August 26, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 18 (p. 286-292)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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As the sun peeked slyly over the ocean at the fleeing moon, the machine whirred. Its metal slats scraped an occasional rasp against the walls along the sides of the mesh belt as they were dragged up and over and under and back into the salt water. The water frothed along the edges of the stainless steel tub and spun irritable ripples along the surface; underneath, it was roiled by the belt and twirled in a current as it was sucked through a tube and spit out onto the wooden planks. Rubber boots slopped across the slimy boards followed by the metal wheels of mechanized yellow palette-jacks piled high with empty waxed cardboard boxes that were being tossed in rows along the sides of the dock. Gnarled loops of thick rope thudded against the lids of the boxes and set them rocking as the hemp slid down posts and tightened into splintered grooves. The sides of the boat thumped against the worn wood and made the whole dock shudder. A cloud of smoke billowed out invisibly against the dark gray sky as the boat's engine gave a final thrust against the tide and was cut off. Huge, white, and stained buckets swung over the boat on ropes and floated into the hole in the deck, disappearing into the hold. They tottered as they reappeared, spilling whiting onto the deck, into the water, and onto the dock. The fish were dumped into a chute and rolled through the lime-colored plastic tubes in waves of cool salt water. The whiting churned over and around each other as the chute dipped and curved and emptied them out into the tub of the steel machine, where they seethed with the water and were caught by the metal slats, which carried them over the mesh metal belt and dumped those that it did not shred onto the scale-encrusted cull-board. Bodies with torn and spilling guts were plucked from the surge of fish and tossed into the grimy water of the harbor, where the seagulls finished the disembowelment that the machine had begun. The whole fish were pushed along by a rubber glove and fell into a chain-linked basket on a rusting scale. In response to an uttered "yawp," the glove held up the flow of whiting while Nathaniel lifted the sixty-pound basket and poured its contents into a cardboard box, and the box was whisked away.

The men chattered as they worked, spilling rude jokes and spitting barely sensical exclamations into the air. They shouted to each other about drinking and gambling and women. They tossed good-spirited insults to their friends and roared baldfaced lies of rumors along the line. Nobody believed any of it. The red-eyed box-maker shouted a boorish question to the lanky palette-wrapper, who sneered it at the jack-ass, middle-aged and muscular, who laughed it in a husky voice to the chunky, charismatic foreman. The foreman whispered it to the assistant foreman, who loitered like a shifty toady by his side, and the assistant foreman shouted it like a dirty joke to the boxing team, who passed it around among themselves — from the stocky palette-loader to Nathaniel, the dumper, to the dark and jovial cull-board man, who was missing a finger on his left hand — and then cheered it down the dock in unison to the old, gnarled winch-man. The winch-man cackled it to the bucket-catcher. The bucket-catcher pushed it to the fishermen on the deck of the boat along with an empty bucket, and it followed the bucket through the hole to the lumper in the hold, coming back with a snide answer that followed the fish — the product — back down the line, anticipated with and pursued by roguish mirth.

Meanwhile, another boat docked on the opposite side of the pier, and banter shot back and forth across the boards like cannonballs. The sun was well into morning when the first boat was unloaded, and the second cut loose and lurched across the water to take its place. The dock workers took quick breaks, some staying behind to take less onerous positions on the line (though rank or brawn was likely to supersede the move), and some returning with the faint smell of brandy lingering in the air around their heads.

The second boat was all fluke, flounder, monk, and dogfish. Less weight, but more work. Huge green vats were dragged out onto the dock for the monk and dogs. The sun beat down upon Nathaniel, and he began to sweat as he lifted boxes of flatfish onto the palettes in layers of six, five high, eighteen hundred pounds of fish on each before the jack-ass took it away with his yellow machine and Nathaniel slammed another wooden palette against the boards.

