Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Two Popes

I watched The Two Popes over the course of several early mornings during the week before Christmas. I loved various aspects of this movie, including:

  • The way in which it explored Benedict's and Francis's disputes about theology and the proper role of a leader. Should a leader establish and maintain firm standards, or should he/she empower other people to discover the standards that work best? Benedict clearly holds more of a black-and-white view of Catholicism, while Francis has a streak of relativism. The dialogue between the two of them (especially the conversation in the garden, when they first meet) is powerful in the way that it illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective.
  • The way in which both characters are fleshed out and feel truly human (notwithstanding their special status) -- a credit to both the actors and screenwriters. For me, Benedict has always been a bit off-putting, in his expressions and demeanor. The version of Benedict in this film, however, is vulnerable and fragile, and that enabled me to empathize with him and with his perspective.
  • The element of humor. I really enjoyed the way that the two popes jousted with their words and the way some of this jousting had a humorous overlay. Also, the pizza scene and the tango scene (among others) reminded me of the importance of having fun with our lives.
  • The way in which the two popes slowly built a genuine friendship with each other, which reached a climax when each confessed. I have rarely seen a film do a better job of showing two people gradually connecting on both the intellectual and spiritual levels.
I look forward to re-watching this movie in the future. It's a true gem.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Walking The Nile, by Levison Wood (2015)

Levison Wood is a British explorer and travel writer who set out to become the first person to walk the length of the Nile River. His book is engaging and informative. The narrative combines personal emotion, natural description, historical overview and cultural observations. I enjoyed learning about the history and culture of Uganda:

On the forty-seventh day of our journey [Wood travels the first leg of with a gregarious Congolese man named Boston], Kampala came in sight. We were up before dawn, walking through the pitch black, past lay-bys where lorries were emblazoned with banners declaring 'God is Great, God is Good, God is Everywhere!' and along a road where the traffic police kept demanding to know what we were doing ... Kampala is a teenager of a city - boisterous and messy, contradictory but naive and growing fast ... in this city of a more than a million people there are a great number of different cultures existing side by side. 

Although the Buganda, the local ethnic group, make up more than half the population, the city's ethnic mix is truly diverse. As in most modern countries, the growth of the urban economy has seen people flock to the capital - but Kampala's expansion has been driven by political factors too. During the rule of Idi Amin, and Milton Obote - who was overthrown by Amin and then restored to power following Amin's deposition - many Ugandans from the native northern tribes were brought into the city, to serve in the police and army and to shore up the government's other, more shadowy security forces.

I've heard of Idi Amin. He resides in my consciousness as an intimidating, scary dictator of my youth (alongside Pol Pot and several others), but I think I placed him in southern Africa instead of properly in the north. I wonder whether he was supported by American and/or European governments, as a misguided attempt at maintaining "security" in a post-colonial world.

Wood's uplifting, fascinating narrative takes a dramatic and depressing turn when an American journalist arrives to write a portrayal for Men's Journal. Matt Power was 39 years old when he arrived in Uganda to write the story. An intense heat wave settled over the group, and Power died of heat stroke very soon after the initial onset of symptoms. I researched Power's story through the Times and other outlets. Reading this portion of the book was a vivid reminder of the fragility of our lives - a reminder that I often re-visit in August when I think about Sherri King's tragic death in 2014.


I am very glad to have started reading Walking the Nile. I can tell that it's a book that I will re-visit from time to time, and I appreciate that it will help me learn more about the culture and history of certain parts of Africa, at least as that culture and history are seen through the eyes of one Western explorer.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate (2017)

Before We Were Yours is a fictionalized account of children who were held in the Tennessee Children's Home Society. It is readable and engaging, and alternating chapters are told by an elderly woman who was abducted at 12 (Rill Foss / May Crandall) and a 30 year old politician-in-waiting (Avery Stafford) whose family has kept their ties to the Society a secret.

The Children's Home Society was operated during the first half of the twentieth century by Georgia Tann (1891-19150). She and her staff essentially kidnapped and sold children to upper class families, relying on the argument that they were finding more suitable homes and "helping" all involved. 

