Saturday, February 04, 2012

Band Aid - An Annoying Personal Update

So I watched Almost Famous again last night. I am not ashamed to admit this is one of my favorite films. Hands down. Not least because the music of this period, the early 1970's, lies deep within my own heart as the only really great rock music. Just take the song above, written by writer/director Cameron Crowe and his wife, guitarist/singer from Heart, Nancy Wilson. Anyone who knows anything about rock music from the era will recognize the verse/chorus break as a rip-off from Bad Company's eponymous song. I don't consider myself a Bad Company fan by any means, but this sweet little nod in their direction makes me smile every time I hear it.

As I wrote yesterday, I've been writing full time for the past couple months. For years I've had this idea in my head, telling the story of a band from its beginnings to its very last concert. This has been the perfect opportunity to take all the things I want to say about music and put it out there. I worked diligently, day after day, for weeks on the manuscript. Then, just before Christmas, the story just died. For days on end, I would end my day with great reluctance, because I couldn't wait to sit down and just keep writing. One morning, though, not only could I not pick up the thread where I'd left it the day before.

There was no thread.

I spent several days writing and deleting, writing and deleting, all in what was ultimately a vain attempt to find that thread. 86,000 words, and I had absolutely nothing to show for it. The incomplete manuscript has sat there, taunting me as I've worked on a series of short stories, aborted story ideas, blah-blah-blah. The longer story ideas - everything from yet another older idea I had about AIDS, religion, and homosexuality in a small town in Indiana in the early 1980's to an attempt at a fantasy story - were, I think, more refuges than anything. Me trying to divert attention away from this story that I desperately wanted to tell, but just couldn't.

Watching that film last night, I found that missing thread. In fact, it was so obvious, I started laughing. I'm glad Lisa was asleep on the couch, because she would have wondered if I'd lost my mind. This marvelous movie, expressing Crowe's long-standing love for the music of his youth, wanting to tell his road stories, having been a fifteen year old kid touring with The Allman Brothers Band, a sixteen year old touring with Led Zeppelin and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, stood there with that lost thread, holding it out to me.

This doesn't mean the way ahead is easy. On the contrary. While I have that thread in my hand, and look forward to weaving it through the rest of the story I want to tell, I have a whole lot of work ahead of me. Not least because of the way I've decided to structure it, I've given myself a far more complicated story than I might otherwise. Also, from where I left off with the story, I am, roughly, just shy of half way through. Several weeks of intense writing lie ahead. Then there's the fallow period, then the re-write and polishing stage.

I'm just so happy to have that thread back in my hand. I owe it all to Cameron Crowe's marvelous movie.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Looking For A Good Read?

For the past couple months, along with maintaining this blog, I have been spending five to nine hours a day writing. Fiction, to be more specific. I have had some encouraging and positive feedback from my alpha readers, but have been frustrated in my attempts to take all these hours of work and make them more widely available.

A few days back, a member of church mentioned that she reads quite a lot of e-books from a self-publishing site called Smashwords. I visited the site, checked their catalog, style manual, marketing guide, and other material, then spent a good six hours reformatting two finished short stories, and uploaded them yesterday. I spent most of today tweaking the material so that it is potentially acceptable in the Smashwords Premium Catalog, which makes Smashwords-published books available to a far broader market.

I am happy to announce I am now a (self) published author! The book, From The Other Side: Two Stories, is available for purchase at $1.99. I thought a buck a story was reasonable, all things considered. I am pleased, thus far, with Smashwords, and am currently going through their marketing guide.

The stories in this little volume are "Drawing Down Dark", in which Christy Helms gets a little help reuniting with his Mom and Dad. The title story, "From The Other Side", is a send-up of all those paranormal investigation shows, told from the ghost's point of view. The themes in each are similar. Both are stories of the power of love to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. I suppose it goes without saying I am both excited and nervous about this. It's an experiment at the moment, one I'll be tracking over the ensuing months to see how this whole self-publishing world works.

The nice thing about Smashwords is they support any e-reading platform. Even if you don't have a Kindle or Nook or iPad, you can purchase, download, and read these - and many, many other - stories. I've made about 20% of the text available for free, allowing potential readers the opportunity to browse. I encourage you to use this feature.

So, if you're looking for a diversion, check out my little two-story collection. When you're finished, drop me a line to let me know what you thought.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

To Be A Man

The other night, apropos of nothing in particular, one of the folks on my FB friend list posted something he'd seen concerning the loss of "Man Points".
My Top 10 Ways a Man Loses ManPoints. We’re all guilty of 1 or 2 of these but if you’re checking off more than 5 of these………????? 10. Taking engagement photos. 9. Using expressions like “we’re pregnant” or “the wife”. 8. Being told off by a female colleague (not superior or supervisor) and not rebutting. 7. Asking your wife or girlfriend for money or having an allowance. 6. Following “Honey Do” lists. 5. Your wife/girlfriend has essentially replaced your mother. 4. Spending all day shopping with your mate for clothes - for HER. 3. Gossiping with your wife (or girlfriend’s) friends. 2. Being told that you have to go grocery shopping and you HAVE to take the kids with you. 1. Asking your wife if your friends can come over (or if you can go out with your friends) and she says “NO” more than 50% of the time. I might add that watching your kids and calling it “babysitting” is also pretty lame.
Beyond the obvious comments regarding manners and such, a list like this screams to me . . . well, something similar to the photo at the top of the post. If you are this insecure about your manhood, I think you have bigger problems than following "Honey-do" lists.