Next came lunch. The tourists, a thinning crowd as autumn overtook New England, passed more hastily now than they had just moments before, when they had slowed to watch the workers as if it weren't work at all, but a reenactment in an authentic outdoor museum and the workers only actors who mimicked the motions of ancient dock-hands in the actual costumes of ages past, just as others, elsewhere, took the roles of blacksmiths and candle-makers. Now the workers dropped their rubber overalls around their ankles and sat at a desiccated picnic table to eat and ogle the wives and daughters of passing men, who diverted their eyes and hustled their families along toward the ferry.

After lunch, the workers made their way reluctantly back to the dock, some by way of the bathroom, two by way of the ice room (again, lending a subtle spice to the air when they emerged), to find a boat waiting to unload lobsters and stone crabs. A cloud was spreading across the sky, and the wind picked up, putting a chill in the air.

Now that they had eaten and relaxed, and because lobsters and crabs are packed more lightly and make for slower, more careful work, the wind seemed to freeze their sweat- and sea-soaked shirts against their skin, and one by one they slipped away to add layers of clothing. They knew, though, that they would strip it all again when they got into the groove of unloading the next boat, a big one that was already strapped to the posts.

It was mid-afternoon by the time Nathaniel paused to take off his heavy flannel shirt, and he had just slipped his hands into his grimy rubber gloves when the foreman stuck his head out of the office window and shouted that Nathaniel had a visitor.

Someone said, loud enough for all to hear, "See that? Once yer famous y'ain't no good for workin'; can't put t'gether a whole day 'n less'n a week."

Everybody laughed, including Nathaniel, and they all laughed again when the dark-skinned cull-board man with the missing finger yelled out, "Herry up 'n sign yer ahtographs, boy, an' get yer ass back here. Theh's work ta do!"

Nathaniel slipped off his gloves as he stepped inside the barn-like building that housed the office. He could hear the thirty-five inch television on which the foremen and their boss liked to watch basketball games. He walked toward the sound but stopped when a familiar voice called out his name from behind him.

He turned and said, "Holden! What are you doing here?"

Holden shuffled his feet on the new wood floor, still covered with sawdust, as if he had more of a confession than a request to make. Then he swung right into his pitch, "Listen Nathaniel. I've come a long way to do you a favor, and I'm not gonna insult you by beating around the bush."

"Well it's mighty fine to see you, too," Nathaniel said, smiling because he wanted it to be an ambiguous joke.

"My father runs Ethos magazine. Have you heard of it?"

"Yeah, who hasn..."

"Well your book's really taking off with our readers, and it would really be a great promotional tool for you to let me write an interview with you."

"What... wait... I, I haven't been looking to do any promotional interviews."

"Exactly!" Holden exclaimed as if his point had been made and the matter settled. "That's why nobody has printed it yet. And I wanna be the first."

Nathaniel shoved his gloves in the pockets of the jeans that he wore under his rubber overalls and looked at Holden with bewildered eyes that hinted, though only slightly, that he foresaw impending helplessness. "Despite the fact that you've appeared from nowhere and sprung this on me without showing the slightest interest in visiting, Holden, I appreciate what you want to do for me, but it's a path that I don't want to start walking. I want to let the book do what it has in it to do on its own, but without involving me."

Appearing to rear up a bit, Holden took the tone of an elder brother, "Nathaniel, I know you think of me as a kid, but I've seen enough to know that one of two things will happen: either the book will lose steam without promotional pushes from you, or it'll take off anyway and drag you along." Then, poking his left hand with his right pointer finger, "You have to get control now, or you'll lose it altogether, and if you start it off with a friend, you can be sure to start it off in a good way."


Holden threw his hands in the air, "Why are you being so stubborn?"

"I'm not being stubborn," Nathaniel replied, keeping his composure, though he was slightly displaced from reality by the rapid pace at which Holden moved in his thoughts, changing, entirely, the mood of Nathaniel's day in mere seconds, "I've given this a lot of thought and have made up my mind to stay out of it. Even the fact that it was published had nothing to do with me."

"Nothing to do with you?" Holden laughed. "You wrote the goddam thing!"

Nathaniel shook his head with an expression that confirmed his words, "Believe what you want, but I'm not going to change my mind. I'm sorry you came all this way just to find it out."