Tann's work was supported and/or endorsed by E.H. "Boss" Crump and other influential Memphis politicians. Crump was the mayor of Memphis from 1910 to 1915, and he effectively controlled the city for a couple of decades thereafter.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman (1997)

This is a beautiful book. Fleischman's ability to imagine a range of separate but interconnected lives provides a powerful reminder of the way in which we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. He has a unique capacity for empathy which inspires me to become more empathetic.

I like, too, the way in which there is a specific geographic setting -- a neighborhood in Cleveland -- because it demonstrates that places matter in our lives. Places become a part of our identity, and their details and unique characteristics shape us in a variety of ways.

The ongoing metaphor of seeds growing and changing, and the cycle of seasons and lives, seems straightforward, but the way that Fleischman develops the metaphor is poetic and moving.

An excerpt from the chapter "Sam":

Squatting there in the cool of the evening, planting our seeds, a few other people working, a robin signing out strong all the while, it seemed to me that we were in truth in Paradise, a small Garden of Eden.

In the Bible, though, there's a river in Eden. Here, we had none. Not even a spigot anywhere close by. Nothing. People had to lug their own water, in buckets or milk jugs or soda containers. Water is heavy as bricks, trust me.

And new seeds have to be always moist. And in all of June it didn't rain but four days.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Ethics And The Food Delivery Business

I have enjoyed listening to Delivery Wars, a podcast about the food delivery business. The narrative focuses on tensions between (1) restaurants and delivery apps and (2) drivers and the businesses.

One of the most interesting details concerns the question of whether we, as consumers, should expect (or require) businesses to have agreed to work together -- and whether such prior agreement is a question of ethics or simply a question of business. 

Around 2014, Grubhub made the decision not to provide service for restaurants without their prior consent, whereas Doordash decided to expand its reach by serving restaurants regardless of whether they had consented. Subsequently, the fortunes of the two companies diverged significantly: Doordash expanded rapidly, while Grubhub lost its preeminent status in the industry. Here's a chart of market share as of June 2021:

The CEO of Grubhub explained that he did not feel comfortable providing delivery from restaurants who had not agreed to a partnership. Indeed, some restaurant owners complained about Doordash's behavior, as they had deliberately chosen not to provide delivered-food.

In a time when we are focused on the topic of consent in terms of human-to-human relationships, this story raises the question of whether consent is also important -- as a matter of ethics -- among businesses. It brings to mind legal theories of partnership and contract, and whether or not two parties can enter into a relationship without an express act of consent.

I assume that state and local governments will try to refrain, as much as possible, from regulating the relationship between restaurants and delivery services, for fear of stifling economic growth. It does seem, though, that the balance of power has shifted too much towards the corporatized delivery companies and away from independent restaurants (The Cheesecake Factory and its peers are another matter). It is an example of the way in which unrestrained capitalism can create problems (inequality, in particular), even while seemingly improving people's lives.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (1860)

Charles Dickens creates authentic and engaging characters better than any other author, past or present. The tiniest details about his characters make them come alive. I wonder how Dickens found the time to observe enough people to come up with all of the different characters -- did he carry around a notebook in which to record hundreds of observations, before using them in his stories?

When I read Great Expectations in 9th or 10th grade, Miss Havisham made a particular imprint. I imagined her in a dark, dusty, cluttered room, and I wondered whether in Pip’s shoes I’d have been frightened or fascinated.


While reading the book this summer, however, it’s Joe Gargery that is most memorable. Pip is raised by his older sister and her husband Joe. The sister is cruel and abusive, but Joe is a deeply kind, gentle soul. One of the tiny details that I mentioned above is the endearing way that Joe repeatedly uses certain words, such as “wittles” for food.


