Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My John Thompson Story

After my post on Douglas Phillips (and related follow-up post), I did get some significant interest in my story about John Thompson. My experience was quite brief, as will be seen. I’ll also note that the events occurred more than 15 years ago, when I was a law school student. The communications took place by e-mail, on computers that still used dial-up modems and ran Windows 3.1, if my memory serves. Add this to the fact that I was still living with my parents at the time, and using their computers, and that explains why the original communications have - as far as I know - long since disappeared. I will have to work from my own memory on this one.

John Thompson, for those who are not intimately familiar with the figures of the Christian Patriarchy movement, was a founder, along with Douglas Phillips, Scott Brown, and several other familiar names, of the Family Integrated Church movement, and also helped develop the most extreme version of the courtship/betrothal model also espoused by Jonathan Lindvall. I discussed that facet here. For more on the FIC movement, my friend and fellow blogger That Mom has written extensively about her own experiences with FIC affiliated churches on her blog.


So anyway, I was in the early stage of law school at the law school originally affiliated with Bill Gothard’s organization (but which has now largely severed ties). I was part of the very first class, so my fellow students and I were both Guinea pigs and celebrities of a sort within the greater ultraconservative home school community, apparently (although I didn’t realise it.) I had just recently met my wife and her family, but it would be over a year before I would ask her out.

One day, out of the blue, my father got a peculiar e-mail from a man named John Thompson. Now, I had never heard of Thompson, but he explained who he was in the e-mail. It appears that it had come to Thompson’s ears that I was not only a law student, but also a violinist. Since his daughters were (and are) talented musicians, this seemed to him to be a natural fit. He asked if my father would be interested in arranging a “courtship” between me and one of his daughters. He described her many virtues. Her housekeeping skills. The things that would make her an excellent wife. I remember the all-important phrase “quiet and submissive spirit” being used. The idea was that if the fathers decided we were suitable, we would begin the “courtship” process. I don’t know if my family quite understood at that time that this young lady and I would have been considered irrevocably engaged - betrothed - from that point onward, even though we had never met.

As I’ve mentioned, my family didn’t get particularly deep into the patriarchy and betrothal portions of the movement at all, so my father decided to forward the e-mail to all the rest of us.

If my memory is correct, before I even had a chance to read the e-mail, another family member, who does not wish that he or she be identified, had already responded.

This person wrote my dad back that it sounded as if Thompson was auctioning his prize milk cow.

When this person hit “reply all,” he or she did not realize that Thompson himself was on the response list.

Thompson’s reply to my father was terse, and it was clear that I was no longer considered a viable candidate for his daughter’s hand.

So, my shot at an arranged marriage died before I even had a chance to respond for myself.

Not that I would have even considered an arranged marriage, of course. The last thing I wanted in a life partner was someone whose father still controlled her like that, and I really don’t find “quiet and submissive spirits” to be much of a turn on. I’m more into the “rapier wit” sort, which is why I am married to my highly intelligent and decidedly irreverent wife. (She has failed to detect any god-like qualities in me, and yet loves and desires me anyway.)

Speaking of the lovely Amanda, soon after we met, but before we were dating, my family told her the story. I told her that when I heard of the proposal, I thought of a certain song. I grabbed a guitar, and sang to my future wife the first song I would sing her. She told me later it won her heart.

It Ain’t Me Babe
(Written by Bob Dylan, but performed in my favorite version by the Turtles, who omit the third verse.)

Go ’way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Go melt back into the night, babe
Everything inside is made of stone
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone
You say you’re lookin' for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

I know, really romantic. But it worked. Amanda told me that she figured she would never marry, after her experience in Lindvall’s group. If marriage was just about housework, babies, goats, and serving men, she would far rather remain single. By playing her this song, I signaled to her that I did not view marriage as that rigid hierarchy with rigid roles. It took a while before I went ahead and asked her out, but that was, I believe, the point at which she allowed herself to hope.

Postscript on John Thompson:

I have never met John Thompson or any of his daughters. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. I later found out, though, that my future father-in-law had met him and his daughters at some homeschool conference. He suggested my response should have been, “but how does she look?” (This might be where my wife got her tongue…)

If you want to read more on Thompson’s views on marriage and “courtship,” here is a good place to start. You can follow the links to Thompson’s own writings.

