Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Caesar's Last Breath by Sam Kean


Source of book: I own this.

Some people line up overnight for the latest smart phone. Other people - like me - get giddy whenever a favorite author releases a new book. I’m a pop-science fan. (Okay, a science fan too.) So, every time Mary Roach, for example, writes something, I am all over it.

One of my favorites is Sam Kean. Sadly, it has been a while since his last book, so I haven’t gotten my fix in three years. Fortunately, my wife got me his new book for Christmas. Here are my reviews of Kean’s other books.




Caesar’s Last Breath is about gases. Encompassed in that topic are history, medicine, as well as the science you would expect. As I have noted, Kean’s style - his strong point - is to write stories. You remember the science because it relates to people. And you remember the people because of the science. In this book, he opens with the assassination of Julius Caesar, then speculates about whether he (and you and me) have inhaled the same molecules that he breathed out. Well, “speculate” is entirely the wrong word. He does that math in detail. (The answer: statistically, you would inhale one molecule on average that Caesar breathed out with each and every breath you take.)

After this introduction, Kean looks at a number of gases found in our atmosphere in light of the past, present, and future, using a combination of stories and science. The first section is about the history of the earth’s atmosphere. That part is pretty fascinating, particularly if - like me - you missed out on too much of mainstream science as a kid. We are on at least our fourth atmosphere here on earth, and the history is really fun. The second part is about humans and the atmosphere. The final part is about the effect we humans have had on the atmosphere. Some parts are depressing, particularly our ongoing contributions to carbon dioxide. But you also get crazy stories, like that of Harry Truman (not the president - a crazy old coot who lived on the flanks of Mt. Saint Helens…) And of the Montgolfier brothers (pioneers of balloon flight), Alfred Nobel, and so many more.

I could go on with fun anecdotes and cool scientific facts, but Kean tells it better anyway.

A few things are worth mentioning, though. First is that we seriously underestimate gases. At sea level, atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch. Not that much - bicycle tires are inflated to a far greater pressure. But that’s a whole ton of weight on every square foot - 20 tons pressing on your body. We don’t even notice, of course, but it is there.

On a related note, it is tough to fathom just how tiny molecules are - and how many of them there are. Sure, we memorize Avogadro's Number in high school. (6.022 x 1023, in case you didn’t remember it…) But exponents are hard to translate to reality. The numbers are too big.

Kean uses an interesting technique. At the beginning of each section, he gives the chemical formula for each molecule he will discuss (say, nitrogen - N2, or nitrous oxide - N2O), then indicates how many molecules you inhale with each breath. This is completely astounding.

Are you familiar with acetylene? (C2H2)  It’s a fuel for flame welding torches. It is a negligible proportion of air: at most 0.0001 parts per million. Undetectable for practical purposes. Medically insignificant. And yet. Each breath contains a billion molecules of acetylene. Say what?! As they say, the poison is in the dose, and the numbers this book contains are pretty good evidence of that.

There are two other references that tickled me. One was to William McGonagall, arguably the worst poet ever. And also referenced in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. McGonagall comes into the book because of his poem on the Tay Bridge Disaster, which was related to defects in the iron - hence a discussion of gas metallurgy.  

The final bit that I found fascinating is the explanation of the workings of the “flame refrigerator” - aka the absorption fridge. You may or may not be familiar with these. Most of our modern refrigerators (and air conditioners) use a heat pump to compress and condense a refrigerant (this is also discussed in the book.) However, there is an alternative method, which was developed by Leo Szilard and...Albert Einstein. It uses liquid and gas to accomplish the same thing, but using less toxic materials than those used by heat pumps at the time. (This was before freons were invented.) I think Kean gets one detail wrong about these. He claims that these never made it into homes - but that isn’t quite true. Kean is correct that the heat pump is more efficient and more powerful, and that this is why our homes today use them. But those of us with rural ancestors know that in places where there was no electricity, these - which run off of propane or natural gas - were in common use. I suspect Kean is from the east coast, not from, say, rural Montana.

And, today, they are ubiquitous in recreational vehicles - my trailer has one. That’s why I have refrigeration when boondocking. A little propane flame - heat - makes cold. It’s amazing.

Anyway, this book is quite fascinating, well written, and informative. Let’s hope Kean doesn’t take three years writing his next one.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman


I apologize for the short length of this post. I have been fairly swamped at the office the last few weeks - which is good - I have to work to pay the bills - but it has made blogging a bit harder.

Let me also start off by recognizing the supporting cast of Assassins. Katelyn Evans, Victoria Lusk, Eric Miranda, Victoria Olmos, Eric Tolley, and Salvador Viduarri, Kelsey Morrow, Stephen Bush, Bobby Gamez, Salvador Vidaurri, Daniel Korth: you guys and gals were great. (After my last Empty Space review, I was reminded of my omission of a few smaller - but crucial - parts. Yep, everybody makes a production work, not just the leads.)

I wasn’t even remotely familiar with Assassins before The Empty Space announced it for this season. A musical about presidential assassins? But, Stephen Sondheim, right? So I knew I had to see it.

Assassins is a humorous look at the men and women who assassinated - or at least attempted to assassinate - the President of the United States. The musical isn’t particularly serious. After all, the opening and closing number opines that “everbody’s got the right to be happy.” And if you aren’t, well, have you tried killing the President? TES staged it with a carnival theme. “Shoot a President, win a prize!” But there is a more serious set of themes under the silly surface. The assassins and would-be assassins were a microcosm of their times, specifically the anxieties and neuroses of the times. They were the marginalized, the beaten down, the outcasts, who, for their own reasons, decided the cure was murder. Sorry, “assassination,” not just a pathetic “murder.” The problem is, while their names in some cases might be remembered now, they did nothing to fix the problems that troubled them - and in some cases had the opposite effect.

Some of the names will be household names: everyone knows John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. Those of us who came of age during the 1980s will remember John Hinckley Jr. But how many could name Leon Czolgosz, let alone spell his name without looking it up? Who did he shoot at? Did he succeed? How about Giuseppe Zangara? Samuel Byck? Charles Guiteau? Sara Jane Moore? Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme? Okay, the last one might be more familiar because of her connection to Charles Manson.

I am probably slightly more than average when it comes to familiarity. In part, because I read about weird stuff all the time. But also because Czolgosz made it into a book on neuroscience, while Guiteau’s assassination of James Garfield was the topic of an outstanding book.

I don’t have time to get into all of the stories here, but Sondheim and Weidman don’t take too many artistic liberties with the facts. They are, of course, presented in an entirely different light. The president is off stage in many cases (although Daniel Korth makes appearances as McKinley and Reagan), and things are simplified a bit.

I want to mention just a few specifics here. Kyle Ken Gaines as John Wilkes Booth was excellent as usual. Just a great voice and stage presence. Also front and center was Alex Mitts as both the narrator (singing snarky songs about the assassins) and Lee Harvey Oswald. Perrin Swanson is no relation, although we share the same last name. He also works for the local yarn shop owned by local thespian Ronnie Warren, so my wife knows him. His turn as John Hinckley Jr. was appropriately pathetic and sad. Al Gains was hilarious as Guiteau - convinced he should be ambassador to France and always selling his book. Finally, Sondheim and Weidman decided to combine Moore and Fromme into one plot. The two of them (independently) attempted to kill Gerald Ford a few weeks apart. Neither was particularly competent. In this play, Moore is played as a total ditz, while Fromme is freaky, creepy, and drugged out. This eventually leads to some funny lines. “You brought your dog to an assassination?” “You brought your KID to an assassination?!” Abby Bowles-Votaw as Moore and the always-outstanding Nancee Steiger as Fromme have great chemistry, and these scenes were riveting. I am still creeped out by Steiger’s stare. Yikes.

Again, sorry this is short. It was fun. Thanks for doing it, TES. See you next time...  

 Perrin Swanson as John Hinckley Jr. 

