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June 2011


From Smithsonian magazine:

In 1960, Columbia Pictures released a movie about NASA rocket scientist Wernher von Braun called I Aim at the Stars. Comedian Mort Sahl suggested a subtitle: But Sometimes I Hit London.

I posted that only because it made me laugh, but it got me to thinking: I grew up near Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center of which von Braun was the director.  (Everyone pronounced his name vahn brahn, rather than what I think would have been the correct fone brown. ) I don't remember anyone ever mentioning any concern about his being an ex-Nazi; he was our local celebrity, and as far as I ever knew was respected and admired.  At the time this didn't seem the least bit strange to me. I realized, as a teenager, that he was a former enemy, but that was all extremely ancient history to me and there seemed nothing strange about people having put it all behind them. But now the 10-to-15 years that had elapsed between the end of the war and von Braun's public prominence as the face of U.S. space flight works strikes me as a very short period of time, and it seems slightly odd that his past would have been overlooked so lightly.

The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films

I've been meaning to post a link to this apropos the continuing discussion about films to be used in Francesca's class on Theology and Film.  Only, I thought it was Image magazine's list, and didn't recognize it when Craig linked to it by its proper name. 

Actually I had intended to post it a couple of months ago, when I first saw it on the Image site, but kept forgetting about it. My first thought on it was "Well, that looks like a good argument-starter." And it probably is--I mean arguments of the enjoyable sort.  My second reaction was to count the number of them that I've seen: 21, not as many as I would have expected. Of those, there are a few that I wouldn't have included, such as 2001 (which I like very much, and which does certainly raise Cosmic questions, but is "theological" only in a negative way, i.e., it's implicitly atheistic). But it's certainly an interesting list, and I'm going to be looking for some of them. 

I notice a lot of them came up in our discussion. I can't believe I didn't think of Sophie Scholl.

The Hawk In Heaven

Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2011

On my way to work Friday morning, crossing Mobile Bay, I saw something I’d only seen once before, though I’ve made that crossing twice every workday since 1992: a hawk of some kind with a fish in its claws, flying away toward its nest, or wherever they go to eat what they’ve caught. Since it’s early summer and a lot of young birds have hatched and are growing, perhaps it was on its way to feed its family. (It may have been an osprey, although I thought it was a little smaller than that—I sometimes see one sitting in a dead tree by the bay near my house.)

At any rate, it was very beautiful, flying away from me so that I had a clear silhouette of its slow graceful wings, and I had to force myself not to keep watching it out of sight, but to pay attention to my driving. It wasn’t only the immediate beauty of its flight that caught me, though; it was the whole picture: the hunting, the dive, the catch, the instinct that would, if my conjecture about the babies was correct, cause the bird to give its catch to its young.

The experience was not so beautiful for the fish, of course: to make this picture complete, to make it intelligible, the fish had to be abruptly pierced and seized by stout claws, and lifted out of the water to gasp futilely for breath until it died, or perhaps be eaten alive. I hate to be the sort of absurd sentimentalist who muses about the agonies of a fish while millions upon millions of human beings live in miserable conditions and suffer far more horribly, and for longer, and are conscious of their suffering in a way that I’m pretty sure a fish is not. But a sight like the hawk with its prey always sets me to thinking about the fallenness of the world, about the irreducible amount of death and pain which seem to be built into the fabric of it, and about what an unfallen world would be like.

The Fall brought death into the world, we’re told. It also made sacrifice necessary: we see it all around us, every time one insect eats another, a bird eats an insect, a cat eats a bird, even when a cow eats grass: something dies so that something else can live. Usually the one thing does not give its life willingly, or without struggle and pain. It remained to man to introduce the worst horror: suffering consciously and willingly inflicted, with pleasure. And that in turn was answered by God in the one Sacrifice: suffering consciously and willingly accepted, with love.

We’re left a few reminders of the way things might have been, in those situations where one creature creates what another needs to survive, as in the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange between plants and animals, or the relationship between bees and flowers. But we can’t extend that to hawks and fish, or lions and antelope. To imagine the hawk or the tiger as something other than a predator is to imagine its essential nature changed altogether, and to diminish its magnificence. Does that mean that such creatures will have no place in the redeemed world?

Or can it perhaps be that the world we now know as fallen will be still somehow itself and still somehow present when all has been redeemed? James Dickey, though not as far as I know a Christian, paints one part of that vision in his poem “The Heaven of Animals:”

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.

They are magnificently powerful, beyond anything in this world, couched in trees and waiting, and as for the prey:

Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

But a cycle of bloodshed that never ends and never goes beyond itself would seem in the end to be more hell than heaven. If it is to be heaven, it must be part of a consciousness in which pain is subsumed into something that transcends it. We can perhaps imagine this with relatively mild pains, as when we recognize the discomfort of thirst as part of the pleasure of drinking. But it is difficult to do it with really serious suffering. I venture into this speculation with hesitation; I can’t even think it without misgiving. I don’t want to spin an airy theory that seems to make little of the agony that is such an inescapable and dreadful part of this world.

