Monday, June 27, 2005

When Good Things Happen to Bad People

Just got an email from a good friend in India. He and his wife serve the urban poor there.

His wife was out buying groceries and saw one of her very poor neighbors wearing the kind of "message" t-shirt so common here in the states.

The tee read "I'm the bad thing that happens to good people."

Nicely put.

Many American Christians--even some people I know-- will react defensively and point out that Jesus teaches that "no one is good but God alone," blah, blah, blah.

Those well-meaning people are doctrinally correct. But they also probably miss the whole point.

It seems to me that his real meaning is that good things happen to bad people....

If more folks understood that deeply I'm confident there would be a lot fewer defensive reactions among "the blessed" when confronted by the realities of the very poor.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Elementary Critic

I found out this week that my 12 year old son Andrew reads my blogs. Who knew?

The revelations continue.

It turns out that he writes his own online book reviews. He blogs on the "Andrew, 12" byline at the Jefferson County Colorado Library website.

Andrew is a pretty emotional person. But he's more blunt and straightforward than our unusually emotionally savvy, college age daughter Rebecca ever was. And he's definitely more oriented toward action and physicality.

I enjoyed his book reviews and thought they were pretty revealing. I especially liked one of his images.

He reviews Ella Enchanted. Seven little girls also make their take on the book.

All the girls loved it. Andrew did not love it.

He begins by saying, "I'll be honest this book was flat out boring."

Unambiguous, honest, and easy to understand. Good.

Socially apt? Well, perhaps some refining is in order.

The image that made me laugh out loud comes a couple of sentences later. He comments on the experience of actually reading the book over the course of a day.

He writes, "I truly fell asleep about 20 times on the same day then it kept waken me up cuz it was a hard cover."

Grammar and syntax aren't very important considerations among elementary school kids these days. After reading lots of blogs and emails from folks in their 20's and 30's over the past 10 years, I guess that's true of a lot of adults too.

But the thought picture is pretty funny and the language has sort of a Mark Twain feel to it.

I remember lots of times when I've been reading a dull, hard cover book and fallen asleep only to have it drop out of my hands and jolt me awake suddenly. Heavy hard covers are sort of painful, especially if you get one of those sharp corners in a sensitive place.

Clever and striking image of how unpleasant a boring book can be. Nice job, Andrew.

I got a kick out of all of the kids' reviews. Too many exclamation points for my taste (another writing trait these kids share with 20-30 year olds) and too little interesting detail, but overall it's good stuff.

Strange new world when elementary school and junior high kids are doing lit looks for public consumption and when fathers are doing takes on their kids' book reviews. But possibly kind of cool too.

Oh, and one other thing. How come when I was a kid we never got to read books with titles like The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things?

Take a look for yourself:

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Batman Begins: A Vigilante for Grown Ups

Saw Batman Begins today with my 12 year old son Andrew. This review is in his honor.

The only comic books I really liked as a kid in the 60's were Batman and Silver Surfer.

Silver Surfer was an amped up myth penned especially for those of us messing around on California beaches where I spent so much time growing up.

But he was also a space traveler, which was just as cool in the 60's.

The basic SS creation myth begins with an immoral and ultra-powerful force that destroys worlds. That force shows up at a small planet prepared to do its worst.

The clever leaders of the planet keep the celestial predator at bay by offering up one of their young men, who turns out to be the Silver Surfer.

SS saves his planet from destruction by offering himself as an indentured servant to the evil power.

So he starts his superhero career with powers given to him by the wicked planet muncher. His main new skill is surfing at warp speed throughout the universe. Could there be a cooler superhero for a 12 year old in the California of 1969?

He's really just a scout, though, who finds planets that the hungry power can destroy. But that kind of immoral job description serves to keep his planet (and family?) out of harm's way. Adult moral tension in a comic book? Yes, it's possible.

Eventually SS scopes out the earth where a wise earthling--we used to call the people of the earth "earthlings" back in the Sci Fi day--convinces him that compassion is the true way for the superhero.