I must admit, I have been curious about what eventually happened to the Thompson girls and their father. Obviously, I never broke his daughter’s heart. I would assume he made the inquiry without telling her anything. Had my father agreed (snort! - it always would have been my choice - our family wasn’t like that), presumably she would have been told that a young man was interested, and she would have had one shot (without meeting me) to say yay or nay. After that, the courtship would have been for practical purposes unbreakable.

I did feel sorry for her, whichever daughter she was (I don’t remember - the oldest would make most sense based on the timing), being trapped in that family.

So, it came as no surprise at all to discover that there was a big blowup in the Thompson family a few years later.
(Some of this information I discovered by accident while researching my Patriarchy and White Supremacy post. The rest was filled in after That Mom re-posted my Doug Phillips article, by people who had stayed in that loop.)

The oldest daughter (the wife that got away?) apparently did marry someone approved by her dad through the “courtship” process. The next two daughters were not so compliant, both eloping against their parents’ wishes. I am completely unsurprised at this, of course. I would be more surprised to see entire families within the movement without at least one child who decided to cut ties with his or her parents and leave forever.

The middle child in this case became an atheist, and remains estranged from her family. Her professional website is here. She is quite talented, and it is good to see that her skills didn’t just get buried so she could serve an approved man. She also, apparently, does a show entitled “From Virgin to Vixen in One Night.”

(This title cracks me up! It encapsulates the whole “courtship” fantasy in seven words. The girl is to go from ZERO emotional entanglement - and limited knowledge of sex if any - before marriage, to the vixen of the man’s dreams, capable of preventing him from even thinking about other women - or she has failed. But no pressure…
There are clips of the show on youtube, and it is pretty witty. Fun use of show tunes.)

Here is the final twist of irony: when Thompson’s daughter rebelled eloped escaped, he himself became a pariah. See, one of the qualifications for leadership the Partriarchists take very seriously is that one’s adult children be “Believers.” Thompson was really close with Phillips before this, and they often lectured together. But afterward, not so much. In fact, Thompson was shunned by Phillips, and was essentially excommunicated from the Vision Forum fold. And lost his place in on the “A List” as a lecturer.

And now, um, Phillips finds himself in a bit of a sticky wicket. You know, not having children who escaped, but sexually abusing a young woman while continuing to lecture.

And yes, it appears that at the exact time that he was essentially ex-communicating Thompson, he was doing a young girl. If I were Thompson, I would be pissed.

Just saying.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode

Source of book: I own this.

It is only February, and I already have a strong candidate for “most difficult book I have read this year.” This book is a series of six lectures given by the author, a former professor of English literature at Cambridge, and it thus contains an entire language and area of study that is largely unfamiliar to me: literary theory. With neither the time nor the resources to make a thorough study, I had to get along as well as I could, and I am sure that I missed a good bit of his theories. However, what I did get was fascinating as an idea, and as an explanation for both the apocalyptic in literature and the strong tendency in that direction within society.

The very first line introduces this intent:

It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.

Kermode’s goal is to show how the idea of the apocalypse functions both within society and within literature to help us make sense of our lives and our mortality. 

 The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Durer (1497)

The basic premise is that we are profoundly uncomfortable with the place of our short lifespans in the whole of history. There is that which existed before us, and the prospect of things continuing after we have died. A beginning and an end. And we are in the middle, living sequentially in time as we experience it. In order to make sense of this, we need to find a way of relating the beginning, middle, and end, in a coherent manner.

The author draws heavily on Christian ideas of the apocalypse, as these have had the most influence on Western thought over the last 2000 or so years. In particular, the apocalyptic ideas of the Middle Ages still influence us today - if anything, they continue to repeat themselves.

As Kermode analyzes it, the essential elements are a former age of glory, perhaps even perfection. A golden age. (One might consider this in any number of ways. Before the Fall, perhaps, or ancient Israel. Any time in the past could do, depending on one’s preferences. Some I know date this to the 1950s, or the 1800s, or even the Middle Ages.)

After that golden age came the present age. The “middle.” This is a time of “decadence,” when what was good has decayed, and is in need of a renovation. The ushering in of a new age.

