All posts by Phil W

The Marks of Gen-X

In years past when we spoke of “generations,” we meant a 30ish-year period of time, but in the last few decades we’ve defined each new batch of growing kids as a new generation, something closer to an 18-year period. Boomers and Millennials have gotten most of the media attention, perhaps because their conflicts have been high enough in profile. You hardly ever hear of Gen-X, the batch born in the 60s and 70s, which may leave you wondering how to handle them should you encounter them in the wild. What can you assume about a Gen-Xer? Having lived in this generation my entire life, allow me to enlighten you.

  1. We have no corporate identity. We don’t go around defining ourselves, because we never think of ourselves. We live as we are.
  2. We are the humble generation. Meekness, selflessness, quality service, and the spirit of Christmas–that’s what you’ll get from us. We excel in avoiding pride; we’re monsters of meekness.
  3. Voted most likely to be ignored. We are the people making the trains run on time while others are extending overlong meetings with questions they wouldn’t have to ask if they had been listening earlier. We’re the ones you rely on when you go to the Caymans on vacation.
  4. We hate meetings. Maybe you don’t want to send an email because you think your ideas will eventually make sense after you throw enough words at it, but they won’t and then we’ll have to have another meeting to explain what happened at the first one. Stop the madness.
  5. We have skills. We totally have the great skills girls/guys like. We are on track to be freaking awesome, except our skills aren’t good enough yet, because we’re losers.
  6. We don’t care that you hate our cargo pants, and we think it’s silly to care that much about it. I mean, we aren’t wearing parachute pants anymore, so give it a rest. (You love the flannels though; admit it, you sly dogs.)
  7. We didn’t ask for your achievement award. We’re here to earn our stripes. When did you start remembering our names, anyway?
  8. We don’t care. That’s not true; we do care. We want to make the world a better place. We want to have strong families and good jobs. But you were asking something about a team-building exercise or was it a retirement party, so, yeah.
  9. Pet rocks were better than Tamagotchi or Farmville crops.
  10. Breakdancing is better than walking it out or chicken noodle soup (!?), and moonwalking is way better than anything you kids think you’re doing in your little clubs.
  11. Some of us are still living on a prayer, and we won’t stop believin’ all night long, even though we may ask ourselves daily whether we should stay or go to Africa for Christmas.
  12. To be honest, we are the world. We are the frickin’ children.
  13. You don’t laugh at our jokes, because they’re too sophisticated for you. We are the most ironically funny generation ever; it’s hysterical just to think about the jokes we almost told.
  14. We’re raising a new generation to be just like us in all the best ways and to avoid all of your stupid mistakes.

These are just a few of the many marks of Generation X, the most selfless, kindhearted, loyal, and noble generation alive today. We don’t need your gratitude more than anyone else, so if you recognize us in the workplace or on the street, just give us a tip of the hat or a quiet smile.

Photo by psymily/Morguefile

For Black Friday, The Raven as a Christmas Tale

The English-speaking world has a long history of knocking off EAP’s “The Raven,” the poetic gift that gives evermore. Here is a list of ten examples and this book on the poem has an excerpt of several verses from a 1856 parody called “The Parrot”:

“‘Beg your pardon, sir!’ I muttered, as I rose up, hurt and sore;
But the sailor only swore.”

The comedy troupe Studio C put together this Christmas version, which I share as a warning about what you request this year.

Longing to Know and Be Known

Elizabeth Harwell says Wendell Berry wounded her be reminding her how often she has moved around. She feels temporary, and that’s not how she grew up.

Because when memory calls me back to my childhood, I know that land. I can feel that grass under my feet. I know its broad green blades: fat-bottomed and rising to a rounded point. In my mind, I can split the blades into two pieces and I can remember the way the hanging fibers felt on my lips. I know the yellow dandelion blooms—and not only as a whole, but also, more clearly even, in its parts. I know the feel of the dandelion’s soft petals on the tip of my nose and the mustard-yellow streaks it would leave when I rubbed it across my palm. I can see its hosts of aphids working their way up the stems in crowded lines.

In truth, we do not have homes here; Christ has gone to make a home for us somewhere else, but he has left a well-stocked table for us here to remember him and all of the church.

“Our place is coming,” she says, “our people are here.”

Photo by Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

Cherokees in the Civil War

The Trail of Tears is a horrible stain on our country, but the story of the events and decisions that led to it is not straightforward. World has republished the introduction to Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation by John Sedgwick, a history of what the Cherokee did before, during, and after the war, distinguishing themselves above all other Native American tribes.

