Thursday, January 26th, 2006
I have a small collection of old magazines. I find that they allow a person entryway into the past in a way that other media do not. Print with a certain amount of advertising. You get to see both the rationality and the desire of a cultural moment.
The piece in my collection of which I am most proud is Volume 1 Number 1 of the American Mercury. This was a magazine edited by H.L. Mencken, a brilliant writer. I also have a couple of other issues. One I was looking at last night has an account called "The Tragedy of the Sioux" by Chief Standing Bear. I read that when I first received the magazine in the mail. (I buy them off of E-Bay where they tend to be cheap.) Last night, however, I was looking at advertisements for books that had just been published (in 1931). This is an interesting way to find out what out-of-print books are worth looking for. I found the following ad in the Check List of New Books:
LUCIAN, PLATO & GREEK MORALS.
By John Jay Chapman.
The Houghton Mifflin Company
Mr. Chapman is for Lucian and against Plato. The former, he says, was a man of sound common sense, a lover of every sort of decency, including the intellectual. The latter was a spinner of pretty gossamers, and without too much conscience. His writings are full of contradictions and other absurdities. He never grappled seriously with a problem, whether moral or philosophical. His Symposium, which pedagogues now force upon schoolboys, is in reality an elaborate apologia for the worst vices of the Greeks. It has become a sort of Bible in those circles wherein such vices are being revived today. Plato interested the early Christian Fathers because of his very lack of intellectual integrity; in his blowsy speculations they found support for their theology. But Lucian, in disposing of the Greek gods, disposed at the same stroke of all other gods, and thus got the bad name among Christians which he still holds. Mr. Chapman writes very plausibly, and as made an interesting book. He knows more about Greek literature than many of its professors.
[from The American Mercury (November 1931), p. x.]
Interesting. It makes me want to read Lucian. I'll confess that while I don't like the implied atheism of the review, I am inclined to think the part about Plato and the Church Fathers worth noting.
The ad on the back of one issue tells us that "More than 20,000 physicians, after Luckies [cigarettes] have been furnished them for tests, basing their opinion on their smoking experience, stated that Luckies are less irritating to the throat than other cigarettes.
Yet the magazine was skeptical about certain health fads, too. In one article it told of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by schools to install quartz windows, which were supposed to help in bringing in the sun's healthful rays.
Another of my magazines is a copy of the British magazine Punch, from 1944. Punch was a humor magazine, and the humor is quite dry. I go in for that kind of humor, but given the gap in time, I think that there is even a lot from this magazine that is lost on me. (Perhaps it would be lost on most Brits of today.)
My favorite item in the magazine is a pen and ink drawing called "Ike's Way". The drawing shows President Eisenhower dressed as a knight, taking a mace (that's a spiked club for you who misspent your youths reading the wrong books) to a couple of wooden doors over which is written "Deutsches Reich".
The ads are also interesting. Many luxuries had not been available for some time. So an ad for Antler Luggage proclaims that "the day will come when you will ascend the gangway of a well-remembered ship bound for a well-remembered sunlit land..."
In a section of the magazine called "Charivaria", they write concerning an order by the British government to give a ration of ice cream to everyone (or to all children), "Critics of the Government's longevity see in the ice cream order a transparent move to catch the 1960 vote at the next election."
11:35 am Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, January 25th, 2006
A few months back, Christopher Atwood included an extended passage from The Minister's Wooing by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The dialog from the passage was superb. It was enough to wash away the stain of what I though I remembered of another extended passage from Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book which I had not at that point read. (After finishing Stowe, I figured this awful passage must have either been a fabricated memory, or from some other source, perhaps the play by the same name.)
More recently, I taught a class at Colorado Christian University on American Christianity, a course I had taken at Gordon-Conwell when I did my Master's. I wanted to saturate myself in the subject, and fill in some weak areas in my own knowledge. I bought a book called Slave Religion by Albert Raboteaux, published by Oxford University Press. It reminded me that Stowe had been on my must-read list for a long time. And now she sounded not only mandatory, but attractive.
Stowe is a master. A master par excellence. She is a master of suspense, plot, characterization, dialog, authorial voice, humor, and any number of other virtues that you love a book for when an author is a master of one of them. This book is surely on my list of top five novels of all time. The only books I am pretty sure supercede it are Les Miserables and The Brothers Karamazov.