A tragedy of Pip’s life is that he abandons Joe, and Dickens does a great job of describing Pip’s doubts and guilt on that front. As I am currently listening to the amazing “Meaning of Life” lectures on The Great Courses, I am finding plenty of opportunities to consider Pip’s decisions in the context of the varying ideas about how humans find meaning in our lives: in relationships, in learning and reason, in the divine. At this point in the book, Pip seems to have made the defensible decision that his meaning will come from self-improvement, but at the expense of abandoning Joe (along with Biddy, a close friend who presents an alternative path to the snobbish Estella).

Here's an excerpt (from Chapter 27) in which Pip learns that Joe is coming to London for a visit, and Dickens incorporates an insightful comment about human nature:
Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money 
… I had little objection to his being seen by Herbert or his father, for both of whom I had respect, but I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to his being seen by Drummle, who I held in contempt. So throughout life our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.
Another fascinating character is Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer who oversees the trust for Pip and who walks through his life with self-confidence that does seem characteristic among effective lawyers. Jaggers does not suffer fools, and he does not seem to have a sense of humor, but he’s not without merit: his deep understanding of (and commitment to) the law seems to imply the law is where he finds his own meaning. Oddly, though, Dickens describes the way in which he thoroughly washes himself at the end of each workday, as though scrubbing off the reality of the things he’s done and the people with whom he’s interacted. The washing ritual is particularly poignant at this moment in time, when we’ve all become much more conscious of washing because of the pandemic.

I’m curious to know whether we read an abridged version of Great Expectations in high school. I remember very few of the characters, and the plot seems too dense to have handled at that age. Maybe I’m not giving high school readers enough credit, but my hunch is that we read a version that focused on the interactions with Miss Havisham and left out some of the other details.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Christian Individualism and January 6

In today's Post, Michelle Boorstein examines the phenomenon of January 6 protesters who are guided by an extremely individualized version of Christianity. Here's an excerpt:

Some scholars see this era as a spiritually fertile period, like the ones that produced Pentecostalism or Mormonism. Others worry about religious illiteracy and the lack of supervision over everything from theological pronouncements to financial practices.

Even before Jan. 6, some sociologists said the fastest-growing group of American Christians are those associated with independent “prophets” who largely operate outside denominationalism. Less than half of Americans told Gallup in March that they belonged to a congregation, the first time that has happened since Gallup started asking in the 1930s.

Boorstein's article highlights the way that America's emphasis on individual expression, combined with the principles of Protestantism (and perhaps a dose of postmodernism?), have led to a situation where people develop their own unique theology, rather than looking to a congregation or other institutional mechanism for guidance.

638. Are other religions becoming as diverse (down to the individual-believer level) as Christianity? Hinduism seems to emphasize individual paths to the divine, but is the general trend in Hinduism towards unity or towards diversity? What about Islam and Judaism?

639. Is it possible to gain as much strength, wisdom and inner peace through a highly individual conception of religion? Or are fellowship and community key reasons that religion helps many people to live a fuller, more meaningful life?

Tropical Storm Elsa has been approaching Florida for the past week. The weather in Virginia, meanwhile, has turned hot (96 today and tomorrow).

Friday, July 2, 2021

Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021)

Donald Rumsfeld died this week at the age of 88. 

I have not thought about Rumsfeld in years, although he was a major political figure for almost a decade.  

In The Atlantic, George Packer wrote a scathing summary of the ways in which Rumsfeld damaged America and the world. Packer emphasizes Rumsfeld's intellectual arrogance and refusal to doubt himself, which I too recall as particularly frustrating.

Here's an excerpt:

Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara, and that is not a competition to judge lightly. McNamara’s folly was that of a whole generation of Cold Warriors who believed that Indochina was a vital front in the struggle against communism. His growing realization that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable waste made him more insightful than some of his peers; his decision to keep this realization from the American public made him an unforgivable coward. 
But Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind.

636. How is Lloyd Austin doing as the current Secretary of Defense? What are his biggest priorities? Is he worried about North Korea? What about Syria and ISIS? I am realizing, as I write this, the extent to which national security concerns have been largely absent from the news since the beginning of Covid.