With his demeanor making the transition from advisor to helpless friend to fretting child, Holden first shook his head, then, turning his back on Nathaniel, stomped his foot, finally flailing his arms from over his head to his sides, where they slapped his thighs. Nathaniel watched the transformation patiently.

With his temper petering out as if being flung off in pieces with each wave of an arm, Holden turned to face Nathaniel. "Well if you won't do it for your stupid self, why don't you do it for me?"

"What difference does it make to you?"

Holden bowed his head, preparing to make a confession, "Listen... I'm the owner's son, and I haven't really had a big story or idea yet, so nobody really takes me seriously. And I... I'm just sick of feeling like everybody is talking behind my back and thinking that I'm getting an easy ride. I mean, I may not be a bigshot reporter or nothing, with all the stars ringing my phone off the hook or great as hell stories falling into my lap, but I do work."

Nathaniel was reticent to offer too much consolation but tried to present a noncommittal comfort by saying, "Holden, I'm sure you'll find something big if you keep at it long enough."

"But you could be it." His confidence was rebuilding. "I mean, if you gave me an interview, I'm sure other things would follow. All it takes is one break. You know that."

"No, I disagree. It takes a long time and hard work."

Holden's confidence slipped and his temper splashed up, "Oh whatta you know? Everything's come to you on a platter. You don't even want to do the work of an interview."

"It's not that."

"It is that! All you do is throw your fish around all winter and then sit in the woods picking your nose all summer, then somebody publishes a book you wrote and people are talking about you like you're the next... the next J.D. goddam Salinger, and you won't even help out a friend. Who wants a friend like that? I'd help you out if I was this big famous author and all."

"Holden, I'm sorry, I just don't want to..."

"To go down that path, I know. You said that already. Can't you think of something new to say for Chrissakes? It's a miracle you finished a book at all!" Holden stomped his foot and put his hands on his hips, saying, "Well, I didn't want to have to do it, but if you're not going to help me out, I don't have a choice."

As if his ears had perked up, Nathaniel's eyes flashed, and in a harsh tone he asked, knowing that his was precisely the expected reaction, "What do you mean?"

"Oh you know what I mean. I saw the way you used to act, and you can't tell me that there isn't a world of dirt out there on you. That'd be an even bigger story, and you know it. I wasn't going to do it because I thought you were my friend and all, even though I knew it would be a better story."

"You wouldn't know how to begin looking," Nathaniel said, getting angry.

"Oh I've read your notebooks. I know where to start, and you can't stop me."

"You better bet I can stop you! If you so much as..."

The foreman stepped out of the office, looking large and imposing in the dark corridor, "Hey Nate, is this guy giving you a problem?"

Holden raised his hands in a defensive, dismissive gesture and said, "No. No problem. I was just leaving. I have to catch a train to New Jersey. Nathaniel, I'll see you later."

With that, as quickly as he had appeared with his tornado plea, Holden slipped out the door and was gone. Nathaniel was about to chase after him but paused as the foreman spoke. "Is everything alright?"

Going slack, Nathaniel responded in a distant voice, "Yeah, he can go to New Jersey, but I don't think he'll know what to do once he's there."

A car horn tooted, and Nathaniel heard the sound of tires trying to peel out on gravel. "Yeah," he said, "he's nothing to worry about."

The foreman slapped him on the back and said, "Whatever you say, Nate, but let me know if I can do anything for you."

Nathaniel stands looking out the doorway as the foreman walks back to the office and to the television. The sound of disparate drops of rain begins to reverberate through the empty wooden room. Going out into the fresh air, Nathaniel crosses to the storage room and emerges wearing a plastic raincoat. He looks at the sky as if refreshed by the slight drops that fall onto his face and slide down his neck.

He walks out onto the dock, the other workers brushing by him as they use the rain as an excuse for a break, if only one long enough to put on rain gear. With the dock momentarily cleared, Nathaniel is free to choose a station, and instead of trying to get away with taking one of the easier ones, he stands ready in a position that nobody will begrudge him. Ready to dump baskets.