This was swirling around my brain when I stumbled across a marvelous review of Chris Matthews' book on JFK, in the on-line TNR. In the course of the review, Greenberg makes some interesting observations regarding Matthews:
The blustery world of cable commentary has many problems besides its indifference to historical accuracy and political ideas. One of them is its sexism, which is sometimes explicit, sometimes tacit. The heavily male world of TV talk encourages a macho ethic and esteems an aggressive, sharp-elbowed approach. At its worst, it models itself on the obnoxious culture of sports talk radio, where every man’s opinion is deemed as good as every other’s (and where women seldom participate at all). It’s no coincidence that two archetypes of the new political broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, honed their styles and got established in sports, not politics. The late Tim Russert, the longtime host of Meet the Press, was always steering his show’s conversation for no good reason into athletics, embarrassing himself by asking eminent people frivolous questions about the Buffalo Bills. This tendency trivialized public affairs by implying a fundamental likeness to sports (no wonder they are so obsessed with the “horse race”), while alienating any viewer left cold by “March Madness” or Thanksgiving Day football—or just unmoved by the bombastic opinion-slinging characteristic of diehard sports fans.

Like Russert, Mike Barnicle, and other male talkers of similar cloth, Matthews never concealed his misogyny, crudely leering at female guests on the air or teasing them about their appearance. But during the Democratic presidential race in 2008 Matthews crossed even the capacious lines of decorum set down in punditland. His and others’ demeaning remarks about Hillary Clinton piled up, triggering a backlash in the news media and a mild feminist revolt. Matthews was forced to apologize. But as Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine reported in a damning profile later that year, the apology was insincere and he retracted it. He shows no signs of having reformed or partaken of any introspection since.

The sports-bar ambiance that Matthews wallows in has not only sexist elements but also homosocial (I said homosocial) overtones. Matthews has been ridiculed for developing a series of “man crushes” on each good-looking (or not-so-good-looking) male politician to blaze across the sky. Barack Obama, he noted in sexualized language, sent a “thrill up my leg.” He cooed over Mitt Romney’s “perfect chin … perfect hair, he looks right.” Even the gargoylish Fred Thompson prompted Matthews on one program to ask his guest, Ana Marie Cox: “Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of—a little bit of cigar smoke? … Does he have sex appeal?” The flummoxed journalist could only reply, understatedly, “I can only speak for myself. I do not find him terribly attractive.”
At some point in time, most men enjoyed the kind of sexist banter and towel-snapping rough-housing that typifies youthful exuberance. There's nothing implicitly wrong with it, particularly if you're sixteen, in a locker room full of other sixteen year olds. For grown men, on the other hand, to continue these kinds of ridiculous adolescent dominance displays far past the time they have any relevance is, more than anything else, embarrassing. Good-natured male-bonding is a part of life. It helps youthful boys figure out the social pecking order, and, in all honesty, I think even those of us who whined about it - getting snapped on bare skin by a damp towel can hurt! - look back on such experiences somewhat wistfully.

Grown men who continue to act this way, especially men with some political power and influence like Matthews and Limbaugh and Olbermann, are little different from the hometown hero who never left, sitting in the same bar recounting the same stories with the same circle of friends. Bob Somerby has done a lot of the heavy lifting cataloging the hateful rhetoric of Matthews and Olbmerann, the latter back when he was The Only Real Liberal On TV. Limbaugh's many excursions in to demeaning women shouldn't need to be recounted. It goes deeper than the kinds of visceral fake manliness of these, or the now-infamous comment of Tucker Carlson that then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's voice made him "cross my legs"; the range and variety of male unease expressed by "Man Points" and bar-room punditry tell me there is something amiss in our sense of what it means to be a man.

Susan Faludi's Stiffed discussed the wide-ranging issues American men face, and the way a kind of reactionary Male Dominance undermined the very real social benefits on offer from feminism. Not the least of these benefits is a comfort in one's own skin, an insouciance toward the kind of superannuated adolescent behaviors that typify far too much of our culture. I am not suggesting that there is something unhealthy or wrong with grown men bonding in ways similar to adolescent boys. I am suggesting, however, that these rules have little place in talking about politics, relating to our wives/girlfriends, or navigating the complicated world of gender relations in the workplace.

