Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The hazards of being an Amazon reviewer

That reviewer rating ... those helpful votes ... those unhelpful votes. I admit it. I’m addicted to checking my profile to see how I’m doing – #27,792, 106 helpful votes/124 total, thank you very much. It’s much worse than the habit of clicking the SiteMeter on this site and checking how many people have seen the blog, how they found it, etc.

The problem with the reviewer rating, though, is that there is a temptation (although I don’t think I’ve given in to it yet), to pull your punches, especially if what you’re reviewing is something about which a lot of people have been very enthusiastic. Two cases in point: 1) I found Therese (the movie about St. Therese of Lisieux) to be very superficial, but a lot of people were just gushing about it. Maybe I was expecting more of it than it was aiming for, but I did feel that it could have been so much more that I felt justified in being hard on it. Still, I heard that little voice in my head saying, “A lot of people are not going to like this review and are going to give it a ‘not helpful’ vote.” I admit that occasionally I will do the same if I really feel that someone hasn’t gotten the point, but generally I won’t vote at all unless I find something to be decidedly unhelpful. 2) I also knew that I was probably going to get in trouble with some Narnia-philes with my generally negative review of The Last Battle, but I bent over backwards to be fair by starting out with a disclaimer that I might be irredeemably prejudiced against it, pointing out that I had rather enjoyed the middle books of the series, and suggesting ways in which parents could blunt what I found to be the problematic areas of the book by discussing it with their children. I would think that even lovers of the series would want to point out that Lewis lived in a different time and was raised with a sense of white (specifically British) male entitlement that he would have been more exceptional than he was to overcome.

Anyway, I will try my best not to be seduced by the siren song of the Amazon reviewer rating and to be guided instead by the words of my new “Amazon friend” Brian: “[The review of Therese] was probably a little too honest and will eventually get you a lot of negative votes but that goes with the territory of being honest with one’s opinion.... Best of luck and keep writing those reviews, Amazon needs more intelligent reviewers like yourself.“ That means a lot more.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

An excellent op-ed from Arthur Schlesinger

Click on title to read entire article.

Bush's Thousand Days

By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Monday, April 24, 2006; Page A17

The Hundred Days is indelibly associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Thousand Days with John F. Kennedy. But as of this week, a thousand days remain of President Bush's last term – days filled with ominous preparations for and dark rumors of a preventive war against Iran.

The issue of preventive war as a presidential prerogative is hardly new. In February 1848 Rep. Abraham Lincoln explained his opposition to the Mexican War: "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose – and you allow him to make war at pleasure [emphasis added]. . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.' "

This is precisely how George W. Bush sees his presidential prerogative: Be silent; I see it, if you don't ...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Book Review: Gods and Legions ****

Gods and Legions by Michael Curtis Ford ****

Gods and Legions is a historical novel about the Roman Emperor Julian, also known as the Apostate, who attempted during the second generation after Constantine to reverse the Christianization of the Empire. Julian’s story is told by his Christian doctor Caesarius (a historical character) to the doctor’s brother Gregory, bishop of Nazianaus, so we should assume from the start that his will be a biased account. However, he is also Julian’s friend, which exerts an influence in Julian’s favor, as well as giving him an insight into the Emperor’s thought processes and motivations.

Starting at the battle during which Julian receives the wound that will kill him (or is it the original wound that does the trick?), the narrative is an extended flashback tracing the path that has brought Julian, Caesarius and the Empire to this fateful moment. The only survivor of a purge by Constantine’s son Constantius that has eliminated all of his male relatives, Julian is in Athens studying philosophy when he is abruptly called to the Emperor’s court. Rather than being killed, which he half expects, the scholarly young man is thrust into the position of Constantius’ deputy in Gaul, which is riddled with corruption and menaced by barbarians. From the admiring point of view of Caesarius, we see Julian remake himself into a general and administrator and succeed where he was meant to fail, until the treachery of his uncle becomes too much for him and he takes up arms against the Emperor. Before their armies meet, however, Constantius dies, and Julian finds himself undisputed ruler of the Empire.

It is now that the friendship between the two men is stretched to its limits, when Julian announces to the devoutly Christian Caesarius that he has abandoned the beliefs with which he was raised and aims to restore the worship of the old gods. After a brief retirement from court, Caesarius is recalled to Julian’s side to accompany him in his attempt to fulfill the vain dream of previous emperors and conquer Persia, the campaign on which he is to be killed.