So SS ends up battling his evil and supernaturally powerful CEO and forces him to abandon any plans to destroy the earth. The evil, planet eating CEO accepts partial defeat but condemns SS to hang around the earth permanently though he allows him to keep his superpowers.

Basically, SS gets assigned to the Bakersfield office of the universe as a punishment for not sticking with the domination program. SS learns a lot more about using power wisely and for good during his imprisonment in the sticks among the Yoda-like earthling hicks.

For reasons that I can't remember, the evil galactic power eventually allows SS to surf free throughout the galaxy again where he uses his inter-galactic surfboard and superpowers to do good to every kind of wierd and exotic world.

Looking back, it was a pretty nice myth for its time. Surfboards, youth culture, space travel and self-sacrifice. Pretty potent stuff at that time. Pretty potent now, I guess. I understand now why I liked it so much though it obviously had some plot problems. But what myth or religion doesn't?

OK, on to Batman Begins. Most all of you know the Batman mythology by now.

Batman Begins looks at some of the adult meanings of an adolescent male myth while still throwing in all the pyrotechnics and violence and special effects that junior highers and adults with strong junior high sympathies love.

Chris Nolan directed the movie. He did Momento, a really interesting flick, a few years back. He's the first person to do a Batman take on either tv or on film that isn't fundamentally a cartoon.

Basically, BB is about the spiritual damage that violence inflicts on even the most favored people and how some people deal with that damage.

Bruce Wayne is paralyzed by fear and self-condemnation and a desire for vengeance after watching his billionaire father and mother killed by a common thug.

He runs away and loses himself for years, but then is "rescued" by a group of sophisticated vigilantes who want to cleanse the world of immorality and criminals. They want to save the world by destroying it.

They give him the requisite "martial arts" training which releases him from his deep inner fears--apparently the only way movies for the past 30 years can depict the passage into manhood, yawn--and expect him to take his place in their ranks as they seek an apocalypse of redemptive violence in the world. They're Al Queda without the towels on their heads.

He refuses to take part in their absolute vision of cleansing because he believes there is still something worth saving in "Gotham City." He believes that if he can make himself into a terrifying symbol of just retribution by using his wealth and technology and physical courage he can make a difference and save Gotham City from itself. He wants to leave "shock and awe" in his wake.

What makes the story line a little different is that Batman comes across as a "reasonable" vigilante in comparison to the uber version he rejects.

Maybe Nolan meant to show him as a moody and dark neo-conservative super hero, a kind of Dick Cheney in a black rubber bat suit.

Whoa. Sorry about that last image. Didn't mean to frighten you. We'd have to imagine Dick Cheney about 50 pounds lighter and a lot healthier. I don't want to think about an overweight Republican in a black, skin tight, S and M inspired outfit presiding over the Senate, especially if he tried to wear his cowboy hat over his bat ears. That would really look silly.

Anyway, I liked this potentially more human and believable version of neo-conservatism more than the current real life specimens.

Nolan makes the movie worth seeing. He tries to show why a well meaning and wounded person would choose vigilante violence in hopes of creating some kind of redemptive and just reckoning.
He also challenges that whole approach.

Pretty much everyone is afraid of Batman at the end of the movie, and many people seem worried about his sanity. Some are proud of him. And some wonder where his violent, symbolically powerful approach will ultimately lead.

During the last scene in the movie the one Gotham City cop who believes in him asks, "Where will this go? If we get semi-automatic weapons, they (the criminals) will just get automatic weapons. If we get Kevlar body armor, they will just get armor piercing bullets."

Good question. Pretty current, if you can just see through all the violence and gadgets and spin. Nicely done.

Andrew and I had a very good convo after the movie about Jesus' teaching and how it is so different from the various myths of redemptive violence and common ideas about vengeance and justice.

Good teaching opportunity if you've got a young boy in your family or in your neighborhood or ministry. Just don't mention the fat vice president in a batsuit thing....

Friday, June 17, 2005

Bitterness Was Not In His Nature

I ran across this obituary in The Economist today.

Many American news networks interviewed Nelson Mandela when the South African government finally released him after decades in prison.

I don't remember much about the interviews I saw, but I do remember one comment Mandela made very clearly.