There is nothing wrong with joking about "Man Points". There is nothing wrong with driving a jacked-up diesel pick-up. There is nothing wrong with sitting around with a bunch of guys and yucking it up about sports and women and politics. When these activities and behaviors, however, move from their proper place in to the public square, however, they become cause for concern. Many of the "Man Points" list above actually display a fundamental lack of respect for one's spouse or girlfriend. Needing a pickup truck for working is fine; needing a pick-up truck, then making it even bigger, "just because" may mean that's your particular taste in vehicles, or it might mean you're a tad unsure about your other vehicle. Being the drunk, garrulous, vocal-bully in a bar can be entertaining; being the drunk, garrulous, vocal-bully five days a week in front of millions of people - and getting paid quite well for doing so - is not only embarrassing. It demeans the whole public square. When we as a society can no longer tell the difference between barroom banter and public discourse, we are all the worse off.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Marriage - What's In A Name

I have no idea who Mark Driscoll is beyond the bare fact that he is a pastor of a megachurch somewhere out west called Mars Hill. Apparently, he's written a book on marriage. I can think of few other institutions about which pretty much everyone has an opinion and no two of them are exactly the same.

Which is fine.

What follows are thoughts on the institution as I've experienced it over nearly 19 years of interesting, turbulent, frantic, peaceful, and sometimes downright silly matrimony.

I think the words in Ephesians regarding marriage are interesting.

The institution itself is little more than the state managing procreation for the maintenance of property rights. With the elimination of primogeniture in the United States, such legal categories as the legitimacy or illegitimacy of children have no meaning. The process of passing on property, on the other hand, has become immensely more complicated; we have to draw up legal documents for the disposition of property and the care of minor children, rather than rely on tradition to guide us. The legal reality that married couples hold all property, cash, income, etc., in common, makes the writing even of the simplest Will and Testament a complicated, and expensive, process. We've done ours a couple times, and will probably have to do it a time or two more before one or the both of us pass away. Each time, it costs a minimum of several hundred dollars, plus sitting around a table in a lawyer's office.

All of the above paragraph concerns the legal reality of marriage. It is the only reality about which the state concerns itself (unless, that is, one of the partners becomes abusive in some way, and the police come in; that's another topic for another day).

A marriage is not "a relationship". I do not have "a relationship" with my wife. We, together, work, laugh, fight, get frustrated, chat, cook, clean, make love, snuggle, pay bills, raise our daughters, and do a whole lot of making it up as we go along. It's complicated, occasionally seems impossible, usually leaves me feeling quite fulfilled, and never, ever gets boring. The word "relationship" is so banal, it cannot possibly capture the complex dance in which we are engaged. The Bible says that a husband and wife become one flesh. Obviously, that is a metaphor. Yet, it feels more than such to us, on most occasions.

Apparently, Driscoll is a big believer in marital sex. Woo-hoo! Not that I care what he, or anyone else, has to say about this. Most people who give their opinions about sex in some public forum are far more concerned with making sure people are having the right kind of sex. If they don't approve of it, then things could get ugly. Let me just say, for the record, that my wife and I still enjoy one another's company. I find her the sexiest woman I've ever met. Even as middle age has begun to take its toll on both our bodies, I think she's sexier than ever. The primary reason for sexual intercourse may well be the continuation of the species, and Lisa and I are done with that. If anyone out there told us that, therefore, we had to stop this part of our marriage, I'd either laugh or punch them. Beyond any of this, my sex life and anything related to it are none of your damn business.

People ask me why I hyphenated my last name. Before we were married, I told Lisa I didn't want her to take my last name. I find the idea distasteful, a remnant of a time not long gone when women were property, and the wife's taking of the husband's name was him claiming his prize. She demurred, then suggested we hyphenate. I won't lie; it was difficult. At the same time, the reasons we gave then are the same I give now. At about 2:30 in the afternoon of May 8, 1993, I became a different person. Geoffrey Safford ceased to exist, not just because I had decided to hyphenate. That person, that singular individual, was gone. In his place, bearing a striking resemblance in a superficial way yet irrevocably changed, was part of a dynamic duo. How better to signal this new identity than take my wife's last name, add it to mine, and let the world know a new person had arrived on the scene? People used to ask me a lot. It happens less often now, but I do get asked. I find it a wonderful opportunity to talk about what marriage means to me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tough Former Military Officer Cries Like The Bully He Is

After I read this last night on Think Progress, I realized I had my cupful of crazy.
This is a battlefield that we must stand upon and we need to let president Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and my dear friend, the chairman of the Democrat National Committee [Debbie Wasserman-Schultz], we need to let them know that Florida is not on the table. Take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency, and take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people somewhere else. You can take it to Europe, you can take it to the bottom of the sea, you can take it to the North Pole, but get the hell out of the United States of America.
Now, West, who is a retired military officer, bragging about how macho he is every chance he gets, is weeping. See, he's yet another of those crazy people - Newt, Michelle Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh - who get weepy and picked on when other people hear their crazy talk, call it crazy, and then ask the crazy person to explain why they're being so crazy. See, it isn't that they're crazy. It's the rest of the world is so mean to them.
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) once again sparked controversy with a demagogic speech in Florida this past weekend where he demanded that liberals and President Obama “get the hell out of the United States of America.” Now, West is engaged in a rapid backpedal, appearing both on CNN and Fox this morning to insist that what he said is not actually what he said.
In an exchange on FOXNews (FOXNews!), West pouted and whined because Bob Beckel was so mean to this guy who talks about battles and such.
Reacting to Fox pundit Bob Beckel’s demand that West apologize, a somewhat thin-skinned West shot back, “I think Bob Beckel owes me an apology for saying that he would not refer to me as a congressional representative nor as a lieutenant colonel, retired.”
After this, at the very least I realize why he's retired. The Army probably didn't want him because he's such a coward. If you can't stand up to Bob Beckel on FOXNews, how can anyone expect you to stand up to terrorists?