It is obvious that Ford has done painstaking research for this book, and I appreciate his historical note at the end suggesting further reading. The detail is impressive, particularly the battles and other military maneuvers, although it may be a little too graphic for some people’s taste. I suppose there is an argument to be made that these things were brutal and shouldn’t be sugarcoated, but the line between realism and gratuitous violence is a fine one, and I’m not sure that Ford always stays on the right side of it. Some parts of the novel dragged a little bit for me, particularly after the beginning of the Persian campaign, and the descriptions of Julian’s excesses in his observance of pagan religion sound suspiciously like Christian propaganda, of which I’m sure there was plenty. On the whole, however, I found Gods and Legions to be a well written and enjoyable book, and would consider reading other novels by the author. Readers interested in another fictional view of this fascinating character might want to check out Gore Vidal’s Julian.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

God bless Australia

We and the Canadians (for the most part) seem to have missed out on the gene, but there’s nothing like the Brits and the Australians for sheer biting invective.

Some examples:

In recent weeks, scanning the political coverage in the mainstream US media and sampling the blogs has been to watch a flood tide ebbing to reveal a rotting, skeletal hulk. It is the George W. Bush ship of fools, stuck in the mud for the world to see in all its mendacity, its incompetence, its faith-based stupidity.

It is possible, at this late stage, that even Bush himself has begun to realise something is wrong. That oddly simian face is ashen, the eyes leaden. The voice is shrill and its tone defensive.

This is a trash presidency, founded on lies and knavery, fraud and ignorant ideological crackpottery.

Karl Rove is another faux-Texan wheeler-dealer sometimes described as Bush's brain, a courtier most often seen superglued to the presidential right ear. Pink and pudgy, he looks like one of Disney's three little pigs, although infinitely more smug.

Compared to this lot, Bill Clinton was John the Baptist.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Movie Review: Therese ***

I was very excited to see this film in the video store, but on the whole was quite disappointed with it. Comparing it to the actual life and writings of St. Therese of Lisieux is like comparing one of the saccharine pictures of her (holding a bouquet of roses and much prettier than in real life) to an actual photograph. Nice - maybe inspiring, but superficial and insipid when placed next to the real thing.

One of the big mistakes I think the makers of the film made, unless their goal was an introductory hagiography, was to attempt to portray Therese's entire life, at least beginning shortly before her mother's death. Even a relatively uneventful 15-20 years cannot be covered in any depth in an hour and a half. Also, even though she has a few crying spells, she is still shown as an almost perfect human being right from the beginning, so I didn't really get a sense of her spiritual struggle and growth. In addition, the passivity with with she is portrayed almost completely dilutes the power of her "little way." I believe that the French film mentioned by one of the other reviewers concentrated on the period of her illness and death, and was able to show her life and personality in much more depth.

A couple of things that could have been brought out or portrayed even in this version: the fact that Therese was made Mistress of Novices, entrusted with the spiritual direction of women who were sometimes older than herself; her relationship with the saintly old Mother Superior who died during her time at Carmel; and more than a glancing reference to the writing of the manuscripts that were published as The Story of a Soul.

However, if this movie inspires people to go out and read Therese’s writing (I also recommend the biography The Story of a Life by Msgr. Guy Gaucher, which is where I first encountered her), I suppose it will have fulfilled its purpose.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Moat of Death - what a great name

No, it's not something Dubya’s putting in around the ranch in Crawford to keep out the mothers of dead soldiers. It’s from the National Geographic website - they are busy little beavers these days, or just reporting on some really interesting finds. The disturbing part of the article is the suggestion that the "Moat of Death" may be a glimpse at the future of our oceans.

Beneath the waves of the South Pacific lies a volcanic realm nearly as strange as that featured in TV's hit drama Lost.

But instead of a mysterious island, scientists have found a bubbling submarine volcano whose weird features include a swirling vortex, a host of strange animals, and a fearsome zone of toxic waters dubbed the Moat of Death.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Book Review: Ghosts of Vesuvius

Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino *****

People who like their reading clear, concise and organized will probably hate this book. To someone like me, who is decidedly “right-brained,” it was a joy to read, even though there were times when I put it aside because I just couldn’t cope with the sheer amount of information.