As it happened, later on the same day I saw the hawk, I read a story about a gruesome murder, an act that could have been a scene from a truly hideous horror film, and was so shaken that I found it difficult to work for the rest of the day. And I still haven’t shaken it: it disturbs my sleep, and pops into my mind without warning now and then through the day, usually, perversely, when I am thinking of or doing something pleasant. I really cannot imagine that such a thing can ever be caught up into joy, and it seems offensive even to make the attempt. If one who has suffered in this way can do it, well and good, but how can I, who have not, even suggest the possibility?

And in truth I would not choose first, if I could, for such things to be redeemed: I want rather that they not have happened at all, or to be somehow erased from the fabric of time and space and memory. But I don’t want to lose the beauty of the hawk’s wings in flight, either.

Earlier Christians pictured martyrs in heaven as displaying the gruesome trophies of their suffering. And I have always disliked these portrayals, so much that I don’t even want to illustrate this paragraph with examples. But I remind myself that Christ’s wounds were visible in his resurrected body. These, I suppose, are the only hints I can expect about how it will all be reconciled, but they suggest that the hawk may not be lost.

An Interesting Reaction To the Corapi Mess

I assume anyone who would be interested knows exactly what I mean when I refer to "the Corapi mess." If you don't, Google something like "corapi black sheep dog" and you can quickly find out all you want to know (Daniel Nichols tells me he started getting thousands of hits when he put up a post with those words in the title). I haven't written anything about it, first because I really wasn't much aware of Fr. Corapi beyond the fact that he was a popular preacher on EWTN, and second because I didn't have anything to say that others weren't saying. 

But here's a perspective I have not seen elsewhere: Jennifer Fulwiler, at her popular blog Conversion Diary, explaining how much Fr. Corapi's preaching meant to her, and the very wise way she is handling his disgrace (which, in my eyes, is what it is).

(Hat tip to Janet.)

The Zombies: She's Not There

Weekend Music

The local paper has a daily list of famous people whose birthday is on that day. Today happens to be Colin Blumstone's: he's 66 (!). If I'm not mistaken, he was the lead singer on this song, which I liked at least as much as anything by the Beatles when I was in high school. 

And it's an odd comment on human nature--or my nature, anyway, on the longing that can't be satisfied. It's 45 years later, I'm 62 years old, I'm happily married...and yet, in some way, she's still not there.


A Couple of Recent Movies

Late Spring

This is a 1949 Japanese movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu.  I'm not enough of a film expert to have recognized his name, but I've learned that he is a very highly-regarded director.  Late Spring is a long, slow,and very low-key story about a father and his adult daughter. I think I would have been more moved by it if not for a difficulty I've had with other Japanese films made prior to 1960 or so: the facial and vocal expressions are just culturally different enough for me to feel that I'm not quite sure what's going on underneath, not quite connecting as I should. But it is extremely beautiful. There are a lot of long still shots of interiors and landscapes that are just pure visual pleasure.  And it's one of those beautiful Criterion Collection editions--here's the Criterion page for it

Besides the personal story, I think there are some interesting things here about post-war Japan. For starters, I didn't realize movies like this were being made in Japan at the time. And I think I can see between the lines some reflections on the changes in Japanese society. Not a movie for the impatient, but very much worth the trouble. I don't think I'll forget it, and I'd like to see it again sometime when I have more leisure.

Barchester Chronicles

One can almost get jaded about these near-perfect BBC productions of classic novels. Well, this is another one, and if you like the genre, you can't go wrong. I've never read Trollope, so Barchester and its people were new to me. What a delight! It includes one of the most mesmerizingly detestable characters you'll ever see in this sort of production--a bishop's wife--and I found myself thinking that the actress, Geraldine McEwan, must surely be just as unpleasant as the character she plays. She was just too convincing, and the very features of her face were too unpleasant. But I also thought she looked a little familiar, and learned that she has also played sweet, shrewd Miss Marple, every bit as convincingly. And you also get Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the repulsive Obadiah Slope. 


The Palin Rorschach Test

I said a couple of weeks ago that I thought Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the 2008 convention "served as a sort of test of whether one likes or dislikes middle-class evangelical Christians." (The post is here.) Interestingly, a writer at Vanity Fair has had a somewhat similar reaction to something discovered in that recent email dump which was searched so assiduously, but fruitlessly, for something that could be used to damage her. 

This email was sent to various relatives and friends to let them know that the baby Palin was carrying had Down's syndrome. Here's what Vanity Fair says:

But the one e-mail that we cannot stop considering is the one she wrote to family members shortly before Trig’s birth. It struck us as the Sarah Palin Rorschach test. You might see it as a brave, optimistic way of telling everyone in her family that the new baby will have Down syndrome. Or you might get stuck on the fact that she wrote it in the voice of God. Or you might have a completely different reaction

Read it for yourself here. Me, I'm in the "brave, optimistic" camp. Yes, it's very sentimental. Yes, it's a bit strange that she tried to write from God's point of view.  No, I don't think God would use that many exclamation marks.  But underneath all that stuff, which would be easy to make fun of, there is steel. There is a great deal of compassion and courage and determination to do what is best for this baby, and to trust God completely. One may not care for the style, but the substance is wholly admirable.