 Alex Mitts as the Balladeer

 Nancee Steiger as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme

 Al Gaines as Charles Guiteau

Monday, June 11, 2018

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (adapted by Daniel Sullivan) - Tom Hanks as Falstaff


Back some years ago, probably before we had kids, my wife and I saw Henry IV Part 1 at Bakersfield College, with the usual suspects (and theater professors) Bob Kempf in the role of Falstaff and Randall Messick as Owen Glendower. Either before or after (I forget which), I read through Part 1. Later, I added Part 2 to the list of plays I have at least read. I do not believe I had ever seen Part 2 in live performance.

The last few years, since the kids got a bit older, my wife and I taken a series of quick overnight trips to Los Angeles (a mere two hours away), for some sort of arts-related fun. (Past trips have included Porgy and Bess at the LA Opera, Phantom of the Opera, and Hamilton at the Pantages.) We were poking around for ideas for this year, when my wife ran across the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of the Henry IV plays in a conflated and edited version.

With Tom Hanks as Falstaff. Yes, that Tom Hanks.

So what if the only pairs of adjacent tickets were in the back row? It’s a small outdoor theater, and this is the sort of thing you just do when you can.

Scholars differ as to exactly what Shakespeare intended regarding the second play. Was it a sequel made necessary because of the runaway success of Part 1 in general and the character of Sir John Falstaff in particular? Or was a second part always planned? Whatever the case, Falstaff took on a life of his own, eventually getting a play all his own, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

As others have noted before, the Henry IV plays are really about just about anyone other than Henry IV, who is truly a minor character in the play. One could consider there to be a trilogy of Henry V plays, culminating in the Battle of Agincourt and the most epic pregame speech in literature. One could view Part 1 as the tragedy of Hotspur. Or you could view all that political nonsense and battle baloney as filler surrounding a series of Falstaff comedies. Ultimately, what you view as the center of the plays determines the approach you take, and the artistic decisions you make.

In this case, those decisions are even more pronounced because of the decision to conflate the plays. This would obviously require shortening, as a five or six hour version would be too taxing on both the audience and the actors. So, what to cut?

Daniel Sullivan (who also directed), chose to pare away most of the military strategy, some of the material involving Hotspur, everything with Owen Glendower (see below) involved, and quite a few pages of dialogue. The battle scenes are truncated and simplified. Even so, the runtime (with 15 minutes of intermission) was still nearly three and a half hours. I am a committed Shakespeare fan, so I do mind when stuff is cut, even though few productions these days seem to include every last line. But I agree that there was no good way to preserve everything in this case.

Sullivan therefore retains all of the Falstaff scenes; focuses on the drama with Prince Hal, Hotspur, and King Henry; and lets the history part of the play (which is, admittedly, the least relevant to 21st Century American audiences) fade to background noise. I would say that the parts I missed most were the Glendower and Hotspur scene (which is fantastic - and what better insult than to say the earth farted when Glendower was born...) and the explanation of Falstaff’s perfidy in sending unequipped “soldiers” to their deaths.

But, quibbles aside, the edited and conflated version was indeed coherent and focused, and I feel the cuts were defensible.

Now, about the production and the acting. Like the other Shakespeare production involving a fairly famous screen actor we have seen (Richard II, featuring Robert Sean Leonard), the sets and props were minimalist. Nothing fancy, no special effects, just basics enough to let the acting shine through. As much as I have enjoyed amazing stage effects in various productions, I do rather approve of bare-bones Shakespeare. The play’s the thing, after all, and it succeeds or fails on the strength of the acting.

In general, the acting was excellent in this production. I’m not surprised, of course. In Los Angeles (as in New York City, I expect), there are too many outstanding actors for the number of available parts as it is, so mainstream productions never lack for sufficient talent. The various bit parts were handled well, and I can’t really think of any sour notes.

The one part that seemed a bit out of place to me was Joe Morton’s Henry IV. You may have seen Morton in Scandal and Terminator 2 and other big and small screen productions. The thing is, he has a great voice for the part, and formidable gravitas. What was just a bit off (in my view) was the delivery. In retrospect, I wonder if this is an example of the controversy on how to deal with enjambment. If a sentence is carried over to the next line without a comma, do you pause at the end of the line? How long? (I highly recommend The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum if you want an extended discussion of the schools of thought on this.) I am pretty sure that Morton was observing the pause in each case, in contrast with the other actors, who generally used a more flowing, conversational tone. This did have the effect of making him sound more formal, but it also felt kind of weird, almost like he was trying to remember a word in his line, once in a while. (Clearly this was not the case - the pauses happened at the specific point: the end of the line, not randomly.) I personally found this to be a bit distracting, although I’m sure those on the other side of the enjambment argument will likely disagree.

A number of actors played multiple parts, as the two Henry plays have different supporting characters. Raffi Barsoumian brought a manic energy to Hotspur - really a fine portrayal of both his strengths and weaknesses - as well as a broad bawdiness and uncontrolled violence to Pistol in the second part.

Josh Clark was notable as Worcester (Hotspur’s uncle) in the first part - a consummately  professional and Shakespearean performance. He is a long-time veteran of the stage, so no surprise. He also covered the part of the Chief Justice in Part 2.

The Henry plays are really sparse on female parts, but Rondi Reed (as Mistress Quickly) and Emily Swallow (in a dual role as Lady Percy and prostitute Doll Tearsheet) made the most of the limited lines they had.

Another key part - Poins - was portrayed excellently by Chris Rivera. I enjoyed his work in this one.

But, the real question for Henry always comes down to Hal and Falstaff. If they have chemistry, the play works. If they don’t? Not so much.

In this production, Hal was played by Hamish Linklater. It is no minor task to appear opposite Tom Hanks, to say the least. But Linklater was excellent. Good stage presence, great body language, a verve to his lines, and great chemistry with his counterpart.

It is always a risk going to see a movie star on stage. Some really shine, and others...don’t. This isn’t a knock on them. It takes a different set of skills to play to a closely placed camera, and a rather different set to carry emotion out a hundred feet to the cheap seats.

Hanks is one of the rare actors who is fantastic at both. From the opening scene (the editing placed him at the first and last scenes on stage), he owned the stage. Hidden under a fat suit, long hair, and grey beard, he didn’t look obviously like the Tom Hanks everyone knows. But you could tell as soon as he spoke who it was.

The best things about the performance were things I didn’t entirely expect. First, Hanks is superb at the physical side of acting. He truly inhabited the character - fat, old, dissipated, bawdy, vulgar. When he walked, he looked truly obese - not just a guy in a fat suit. When others helped him up, he sold it. When he fell, he made it look painful. The character didn’t crack until the final bows, when he bounced up on stage like he had taken off the body of his character. Just remarkable.

The other thing that surprised me was the way he handled the language of Shakespeare. I knew he had trained for the stage, so I expected he wouldn’t be awkward. But he might have been formal in his delivery.

Not so. Of all the actors in this production, he seemed the most at home in the Shakespeare vernacular, to the point where it was easy to forget he was speaking Elizabethan English. It truly sounded like he was speaking naturally, the way Falstaff himself might have spoken. All those archaic words, all those iambs. It just rolled off his tongue, modulated in volume and inflection as natural language. It was truly fascinating to watch. It looked so easy. And it looked like he was having fun.

I guess that makes sense. Hanks has made more money than he will ever need. He has won a boatload of awards. He might be one of the most famous people in the world. There is no compelling reason why he would need to spend a summer playing a 400 year old stage work to a few hundred people a night. I imagine he did this because he thought that playing Falstaff would be a whole lot of fun - so he did.

In any event, for me, it was that delightful experience of seeing a master of his or her craft at work, making art for the sheer pleasure of it. 

 Poins (Chris Rivera), Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater), and Falstaff (Tom Hanks)

***

On Owen Glendower:

It occurs to me that, before there was the Magical Negro, before the Wise Indian Shaman/Chief, there was the Mystical Welshman, aka Owen Glendower. In retrospect, it is kind of funny how much the ideas have in common. The tribal culture, weird primitive dress, the mystical religion, the “crazy like a fox” vibe. And, of course, the way the character is used as either an aid or foil of the main, “civilized white” characters.