Charles Pellegrino, who has also explored the wreck of the Titanic and the island of Thera (whose devastation in a volcanic eruption is a possible inspiration for the story of Atlantis), here brings his expertise to the results of the first-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius as well as the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “The behavior of dust-heavy air in Manhattan was governed by the very same physics that sent volcanic death clouds crashing...upon the cities of Vesuvius in A.D. 79,” he writes, and the book which would have resulted from this simple comparison would probably have been equally fascinating, although much shorter and more focused.

Instead, Pellegrino gives us an extended meditation on catastrophes, human reactions to them and the impermanence of civilizations that is truly breathtaking in its scope, yet also shines a spotlight on intimate human moments and the personal reactions of the author, all the more poignant in the case of 9/11, where he lost people he knew. The bulk of the book is devoted to recent discoveries at Vesuvius, however. Pellegrino’s reconstruction of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, based on what science knows about the physics of it, eyewitness accounts from authors such as Pliny the Younger, and archaeological evidence, is riveting. He also builds up a context in which to place them, a context of slave revolts, religious ferment and amazingly advanced technology, which help to bring the people whose stories he tells to life.

This book probably could have been more tightly edited without losing its stream-of-consciousness feel, and Pellegrino’s assertions were sometimes hyperbolic and occasionally flat-out wrong (the Pharisees were not a “sect of Temple high priests,” but in general non-priests who were often in opposition to the Temple cult), but I still found it enjoyable and well-worth reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Book Review: The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marin Meyer & Gregor Wurst (also includes an essay by Bart Ehrman) ****

If you want to know all the details about the race to preserve this exciting discovery, the science, etc., this book is not the one you want. That is evidently the focus of the companion book to this one, The Lost Gospel by Bart D. Ehrman. If, however, you want the actual translation of the Gospel of Judas with copious explanatory footnotes and essays that put it into some context, I highly recommend this book. One reviewer referred those who are only interested in reading the gospel to the NY Times website; however, the National Geographic site has the whole thing available for download with no registration required. I personally found the footnotes (only available in this book) to be very helpful in disentangling some of the theology and terminology used.

The essays are also well-written and illuminating, especially if the reader is not familiar with gnosticism. (These readers may also find it helpful to read the essays first and then the contents of the manuscript.)

Hype notwithstanding, this discovery is not about to shake the foundations of Christianity, but I hope that it will stimulate interest by Christians in the origins of their faith and the exciting ferment of ideas that existed during the first couple of centuries until all debate was shut down by the new establishment, the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the most part the “secret revelations” given by Jesus to “Judas” are boilerplate gnosticism, although even a glimpse of that system of thought, alien as it now is to most of us, may stimulate readers to learn more. I highly recommend Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels as a readable introduction; although several years old it is still in print. Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is a more recent exposition of the many “Christianities” that fought it out in the early centuries.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Books that I need to put on a fast track

These are books that I am really enjoying but for some reason just keep getting distracted from and have yet to finish. Of course they’re all quite long and just packed with information - maybe it’s some kind of overload. I suppose that what I should do is put them at the top of my list and not even touch anything else until they’re done, but somehow I doubt that will happen.

Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll. I love this book and its writer, especially some of the columns he’s published in the Boston Globe. Unfortunately, it had been so long since I had left off on the book that I had to start it all over again, and I was just as impressed the second time around. However, I have now reached just about the same point, and I haven’t picked it up for a couple of weeks.

Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino. This is really the one I was thinking of when I said “packed with information.” There’s almost enough in here to blow the circuits in your brain, but his description of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, based on what science knows about the physics of it, eyewitness accounts from authors such as Pliny the Younger, and archaeological evidence, is riveting.

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. A fascinating journey backwards in time, based loosely on the framework of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is a lot of info in here to assimilate too, particularly scientific.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Leaker in chief

Just one more disaster in a week full of them. To be fair, I think that the people I listen to on Air America have made an amazing leap which, so far, at least, is not justified by the evidence – namely, that because Dubya authorized the leaking of the NIE, he is ipso facto guilty of outing Valerie Plame. (This, on an affiliate that calls itself “the voice of reason.”) Of course, the news makes it obvious that he’s at the very least a hypocrite and a liar, since even if he didn’t authorize that specific leak, he certainly could have guessed where it came from. Even he isn’t that stupid.

However, here is a meme that the White House’s media stenographers have been very effective in getting out, this time in Newsweek, although I have seen it in story after story since the news came out.

