Barry McGuire and a Lott more

Kevin at Collected Miscellany recently posted this interview with author Jeremy Lott on his new book In Defense of Hypocrisy. I hate to dispel the common misconception that I have everything figured out, but this interview cleared up an important logical point for me. I’ve realized for a long time that there’s a fallacy in the modern insistence that hypocrisy is the worst sin, and that everyone who fails to live up to his own moral code at every single point is a hypocrite (“therefore,” the argument goes, “there’s no point even trying. Enjoy yourself and forget ethics!” The new moral prophet is John Belushi in Animal House).

What Lott explains here is that there’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness. A guy who tries to live up to his principles and fails is not a hypocrite. He’s morally weak (as we all are to some extent). But he’s not a hypocrite. He’s not worthy of contempt.

This helps me. “There’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness” is an axiom, and I personally need axioms in order to think. Maybe some of you can think clearly without them, but I can’t do it.

Alan at the Thinklings writes about Barry McGuire today.

You youngsters won’t remember McGuire, but I remember him well. He first swam into my ken as a member of the New Christy Minstrels folk group (and yes, I liked them. So indict me). He was everybody’s favorite Minstrel. He had a gravelly voice that added a microgram of spice to that highly processed musical mix. After he left the group, he had one big single hit, “The Eve of Destruction.” All about how the world couldn’t possibly survive past 1970 or so.

Then he became a Christian. There was much rejoicing. This was part of a phenomenon, related to the Jesus Movement, which will seem as strange as the New Christy Minstrels to younger readers. Lots of famous people (B List at least) were professing Christ back around then. McGuire, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary (whatever happened to him, anyway?), even Wonder Woman. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (who brought in Kris Kristofferson for about a week). Jimmy Carter, a professing born-again Christian, was elected president.

We were on a roll, we thought. Bill Bright had a plan for evangelizing the whole world by the year 2000. I had my doubts, but anything seemed possible at the time.

Today, a little more than a quarter century later, we’re wondering how long the government will allow us to keep our churches open.

Things change.

Let’s hope that remains true.

Does the Space Shuttle Excite You?

This just in–Astronauts take day off as space mission winds down. And yesterday what was it, a space walk to replace some foam somewhere? Sounds like the equivalent to getting a flat tire on a camping trip. “And in news from the family camping trip, Dad is checking the car to see if any damage occurred when they hit that big whatever-it-was in the road.”

Because this is the stuff of science-fiction and national imagination, I want to ask, does the Space Shuttle excite you? Do you think NASA is pursuing the right goals, or do you wish they would get the funding or inspiration to do something better?

Cliches and Lowing the Boom

I learned through Rebecca of Rebecca Writes about ClicheSite.com and the handy Cliche of the Day. At first, I thought this a cool little resource. Now, I think I’ll avoid it. If I fill my head with cliches, I’ll become a twisted and disturbed old man. Maybe I just need the cup of tea I just steeped for a better mood. Maybe I should go out for some live steel combat.

You know, that reminds me of the warning the thespians gave before the start of Julius Caesar at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. They told us to go the bathroom before or during the intermission, because afterward angry men with real swords could be running through the hallway at any time–which they did. It was great.

Inherit the movement

Phil brought up William Jennings Bryan and Populism a little way down the page, and I thought I’d meditate on the subject today.

All most people remember about Bryan nowadays is that he was the guy they based the Brady character in “Inherit the Wind” on (here’s an interesting web page that’ll explain a lot of things you don’t know about the Scopes Trial, if all you know of it is what you saw in the movie or the play). Bryan ran for president three times, and he was a serious candidate. He was the standard-bearer for Populism (today we’d say liberalism) around the turn of the Twentieth Century.

“How can this be?” we wonder today. “How can an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian be a liberal?”

That question brings us to an aspect of American history that’s mostly forgotten today. Throughout the 19th Century, evangelicalism and liberalism in America were (by and large) the same movement.