Of course, this being Shakespeare, Glendower is more than just a foil. He is a bit of a cautionary tale. One of Hotspur’s fatal mistakes is to get into a “hand measuring” contest with Glendower, rather than solidifying his alliance. We are left to speculate whether Hotspur might have won the day had he played his diplomatic hand better.

***

On a very tangentially related note, Amanda and I have also made a tradition of unwinding after a performance and talking over our thoughts while sipping cocktails. The first time was inspired by the tiny hotel bar at Maison 140 (former home of Lillian and Dorothy Gish), where we stayed after Porgy and Bess. Amanda wore one of her flapper dresses, so an absinthe was perfect. Then, we discovered The Pikey, a quirky British-style night spot just down Sunset from our hotel.

This time, since we were in West LA, we figured we would try to discover a cool spot on that side of town. Amanda’s skill with a smartphone and excellent instincts led us to Bibo Ergo Sum, next door to Cedars Sinai hospital. (Yeah, how cool of a name is that?) It was practically deserted late on a Sunday night, so we got very attentive service. And truly craft cocktails. I am still thinking about that rye whiskey sour. If you are in the area and want a place with a good vibe and skillfully made classic cocktails, give it a try.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


Source of book: I own this.

I came rather late in life to Henry James: my first experience was in my mid thirties. This is probably just as well, as the teenaged me might have gotten the wrong impression.

James writes tragedies, for the most part. If there is one thing he writes best, it would be dysfunctional or failed relationships. I am hard pressed to think of anything of his that I have read that contained a truly great marriage - and the functional ones that do exist are usually at the extreme margins of the plot and do not even function as a foil to the bad relationships.

I have wondered if this is related to the fact that James never had a romantic relationship, and indeed seemed to avoid close relationships in general. This, combined with his brilliancy in observing and writing about the unhappiness of others, gives his writing a generally tragic air. 


The Portrait of a Lady is a devastating tragedy written when James was at the peak of his powers. As with many of his novels and novellas, he focuses on a female protagonist; and, as in other tales, his protagonist is young, naive, and in over her head in a sea of more sophisticated and Machiavellian sharks.

Isabel Archer is a young American woman, whose parents have died, leaving her with neither fortune nor prospects. Her elder sisters have done alright, marrying respectably although not brilliantly, and have settled into ordinary lives. Isabel is the prettiest, and has the most striking personality. In the wake of her father’s death, Isabel’s aunt (who is married to a rich American financier who lives in England), takes an interest in her, and whisks her off to Europe to expand her horizons. In fairly short order, she has managed to turn down two marriage proposals: one from Lord Warburton, a rather decent - and fantastically wealthy - English lord; and from her longtime acquaintance, Caspar Goodwood, a rising American businessman, whose “Americanness,” for lack of a better term, is amusingly caricatured by James. Oh, and her sickly cousin Ralph is also in love with her, but he knows he will die young and has no chance anyway.

Soon afterward, Isabel’s rich uncle dies, and, at the insistence of Ralph (his only child), leaves Isabel a sizeable legacy. This proves to be her undoing. Madam Merle, a friend of Isabel’s aunt, an American expat with a mysterious and lurid past of some sort, takes Isabel in hand. She introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, another American expat, a widow with a daughter, who is somehow connected to her. Gilbert has impeccable taste, can charm anyone, and lacks money. What a perfect match, right? Isabel is too naive to see Gilbert for the narcissist and egoist that he is, or to realize that she is being manipulated by Madam Merle - and that Merle has an uncomfortably close connection with Gilbert. For his part, Gilbert believes he can change Isabel to fit his tastes, and clamp down on her irrepressible originality and independence.

This does not go well. Isabel doesn’t change, Gilbert ends up hating her. Even though he never does anything openly wrong, he essentially mentally abuses her. And, eventually, Isabel realizes that she has been duped.

As is typical with James, there are no really clear villains. Madam Merle herself suffered a bad marriage, and has had to use her brains and charm to survive. She is genuinely taken by surprise when the marriage she has arranged goes bad. She thought Gilbert was better than that, and that he would like Isabel. Likewise (although I won’t reveal the plot twist entirely), her ulterior motive is hardly shameful.

Gilbert is a narcissist and egoist, but he deserves some sympathy too. By 19th Century standards, he isn’t a bad spouse. His mental abuse is the natural working out of the views of the time. He expected her to change herself to suit him - quite reasonable for an upper class man in the Victorian Era - and her refusal to cater to him would (and does) earn her condemnation. An additional source of friction here too is that the money is hers, not his. Had it been the other way around (as it is for Gilbert’s sister and her philandering husband the Count), he could have easily controlled her using money. But the shoe is on the other foot.

Likewise, the “heroes” are flawed. Isabel is a bit of a live wire, but she lacks an intellectual foundation to aid her judgment. She ignores the advice of her aunt and cousin, both of which are more observant than she. She likewise ignores her friend Henrietta (a female journalist who is, like Caspar, hilariously American.) While she pays an unfair price for her mistakes, she mostly has herself to blame.

In the case of Caspar, who is cast as the hero - he offers to save her near the end - it is easy to see why Isabel refuses him. He is an egoist in his own way, and too over eager to be charming rather than slightly creepy. Would she have been happy with him? Probably not. Or with Lord Warburton, who is thoroughly nice, but not Isabel’s type at all.

Perhaps the most fascinating character is that of Ralph, who unwittingly causes the tragedy, and ends up regretting it. Ralph is the cynical observer, except he really isn’t that cynical. He is, how does one even put it? Disinterested, perhaps? (Not uninterested, which is most certainly NOT a synonym.) Ralph has no dog in the race, other than curiosity to see what someone like Isabel might do with enough money to enable her to chart her own course without financial considerations limiting her choices.

It perhaps says something about James that he has his character make terrible choices. I was tempted for a moment to say that James is sexist - his female characters rarely have good judgment. Except that his male characters are no better. They just tend not to pay for their mistakes the same way the women do. And that has little to do with James and everything to do with how late Victorian society functioned. If anything, the men tend to be indecisive and weak at all the wrong moments. It also occurs to me that Catherine from Washington Square is a fantastically strong and admirable character who pays for her virtues, not her mistakes.

One of the two best things about The Portrait of a Lady is the psychological portraits of the characters. The title itself is a clue to that: this book is a portrait of Isabel - a deep look at her psyche, her strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, and emotions. And James is fantastic at the art of showing these rather than stating them. But there is more than that. We are given insights into many of the characters as we go along. Ralph, Henrietta, Mrs. Touchett, Madam Merle, Gilbert, Lord Warburton, Edward Rosier, and Pansy in particular are given special treatment throughout the book. The one blank slate seems to be Caspar, who one wonders if he even has an inner life.

The other strength of this book is the writing. James’ isn’t the easiest writing to read quickly (although it is by no means unusual for his era), but it is fantastically well crafted. At multiple points in this long book (600+ pages), I went back and re-read a passage just for the amazing way it was written.

Here are a few of the best moments - ones I couldn’t resist writing down. First is the opening line:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

James was an American by birth, who, like his characters, spent much of his life in Europe. Lines like this elicit his admiration for the Old World and its ceremonies. It also sets the stage beautifully for what is to follow. In this opening scene, when Isabel first meets her uncle, cousin, and Lord Warburton, much of what will occur later can be seen in the interactions of the characters.

This initial scene occurs at the beginning, but the narrative is already in motion. Later, James circles back to introduce us to Isabel and exactly how she ended up in England. There are two lines in that chapter which are good in themselves, but also form a contrast with the final scenes in the book.

[T]his young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say that she had a book is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilising quality and her imagination was strong.

And later:

Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions, and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret, and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from quotation.

As an aside here, take a look at the masterful use of semicolons in those two sentences. James’ sentences are written with such a beautiful awareness of how clauses and ideas relate.

This scene is revisited at various points throughout the book. The Touchett’s massive and impressive library, where Isabel spends hours during her initial visit pairs with her last visit, where she cannot bring herself to read. Her early love for reading is crushed by Gilbert’s disdain for books and imagination in general.