Legally, Bush did nothing wrong. The president can declassify a document any time he wants. Indeed, a sanitized version of the document in question—a National Intelligence Estimate compiled by the CIA and other agencies—was formally declassified and made public only 10 days after some of its contents were leaked by Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003. But the administration was unquestionably playing games with reporters, whether or not the president was directly involved.

Only problem is, it’s not true. At least, not everyone agrees on the issue. John Dean (uh, former White House counsel, who might reasonably be expected to know something about it) writes the following on the Findlaw website:

In addition, conventional wisdom - if that label fits the consensus information that is surfacing on radio and television news shows - has it that this information does not reveal that the President or Vice President did anything illegal. But that claim, too, is not necessarily accurate.

At a minimum, the filing indicates that the President and Vice President departed radically, and disturbingly, from long-set procedures with respect to classified documents - and that the Vice President, in particular, exceeded his declassification authority. And it may indicate that they, too, ought to be targets of the grand jury.

This is what I would love to know – what did Dubya and Dick tell the FBI when they were interviewed? If they told the “truth,” or what they claim now is the truth, shouldn’t that have cleared up the investigation? And if they did nothing wrong, why cover it up?

More from Dean:

Assuming that Libby's testimony is accurate, did the President do anything wrong by so declassifying the NIE? Given the fact that the national security classification system is created by executive order of the president, it would appear logical that the president has authority to unilaterally and selective declassify anything he might wish. However, that is not the way any president has ever written the executive orders governing these activities. To the contrary, the orders set forth rather detailed declassification procedures.

In addition, there is law that says that when a president issues an executive order he must either amend that executive order, or follow it just as others within the executive branch are required to do. At present, we have so few facts it is difficult to know what precisely Bush did and how he did it, and thus whether or not this law is applicable. There is also the problem that no one has standing in court to challenge a president's refusal to follow his own rules. But voters may take note of the disposition of this administration to play by the rules, and put a Democratic Congress in place to keep an eye on the last two years of the Bush/Cheney presidency.

What is apparent, however, based on Fitzgerald's filing, is that no one other than Bush, Cheney, Libby and apparently Addington was aware of this unilateral and selective declassification - if, indeed, the NIE was declassified. The secrecy surely suggests cover-up. For example, Fitzgerald notes that Libby "consciously decided not to make [then Deputy National Security Adviser] Hadley aware of the fact that defendant [Libby] himself had already been disseminating the NIE by leaking it to reporters while Mr. Hadley sought to get it formally declassified." (Also, CIA Director George Tenet apparently was not aware of the partial declassification by Bush.)

Whatever authority Bush may or may not have had, however, it is crystal clear that Vice President Cheney did not have any authority to unilaterally and selectively declassify the NIE.

Recently, Cheney made the public claim (to Brit Hume of Fox News) that he had authority to declassify national security information. Learning of this, Congressman Henry Waxman asked the Congressional Reference Service of the Library of Congress, which issues non-partisan reports, whether Cheney was right. CRS found that the Vice President has limited declassification authority, generally speaking. And their report shows Cheney had no authority in this instance - only in situations where the Vice President had been the authority to classify the material in the first place, could the Vice President have the authority to unilaterally declassify it.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is this America's future? The theocrats hope so.

Excerpts from a horrific article in Sunday’s New York Times about criminalized abortion in El Salvador:

Abortion is a serious felony here for everyone involved, including the woman who has the abortion. Some young women are now serving prison sentences, a few as long as 30 years.
In this new movement toward criminalization, El Salvador is in the vanguard. The array of exceptions that tend to exist even in countries where abortion is circumscribed — rape, incest, fetal malformation, life of the mother — don't apply in El Salvador. They were rejected in the late 1990's, in a period after the country's long civil war ended. The country's penal system was revamped and its constitution was amended. Abortion is now absolutely forbidden in every possible circumstance. No exceptions.

There are other countries in the world that, like El Salvador, completely ban abortion, including Malta, Chile and Colombia. El Salvador, however, has not only a total ban on abortion but also an active law-enforcement apparatus — the police, investigators, medical spies, forensic vagina inspectors and a special division of the prosecutor's office responsible for Crimes Against Minors and Women, a unit charged with capturing, trying and incarcerating an unusual kind of criminal. Like the woman I was waiting to meet.
As they do in any investigation, the police collect evidence by interviewing everyone who knows the accused and by seizing her medical records. But they must also visit the scene of the crime, which, following the logic of the law, often means the woman's vagina.