August 20, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 17 (p. 280-285)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Nathaniel looked out over the ocean, which had not yet turned the reflective, alluring midnight blue of painful waters. The rise and fall of the surface seemed mild and lulling, and he knew that it was still warm. He could, if he wanted, jump in for a swim. He looked down the side of the barnacled wooden boat at the lapping undulations that swept from bow to stern and then curled around themselves in swirling, playful hugs before slipping into the rhythm of the rest of the ocean. He felt, through his feet, the rocking of the boat as it drifted along at the slight urging of the tide.

In the distance, he heard the subtle ring of that seemingly ubiquitous buoy that had come so much to bespeak the coastal ocean that its absence would change entirely the ambiance that nature had done so much to create on its own. It occurred to Nathaniel that the bell might be the perfect emblem of perspective's power: it was simultaneously the herald of a homecoming to society for the seafarer and an omen of endless solitude and inevitability to the landlubber. Nathaniel wondered if it wouldn't take an awfully long journey at sea to reverse the import of the bell when first one has left the land, for the bell had become so much associated with solitude, for Nathaniel, that even the similar timbre of metal rope-weights clanging against an inland flagpole in the night was apt to feel just as lonely, especially when the wind whipped through the flag as through a sail and even more so when an orphaned seagull cawed out miles from the shore.

Here, though, the subtle image was difficult to sustain because the seagulls kept up such a racket that feelings of solitude were quickly dispersed. Normally, the gulls' chatter was imperceptibly interwoven with the scenery, but the smell of fish that no amount of bleach or harsh scrubbing could dispel from the boat attracted entire communities of the birds, which hovered in the air, occasionally dipping down to look for the carrion that they felt to be there. One gull was paying particular attention to a pile of knotted netting but darted into the air with a shout when Nathaniel swayed across the deck. He reached between the cords of fraying rope and pealed loose a dry and tacky fluke. It made his stomach churn even to just hold it loosely at arms length by the fin of its tail. He hurled it away. It fell to the water with a sickening slap, and the gulls swarmed down upon it, each trying to rip it from the beak of another until the fish had been torn in half, and they all chased after the two birds that tried to sneak away with their prizes. They nipped at each other and beat their wings against the backs of their neighbors as they grappled for their own little pieces of the rotting meat. The wily ones hovered at the edge of the riot and swooped down to gather what little bits of flesh and guts were flung from the carnage. Finally, the halves of the fish fell into the water and sank, bits of meat and skin trailing behind them. Some of the gulls dove into the water to salvage what scraps still clung to the bones. Perhaps one or two of them chased it to the bottom. Then the flock floated above the waves and cast one sidelong eye each on Nathaniel as if hoping that he might fling himself overboard.

Glad I'm as big as I am, Nathaniel mused, trying to bring to mind the imperfect comparison that he had heard on the docks...

"Rats of the sea!" yelled a voice from the cabin. Nathaniel had heard the clomping of knee-high rubber boots climbing the stairs from the hold below, where drinks were stowed in piles of ice, and now the wearer of those boots stepped, squinting, into the genial early-Autumn sunlight. He had found a whiting that the lumper had missed among all the ice. The fish gave a weary contraction, and Steinbeck threw it overboard, the seagulls clawing at each other for skimpy bites of the bony fish's body. "Tell me again why you didn't want to take out my sailboat?"

Nathaniel smiled. "I wouldn't want to ruin the polish with my callused feet."

"I don't think she'd mind," Steinbeck told him, meaning the boat. "These rubber boots don't make my feet none too delicate."

Steinbeck handed Nathaniel a soda and opened his beer. It fizzed over as if agitated by the rocking. They both leaned back on the wooden sideboards, the seagulls sizing them up from behind. Nathaniel commented, "It's always felt kind of fake and arrogant to me to go out on the water in a boat that was only built for pleasure."

"I think you'd change your mind about that if you came out in this utilitarian bucket with me for weeks at a time. It's nice to know the difference between work and play."

"I guess."

"Guess nothin'. You know it so well that you stick with a job that you hate just so's you don't start thinking of it as play, and you've tried so hard to keep your hobbies private for fear that they'd come to feel like work."