637. Did George W. Bush and or Dick Cheney stay in touch with Rumsfeld? Will they attend his funeral?

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Laudato Si

 In Laudato Si, Pope Francis emphasizes the way in which Jesus -- while sharing his ideas -- focused on nature:

As he made his way throughout the land, he often stopped to contemplate the beauty sown by his Father and invited his disciples to perceive a divine message in things.

I love this passage. We have camped in the mountains and on the seashore this summer, and I have spent a great deal of time working in my garden. 

On numerous occasions, I have felt awe at the wonders that surround me. This past week, the sea birds in North Carolina, gliding across the waves and framed by the deep blue sky, took me aback. The sand in the dunes, with its eternal ripples. And the sunlight at various points in the day, somehow both changing and constant.

I hadn't previously thought about how frequently Jesus uses nature in his parables: the seeds, the plants, the rocks and sky. I am excited to read and hear the stories again in the light of Francis's message.

J took the first two pictures, and B took the third one.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Learning to Pray, by James Martin, SJ (2021)

Earlier this year, I thoroughly enjoyed James Martin's My Life with the Saints.

Martin writes with impressive clarity. I love the way that he weaves together personal anecdotes, historical context, and theological rumination. 

His books make me think about Father Hicks and the other Jesuits at Nativity. They had a significant impact on my life, both in terms of introducing me to the joys of education and providing a model for the contemplative life. Martin writes about the Jesuit Retreat Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which I believe is where our faculty spent a couple of days in 1996 or 1997.


Beginning when I worked at Nativity, I have heard about the Spiritual Exercises, but I have not read the book nor was I familiar with any of the details. Martin's explanation of Ignatian contemplation (beginning on page 238) is fascinating.

The idea is that you picture yourself in the midst of a Biblical story or scene. You use all of your senses to imagine as many details as you can. You establish the scene, and then you let your mind roam freely and see what happens. Here is part of Martin's explanation:

St. Ignatius did not invent this type of Christian prayer. It probably dates from the first person who heard the story of one of Jesus's miracles and imagined what it would have been like to have been there ... More than a thousand years later, St. Francis of Assisi encouraged people to place themselves in the scene when he created the tradition of the Christmas creche...

But it was Ignatius who popularized imaginative prayer in his 16th century manual Spiritual Exercises, where it is the basis of much of the prayer in that book. This was one of Ignatius's favorite ways to help people enter into a relationship with God, and it flowed from his own experience...

As with any prayer, first ask God to be with you and help you. St. Ignatius often suggests asking for a specific intention, for example, to be closer to God, to understand Jesus more, to experience healing. He also asks us to be generous in our prayer, not only with our time, but with how much of ourselves we give. By "giving ourselves," I mean being as present, aware and attentive as possible, remaining open to wherever God might lead us; and being willing to spend whatever time we allotted for our prayer, even if it seems dry.

Earlier in the book, I enjoyed reading Martin's explanation of the power of rote prayers (page 118). 

I have been saying the Lord's Prayer more than "original" prayers in the past couple of months, so this portion of the text feels very relevant. 

Martin states that we pray rote prayers for a number of reasons:

First, we know them. In times of struggle or when words fail us, it's helpful to have a "premade" prayer. Having them memorized is of even greater help...

Second, they have distinguished history. Many rote prayers come from significant religious figures. The most obvious example is the Our Father, which came from the lips of Jesus himself after the disciples said to him, "Teach us to pray." That alone should recommend the Our Father.

Third, when we pray them, we united ourselves with believers throughout the world and down through time. Have you ever wondered how many people are praying the Our Father at the same time you are? The prayer connects you to believers around the world in a way that is mysterious (you can't see them) but real (you know that people are surely praying the prayer). Thus, when you pray the Our Father, you are engaging in a communal act of worship.

Finally, I find Martin's steps for reading sacred texts to be helpful (page 266). He says this process is called Lectio:

1. Reading - What does the text say?

2. Meditation - What does the text say to me?

3. Prayer - What do I want to say to God on the basis of this text?

4. Action - What difference can this text make in how I act? What possibilities does it open up? What challenges does it pose?

