2017: Sumptuous, Epic, Moving, Important



This review first appeared at FrontPageMag here

Powerful people are deploying every trick to prevent you from seeing The Promise, director Terry George's 2016 film starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon. Their insistence that you not see the film rouses suspicion. After all, Terry George is a something of a cinematic social justice warrior and critical darling. He's known for taking on righteous themes, including the English imperial abuse of Irish prisoners in his 1993 film In the Name of the Father, nominated for seven Academy Awards. His 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, received three Academy Award nominations. The Promise's script is by George and Robin Swicord, who also has an Academy Award and a Golden Globe nomination under her belt.

George's Hotel Rwanda depicted the Rwandan genocide. Rwandans died in that signature African phenomenon: tribal violence. Hutus rose up with machetes and murdered their neighboring Tutsis in the world's fastest genocide. Hotel Rwanda tells a different story. Rwandans died because white people don't care about black people. In the film, Nick Nolte, playing a UN general, "explains" the genocide to Don Cheadle, playing the real-life hero and rescuer Paul Rusesabagina. "You're dirt. We think you are dirt. You're dung. You're worthless. You're black. You're not even a n - - - - -. You're an African … They're not gonna stop the slaughter."

Hotel Rwanda never explains how white people living thousands of miles away could stop a million killings-by-machete occurring over a hundred days. Rwanda is remote, landlocked, and mountainous. There were no airports, train tracks, or installations to bomb. Getting troops into Rwanda would have taken months and given the volatility of the area, the insertion of American or European troops would have sparked separate conflagrations. Witness the horrific fate of the humanitarian mission in the Battle of Mogadishu in October, 1993 – a mere six months before the Rwandan genocide. No matter. It's whitie's fault. That movie, the powers that be want you to see.

The powers that be don't want you to see The Promise, though it stars Oscar Isaac, previously praised for the box office smash, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the critical smash Inside Llewyn Davis, by the hipster Coen Brothers. What, then, is the problem with The Promise and why don't powerful people want you to see it?

The Promise dramatizes the 1915-1923 Armenian Genocide. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turkey and its successor, the Republic of Turkey.

The victims of the Armenian genocide were Christians. The perpetrators were Muslims.

Armenians are not just any Christians. They are an indigenous Middle Eastern people. They have lived on their land, as recognizable, autonomous Armenians, for over two thousand years. In 301 AD, Armenians were the first to adopt Christianity as their state religion. The Edict of Thessalonica did not make Christianity Rome's state religion until 380 AD. Etchmiadzin Cathedral, whose construction began the year Armenians adopted Christianity, is the oldest cathedral in the world. Armenians began fighting jihadi invaders over a thousand years ago, significantly at the 1071 Battle of Manzikert. In 1400 Tamerlane, the Sword of Islam, buried 4000 Armenians alive. The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia supported the Crusades. That's right – indigenous people of the Middle East supported the Crusaders against jihadis. Theirs is a narrative that will rankle any number of powerful opinion-makers.

The first notorious genocide of the bloody twentieth century was not Hitler's. It was the Turks'. Hitler was quite impressed with how the Turks got away with years of expulsions, selective assassinations, starvation and literal, not metaphoric, crucifixions. In an August, 1939 speech, just days before beginning his assault on Poland that would spark World War II, Hitler uttered his notorious "Armenian quote." "I have placed my death-head formation in readiness … with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language … Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

I am Polish, and thanks to this quote, I feel myself to be an honorary Armenian. Playwright William Saroyan produced an "Armenian quote" of his own, saluting a "small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled … and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia … Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia." With this quote, Saroyan is an honorary Pole.

The Armenians' would-be annihilators are also part of the reason that one must not speak of the Armenian Genocide. Turkey is part of NATO. Turkey hosts the Incirlik Air Base. Those are reasons why US presidents may refrain from using the word "genocide" and, as John Oliver put it, resort to diplomatic doublespeak in phrases like, "Armenia's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day."

The politically correct don't use the same thesaurus as US presidents. Let's spell out their concern. In the first notorious genocide of the Twentieth Century, Muslims murdered Christians. Further: Muslims murdering Christians and taking over their territory was not an aberration. These murders were not committed in disobedience to scripture or tradition or even trends. The Turkish genocide against Armenian Christians was in accordance with scripture, tradition, and trends. These traditions began with Mohammed himself, who ordered the expulsion of Arab Christians and Jews from the Arabian Peninsula. Arabs who vacillated in their commitment to Islam were brought to heel in the Ridda Wars. For the past 1400 years, the Middle East's Christian populations have been shrinking. The Armenian Genocide is not an isolated event. It's part of a chain of events we are not to be aware of or discuss.

Politically correct opinion-makers don't want you to know that Christianity began in the Middle East. They want you to think of the fault line between terror and its victims as a line between dispossessed, swarthy, colonized, Third World peasants practicing their "indigenous" religion and Christianity, the tip of the colonizers' spear. They want you to think that some very pale person named Smith or Jones marched into the Middle East with a Bible and under the color of a colonizer's flag. It astounds me but it's true – semester after semester I ask university students to plot on a timeline the founding dates of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Most of them think that Islam was founded first, and Judaism and Christianity somehow branched off. Really. Really.  

This politically correct narrative is nonsense. By PC's standards, the first Christians were swarthy, colonized, peasants in the Middle East. Swarthy Middle Eastern peasants were the first victims of jihad, and the first to fight back against jihad. Muslims were the colonizers. Some populations have been fighting continuously for over a thousand years. They've been saying mass, erecting crosses, and surviving in Egypt, Iraq, and Armenia. Their numbers, and their territory, grow smaller year after year. Asking why those borders and demographics shrink is an awkward question for the politically correct.

Take Egypt in the fourteenth century. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, had a majority-Christian population long after the Arab Conquest. Persecution reduced their number. Christians were freely robbed, murdered, their churches were closed, and Muslim sermons demanded hostility to them. At times Christians had to wear a five-pound cross. At other times, in other places, Christians had to wear a patch on their clothing in the shape of a pig; Jews had to wear a donkey-shaped patch, or bells. Historians cite these patches as precursors to the patches Nazis forced their victims to wear. Christians could save their lives by converting to Islam, but even then they were forced to prove the sincerity of their conversions by attending mosque. They could not will their money to any Christian relatives – only those relatives who converted to Islam could inherit. Those lines around Christian territory, those tallies of Christian populations, didn't shrink because someone read a pamphlet, compared and contrasted the theological claims of each faith, and made a decision out of his free conscience. Populations shrank because of persecution. Those persecutions interfere with politically correct history.