"That's not entirely true."

"Well mostly, anyway," Steinbeck took a swig of his beer. "Why do you still bust your ass out here with us workin' men? 'Specially since you've got a chance to make a real career for yourself out of your writing?"

"I like you workin' men."

"And we like you, but I bet there isn't a man on those docks that wouldn't rather hear about you doin' great things far away than watch you work your way up to foreman hereabouts." He rethought his statement, then, "in a good way."

"There's no need to lecture me about it. I've been giving my whole situation some thought."

"That's great. What're you gonna do?"

"Well, I've been thinking about what Sal said..."

"Oh this again!" exclaimed Steinbeck with a chuckle. "You know there's nothing you can do for him right now, and he ought to've known it before he came lookin'."

After sipping his soda, Nathaniel responded, "Well I can understand why he did. I tried for many years, and with different strategies, to get some kind of a break that would help me get to where I could live off of things that I do because I love them, and it wasn't until after I gave up that some strange combination of circumstances and luck gave me a start entirely by accident. It just seems an awfully slim chance on which to hang much hope."

"First of all," Steinbeck began, "it doesn't take but a thread of chance to catch some hope. And second of all, if it was easier it wouldn't mean as much."

"But what a waste to have it mean so much for most people that they never get it. Especially now that everything's marketing and business."

"Well what're you gonna do? There are other ways to be happy. Look at me: I never intended to be a fisherman, but I'm happy with my lot, and sometimes I have moments that I wouldn't trade for anything."

"Yeah, but wouldn't you have liked to have a chance?"

"At what?"

Nathaniel was bewildered by this question, though it was one that he had heard many times before, because it was so foreign to his way of thinking that he hadn't even considered it for his own life. "Wasn't there ever anything that you wanted to do out of passion for it?" he asked.

Steinbeck's face gave the impression that he was cycling through his memory. "No." he said plainly. "Never anything like you and writing. I mean, I always wanted to be happy, of course, but I just figured I'd set out and hope that eventually the happy moments would maybe equal the not so happy ones. Lately I'm happy just being satisfied."

"Oh how I envy you."

Laughing, Steinbeck countered, "Envy me? What's to envy? I'm happy, sure, but you've got a shot at the big reward."

"And what's that?"

"You might just change the world. You may be miserable most of the time you're doin' it, and you may get to thinking that you're getting nowhere, but at the end of the day, I think you'll know that you counted for something. You better, at any rate; otherwise I'll take you out in old lady Steadfast here," Steinbeck gave a good natured slap to the side of the fishing boat and changed tone, sensing that he ought to lighten the conversation, "and throw you over the side."

Nathaniel turned around and leaned with his forearms against the wooden railing. "I guess you're getting at the way I've been heading with my thoughts. Since I gave up trying to be famous, every day I understand a little bit less why I ever wanted it."

"Well I don't mean to hurry you, but I get the feeling from the buzz I've been hearin' that you're gonna have to make the call soon. What's your plan?"

"I don't know," Nathaniel confessed. "I thought, well I've been thinking more and more, about maybe forming some kind of group to help all the Sals of the world get their shot. Just take all the business out of the whole thing and make it mean something again. I mean, give artists the means and a reason to get better rather than closer to some marketable idea of artistry, whatever that means."

Steinbeck's lips and eyebrows arched in a sign of pensive approval, and he told Nathaniel that he thought it was a great idea, sincerely. "Be tough, though," he appended.

Smiling with sweet cynicism, Nathaniel replied, "Well it wouldn't mean as much if it were easy."

They were both quiet for a moment. Treading waters that were far too deep for such a pleasant and still afternoon, and neither was still young and innocent enough to imagine that their Sunday talk might instantly solve the world's problems. Better, perhaps, to leave Sundays to drifting fancies and conversations of gentle rocking. Steinbeck wanted to ask one more question before they sank into the repose that they both knew was imminent. "What're you gonna call it?"

Looking sidelong at Steinbeck while putting the soda can to his lips, Nathaniel let out an amused thrill of air through his nose. "I was thinking maybe Timshel."