Monday, June 21, 2021

Heat in the Southwest

The past week has been scorchingly hot in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and other cities in the West. This morning I read an article in the Times about people who have to work outside in the heat, along with the continuing growth in the population of Phoenix. Housing prices and increased rent are causing some poor people to lose their homes.

Stories about the effects of climate change are becoming more and more common. It's difficult to imagine how this plays out in the next couple of decades. 

Will places like Phoenix eventually become less popular, if the temperature consistently reaches 115 degrees during the summer months? Surely the growth of the Southwest can't continue forever, if the situation continues to worsen.

What policies will various levels of government establish to mitigate the effects of changes in the climate?

What does this level of heat do to plant life? The article mentions that areas surrounding Phoenix are already desert. Are there trees and flowering plants in the irrigated and watered areas that have survived so far but will not last through sustained temperature changes?

Friday, June 18, 2021

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977)

Toni Morrison is a genius. Her writing is both deeply poetic and entirely accessible. Her characters are fully human. I am a middle aged white male, with seemingly little in common with Pilate, Lena, Milkman and Guitar -- yet Morrison's writing provide a mixture of windows and mirrors that helps me to understand myself and gives me a view into the lives of others.

A point of particular genius is the way that she writes dialogue. 

It's fun to read this book just after Shakespeare, who is also a master of dialogue. Shakespeare's conversations, though, have a very different shape and texture. His characters speak to each other in a way that is theatrical and hard to imagine actually transpiring. 

Morrison's characters engage in conversations that feel authentic. I love the small details, the non sequiturs, the putdowns, the riffs, and the tender moments of compassion and forgiveness. 

Morrison's dialogues have the effect of helping me realize that our relationships -- and in a broader sense our lives -- are a compilation of conversations. Taken individually, a single conversation might not feel significant or earth shattering, but woven together they become our connections, our memories, our emotions. I cannot think of another author with quite the same gift for conveying the way that people communicate with one another.


I had forgotten the way that Song of Solomon is, on one level, a treasure hunt (in this sense, there's a connection to The Count of Monte Cristo). 

The way in which Macon Dead Jr., Milkman, and Guitar seek the stash of gold (does it truly exist?) raises all sorts of questions about capitalism and, more generally, the things we choose to search for. Yet the layers of family history (revealed through a series of carefully parceled and extremely engaging stories) communicates that our relationships are truly the core of our identity: individual, familial, and societal.

I do love this book. A genuine masterpiece.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Julius Caesar

Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (Cassius)

I began this summer's canonical reading with Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, then moved on to Julius Caesar. This is my third summer Shakespeare, following Hamlet (2019) and Macbeth (2020).

I thoroughly enjoyed this play. There's a lot going on, with major themes related:

  • political power
  • leadership
  • fate (see Cassius's quote above)
  • guilt
  • our public selves versus our private selves
  • the role of ritual in society

One of the ways that Shakespeare jams so many deep ideas into a short play is by moving the action quickly; in this sense, Caesar seems different than both Hamlet and Macbeth, which develop more slowly and methodically. Particularly towards the end of the play -- when Brutus and Cassius engage in a civil war against Antony and Octavius -- there are tons of plot details omitted and major shifts in the action from one scene to the next.

The relationship between Brutus and Cassius is fascinating. They conspire to assassinate Caesar, but they agree on little else. About halfway through the play, they are incredibly rude and unkind to each other, but they eventually make up. It's not always clear what motivates the changes in their relationship, but I imagine that powerful people do, indeed, have lots of ups and downs in their attitudes toward each other (I'm thinking, currently, of the outsize role of Joe Manchin in American politics, and how his fellow Senators feel towards him).

As with Hamlet and Macbeth, ghosts and the supernatural play a role. The ghost of Caesar haunts Brutus, who struggles with guilt and second guesses his actions. I continue to think that Shakespeare was quite wise to incorporate ghosts into his drama, as a means of considering various forces -- seen and unseen -- that may affect our decisions (and our lives).