"Yes, we sometimes call doctors from the Forensic Institute to do a pelvic exam," Tópez said, referring to the nation's main forensic lab, "and we ask them to document lacerations or any evidence such as cuts or a perforated uterus." In other words, if the suspicions of the patient's doctor are not conclusive enough, then in that initial 72-hour period, a forensic doctor can legally conduct a separate search of the crime scene. Tópez said, however, that vaginal searches can take place only with "a judge's permission." Tópez frequently turned the pages of a thick law book she kept at hand. "The prosecutor can order a medical exam on a woman, because that's within the prosecutor's authority," she said.

In the event that the woman's illegal abortion went badly and the doctors have to perform a hysterectomy, then the uterus is sent to the Forensic Institute, where the government's doctors analyze it and retain custody of her uterus as evidence against her.

What will become of poor Tom Delay?

I've been worrying about Tom DeLay. I'm afraid he's going to find life after Congress unfulfilling. I suppose he could become a consultant, but that would probably be boring after being in the hurly-burly of things, twisting arms and cracking the whip on the floor, and I don't imagine that his former colleagues would welcome him back as a lobbyist, at least not for a year or two. However, I think I have a solution.

As you can see from the excerpt below (click here for link, though it's actually to a page that quotes the original article, or just google "tom delay vietnam"), poor Tom was never able to serve his country. Even though he wanted to go to Vietnam, those mean ole minorities got in first and cheated him out of his chance (although it looked from my search results like Big Bad Tom might also have claimed that his wife wouldn't let him go).

Read an excerpt from a 1999 article that recounts the novel excuse that DeLay offered as to why he and Dan Quayle didn't serve in Vietnam:

Which Bug Gets the Gas? Will the next house DeLay fumigates be that big White one or his own? By Tim Fleck....

He and Quayle, DeLay explained to the assembled media in New Orleans, were victims of an unusual phenomenon back in the days of the undeclared Southeast Asian war. So many minority youths had volunteered for the well-paying military positions to escape poverty and the ghetto that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like himself. Satisfied with the pronouncement, which dumbfounded more than a few of his listeners who had lived the sixties, DeLay marched off to the convention...

Hey, Tom, they're calling up guys today who must be at least your age, and you look pretty fit and healthy in your mug shot. The way they've been lowering standards lately, indictment or even conviction shouldn't be an obstacle, as long as you can weasel your way out a long sentence. This is your chance to see combat and serve the party - uh, country - that you love so much. Go to exciting places (like Iraq), meet interesting people, and kill them. And unlike most of the Democrats in Congress, the Iraqis actually fight back. Be all that you can be!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Gospel of Judas and "missing link" in the same week - fundamentalists frothing at the mouth!

Here are a couple of news stories - Gospel of Judas here, "missing link" between fish and land animals here. It's pure coincidence that both of these outlets are Canadian - I don't even know if they're the best ones, but I wanted to get something up here before going to work. I will have more to say about both of these. As I said to my sister in an e-mail today, though, my reaction to the "Gospel" (and this applies regardless of the authenticiy - or lack thereof - of its contents), was, "Duh! I could figure out by reading the canonical accounts that the 'betrayal' was a put-up job."

Shabbat shalom!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy

Tom DeLay is out, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the subject of this article: Federal Probe Has Edged Closer to Texan. Why, Tom says so - would he lie? We all know he’s being persecuted because he’s a “Christian.” If you believe this I’ve got some nice oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you.

I found this part of the article to be particularly nauseating - just one more example of crooks protecting their own. “DeLay also is entitled under federal election rules to convert any or all of the remaining funds from his reelection campaign to his legal expenses, whether or not he resigns, is indicted (my emphasis) or loses the election. Election lawyers say one advantage of bowing out of the election now is that the campaign cash can be converted to pay legal bills immediately, instead of being drained in the course of a bid to stay in office.” I don’t know what should happen to that money, but this is one thing that it shouldn’t be allowed to be used for. (Sorry about ending a sentence with a preposition, Esther - I just think it reads better. As Winston Churchill used to say, “This is something up with with we will not put.”)

For more on poor oppressed Christians check this hilarious clip from Bill Maher - as he says, nothing says “I’m oppressed” like the opulent Regency Ballroom of a fancy hotel. (He starts out talking about Andy Card leaving the White House.)