Steinbeck let out a hearty laugh and slapped Nathaniel on the back. "Sounds like a good name to me!" he said.

A good, hopeful name indeed! Even the seagulls seem to flutter about with slightly more anticipation. Their anticipation, however, may owe more to the fact that the men on the good ship Steadfast have stirred, one going below deck, and they think by their sense of smell from far above in the air that the innards of the boat store fish enough for all to get their fill. Being birds, they do not understand that the boat has been emptied for the insatiable humans, and all that is stored under the boards is ice and intoxicating fluid. Perhaps, if the man who took the fish from the hold to earn his singular living had overlooked some morsel in his haste to fill his baskets, then there will be some small treat for them when the captain returns aboveboard. But they will have to claw each other's backs and snap at each other's beaks to get even just a taste, more often the taste of blood than that of fish, though whether they are still capable of the distinction is a matter of some doubt.

No, hope is an abstraction, no matter how we might feel it to have substance. It cannot be woven into platters, although, in a sense, it may be shattered. Hope flutters, perhaps glisteningly, for a moment, but the object to which it is tied slaps against unpredictable reality and is quickly consumed, and what is not claimed cannot do otherwise than sink below our reach until another chance is fabricated out of the misty air.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:32 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches

A Frightening Turn of Phrase

I fear that the sentiment that Greg Gerritt expresses in a letter to the Providence Journal is expanding at a deadly rate:

I have been disturbed for quite a while about the framing of the war on terrorism. To me the real danger is from the Texas fascists, not the Islamist fascists.

All we have to do, explains Gerritt, is to unilaterally disarm and then solve all of the world's problems (unintrusively, of course). Will such people learn their error when those Islamic fascists succeed in another major attack, or will they be too invested in the romance of the consequence-free rebellion?

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:18 AM
Middle East

August 19, 2006

Theopolitical Philosophy: Starting with "Yes"

Heather Mac Donald claims, in a piece that has set off a small tinderstorm in the Corner, that religious conservatives and secular conservatives are "temperamentally compatible allies." It is a matter of definition that we are intellectually so, but when it comes to temperament, I find myself wondering whether Mac Donald's own argumentation bears out her assertion.

For one example, consider the rhetorical trick (requiring not a little misreading) with which she responds to a believer's point that "something has to be fixed in place to assert something, and for religious people what is fixed is God." Mac Donald scoffs not at the notion that something must be fixed in order for any assertion to have any basis, but at the unmade claim that religious people, or even just Christians, have achieved "harmonious agreement" or "unanimity." It's easier, I suppose, to punctuate a misreading with references to "bloody sectarian wars" than to address a key argument against her secularism.

In her initial piece, Mac Donald writes, "Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular." This point, which is obviously arguable on the specifics, logically leads exactly to the reason that we need something to be "fixed in place" in order to make reliably moral assertions. If we haven't a transcendent external something, then on what do we base our zealotry for being humane? The answer that Western society has often supplied over the past fifty years or so has been to raise the ideal itself (e.g., humaneness) to a transcendent level. But herein difficulty arises: Humane by whose standards and from whose perspective? What do we do about competing claims?

One need read no more deeply in the standard texts of this discussion than Chesterton's Orthodoxy to encounter the argument that such self-fixed principles have a way of working around to their opposites. Handed the dictate to "be humane," humanity finds itself underwriting the livelihoods of delinquents and catering to the emotions of small, discrete groups to the detriment of countless families that can no longer maintain close ties, either geographically or emotionally. (Never mind the underwriting's encouragement of soul-sapping dependency in its recipients and the catering's affirmation of destructive mindsets.)

Moreover, the mandate to follow mushy principles, largely on the basis of gut emotion, creates opportunity for nothing so much as demagoguery. This, it seems to me, is part of what a correspondent to Jonah Goldberg calls society's "totalitarian temptation." Swept up in the quest for Heaven on Earth, feeling the tantalizing proximity of a more humane world, we are easily manipulated for the benefit of a few.