As I read Caesar, I am also listening to Song of Solomon, which I first read in the late 1990's. Toni Morrison is the audiobook narrator, and both the text and her narration are just spectacular. This has to be one of the greatest pieces of fiction of the twentieth century.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Nathaniel Rich's "Losing Earth: A Recent History" (2019)

I've just finished reading Losing Earth, an excellent explanation of climate change politics that focuses on the period from 1979 to 1989. Nathaniel Rich tries to understand why an emerging consensus in favor of stringent carbon emission standards failed to change the course of history. 

The climax of Rich's story occurs when the Bush Administration decides not to sign a global treaty in November 1989 at a meeting in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. Bush's EPA Administrator, William K. Reilly, was in favor of the treaty, but he was overruled by Chief of Staff John Sununu. The treaty would have committed 68 nations to a 20% reduction in emissions by the year 2005.

Rich brings the global warming narrative to life by focusing on two individuals: Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen. Pomerance learned about the greenhouse effect after reading a 1978 EPA report, and he became a dogged advocate of governmental action. Throughout the book, Rich incorporates stories about Pomerance bringing together important leaders (scientists, politicians, industry executives) in an attempt to convince them of the problem's seriousness and coordinate a response. 

Hansen is a climatologist who gave dramatic testimony during a 1988 Congressional hearing. This hearing was a seminal moment in raising public awareness about the emergency in our midst:

Hansen was invited by Rafe Pomerance to testify before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 23, 1988. Hansen testified that "Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming... the greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now."

Rich helped me to better understand both the science and politics of global warming. His book is depressing, as he focuses on humanity's inability to consider the long term future. 

He does, however, also highlight the way in which individuals like Pomerance are trying to turn the tide of history. In an old-school way that I admire, Rich refers to these individuals as heroes.

Patriarch Bartholomew

Of particular note, his afterword discusses the way in which Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are emphasizing the moral dimension of this issue. I am inspired by their words: "For human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands ... these are sins. To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God."

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Christmas Music 2020: Sandra McCracken With a New Classic

One of the special pleasures of December is discovering new Christmas music. This year I found several gems:

Christmas, Hopefully by Bear's Den - This is a melancholy take on Christmas during the time of Covid, with a beautiful melody and a vocal style that perfectly captures this challenging moment. 

I love the idea of confiding in the quiet winter.

Morning breaks
It's a sobering take
But I'm here, you are not again
This time of year, I usually lean on
My closest friends, secretly hoping
That you'll be coming back here ...

I am strong
And I belong
To this world

And if I cannot belong to anyone
Then I'll confide
In the quiet winter, light a gathering
And I hope you find some peace of mind
This Christmas, hopefully

God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman by Sara Groves - I discovered this song on a Spotify playlist called Christmas hymns. Groves reworks the melody in a distinctive, beautiful way, and there is a great interlude of strings to mix things up. She is a Christian musician who does not appear to be currently recording, but I intend to listen to some of her other music.

Sandra McCracken

Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Sandra McCracken - Speaking of listening to more music: Sandra McCracken is definitely my favorite musical find of all. Her voice is just wonderful -- she reminds me of someone from the 1990s whose name eludes me just now, but it's almost otherworldly in the tone and phrasings. It's hard to imagine finding a rendition of Hark that I like as much as this one (though I'll certainly keep looking, in Decembers to come!).

Bonus song: O Come All Ye Faithful by Weezer - T has absolutely loved the guitars, the drums, and Weezer's unique vocal style. Big brother is not nearly as enamored, but the family is certain to return to this one in the future!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2011)

Athanasius (298-373)

This summer, I am trying to improve my understanding of (1) the history of Christianity and (2) the varieties of belief within Christianity. To that end, I am currently reading (and listening to) Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

There was considerable theological ferment during the 300s and 400s, as Christians debated whether and how to systematize their beliefs. A series of councils developed creedal statements that organized Christian beliefs and resolved (or aimed to resolve) budding controversies.