One thing I want to say about the book is that the title is not the best advertisement for the book. I think I avoided the novel for a long time because I was afraid of the setting. I imagined from the title that much of the book took place in the so-named cabin. Wrong. Perhaps 30 pages of over 500 take place there. Stowe will have you in all sorts of locations. And she has a sense of pacing. She changes location before you find you cannot abide where she has placed you.
I want everyone to read this book. So they can understand the evils of slavery? Sure. But I have more selfish reasons than that. I want them to read it so that they can meet Uncle Tom, Master George, Augustine St. Claire, and Topsy among others. There is a Dickensian richness to her creation of characters. And Stowe is the master of many types, not just one. And not just the eccentric.
What I surely did not expect was for an abolitionist writer to make me long to live in the South. But she did. She herself must have loved the South deeply. You wanted it to be rid of slavery so that you could love it more fully. The North was not her ideal. Not by a long shot. Stowe had too great an admiration for the kind of generosity that bloomed in more tropical climates.
The Christianity in the book is also a surprise. Now her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was quite an accomplished preacher. His sermon "Peace, Be Still" is a classic. I read it in a book I bought for the class:
published by the Library of America. I wasn't surprised that there was Christianity in the book. But first I ran across some statements that could have been made by a quite liberal Christian. Later, I found the book saturated with Christianity. Saturated.
Buy this book at once and plunge in. Not because there is some moral reason to do so. (Yes, there is. But that could wait a while.) Plunge in now because Stowe will offer you a feast.
9:56 pm Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, January 14th, 2006
In my last post, I gave some thoughts on what the movie Brokeback Mountain might mean in relation to the book. A friend read my piece and then suggested I might see the movie before posting the piece on another site. I thought that was good advice, so I went to see the movie this afternoon.
The nice thing about living in an urban area is that I don't have to visit an art house theater with a rarified audience to see this.
I still own all my earlier thoughts after seeing the film, but there are some points to make that may clarify how I see the movie. The key one is that Ennis Del Mar is a more attractive character overall in the movie than he was from what I remember of the short story. The violence is there. Perhaps in greater measure. But there are also some redeeming qualities. I just mention this so that those who only see the movie won't imagine that I was blind to his good side. Heath Ledger's Ennis was quite different from Annie Proulx's Ennis. Annie Proulx's Ennis is a large part of him, but there is clearly more to him than came out in the story, at least as I imagined him.
In some ways, I found the movie more believable than the book. The book offered some interpretation that was not to be found in the movie. (Some interpretation I am skeptical of, as mentioned in my previous post.) This commentary was absent from the movie. I think it improved things. As to the "star quality" of the characters, that did not distort things as much as I expected, as the other people in the film mostly looked as attractive as the two main stars.
4:29 pm Pacific Standard Time
Friday, January 13th, 2006
This is not exactly a movie review. I haven't seen the movie. I did read the short story upon which it was based in the local library. It can be read very quickly. Certain differences between the story and the movie can be detected even from the movie trailer. I wish to focus on these and on some other sides of the question that I don't see in most reviews. Several reviews I've read have begun with such disclaimers, but I want to make a couple things clear. I may choose to see the movie. If so, I'll walk up to the counter and buy a ticket, not caring what people think. (That's the plan, anyway!) Also, I don't hate the movie at this point. I have some broader questions to ask that use the movie as a launching pad. My discussion is not meant to persuade others to see or not see the movie, or to love or hate the movie.
My reason for writing this is similar to that of other Christian writers. People comment on movies like this to affirm their values, and defend them where attacked. But I don't want to be read as saying simply that the value I affirm is heterosexuality, and that I am defending heterosexuality against homosexuals. To say that is to bundle together ideas about sexuality that Christians and the broader culture seem to hold together. I would rather see where this movie departs from Christian understandings of man on a deeper level. This may or may not endear me to other cultural conservatives. But clarity is my key goal here, wherever the lines between people get drawn later. I wasn't going to write this, but then I found out that others were writing reviews. And I wanted something to go out there that was something other than a mere cheering for one's own side in the culture war.