Assyrian Christians speak a variety of Aramaic, a Middle Eastern language that predates Arabic. Copts' liturgical language is late stage Egyptian. Egyptian has the longest documented history of any language and predates Arabic in Egypt by thousands of years. The mere existence of Armenians, Copts, and Assyrian Christians poses an awkward question for Middle Eastern Muslims. A group of Middle Eastern Christians ask, on their website, "Why were you born in Islam?" Your ancestors were not Muslims, this website insists. They converted to Islam. Why? Is it because of the kind of pressure Islam brought to bear on the Armenians? Muslims, if you watch a film like The Promise, do you imagine that this is what it was like for your non-Muslim ancestors? Do these persecutions, dramatized onscreen, provide a missing link in your family tree? I think it would be impossible for a Muslim to reflect on how Muslims pressured non-Muslims to convert or die and not to think about his or her ancestors. When did the ancestors cave in, and what did it take for them to leave their natal faith? A massacre? Oppressive taxation? The violation of female family members? Or was it a promise of wealth if they joined in the looting? These are uncomfortable questions.

And those persecutions raise even more awkward questions. If this is what jihad has done to Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian populations in the Middle East, what will it do to us? The Byzantine Empire and states like Armenia once felt as secure in their Christianity as American Christians might feel today. Do we, as they did, have a target on our backs? Are our civilizational timelines, as were theirs, shrinking?

Now you know why powerful people don't want you to see The Promise. Why 57,000 people flooded the International Movie Database to give the film one-star ratings long before it even opened.

University of Haifa Professor Stefan Ihrig is the author of Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler. Ihrig insists that the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust are connected, and one cannot understand one without the other. But even publishing on the Armenians has cost Ihrig. Writing in Forbes, Ihrig reports: "Speaking out on the Armenian Genocide means taking a huge risk. At the very least, it will be an exhausting experience, getting harassed online, trolled, threatened, down-rated on Amazon and publicly vilified. Until now, this was true mainly for individuals – academics, artists and activists. Now, it seems to apply to Hollywood movies, too."

The Promise has a low rating at the review aggregate site, RottenTomatoes. Oscar Isaac's Coen Brothers' film Inside Llewyn Davis has a 94%, certified fresh rating. Hotel Rwanda, Terry George's previous genocide film, has a certified fresh 90% rating. Hmm.

I am a diehard movie fan. As such I place aesthetics above message. I am here to tell you that The Promise is a darn good movie. It's not a great movie. When it comes to genocide movies, it's not Schindler's List, In Darkness, or Europa Europa. The Promise just misses being a great movie. It moves too fast. The film should have lingered more, let us get closer to its characters. There is a scene where a man admires a woman's sketch book. That scene should have showed us more of her sketches. There should have been at least one paragraph more explaining the genocide to the audience. Armenians were Christians in a majority-Muslim state. They were a middleman minority – often better educated and wealthier than their neighbors. Turkey was fighting a war, and feared Russia, a neighboring, Christian nation, and its outreach to Armenians. Christians in a Muslim-majority state were accused of divided loyalty. The film could have benefitted from a deeper explication of these factors. But The Promise is a very good movie, and for that reason, not for any political message, you should see it.

Oscar Isaac's performance as Mikael, an Armenian medical student, is mesmerizing. Had this been a film about a more PC-friendly genocide, Isaac would receive an Academy Award nomination, and possibly win. His presence is the soul of the movie. His performance may as well have been wordless. He is all eyes as he takes in, in the opening scenes, his beloved natal village, then Constantinople, the big city he must travel to to study medicine, his heart-stopping first encounter with the woman he, in spite of himself, loves, and, finally, the evisceration, torture, and fight-to-the-death of his beloved people. He is the blank slate on which history writes. He is so pure that the world's darkness splatters across his features as ink titrated from human tears and the black ashes of Hell.

Christian Bale is a brilliant actor who is perhaps genetically incapable of making a bad move onscreen. To his smaller role as an American reporter covering the genocide, Bale brings all of his craft. He can and does communicate pages of unspoken soliloquy into a couple of understated gestures. As part of a triangle involving Isaac, Bale must communicate a love that is consuming, possessive, and that supports great sacrifice. Bale inhabits his role so thoroughly he wrung tears from this viewer.

Charlotte Le Bon is the lovely love interest, an Armenian who was raised in France and picks a very bad time to explore her roots. The supporting cast consists of world-class actors. Jean Reno, Tom Hollander, Shohreh Aghdashloo, James Cromwell, Rade Serbedzija and Marwan Kenzari command the screen in small, vital roles.

The Promise has been called the most expensive independently financed film. Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American businessman, provided funding for a film that politics would have liked to suppress. Kerkorian was born in Fresno in 1917, as the genocide was taking place. He died at 98 years old, before he could see the completed film. His investment is all over the screen. If you like big, sweeping, sumptuously-produced historical epics, you will love this movie. I would like to watch it again on video just to freeze the frame and linger over the set and costume details. The Promise was shot in Spain, Portugal, and Malta, which do manage to look like Turkey.

Critics have faulted the film for including a love story in a movie that dramatizes a genocide. This criticism is uninformed. Read enough memoirs, and talk to enough survivors. Yes, people do fall in love under the most challenging circumstances. Auschwitz hosted a famous love story. Mala Zimetbaum, a Jewish prisoner, fell in love with Edek Galinski, a Polish one. Their story is legendary and inspired many of their fellow prisoners. Poet John Guzlowski's parents met while his father was on a death march out of Buchenwald. The Nazis marched Guzlowski's father past the camp where his mother was interned. Their marriage lasted for over fifty years. Guzlowski himself was conceived and born in a post-war UN DP camp.

The Promise is neither an anti-Muslim nor an anti-Turkish film. Perhaps its most poignant performance is that of Tunisian-Dutch Marwan Kenzari as Emre Ogan. Ogan is a pretty, young party boy who just wants to have fun. It's purely an accident of fate that he is a Turk during a genocide. Ogan is a complex, sympathetic, human character. We can identify with his moral quandaries. There are other Muslim Turks in the film who clearly oppose the genocide and support the Armenians. Wikipedia quotes many Turks who, at the time of the genocide and not long after, condemned it. I've been lucky enough to travel to Turkey, and I've loved few destinations more. There is nothing I would like more to see than a new, enlightened Turkey acknowledge the sins of the past, and repent for them. I hope and pray for that day, for the Armenians, for Turkey and the Turks, and for the world.