He became a close friend of the Afrikaaner head jailer on his cell block during his years of captivity. The interviewer asked him about that jailer.

Mandela said, "He was just the kind of man you would hope for in that role."

The kindness and forgiveness in those words struck me when I first heard them, and I often think of them when I need encouragement in my relationships with people who haven't treated me as well as I might have hoped.

The link here is a story about another black South African--Hamilton Naki--who was a medical pioneer and played a decisive role in the very first human heart transplant. He never got the eventual recognition Mandela enjoyed, but he had the same forgiving and life giving attitude.

The guy who wrote the article said of Naki, "bitterness was not in his nature."

Hmmm.... Seems like bitterness at injustice is in most people's nature.

When people overcome it something important--maybe even miraculous--is at play.

Take a look....

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A Short Take on Global Economics

I'm a big supporter of economic development and investment in the developing world and in poor communities.

Capitalism is a great engine of economic progress, especially at the early stages of economic development. The ideas of discipline, savings, and investment are critical for the kind of economic "take off" that can lift very poor people and communities out of poverty.

But the later stages of capitalism may be another story.

Seems like advanced economies can only survive if they stoke a desire for more and more material things and encourage inappropriate indebtedness. The economy of most of the developed west would collapse if people stopped buying things they don't need and stopped spending beyond their means.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Pop Torture

Muslims recently rioted all over the world when a Newsweek story reported that guards at Guantanamo Bay flushed a Koran down the toilet.

But I'm more frightened about the latest revelation from Gitmo. We may see wholesale Islamic insurrections around the world in the next few days. Seems the military has resorted to pop torture.

According to Time, an official military logbook from the prison camp documents a variety of inhumane treatments inflicted on Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the prisoners there. Various congressional leaders, including some prominent Republicans, are outraged by the new information.

His interrogators forced Al-Qahtani to urinate in his pants and questioned him relentlessly for 20 hours a day.

But worst of all, "interogators began their sessions with al-Qahtani at midnight and awakened him with dripping water or Christina Aguilera music if he dozed off."

Rumors of flushing a Koran down the toilet or the use of Chinese water torture is one thing. But forcing someone to listen to Christina Aguilera?

How did it finally come to this?

Friday, June 10, 2005

The LA Clippers Win NBA Title

In my NBA playoff bracket I had the scoring-challenged Spurs and Pistons playing for the title. That's not what I wanted to see but it's the current reality of pro hoops "dull ball." Last night's 84-69 Spurs' victory over the grind-it-out Pistons put a lot of us lifetime fans to sleep.

But there's always the fantasy that a high scoring underdog might make it to the finals and get a ring.

About 7 years ago I responded to a CNN sports message board thread which asked, "What will it take for the LA Clippers to win the NBA title?"

For those of you who aren't pro basketball fans, the Clippers are perenially one of the worst teams in the league. Sports Illustrated ranked them as the worst pro franchise in major sports history a couple of years ago.

The team is owned by a real estate mogul named Donald Sterling. Sterling's only real interest is in selling the team for a lot more than he paid for it. He bought the team when the NBA was just becoming popular and he's made hundreds of millions in equity on the Clippers as the league became a world-wide phenomenon even though the Clippers have been a joke for decades. He understands that buying the cheapest and crappiest house on the most popular street in the city is the best investment around. No need to spend much on upkeep because your investment will make you a pile of cash anyway.

Smart guy, no doubt. And he loves the celebrity spotlight of LA. He's also developed a well deserved reputation as a meddling owner who interferes in the coaching and personnel decisions of the team even though he knows very little about the game.

What would it take to make the ultimate hoops fantasy a reality? How could the Clippers win the title and deliver the NBA from the current 15 year reign of defensive oriented snooze ball?

Here's my updated take from the old CNN post. Some might find this a little irreverant, so consider yourself warned.

Jesus returns and becomes both General Manager and coach of the Clippers. Still, Sterling insists on making the draft picks and trades. He drafts the Anti-Christ in the first round out of Nevada Las Vegas and team chemistry problems ensue. Clips fail to make the playoffs though their coach can walk on water.