Mac Donald counters the unattributed suggestion that "what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith" with the assertion that "what makes Republican principles superior to Democratic principles is that they are based on a more accurate assessment of human nature." But politicians, by their nature, will follow inclinations where they lead, guiding the movement toward their own gain. Unrooted or vaguely rooted "political philosophy" may be adequate to guide the individual, but when individuals march together, philosophy tends to be trampled by desire. Consequently, we don't necessarily want our politicians to accurately assess human nature. (One could argue that Mac Donald's stated ambivalence toward the success of Republicans indicates that she objects to the party's readjustments meant to capitalize on just that assessment.)

Religion — specifically Christianity — grounds us across cultures and generations in soil that is neither so contradictory as human nature nor so apt as deified principles to send us tumbling of our own momentum into a totalitarian noose. It offers the most full expression of human nature to enable, as Chesterton puts it, the "lion [to] lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity" — his essential nature as a lion. Left to our own devices, humanity is prone either to bind the lion in wool or to thrust the lamb into battle.

Mac Donald could object that taking abstracts to the point of obsession, that susceptibility to mush-minded demagogues, and that one side of our nature's being sublimated to the other need not be the case in a Godless universe, and abstractly, perhaps she's correct. But it invariably becomes the case without a distant, unreachable pole star Who is only indirectly related to the particular issue before us, Whom we believe to have our best interests in mind, and Who ties all of creation into a meaningful whole.

"The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day," Mac Donald writes. While I am very sorry to hear that she must personally witness the slaughter of innocents daily, with no apparent hope for counterbalance or meaning (in which case, it's a veritable miracle that she's so even tempered), I must insist that her empirical laboratory is insufficiently broad to justify judgment against God. That innocents die, especially when slaughtered by human agents, only conflicts with the notion of a loving and just God if the materialistic view of the world is prior — if this life is all. In a world that Christians see as fallen, anyway, divine justice need not manifest, and divine love need not be fully expressed, within its boundaries.

Similarly, I cannot comprehend why Mac Donald sees "perhaps a tension in arguing simultaneously that Western individualism is a legacy of Judeo-Christianity while blaming our turn away from that religious tradition for our excess of individualism." As the individualism is a legacy of the religion, so is the religion a prerequisite of the individualism. Throughout such discussions between believers and unbelievers, evidence abounds that the unbelievers are almost willfully arguing against the logic of religion when what they really object to are the assumptions. And believers are not immune to their own version of this error. This is the split of faiths between those who choose each of the possible one-word beginnings: "yes" and "no."

Ultimately, therefore, I'm not inclined to disagree with Ms. Mac Donald: a given individual does not need God in order to arrive at any particular conclusion after picking and choosing from among the myriad priorities, principles, and predilections. Every lunatic in the asylum can attest to our ability to do such things. But humanity is a collection of individuals; creation is a construction of pieces. And it is at that level that God is much more clearly a necessity. I find that to be suggestive of His actual existence, but at the very least, those of conservative temperament should correctly identify — and not actively rail against — the advantages of encouraging our fellow man to start with "yes."

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:27 PM

August 16, 2006

Belief as Extreme Belief

A couple of weeks ago, I caught some of Chris Porter's routine on Last Comic Standing, and although I'm aware of the danger inherent in taking comedians too seriously, I thought his comments concerning religion to be illustrative of a common (and commonly lazy) approach thereto.

Porter stated that he left the Catholic Church when he realized that fewer people were receiving Communion in the species of wine during flu season. "You gotta believe!" he declared, citing as real believers religious fanatics who dance around with poisonous snakes on their shoulders. "If I had the flu, I'd be glomming that s***."

The point that seems to have been lost on the comedian — to the extent that he wasn't ignoring it for comedy's sake — is that Catholics don't believe that the Blood of Christ is a panacea for physical ills, a sort of magic potion. We also don't deny (as far as I know)* that germs can be passed along with the cup. On the other hand, we do believe that Christ is fully present in either form of the Eucharist.