One last word. I refer, here, to the Armenian Genocide as part of a trend of jihad's encroachment on, and elimination of, non-Muslim, indigenous populations. Some will insist that the Nazi genocide of the Jews is comparable, and that it proves that Christianity is a genocidal religion. I disagree. Yes, Christians have frequently failed to act according to Christian scripture, none of which command anything like jihad or genocide. Yes, Christians have often persecuted Jews. But, Nazism, not Christianity, was responsible for the Holocaust. For support I defer to books like Richard Weikart's Hitler's Religion. My review of Weikart's book can be found here. My piece, "Against Identifying Nazism with Christianity" can be found here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Jonathan


I rushed out of my morning class. I had to get on the road and drive someplace I have never been. I get lost easily and I went a long time without driving so when I do get lost I'm *really* lost. I may be in the state I was born in but I may as well be wandering around the North Pole.

I got lost about halfway there. Are route 23, route 202, and the Newark-Pompton Turnpike all the same road? It seemed that way. The GPS kept insisting I was on route 202, and the signs all said I was on route 23.

I stopped at a gas station, holding the printout of the google map directions in my hand. The black guy pumping gas asked the old, white guy in the expensive car to tell me where to go. The white guy got out of the car and insisted that he knew exactly where I needed to go. He grabbed the google map instructions out of my hand and started reading them to me! Really!

I didn't want to grab them back – that would be rude – but I needed them so I grabbed them back and walked over to a scruffy-looking white guy working on some chewing tobacco who talked like Quint from Jaws – a verified local. He told me where to go.

I got to St Joseph's Church just in time for the start of Jonathan Shanoian's funeral. It was a good turnout. Nice to see young and older men in formal suits so early on a weekday morning.

My work colleague Tony Krucinski had kindly invited me to attend the wake yesterday. I couldn't go then; had to work. Too, wakes require small talk and as verbal as I am, I really suck at small talk. My idea of small talk is to walk up to a complete stranger and ask, "So, what do you think of the bombing of Syria?"

I'm Catholic and I wanted to pray for Jonathan at mass. I was surprised that he was Catholic. I thought being Armenian he would be some exotic Middle Eastern branch of orthodoxy. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion – which is the kind of thing I'd say if I had attempted to make small talk at the wake. Too, I knew Jonathan from work only, and I didn't know his family at all, so, being a stranger, I'd be doubly relieved from having to make small talk.

I wondered if, during mass, as sometimes happens – as happened at my sister Antoinette's funeral – the priest would ask those of us in the pews if we had any reminiscences we wanted to offer. If he did that, I knew exactly what I wanted to say.

When it came time for the sermon, the officiating priest, who, if Google is not misleading me, is named Fr. Thomas Mangieri, did something I'd never before seen a priest do at a funeral. He came down from the altar (St Joseph's is an intimate church so he didn't have far to go), and he stood in front of two women in the front pew, and held one woman's hand in one of his hands, and the other woman's hand in his other hand, and he never let go. The obituary mentions mother Barbara and sister Alexis. I have to assume those are the ladies whose hands the priest held, and never let go of, throughout his sermon.

Before father began his sermon, he looked at the woman and his wordless look said it all. There was no excuse in this look. No platitudes. No attempt to escape from the gravity of death. Father could have stopped right there and he would have done better than many another person attempting to address a too-early death to a mother who has lost her son. I know. My mother lost two sons, Phil and Mike, and I saw people struggle with saying the right thing to my mother. Father said the right thing this morning with that brutally honest, deeply compassionate look on his face.

But then he did more. He gave a sermon, and it was fine. He talked about Jonathan as a person. Father mentioned that Jonathan's job title was "support." Father remarked that that word said so much about Jonathan's character. Father used the word "sweetness" and it was *just* the right word.

Father's sermon had a narrative arch. It began with the desolation of death. It moved through the molasses-thick memory of what is lost. It promised the effulgence of heavenly reunion. Father's facial expressions fully reflected each moment in the journey of grief. And he never let go of the grieved ladies' hands.

Tears flowed silently down my face throughout this sermon.

One of the things I like about being Catholic: the mass is the same. Someone just died: the mass is the same. Someone was just born: the mass is the same. You are in the US or Africa or Poland or Nepal: the mass is the same. Yes, the songs vary, and the readings. I attended a high holyday mass in Poland that lasted for what felt like two hours. People were kneeling in the aisles and beating their breasts, which really doesn't happen in the US; the fire marshals wouldn't allow it. But the basic structure is the same, as the world spins around you.

During mass, this weird thing kept happening inside my head. It's as if my mind replayed all my Jonathan tapes. I never realized how much attention I had paid to him. I was noting his facial expressions and habitual body language and word choice. Hearing, again, things he would say. This didn't feel emotional – not happy, not sad, not yearning – just my mind saying, "This is him, the person you are saying goodbye to."

That happens with my sister regularly. I will hear her voice, conjure up her reaction to this or that. Given that she was my sister, it often happens when I hear my own voice sounding like hers, or feel my own lips form a facial expression she often used, my head tilt at the same angle her head would tilt, at a similar moment.  

It's as if we contain holograms of each other.

As the mass was ending, I felt that feeling I'd been looking for since I first heard the news: this isn't a prank or a dream or one of my bigger dyslexic errors. This is real. I get that now. I won't go to the library and expect to see him there. There is nothing I can do to fix this. Now it's over and done, and I am resigned to one more sad thing in the world.

Father did wait at the door of the church to greet everyone as we exited. I was sure to say to him, "Great sermon." He shook my hand. I hope he realizes how sincere my comment was, and how rare – this is the first time I've said this to a priest.

So, there was no moment at the funeral where we were asked for comments, so here is my comment.

I live alone and have no family and because of this I am more or less invisible. If you have no one, you are not seen.

And yet.

The other morning I had just parked and a uniformed officer began walking toward me. She was an African American woman. I just was not in the mood. I parked legally! She wasn't there to give me a ticket, though. She yelled at me, "So! You're all right!"

"Yes," I said. "I'm all right." I had no idea what was going on.

"The guy at the gas station has been worried about you!"

Whoa.

