All posts by Phil W

Steps Toward Healing Wounds of Jim Crow

Social justice is an unwelcome term in some circles, calling to mind political opportunism and race baiting. Many other people use the term to describe what Christians should understand (and should have understood for centuries) as properly loving your neighbor. Author and professor Anthony Bradley says maybe we need to lay aside social justice in favor of transitional justice, the kind of measures taken in response a state that has ignored proper judicial measures for a long time.

In fairness, America did attempt to redress issues with voting, housing, employment, and the like. The blind fallacy, however, was the belief that we could change a few federal laws and move on. But we moved on without addressing the need to foster peace and reconciliation between whites and blacks, especially in the South and large urban areas. We moved on without dealing with the post-traumatic stress of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. We moved on without holding people and institutions accountable for massive amounts of person-to-person and structural injustice.

He offers seven principles for America to use in healing the wounds we still feel, urging us not to skip to the application before building the foundation. Here’s #2.

It is quite unbelievable that African Americans were not given formal opportunities to recount, on record, exactly what happened during Jim Crow. A truth commission would allow us to hear the truth about Jim Crow. We need to gather firsthand accounts while we still can. Without getting the truth on record, we run the risk of exaggerations of history on both sides. It would be safe to say, as a result, that the average American under the age of fifty cannot explain the details of what life was like for blacks during Jim Crow. Individual states still have opportunities to establish Jim Crow truth and reconciliation commissions.

And from #3.

Recognizing survivors of Jim Crow as suffering real harm, including economic harm, would have allowed us to contextualize both their trauma and struggles with agency in the years that followed. Instead, America largely chose a “let’s just move on and not talk about the past” approach with a few one-size-fits-all federal legal remedies, which ultimately failed to deliver much of what they promised by the time we reached the 1980s.

Remembering Tony Snow

Dana Perino writes, “Every July, I get an uneasy feeling — like something is missing — but I can’t quite put my finger on it. And then, around July 12th, it hits me. This is the season when Tony Snow died, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of his passing. ”

She offers five lessons she learned from him.

I remember listening to Tony’s radio show before Brian Kilmeade took over. When he decided to accept the position as George W. Bush’s press secretary, he hoped he could steer White House policy a bit, but that wasn’t nearly the opportunity he had hoped for.

As Perino says, he was a good man in many ways, the kind of man you want in public offices, be they media or government.

That Child, I Tell Ya

Sam Leith praises Lee Child’s novels, saying everyone loves them cuz they’re just so awesome. “[Jack] Reacher incarnates both positive and negative liberty as set out by Isaiah Berlin: freedom to and freedom from.”

Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe and his literary offspring Spenser (from the hard-boiled American novelist Robert B. Parker) are paladins (Spenser: “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure”). Reacher is more like a masterless samurai: a ronin. He wanders hither and yon, like the Littlest Hobo or the A-Team, carrying his Bushido-style code of conduct with him like his folding toothbrush. He is entirely self-contained. He’s an island of extreme structure in a structureless world.

If you want an overview of Child’s Reacher novels, I’m sure this is a great one, but as we’ve seen before, not everyone loves them. (via Prufrock News)

Embracing Homosexuality While Observing Christianity?

If there’s one topic I am most hesitant to say something about online, even the lightest comment, it’s homosexuality. Nowhere seems safe. But the topic is beginning to encroach on me in the form of a conference at the end of this month at a church within my denomination. Many words have already been spilled about this. There have been many posts and essays from the principals of the conference (and movement behind it) and their critics, and since the essence of the argument is on how to love our neighbors and fellow believers within a difficult context, background reading could take a long time, especially when the people behind the conference say they are being misrepresented and misunderstood.

The conference hopes to inspire Christian communities to embrace and empower “gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” That means the two conference principals and some supporters claim homosexuality as an identity description, albeit a disordered one, and that biblical morality does not allow its expression.  Any act is a sin, the orientation is a disorder, but they nonetheless hope to embrace same-sex attraction in the form of Christian friendship.

Here’s how one writer puts it.  Continue reading Embracing Homosexuality While Observing Christianity?

What America Loves Most: Ice Cream

When you think of American wealth, what evidence comes to mind? If it’s not on your list already, jot this one down: the abundance of ice cream.

In Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide, authors Robin and Carolyn Weir explore the history of ice cream and how it was a dessert of luxury 200 years ago. In Colonial America, a pint of ice cream could have cost a week’s wages.

In 1921, The Soda Fountain, a monthly trade magazine to the soda industry, published an article touting “Ice Cream as Americanization Aid,” declaring that serving ice cream to [immigrants] on Ellis Island would help them acquire “a taste for the characteristic American dish even before they set foot in the streets of New York.” This would not only help new immigrants assimilate to the American “standard of living,” but it would also inculcate American values: “Who could imagine a man who is genuinely fond of ice cream becoming a Bolshevik?