However, the new age doesn’t happen without pains. Kermode refers to these as the “terrors.” All the bad, awful, painful, horrible stuff that has to occur in order that the decadent current culture and world is purged of what ails it, and the new age of glory is able to shine forth.

Any of us who were raised in the “pre-tribulation” view of the end times - or perhaps any version of dispensationalism - will recognize these elements. 

Along with this comes a sense that the end is very near. This actually isn’t a surprise, in Kermode’s view. Since, in a very real and personal sense, we all face our own apocalypse in our own inevitable death, the “end” is near - for us.

It is this very real sense of the personal which leads to some interesting - and predictable - results.

One that I particularly found fascinating was that specific predictions of the date of the end of the world have been made constantly throughout the last 2000 years. I tend to associate bad predictions with, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the late Harold Camping. But they were neither the first, nor the most prolific, nor the last.

For a bit of fun, read through the (undoubtedly partial) listing of predictions on Wikipedia.

There are some fun names on the list. Did you know that Martin Luther was sure that the world would expire before 1600? Or that even Christopher Columbus got in the game? Or how about Cotton Mather, best known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials, less known as an early proponent of vaccinations. He made no less than three predictions. And look, there is John Wesley. And Isaac Newton (who apparently liked big, round numbers, and thus chose 2000 as the year of the end.) 

There are also a bunch of completely unsurprising names. Jim Jones. Warren Jeffs (of polygamist fame). Pat Robertson. Nostradamus. (Assuming that anyone knows how to interpret his predictions.) Oh, and Charles Manson, who has the distinction of basing his predictions, not on counting numbers in the Bible, but by a creative interpretation of a Beatles album.

In any event, Kermode does a good job of analyzing the history of false predictions, and the need to make sense of the failures. At this point, he introduces the idea of “clerkly skepticism,” by those who doubt the ability to predict the end accurately. (If I find myself in any role in this drama, it has to be this one. I was born with a fairly active skeptic gene.)

Another key idea in this book is that of “fictions.” On the one hand, this book is about literature, and the way that fictions work within fiction. The more specific use of this word, however, is one familiar to lawyers. The law uses fictions all the time as a means of making reality and the law function together. A ready example of this, from my own area of practice, is the “fiction” of who passed first in a simultaneous death. (Imagine the married couple who die together in an airplane crash. Who died first? It might matter, say, if it was a second marriage, and they each had children from priors. Should one side get everything?) So we use a legal “fiction” to explain who died first in a way that does justice.

Or another example. Corporate “personhood” has become controversial as of late regarding the question of what “individual” rights should apply to corporations. However, the original question of “personhood” came up in a more mundane issue. Obviously, a corporation isn’t a “person” as most people understand it. That’s why it is a “fiction.” However, if one never treated a corporation as a person, insane results would be the order of the day. Let’s say you eat a tainted McNugget and get sick. Who do you sue? If a corporation lacks “personhood” for purposes of being a defendant, they you would have to track down each and every shareholder in McDonalds. Imagine the cost of that. So we use the “fiction” to reach a just and logical result. (That it isn’t always just or logical isn’t the point. The law will always have flaws for us to correct. That doesn’t prove that fictions are a bad idea.)

So in this sense, Kermode views the apocalyptic as a “fiction.” It is something that we use to make our experience and our fears line up with a logical system. The sense of an ending helps us process and make sense of our own place in time and our own beginnings and endings. It is a useful fiction for us, as it helps us “make sense of our lives.”

The problem, as the author views it, comes when we allow this “fiction” to become more than a fiction, by a myth. (In the literary view, a “myth” is something that is believed to possibly be true, rather than something entirely fictitious, like the Greek myths.)

Now, mind you, Kermode doesn’t see a belief in a literal apocalypse to be a negative. One can certainly believe in an eventual end of the world - and even a detailed version of that end - without becoming unable to separate the fiction from reality. I do certainly believe in the end of the world as a future historical event - although I have grave doubts as to my ability to comprehend or formulate any specific view of how that end will be. (Clerkly skepticism coming out.) And yes, I “understand” the various views within Christianity, and a number outside it as well. And the scientific consensus on the life cycle of stars, and so forth. I think at best, each theory has flaws and sees a tiny fraction of the whole.