James is nothing if not perceptive when it comes to the hypocrisies of his - or any - age. In an early conversation between Mr. Touchett (the rich uncle) and Isabel, they discuss Lord Warburton, who is both fabulously rich and politically progressive - even radical. Mr. Touchett, the capitalist banker, doesn’t think much of this.

“Don’t you think they are sincere?” Isabel asked.
“Well, they are very conscientious,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if the took it out in theories, mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they have go to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they are very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury.”

What a delightfully cynical observation. And kind of true too, both about the British aristocracy in the twilight of the Victorian Era and in our own times. It’s easy to be progressive as long as your own status isn’t really threatened. On the other hand, I suppose that one of the reasons the British Empire faded without a bloody revolution is that the Bertie Woosters of the Edwardian Era were content to allow needed reform to happen, rather than double down on increasing inequality like some of our current American plutocrats.

Mr. Touchett is hardly the only cynic in his family, however. Ralph is rather delightful, and this exchange between he and Isabel about Henrietta is fantastically witty.

“Shall I love her, or shall I hate here?” asked Ralph, while they stood on the platform, before the advent of the train.
“Whichever you do will matter very little to her,” said Isabel. “She doesn’t care a straw what men think of her.”
“As a man I am bound to dislike her, then. She must be a kind of monster. Is she very ugly?”
“No, she is decidedly pretty.”
“A female interviewer -- a reporter in petticoats? I am very curious to see her,” Ralph declared.
“It is very easy to laugh at her, but it is not easy to be as brave as she.”
“I should think not; interviewing requires bravery. Do you suppose she will interview me?”
“Never in the world. She will not think you of enough importance.”
“You will see,” said Ralph. “She will send a description of us all, including Bunchie, to her newspaper.”
“I shall ask her not to,” Isabel answered.
“You think she is capable of it, then.”
“Perfectly.”
“And yet you have made her your bosom-friend?”
“I have not made her my bosom-friend; but I like her, in spite of her faults.”
“Ah, well,” said Ralph, “I am afraid I shall dislike her, in spite of her merits.”

That is an exchange worthy of Oscar Wilde.

Later, there is another one, this time about Henrietta’s ambiguous relationship with Mr. Bantling, a minor British aristocrat.

“She has made a conquest. He thinks here a brilliant woman. It may go far,” said Ralph.
Isabel was silent a moment.
“I call Henrietta a very brilliant woman; but I don’t think it will go far,” she rejoined at last. “They would never really know each other. He has not the least idea what she really is, and she has no just comprehension of Mr. Bantling.”
“There is no more usual basis of matrimony than a mutual misunderstanding.”

What an outstanding line. For better or worse, Ralph is right. Henrietta and Bantling do eventually square it up -- although not for a number of years. But, alas, Isabel herself will marry on the basis of a mutual misunderstanding.

Not too long after this, Caspar Goodwood makes his first appearance, and attempts to convince Isabel to marry him. It does not go well. She turns him down, and he won’t let it go.

“What good do you expect to get by insisting?”
“The good of not losing you.”
“You have no right to talk about losing what is not yours. And even from your own point of view,” Isabel added, “you ought to know when to let one alone.”

I’ve met a few people like this in my law practice. The ones who feel they have some entitlement. (And, whether it comes through in this short excerpt, Caspar does feel he has a claim on her, if he can just assert it strongly enough.) However, Caspar does get one thing right about Isabel:

“Do you think I am so very easily pleased?” she asked suddenly, changing her tone.
“No I don’t; I shall try and console myself with that. But there are a certain number of very clever men in the world; if there were only one, it would be enough. You will be sure to take no one who is not?”
“I don’t need the aid of a clever man to teach me how to live,” said Isabel. “I can find it out for myself.”

Isabel speaks the truth -- but not the truth about her, and that is the problem. All it will take is a very clever man (aided by an even more clever woman), and she will marry to be “taught how to live.” Isabel is the one person who can’t see this about herself. Later, Mrs. Touchett has some misgivings about Isabel and Gilbert having met, but she consoles herself that Isabel refused Lord Warburton. I love this line about Mrs. Touchett’s view of marriage:

Mrs. Touchett easily remembered that the girl had refused an English peer; and that a young lady for whom Lord Warburton had not been up to the mark should content herself with an obscure American dilettante, a middle aged widower with an overgrown daughter and an income of nothing - this answered to nothing in Mrs. Touchett’s conception of success. She took, it will be observed, not the sentimental, but the political view of matrimony -- a view which has always had much to recommend it.

I am, shall we say, not of Mrs. Touchett’s opinion. However, I will grant one thing: there is much to be said for marrying someone in one’s general income class. Much less gold digging -- and that goes both directions. But that is probably the attorney in me talking. (Also, how good is that last sentence? Delaying “political” until the end of the clause is perfection.)

There is another witty exchange on the general topic of materialism later on. Edward Rosier, the star-crossed would-be suitor of Gilbert’s daughter Pansy, tries to enlist Madame Merle’s assistance. Edward isn’t the sharpest tool, but he is rather earnest.

Rosier’s eyes wandered, lingeringly, around the room again.
“You have some very good things.”
“Yes, but I hate them.”
“Do you want to get rid of them?” the young man asked quickly.
“No, it’s good to have something to hate; one works it off.”
“I love my things,” said Rosier, as he sat there smiling.

I did snicker when I read that one.

Notwithstanding all this sparkling wit, the story turns darker and darker as it progresses. A particularly devastating moment is when Isabel comes to terms with the fact that her husband hates her.

She remembered perfectly the first sign he had given of it -- it had been like the bell that was to ring up the curtain upon the real drama of their life. He said to her one day that she had too many ideas, and that she must get rid of them. He had told her that already, before their marriage; but then she had not noticed it; it came back to her only afterwards.

And then later:

The real offense, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his -- attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water her flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching. He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she had pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favour, and so far from desiring her mind to be a blank, he had flattered himself that it would be richly receptive. He had expected his wife to feel with him, and for him, to enter into his opinions, his ambitions, his preferences; and Isabel was obliged to confess that this was no very unwarrantable demand on the part of a husband. But there were certain things she could never take in.

James here betrays the values of his time -- and pushes back on them. Indeed, it really was considered a reasonable demand that a woman “submit” to her husband in all things including her very ideas. In fact, this is precisely what is expected within the Christian Patriarchy circles my wife and I spent time in. At least in theory. And there were more than a few narcissists who, like Gilbert Osmond, came to hate their wives for having their own minds. Isabel may concede this in theory, but not in practice. And I can say for certain that my wife would never tolerate it. Likewise, I would never expect it. I love that she has a sharp mind - and a sharp tongue on occasion. I have no wish to have it any other way.

Sadly, Isabel really has no one with whom she can be honest. Except for Henrietta.

“Yes, I am miserable,” she said, very gently. She hated to hear herself say it; she tried to say it as judicially as possible.
“What does he do to you?” Henrietta asked, frowning as if she were inquiring into the operations of a quack doctor.
“He does nothing. But he doesn’t like me.”
“He’s very difficult!” cried Miss Stackpole. “Why don’t you leave him?”
“I can’t change that way,” Isabel said.
“Why not, I should like to know? You won’t confess that you have made a mistake. You are too proud.”
“I don’t know whether I am too proud. But I can’t publish my mistake. I don’t think that’s decent. I would much rather die.”
“You won’t think so always,” said Henrietta.
“I don’t know what great unhappiness might bring me to; but it seems to me that I shall always be ashamed. One must accept one’s deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change that way,” Isabel repeated.

There is something particularly devastating about this passage. Isabel, obviously, would lose if she left. Probably her fortune, which would now be Gilbert’s - the laws were unfavorable to women. But also her “respectability,” for whatever that was worth. Caspar would take her. He offered as much. I have seen other people (male and female these days) stay in doomed relationships for years - decades even - because of this misplaced sense of pride. It would be better if more people were willing to admit a mistake - and to grant grace to others who have left failed marriages too.

