Monday, July 27, 2009

Books you need to read

I don't often give orders to my readers, but this time I'll make an exception...

One of the most difficult things about living in an information-dense culture like ours is getting out of it. We are inundated by images, noises, publications, and the new phenomena of web content, all of which sweep us along like a great tide. The attitudes, presuppositions, and outlooks that dominate this flood of information are rarely examined, and the power of this tidal surge makes it difficult to rise above it, to understand it critically from a detached point of view.

Of course, this is the goal of a true liberal education - to anchor one's understanding and conceptual framework in a foundation that lies deeper than the transient intellectual trends of any particular time. And though my formal education wasn't broad enough to be considered truly liberal, I've tried to deepen my informal education to be liberal in the classical sense.

That has meant a lot of reading over the years, and I wanted to pass along some of the books that have helped me most. Those who know me will hear me constantly recommending them. A couple I've loved for years, one I just finished recently, but all three are invaluable. They all help the reader rise above the rhetoric and assumptions of our culture and examine things from a different perspective. There are many books that help do that, but these three address particular challenges facing our culture. If you want superb analysis of critical modern problems, and are brave enough to have your presuppositions challenged, I cannot recommend these works too highly.

The Flight from Woman by Karl Stern
Psychiatrist Karl Stern offers a keen insight into one of the central intellectual imbalances of our age: the exultation of the discursive intellect at the expense of the intuitive intellect. He explains how the triumph of rationalism following the Enlightenment led to a neurotic imbalance of thought and perception in the modern mind. This work is a rigorous intellectual workout but well worth the time.

Family and Civilization by Carle Zimmerman, as abridged by James Kurth
I'd heard of this scholarly tour de force years ago, but understood that the multi-volume work had gone out of print. Fortunately, ISI Books undertook the task of re-releasing it, in the process abridging it for the lay reader. This is not just another "family values are deteriorating" screed - Harvard sociologist Zimmerman prepares a sweeping survey of civilizations throughout history and how they relate to the family structures that underly them. Of course, his analysis of where our culture stands in light of historical patterns is not cheering, but he backs up his conclusions with firm research. If you want to understand the relations of the family to civilization, this book is a must-read.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
An NYU professor and student of Marshall McLuhan, Postman was a keen thinker and critic of modern culture. This book is considered his masterpiece, but don't expect another "there's nothing but trash on TV" rant. Postman begins his critique with epistemology - the understanding of how we know what we know - and takes the reader through the history of oral and written cultures to set the framework for understanding how a video epistemology changes a society.

I recommend that anyone who seriously wishes to understand our culture, the challenges we face, and possible solutions, should study these books carefully. You'll be rewarded.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Things I learn from my pets

Last week we were forced to give our pets flea shampoos. Neither the cat nor the dog enjoy baths, and they really don't enjoy getting wet, lathered, and then being forced to sit there in that state for five minutes or so to give the pesticidal wash a chance to do its job. The cat, who has sharp claws and is not averse to using them, took two of us, while I was able to mostly manage the dog by myself - at least until it came time to rinse off. At that point he decided he'd had enough, and kept pulling away from the rinse water. I had no way of explaining that if I didn't rinse the soap off him, he'd be in much worse shape. Finally Ellen had to step in and rinse while I held him. It was an hour-long effort that I did in my swim trunks and followed with a shower.

The ordeal probably mystified the pets. They know nothing of parasites or their long-term dangers, much less of human aversion to sharing living spaces with infested animals. We could see from their itching that they didn't enjoy their little guests, but they couldn't even make the cause-and-effect connection between the discomfort and the small insects, much less between the remedy and relief. To them it must have seemed that their loving masters, who provide food and water and affection and walks, had suddenly gone berserk. They were pinioned, soaked, covered with smelly stuff, thoroughly drenched, and then rubbed with towels. And then they weren't even allowed back inside for an hour or so! No amount of soothing talk and reassurance could make up for this bizarre behaviour on our part.

All this got me thinking of how God must have to deal with us humans at times. His understanding stands much further above ours than ours does above our pets. What spiritual and personal problems does He understand of which we have no comprehension? Maybe there are times we need the spiritual equivalent of a flea bath - how do we respond when we're suddenly pinioned, drenched, lathered, immobilized, and thoroughly rinsed?

I know I have a tendency to howl and struggle and fight what I'm being put through. Most of all, I begin to wonder about the One who is subjecting me to all this. What did I do wrong? Am I being punished? Have I been forgotten? What happened to the love and comfort and consolation? I forget that God may have reasons that He can't explain to me because I have no framework for comprehending them, any more than my pets have a framework for understanding flea baths.

For my pets, the matter ultimately had to come down to their trust in us. We were their masters, who had a long history of caring for them. Though they balked and fussed, they submitted to our care. It took a bit of brute force at times, but had they wished to really fight, we wouldn't have been able to help them. As it was, their familiarity with us, and the history of care we had with them, mollified them enough. Their trust in us helped them through the ordeal, after which they were in much better shape.

I hope I remember that next time God subjects me to something difficult in my life. When He pinions me in some difficult circumstances and starts doing things that are troublesome and inexplicable, I hope I fall back on trusting Him. Maybe He's cleaning up some spiritual parasites I didn't know I have, or working on some personality problem or besetting sin that has troubled me all my life. Maybe someday I'll be able to understand why I'm being put through this, or maybe I never will. But I hope I'll have the trust to sit still and let Him do whatever His wisdom deems necessary, and not doubt His love and care for me.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Movies I love, and why (#1)

I'm proving terrible at consistently blogging. I think part of the problem is one I share with my daughter - if I fire up the text editor to write something, I want to write something worth reading. To me, that means writing thoughtfully, and well, on a meaningful topic. In other words, I have to voluntarily do the sort of thing that was a dreaded assignment to most of you back in your school days.