I can’t say what results any field tests of this idea might have been produced, but it came at a time when America was starting to crank ice cream as if it would churn up a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

During Prohibition [1920-1933], ice cream parlors filled some of the void left by closed bars, and brewers, including Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch, re-opened their operations as ice cream factories. The Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers could not have been happier — members reportedly sang a chorus at their conventions that went, “[Father] brings a brick of ice cream home instead of beer!”

(via Prufrock News)

Was Honor the Big Reason for the American Revolution?

The Art of Manliness has an audio interview with a history professor who’s written a book that has me repeatedly wondering if he’s right. Craig Bruce Smith is an Assistant Professor of History and the Director of the History Program at William Woods University. He’s written American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. He says that while taxation, military aggression, and other oppressive treatment from King George and his empire did lead the colonists into a revolutionary war, the impetus behind our leaders’ call to arms was to defend their honor and that this idea matured over the lives of our founders to the point of pledging their sacred honor to the defend their independence.

In this vein, Yale’s Joanne Freeman wrote on the themes applied in the Burr-Hamilton duel. James Bowman reviews Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor.

Among the Founding Fathers, she tells us, “Honour” was used interchangeably with “reputation” but it meant “reputation with a moral dimension and an élite cast”. It was, moreover, “the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood”, which is why even in those relatively enlightened times it not infrequently involved men in single, and lethal, combat over real or imagined slights.

Bowman has written a book on the history of honor and its ties to morality and manners.

A Literary History of Sci-Fi

Jules Verne speaking of H.G. Wells: “I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it.”

“In this put-down of one of the ‘Fathers of Science Fiction’ by another,” writes Alexi Sargeant, “we see the future of the field.”

Long before anyone coined the terms “hard sci-fi” and “soft sci-fi” or used them as badges of pride or disparaging slurs, long before the “holy war” between old school pulp and the ’60s era New Wave, we have this demand from the cranky old school to the squishy new school: “Show me this metal.” Wells, whose social activism permeated his fiction, would no doubt claim that Verne was rather missing the point. But what becomes clear from a survey of science fiction’s history is that, if there’s one thing these authors love more than cosmic wonder and terror, it’s petty fights about what constitutes “real” science fiction.

(via Prufrock News)

Min Jin Lee: Writing as Vocation, Not Career

Min Jin Lee, a New Yorker who came to America from South Korea at age 7, has written a couple strong novels and many columns and essays. She spoke with World Magazine’s Marvin Olasky about growing up, overworking herself as a lawyer, being a mother, and writing. She said she thinks “of God as a writer and a publisher,” because of the importance of His Word.

Writing is really hard. Fiction students or earnest fiction writers come to my readings and go, “What do I do? How do I get published?” I say, “Forget that it’s a career. It’s a vocation. It’s really, really difficult. Earn a living somewhere else.” I know very successful writers, and they don’t make money from selling their books. You do it because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it will deliver something in your life. Your book is not redemption. It will not redeem all the pain and suffering in your life. It’s something you feel called to write. If you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.

Amis: Poetry Stops the Clock

LARB: The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Martin Amis: “Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

“But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.”

From “The Age of Acceleration: An Interview with Martin Amis” by Scott Timberg for the LA Review of Books

American Poet Donald Hall, 89, Has Died

Poet Donald Hall, 89, has passed away. David Kirby has this in the New York Times obit:

“Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet,” Billy Collins, another American poet laureate, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006, two months before Mr. Hall himself was given the post.  . . . He was a staggeringly prolific writer who chose freelance work over teaching — a decision, as Mr. Collins put it, “to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary.”

Back in 2001, Hall called for a death to the death of poetry. Here’s how that essay begins.

Some days, when you read the newspaper, it seems clear that the United States is a country devoted to poetry. You can delude yourself reading the sports pages. After finding two references to “poetry in motion,” apropos of figure skating and the Kentucky Derby, you read that a shortstop is the poet of his position and that sailboats raced under blue skies that were sheer poetry. On the funny pages, Zippy praises Zerbina’s outfit: “You’re a poem in polyester.” A funeral director, in an advertisement, muses on the necessity for poetry in our daily lives. It’s hard to figure out just what he’s talking about, but it becomes clear that this poetry has nothing to do with poems. It sounds more like taking naps.

Poetry, then, appears to be:

  1. a vacuous synonym for excellence or unconsciousness. What else is common to the public perception of poetry?