There is one more amazingly perceptive line from this terrible relationship. Gilbert, naturally, loathes Henrietta. But, because his life consists of showing contempt for the world while craving its approval, he wishes to do the socially proper thing.

Isabel presently saw that Osmond would have liked her to urge a little the cause of her friend, insist a little upon his receiving her, so that he might appear to suffer for good manners’ sake. Her immediate acceptance of his objections put him too much in the wrong -- it being in effect one of the disadvantages of expressing contempt, that you cannot enjoy at the same time the credit of expressing sympathy.

At the end, Ralph finally succumbs to his illness. As he is dying, Caspar and Henrietta agree to take him back to England. Soon afterward, Isabel is told the end is near, and she decides to defy her husband’s wishes, and go see him one last time. The book ends without telling us what the fallout will be. It is implied that she is going back to Gilbert, but it is far from clear if he will take her back or not. If he does, he will presumably punish her forever for her disobedience. But, as one of the above exchanges indicates, she herself wonders if enough suffering will make her leave. Yes, she’d lose her fortune. (Laws were not favorable to women…) Caspar would take her -- he offered. But would she take him? It seems unlikely. So we are left to wonder.

As a final thought, here is the exchange with Caspar when he realizes she is miserable, even if she won’t admit it.

“But I do ask one sole satisfaction -- that you tell me -- that you tell me -----”
“That I tell you what?”
“Whether I may pity you.”
“Should you like that?” Isabel asked, trying to smile again.
“To pity you? Most assuredly! That at least would be doing something. I would give my life to it.”
She raised her fan to her face, which it covered, all except her eyes. They rested a moment on his.
“Don’t give your life to it; but give a thought to it every now and then.”

This actually would have been a great way to end the book. There are another 80 pages to go, and the ending as it is is okay, even if it is a cliffhanger. But, man, what a great final line that one would have been.

I rather love Henry James, and this is one of his finest works. While I noted at the outset that I thought his writing might have been wasted on the teenage me, I also wonder if books like this might be good reading for teens in general, at an age when they are likely to become enamored of charming narcissists like Osmond, or fall prey to the machinations of more sophisticated manipulators like Madame Merle.

Henry James had a brother, William James, considered one of the most influential psychologists - and philosophers - of all time. Henry shared his brother’s keen insights into the working of the human mind, and it is arguable which one has had the most profound influence. Given the power of stories, I lean toward Henry. Not everyone will take a philosophy course. But anyone can appreciate the insight demonstrated in novels like this. It is a difficult task indeed to read The Portrait of a Lady, and not come away deeply moved and troubled by its truths.  

***

Other Henry James works I have read and reviewed:



Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Prime Marriage


Seventeen is a prime number - the seventh prime number (assuming you don’t count 1) to be specific. Prime numbers are important in math for many reasons, and are foundational to the encryption which allows us to have secure internet transactions.

Amanda and I have now been married seventeen years. As has been my tradition since I started this blog, I have written a little something for our anniversary. This year, I am going with “prime” as the theme, in honor of the seventh prime number - and an equal number of years. All definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

1. Prime (adjective): Of first importance; main.

My relationship with Amanda is my most important - and main relationship. She is my best friend, my lover, my favorite person in the world.

2. Prime (adjective): From which another thing may derive or proceed.

For the last 17 years, everything has derived or proceeded from our marriage. Well, certainly the 5 kids, but also our life has centered around each other. The lives we have built together directly derive and proceed from the relationship. Without each other, things would likely have turned out quite differently for us.

3. Prime (adjective): Of the best possible quality; excellent.

Amanda is a woman (and person) of the best possible quality. Excellence is one of her salient attributes. As a result, I am in a marriage of the highest quality.

4. Prime (adjective): Having all the typical characteristics of something.

Amanda is a prime example - she has all the typical characteristics of a good spouse. She is loving, hard working, honest, competent, affectionate, patient, and more. I cannot imagine a better person to share my life with.

5. Prime (adjective): Most suitable or likely.

Amanda is, as it turns out, highly suitable to be my spouse. I’m not so sure it was likely, however. I still can’t believe she chose me. But, since she did, I suppose the chances are 100%...

6. Prime [number] (adjective): divisible only by itself and unity

Amanda and I are two and one in that mysterious way that a good marriage works. We are divisible by ourselves and unity only.

7. Prime (noun): The state or time of greatest vigour or success in a person's life.

My time with Amanda has indeed been the best time of my life. If you count the time we were dating, we are rapidly approaching half of my life together. (And already half of hers.)

8: Prime (noun): The beginning of something. (archaic)

When we met, it was indeed the beginning of something. Eventually, our life together.

9. Prime (verb): Make (something) ready for use or action.

We both make each other better. We are able to function as we best can, because the other covers for the other’s weakness, and carries the other when needed.

10: Prime (verb): Induce a susceptibility or proclivity in (an animal, person, or tissue)

Amanda definitely induces a susceptibility or proclivity in me. A proclivity toward mushiness, obviously, and, ahem, other things.

11. Prime (verb): Prepare (someone) for a situation, typically by supplying them with relevant information.

My relationship with Amanda prepares me for the rest of life. She is a source of stability and purpose, and a source of advice and assistance whenever I need it.

Well, couldn’t quite get to 17 definitions, but 11 is a prime too, so I’ll go with that.

Happy anniversary, dearest Amanda, and may we have many more!

 At Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park, on our anniversary last year.

***

If you want to read prior installments, here is the list:



Monday, June 4, 2018

Our Children ARE a Significant Reason We Haven't Returned to Church



This is kind of a continuation of a few conversations I have had since we left the church over a year ago. Generally, it is along these sorts of lines: “Not all Christians are like that.” “Stop dissing the Bride of Christ™.” “My church is great!” And, my all time [least] favorite: “Why are you depriving your kids of the experience.”

And my response is this:

Our children are a significant reason we are reluctant to go back.

***

Let me clarify a few things. I remain a committed Christian. I still believe. The problem is that I really don’t see Christ in the American church right now. And, although it pains me to say it, I find that, rather than helping my walk with God, church was hindering it and making me miserable in the process. Rather than giving encouragement in following Christ, I was finding that the church was pressuring me to abandon my beliefs in favor a political culture war.

I also am not saying that I will never go back to a church. Never is a long time. But I am not eager to do so, and I feel that in our current climate, doing so would require unacceptable compromises in the name of getting along. If I do go back in the future, though, I don’t think it can ever be to an Evangelical church. The trust is broken, and it isn’t coming back.

Also, since every time I speak out against the increasing toxicity of American religion, those who remain in the church feel defensive, let me say it again: no, not everyone in church is like this. There are good people there too. But a lot of people are devoted to a political faith, and the poison is in the water, so to speak. Also: lots and lots of good people in Mormon tabernacles - and in mosques and Hindu temples. Just saying.

***

My wife and I have been watching the ongoing suicide of Evangelicalism (and the American church in general) for a long time. Because we grew up in nutty, cultic subcultures, we saw the crazy before most ordinary churchgoers did. And we have watched, as she put it, the crazy become mainstream. From openly anti-Civil Rights (and sexual predator) Roy Moore to White Supremacist Steve Bannon. From viciously anti-gay Tony Perkins to deeply racist Bryan Fischer. Ideas too, from abusive child rearing practices (see the Pearls and the Ezzos) to Modesty Culture. From the endless obsession with female virginity to a delusional persecution complex. From outright rejection of science to conspiracy theories. From the economic policies of Ayn Rand to the racial policies of Milo Yiannapolous. (Oh yes, that’s real. I know several people from our former church - including leaders - who are big fans.) From the Cult of Domesticity to toxic masculinity. From gender essentialism, gender roles, and gender hierarchy to survivalism.  From virginity pledges and rings to macho man activities. Maybe I was unaware when I was a kid, but I don’t remember any of this being mainstream back then. Heck, even in the 1990s, when our respective families got involved in cult groups, we were the fringe people. Now, much of what we experienced in those far out groups is just another day in the pew.