If I see the movie, I'll likely be one of the first people in the theater to want the men to get away with everything they attempt in making a good life together. But I don't find this morally significant one way or another. I almost always identify with the main character in a movie. I always want the bank robber to make off scott free in the getaway car. It has to do with the point-of-view. For that matter, I have watched documentaries where a sixteen-year-old girl is trying to get an abortion. Put in her shoes, I want her to get away with it, despite being staunchly pro life. Show the same thing from the point of view of the fetus, and I'll surely have another reaction.
My point is not that the characters in Brokeback Mountain are bank robbers, but that sympathy is often easy to create just by showing the story from a particular point-of-view. But once we've felt the sympathy, there are still questions as to how things should be handled. More importantly for me, I want to know how things should be understood. I want to understand the indicatives, that is, how reality is, before I understand the imperatives, that is, how reality should be handled.
One concept I have seen dealt with at length is the idea of "nature." Other evangelical reviewers are noting that placing homosexuality in a natural setting is an attempt to make the unnatural appear natural. I agree to an extent. But I wish to offer some detail to this idea.
In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis notes that the different uses of the word "nature" seem to converge in the idea of what you get when you leave things be. This goes back to his Studies in Words, where he traced the concept through several languages. I think this definition is a useful place to start.
Is homosexuality natural under this definition? Within a very few seconds, we can see that it depends on what question we wish to frame. How would these men act if left to themselves? Framed like this, their behavior can be termed natural. But if they acted homosexually, was it because somehow their natures were interfered with at an earlier stage? If we take the question back further, we see a way that "nature" has another meaning. We have natures that determine how we will act if not interfered with. But a nature that has been interfered with may do other things if left to itself.
Once this is noted, there are several directions we can take. We can insist that nature, whatever that entails, is to rule. The broader culture tries to say this when they want us to leave people alone to follow their hearts. As a civil libertarian, I am happy if the laws leave them alone. And I am happy if people keep from committing crimes against such people, and strive to avoid adding to their pain. But the assumption here is that such people were born this way and should be left to follow nature. If I don't want to see the law set against them, I would still like to use persuasion.
A second direction is to have an idea of original nature to compare the behavior against. This would be what people would be had there been no fall of man. We are all fallen from this nature, and should try to restore it as best we can.
A third direction says that nature is the raw material out of which we fashion a life beyond nature. Perhaps all people are innately bisexual and have to be socialized into heterosexuality. (This was the position of Alexander Mitscherlich in Society without the Father. In the case of a minority, socialization fails. I'm not sure I fully understand this position, and what someone like this means by "naturally bisexual" might be quite different from the idea that people would find the sex of their partners an indifferent matter. I think it has more to do with the idea that it takes cultural work to maintain boundaries against behavior outside of a heterosexual norm, as evidenced by the Levitical laws. See Leviticus 18:24. Israel would be unique in NOT practicing these things. The other nations, left to themselves, would predictably act outside of a heterosexual norm.)
The second and third directions are somewhat compatible, and may have a spectrum of overlap between them. Fallen nature may be the raw material out of which we fashion lives that restore original nature as well as possible. The more liberal among us think that anything we fashion is good. The more conservative forget just how much of a salvage job most of our lives are.
On the basis of certain websites I will not link to, I have my doubts as to whether Annie Proulx's understanding of human nature is as deep as it ought to be. When we use the term "gay", we are using a term that packages together certain philosophies, attitudes, behaviors, and customs. In past ages, different "packages" of such things were available. While I don't think nature is itself socially constructed, our vocabulary is. And it leads to sloppy thinking. If we ask "Is being gay natural?", we've unwittingly tried to ask a bunch of questions in one phrase. Proulx answers "Yes" to all of them.