I walk daily. People see me walk. One of the people who sees me walk is a Syrian guy, Imad, who pumps gas at Faisal's in Paterson. I found a better route and I haven't walked past Faisal's in a while.

The point of this story: some woman I've never met, somehow knew that I'm the woman that a guy at a gas station was worried about, because I hadn't walked past his gas station in a while.

In other words, we may feel invisible, we may be invisible, but we don't know what impact we are having on others.

I know Jonathan solely through work. As many of us have said since he got his diagnosis, Jonathan was a quiet and private guy. At one point, he had been out of work for a while, and I was feeling sad about that and wishing I could help in some way, and one of the librarians (the one who smokes on the bench outside – for God's sake quit!) said to me that he cared about Jonathan, too, but Jonathan was a very private person.

I knew Charlene back in the 1990s before I went to grad school. I gave her my bulky goat-hair Nepali blankets to store, thinking I'd be back in New Jersey in a year or two. Little did I know I'd be gone over a decade, and Charlene would have to keep those itchy monsters much longer. God bless her.

When I returned to Jersey, Charlene and I reunited. I used to hang out in her office at the library, and she, Tony, Jonathan and I would chat.

Chatting with these folks was one of the highlights of my day. There would often be leftover cookies or other snacks on the table from this or that office party or campus event. But I wasn't there for the food.

I'm a woman and I'm a writer and my words are out there for all to see. People have told me that they love me for what I write – if they like what I say – and people (sometimes the same people) – have told me that they hate me for what I write – if they don't like what I say. No one has ever told me that they love me because I write. That grief that women get for being verbal is unavoidable.

I reflected that Jonathan and I have been chatting with each other since I returned to Jersey in 2004, I think, and he *never* gave me a hard time for voicing an opinion that was different than his. And that is special and wonderful and unique. Jonathan, thank you.

And here's an "I'm sorry."

The past few years have been tough for me. I broke my arm, was diagnosed with cancer, was diagnosed with a chronic illness, my sister was diagnosed with cancer, and she died. I have retreated a bit, fearing that the heavy stuff I've been going through was just too much for others to hear about or be exposed to. There were times when I could have interacted with Jonathan more – I was in the library, I needed to be in his office – but I chose not to, thinking, people don't want to be around me. I'm Miss Catastrophe.

I remember the last conversation I had with Jonathan. It never finished, and I kind of melted into the metal shelves back there, and didn't seek him out to say goodbye that day. That was the last day I ever saw him. And I wish I could have that moment back to say, "I know you only from the library, but I cherish you for what you have offered to my life, and, truly, no one will replace you."

I'm sorry, and I wish I had known how bad it had gotten for you, and I wish I had been supportive, and thank you.


And I tell this little story to say what people always want to say when they just get in from a funeral – let people know that you value them. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson: Pay for My Massage; White Skin is Magic


You can read this review at FrontPageMag here

Michael Eric Dyson is the University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. One website listed the average tenured professor's 2012 salary at Georgetown at $167,000, three times the median US income. No doubt a professor occupying an elevated position such as Dyson's, in 2017, earns more. Dyson received his PhD from Princeton, ranked by US News as the best American university, beating out Harvard. Dyson is the author of five bestselling books and the recipient of numerous awards. His three children have six degrees including from Ivy League schools. His son is an anesthesiologist.

Dyson's 2017 book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America has received over-the-top praise from Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Michael Medved. Reviews call the book "frank," "searing," "urgent," "eloquent, righteous, and inspired … lyrical." "Anguish and hurt throb in every word," along with "brilliance and rectitude."

Dyson's main point is that America is a hellhole that dooms black people to failure, silencing, and death, while whites uniformly bask in unearned wealth and good fortune. "You know that white skin is magic."

Blacks are analogous to captured birds. Whites will decide whether they want, finally, to open their hands and liberate blacks, or just, out of spite, strangle them to death. "It's in your hands."

As reparation, whites must hire blacks instead of whites. Whites must pay blacks more money than is appropriate. Whites must give blacks money for school tuition and zoo, museum, and movie admission, and pay for massages and textbooks. White people must also tell every white person they meet that he enjoys white privilege. Dyson provides the script: "Whites must understand that they benefit from white privilege in order to realize how white privilege creates the space for black oppression."

Tears We Cannot Stop opens and closes with quotes from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. The first quote, by Morrison, "We flesh. Flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh … they'd as soon pick out your eyes … break your mouth … What you scream from it they do not hear." The closing quote from Alice Walker's The Color Purple: "Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved."

One can't debate with an enslaved fictional character; to do so would be unseemly and irrational. Dyson doesn't open or close with statistics or peer-reviewed scholarship; he opens and closes with works of art that imprison African Americans in stereotypical images of helplessness and suffering, images created by college-educated, professional women who wrote in faux-Ebonics. Walker and Morrison have been embraced and feted by a majority-white academic and literary elite. Between them, they have won every possible prize, including two Pulitzers and a Nobel. In these opening and closing quotes, African Americans sound like the roadshow of Porgy and Bess.

Dyson does not include quotes by actual slaves. Such quotes often include an insistence on human dignity, no matter the circumstances, and an awareness of how complex life can be. Frederick Douglass wrote, "A smile or a tear has not nationality … they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man," "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men," "People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get," "We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future," and "The soul that is within me no man can degrade."

Booker T. Washington is a treasure-trove of quotes for Dyson to ponder. "Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition … than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe … This I say, not to justify slavery … but to call attention to a fact." Note that Douglass and Washington chose to make their points in Standard English.

Another of Dyson's rhetorical ploys: he prostitutes religion to forfend rational thought. Dyson opens his "Invocation" with the words "Almighty, hear our prayer. Oh God how we suffer." He closes the book, "Oh, Lord, black folk are everything … we are going nowhere." In the same way that one can't debate a fictional character, especially one who merely wants to dance and be loved, and whose eyes evil white people want to poke out, one can't debate something as sacred as a prayer.

The Old Testament prophets were brazenly courageous. Jeremiah told his fellow Jews exactly where and how they were disobeying God and tempting catastrophe. Dyson cannot breathe a single word of criticism of his fellow African Americans. Dyson never so much as brushes against the New Testament's love and forgiveness. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do," "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," and "Love does not keep account of injuries" are words that do not appear in Dyson's Bible.