***

Even before we left our longtime church (which had for a while been a haven from the craziness), we had some significant warning signs. And since we left, a number of additional things have happened that make us reluctant to go back. Some of these were specific to our situation, but others are more universal. Here are just a few that stand out:

● A sermon in which misogyny and feminism were presented as opposite evils. (The political, social, and economic equality of women is an evil?)
● The Christmas Wars™ becoming a focal point of our kids’ Sunday school every December.
● Frequent historical revisionism from the pulpit. This was generally of the hagiography of the past variety, but also the “everything good was done by our theological tradition” sort.
● Frequent references to “persecution is coming” from the pulpit.
● A seeming obsession with preaching against homosexuality - and at a time when open white supremacy was evident from people within the church - including leaders.
● A friend’s daughter being pressured (at a large local church) to make a virginity pledge - and this is very, very common. (Personally, I don’t think young teens - let alone tweens - have the capacity to enter into contracts. This is actually the law too. I think it is inappropriate to pressure children into making pledges they are too young to understand. Also, why virginity but not, say, greed?)
● Swag from a political lobby group (and recognized hate group) being distributed at church
● A leader at church pushing “be a real man” theology
● A guest preacher saying “When God comes to your door, he will ask to speak to the man of the house” from the pulpit, with no blowback from leadership.
● Our food pantry, which partnered with the local dialysis center was for all intents and purposes eliminated by leadership without input from those involved. It was deemed not to be a priority.
● At the same time, the establishment of a quasi-security-force group, which changed the vibe to one less welcoming. I cannot help but wonder if this was connected to the fact that some African American young men had started to attend.
● Some church leaders - including ones who taught our kids - posted stuff from openly White Supremacist jerk Milo Yiannopolous. And also openly social darwinist stuff like “we don’t feed the poor for the same reason we don’t feed squirrels in the national forests.”
● At a winter camp, a speaker pushing grossly sexist beliefs about men and women, making creepy remarks about how attractive his kids were (with them present), pushing sexist views of the marriage relationship, and more. My kids had to be deprogrammed by a friend (who was a chaperone) afterward, lest they think these were truly Christian beliefs.
● After said camp, the child of a friend deciding (s)he couldn’t be a Christian anymore because (s)he couldn’t live up to the demands the speaker said needed to be met.
● Open talk at church (not from the pulpit, but in the hallways) in favor of building a border wall and sending the Mexicans back.
● A sermon in which the line from Numbers, “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” was claimed to have been written by Moses. Say what? Even a kid can see that was added at some point by a scribe. Likewise, St. Jerome (who did most of the work translating the Vulgate, back in the 4th Century CE) understood that the Torah wasn’t written by Moses. It was just one example of the Bible-dolatry that tried to make scripture what it isn’t.
● My wife being ignored and marginalized when she filled a job viewed as “male” (sound tech.)
● A candidate for leader of children’s ministry spending an interview with my wife making it clear that she didn’t care what parents wanted, she was going to do what she wanted, particularly culture war stuff. And lied about it afterward. Oh, and also bragging about the intact condition of her daughter’s hymen (medically verified!) and saying it was her greatest accomplishment as a parent. And dissing Harry Potter. And saying she didn’t see the point in having missionaries talk to the kids. She wasn’t hired, but it was close. (We would have left then if she had.) Oh, and she was in the same position previously at a much larger church before that.
● A men’s retreat that feature the use of military-style weapons as an exercise in manliness. I’m a gun owner, but that still just feels wrong to me that weapons would be part of a spiritual retreat.But, manliness, yo.
● After we left, a leader at our former church was talking with a friend about the local women’s march, which my wife participated in. He said, and I am not making this up, “Some women just need to be smacked.”
● Another friend’s teens were taken aside by another church leader, and the girl informed that she shouldn’t be leading, but should defer to her brother, because God intended women to be submissive and take that role.
● A friend dyed her hair a lovely shade of blue, and a bunch of people at church stopped talking to her.
● A local megachurch held a big rally in support of a local business owner who violated California law by refusing to serve LGBTQ people. A friend who counterprotested this was insulted, threatened, and physically assaulted by the church members. Gaining the right to refuse to do business with LGBTQ people seems to be an obsession of the American church right now.
● My dad teaches a church history class at a local largish church. He has mentioned how much effort he puts into pushing back against the idea that Christianity is synonymous with (white) America. And trying to convince people that “love your neighbor” applies to immigrants and refugees and poor people and black people and so on. While I greatly admire his efforts as a missionary to the unregenerate, the fact that he has to spend effort fighting against ethno-nationalism in the church is a huge problem to me. That isn’t a place I want my kids.
● A local church held an official “service of mourning” after Obama was elected.
● In response to protests over police killings of unarmed African Americans, several local churches have held services with “Blue lives matter” type themes.
● A local pastor finally left the local high school board after years of pushing toxic stuff like creationism in science class, armed teachers, and - of course - no transgender people in the “wrong” bathrooms. (This is in violation of state law here in California - he was advocating open defiance of the law, just like Roy Moore.)
● A fellow professional musician was disinvited from the nursing home ministry she had served in for years (with her former church) because she was “caught” playing a professional Easter gig at another church. (Our former church - to their credit - was much better about this sort of thing. It’s too bad it went off the rails in other ways…)
● And that’s just the local stuff. I could also mention Steve Bannon speaking at the Values Voter Conference. (Yeah, the guy who recently said “They call you racists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” That guy.)
● I could mention 80% of white evangelicals voting for Roy Moore, despite credible accusations of child molestation against him.
● I could cite the poll showing that a solid majority white Evangelicals believe they are more persecuted than Muslims in our country. And more than racial minorities too.
● I could mention Jerry Falwell Jr.’s assertion that Trump is a “dream president for Evangelicals” and that one big reason was that he was building a border wall and evicting immigrants.
● I could mention that Russell Moore was nearly ousted from the SBC because he called out Trump’s racism.
● Or that the SBC was going to let a resolution condemning the “Alt-right” (a new euphemism for old fashioned White Supremacy) die in committee, until the most prominent African American member threatened to walk - and leave Evangelicalism altogether. Faced with likely becoming a whites-only denomination, they finally voted for the resolution. (Under duress, basically.)
● I could list the building of a multi-million dollar, high-tech gun range at one of the largest Christian universities - so that students will be prepared to fight of the inevitable Muslim invasion.
● Furthermore, in the midst of a push by the Trump administration to follow through on his campaign promise to ethnically cleanse America, a prominent and influential Evangelical organization decided that was the right time to come out with a document denying the existence of intersexuals and transgender persons, and asserting that you cannot be a “real” Christian if you don’t uncategorically condemn departures from “traditional” gender or sexuality. Basically a litmus test for the faith that would exclude me and many others from being accepted.
● The current political cause of much of the American church is over so-called “religious liberty,” meaning the rights of Christians to punish and control those who do not observe their sexual purity rules. That means denying employees birth control, refusing to serve LGBTQ people and single mothers, and refusing to obey the law as government employees.
● A trend (of which “9 Marks” is the best known example) toward the use of “church discipline” to enforce doctrinal purity and loyalty to leadership. And, along with this, the inclusion of beliefs about human sexuality, young earth creationism, abortion, and other issues that are at best non-essential (and really are mostly political issues) as core beliefs from which there can be no dissent.
● A never-ending series of sex scandals where church leaders who molest children or commit clergy sexual abuse are protected from prosecution, and the victims blamed.
● Ditto for domestic violence.
68% of white Evangelicals say we have no obligation to take in refugees. Worse, the polling on this has gotten worse over the last couple decades. Religion in America is becoming more, not less racist and xenophobic over time - in measurable ways. The trend is in the wrong direction.
● The Trump administration decides to start separating immigrant children from their parents indefinitely in an attempt to discourage them from seeking asylum, and this is met with deafening silence from most Evangelicals.
● Instead, they promote Franklin Graham’s political rally tour of our state - he’s literally working to get out the vote for Republicans, saying that “progressivism is another word for godlessness.”
●After a year of watching Trump consistently deport, harass, defame, and antagonize immigrants; after seeing the GOP come within a couple votes of ending healthcare for the poor and disabled; after it came out Trump paid off a porn star -- after ALL of the crap we have seen -- white Evangelicals approve of Trump with a 75% rating. They are by far his most loyal fans. It is safe to say that Trump is the truest expression of the moral values of Evangelicalism.