Monday, April 03, 2006

In case anyone thinks I'm completely opposed to C.S. Lewis and/or his brand of Christianity...

Here is an excerpt from an article discussing Lewis' feelings about the conservative Christian obsession with homosexuality as opposed to more widespread (and more culturally erosive) sins such as excessive materialism and the drive to get ahead at all costs. Maybe this is because of the tendency, which Jesus noted, for people to point out the mote in their brother's eye while ignoring the beam in their own, as most of the people who so loudly proclaim their Christianity to the world (see Matthew 6:5 – "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men") seem to be beset by these very problems.
Lewis also describes, largely in passing, the English public school tradition by which socially powerful older boys enter into sexual liaisons with younger boys, who thereby acquire a status similar to that of courtesans. At one point, Lewis addresses why he has so little to say about this practice, and indeed why he doesn't even bother to condemn it: "What Christian, in a society so worldly and cruel as that of Wyvern, would pick out the carnal sins for special reprobation? Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh. The real reason for all the pother (about homosexuality) is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The World will lead you only to Hell; but sodomy may lead you to jail and create a scandal, and lose you your job. The World, to do it justice, seldom does that."

Much has changed since Lewis wrote; but one thing that has not is the veritable obsession many Christian conservatives seem to have with homosexuality. As Lewis points out, this obsession has no sound basis in Christian ethics or theology. It is true that Christian morality has traditionally condemned homosexual behavior. But it is, on this view, no different from fornication, or promiscuity, which are also considered perversions of sexual passion, and which draw relatively little attention from contemporary moralists.

Furthermore, as Lewis notes, Christian theology considers lust to be a less dangerous vice than worldly ambition or (especially) spiritual pride. So why are so many Christian conservatives focused on the putative threat that the widespread acceptance of homosexuality presents to the spiritual health of society, as opposed to, say, the threat posed by the widespread acceptance of materialism, or the fanning of nationalistic passions?
Actually, I would have a lot more problems with the specific practice that Lewis dismisses so casually than with a committed same-sex relationship - not because of the homosexuality, but because of the abuse of power inherent in it.

More thoughts on Narnia

Well, I have now finished the entire series, so I can kvetch about it. I wasn't crazy about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but I actually did enjoy the middle books. On the whole, the less Lewis preaches, the more I enjoy him. I also read the Twayne’s Masterwork Series companion and The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide by Peter J. Schakel, which I found very useful and perceptive, although both of them seemed determined to ignore (for the most part) things that I found problematic.

Although some of his criticisms of the series are a bit too sweeping, on The Last Battle I have to agree with Philip Pullman. It seems to send some really horrible messages, and I just hope that a lot of kids don't pick up on them. First, there seems to be a tinge of the Victorian sentimental "good children dying young" meme. Secondly, dark-skinned people (also known as "Darkies") are just bad by nature, and only one of them, evidently, is worthy of heaven (or the Narnian version of it). Thirdly, in the first book Edmund was ready to betray his siblings to certain death and is forgiven; in this one Susan is presumably cast into the outer darkness for being a normal teenage girl. (One essay I read suggests that she may still have a chance, but the implication is there.) None of the "good" people seems more than mildly disturbed by this - shades of the saints enjoying a ringside seat watching the suffering of the sinners in hell, or it is more "out of sight, out of mind"? There is also no indication that they will ever be reunited with their parents, who were also killed in the train crash, and that doesn’t seem to bother them at all. Ain’t family values grand?

In the meantime, do any readers spare a thought for poor Susan? Her entire family has just been wiped out and as she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” she doesn’t even have the comfort of thinking of them in heaven. What happens to her afterwards could make a wonderful book.

I have seen several defenses of Lewis against Pullman’s charge of misogyny, but they all seem to miss the point. For the most part his female children aren’t too bad, but he seems to have a real animus against adult women. OK - some people would say against adults in general, with the exception of Frank the cabby and his wife in The Magician’s Nephew, but only the female villains are truly menacing on a metaphysical level.

One thing that annoys me really has nothing to do with Lewis himself, but with some of his adoring legions of followers. There seem to be as many non-Christian, mythological elements in these books as there are in Harry Potter (Bacchus?), but hey, that’s OK - presumably because they subordinate themselves to Aslan, while the Harry Potter books are denounced as “Satanic.”