Dyson mentions having once lead a Bible study. "I hammered away at the parallels between sexism and racism" because sexism is bad for "black Christianity." His emphasis on sexism and racism is truer to identity politics than to the Bible's larger message. The very concept of "black Christianity" contradicts Galatians 3:28, "In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek … you are all one in Christ Jesus." Whites' only path to acceptance is to acknowledge how debased they are. "I'm a rich, white guy, and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it," reports basketball coach Gregg Popovich, as quoted by Dyson. Dyson mentions Christian publisher Jim Wallis who prescribed "repentance for white people as dying to whiteness." No concordance would turn up any Biblical verses that support "dying to whiteness" as a form of repentance.

Dyson's prostitution of religion as cover reaches its nadir in blasphemy. He equates the spit of a black girl on a white girl's body with Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The black girl's spit "may as well have been holy water … Holy Communion … the biggest miracle since you turned water to wine."

The book is so repetitious one gets a sense of its entire message from two pages of its "Invocation": Blacks are not free; they are "ensnared." Whites are "tormentors" and nothing blacks can do will "stop their evil." Blacks cannot convince whites that "we are your children and don't deserve this punishment." Whites are "slaughtering us in the streets" because they want "to remove us from the face of the earth." Whites "are lying through their teeth." Whites "are invested in their own privilege" so "they cannot afford to see how much we suffer." "White folk act like the devil is all in them." Dyson watches helplessly as racism threatens to snuff the life out of his grandchildren.

What the hell is Dyson doing in the US? Genocide, he insists, is inescapable. The borders are open. He has money. Why isn't he on a plane?

Black people never do anything unpleasant, but, on those rare occasions when they do, it is white people's fault. OJ was guilty but "The hurts and traumas against black folk had piled so high … and the refusal of whiteness to open its eyes had become so abhorrent that black folk sent a message to white America." Please note: "whiteness" has "eyes" that "whiteness" can "refuse to open." Suck it up, Ron and Nicole. Dyson grudgingly acknowledges the existence of black-on-black crime, only to blame white people for it. In any case, white people only mention black-on-black crime to torment blacks. "You do not bring this up because you're genuinely concerned," he says.

Trayvon Martin, Dyson reports, "lost his life to a bigoted zealot." Black people die because white society "hates black folks in its guts." Dyson avoids facts: according to sworn testimony and forensic evidence, The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the scene of the Martin shooting, is 50% white, 20% Hispanic, and 20% black. It is not wealthy, and at the time of the Martin shooting, it had a history of break-ins by young black men. Martin was lingering behind homes on a rainy night. George Zimmerman was a volunteer in a watch that had started up in response to burglaries. According to Zimmerman, whose testimony was supported by his injuries, Martin punched Zimmerman in the face and was pounding Zimmerman's head into a concrete sidewalk. After a struggle over his gun, Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman is about as white as Dyson – he has one white parent and one Afro-Peruvian parent.

Police are uniformly demonic entities in Dyson's book. A "pig" will kill a black in order to "thrill himself to the slow letting of blood … while he blithely ignores their suffering" so he can "high five" his fellow police officers. Police are afflicted with "a terminal degree of black revulsion." Intelligent blacks must suffer the indignation of mistreatment at the hands of stupid white police officers whose only IQ is their "Intimidation Quotient." Dyson believes that "some son of a bitch with a badge" "the white folk in blue" one of the "enraged white male cops" who "murder us like animals" will murder his grandchildren. "I want to kill dead" these police, he confesses. Blacks must "sacrifice our hides to feed America." That's why it is okay to refer to police officers as "pigs." Because America requires that blacks "surrender life to fill the bellies of a nation that eats our souls and culture while excreting us as so much waste." "We think of police" he writes, "as ISIS."  

Dyson recounts an anecdote about an encounter between his son Mwata, and a cop. Dyson baptizes his account with the words, "as I chant this prayer. " An intelligent, integral person would ignore Dyson's attempt to shield his anecdote from analysis by disguising it as prayer. We recognize that anecdotes are one-sided, subjective, self-serving, and subject to the vagaries of memory. Never does Dyson acknowledge, "I may be remembering this wrong, and the other person may remember it differently."

In his 1977, Academy-Award-winning film Annie Hall, Woody Allen managed to accomplish, in a scene less than one minute long, what Dyson never does in 228 pages. Allen depicts his main character insisting that he overhears people referring to him as a Jew, for example, by asking him, "Jew eat?" rather than "Did you eat?" The two phrases sound identical when spoken quickly. Maybe people are expressing anti-Semitism to Woody Allen, or maybe, as the script says, he is "paranoid."

I recently heard an anecdote on NPR meant to seal America as a racist nation: a cashier was slow to serve a black customer. I had to ask: was the cashier rude to the black customer, or was the cashier merely distracted? Has the cashier ever been rude to a white customer? Had the black customer been rude to the cashier first, and was the cashier using the weapons of the weak, passive aggression, to avenge herself? What is our standard for rudeness? NPR did not ask these questions.

Such questions can have historic consequences. Did Michael Brown raise his hands in surrender and say, "Don't shoot," only to be murdered by a racist cop? Witnesses report that Brown attempted to gain access to a police officer's gun, fled, and later charged. The officer in question was pursuing Brown because Brown matched the description of a suspect in a recent robbery. Video and eyewitness accounts reduce to nothingness the "Hands up; don't shoot" anecdote, and yet Black Lives Matter activists insist on clinging to it. Ferguson, Missouri, was torn apart for an anecdote.

Dyson does not have to acknowledge that anecdotes alone are not adequate evidence because Dyson does not acknowledge that there is any point of view other than his own. Merely to suggest that there is, is to exercise racism. The better part of the book consists of Dyson telling white people what white people think and what white people feel. When he appeared on Michael Medved's radio show, Dyson claimed that black people understand black people and also understand white people. White people understand neither. White people require black people to speak the truth to them, the truth they, as whites, are incapable of seeing or articulating. On Planet Dyson, Michael Eric Dyson sees all, knows all, tells all.

Dyson transparently attempts preemptively to silence any disagreement. He repeatedly says some variation of this – and this is my paraphrase – "I know you disagree with me. You disagree with me because you are a racist. I will speak for you." If whites decline to agree with his prescription to hand their money over to blacks, Dyson preemptively argues – and this is an actual quote – "Please don't say that your ancestors didn't own slaves … Black sweat built the country you now reside in, and you continue to enjoy the fruits of that labor."

