Generous Orthodoxy  




Friday, May 27, 2011

Two men, two crimes

Sometimes I don't know whether to post items in Ruminations or Tips. Readers are advised to check both. For instance, I recently posted some thoughts about the DSK case in Tips because I wanted to recommend an article. (I will be following this case more closely than any case I can remember. This may be truly historic for the voiceless women of the world. God only knows how many millions upon millions of women have been raped and nobody knew and nobody cared.)

With regard to the apprehension--finally--of Ratko Mladic, I would ordinarily put this link in Tips:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/world/europe/27balkans.html?scp=1&sq=mass%20executions&st=cse

I'm putting it here this time because I want to call especial attention to it. Two of The New York Times' most experienced journalists, David Rohde and John F. Burns, wrote it (note the salient information about them at the end of the article). They have put together a concise history of the Balkan wars (how quickly we forget!) which is easy to understand and which gives a particularly vivid picture of the way that violence breeds more violence, for generations upon generations (in this case, 190 years. See especially the last paragraph).


Sunday, May 22, 2011

For everyone, but especially Southerners

I never, ever cry at movies. Theater, yes; the ballet, yes; books, yes; but for some reason I don't understand, not movies.

This afternoon I shed more than a few tears in a movie. It's called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird. I went into New York specifically to see it, not because I thought it would be especially noteworthy in itself, but because it featured Michael and Joy Brown, my parents' dear and special friends, who for fifty-plus years kept the secret that they, one Christmas Eve in the late 50s, gave Harper Lee the money to take off a whole year from working so as to write a book. The first printing was 5000 copies and the rest is history.

The part about the Browns is at the beginning, and I don't think it's just my bias that leads me to say they are charming and articulate, enabling us to glimpse the qualities of discernment that led them to place their bet. The first part of the documentary (made by Mary McDonagh Murphy) is delightfully interesting, but it begins to gather dramatic momentum about halfway through. Ms. Murphy has gathered an eclectic group of people to read bits of the book and comment, and the way she has assembled their contributions is artful. She has directed (and edited) them to say just so much and no more. These commentators include Tom Brokaw, Allan Gurganus (Oldest Confederate Widow), Wally Lamb, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, Jon Meacham, Rich Bragg, James McBride (The Color of Water) and many others. To be sure, none of these are A-list writers, but almost all of them have something of interest to say about Mockingbird's place in our culture. The readings are illustrated with clips from the movie, but very delicately, so as not to overwhelm the text.

Personally, I had never found the book to be as ground-breaking as these various speakers declare. Harper Lee is not Flannery O'Connor. However, I found myself beginning to tear up about halfway through, when the varous commentators--especially the Southern ones--began to talk about the civil rights era. I had forgotten that Harper Lee wrote the book before the movement really exploded. As the respected Birmingham native and historian Diane McWhorter (Carry Me Home) explained, it was an extraordinary thing for a young small-town Southern woman to do. One of the white Southern speakers, in particular, referred to her own wrenching experience of breaking away from the customs of her upbringing and defying her much-loved parents in a way that unleashed feelings I had suppressed for a long time.

There are interesting sections about Truman Capote, about making the movie, and especially about Harper Lee's fabled reclusiveness (she has not given an interview since 1964). Particularly illuminating was the observation that the character of Scout is not Harper Lee's picture of herself, as one might naturally conclude. Instead, the self-effacing, retiring writer is found incarnate in the person of Boo Radley.

The climactic moments of this documentary--for me at any rate--came close to the end when two emblematic lines from the book were read aloud in their original context. I am not as great a fan of the movie as many people are (too many phony Southern accents), but the clip from the movie that was shown when Scout says "Hey, Boo" is astonishing. The young Robert Duvall, without uttering a word, shows why he is to this day one of our greatest actors. And the expressions playing over the face of the little girl who plays Scout are ineffable, as is her delivery of the line.

The other line was read--magnificently. it must be admitted--by Oprah Winfrey. I had not read the book or seen the movie since the early 60s, so I had forgotten.

"Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing."

Maybe I am making too much of this. I admit that my feelings are engaged at a very deep level here. However, the civil rights movement is fading from memory today, and ritual references to Rosa Parks (who never said her feet hurt) and ritual replays of the second half of the "dream" speech will never bring it to life. I'd like to think that young people today would be awakened to it in a fresh way by seeing Hey, Boo.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The photo of Osama bin Laden

Thank you, Lord of heaven and earth, that we will not see the picture of Obama's corpse--at least not until it is "leaked." Thank God that the President of the United States of America will not be parading the executed man's head around the world on a pike, as the fine humanitarian writer Philip Gourevitch quite rightly described the project. For all the doubts that would-be supporters of Obama have had about him lately, for all the times he has disappointed, this decision helps to restore at least a small degree of the admiration he once inspired.

Along these same lines, how disheartening it is to see the proto-torturers leaping to the defense of their favorite techniques. Just as we were thinking we might be past this, here once again comes John Yoo, author of the deplorable Justice Department "torture memo," trumpeting George W. Bush's "tough decisions" in National Review, trying to convince us that the bin Laden action couldn't have happened without the use of "coercive methods". And here is the head of the House Homeland Security Committee on Fox News (where else?), claiming that the success of the hunt for bin Laden was owing to waterboarding. The enthusiasm for torture among its proponents makes one feel all the more suspicious about the dangers of stirring up the beast inside us all (see previous post).