I found what to me is the best explanation so far for my position on the HP side of the Harry Potter/His Dark Materials-Narnia divide (to the extent that there is one - I am aware that a lot of people enjoy all three series) in a book called Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics From Cinderella To Harry Potter by Alison Lurie:
In Narnia, final happiness is the result not of individual initiative and enterprise, but of submission to the wisdom and will of superior beings. Misbehavior can be forgiven if it is sincerely repented...

One complaint that both [critics] make against the Potter books is that in them evil and good are ambiguous and shifting. Apparently harmless or innocent characters turn out to be working for dark forces, and wicked-looking characters are revealed to be messengers of light. In Narnia, on the other hand, good and evil are clearly distinguishable...

The world of Narnia is simple and eternal: goodness, peace, and beauty will eventually triumph. The world of Harry Potter is complex and ambiguous and fluid. And in this, of course, it is far more like our own world, in which it is not always easy to tell the ogres from the giants. When we choose books for our children, do we want them to teach obedience to authority or skepticism, acceptance of the status quo or a determination to change what needs to be changed?
(I would modify Lurie’s “obedience to authority” to “unquestioning obedience to authority,“ since I don’t think she is arguing that obedience in itself is a bad thing.)

A couple more curmudgeonly views can be found here and here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Book Review: Day of the False King

Day of the False King by Brad Geagley *****

The second installment in this series, which follows the adventures of Semerket, Egyptian Clerk of Investigations and Secrets, in 20th Dynasty Egypt, does not disappoint. Semerket’s ex-wife Naia and Rami, a young boy whom he befriended in Year of the Hyenas, have been sent as slaves to Babylon, and Semerket receives a fragment of a note indicating that they are in danger. Upon appealing to Rameses IV, the new Pharaoh, who owes Semerket his life and his throne, he is given permission to seek them and bring them back to Egypt, as well as a sensitive diplomatic mission to the ruler of Babylon. (Oops - I originally put "king" but when reading this over remembered that one very strong point made in the book was that Babylon, unlike Egypt, didn't have a king.)

In Babylon, which is seething under foreign occupation (shades of modern day Iraq?) Sermerket quickly learns that he can trust no one, not even his own country’s ambassador. The raid on the plantation where Naia was a maid is rumored to have been undertaken by resistance fighters, but evidence points to Egyptian involvement. A remarkably clever and sophisticated slave, a seductive transvestite, and a pair of spies who stick to Sermerket like glue even after they’re called off are only a few of the many colorful characters who help him solve the several mysteries he faces and find out what happened to Naia and Rami.

One of the risks of writing about a hard-bitten and embittered character such as Semerket is that he will either become totally unsympathetic or, if his life improves sufficiently, lose the “edge” that makes him so interesting in the first place. Moving him to a different culture was a brilliant move for Geagley, since Semerket is thrown slightly off balance by the strangeness and is forced to show some of his vulnerabilities. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to maintain the balancing act.

The book also provides some fascinating insights into the Babylonian politics of the time, some quotations from The Lament for Ur (which appears to have similarities to the biblical book of Lamentations, if only because the emotions felt by the survivors of a devastated city probably don’t differ much), and ancient medical practice. I only wish that, on his website if not in the book, Geagley would provide some information about his sources and recommended reading for those who would like to learn more.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Democratic mole in the RNC?

If you can’t stand going to any Republican websites, check out their new “anti-Feingold” ad on This is so weird - why would the party in power want to show anyone using the words “the President broke the law”? It actually (heaven forfend!) gives context to Feingold’s call for censure, when they’ve been trying to spread the meme that those bad ole Democrats are going after Dubya for going after the terrorists.

I found it kind of ironic that our hyper-nationalist, English-only right wing would end their extremely bizarre ad with the grammatically awful "Who do you stand with?" Of course, they might think saying "Whom," let alone "With whom," would make them sound like those evil eastern elitists, but even "Who do you support?" wouldn't be as bad.

I also notice that when they have Feingold saying, "This is a lot more serious - a lot more like an impeachable offense..." they cut him off. What did he say after that? Probably something like "...than lying about sex." What - aren't they proud of that fiasco?

Finally, where is the beginning of that ad supposed to be set, anyway? It looks like either Fallujah or one of our inner cities, where setting off a bomb wouldn't make much of a difference to the landscape. It would have been a lot more effective if they'd shown these guys doing their dirty work in an affluent suburb or mall, but I suppose they wouldn't want to give the masses any ideas!