For example, the Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) examined the question of Jesus's relationship to God the Father. The context was that two important leaders disagreed about the theology: Athanasius stated that Jesus had been "begotten" by the Father from his own being (and therefore had no beginning), while Arius believed that Jesus had been created and did have a beginning.

The bishops who gathered at Nicaea overwhelmingly sided with Athanasius; therefore, the Nicene Creed states:

[And we believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,

God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,

begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.

I think I'm starting to get my head around the Athanasius/Arius debate. The key question seems to have been the extent to which Jesus was a "regular" human, and the resolution seems to have been that he's not regular at all.

The next debate is proving trickier for me to understand, and it has to do with the nature of God and Jesus.

The Council of Chalcedon was called by Emperor Marcian in 451, and its primary focus was whether Jesus had both a divine and human nature or only a single (combined) nature. The lay of the land was as follows:

- Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople (and a follower of Theodore), argued that Jesus definitely had two natures. He attacked references to Mary as Theotokos ("Bearer of God"), because he did not believe it was possible for God to be born; thus, Jesus's human nature must have been distinct from his God nature.

Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril argued that Jesus had one nature that unified his God hypostasis (this word means "person") and his human hypostasis. The idea of one nature is called the hypostatic union.

This is where it gets extremely tricky for me. The Council of Chalcedon tried to thread the theological/linguistic needle between these two positions, and it did indeed satisfy most Christians. Here are excerpts from MacCulloch:
The Chalcedonian agreement centred on a formula of compromise. Although it talked of the Union of Two Natures, and took care to give explicit mention to Theotokos [in this sense, the agreement favored Cyril], it largely followed Nestorius's viewpoint about 'two natures', 'the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union.' 
... In the manner of many politically inspired middle-of-the-road settlements, the Chalcedonian Definition left bitter discontents on either side in the Eastern Churches. 
On the one hand were those who adhered to a more robust affirmation of two natures in Christ and who felt that Nestorius had been treated with outrageous injustice.
On the other side, history has given those who treasure the memory of Cyril a label which they still resent, Monophysites ("a single nature"), though this label has been widely replaced by Miaphysite ("one nature").
Today, most sources seem to use the term Church of the East (or Assyrian Church of the East) for people who held onto the Nestorian perspective and Oriental Orthodox (which includes Coptic Orthodox) for people who held onto the Miaphysite perspective. Here are two different graphic depictions that are helpful for me:

One interesting detail is that the Coptic Orthodox Church has a pope; other than Roman Catholics, they are the only other group to use this title. In the case of Coptic Orthodoxy, the current pope is Tawadros II, born in Egypt in 1952.

Pope Tawadros II

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Scarlet Letter (1850)

As I've been reading and listening to The Scarlet Letter these past few weeks, I've decided that Nathaniel Hawthorne's depiction of Pearl (the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale) is quite remarkable. Pearl is truly childlike: unaware of society's rules (and hypocrisies) at some times, then fully aware just moments later.

She has a fantastic ability to entertain herself. The scenes during which she plays joyfully are hitting home for me as I watch J, T and B find countless new ways to amuse themselves during these long days of coronavirus.

Hawthorne had a knack for communicating the thought process (and the soul) of a child that escapes many authors. In truth, Pearl is -- in many respects -- the most interesting and fully realized character in the book. Dimmesdale is so wooden and incapable of empathy as to seem misdrawn (how could his sermons have been so powerful, if he couldn't understand the world from another's eyes?), and Chillingworth is villainous to almost comical effect.

Here's a sampling of Pearl's adventures:
And she was gentler here [in the woods] than in the grassy-margined streets of the settlement, or in her mother’s cottage. The flowers appeared to know it; and one and another whispered, as she passed, “Adorn thyself with me, thou beautiful child, adorn thyself with me!”—and, to please them, Pearl gathered the violets, and anemones, and columbines, and some twigs of the freshest green, which the old trees held down before her eyes. With these she decorated her hair, and her young waist, and became a nymph-child, or an infant dryad, or whatever else was in closest sympathy with the antique wood. In such guise had Pearl adorned herself, when she heard her mother’s voice, and came slowly back.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Macbeth (Part 2)

In a lecture on The Great Courses, Clare Kinney explores the topic of gender in Macbeth.