A Pox On Many Houses

It seems that the Department of Health and Human Services, under the aegis of the Affordable Care Act, has promulgated new regulations that require all health insurance plans to cover contraception. Those rules go in to effect April 1st. Apparently, the Catholic Church appealed directly to the President for an exemption for Church-related institutions - hospitals, Universities, and Catholic charities that provide health benefits for their employees. The President smiled, then told them they had one year to comply.

The result has been little more than yet another right-wing freak out. Ross Douthat of The New York Times sees it as yet another example of creeping authoritarianism. Michael Gerson of The Washington Post declared "both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama's decision", showing yet again that remarkable trait among too many pundits: mind-reading. Even the normally staid, supportive E. J. Dionne says that, in this instance, Obama "botched it".

There is another side to this discussion than Catholics harrumphing about Obama and birth control. It was this post* at Crooked Timber that alerted me to it.
[E]mployer-provided health insurance is a form of compensation for work, like plain old cash pay. If I disapprove of drinking, but one of my employees takes the money I pay him and spends it on beer, I have not, in any sense, been forced to buy him drinks. Obviously if I were forced to pay my employees in ‘beer dollars’, or literally in beer, the situation would be different. But medical insurance is not like paying people in ‘contraception dollars’. Being covered for getting your leg broken does not mean being obliged to break a leg, then get it treated. No one is proposing that anyone be forced to take any pill, just because they are covered for it.
To be fair and balanced, as they say, John Holbo engages in a bit of mind-reading in re Douthat and his alleged "real" concerns. I will only marginally defend this because Douthat has a long enough paper-trail to support the alleged "real" concerns Holbo ascribes to him. By and large, however, I tend to itch when anyone claims they "know" what someone they are reading "really thinks" about the subject.

For my purposes, I would like to suggest the following. I believe that Roman Catholic Church should be granted the exemption. I do not believe for one moment "liberal Catholics" (or any other religious group) has been "tossed under the bus". I do not believe, as the teaser for Gerson's column on the homepage of the e-Post reads, that the President is making war on religion.

A couple decades back, there were a rash of cases across the country, localities hauling bereaved parents to court because, in accordance with their religious faith as Christian Scientists, they did not take their seriously ill children to see a doctor and the child died. The parents were charged with what amounted to negligent homicide. These cases were, to me, an abomination, a horrible violation of the separation of church and state. We may find the action, or inaction as the case may be, of the parents unintelligible; we may believe them heartless, crazy, cruel, and guilty of complicity in the death of their own children. Just because we believe that, however, we do not, in the person of the organs of state police power, have any business insisting that our interpretation of events, and the interest the state has in protecting the lives and welfare of children, is the only proper one. Neither should the state ban Pueblo Indians from using peyote in religious ceremonies where its use is proscribed. This isn't a bunch of teenagers using a recreational hallucinogen; it is little different, during Prohibition, from the Catholics still using wine in eucharist.

While Holbo's argument is certainly interesting, and even compelling on some points, I don't accept it for this reason: whether we accept it or not, the Roman Catholic continues to teach that artificial birth control is a sin. While it is true that providing insurance to cover contraception does not require people to use that insurance, it does place institutions who are funded by the Church in the position of supporting practices that go against a tenet of their faith. No different that prosecuting parents who have lost their children for a crime they have not committed, the state has no business forcing a religious institution to do something that goes against its beliefs.

This in no way means that Pres. Obama is anti-Catholic, has turned away "liberal Catholic" supporters, or is waging war on religion. It only means that Pres. Obama is a contemporary, secular moderate, with a deaf ear to certain nuances of religious belief (remember how easily he abandoned his home church once folks raised a stink about his preacher's sermons?) and the reach of federal policy in regards to these matters.

Hazarding a guess, years of litigation lay ahead on this matter.

I, for one, have little sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church, any more than I do my own United Methodist Church and its obstinate refusal to allow clergy ordained under its orders to perform same-sex marriages even in states where they are now legal. I uphold the principle that the integrity of religious institutions needs to be defended; I also uphold my own right to call them ridiculous, purblind, and even troglodytic by upholding principles that can only harm them in the long run.