In ways much more subtle than this, it seems to me that much of the modern hang-up with religion has to do with a lack of clarity about what it means to "really believe." The tendency is to imagine some claim that is observably impossible, or just improbable, and to insist that true believers would declare the observation false. When the person taking the religious side of the discussion points out that his religion doesn't, actually, ask him to make any such declaration, because his system of belief seeks to incorporate observable reality, the response often implies a lack of credulity. How convenient that the believer would claim to believe only that which cannot be easily disproven!

The questions that our culture so often skips are of the "and still" variety: Can Catholics believe that they can get the flu by sharing a Communal cup and still believe that the Eucharist will heal them? Can non-Catholics not believe in the actual presence of the Lord in Holy Communion and still have faith in Christ? Can non-Christians not believe in the divinity of Jesus and still believe in God? As if playing a theological version of that old board game, Chutes and Ladders, the modern atheist or agnostic finds an easy slide from disbelief that God tells us what make of car to buy through the actions of snakes to disbelief that God exists at all.

* On the other hand, I recall seeing a TV news report in which the health expert stated that wiping the cup with a blessed cloth wouldn't prevent the transmittal of germs, and I wondered whether he had read any studies to back that up. I'm willing to believe that he's correct, but shouldn't a man of science have data?

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:47 PM | Comments (3)
Rhode Island

August 4, 2006

A Brief Note on Artsy Alcoholism

I've been studiously avoiding the Mel Gibson discussion, mainly because those who take the episode as an "Ah ha!" tend to disregard all points made about anything. Arguments made about The Passion, the obvious case in point, are still valid, and drunken comments of the movie's creator don't amount to a blanket nullifier. As for the other side, what is there to say? Yes, stupid, offensive comments; no, won't throw out my DVD.

However, for no specific reason, a post by Jonah Goldberg made me feel obligated to make a point from experience. Regarding alcohol as a truth serum: hogwash — alcohol is an emphasis serum. Perhaps we did indeed get a glimpse of Gibson's true feelings; I certainly wouldn't declare otherwise. But perhaps we instead got a glimpse of some erroneous drunken notions about creating a stir. Perhaps it was nothing deeper than the impulse of the contentious drunk to snap back at wrongly perceived aggressors, e.g.: "This Jewish cop must agree with all those people who trashed me for being an anti-Semite. Well, how 'bout I give 'im what he expects!"

(I'm not, here, blaming the victims, as it were. I'm merely stating that I would find such thoughts completely plausible for a drunken artist to have had.)

Frankly, I haven't read the transcripts, and I haven't thought more than a smidge about the arrest's implications. However, I do suspect that a majority portion of those who take the incident as open and shut evidence haven't much personal experience with the twisted euphoria of drunkenness to the artistically inclined, out of which you may get the truth, or embellished insecurities, or belligerent contrarieties.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:37 PM

August 3, 2006

Truly, We Are a Decadent Culture

I'm in the market, so to speak, for a relatively readable history of early civilizations — a survey or starting point for further study, whether in depth or chronology. Such things are apparently difficult to find, outside of the dessicated world of text books. At any rate, I figured I'd attempt the obvious route and see where the menues of Barnes & Noble might take me. Well, narrowing my results from history to world history to civilization - history to ancient civilization - history, I found the following top 10 recommendations:

  • A book about Ireland's role in the period between ancient Rome and Medieval Europe
  • A "history of the Biblical world"
  • A book about women's role in ancient Greece and Rome
  • The hardcover edition of the second book
  • A book tantalizing about the "naked olympics" — meaning the "ancient games"
  • A book about the Egyptians
  • A book about Greek homosexuality
  • A "classical Greek reader"
  • A book about the "Aegean Bronze Age"
  • A book about Homer

Now, some of these books may or may not be interesting to the average reader of such texts, but I can't help but wonder: are we really that well informed about history that we've narrowed our interests to sexual orientation and women's lib? Or are we really that ignorant of history to have narrowed our interests to same?

Heck, I'd bet the average American reader would actually learn, from this list, that ancient Rome transitioned into Medieval Europe!

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:51 PM | Comments (1)