[Or, as one of my favorite former pastors put it, he was a “Pan-tribulationalist/millenialist.” Since God was in charge, he believed it would all pan out in the end.]

The views aren’t the issue. The issue arises when one goes beyond the theoretical and tries to make the “fiction” come true.

Obvious examples would be Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite (of Comet Hale-Bopp fame). The belief in the imminent apocalypse led to mass suicide.

Kermode also notes this tendency in fascism.

What is, in this sense, wrong and dangerous is the belief, gratefully learnt by fascism from the innocent pragmatists, that fictions are to be justified or verified by their practical effects. Thus, the world is changed to conform with a fiction, as by the murder of Jews. The effect is to insult reality, and to regress to myth.

Thus much for the most pernicious of the effects of failing to see the fiction as a fiction. But there are lesser effects which one can see readily apparent.

I was startled to read the best explanation I have yet heard of something that I have noted. Because the “end” is really about our own end, our particular “crisis” is always the most important of all time. We are always standing at the crossroads of history, facing decisions more important than anyone ever, in all of history, ever faced.

It seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in an extraordinary relationship to it. The time is not free, it is the slave of a mythical end. We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.

Yes! This is everywhere! “The most important election ever!” “This is the most crucial time in history!” It’s perfect for frightening people into buying stuff, donating money, or accepting ludicrous and harmful ideas. Forget sex, what really sells is fear.

And really, it does feel better to believe that our short lives have significance in the grand sweep of history. If we just do things right, we usher in the new age of glory! We are the most important people in all of history! It adds that feeling of meaning, and allows us to relate the beginning, middle, and end.

But this is all a distraction from the real core issue.

The ending isn’t necessarily imminent. But it is absolutely immanent. It is in all of us. Our own ending. Our own significance. How will we relate our own beginning, middle and end?

(Kermode does get bonus points from me for using an “imminent/immanent” comparison.)

This is what I understood as the central idea behind the lectures, and thus this book.

There is more too. Kermode does discuss the ideas in the context of literature. He assumes the reader has read the books in question, which put me at a bit of a disadvantage when he discussed 20th Century literature. That is a definite gap in my reading, although I am slowly remedying it.

Sartre gets a good bit of time. I am not a fan of Sartre. At all. But I did find one issue interesting. Sartre was a determinist, largely believing that free will is an illusion. (One of many reasons I dislike him.) So the question is, if one cannot truly “choose,” how does one make choices?

As Sartre put it, “all ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So we try to change the world; that is, to live as if the relations between things and their potentialities were governed not by deterministic processes but by magic.”

Again, I disagree with Sartre on that basic level, but he makes an interesting point about fictions. We utilize them, not because they are true, but because they allow us to relate to and act upon truth. This is the power behind fiction, fictions, and perhaps all the arts. A novel has power not because it relates true events, but because its fiction relates us to the truths of life.

I do want to touch briefly on how one might see the apocalyptic in literature. There are some abundantly obvious examples. The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the clearest work to view as an apocalypse. Kermode’s elements are all there and plain to see. If one looks, many works are like this. But even in a broader sense, a book must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And these must relate to each other, or the book risks being unable to say anything at all. Whether you buy into Kermode’s theory as applied to literature as a whole - or society as a whole - it is an interesting exercise to look at the stories we tell, obviously fictional or not, as related to the basic concept of reconciling the beginning and end, and making sense of our place in time.

Kermode draws examples from works as diverse as those of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Phillip Larkin. There are pithy and apropos quotes scattered throughout. But the one poet that fascinates Kermode more than any other is Wallace Stevens. I admit that I too enjoy Stevens’ poetry a great deal. (One of my favorite nerdy non-fiction books is The Nothing that Is, which title is drawn from a Stevens poem.)

So, I can’t help but quote one of the passages that Kermode uses. This is from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.

The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.


If it should be true that reality exists
In the mind: the tin plate, the loaf of bread on it,
The long-bladed knife, the little to drink and her

Misericordia, it follows that
Real and unreal are two in one: New Haven
Before and after one arrives or, say,

Bergamo on a postcard, Rome after dark,
Sweden described, Salzburg with shaded eyes
Or Paris in conversation at a café.

This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

“4 Tiki of the Apocalypse”, by my friend Craig Fraser
Because I love this painting.