Basically, both before and after, there has been ample evidence that church culture is becoming ever more political, reactionary, and toxic. It isn’t just one church. It’s the whole system. What was once fringe right-wing lunacy is now mainstream.

It isn’t that everyone believes these things. And there are lots of good people in American Christianity. (Just like there are lots of great people in Mormon tabernacles. And in mosques.) But the increasingly toxic culture taints the experience, and makes it particularly difficult when you have kids and don’t want them to think this kind of evil is okay.


Here are my concerns:

1. Incompatible moral values. I have discovered that to a rather significant degree, I do not share the same values as a solid majority of American Evangelicals. Not the same political values. Not the same moral values. That’s a problem, because that means that putting my kids in church means that they will surrounded by people who will be undermining the values I wish to teach them. Not everyone, obviously. But an awful lot of them...and usually the people with power. 

2. Deprogramming. One of the most exhausting things about being part of a church the last couple of years before we left was the continual need to monitor and deprogram. Over and over. No matter what we said to leaders. And it was getting increasingly worse. In retrospect, we probably should have left sooner. But for a while, the good outweighed the bad...until it didn’t. And honestly, it would be the same pretty much anywhere else, because the political and cultural beliefs are widespread. We are so tired of fighting this fight, and realize we are never going to win it.

3. Recruitment into the culture wars. This is related to the above concern. We have, over, and over, and over, objected strenuously to the culture wars and to their being brought into Sunday school. We have mostly gotten a pat on the head, followed by our wishes being completely ignored. And this is the same pretty much throughout American Christianity. As social justice causes became passe (due to the need to justify slavery and Jim Crow), and with the founding of the Religious Right (on a pro-segregation platform - I am going to keep saying this until people start listening…), the political culture wars are pretty much the only way that white middle class Christians in this country interact with those outside the tribe. Certainly, within Evangelicalism, there will be NO escape from this. (And that means most protestant churches in our town.)

4. Historical Revisionism. This was also becoming an increasing concern as the kids got older. Particularly since church leadership types tend to live in their own intellectual bubble, getting news from Fox (or, gag, Breitbart), and seemingly everything else from approved “christian” sources. Groupthink is a problem with any group, but there doesn’t seem to be any openness to facts that threaten the theological or political beliefs. In particular, the revisionism was a problem when it came to the places that race and religion intersect. It was more important to maintain the image of Christianity as a force for good at all times (and the Republican party as righteous - unlike those godless commie Democrats - too) than to admit and wrestle with the dark things in our history. And our present. The thing is, my kids aren’t stupid. They read, they listen, and they notice lies.

5. Alternative facts and reality. On a related note, there is a growing problem of acceptance of “alternative facts.” As Peter Enns puts it:

Theological needs – better, perceived theological needs – do not determine historical truth. Evangelicals do not tolerate such self-referential logic from defenders of other faiths, and they should not tolerate it in themselves.

And this goes for so many things. The perceived needs of theology - and politics - bulldoze any possible consideration that might challenge those beliefs. So if theology says we are persecuted, well then we are! And if we have to make stuff up to prove it, we will. If we have to persecute others and claim we are persecuted when those outside the bubble call us on it, then do it, right? I’ve written before about the poison of Presuppositionalism and how it creates an alternative version of reality where everyone else is by definition wrong. BTW, I wrote the following before we left the church, and it is spookily prescient:

“Right now, I have my doubts that unless some fundamental changes occur, it will not remain possible for a person to be part of Evangelicalism and still be intellectually honest or morally and ethically decent. Such people will be increasingly purged in the name of doctrinal purity.”

We are part of that group purged in the name of doctrinal (and political) purity. We were forced out. There is no longer a place for people like me in Evangelicalism. On a related note, I find that anymore, I don’t share a common experience of reality anymore. Since I can’t believe Fox News’ fabricated (and xenophobic) reality, I can’t really have a discussion. We cannot agree on the basic facts of existence or how to find them.

6. Hostility toward science. This isn’t just about evolution - although it is about that. It is about human sexuality. It is about environmental conservation (proof positive that American Evangelicals largely get their ethics from Fox News, not from a consistent Christian ethic or the historical teachings of the church.) It is about social science. It is about the very existence of absolute truth that can be discovered. (Sorry. Evangelicals do NOT believe in absolute truth. They believe in absolute authority, which is a very different thing. A belief in absolute truth means that you change your opinions as you get better information. A belief in absolute authority means that you believe what your accepted authorities - and that includes leadership's preferred interpretation of scripture - say, in the very teeth of the evidence.) It is the same problem with perceived theological (and political) needs - they trump (pun intended) reality. Every time. I have real concerns about this when it comes to my kids. I am working to give them a solid grounding in science and math. I loved science as a kid, and I can say that one of my major struggles with faith as a young adult was due to finding out just how much the church lied to me about science. It was a tough pill to swallow. I don’t want my kids to grow up with the same problem.

7. Marginalization of women. Even within progressive denominations, church is a male-dominated affair. (Yeah, not all, but the overwhelming majority.) And within Evangelicalism, keeping women out of leadership is now a core doctrine, and has become an increasing obsession. Before we left, I did what I could to give women a platform within our worship teams. But, as the church culture changed, it seemed that there was a push to relegate women to the “pink collar” positions. I already mentioned one of my wife’s experiences. I grew increasingly concerned that church was the one place my daughters (and my wife) would be systematically excluded from the leadership positions that actually had decision-making power. Church was the one place they were viewed as “less than” men. This is rather a contradiction to the witness of the early church, where women were a majority, and respected as leaders. I know there are exceptions, but they are rather few.

8. Worrisomely bad response to sexual predators. It is bad enough that American Christians overwhelmingly voted for a serial sexual predator (Trump) and credibly accused child molester (Roy Moore.) But they continue to defend those two predatory men. Likewise, in my own experience and as demonstrated by a number of high-profile cases, if a sexual predator is a male church leader, he will be protected, the victims slandered and marginalized, and justice will not be done. As fellow OBCL alumnus Rachael Denhollander said, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings.” She is absolutely right, and, unsurprisingly, SGM (who engaged in a serious coverup of abuse), is now trying to destroy her reputation. One advantage we had at our former church in this area is that they did have a good policy - and also, we knew the people who would be leaders of our kids for years before our kids got to that age. With a new church, we would be placing them with strangers, essentially, and given what we have been through, I am not really comfortable with that.  

9. A pathological lack of empathy. This was the most horrifying part about the last couple of years. If you can’t find common ground on logic and reason, can’t agree on the basic facts of reality, how do you have a discussion? Once upon a time, like when I was a kid, you could at least start with empathy. But now, empathy for those outside the tribe has pretty much disappeared from American Christianity, replaced by social darwinism and tribalism. I don’t want my kids in that kind of environment. One the one hand, I don’t want them to become heartless and ruthless. On the other, I know that because they are compassionate and empathetic people, they will suffer. And as soon as they fail to conform, they will be torn to pieces in the name of God. (Just ask Russell Moore. Or Rachel Held Evans. Or Jen Hatmaker. Or John Pavlovitz. Or...the list goes on and on and on. You are useful to American Christianity only as long as you further the party line. Fail to do so, and you will be ruthlessly destroyed and disowned.)