I don't mind much - it wasn't nearly as hard for me in my school days, and it's not a crushing load now - but it is still labor, and I have things crowding out my time these days. So when I sit down to the keyboard and think, "maybe I'll write a blog post", another part of my brain says, "no, you've another responsibility you should discharge first." So blog posting keeps getting put off.

This despite ideas for posts that keep flitting through my mind. Thoughts on current events, thoughts on things I read, thoughts on life in general, all act like sparks on the tinder of my mind, generating flares of thought that make me think, "I should write a few paragraphs about that!" I even keep a list of potential post topics, because more than once I've found myself getting home from a lengthy drive (or whatever) and realizing that I'd clean forgotten the superb topic that had occurred to me. But because of the aforementioned factors, few of these superb ideas see the light of day.

So I'm going to try something my daughter is trying: lowering my standards a bit. I'll try to rein in the perfectionism, and sit on the urge to turn every post into a masterpiece. I'll try jotting less deeply, more often, and we'll see how that works. One of my bright ideas for generating posts is to write about movies that I like that nobody who knows me would think I'd like, so I think I'll start with that.

I remember reading somewhere that there is really only one story in all human history - the heroic tale of the Redeemer and the redemption He brings. All other human stories are extractions from, or portions of, the Great Story. (I could swear I read this somewhere in Neuhaus' Death on a Friday Afternoon, but I haven't been able to find the reference.) I find this statement compelling, and since hearing it tend to view stories through this lens. When I read a book or see a movie, I tend to ask, "What part of the Great Story does this convey?"

However, even with such an outlook, those who know me might find it unusual that one of the movies I really enjoy is Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning. From the trailers and marketing, one gets the impression it is nothing more than another blow-'em-up, shoot-'em-up vengeance flick of the type I typically avoid. And though it has its share of shooting and explosions, the reason this movie appeals to me is that the story is much more subtle and complex than mere "action".

To a lover of the raw vengeance flick, the film gets off to a very slow start. A morose, depressed, and introspective agent named John Creasy (Washington) can't escape either his horrible memories or the bottle. A well-meaning friend gets him a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of a wealthy Mexican family. This duty seems about equal to his current abilities, but his perky, vivacious charge Pita (Fanning) won't let him curl up within his responsibilities. With trust and charm she draws him out of himself until he is once again reengaged with life.

Then happens the very thing Creasy was hired to prevent: Pita is kidnapped. Creasy nearly gets himself killed trying to prevent it, and does some killing of his own, but is left for dead as the girl is swept away. While he lies in a hospital bed, things go very wrong with the ransom. A brutal kidnapping ring, dark family secrets, crooked cops, and crooked lawyers all collide in a terrible mess that apparently gets Pita killed by the kidnappers because of a botched ransom drop. By the time Creasy is well enough to stand, it's all over.

Then he decides to "do what I do best" - visit destruction on those who destroyed little Pita. A bit more of his murky past comes into focus: he had been a counterinsurgency agent around the globe, and as his friend and onetime coworker puts it, "Creasy's art is death - and he's about to paint his masterpiece." And paint it he does, with laser focus and unflinching determination. He takes on a powerful circle of corrupt police officials, ferrets out the dirty secret of Pita's father, and hunts down those who run the brutal kidnapping ring that took Pita and so many others. I won't tell the final ending, except to say that it involves Creasy making a final and heroic sacrifice.

So what about such a film could reflect part of the Great Story? To me, Creasy's single minded determination to repay everyone who profited from Pita's kidnapping reminded me of the ultimate Judgment of God. The criminals, their hands red with the blood of their victims, are themselves brought to judgment. One man tries to intimidate Creasy with his connections to the powerful. That earns a calm and brutal response which makes clear that his connections are useless against this judge. Another tries to wheedle, yet another promises favors, another offers bribes. They all fall, because they are all out of their reckoning. None of what they offer carries any weight with Creasy, who is trying to extract justice for the murder of the little girl he loved. It is grimly gratifying to see this justice roll on, unstoppable as a tidal wave, sweeping before it every barrier until the ultimate perpetrators are brought to the light.

For me, it is helpful to be reminded that a day like this will come for the world as well. In this day we struggle with injustice on all sides, and the powerful oppressing and destroying the weak. We struggle against it as best we can, but seem to have little effect. Part of our burden as God's people is to bear, and struggle, and pray, but at times it seems like the injustice is too great.

But we've been promised the day will come when the Just Judge will come, and visit on all of us that which we deserve. There will be those who try to impress, or wheedle, or bribe - but nothing will avail. The consequences of their sin will be visited upon them, unrelentingly, implacably, and there will be no escape. Injustice will end because Christ will put an end to the unjust.

I think this is what makes Man on Fire so gratifying for me despite the violent and brutal parts - it is a distant, murky glimpse of the ultimate justice that we will one day see. After all, the injustice of the world is violent and brutal, and the Scriptural descriptions of the Day of the Lord are no less so. May that day be hastened, that the innocent may no longer suffer death and oppression at the hands of the powerful and uncaring.