Anti-Christ becomes disillusioned and demands trade. Sterling moves him to Miami. AC tires of Miami coach Stan Van Gundy's lectures on boxing out and loses his enthusiasm and his jumper. Van Gundy leaves the Duke of Darkness off playoff roster.

Sterling keeps the Lord on as both coach and GM, but becomes infatuated with an ignorant 6'11" teenage gangsta wannabe named Darius "Dogfather" Miles who he picks up in the middle of the first round of the draft. Clippers' newspaper and tv ticket ads feature the Dogfather flashing gang signs and making Clippers fans "an offer they can't refuse."

Jesus demands committment from players, telling the LA Times that his team must "take up their cross and follow me." Players laugh and reserves begin eating popcorn on the bench during games.

Sterling, citing the Lord's inability to communicate effectively with his players, buys out the last two years of Jesus' contract and fires him.

The Clippers finish in last place for two more years.

But in an unexpected move, Jesus decides to return to the NBA as a player. Sterling gives him a one year contract at league minimum.

The Lord has a great training camp and starts at point guard.

He temporarily strikes opponents deaf, dumb and blind during the fourth quarter of games and the Clips break the NBA record for victories and points scored and take the NBA title.

During the offseason after the championship run, Sterling decides to trade Jesus for Vlade Divac in what he calls "a salary cap" move. The 40 year old Vlade reports to camp out of breath after a 15 year, 4-pack-a-day Marlboro habit. A week into training camp Vlade retires, telling reporters "I want to spend more time with my family."

The Clippers again challenge for the league's worst record.

Sterling, ever positive, entertains celebrities like Tommy Lasorda and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince Who is Now Known As Prince Again in courtside seats and hopes for the best.

See, turning the Clippers and the NBA around isn't that hard.

It's just a matter of a little divine intervention.

Another Thought on Diamond

Just a quick follow up to my last post....

When you look at the specific reactions both left and right have had to Diamond's books and thinking, and you look a little beneath the surface of the cultural debate going on in the US right now, I wonder if part of the divide between "left" and "right" has to do with their respective attititudes toward the idea of "meritocracy."

All Americans believe in the value of meritocracy--it's one of the defining elements in our national ideology and identity. Is there an American who won't affirm the importance of effort and intelligence and character?

But maybe folks in the US who tend to identify more with the left have a deeper recognition of the critical role of fortuitous accident (in secular terminology) or "grace/divine sovereignty" (in religious parlance) in the way lives or nations or even global history work out.

I don't know how true that is, but it's an interesting question.

When you look at the way people on both left and right in the US tend to respond to various social issues, it sure does look that way. Certainly, the right's reaction to Diamond--who is simply suggesting that forces outside of the control of Europeans and their descendants played a dramatic and decisive role in the dominance and advantages they've enjoyed--would suggest this kind of conclusion.

If so, that's got to be one of the great ironies of recent American history.

Who would have guessed that the 'religious' and/or 'more traditional' right would have more easily jettisoned the ideas of God's graceful sovereignty and the important role of simple "good luck" or "bad luck" in the way things turn out for people or nations.

Could the "immoral" and "anti-traditional" left be better preservers of some very basic traditional values and ways of perceiving the world?

At the very least this all suggests that a lot of the stereotypes being thrown around in the broader cultural debate aren't very accurate. Most of us already knew that, but the reaction to Diamond is pretty interesting and potentially revealing in my mind.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Jared Diamond: The Superiority of Western Culture?

I ran across an incendiary article in the National Review written by an ex-military man at the Hoover Institute--a conservative think tank--at Stanford.

The article is an hysterical attack on Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, both books by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA who's become a bona fide public intellectual, that rarest of American types.

Diamond is also a world class physician and ornitholgist. He may be the closest thing to a legitimate 'renaissance' figure in modern America. Guns, Germs and Steel continues to be one of the best selling books in America and around the world years after its publication.

When I say hysterical I don't mean funny hysterical. I mean hysterical hysterical. You can go to the National Review if you want to read this guy's screed, but I'd discourage you from wasting your time. His article got me thinking, though.