When telling white people what they think and feel, Dyson adopts the provocative habit of addressing whites as "Beloved." A sampling: "Beloved, white racial grief erupts when you fear losing your dominance," "It is being proved wrong that leaves you distressed," and "You are emotionally immature about race." Ironically, Dyson diagnoses all whites as suffering from "L.I.E.: lacking introspection entirely." His lack of self-awareness is not surprising; reading the book, one rapidly discovers that he is full of himself, and that he suffers from a frustrated Messiah complex. Again and again, those with whom he interacts fail to recognize his genius. For example, his African American parishioners eventually locked, and voted him out of the church in which he emphasized racism and sexism. Between his inflated ego, his seething rage that the white people who have advanced his career haven't yet crowned him absolute monarch of the known universe, his conviction that he alone can save humanity, and his gift for blindness to any fact with which he might disagree, Dyson is just a few Kool-Aid shots away from being another Jim Jones.

In 1978, Reverend Jim Jones brainwashed his followers to believe that racist white Americans would subject their children to "terrible things" and "bring them up … to be slaves and subhuman." "The kindest thing to do … to spare them from what's coming" at the hands of white Americans, Jones told his followers, was to force three hundred children to drink cyanide-poisoned punch. Jones' majority-black followers believed this narrative of white evil and black helplessness. Of the 909 suicides and homicides at Jonestown, 300 were children killed by their own parents.

Dyson insists, "Nothing about us without us." In other words, if you are going to talk about black people, you must allow black people to speak. Dyson insists this while silencing, and speaking for, whites. Dyson reserves special condescension and absolute silencing for his mockery of poor and ethnic whites, including Irish people, Italians, Jews, and Poles. No doubt he knows that his rich, white liberal funders join him in their shared contempt for poor and ethnic whites. Dyson spits on white ethnics' "polkas and pizzas." Poor and ethnic whites have no right to pride in their accomplishments and no right to complain about their pain. Poor and ethnic whites enjoy "dominance" over other cultures.  

He says that his words may "frighten" or "anger" white ethnics or reduce them to attempts to "deny" him. "I know this is a lot for you to take in," he condescends, italics in the original. The Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews and poor whites are not smart enough or strong enough to understand Dyson. His intellectual brilliance "must make you woozy and weak at the knees." With the exactitude of Stalin's photo archiver, Dyson erases epic suffering and resilience: the Potato Famine, the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, the Holocaust, and, in this country, restrictive covenants, early deaths and maimings among coal miners and steel workers – ugly stories of men "roasted alive by molten slag that spilled from a giant ladle" of coalminers whose "spit you could use as ink." Dyson erases  "No Irish Need Apply," and lynchings of Italians such as occurred in New Orleans on March 14, 1891, and massacres of Poles, Slovaks, and Lithuanians such as occurred in Lattimer, Pennsylvania on September 10, 1897. Dyson renders taboo mention of how current college admissions and immigration policies disproportionately push back poor whites. And Dyson disguises his own reduction of the word "white" to a smear that conflates vastly diverse peoples, from Lapps to Jews, into a single, hateful, entity that is responsible for all the world's problems and has no right to compassion for grief or pride in accomplishment.

Dyson saves special venom for poor and ethnic whites because he knows that poor and ethnic whites' true narratives are one of the worst enemies to his favored narrative. They are not the worst enemies of his favored narrative, though. Dyson never mentions the ethnic group that poses the greatest threat to his worldview: recent immigrants from Africa. This cohort, undeniably black, is among the most successful in America, so much so that recent African immigrants constitute a "model minority." Elite schools allegedly "pad" their diversity numbers by favoring recent African immigrants in Affirmative Action programs. If Dyson really wanted to help black Americans, he ought to do what columnists like Nicholas Kristof have done, and examine what skills and behaviors help some ethnic groups to advance.

Any poor and ethnic white upset by Dyson's words is not upset because a powerful man who has the media by the short hairs is promulgating propaganda about their own history – lies about their own grandmothers, mothers, and themselves. No, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish readers are upset because "so much has been invested in whitenesss that it is hard to let it go. It is defensive, resentful, full of denial and amnesia." Dyson's racist bullying of poor and ethnic whites has the full support of squadrons of rich white liberals and a near-Ivy League university, Georgetown. "No matter how poor you are," he rants from his comfortable Georgetown office, from his position as an author of five bestselling books, from his microphone, from The New York Times, "No matter how poor you are … you know white skin is magic." Of himself, he insists, "What you scream they do not hear." He is unheard. In a bestselling book. That silences poor and ethnic whites and police officers. Clear?

The book's structure is grab-bag. Dyson rants against that evil song, "The Star-Spangled Banner." He declares that "the election of Donald Trump was all about whiteness … You will deny it of course." He mentions that America elected Barack Obama, a black man, president twice, mostly because it just goes to show you how racist America really is. "There is no denying that Obama is one of the most profound, impressive, gifted, and inspiring Americans this nation has seen" Disagree? Racist. Dyson is mad at the movie Mississippi Burning because it dared to mention that not all whites were KKK. Dyson flaunts his messianic power: his student breaks down and confesses, "For the first time in my life, I feel guilty about being white." "Savvier" students had concluded the shame of whiteness earlier than this boy. Dyson still has work to do: "I wanted the other white students to share his shame."

There are almost no references to peer-reviewed studies. Dyson crucifies police officers as uniformly subhuman scum, but Dyson never goes near the work of Heather MacDonald and merely dismisses Roland Fryer for not gathering more data. This is the cheapest of criticisms: tobacco executives levelled it against early studies linking smoking with lung cancer. "We need more data," they insisted.

Dyson mentions the Moynihan Report very briefly, only to disparage it as yet more evidence of evil whitie's attempt to "keep blackness in place."

There is no air in this room – the windows are nailed shut. The few references to real facts in a real world outside of Dyson's ego are references to lowbrow pop culture and those enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame: the Rachel Dolezals and Colin Kaepernicks. Dyson has the priorities and aesthetics of a preparer of the front page of a supermarket tabloid. This appetite is evident in the book's dedication to "Beyonce Knowles Carter" – boldface in the original – "Lover of Black People Genius and Greatest Living Entertainer Feminist and Global Humanitarian." There are subsequent dedications to Solange Knowles and Tina Knowles-Lawson, also boldface.