At first, virtually all the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, identifying with the Southern plantation owners, and proud of the black slaves they themselves had bought to pick their cotton. And, complicit with the state of Georgia, the Union had been responsible for the land theft that had cost them their ancestral territory and packed them west in the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears three decades before.

But why did the Cherokee not stay united against a common enemy? How could they have divided against themselves? To answer this, we need go back three decades to the terrible winter of 1838 and the issue that would never go away. Removal—the cruel shorthand for the Trail of Tears—was to the Cherokee Nation what slavery was to America, an issue so profound as to be bottomless and unending.

The Fanciful History of Greensleeves

Greensleeves was all my joy,
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
and who but Lady Greensleeves

“Greensleeves” is a 400-year-old tune you may know as “What Child Is This?” Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” a marvelous piece made all the more so by starting with this melody.

Many people tell fanciful stories about the origin of this song. Was it written by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, who “cast [him] off discourteously” without losing her head for the moment? Was it an old Irish song, as we all know every good song is? Was it first sung by dog-headed men surrounded by rats? The rumors abound. The Early Music Muse drills into this musical history and reveals the truth, as is so often the case, rather boring. In short, a musician wrote a hit tune that many people used for their own songs, and everyone loved it–they still do. It’s the feature song in the K-drama I just blogged about, Mr. Sunshine. While Savina & Drones have a good composition based on Greensleeves, what Vaughan Williams did with it can’t be outdone for sublimity.

The Personal History of Mr. Sunshine

We recently finished a 24-episode historical drama created for South Korean television in 2018 and distributed this year through Netflix. Set at the end of the Joseon kingdom, while Korea tried to move into the 20th century as subjects of a king, Mr. Sunshine is essentially a fiercely patriotic story. It begins with loyalists attempting to defend their peninsula from colonialists, despite obviously being outgunned. It ends with rebels raging against the rising tide of Japanese occupation.

We first see Choi Yoo-jin (Lee Byung-hun) as the son of slaves, who runs to avoid being killed and makes it to New York City. He grows up to become U.S. Marine Captain Eugene Choi, deployed to the American embassy in Joseon. He’s an American soldier with Korean skin; most people don’t know what to make of him. But he’s glad to be back in Joseon so he can find the people who murdered his parents and take his revenge.

On a risky American assignment, he encounters the beautiful Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) doing something distinctly unladylike. He won’t know about her family until long after his interest in her has grown. But two other men are interested in her too: a Korean samurai, who is thought to have sold his soul to Japan, and the son of the second richest family in the country, who happens to be Lady Go’s fiancé. The three men are drawn together by their proximity and held by various mutual interests.

It’s a beautifully filmed drama told reservedly and works as a personal story of love and duty as well as a historical tribute to Korean independence. Americans will find many things to love about it.

If you know a bit of the history of Korea, you’ll be able to guess the story doesn’t have that happy of an ending; if you don’t know the history, you’ll be able to guess the tenor of the end by the prominent place of “Greensleeves” or by the first English words Lady Go learns: gun, glory, sad ending.

Does Free Speech Protect a Book for Hitmen?

This would have been a great topic for Banned Books Week, but, alas, I’ve had a long, sad year with a variety of responsibilities I haven’t wanted to work through. But now is as good a time as any to talk about the extent of free speech and the free press, isn’t it?

A 1983 book called Hit Man by Rex Feral purports to be a manual for contract killers with practical instructions on how to eliminate your targets without getting caught. The author says it is for entertainment purposes only, and you can see from GoodReads many contemporary readers think the book is too simple, dated, and even silly.

But things have changed a bit over 35 years.

In 1993 James Perry snuck into a Maryland home and murdered a disabled eight-year-old, his nurse, and his mother, following many of the details recommended in this book. A podcast from iHeart Radio and Hit Home Media, also called Hit Man, opens with an exploration of this murder and the man who hired Perry to carry it out. Later the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against the publisher, claiming the book was intended to be real-world advice that could be acted upon by anyone wanting to murder someone for a fee, and in doing so the publisher aided and abetted in murder.

The publisher argued that it did not intend for anyone to murder or be murdered based on what they read and that it has the freedom to publish whatever it wants.

In a style that may be a bit over-earnest, Hit Man the podcast tells the stories of the murder, this lawsuit, other crimes connected to the book, the identity of the pseudonymous author, and the possible inspiration for the book.

Should our country allow a book like this (and others like it which are still in print)? Is this the kind of abhorrent speech we say we would argue against but fight for the rights of others to use? You would need to know what’s in the book to make that decision; the podcast offers some details, and you can read the whole book by searching for the text file. It’s possible it doesn’t say anymore about pulling off contract killing than many other books, fiction and non.