I'd guess a lot of you read Guns, Germs and Steel and some of you may have read Collapse.

If not, here's a very brief take on Diamond's books:

In GGS he asks why Europeans and their descendants ended up dominating the world.

He makes a very powerful and comprehensive argument from a number of scientific fields that Europeans enjoyed overwhelming environmental advantages beginning many thousands of years ago (well before the development of Greco-Roman civilization or Christianity). These advantages allowed them to develop more sophisticated civilizations than other peoples.

He argues that the Europeans used those advantages to create some of the greatest contributions to world civilization while also violently dominating the world and subjegating pretty much all of the non-European peoples. He avoids using moral language but some of the gross injustices that Europeans and their descendants inflicted on others is clear in his writing as he simply describes what happened in dispassionate terms.

In his take in GGS, European superiority in technology gave their conquerors superior guns and steel weapons, and superior European agriculture and farming (and longer term contact with domesticated animals) gave them resistance to the kinds of animal borne diseases that devasted the native peoples of the Americas and other parts of the "savage" world once they came into contact with Europeans and their pathogens.

In Collapse, he looks at how various cultures in the past depleted their environmental resources and destroyed themselves as a result.

I've given you only the barest outline of his writing, but it's probably enough for the discussion at hand.

To me, this guy seems like an honest person who looks for insights based on the scientific evidence. He also appears to be an iconoclast who doesn't mind poking people of every persuasion in the eye along the way. Or in other words, he's an unusually gifted scientist.

He's become very controversial among religious and political conservatives. Our friend at Hoover is simply the latest and one of the most silly examples of the wrath of the right.

For those kinds of folks--filled as more than a few of them seem to be with passionate tribal intensity--Diamond's a traitor and the enemy. Same old, same old response to anybody they disagree with. But in this case their reasons are actually interesting.

They think Diamond threatens the idea of the superiority of western culture and the belief in the historical blessing of God on European Christian culture and its descendants here in the US.

That's why the secular conservatives--who believe in the superiority of western culture and have become pretty fanatical about the idea of meritocracy--seem to really dislike the guy.

In their minds, if European dominance is primarily the result of unmerited environmental advantages and fortuitous historical accidents, any claim to superiority based primarily on "meritocracy" is dead on arrival.

Many religious conservatives also reject him because they want to believe that God has specifically blessed western culture because it's the historical home of Christianity.

They seem to believe that the significance of the Christian faith is diminished if the European peoples enjoyed dramatic and unmerited environmental and historical advantages which allowed them to develop powerful social, technological and religious forms as well as pathogens that killed tens of millions of non-western peoples on first contact.

I sort of understand why secular conservatives are upset.

They believe they deserve the advantages they have in our current society and world. Especially the wealthy among them. And they also believe that somehow the fairly recent ideology of American meritocracy is a timeless thing that works backward to the dawn of time.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. But you know what I mean.

If Diamond is right the ideology of unfettered meritocracy takes a big hit.

But Diamond's point of view also offers the possibility of resting in a sophisticated form of Social Darwinism, which conservatives are very comfortable with, so I'm a little confused by the secular conservative reaction. Maybe they haven't read him as closely as they should and thought about it enough.

As for the religious conservatives, well, their reaction is truly a mystery.

From a religious point of view, Diamond convincingly demonstrates that divine providence gave the Europeans every undeserved advantage well before any Old Testament Patriach arrived on the scene.

I would think most serious Christians believe that God controls all of history and that the entire biblical faith is based on the idea of God's unmerited grace to undeserving sinners.

If God chose to bless the Europeans--even before they received and/or developed Christianity depending on your viewpoint--how exactly is that a problem for biblical thinking?

And if a people so blessed used those unmerited gifts to do as much evil as good in history, I guess I'm somewhat stumped by the conservative Christian reaction to Diamond.

Aren't those Christian types the folks who believe in original sin and the falleness of the world, and aren't the protestants among them the same people who believe that the church was pretty much of a wash from Constantine to the birth of Martin Luther?