Page after repetitious, lightless, airless, predictable, self-parodying, unspeakably, thuddingly boring page: after all this, one begins to conclude that the world is a frighteningly small place to Michael Eric Dyson. You want to kidnap and deprogram him. Like those blind people who receive miracle-working operations that give them sight at an advanced age, Dyson would be overwhelmed to encounter anything that isn't a direct support for his grievance-ego complex. Has Dyson ever been able to enjoy an ice cream cone for all it is, and not tried to make it something it is not?

Who would read this and enjoy it? This dominatrix-inflected iteration of "Naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty"? Masochists, that's who. It's not just the white shaming that makes this such anti-literary godawful tripe. It's the anaerobic divorced-from-reality but true-to-genre predictability of it. Some rich white liberal out there craves, publicly, to be spanked. And this craving is so deep-seated that it obliterates the mind's curiosity and integrity. Rich, white liberals and blacks who prefer grievance to living life to the full will cling to this book as if it were a sex toy. Both fulfill the same function: they allow the user to live out rigidly choreographed fantasies.

On Planet Dyson, skin color transcends any other reality. Whites who claim to admire Martin Luther King Jr are wrong. White people could never understand a man as black as the "real" Dr. King. "You don't really know him … he sprang from a black moral womb." "King's soul was indeed black … beautifully black" "He understood the white psyche" so he didn't tell the truth to whites because whites can't handle the truth. In fact, Martin Luther King was a universal hero, inspired by a Jew – Jesus – white men – Thoreau and Tolstoy – and a Hindu – Mahatma Gandhi.

King's successes were earned through the cooperation and sacrifice of whites from the Oval Office to Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife and mother who was martyred by the KKK for her Civil Rights work. Those who insist on implacable white evil use King's assassination to erase this narrative of black-white cooperation. The assassination allegedly proves that no matter how nice whites may seem, ultimately, America will always betray blacks.

The decade that took Dr. King was bookended with the culling of Kennedys, Jack and Bobby. If, as they sometimes do, sons of the Auld Sod cited their deaths as seal of implacable Protestant anti-Catholicism, Dyson would mock their grief and insist that "white skin is magic." Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, Larry Flynt and Andy Warhol were, alas, all shot. These shootings do not prove that America hates conservative icons, segregationist governors, pornographers or wig-wearing, Bohunk boho pop stars. 

In dividing the world into unreconcilable blacks and whites, whose skin color is their only salient feature, Dyson confers authority on himself. I am black; my blackness is my authority; you are white; you are genocidal, morally degenerate, and blind. Interestingly, whites in general, and poor whites and ethnic whites in particular are not the only people Dyson works hard to silence. Dyson silences blacks.

Dyson paints America as a killing field where a genocide of blacks is imminent, if not actually occurring. Do most blacks agree? In a 2016 Associated Press poll, African Americans were more optimistic about America's future than whites. One African American, 72-year-old Ethel Tuggle, told a pollster that "she's amazed at the progress she's witnessed since her childhood in rural Missouri, when she was barred from entering shoe stores and had to trace her foot on a sheet of paper so a salesman inside could fit her for shoes. Her grandchildren live under the nation's first black president." Multiple surveys point to higher self-esteem among African Americans than among whites. Recent "deaths of despair" among whites have no parallel among blacks.

Other than a brief diss of Clarence Thomas – his "decisions on the Supreme Court mock our humanity" – I found no reference to leading black conservatives Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, Allen West, Walter E. Williams, Thomas Sowell, Orlando Patterson, Jason Riley, Mia Love, or Deneen Borelli in Dyson's screed.

Dyson insists that whites tell blacks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Alas, no. As Dyson's race-mongering career proves, rich white liberals reward blacks for displaying real or feigned wounds.  

Rather, contra Dyson, it is blacks themselves who urge other blacks to exercise self-reliance. Not just prominent black conservative intellectuals like Steele, but blacks whose only soap box is YouTube do this. Thanks to YouTube, a black woman can voice her rejection of the concept of "white privilege" here. Another woman insists that Michael Brown made decisions that sealed his own fate here. The self-described "Doctor of Common Sense" rejects Dyson's major premises in a video entitled "Ghetto Folks Who Blame Whites."

I can't endorse every syllable of the above-cited YouTubers. I agree on this: people like Dyson are spreading an unholy scripture that emasculates, paralyzes, and poisons black people. This scripture insists to blacks: you are doomed. You should not even attempt to improve your lot. Only white people have power. Your only hope is to perform before whites as a combination of victim to be pitied and menace to be feared. Then they will give you their money. Begging and theft are your only professions.

Dyson wants my money. He can have it – the day I can buy a ticket to Dyson debating the producers of the above videos.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lent / Tarot / The Queen of Cups




A bit over forty days ago, Facebook friend Daiva Markelis bid us all a temporary farewell, saying that she would be taking a "Facebook fast" for Lent.

This year, on a whim, I decided to do something I'd never done before: choose a tarot card at random, and blog about it, in relation to Lent.

Today is the last day.

The card I just drew is just perfect.

It's the queen of cups.

The queen of cups is a highly sensitive, intuitive, reflective woman. She can get deeply involved in others' feelings. Because she is so sensitive, she is also especially vulnerable. She is the one card I identify as being, herself, a tarot card reader. Because she can be a tarot reader, and she's my last card in this Lenten observation, I see her as me, reading cards for forty days of Lent.

The queen of cups is gazing at something. I wonder how tarot readers who don't like Christianity read this card. The queen of cups is gazing at a ciborium. Ciboriums are made of precious metal, like gold. They are often elaborately decorated. The queen of cups' ciborium depicts two worshipping angels facing the central container, and a cross crowns the ciborium. Ciboriums are the containers for the Eucharist. The queen of cups is gazing at, and meditating on, the vessel in which Christ's body is stored.

Just like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, two thousand years ago. These women waited, outside the tomb, for the biggest event in history to take place.

****

I'd like to thank Jeanne Piquet, Karen Wyle, and Liron Rubin for being the most likely readers of these posts, and anyone else who stopped by to offer a comment or two: Sue, Sue, Melanie, Judy, and everyone else. Doing this for forty days has been a discipline. I posted some of the entries close to six a.m., because I needed to get to an early class.