She points out that Lady Macbeth is the first (only?) of Shakespeare's female tragic characters to soliloquize (in contrast, for instance, to Ophelia). Here's an excerpt from her famous second soliloquy:
Come, you spirits 
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, 
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full 
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood. 
Stop up the access and passage to remorse, 
That no compunctious visitings of nature 
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between 
The effect and it!

Kinney also argues that many of the tragedies have a central word or idea whose meaning and import is negotiated by and among the characters.

In Macbeth, the central word under negotiation is "man."

Macbeth defines being a man in terms of our shared humanity; a "man" agrees to be guided by certain principles and to act in accordance with a shared set of morals. When he (momentarily) decides not to murder Duncan, he says:

I dare do all that becomes a man
Who dares do more is none.

Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, argues that a man is one who puts aside all emotion and simply acts -- in this sense, "man" is in contrast to "woman." Here's a portion of her response:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.

Kinney points out that, later in the play, Macduff proposes an alternative vision of manhood when he tells Malcolm that a true man will deeply mourn the death of his wife and children. After Malcolm urges him to "dispute it like a man," Macduff responds:

I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me.

634. What are the major feminist critiques of Shakespeare, and how are those critiques answered? Lady Macbeth seems like a problematic character on multiple levels (manipulative, power-hungry, etc.). Is there an argument that she actually empowers women? How does the argument work?

635. Ghosts in Hamlet, witches (and ghosts) in Macbeth. Shakespeare was clearly fascinated with the supernatural and with the ways that our beliefs (and our feelings) can haunt us. Was Shakespeare (or the person who penned the plays under his name) religious? If so, what were his specific beliefs about the afterlife and the role (or not) of God in everyday life?

The three witches in the 2010 Patrick Stewart version of Macbeth are incredibly spooky

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Cameron Webb and the 5th Congressional District

On June 23, the Democrats nominated Cameron Webb as their candidate for the Congressional seat currently held by Denver Riggleman. Webb will run against Bob Good, who defeated Riggleman in the Republican primary earlier in June.

Webb is a fantastic candidate. He has specific objectives, focused on building a more just and effective health care system.

He also wants Congress to implement an energy standard that will eventually require 100% of United States electricity to come from clean and renewable sources, and his infrastructure program prioritizes broadband internet access.

I love that Webb has thought so thoroughly about why he wants to lead and what he wants to do. I am excited about his candidacy, and I hope that he will gain momentum in the weeks ahead.

Here's an interview with Natasha Eubanks from theybf.com:

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Macbeth (Part 1)

I am in the process of reading Macbeth. This play is dark (perhaps darker even than Hamlet).

Shakespeare had a knack for exploring the awful depths to which people are capable of sinking. Macbeth murders the innocent, seemingly with little foresight (this is a major contrast to Hamlet, who broods at length before taking each step).

He is driven by ambition, in particular the desire to rule Scotland. He is willing to kill Duncan (the reigning king), then Banquo, Fleance and Macduff's family (potential threats) in order to keep and maintain power.

631. In addition to President Trump, who are the most nakedly ambitious current politicians and leaders?

632. The numerous authoritarians and dictators are clearly ambitious, and are clearly so in a negative rather than a positive way (I am thinking of Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro). Is there more rampant ambition now than there was, for example, in the 1980s and 1990s? Or is there simply more opportunity to turn ambition towards negative ends?

633. Why was Shakespeare so interested in ambition? I gather that he read tons of history, but how much did he know about the current political affairs of England, Scotland, etc.? Did he view a play like Macbeth as cautionary (in other words, did he want people to read it and think about ways that they could corral ambition?), or was he simply interested in exploring the psychology of leadership?

Here's a sampling of Macbeth thinking about his ambition, in Act 1, Scene 3:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrid imaginings.