The bulk of the legal argument against it was about intent. Is the book what it claims to be, “a technical manual for independent contractors,” or is it an imaginative book on crime? I think there should be a line that we don’t cross, but ours is a society originally suited for a religious people who actively submit to the governor of the universe, so that line will have to be a moral one. If we live with a morality that is only defined by the law, then we will not live happily for long.

Hit Man is a real banned book, by the way, so I hope it makes the big list one of these years.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

Yes, But Spurgeon Didn’t Say That

“The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

Many places attribute this quotation to C. H. Spurgeon, and the great preacher did say something like it, but not this exactly. The Spurgeon Center has this and five other quotations in a post on things Spurgeon did not say. What he said was that we might imagine a caged lion and soldiers who have gathered to defend him. Why are they fighting for this powerful cat when the best approach is to let him out of his cage? “And the best ‘apology’ for the gospel is to let the gospel out.”

Also, “A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That’s something Spurgeon said in an 1855 sermon, describing it as an old proverb. Other men, including Jonathan Swift, said it first, and it could have been a common saying when Spurgeon got around to it.

Did he say, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages”? Did he say, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross”? Take a look.

Magical Music for October

If you listen to classical music radio, you’ve probably have heard of Smetana’s full orchestra piece on a river in his homeland, which the English call The Moldau. In this 2012 video, Valérie Milot interprets this symphonic poem for harp, and the result is magical. I liked the piece well enough before, but this is marvelous.

Why Endorse White-Cain’s Book?

When noted speaker Paula White-Cain, “the spiritual advisor to President Donald Trump,” released a book several days ago, there were a number of endorsements from Baptist ministers and ministry leaders who, many of us thought, should have held their tongues. This is not a teacher promoted in orthodox churches. She is a heretic on the level of Benny Hinn; in fact, she allegedly had a relationship with him at one point. She’s also a pastor of her church, and female pastors are a point of heated argument among Southern Baptists this year. Why then would someone like the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas endorse her book as a refreshing story of God’s redemptive power (taken from his words printed in the book)?

Professors Leah Payne and Aaron Griffith say evangelical leaders have sided with their theological opponents for years. Many times these partnerships make sense; we join together as diverse citizen groups in support of a moral or community good. No one would balk at Christians and heretics building a playground together, but when Christian pastors endorse the books and teaching of a heretic, that’s when we have problems.

Payne and Griffith describe the lure of celebrity among most evangelicals and their tendency to use self-help arguments similar to those they condemn from White-Cain. They are “not that different from the soft prosperity exhortations of other evangelicals, including many in the SBC, who claim that following biblical principles improves marriages, lowers anxiety, and creates extraordinary lives of success and significance” (drawing again on words from the pastor of First Baptist Dallas).

That’s a broad explanation that doesn’t quite work for some of the endorsers of this book, so to fill it out a bit more we could say that a book endorsement is not an evaluation of its content. It’s more of a business move or pandering.

Maybe they’ve learned this lesson from White-Cain’s book: “Find your passion in life and figure out a way to make money.”

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

‘A Terrifyingly Ordinary Man’

I picked up Ray Bradbury’s The October Country at the library some days ago. Originally published in 1955, “the Dubliners of American Gothic” is a story collection that leans into twilight subjects, potentially unsettling tales touching on darker matters. At least that’s how the book is billed, but I want to talk about a light-hearted story that might should be on all the college reading lists.

“I met the most astounding bore. You simply must see him! At Bill Timmins’ apartment house last night, a note said he’d return in an hour. In the hall this Garvey chap asked if I’d like to wait in his apartment. There we sat, Garvey, his wife, myself! Incredible! He’s a monstrous Ennui, produced by our material society. He knows a billion ways to paralyze you! Absolutely rococo with the talent to induce stupor, deep slumber, or stoppage of the heart! What a case study. Let’s all go visit!”

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is a tale for a new generation. The in-crowd discovers Garvey, whom the narrator describes as “a terrifyingly ordinary man” who had lived alone with his wife for twenty years. Though she was a delightful woman, he was so boring no one would accompany them to anything. This group of seven would-be elitists think he’s a gas, and after a few weeks he comes to enjoy their attention. Their subtle mockery turns to genuine admiration, and Garvey takes steps to keep them enthralled.

The prejudices of the in-crowd are remarkably dated, but their attitude is contemporary. They see through everything; they love to be unimpressed as their tastes flit from fad to fad. They embrace common entertainment only ironically, unless they can spin it into a superior, sophisticated pleasure. “Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.”

Would Garvey or his wife be better off with or without the attention of this self-righteous crowd? Let the reader judge for himself and decide whether he has in-crowd attitudes that should look just a foolish today as the Garvey fan club does decades after their story was written.

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.