In the short story, when the two men come together sexually, one (Jack Twist, the one played by Jake Gyllenhaal) initiates intimacy, and the other (Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger) responds by initiating anal intercourse. Proulx says of Ledger's character that he "needed no instruction manual." She no doubt believes this behavior was hard-wired. I doubt it. In the websites I have read, men who claimed they always knew they were different still had to be pressured into this act. Left to themselves, they would have pursued a different course. Being homosexually oriented to them was natural. Anal sex was still unnatural despite that. If this has any truth to it, then Gyllenhaal may have been doing what comes naturally when he got overly "friendly" with Ledger. Ledger, in contrast, was not doing what came naturally. Gyllenhaal wanted a relationship. Like a jailed criminal, Ledger just wanted a hole. Likely, he would have had to be initiated himself by someone who himself had been abused. And so on. In any case, Proulx doesn't bother to argue the point. It is just assertedin stark prose to suggest gritty realism. Yet this is a woman writing of men. I hope readers and viewers are a bit skeptical at this point. I don't see these men as morally equivalent to each other, even if I think they're both broken. This is a murky subject that none of us really knows to the full. (How many times have I found that older adults are themselves learning something new about their own heterosexuality?) Nor do I guess that they are really wired the same, even if we only have one word with which to label them both. But my own guesses might add to the possibilities that people consider when thinking about this subject.
Brokeback Mountain in Smell-O-Vision
The differences have to do with sensory modes. This question of sensory modes is one upon which I have thought a lot since first hearing of Martin Luther's statement "The ear, and not the eye, is the organ of the Christian man."
Reading the book is a visual experience in the sense that reading involves the eyes. But the words go through the eyes and into the imagination. And Annie Proulx's story is multi-sensory. One thing to notice is that her characters are misfits, not Hollywood stars, especially of a leading man type. If these men have fallen in love with each other in the story it isn't because of a hulky visual stimulation. It is more from tactile closeness.
Proulx's story is offensive to the nose. As stated above, I think she intended a gritty realism. She succeeds if grit equals realism. The grittiness of the story may well fail to come across in the movie house. The two misfits become screen icons. The sweat and blood and urine and fecal smells are likely replaced by popcorn and butter. So much for realism. Though if Proulx was wrong on the nature of men, then perhaps a loss of realism is what is called for. The point of the movie is not to portray homosexuality in all its smells and sounds and feelings. That would turn most people off. The point is to portray what the emotions are supposed to be. That will draw people in.
Some people find a movie more fully realized than a book. But to realize this book, you would need Smell-O-Vision. The scratch-and-sniff cards have (hopefully!) not been made that would render this possible.
The Lust of the Eye
I cannot remember where I read this, but somewhere, Lewis also mentions how a certain viewpoint gives the eye its undue share in sexuality. This floored me. Our whole media makes it all a matter of the eye. Camille Paglia is a media researcher who has documented the idea of beauty through the ages. The Egyptians seemed to have come up with beauty. Much of this ends up taking the human body and making it a matter of line. This is very different from the body considered as mass. The curves of a woman's body are in large part seen through depth peception, rather than outline. Where line becomes prominent, I think the male form becomes more representative of the ideal, as there is more line to it. Paglia speaks of the Apollonian eye. I tend to think that Apollo was gay.
The silver screen is a very different medium from Hebrew poetry. Even where Hebrew love poetry used visual images, the images were not of the body itself, but of something which had the qualities being attributed to the body. There was once a cartoon in the Wittenberg Door where the lover of the Song of Solomon was drawn as if the words were a graphic description. The image was not attractive, to say the least! The cartoon played on the mixing of expectations between the Hebrew and the modern eye of imagination. We expect every description to be a visual description, and when we read Hebrew poetry, we misunderstand it.
Hebrew poetry likely enhanced heterosexuality by not funneling human perception to where human desire was set upon the unattainable. If we take the lack of emphasis on physical appearance along with the emphasis on character together, any woman could easily increase her desirability by being kind, and men of the culture would take notice. To be sure, their culture would have fallen short in this area, too. But the poetry was not at fault for that.
Annie Proulx does not write poetry, but neither does she create slick media works. A reader does not read her work and then picture the movie poster with its strong iconography. She helps a reader observe a tough world that she would like to see softened. I don't know how a more Hebraic culture would have tackled this subject. But it is closer to a Hebraic mindset to read about this than to go out and see it. Even if both story and movie had sympathy as their goals, the story's sympathy is rooted more in understanding, flawed as it may be, than imagery.
Most evangelical reviews I have read of Brokeback Mountain lament the bad decisions made by the men whose wives were left unfulfilled as the men pursued each other. I partly agree with them. But I don't read a movie like this primarily as an endorsement of the behavior of the men. I read it as a warning about the dangers of an intolerant culture, and a life lived without a realistic grasp of human nature.