Whence comes today’s liberal’s certainty that the changes he wants to implement cannot help but make the country a far better place, a veritable Heaven on earth? It comes, in part, because he has inherited the vision of the Abolitionists (most of them Christians, like Charles G. Finney and Henry Ward Beecher), who saw, with considerable justification, their crusade against slavery as a Biblical drama, the Exodus and the Apocalypse rolled into one. The antislavery movement, I believe, marked the birth of a brand new form of pleasure—the pleasure of being a moral crusader. The moral crusader (be his crusade wise or foolish, good or bad) enjoys the delights of living on the moral high ground. If the struggle brings success and fame, the crusader is smugly aware that he deserves it. If it brings suffering and martyrdom, he dies with the pleasure of knowing he’s the pioneer, “truth forever on the scaffold,” as the poet Lowell wrote.

After the slavery fight had been won, the evangelical community looked around for a new crusade, a new way to improve society and usher in the Kingdom. By consensus, the next great goal became Prohibition.

Prohibition involved a subtle change of focus. It wasn’t hard to believe that slavery should be ended, and that slaveholders should be forced to give up their slaves, whatever the cost to them. Prohibition moved on to target a voluntary commercial activity, in which nobody was forced to participate (the Prohibitionist argued that drunkards were, for all intents and purposes, slaves to Demon Rum, and so the case was the same). The moral crusaders had moved from rescuing people held against their will, to prohibiting free transactions based on a conviction that they knew better than other people what was good for them.

It was a long struggle, but they won at last. Booze got banned (a by-product, by the way, was Women’s Suffrage. Prohibitionists pushed Women’s Rights hard, because women were overwhelmingly anti-saloon).

But it was sometime around there that a schism occurred. The liberals of the East looked out at the great, unwashed mass of Progressive evangelicals and said, “These really aren’t our kind of people.”

The Scopes Trial is said to have been the rupture point. Intellectuals like H. L. Mencken were offended by Bryan’s opposition to Darwin. They washed their hands of him and his followers. The intellectuals moved toward Socialism, the evangelicals, gradually, toward conservatism.

It took a while. I’ve heard a story of one of the founding fathers of my church body. Back in the 1940’s he’d been elected to the Minnesota State Legislator as an independent. Being an independent, he had to decide for himself which party he would caucus with.

“I looked across the chamber,” he said, “and I asked myself, ‘Which party best represents the principles of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?’

“I did not hesitate. I went immediately and caucused with the Democrats.”

Fury, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’m beginning to wonder if Robert K. Tanenbaum isn’t pulling my leg.

It’s always a treat to find a new Tanenbaum in paperback. Tanenbaum is grand opera. Tanenbaum is a three-ring circus. Everything is big and broad and beautiful and terrifying, not to mention totally riveting. You want thrill-value for your money, with a plot driven by characters (and what characters!) rather than the assembly-line robotic action of, say, Clive Cussler, Tanenbaum is the author for you. To add to the appeal, Tanenbaum grapples fearlessly with serious contemporary issues (this book addresses racial hucksterism, for instance, a subject I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot keyboard).

And yet… when Fury was done I couldn’t help looking back over it all and realizing that the story as a whole was completely, outrageously over the top.

The triumph of the book is that, even as I understood this, I didn’t care. It may be a magic show, but it’s a spectacular magic show.

If you want bigger-than-life action in a story, you’ve got to start with bigger-than-life characters. Tanenbaum has them ready to hand, with his well-established stable of regular grotesques, plus a few new ones. Theoretically, most of the characters are maturing and slowing down. Marlene Ciampi seems to have quelled some of her personal demons through art therapy. Dirty old goat Ray Guma is a gray-haired cancer survivor now, missing a few feet of gut. Even the sexually predatory reporter Ariadne Stupenagle (honest, that’s her name!) appears to have settled down (after a fashion) through falling in love with Gilbert Murrow, Butch Karp’s diminutive, buttoned-down assistant (plenty of laughs there).

And yet, when it comes down to it, Marlene is still a dangerous woman to cross, Guma still tells dirty jokes and dates strippers, and Stupenagle is even more irritating than before, cooing and calling Murrow nauseating pet names in public.

And that summary leaves out such regulars as “Dirty Warren,” the Tourette’s Syndrome newpaper seller, and The Walking Booger (don’t ask).