Again, so why is Diamond considered the enemy of Christian people?

From their reactions you might think that conservative Christians have abandoned any biblical point of view and have simply adopted pure meritocracy (salvation and a second home by works alone) as their creed.

Now for the secular liberals.

They seem to love Diamond for reasons I don't really understand.

Diamond's whole argument is based on the idea of the clear technological, social and scientific--and in some ways moral and spiritual--superiority of western culture. He takes that for granted and then simply asks how that happened since people from many cultures seem as smart and as capable of sophisticated social, technological and moral achievement as the Europeans and their descendants.

You would think that would get people on the left up in arms. I wonder why they aren't. Hmmm....

One thing is very clear if you accept Diamond's argument: any idea that Europeans and their descendants have some kind of "biological" (read "racial") superiority is an illusion.

I'd love to hear any thoughts on all this. I think this whole thing is fascinating.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Real Action is Going on Inside You

Jan and I spent yesterday afternoon tooling around in downtown Denver. Andrew is off with his soccer buddies this weekend in Salt Lake City watching the US men's soccer team play Costa Rica so we finally had a weekend without a single soccer game or kids event to attend. Cool.

The US soccer team ended up playing in Salt Lake City because no matter where they play in the US they can't get the home field advantage. They played Honduras in Alabama and 60% of the fans were pulling for the Hondurans! That's gotta be a little discouraging. So they checked out the demographics of Northern Utah and realized that the Latin American immigration tide hasn't hit La Tierra de Los Mormones quite as hard.

If the US soccer marketing wing was really on top of things the US team would have entered the stadium by the Great Salt Lake in a two-by-two procession on bikes. Every one of them would have carried a Book of Mormon in their backpacks. Sort of like the Gideon bibles in motel rooms. You can never have enough good luck.

We ran around Cheeseman Park, which is one of the coolest city spaces in a city full of remarkable public parks. And we got a chance to see the Kirkland Museum, which is dedicated to the art of Vance Kirkland. Kirkland was Colorado's most famous and significant artist during the 20th century. I didn't know much about him before we moved here but I've been learning and we finally got around to checking out the Kirkland.

Wonderful stuff. Take a look for yourself at Go to the "pictures" link and you can see some of his representative work.

The guy went through a bunch of stylistic changes, all at a world class level. Early on he was making realistic watercolors and he ended up doing a surrealist stage and then creating some great abstract expressionist stuff in the 50's. During the 60's and 70's he did what he called "dot painting/energy in space" works that would look right at home in an Austin Powers movie (ya, baby, ya!). At the link above check out that section of Kirkland's paintings and take a look at "Orange and Yellow Suns in Grey Space" to see what I mean.

He wore three piece suits at all times and by the time he was doing the dot stuff during the 60's and 70's he was a doddering old guy in his 60's and 70's. But his work during that period was out there. His motto was "the real action is going on inside you."

The museum itself is unexpected too. Most art museums are mostly stark empty spaces with lots of room given to each piece of art. At the Kirkland it seemed like every square inch of wall space had some kind of art on it, and throughout the floorspace of the gallery they exhibit wonderful decorative art (furniture, various appliances, knick-nacks, etc.) from the same period as the paintings you're looking at. Kirkland himself collected some of it and the foundation that runs the museum collected the rest. They've also got lots of Colorado art too.

It's pretty overwhelming but very cool.

Some of the art nouveau and art deco decorative stuff is as good or better than any of the work on the walls. The whole place celebrates beauty at every level from the paintings to the paleo-ash trays from the 50's.

The woman at the ticket booth told me that most art museums only show about 5-10% of their collection at one time but that the Kirkland shows about 50%. I've never seen that before. Kind of creative in itself.

I got the feeling they were trying to express Kirkland's creative anarchy in the way they did the layout. Creativity is rarely ordered and sequential. Synergy in the midst of a lightly and effectively managed mess may be the way things actually get made in the real world. So maybe this way of doing an art space reflects the artist better than the antiseptic and stark white corredors of most art museums I've seen.

I'm looking forward to getting back there again soon and getting into it a little more deeply.