I tried not to post other material during Lent, so I restrained myself from posting as much about politics or nature or personal woes as I usually do. Starting on Monday, I've got a bucket-load of stuff I need to discuss. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Stumped - That's a Pun


When I first began this project, of choosing a tarot card at random and blogging about it for the forty days of Lent, I looked forward to today, Good Friday, and I hoped I'd draw the Hanged Man. The Hanged Man would be the prefect card to talk about on the anniversary of Jesus' crucifixion. I also looked forward to today and thought that the page of wands would be the one impossible card, one I couldn't possibly blog about on Good Friday.

Well, guess which card I drew. Yes, the page of wands.

The page of wands represents a youthful, adventurous, happy-go-lucky, in-love-with-life individual and individualist. I call this the "hippie" card.

What to say about the page on Good Friday?

I'm stumped.

Wait.

I just looked at the classic Rider-Waite-Smith image of the page of wands. I listed inside my head all the reasons it is an inappropriate card for Good Friday.

And then I saw it in a whole new way.

The youthful page is gazing at his – WAND – which is a branch taken from a tree. The branch should be dead, unable to produce new, green shoots.

Except that it *isn't* dead. This branch *is* producing new, green shoots.

I was just listening to the Brian Lehrer radio call-in show, and callers were talking about how they see the cross as a symbol of Christianity.

One woman named Maureen, I think, talked about how she thinks about the tree from which the cross was created. How painful, she said, for a part of nature to be exploited so cruelly. She said she reads folklore that talks about the various tree species that might have made up the tree on which Jesus hung.

One website reproduces a Scottish poem that identifies the elder with the crucifixion:

"Bour-tree, bour-tree, crookit rung,
Never straight and never strong,
Eer bush, and never tree,
Since our Lord was nailed t'ye"

Another website includes another poem that says that the yew tree was used

"And they went down into yonder town
and sat in the Gallery,
And there they saw sweet Jesus Christ
Hanging from a big Yew tree."

And yet another website recounts an even more elaborate tale:

"An old Greek myth relates that when the announcement of Christ's crucifixion was made, all the trees met together and agreed that none of them wished to be part of the event. When the time came for the wood to be selected by the soldiers, each piece began to split and break into many other pieces, making it impossible to use.

Only the evergreen oak or the 'Ilex' did not split and allowed itself to be used. Hence, the other trees looked upon the oak as a traitor. Some Greek people will not have any part of the evergreen oak tree brought into the house, or allow their axes to come into contact with the tree. The tree is seen to be eternally condemned."

There's lots more folklore you can find on the web about the species of tree used in the crucifixion, and how the tree "felt" about being so used, and how others feel about it.

Maureen, the radio-call-in-show caller, also talked about the MOAB that was dropped in Afghanistan yesterday. She said that she thought of all the wild animals that the bomb killed, in addition to its human targets. She said that Christ's sacrifice on the cross, on a tree, a part of nature, cause her to feel compassion for nature.

In the page of wands tarot card, an energetic, effervescent, and hopeful young person is gazing at a cut branch that magically produces green growth.

Maybe not such a bad card to draw on Good Friday after all.


Literally – I was "stumped." 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lent / Tarot / The Lovers

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T. S. Eliot

When I drew The Lovers this morning, I thought, it's almost over, and here I am at the beginning.

Tonight, as Christians around the world celebrate Jesus' Seder, his Last Supper, and the washing of the feet, and as we anticipate the big climax: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, I am looking at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

They have everything they need, except the knowledge of good and evil.  They are about to gain that.

Even in this very brief story, the foreshadowing prophecies: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."

God will enter history and suffer what we suffer, for love of us.  

But all of that happens much later, tomorrow, Good Friday.


For now Adam and Eve are happy in Eden, safe under the wings of an angel. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lent / Tarot / The Man Who Went Away Sad / The Eight of Cups



I cherish the style of French novelist Marcel Proust – a style so detailed and so contemplative that, as one editor rejecting Proust's work wrote, it takes one of his characters thirty pages to turn over in bed before falling asleep.

Detailed, interior writing moves me.

The writing of the Bible is not like that. It's amazing how brief, how bam, bam, bam, the stories in Genesis are. Creation! Expulsion from Eden! The first murder! The flood! And yet these rapid-fire narratives have captured imaginations and sparked debate around the world for thousands of years.

My first exposure to Bible stories was listening to them in church. I peopled these sparse narratives. I embroidered their mise-en-scene and provided rich backstories. All this happened in my head spontaneously. Thus these stories have had a hold on me all my life. The combination of their sparseness and their power recruited my creativity to engage with them.

So it is with the man who went away sad.

It's a very brief encounter; only a few sentences in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Jesus was teaching. He was answering questions about marriage. A rich man approached him and asked how he could best live his life. Jesus said follow the commandments. The man asked which ones. Jesus listed them. I already follow those, the guy said.

Now, here's the thing. The man could have stopped there. He could have said, Okay, Jesus. I've got it. I asked you what I should be doing, and you told me something I already do. So I can just move on now, satisfied.

But he didn't.

See? That's how a briefly told story gets under your skin. You pay attention to every detail.

The man asks what else he can do.

And Jesus delivers his zinger. "Sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me."

In retrospect, how many of us wish we could have been in this man's sandals? Jesus Christ is holding out his hand and saying "Follow me." What a supreme adventure and privilege!

The man merely "goes away sad." He is rich. He doesn't want to sell what he has.

And that's it. That's all we have of the man.

But I see him, and I feel him, too.

I see him as young, and handsome, with lots of the finer things in life, including women, which really are just things to him. I see him as really comfortable, and knowing that craving that only a lucky life can instill: the craving for something other than good fortune.

He's on the brink of entering into splendor and satisfaction beyond his wildest imaginings, and he turns it down for just more of the tawdry same: more coins, more babes, more bread and olive oil. Not even pizza. No tomatoes for another 1,490 plus years.

The story ends there. He is still going away from the best thing he has ever encountered. He is still focused on his material wealth and status. He is still sad.

I talk to him. I try to convince him. Maybe someday I'll write a story about him. No doubt someone else already has.

When a movie ends sadly, I often try to make up a plausible, alternative, happy ending. That's harder to do than it sounds. I can conjure no plausible happy ending for "Age of Innocence," for example, no matter how hard I try. Newland Archer is such a royal screw-up. I can't give Archer a happy ending and remain true to the character Edith Wharton created.

I want to give the man who went away sad a happy ending, but I want to be true to his character, and I want to honor his choices.

I hope the story has been written that creates a believable rich man who went away sad, but eventually found happiness.


Today's reflection brought to you by the eight of cups, a card that depicts a man walking away sad.