The INTS Party

Sunday Night Journal — June 19, 2011

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with some relatives whom I don’t see very often. The conversation turned to politics, and as has been my habit for a good while now when people are discussing politics, I listened but didn’t speak. Eventually someone noticed this.

“So what do you think, Mac? Didn’t you used to be into...causes and all that?”

I took the opportunity to make the first announcement of my plan to form a new political party. I call it the INTS Party: It’s Not That Simple. You may consider this post the public announcement. Anyone is welcome to join this party; the only requirement for membership is affirmation that the namesake statement applies to almost all political positions and debates and programs as presently shouted at us: whether they are on the right or the left or somewhere between or altogether outside, most of them most of the time take a complex situation or decision and oversimplify it. Normally the result is a few sound bites and slogans that are intended to make any disagreement untenable by portraying it as insane or immoral or, preferably, both. Since everyone is doing this, the result is a lot of bullying and yelling by people who have no intention of making an effort to understand how anyone can see things differently.

Since I classify myself in a broad way as a conservative and tend to sympathize more with the right than the left, most of the examples that come immediately to my mind are cases like the current controversy over Medicare, in which the Democrats seem to have decided that their chief debating tactic will be to accuse the Republicans of planning to kill old people. But it certainly works both ways. Just the other day John McCain labeled anyone who questions our military action in Libya as “isolationist,” a word that has become almost completely meaningless. That most people on both sides of most questions may simply want what is best for the country, but have different ideas about how to reach that goal, is not an allowable admission. (The underlying disagreement is often over the definition of “best,” but that’s another discussion.)

Perhaps what I’m really objecting to is not so much the proposal of over-simplified policies as the reduction of the debate to over-simplification—hostile over-simplification. (There are a few pundits who don’t do this—Ramesh Ponnuru and Jim Manzi of National Review, for instance, and I’m sure they have their counterparts on the left. But they are not much listened to.) It certainly cannot be said that a policy such as Obamacare is simple. Its complexity is in fact one of the objections to it. But both it and many of the objections to it—not all, but many—rest on a simplistic assumption that the health care problem can be “solved” in some magic way that will be socially, fiscally, and medically sound without some serious sacrifice on someone’s part. I feel perfectly confident in saying that it cannot be.

At bottom I’m relatively uninterested in politics. I do care, and I do pay a modest amount of attention, and I do have my opinions, but politics is simply not anywhere near the top of the list of things I’m interested in. This was the case even in my left-wing days; I always thought people who expected to transform society through politics were at best very naïve. (One could argue that to a great extent they did succeed in transforming society, but it was less by means of politics than by reshaping cultural habits and presuppositions.)

My move away from the left originated in this realization that things are not so simple, and I can say with some accuracy exactly when that movement began. In the early 1970s I knew two married couples who lived across the street from each other. Each had a new baby, their first child. Neither wife held an outside job. One husband worked as a retail clerk making two dollars an hour. The other worked as a welder making three dollars an hour. You can see where this is going: yes, it was the welder’s household which an observer would have considered poor in comparison to the clerk’s; it was the welder’s wife who occasionally borrowed money from the clerk’s wife to buy milk for the baby. The reason for the disparity was that the welder spent so much of his pay on marijuana and beer. Hmm, thought I. It’s not that simple.

That was one of my first steps away from the left. A few years earlier I would have subscribed to an idea that I haven’t heard of for some time: the guaranteed annual income, in which every citizen would be given a certain amount of money every year, whether he worked or not, and so the problem of poverty would be solved. But this experience gave me some insight into the mess ordinary human failings would inevitably make of that scheme. This sort of observation, in which the liberal-left picture of reality was compared to the evidence of my own eyes and came up wanting, was repeated more times than I can count. The result, by the end of the 1970s, was what I call a generally conservative view, but for me this means a recognition of the limits of politics and programs. (I know of people who made a similar transition from youthful right-wing zealotry to something more cautious and balanced.) It certainly does not mean the adoption of an equal-and-opposite-to-liberalism ideology. It is, in the practical sphere, empiricist and pragmatic: what is actually the case? And what is likely to be the result of any action? Good motives are not enough. Even good principles are necessary but not sufficient, because they may be misapplied as readily as bad ones.

(Possibly the greatest and most tragic failure of liberal hopes in my lifetime has been the end of legal segregation; the disaster that has befallen the black family since then, and the huge percentage of young black men who are in jail or otherwise under the loving care of the criminal justice system, oblige one to say that at the very least things have not turned out anything like as well as expected. And what are the reasons for the failure? Well, to any single explanation I would have to say it’s not that simple.)

It may be that practical politics has to operate in this either/or mode of false dichotomies and poisoned wells, or at least politics in a democracy, or at least politics in a democracy in which marketing is all. Well, so be it: that’s why I’m not in politics. As one with no more power than resides in a single vote, I have the luxury of being able to look at both sides of any question and come to a conclusion that does not fit on anyone’s bumper sticker.

It occurs to me that It’s Not That Simple would make a good bumper sticker.

By the way, my announcement was well received by my relatives. Perhaps there’s a constituency for the party.