10. It’s just politics. It has become more and more apparent that Christianity in America is mostly a thin veneer of religion over what is essentially a political movement. (Or movements.) Theology may trump reality - but politics always trumps theology. Party comes before the teachings of Christ - or even basic human decency. I can predict what at least 80% of Evangelicals believe about pretty much any political issue. Not by consulting scripture, Christ’s words, or the historical teachings of the church. Nope. All I need to do is check with Fox News. And it’s not just Evangelicals. I can likewise predict the beliefs of most “progressive” Christians by doing the reverse. (It’s not as uniform with progressives as for conservative Christians, but it’s still pretty striking.) And it isn’t so much the beliefs themselves as the fact that the beliefs seem to change in lock step with the change in the platforms of the parties - not with any meaningful change in the official theology. The last thing I want for my children is for them to have politics and religion inseparable in their minds. As it is, I am suffering loss of my church connection because I was unable and unwilling to change my morality to fit better with the racist/xenophobic/social darwinist direction the Republican party has chosen. I don’t want my children to see me sell my soul. (Heck, I don’t want to watch myself do it either.) Right now, I feel that political loyalty is the price of admission to the church club. It’s not one I am willing to pay.

11. I will never be accepted. Not really. If there has been one theme in my life experiences with church, it is that here in America, everyone is a resource. A source of money or labor or credibility. We don’t love people for who they are. In the church context, that means that you are only valuable for what you give. And only valuable as long as you further the agenda. Increasingly, certain beliefs - particularly in the areas of human sexuality and gender roles - have become a litmus test for full acceptance. Many churches say “all are welcome,” but this is mostly bullshit. You are welcome as long as you agree to change. You are welcome as long as you shut up when you disagree. You are welcome as long as you don’t rock the boat. Shut up, write that check, and give us your free labor. And when you are no longer lock-step with us, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Right now, for a variety of reasons (which I may blog about in the future), I cannot in good conscience subscribe to the doctrinal statements of most churches. Particularly in this town. Because of this, I know I will never be truly welcome.

12. You will know a tree by its fruit. This to me is the ultimate deal-breaker. When I look at the Church, I see an institution which is decades behind the larger culture in recognizing the basic human rights of non-white, non-male persons. I see an institution which makes people less compassionate. The fruit I see is most certainly not what I want to see in my own life, or in the lives of my children. And let me be blunt: in 2016, white Evangelicals voted in a larger percentage for Donald Trump (running openly on a KKK platform) than for any presidential candidate in history. Actions speak louder than words. Actions indicate values more than theological statements. I have come to believe, like Chris Ladd, that the election of Trump was no anomaly. Trump is the truest expression of the moral character of the Evangelical Church in America.

I refuse to identify myself with that kind of “moral character.” I won’t place my children in that moral environment. Period.

***

Hey, want to change my mind? What I am looking for is kind of an old-fashioned Christian concept:

Repentance.

There are several components to this, as any good Evangelical kid can tell you.

1. A realization that one has sinned. I am still waiting for the vast majority of Evangelicals to wake up and say, “Oh my god! What have we done?”

2. A change in behavior. This would mean doing the opposite of what they have been doing. No more voting for racists. No more Ayn Rand economics. No more pathological lack of empathy.

3. Making amends. Without this one, it is just words. You all have caused tremendous damage to vulnerable people. (The poor, refugees, immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ people, women, children.) Time to attempt to repair that damage. Until I see that, it will be obvious that there is no repentance.

Until there is repentance, I’m done.

***

One of the facets of organized religion that can be great is the community. This is one thing I really do miss. But the thing is, I missed it before we left. Things changed. I have been thinking about it over the last year or so, and I think that the core issue is that fellowship requires being able to be real and open. If you have to hide who you are in order to maintain relationships, it isn’t fellowship at all.

I understand disagreement. And I understand avoiding politics, like we often do at family gatherings to preserve the peace. The problem comes when politics becomes so inseparable from religion that you can’t even talk about religion anymore. At church. If you can’t talk about religion at church, well, what the heck is it even about anymore?

For all intents and purposes, I could not talk about religion at church, because to talk about how the teachings of Christ compel us to love our neighbor was, by definition, political. It would, after all, indict the embrace of the politics of hatred and viciousness toward those outside the tribe which is now a core belief of Evangelicalism.

So, it isn’t really realistic to expect community and fellowship at church right now. The trust is gone, the illusion of common values is gone. Rather than being a source of connection, our (allegedly) common religion is a source of alienation.

***

Why not join a progressive church?

That may eventually be in the future. Or maybe not. I don’t know at this point. I’m not ready to date again after a bad breakup. But never is a very long time. Ten years ago, I would not have predicted I would be where I am either. So the future is, as Tom Petty sang, “wide open.”

I am to a degree hampered by geography. Bakersfield is a schizophrenic town. We have a good legal community, vibrant arts and music, and a growing educated class. But we also have poverty, high teen pregnancy rates, low average education, and a lot of people who love Truck Nutz and Confederate Battle Flags and AR-15s. And we have a VERY conservative and highly political church scene. A local pastor who was on the High School board of trustees stirred up controversy for over a decade with things such as trying to get “In God We Trust” in every classroom, eventually resigning in protest over the board agreeing to follow state law on transgender bathroom use. I already mentioned the LGBTQ discrimination issue. It’s a tough town for Christians who aren't Republicans - which means Trump now.

After we left, I spent some time with another former member of our church, who left after a rather passionate anti-gay sermon. (They have a gay son.) They too haven’t found a home. It’s not hard to see why. In a metropolitan area with half a million people, and a few hundred churches, I could count on one hand easily the number of Protestant churches that aren’t fundie, political, or both. And one of those is the Unitarian church. The rest are all pretty small. And no offense meant to the likely lovely people who go there, but they are overwhelmingly old and white. I realize this is a problem facing churches all over (and Evangelicalism is most definitely NOT immune to this trend.) But the idea that we can magically find some fellowship for our kids isn’t really true. There’s no great option here.

Related to that is that progressive churches also tend to be filled with people a lot like me: white, educated, professional class - just older and long time Democrats. You know, I like people like me. But religion should cut across demographic lines. Right now, it doesn’t, and I am very much feeling like religion in America is just politics by another name. I suspect that once it becomes clear I don’t toe the Democrat platform, I will be viewed with suspicion.

Another concern for me too is that progressive churches (at least in this town) have taken kind of a non-confrontational stance, which means they have been largely absent from public discourse. The counterweight to the hate and bigotry has come, not from religious, but from secular sources. It feels kind of like the churches that were quietly uncomfortable with slavery, but too fearful to actually risk pushing back.

A more personal issue for me (and other Evangelical ex-pats) is that a big denominational switch means learning an entirely new religious language and ritual. I don’t want to sound whiny here, but ritual is important to us humans, religious or not. And part of what holds us together in the hard times is the muscle memory of our observances. It isn’t that I can’t worship God in a new way, or that the form itself is that terribly important. It’s that part of the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a community is sharing a common - and familiar - ritual. To make a complete switch after 40 years is hard enough for anyone. For someone like me, who spent 30 of those years actively creating a part of those rituals (particularly music, but more than that - I was an active, participatory church member all my life), it is particularly disorienting. It is hard to feel so much of an outsider, and everything reminds me of the loss of something that was very important to me - a vital part of me, really. I was pretty decent at both CCM and traditional hymns, and I’m proud of the work and passion I brought to it. Alas, I doubt that will ever be part of my life again. After being stabbed in the back on the way out, I am extremely reluctant to take a visible role in a church again, even if I go back. It is like losing a limb. And then watching others run and play and not being able to be one of them. Not really. So I grieve. I didn’t choose this. I didn’t want this. But I am no longer welcome where I was, and I am unable and unwilling to sell my soul to fit in again.

***

Please read my comment policy. For this post, if you quote your favorite proof-text, or just want to lecture me, I will delete your comment. And no, not really interested in hearing how great your church is. I’m glad you found a place you fit.

***

Update June 5, 2018: I can't believe I forgot to link this song. In Southern culture (so Michael Stipe says), the phrase "Losing my religion" isn't a crisis of faith. It's when you are at the end of your rope and can't be polite anymore. This is actually a great description of where I am at and have been for the last two years or so. Maybe three. I'm still a Christian, and I am more inspired by the teachings and example of Jesus Christ than ever before. It is THAT which has led to my break with the organized church. And I'm tired of being polite and pretending that American Evangelicalism in particular is anything less than the polar opposite of Christ. It is, so to speak, anti-christ in pretty nearly every measurable way.

Take it away, R.E.M.