*A side note. For some reason, the Amish barn-raising scene in the 80's film Witness is brought up. It seems to be an archetype of what boosters of "community" and "voluntarism" believe America should be, and perhaps even was, once upon a time. I find that odd, to say the least. The Amish, in many ways, are similar to Tolkien's Hobbits. Living in what others perceive to be an idyll, it is in fact a staunchly defended idyll, whose existence hinges on the expenditure of a certain largeness of mind of the forces that defend against violence and repression. As both Aragorn and Gandalf make clear to the Hobbits, their Shire only exists because the Rangers and Wizards believe it a thing worthy of defense; had they not patrolled its borders and defended its furthest reaches, the evil and violence of the surrounding world would long ago have swallowed it up. So, too, the Amish; without the beneficence of the state insisting the Amish have the freedom to live as they do, their land and way of life would have vanished long ago.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Don't Need Another Hero (Part I of III)

I wrote the other day about recent forays in spiritual contemplation, using a variety of sacred and profane guides. Reading through the post I attempted, I think I wasn't as clear as I should have been on a number of points, not the least of them being my own sense not so much of the irrelevance of good and evil as much as these are less important than struggling, through prayer and participation in the sacraments and liturgy of the church, through Bible study and reflection, to see before me the path God wishes me to travel. Pretty heady stuff when I put it like that, I suppose, but it is what it is.

At the root of this struggle, at this moment in my life, is the matter of freedom, the real freedom we have through the Spirit, in the Son, with the Father. The great theologians of Christian freedom - St. Paul, St. Augustine, William of Ockham, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Gustavo Gutierrez - are united in their differences on this point if no other: Christian freedom involves the believer in a life of servanthood toward others, rooted in the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit, that is manifest in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a challenge. It entails risk. Not just the kind of risk that threatens social rejection, or even bodily harm to the point of physical death. That, it would seem to any first-time reader of the Bible, should be clear enough from the get-go.

The risk of embracing the freedom we have from Christ, in the Spirit, for the Father, is the risk of embracing chaos. We can, as those freed from our bondage to sin, throw ourselves not only in to a life of service to the world, demonstrating in our lives and words the profound love God has demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can also, because we have not reached the end of the story, and understanding there are powers and principalities, thrones and dominions out there more than willing to snatch us from the narrow, winding way of life, stare in to the abyss a bit too long. On that, I think, Nietzsche was quite correct.

I suppose I'm beating around the bush a tad here, but I hope I have clarified the point. In the freedom we have in faith by grace, we still inhabit our bodies of death; we are still immersed in a world racked by sin and death; it may well be mesmerizing, as we look around us at the swirl of events and people that we become transfixed by the odd beauty that can flow from evil. One can call it what it is, I suppose, without succumbing. At the same time, we haven't yet reached our final goal. At least I haven't. Therefore, even as I accept the warm embrace of the crucified and risen Savior, and take his hand as he leads me on this journey, there are - still - no guarantees that, in wandering even a little off the path, I might not find myself utterly lost. Relying on some prior notion of God's love and grace and presence shouldn't blind me to the very real dangers not so much of losing my life, as losing my soul (for lack of a better term at this moment in time).

In the midst of trying to figure all this out, trying to make clear what, precisely, it is about dark beauty I find so appealing, the other day, occasional contributor Kim Fabricius wrote the following epigram in his "Doodles" at Faith & Theology.
It has often been observed that Milton’s God in Paradise Lost is insipid, his Satan grand and dynamic. And that, of course, is because it’s much harder to draw enthralling virtuous characters than wicked ones. Compare the main problem that pacifists face: namely, convincing people that nonviolence is more noble and compelling than the inferno of war.
I decided, not having done so, to go and actually tackle Milton's epic last night. As it is in the public domain, the poem is out there in its entirety, here to be precise. For someone who sees in the rebel the true hero, in the anti-hero something noble, the words Milton places in the mouth of the fallen Prince of Light have rung down the centuries as a kind of archetypal screech of defiance against any perceived threat to personal integrity.
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th' associates and copartners of our loss
Lye thus astonisht on th' oblivious Pool
It was Nietzsche, more than anyone, who exposed the dark underbelly of the modernist project as relying precisely on this knife-edge - stripping human life of the need for the heroic life. Bereft of real struggle, bourgeois existence had become dessicated, from a certain moral point of view. Absent any more worlds to conquer, we were bound to decline unless we were willing to overthrow the slave morality of Christianity (as practiced, at least, in bourgeois Europe) and embrace the real of freedom that expresses itself in defiance against the many forces - intellectual, religious, social, moral - that insist we have reached the end of history with it the mediocrity in which we find ourselves.

While never embracing anything as puerile as Satanism, he did call one of his works The Anti-Christ (.pdf file).
This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet. Possibly they are the readers who understand my Zarathustra: how could I confound myself with those for whom there are ears listening today? -- Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.

The conditions under which one understands me and then necessarily understands -- I know them all too well. One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion. One must be accustomed to living on mountains -- to seeing one wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. One must have become indifferent, one must never ask whether truth is useful or a fatality.... Strength which prefers questions for which no one today is sufficiently daring; courage of the forbidden; predestination for the labyrinth. An experience out of seven solitudes. New ears for new music. New eyes for the most distant things. A new conscience for truths which have hitherto remained dumb. And the will to economy in the grand style: to keeping one's energy, one's enthusiasm in bounds.... Reverence for oneself; love for oneself; unconditional freedom with respect to oneself ...