The latter warning is a point well-taken, whether or not Proulx is right on all details. If two guys do get intimate like this, and it fulfills some deeply felt need, whether that need was part of their original nature or the result of later tampering, they will likely be tortured by separation. All parties need to know this. Various moral imperatives may arise out of this. But a naive sense that a quick change of direction is all that is needed will probably cause heartache, just as it did in the movie. The heartache began long before the men were unfaithful to their wives in any overt sense. In fact, they did just as many ministries would likely tell them to. Just turn over a new leaf and start anew. Everything will work out because God has a wonderful plan for your life.
My reading of Pauline ethics suggests that there is an element of the irrational that dogs us even after we have been saved. Romans chapter seven speaks of how when we agree with the Law, it is no longer we who sin, but sin dwelling within us. The men in the movie may have been unfathered. Or they may have been particularly vulnerable to cultural tampering with human nature that goes back to ancient Egypt. They may have been any number of things. But whatever caused their problem, I think it is a profound problem and not a simple one. I'm with C.S. Lewis. The fight, even when it is often lost, is a heroic one for those who fight. And they may not have to fight because they are worse sinners than others. The whole culture went visual despite the fact that God had long steered it in another direction. The whole culture is to be implicated in the corruption of human nature. Not everyone gets asthma. But we do know that it not just asthmatics contribute to the air pollution that causes asthma. They pay the price for all of us. Likewise, I think that the homosexually oriented are often just unlucky people who pay the price for broader cultural sins.
As a Catholic reviewer has often noted in some very good movie reviews, the moral rules are there to keep people from getting hurt. In a broad cultural sense, I agree. But this is not a Protestant reading of the Law. The rules are there to shut us up under disobedience so that God can have mercy on all of us. Apart from brokenness, we don't know we are fallen.
Brokeback Mountain shows us some of the fallenness of all parties. Depending on whether people focus more on the brokenness or on a campaign for a blanket acceptance of all behaviors apart from understanding them, this could be either a healthful or a harmful movie. If it makes people less likely to brutalize each other, then I think that is a good thing. If it makes us more likely to accept simplistic understandings of sexuality, then I think that is a bad thing, perhaps even for the gay community taken by itself. The movie will likely do both.
In either case, the book is likely more healthful than the movie. It doesn't glamorize its subject.
5:00 pm Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, January 7th, 2006
I've spent the week teaching a course at Colorado Christian University. It was titled American Christianity. I took a course by the same title at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary under Garth Rosell. Though I am a monergistic Lutheran, I followed some Charles Finney (the heretic!) pedagogy and randomly assigned student projects for the latter hours of our class meetings. It went great. My favorite was my favorite of my project ideas from the beginning. A student was assigned to watch the beginning of the movie A River Runs Through It, and then discover where the Reverend MacLean went to seminary and who his professors were. He connected the Reverend MacLean's doctrine with the Westminster Confession, and told how the Reverend's remarks about the waters running over the stones for a billion years connected with how the professors McCosh and Warfield believed Christianity was compatible with evolution.
Anyway, my friend who secured me this position's wife was telling me about the trapped miners and the letters they wrote to their wives. How one miner wrote about how he saw his relatives on the other side. We talked about how we wondered if this meant that he saw the relatives who were alive now, and how this worked. A friend of mine likes to talk about how the text about the saints resurrecting after Christ's Resurrection and appearing in Jerusalem shows how the Biblical writers were attempting to account for something that just plain blows our categories out of the water. Having grown up on Narnia, I am used to thinking in terms of the relativity of time. If the miner saw the world ahead, perhaps he not only saw already departed relatives, but the relatives he was departing. Just a thought.
This all has some kind of broad conceptual connection to what I rediscovered in class this week. As a professor, if you want class interaction, you have to speak and allow an uncomfortable silence pass before students answer your questions. On their end there may be no interval of time. To you it seems like minutes have passed.
Relative time. Uncomfortable silences. But from another point of view all the voices are contemporary. What do you think? Make sense? If not, don't worry. In no time at all, we'll be sitting at a Table, and you'll be laughing about the fact that you didn't get it. And we'll be beckoning for the miners to join us at the Feast. And maybe welcoming a few Old Testament prophets, too.
8:10 pm Pacific Standard Time