No matter what one might think of the liberal leanings of The New York Times, the analytic articles on such issues tend to be scrupulously balanced. A case in point is today's article about the issue of torture in the bin Laden action:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/us/politics/04torture.html?scp=1&sq=debate%20revived&st=cse

And along these lines, last year at the American Academy in Rome I met the writer Mark Danner, well-known opponent of torture. He told us that in polls to determine attitudes to torture, the US ranked fairly high in approval, whereas countries like Egypt and Syria ranked much lower. Why is that? Mr. Danner and all of us listening to him agreed that it was because Egyptians and Syrians were likely to know someone who had actually been tortured. Americans can scarcely imagine themselves, or members of their families, being victims of torture. In the typical American view, only "bad guys" can be victims. For a thorough, compelling description of psychotherapists who treat the innocent victims of very recent torture, some of it at the hands of American soldiers, see this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/03/health/03torture.html?_r=1&scp=6&sq=torture&st=cse


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama bin Laden: "an unhappy business"

Shortly after 9/11 I started jotting down some notes about how to react if Osama bin Laden was killed. I never posted them but I have never stopped thinking about it.

How should Christians receive such an announcement? I wondered. I pondered William Stringfellow's often-repeated pronouncements about the rule of Death over us all, and in particular about our worship of Death as the only power approaching that of God in its irrestible universality. I have often remembered Flannery O'Connor's striking observation about John F. Kennedy's funeral: "Mrs. Kennedy has a sense of...what is owing to death."

Since Death is the "last enemy" not only of humanity but also of God (I Cor 13), surely it is fitting to acknowledge it as such, with solemnity and sobriety. Glorying in death, no matter who has died, seems unChristian and anti-human. Many people interviewed on NPR today commented that it was wrong to celebrate death in the streets. A Jewish rabbi spoke quite eloquently about Jewish values: death, he said, should prompt reflection, resolve, and recommittment to basic morality, not cheering and jingoism. Indeed, he used an arresting word to describe the demonstrations: "vulgar." Elaborating, he spoke of giving in to our worst instincts instead of reflecting upon them.

A family member of a 9/11 victim actually spoke on NPR against "rejoicing" in the killing of bin Laden. She said it was right to feel relief, but not to rejoice. She was glad he was gone, and even said "good riddance," but she objected to the chanting and dancing in the streets. This was contrasted with the husband of another victim who, when interviewed, said he was very glad that "Obama is burning in hell and my wife is smiling in heaven." Still others remarked that the much-invoked "closure" would never come for them.

These are some of the thoughts I wrote down ten years ago:

If Osama bin Laden is killed, instead of celebrating in the streets, we should greet the news with:

--Solemn thanksgiving to God alone
--Awe that such a monstrously wicked mind was among us and is now gone
--Repentance for the state of the world that such a killing should be necessary
--Sober awareness of the power of Death over us all
--Certainty that each one of us, no less than bin Laden, will come before the throne of judgment of our righteous God
--Recognition that although this appeared to be necessary, it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with (Ecclesiastes)
--and finally, a sober understanding that Sauron will rise again.

For those who are not Lord of the Rings fans, this last reference to Sauron is taken from that work. I was writing my book about LOTR during the Iraq war. I was, and remain, deeply impressed by J. R. R. Tolkien's unblinking view of evil. He was a veteran of trench warfare in World War I, and knew whereof he spoke. He understood the implacable character of Death, and its determination to rule absolutely and to demand absolute fealty. Tolkien made a point of having his supposedly victorious characters acknowledge that evil would appear again, and he illustrated the flawed nature of humanity by showing how each character, even the most "heroic" ones, had potentially fatal weaknesses--a conclusion now little understood, alas, because it was specifically excluded from the movie version of the book's astonishing denouement.

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine cover story was called "The Beast Within Every Fighting Man." This is a quotation from something that General George C. Marshall, that great soldier and human being, said concerning his fellow officers--that there was a beast within every fighting man and the responsibility of a good officer is to help his men control that beast within them, and also to control it within themselves. That is true Christian anthropology. There is too much indiscriminate, uncritical glorification of military exploits. The story of the 79 Navy Seals will make a terrific book and movie, and my adrenaline rises just like everyone else's when I think of it, and I am so very thankful that all of them returned unscathed, but there are quieter sorts of heroism for which there are no medals.


Monday, May 02, 2011

More about the royal wedding

On the day after, a friend who is a Presbyterian minister called with three striking observations, which I have summarized as follows:

--He apparently had never heard the rite of Holy Matrimony from Cranmer's Prayer Book, and was quite moved by it. He lamented the loss of elevated language for speaking about God. He was struck moreover by how Reformed the traditional liturgy sounded. That is the influence that was deliberately scrubbed out of the revised Prayer Book, to our great loss.

--He thought the homily was not bad, but the Bishop of London missed a great opportunity to proclaim the power and grace of God which alone can "put the pieces back together" when so many who were listening had experienced wrenching and very public divorces. It's not the marriage of those two young people that gives us hope; it's the promises of God in Jesus Christ, working through faithful marriages (when against the odds they are maintained) to give us signs of his own perfect faithfulness.

--The established nature of the Church of England prompted eschatological thoughts. It isn't possible, he agreed, to pull off a union of church and state because of our fallen condition; but for a fleeting moment, he thought, there was an eschatological glimpse of that future Day when kings will bow before the Name of Jesus and the nations will come before the throne of the Lord.

And I'll just add this additional thought: it was such a joy, and a blessed relief, to see the Church of England in full command of its own ceremony. What a contrast with Diana's funeral, when for reasons I have never understood, the Abbey and the Archbishop appeared to have yielded the reins almost entirely to Elton John and the Earl of Spencer, with bitterly disappointing results for those who had hoped the world would see how we Anglicans bury our dead. I wrote an article for The Living Church on this subject (posted on this site under "Discourses") which elicited 76 letters of enthusiastic approval sent to me. And yet the adulteration of the Burial of the Dead continues apace, being now called "the celebration of the life of..."