Very well! These alone are my readers, my rightful readers, my predestined readers: what do the rest matter? -- The rest are merely mankind. -- One must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul -- in contempt...
Echoing Milton's Lucifer, Nietzsche raises the call to any of those who look around them in disgust, seeing in their neighbor not a beloved child of God in need, but a soft, pitiful shard, worthy only of contempt. Isn't it rewarding to lay claim to love of the self, to make of the Hell that surrounds us a Heaven in which we rule the herd, blind and deaf, plodding through its round of days unaware?

Right here lies the seductive power of dark beauty. Not the childish, hollow atheism of a Richard Dawkins, whose "religion" is a cartoon character; not the adolescent anti-Christianity of American Black Metal band Deicide, with its repeated celebration of the death of Jesus as the end of the promise from God; not the proto-fascism of Ayn Rand's pitiable heroes. When the Church takes on these and the many like them, it debases itself, striking an enemy at their weakest points.

Real evil is neither idiotic nor ugly, worthy only of contempt or derisive laughter. Real evil clothes itself in beauty. Real evil whispers, playing not upon our fears, but our hopes. Real evil presents the laudable desire to stand against the status quo in all its insipid irrelevance, offering us the position of hero. While hardly Scriptural, Milton's Lucifer, at the very least, offers a window in to the dark heart of the human predicament. Even more, speaking as he does in a far more recognizable idiom, Nietzsche's clarion call to heroic negation is appealing. It's appealing to me! Who doesn't want to be accepted as among the few adepts of the coming future, due not to any force outside ourselves, but our inherent intellectual prowess, the amoral courage to defy convention?

Is it any wonder, then, that the struggle for who rules the human heart, a human life, never ends? Rather than a vomiting child masturbating with a crucifix, the real presence of the Satanic in our world is the cajoling promise that we, in our moral purity, our intellectual acumen, our social wherewithal, are being held down by those less than we. One does not win this struggle by frightening away potential converts. The victory goes to those who present the appealing prospect of real victory in a real struggle, with oneself as the hero standing atop the mass of one's dead's opponents.

Be Still (Part II of III)

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
1 Kings 19:9-12 (NRSV)

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:1-13
In contrast to the appeal to our most fervent desires, picturing ourselves victorious over a world awash not in evil and despair, but mediocrity and insipidness, how can these Scriptural injunctions compare? How is it possible to heed that tiny voice in the midst of the far more attractive violence of the storm and earthquake? How is it we can bow before the one who, rather than embrace struggle against the forces that would kill him, went in silent freedom to a pitiful death, empty even of the power of appeal to the Father whose name he invoked so often before to the benefit of others?

What does the God of Jesus offer us that can compare to glorious victory over the stupidity, venality, and slavery of so many? How is it possible to say "Yes" to one as weak and servile as this?

Few contemporary examples from popular culture capture this desire to be the Hero more than the 2006 war porn/epic 300. Just this little snippet should suffice to create our visceral reaction as we cheer on the defiant Spartans, facing the might of the Persians at Thermopylae:

Contrast that with the following scene from a very different film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?:

In the midst of strife, a congregation on their way to the river sings lightly, casting peace and light that silences their arguing, quiets their hunger, and impels Delmar to rush in for his baptism. Which is more appealing: The defiant claim of the Spartans to fight in the shade cast by the Persian arrows? Or Delmar's injunction, "Come on in boys! The water is fine."

Shouldn't even require much thought, I would think.

Yet, it is precisely this contrast that renders the choices so stark. Do we surrender to the appeal for drama and struggle, always - of course! - with ourselves as victors? Or do we, rather, surrender to this other narrative that promises only strife and rejection, with its insistence on our subservience, even an appeal to empty ourselves?

Why be still, when all around us the ebb and flow of chaos bids us join it in struggle to prove ourselves? Why let ourselves become quiet to hear the sweet appeal to come to the river and bow our heads in prayer to a God so empty, so bent on His own way that even the blood of His own Son was not too precious a price to pay to soothe his battered ego? Why not, rather, reject such a monster, and toss one's lot in with all the rest who see through the facade of peace and love and joy for the shallow, dehumanizing film on a bloody history? Why choose to be yet another victim of such a creature?

If we are honest with ourselves - always questionable - we should admit at least this: none of us want to be weak, to be the victim, to be seen or understood by others as mediocre, as just another among many. The deepest cry of the individual is the cry to be heard as one is, in all one's integrity, and for oneself and no one else. The call from the Cross asks us to abandon this most basic human desire. We are called upon to sacrifice the satisfaction of that which lies most close to us, that fear that dare not give its name: the fear that we are no more or less special or worthy than anyone else, rooted in the deeper fear that we do not, in fact, exist in any meaningful way.

The Christian life is one in which we abandon any pretense to superiority over anyone else. The Christian life is one in which we set to one side even the primal drive for personal survival. At the heart of the individual's relationship with God, as expressed in the sacraments and liturgy of the Church, is the constant expression of our own unworthiness, the conscious recognition that we do not and cannot live on our own. Instead of the heroic defiance rooted in physical, intellectual, or moral strength, our lot is always to confess our weakness, or ignorance, our sinfulness and therefore unworthiness to stand before God.