(By the way, if you can’t handle rough language, better avoid Tanenbaum. Dirty Warren is only chief among the many foul-mouthed characters.)

As always, the quiet center of this hurricane is New York District Attorney Butch Karp, stolid, ethical and smart. Without his character, the rest of the farce wouldn’t work. Without the others, though, Butch might be a bore.

One or two mysteries would be enough for the average novel. Not for Tanenbaum. He offers us 1) a twelve-year old rape case that’s been overturned on DNA evidence. A race-baiting lawyer is suing the city on behalf of the convicted rapists, and Butch agrees to fight the suit, smelling a rat; 2) a plot by Muslim extremists to blow up Rockefeller Center on New Year’s Eve; 3) the mysterious beheadings of several Muslim terrorists by unknown attackers; 4) a false rape charge leveled against a college professor by a female student; and 5) the advancing Alzheimer’s of Marlene’s mother.

I’m probably forgetting some.

Also on hand are two new characters from the previous book, John Jojola, the Navajo policeman from New Mexico, and the cowboy, Ned Blanchet, daughter Lucy Karp’s new boyfriend. And we are introduced to some fairly unsavory family connections of Butch’s.

Like one of those juggling acts where the entertainer keeps twenty plates spinning on poles all at once, Tanenbaum makes all this work. Also like the juggling act, we know it wouldn’t go like that in real life. But in Tanenbaum’s Rabelaisian world, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe.

Speaking of belief, one thing that bothered me in Fury was a new development in Lucy Karp’s life. Up till now she’s been presented as a faithful, devout Roman Catholic. And she still is, judging by everything she says. But Tanenbaum has chosen to put her into bed with Ned, and she makes no apologies for it. Apparently Tanenbaum is operating on the principle that True Love always justifies sex, regardless of marital condition. I can understand Tanenbaum thinking like that, but Lucy should know better.

On the other hand… there’s a splendid scene early in the book that pleased me no end. Butch (who is Jewish) has agreed to teach a Bar Mitzvah class at the synagogue. He tells the class one evening that he’s going to tell them about a Jew who changed the world. The Jew he lectures on is Jesus of Nazareth.

What delighted me was that, in speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, Karp/Tanenbaum completely rejected the standard contemporary line (which has risen to the level of orthodoxy in most mainline churches) that neither the Jews nor their leaders had anything at all to do with Jesus’ death (it was all the Romans’ fault, dirty imperialists that they were). As Karp tells it, Jesus died because His integrity was a threat to the power structure (Jewish and Roman), as integrity always is to any power structure (and as Butch would know better than most).

That was worth the price of the book in itself, as far as I was concerned.

Keep ‘em coming, Tanenbaum. You keep hiding the pea, I’ll keep laying my money down.

Subjects Worth Writing About

Mark Bertrand quotes Melville’s Moby Dick on what great book should tackle: ” . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Read the rest of this short post and tell him what you think.

Mencken on Dull Writers and William J. Bryan

With the Scopes Trial Reenactment coming this weekend in Dayton, TN, I am reposted a bit I wrote back on October 24, 2004.

H.L. Mencken biographer and terrific New York drama/music/etc. critic Terry Teachout recently learned of a piece Mencken wrote for Vanity Fair in 1923 in response to a question about boring writers. The famous critical thinker (1880-1956) listed ten authors with a few additional thoughts: “Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a taste against her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by school-masters who admired them. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh.”

Speaking of Terry’s biography, I saw it in an interesting rare book and memorabilia collection at my alma mater, Bryan College. Bryan is named for William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), an orator for progressive politics and Biblical principles as well as a former candidate for presidency and the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan’s name is known to many as the man who argued against Clarence Darrow in the trial of John Scopes. The Scopes Trial drew a lot of media attention by design; the men behind the lawsuit, the ones who recruited Scopes to take blame for teaching evolution in public school, hoped to make a name for themselves and business for the area. Publicity encouraged Bryan threw his hat into the ring for the prosecution’s side which spurred Mencken to urge Darrow to join the defense. Mencken said, “Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher. The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan.”

The trial did not accomplish the planners objectives. It became a media event beyond their control. Darrow did put Bryan to an interrogation on the stand in an effort to make a fool out of him, and he cheated him out of a final address, in which Bryan planned to make his rebuttal. If you want to know what really happened there, forget about Inherit the Wind. Start here.