  2. It is universally agreed that no one reads it.

Found in Anthologies

John Wilson writes about a couple story anthologies rescued from a library trash heap:  Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing (1959), edited by Herbert Gold; and Stories from the Sixties (1971), edited by Stanley Elkin. He points out some differences and quotes from their introductory essays, but one thing unites them. “Both of these volumes are haunted by an absence. They are, with a few exceptions, radically secular.” But Wilson recommends one stand out story, which I see is the title of an anthology of its own.

What’s a Movie Critic to Do?

The stars of the new heist release Ocean’s 8 (are the estates of Frank, Dean, and the boys still making money on this?) aren’t wild about critical reaction to their film.

Cate Blanchett said, “A studio can support a film and it’s the invisible faces on the internet, and often male reviewers, who can view it through a prism of misunderstanding.” I gather that means they don’t like it because they don’t get it because they’re men. Sandra Bullock followed up, “It would be nice if reviewers reflected who the film is for, like children should review children’s films, not a 60-year-old man. I guess his opinion would be kind of skewed.”

And if children were the driving forces behind children’s movies, it wouldn’t be long before all we’d have is Axe Cop. May I remind our studio audience that Milne first wrote Winnie the Pooh when he was 44 years old?

But the stars are talking about critics, not producers or directors, on which point Alissa Wilkinson replies to say critics aren’t being paid to support films. They are paid to write essays (sometimes works of art in themselves) about the movies they watch. With many reviews of one movie, you’ll want a diversity of perspectives, because that makes for better reading and understanding in general.

In short, a good critic develops a large capacity for imagination. They can’t know what it would be like to see the movie as someone other than themselves. But the good critic tries very hard to put themselves in those shoes anyhow, especially when they detect that the movies’ target audience will be someone other than themselves.

That’s very different than saying a movie wasn’t meant for you, so we don’t want your professional review possibly prevent our target audience from watching what we made. As Wilkinson points out, most studios want to attract a wide audience in order to make money on a single film. Discounting someone’s opinion because he’s not the right type of person doesn’t help.

Go Read, Young Man

Barnabas Piper recommends reading stories more than guidebooks, saying, “If men read fewer books on manhood and more really good stories they’d be much better for it.” He offers six reasons for this, one of them is on expressing emotions.

Men are often (not always) inhibited in our expressions of emotion. We can struggle to know when and how to give voice to our passions, both positive and negative. Stories give both example and lessons in how to do this. They show the benefit to being open and the harm that comes from locking feelings and passions away. But they do so in a palatable way by showing it in the lives of others.

Many of us define productivity in a way that rules out stories. We think reviewing a line of argument or series of purported facts accomplishes more than simply entertaining ourselves with a story, but as Piper says, we change, we influence ourselves, by the environment in which we live. Stories are part of that environment just as dinners with friends, serving our community, and riding horses may be.

If life is about learning, what do we learn from our environment? Who loves us and how do we know? Is it because they’ve said so or because we’ve understood their love from being around them, their actions, tones, and expressions? We know all manner of things without direct expression, not necessarily in the absence of such expression but more through living in the light of them. The Lord tells us repeatedly of his faithfulness, but how do we really know he is faithful? It’s when we see it in our lives–in our own story.

Reading fiction and non-fiction stories from others helps us understand ourselves and how other people think. If we ever ask, “How could anyone think that way?” stories will help answer that question. I remember a friend saying he thought a character in Lewis’s Great Divorce was unrealistic because he’d never known someone like him. The man didn’t want to know the truth; he only wanted to talk about issues and offer his opinion. Settling on an established truth meant the conversation and his contribution to it would be over. My friend thought this was ridiculous until he met someone who actually thought this way. His understanding of human nature was stretched before he knew it was possible.

But life isn’t about learning, is it? That’s only a part of it. Perhaps I’ll write about that another time, though it would be better to write a story about it.

Samuel Johnson’s Half-Blind Guide to Life

What makes Johnson’s righteousness bearable is the fact that nothing he read himself — and he devoured more or less every word ever written — was able to guide him through the problems of his own life. Half-blind and wracked with self-disgust, Johnson was consumed by horrors: of annihilation, of madness, of destitution — what Beckett described as ‘the whole mental monster-ridden swamp’.

Frances Wilson describes the good and bad about a new book on Dr. Johnson’s thoughts, saying literary self-help guides are generally rotten, but Samuel Johnson is particularly good subject for the genre. (via Prufrock News)

Johnson gave us many points of advice, like these I pull from my broken down book of quotations.

“A man, sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”

“Be virtuous ends pursued by virtuous means,
Nor think th’ intention sanctifies the deed.”

“Men do not suspect faults which they do not commit.”

“Of all the griefs that harass the distressed,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful jest;
Fate never wounds more deep the generous heart,
Than when a blockhead’s insult points the dart.”

“A man guilty of poverty easily believes himself suspected.”