When posed in this way, is it any wonder so many find it easy to set to one side the call of Christ to follow?

Except, of course, putting it this way is to forget one simple fact, something so easily overlooked it is soon forgotten in the rush and press of life.

The seductive whispers from below? They're all lies. The one whispering them is no more or less than a creature, a product of the Divine forbearance, allowed to exist because of the strangeness and inscrutable nature of Divine Providence. There is no power there; the heroic voice of Milton's Lucifer, of Nietszche's Anti-Christ are little more than gussied-up grunts from those who hate their lot, and fear the far more unsettling truth that they have already lost. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, a deed done in the quiet and silence of the first light of the first day of the week speaks far more loudly than any shout of defiance. The quiet words of assurance from the risen Christ - "Do not be afraid" - silence any and all doubts among those who see in Him the promise of final escape from the darkness that calls to us, the chaos whose momentary beauty hides the madness that awaits should we pitch ourselves headfirst in to it.

The resurrection shows us, as nothing else can, that love is stronger than death (to quote Song of Songs 8); that the weakness and defeat of Christ is the only real power, the only real defiance against the ruler of the present age; that God's on-going project of Creation, in its simplicity, is beloved precisely because it defies the chaos that swirls around us.

When we turn away from the darkness, we are blinded by the light from even a single dim candle. Yet even that small light cannot be overcome by all the darkness that ever was or ever will be. In that reality lies the promise to which we cling, the faith to which we surrender our lives, the love that binds us all together from the Spirit that calls forth life from death.

So Loved The World (Part III of III)

Few things are more difficult to understand than the way the Scriptures portray the relationship between God and the world, between Creator and Creation. It is difficult to untangle the many overlapping contradictions a singular understanding of "world" would give us. Are we to live in love to a world whose Prince is named as the Devil? How can anyone be in the world, yet not be of it, without losing some grasp of it, therefore be unable to minister to this world? How can we heard the groans of creation, described so eloquently by St. Paul, if we are not deeply immersed in the world that groans in this way? Just as God demonstrated the radical, free Divine Love by sending the Son in to the world, so, too, are we called to live in the world as Body of Risen Christ.

I sometimes think the easiest way to cut through the many questions and conundrums is to ignore them. That, however, isn't really an option.

I believe, first and foremost, along with everything else we surrender, we should surrender any attempt to answer the unanswerable question raised by the reality of so much death and misery. The very real demand for understanding, for sense in the senselessness of our world, is something with which believers have struggled since the author of Job made the question so plain and so clear. We demean those who continue to ask it by trying to explain it. How does one explain this?
The victims are tie up-most have been women-phone cut- bring some bondage mater sadist tendencies-no struggle, outside the death spot-no wintness except the Vain’s Kids. They were very lucky; a phone call save them. I was go-ng to tape the boys and put plastics bag over there head like I did Joseph, and Shirley. And then hang the girl. God-oh God what a beautiful sexual relief that would been. Josephine, when I hung her really turn me on; her pleading for mercy then the rope took whole, she helpless; staring at me with wide terror fill eyes the rope getting tighter-tighter.
There is nothing in heaven, the earth, or under the earth that can give meaning or purpose to this. Or this:
Archbishop Romero’s spirit lived on in Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel, four American churchwomen who journeyed to war-torn El Salvador to help the poor. Kazel was an Ursuline nun who taught indigenous peasants to read and write. She also fed the hungry and taught young mothers how to care for their children. Sister Dorothy greatly admired the unflappable courage of the poor in the face of the deadly oppression they faced on a daily basis. She was just as courageous herself, for she knew there was constant danger everywhere around her. “Those who work on the side of the poor suffer the same fate as the poor.”

Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were Maryknoll Sisters, a Catholic order dedicated to overseas missionary work. “Sister Maura was generous to a fault,” recalled a friend and fellow Maryknoll sister, “She gave away virtually everything she had except what was on her back.” Sister Ita was pensive and politically aware. “Sometimes the United States has to realize it does not own Central America or any other part of the world,” she once said, “ [and] that people have the right to shape their own destiny, to choose the type of government they want. We don’t lose Cuba, we don’t lose Nicaragua because they were never ours to lose. The sooner we accept this, the better.”

Jean Donovan was an executive at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in Cleveland. One day in 1977 she bravely decided to quit her job, give away her Harley Davidson, leave Ohio behind and join the Maryknoll Lay Mission. She was sent to El Salvador where she worked as a budget manager. Jean was greatly inspired by Archbishop Oscar Romero and was privileged to meet and work with him. Every week she’d bake him chocolate chip cookies and deliver them after Sunday mass. His murder hit her particularly hard. She was there at the funeral when government thugs attacked the mourners and killed thirty people. Although terribly frightened, Jean carried on her work. “Things are so much worse, it’s unbelievable,” she wrote to a friend in May 1980, “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured, and hacked to death.” Not too long after that, two of her best friends were murdered immediately after walking Jean home. She thought about leaving El Salvador. “I almost could,” she wrote, “except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

On the evening of December 2, 1980 Jean and Dorothy drove to Comalapa International Airport to pick up Maura and Ita, who were arriving from Nicaragua. On the way home the women were stopped by the National Guard, kidnapped at gunpoint, raped and executed. Their bodies were left to rot on the side of the road. The Salvadoran regime claimed that the women had been the victims of a robbery. This was a very convenient lie for the incoming Reagan administration, which was obligated to prove to Congress that El Salvador was making progress on human rights. Reagan was unburdened by any of the human rights concerns that his predecessor Jimmy Carter claimed to care so much about, and the new president turned a blind eye to the most horrendous abuses as he ramped up military and economic aid to El Salvador. Secretary of State Alexander Haig even had the audacity to go before Congress and declare that the four American churchwomen may have been responsible for their own deaths.
Whether the madness of the BTK serial killer or the madness of the governments of El Salvador and the United States turning a deaf ear to the blood of our sisters crying out from the ground, there is no way to explain this. Even calling these, and the oh-so-many-other realities of our world "evil" seems to diminish them. If they can be named, perhaps they can be controlled? If they have a word assigned to them, that word has a definition. It becomes intelligible.

How is it possible to live in a world where such as this is possible and not despair? How is it possible to read the words and see the pictures and conclude that, even if God exists, that golf vacation must have been really good. How is faith in the face of this kind of radical evil not a slap in the face to the victims and their loved ones?

To these questions, no more or less than to the realities that prompt them, I have no answer other than this: I have no answer.

Making sense of the world is not something we human beings are very good at. As a part of it no less than the rocks and the stars and the birds and the serial killers, it is impossible to stand outside and grasp it in its totality. This is not to say we haven't figured out a whole lot about the Universe and how it operates, or how to manipulate various energies to serve our purposes. This is a far cry from any of it "making sense." None of it makes sense. Reality itself, as opposed to nothingness, makes no sense. There is no reason why the verb "to be" has any referent. Even something that seems this simple is beyond our brightest minds to understand, yet we who claim the name of Christ in service to the one he called Father somehow have to say something about horrors such as those above that make sense?

Um. No.

The death and resurrection of Christ do not, in any way deny or mitigate the horrors of our Universe, the madness that grips us, individually and collectively, leading to so much mass terror and death. Service to the crucified and risen Christ should never be a license to attempt to console the inconsolable, to claim to have the answers to the most basic question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? This question always prompts its fear-filled follow-up: Is nothing stronger? The evidence for its strength, indeed its fundamental rule - described as the Satanic principality over this world, at least in parts of the Bible - is impossible to deny.

All the cross and empty tomb do, all they have ever done, is deny final agency and fundamental power to the many powers and forces that would seek to tear apart what is. And they do this by any means necessary. With stealth and guile. By burying half-truths within deeper falsehoods. By consoling with empty words instead of mourning along side those who weep. The cross and empty tomb say only one thing, and sometimes it doesn't seem to mean very much; sometimes it seems like a sick joke; yet I insist it says not only the one needful thing, but the only answer that really matters.

Love is.

I am not speaking of an emotion, although that is part of it. I am not speaking of physical attraction, although that is part of it, too.

The cross and the empty tomb show us, as nothing else before or since has or even could, that the beating heart of existence itself is a love so profound, so gratuitous, so strong it defines what is. That there is something rather than nothing? That is love. That we face the secret terrors of our hearts or the social horrors of power without conscience can in no way undercut or mock the even more fundamental reality that existence itself, in all its routine meaninglessness, is more powerful than any force that would seek to tear it apart.

We Christians are to witness to this reality without fear. We Christians are to witness to this reality without ever once denying the horror that is too much of the world around us. When others mourn, crying out because some part of the chaos that would destroy us all has touched their lives, we are to mourn with them. After all, Jesus wept, didn't he?

Yet, Jesus didn't only weep. He showed Mary and Martha the beating heart of Life, that Love that asks nothing is stronger even than that chaos that insists on its own power.

We are to love the world the way Jesus loved Mary and Martha. We are to be in it so far that we weep with the rabbit, even as we rejoice with the hawk who will now feed. We are to be in it so far that we weep with the families of victims of a madman like the BTK killer even as we seek to visit him and minister to him in his cell. We are to be in it so far that we are enraged by the perfidy and blindness of a nation willing to let the murder of its citizens go without punishment, and also say to those who not only did the crime but allowed it to happen, "You are a fellow child of God, loved and forgiven."

As for the far more routine triumphs and tragedies of life, aren't they wonders to be celebrated precisely for what they are? Since when has death been the enemy? When faced with the mysteries of life and death, in their normal round, we are confronted with mysteries (as should be clear enough by now). Why not take them for what they are, not questions to be answered or problems to be solved, but experiences to drink in as deeply as possible?

Ours is a world filled with wonder and horror, equal parts ridiculous parade of idiots and fools, and canvas of transcendent beauty. All of it is loved by God, the silence of the cross and empty tomb the only response to our pleading for answers. Yet that shows itself, one would think, to be more than adequate to the task.

Virtual Tin Cup

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