Bryan College wants to collect Bryan’s personal books and those about him, so they have worked toward that goal. A couple years ago they were offered even more–a large Mencken collection through a friendly association with a member of the H.L. Mencken Society. Representatives of the society came south to view an annual reenactment of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN. One of the members struck up a friendship with one of my English professors which eventually resulted in the generous donations of Mencken-related books and many copies of American Mercury, a journal he published. Today, Bryan’s library houses a unique and ironic collection of Bryan and Mencken material, side by side. With Terry’s book on the right side toward the back of the room.

James Thurber’s Guide to English Usage

[first posted October 22, 2004] In an earlier post, I referred to this collection of useful usage articles by James Thurber. On the question of using “bad” or “badly” within a sentence like “I feel bad(ly),” Thurber advises not to use either word.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn’t feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn’t feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, “I look well, but I don’t feel well.” While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words “bad” and “badly,” it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn’t feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically—“I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes,” or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one’s listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

A swordsman’s tale

Friends, I have found my drug of choice.

It’s live steel combat.

On Sunday I was delayed by being on the church setup team and having to stay late. But as soon as I could get away, I tootled over to Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, where the rest of the Vikings had already been set up for some time.

Minnehaha Park (home of Minnehaha Falls, immortalized by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who never actually visited there) has a sort of dedicated service road along its length, punctuated by (inadequate) parking areas. Since the day was nice and the Norway Day festival was going on, I figured I wouldn’t get a nearby place, so I parked in about the first slot I saw.

This was a mistake. I’d forgotten how long that park is. I had already determined that the smartest way to get my armor to the camp site was to wear it (mail is much easier to wear than to carry). So I set off walking toward the festival area.

And walked. And walked.

I think I must have parked at least a half mile from the site. I passed many open parking spaces, but reckoning (inaccurately) how far I had yet to go against how far I’d come, I decided to trudge on.

I made it at last (today my feet are extremely sore from the pounding they took in my thin-soled Viking shoes). I was too tired to join in the fight that was starting just then, but I got in a while later.

They put me up against Eirik, son of Ragnar, an old hand at live steel.

I beat him. Twice.

I’m still entertaining the suspicion that Eirik threw the fights, just to encourage me.

In any case, the guys told me that I’m pretty good. I didn’t beat Ragnar Hairyfoot when I went up against him, of course. Ragnar is wily and old and a Special Forces veteran. But he told me, with a straight face, that I gave him one or two worried moments. Then again, Ragnar has been known to embellish a story.

Be that as it may, I came away tremendously bucked, as I generally do after live steel (I’ve had training before, and participated in a couple small battles, but had never done a one-on-one duel before). For a guy as geeky as I, who has never, ever been any good at any athletic activity of any kind, to suddenly find myself playing with the big kids in simulated Viking combat was tremendously affirming. It’s a common nerd fantasy – “I was born out of my proper time. If I’d been born in an earlier age, I’d have been a mighty warrior.”

It’s not true, of course, but now I can pretend it is.

I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “He makes all these grandiose claims, but can he back it up with video documentation?

As it happens, I can. This Quicktime movie comes courtesy of the Viking Age Club & Society of the Sons of Norway. I am the guy with the red-and-blue shield on your left in the shield wall at the beginning. Note who is the Last Man Standing.

Fear my wrath.

Tell It Like It Is

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

From Andy Crouch’s address at the 2005 Christy Awards.

2006 Christy Awards

The Christy Awards winners were announced last Saturday. Editor Terry Whalin says the event was fun and gives a list of the winners, which aren’t on The Christy Awards site or in the news sources I’ve searched. FaithfulReader.com has the list and some reviews. Editor David Long has kicked up some discussion.

According the website, “the Christy Award is designed to:

  1. Nurture and encourage creativity and quality in the writing and publishing of fiction written from a Christian worldview.
  2. Bring a new awareness of the breadth and depth of fiction choices available, helping to broaden the readership.
  3. Provide opportunity to recognize novelists whose work may not have reached bestseller status.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture