Monday, July 29, 2019

Such A Strange Lady by Janet Hitchman

Source of book: I own this. 
My wife has outstanding taste in books, and never fails to find me great used books for various occasions, including Christmas of 2016, when she found this one. 

Such A Strange Lady is a biography - the very first written - of Dorothy L. Sayers. (The “L” was important to her - it was from her maternal ancestor Percival Leigh - one of the founders of Punch.) Most will know her, if at all, for her Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries, although the number of people I know who have heard of her is disappointingly small. Fewer still will know of her amazing feminist essays, collected as Are Women Human? And yes, you absolutely should read them. 

My history with Sayers starts with her short story “The Inspiration of Mr. Budd,” which I read for 7th or 8th grade literature. I was smitten, but didn’t really follow up on her at the time. Later, in law school, a good friend happened to bring Murder Must Advertise along to a law school conference. I borrowed it, and read it before we had to return to our respective coasts. (There is a reason I wasn’t an A+ law student. I cared...enough. But not enough to work that hard and give up reading for fun. Oh well, no real regrets.) 

So anyway, it was interesting to read more about her life. She was the child of a country clergyman - one who actually exemplified the Christian ethic, often giving away more of his modest income than he could afford to help the poor. He also was determined to give young Dorothy - an only child, and a bit peculiar - as good an education as a boy. She wasn’t exactly a model student, although she was obviously highly intelligent. She was also socially awkward, tall and big boned, louder than people thought she should be. She got through school fine, and managed to get into Oxford. She completed her courses there with moderate distinction. But she was given no degree - Oxford didn’t get those to women at the time. (She would eventually get her degree many years later, and Oxford would see the error of its ways after she left.) 

Sayers struggled after graduation to find her place in the world. She taught. And hated it. She wrote, but took a while to find success - which she did by writing genre fiction - the Lord Peter mysteries, which she felt were beneath her, but they paid the bills. She worked for a while in advertising, where she was actually pretty good. Although most of us are too young (and in my case too American) to remember it, there was a fantastically successful campaign for Colman’s Mustard, featuring the fictional adventures of the “Mustard Club.” While the idea wasn’t hers, she ended up writing most of the copy. And, she later used her experiences in Murder Must Advertise.

Later, Sayers would return to her more scholarly roots, with a series of plays (performed mostly on radio) with religious themes, several books on theology and religion, and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Predictably, this last drew some undeserved derision - how could a mere writer of mystery novels attempt a translation. Sayers reminded the critics that long before she was a writer of fiction, she was a scholar - and the fiction served to pay her bills. 

Sayers had little luck in love, alas. She had a child out of wedlock. The father is unknown to this day - she was extremely private about it. She gave the boy her name, although she outsourced the raising for the most part. She later married a flaky sort, who slept around on her, and drank. They seemed to get along after a fashion, although she didn’t exactly mourn his death openly. (To be honest, I wonder if she was on the Autism spectrum. It would make sense of many things about her. As the author puts it about her childhood, “Like the cat, an animal she dearly loved, she tolerated, rather than embraced, civilization.”)  

There are some highly interesting things in this short book. First is the fact that the author had to make do with a relative minimum of information. Her family refused to cooperate at all, leading to an absolutely fantastic line in the introduction:

“I must absolve from any errors Miss Sayers’ family, close friends, and executors, from whom I had no assistance whatsoever.”

I also must quote a few things regarding the religious plays. During World War Two, Sayers wrote a radio production for the BBC on the life of Christ. It was a multi-part series, to be performed by actors (horrors!) and in modern English. Predictably, this was met with great pearl clutching by the Fundies of 1940s British society, and much pressure was put on the BBC to cancel it. This was particularly silly as Sayers wrote a rather respectful play, in keeping with her devout beliefs - but also her modern artistic sensibilities. As with modern Fundie boycott campaigns, this rather backfired. The BBC stood firm, and the campaign gave free publicity to Sayers. As she put it in her tributes to the actors and producers, with her characteristic wit:

It is moreover irresistibly tempting (though is it kind or Christian?) to mention the Lord’s Day Observance Society and the Protestant Truth Society, who so obligingly did all our publicity for us at, I fear, considerable expense to themselves. Without their efforts, the plays might have slipped by with comparatively little notice, being given at an hour inconvenient for grown-up listening. These doughty opponents secured for us a large increase in our adult audience and thus enabled the political and theological issues in the most important part of the story to be treated with more breadth and pungency than might otherwise have seemed justifiable...The irony of the situation is, however, not of my making--it is part of the universal comedy. Let us record the plain fact: the opposition did us good service; let our gratitude for that go where all gratitude is due. 

Also fascinating to me regarding the plays is her nuanced take on one of the underrated characters in the Gospels: Judas Iscariot. To portray him as a cartoon villain is indefensible in my mind. Sayers wrote about this to her producer when the project was in progress. 

Judas is an insoluble riddle. He can’t have been awful from the start, or Christ would never have called him. I mean, one can’t suppose that He deliberately chose a traitor in order to get Himself betrayed--that savours too much of the agent provocateur, and isn’t the sort of thing one would expect of any decent man, let alone of any decent God--to do. And He can’t have been so stupid as to have been taken in by an obviously bad hat;--quite apart from any doctrinal assumptions. He was far too good a psychologist. Judas must have been a case of corruptio optima pessima; but what corrupted him? Disappointment at finding that the earthly kingdom wasn’t coming along? or defeatism, feeling that the war was lost, and one had better make terms quickly? Or just (as the Gospels seem rather unconvincingly to suggest) money and alarm for his own interests? If we can get a coherent Judas we can probably get a coherent plot.

I have wondered along the same lines since my youth. It is so refreshing to hear Sayers talk of the same questions. In fact, I must say that whenever I read her writing, I find gems like this, where she understands the nuance and asks the hard questions. It was unsurprising to discover that she flirted with agnosticism in her teens and college years, before finding a more mystical and complex version of faith. 

For those who haven’t discovered Sayers, she is an underrated writer and thinker. She is also a member of my Fantasy Dinner Party. (You have one of those, right? Past and present people you would invite to the greatest dinner party of all time?) Sayers has been on my list for decades, and I still think she would be fantastic. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book certainly qualifies, as I had never heard of it before it was nominated for the club. 

A little backstory might be interesting here. One of our members has a grandchild who attends college with the author’s daughter - so that’s how we discovered the book. 

Be Frank With Me is a bit of an unusual book. It is fiction, although according to the author’s daughter, the central character is based in significant part on the author’s son. It resembles - to me - more of an extended short story rather than a novel in that there isn’t really much of a narrative arc. Things happen, and there are a few developments, but it doesn’t feel like any of the characters change in any significant way, and there doesn’t seem to be - to me - anything that would constitute a true turning point. 

Frank is a 10 year old boy. Although it is never said, he is pretty obviously on the autism spectrum. This was a puzzling thing about this - and other books and media - for some reason, autism is portrayed but rarely if ever named. Instead, he is labeled “eccentric,” like he was an 18th Century aristocrat or something. Since this is the 21st Century, one would think that we wouldn’t hide diagnosable conditions behind euphemism or obfuscation anymore, but apparently not. Frank’s mother, Mimi, is a novelist famous for her one great work, written when she was very young. After the success of the novel, she went into hiding, or less, and never published anything else. In some ways, she appears to be a nod to either Harper Lee, or J. D. Salinger. Lee in that the one book made her fame and fortune, but Salinger in the nature of the book, which appears to be a coming-of-age story. 

Mimi is pretty thoroughly dysfunctional, both because of her screwed up parents, and the fact that her “eccentric” brother committed suicide by jumping out her dorm window. Whatever the case, she had Frank by sperm donor, and seems fully incapable of actually parenting him. Frank, odd as he is, seems as much or more of the adult in the family. 

When Mimi loses her fortune to a scam artist, she is forced out of retirement to write a new book to pay her bills. Mr. Vargas, her agent (and possible past lover), knows he will have to find a way to keep Mimi on track. Enter Alice, the narrator. She is a mid-20s woman still trying to decide what to do with her life - she has an accounting degree, but considers that job to be settling for being an old and boring person. Mr. Vargas sends Alice to be, essentially, a combination of a nag and an au pair for Mimi and Frank. Her duties range from cooking to driving to entertaining Frank - no small job. 

Frank has a few weird obsessions. He dresses in old fashioned clothes. Think cravats, top hats, flannel suits, and the like. It’s all out of his other obsession, which is old movies, which he has virtually memorized. He also freaks out if he or his possessions are touched. He is bullied at school, but has no coping skills other than pretending to have seizures or go catatonic. He naturally has a tendency to get into trouble with...whatever is at hand. 

For her part, Alice is unprepared for the task. She has no relevant training, and plenty of her own family dysfunction to work through. She bumbles through her interactions with Frank before she figures him out a bit. This process isn’t helped by the fact that Mimi appears to hate her, and undermine her at every step. 

The other main character in this drama is Xander, a recognizable flaky sort. He serves as the occasional handyman for Mimi, fixing stuff, teaching Frank piano, bringing a bit of brio to the household. But then he just disappears regularly without warning, can’t be counted on at all, and hasn’t apparently grown much beyond his teenage years. So, the sort who thinks illegal fireworks are a great present for a 10 year old, and plans a birthday party that he then gets Alice to do all the work for. Of all the characters, I think have met more Xanders than I can count. It turns out, naturally, that he and Mimi connected through their mutual trauma of losing a sibling under guilt-inducing circumstances. 

The yet-to-be-written book serves as the MacGuffin. It exists to give the circumstances of the novel a reason to happen. Mimi needs to write the book, so Alice has to come help out. Mimi needs to spend time with her typewriter, so Mimi has to be essentially Frank’s sole caregiver. Mimi’s book takes her away from Frank, so he acts out more than usual. When Frank halfway burns the house down with the fireworks, Mimi’s book seems to have been destroyed. Frank’s obsessive turn as the “family historian” leads him to steal the book (and the others she wrote but tried to throw away) and secret them away, saving them. 

In this way, the book seems to be more like an extended short story. It gives a picture of an interesting person - Frank - and the people that are in his orbit. And by that standard, it is a rather effective - if long - story. It draws you in, and you want to learn more. The characters are interesting and believable. But at the end, when it essentially just...ends, you are left with the feeling that there should be more, not just a picture. Maybe it is a matter of expectations. 

There is one exchange that perhaps captures the essence of Frank best. It comes after a huge incident early in the book. Frank has launched himself at his mother, after she finally emerges from a day of writing. Unfortunately, he knocks her into a sliding glass door, which shatters, and lacerates her enough to warrant a night in the hospital. And also gets blood on Frank’s outfit. 

Mimi, exhausted, tells Frank to get undressed, and soak his clothes so the blood won’t stain. She crashes before she can follow up. In the meantime, Frank gets the idea of just wearing the clothes into the bathtub, and then falls asleep himself. 

“You almost gave me a heart attack, Frank,” I said. “I thought you were dead. What are you doing in the tub with your clothes on?”
“Sleeping. I thought it would save you work if I soaked my clothes while I soaked myself.”
“Are you insane?” I regretted saying that instantly.
“No,” he said. “See? I took my boots off first.” He lowered his goggles over his eyes and went under. He watched my chin while I watched the water fill the goggles. 
“Those aren’t watertight,” I said when he came up for air and pushed his goggles up his forehead.
“I know. I was just confirming earlier research.”
“Listen, Frank, I’m sorry I said that you’re insane.”
“You didn’t say I was insane. You asked. One is a statement and the other is the question. You’re not the first to ask me that, either.”

Such is life with Frank, who is frustrating and endearing. Personally, I would have approached raising him a bit differently - but I am obviously not Mimi, in a whole variety of ways. It was interesting that a number of our book club members either have autism spectrum family members (my wife is one of those), or who work with spectrum children. It made for quite the lively discussion of Frank - and the other likely autistic members of his family. Johnson gets the details right on many things, from the specifics of Frank’s reactions, to the school administrators who try to avoid making a diagnosis which would require them to actually deviate from their rigid procedures - and who treat Frank as if he were a “problem kid” with bad morals, rather than working from a different operating system, so to speak. 

Be Frank With Me is an interesting book. With the caveats about expectations already mentioned, it is worth reading.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz

Source of book: Borrowed from the library - but I want to get my own copy

Before I started this blog, I read a book that I consider to be one of the most enlightening I have ever read. That book is The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. I play classical violin professionally, and had a pretty good baseline music education. But Ross was able, in his history of modern classical, to bring a new perspective - and appreciation - to my understanding of 20th Century music. 

In the same way, What Are You Looking At? gives a history and perspective on modern art that is truly helpful in understanding the meaning and significance of an often maligned subject. Although my knowledge of art is, perhaps, not as extensive as music, I do not consider myself to be a neophyte. I have a pretty good collection in my library of art and art history books. We live within a reasonable distance of several world-class art museums. (The De Young in San Francisco, the Getty, Hammer, Norton Simon, and LACMA in Los Angeles, the Timkin and San Diego Museum of Art, to name just the ones we have been to.) In addition, I have spent several days in the Louvre, a day at the D’Orsay, and a day at Versailles. Between all of these, I have seen quite a few masterworks in person. (Most recently, a travelling exhibition of late Monet at the De Young.) So, I have some experience and knowledge. 

That said, I, like many, have found the experience of modern art to be a bit confusing - even when I found myself moved. What Are You Looking At? is essentially a layman’s introduction to the different movements in modern art, and their goals, major works, and major artists. For myself, I found that I knew some of the information already, but it was helpful to put things in full context. I should mention as well that my 13 year old son has been reading this too, and says he is really enjoying it. 

Will Gompertz is currently the arts editor for the BBC, and served as a director at the Tate gallery for seven years. He has also spent 30 years writing about art. These experiences make him particularly qualified to write this book. He knows his art, but he also writes in an understandable manner, without the purple prose and obfuscatory language that makes many art critics incomprehensible to anyone outside the clique. 

Gompertz makes a crucial decision in how he starts the book, which I thought was brilliant. First, he introduces perhaps the best known (or infamous) incident in modern art history: the creation of Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. (If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a urinal repurposed as art - it is still hard to believe it happened way back in 1917, and modern art ever since has been in many ways a reaction to that shockwave. ) 

From there, he starts where any history of modern art should: with the Impressionists. For many people, “modern art” starts with, say, Picasso, or even with Duchamp, while Impressionism is grouped with “classic” art. But nothing could be further from the truth. The journey that art would take in modern times does indeed start with the break that the Impressionists made from the old way of doing things. Rather than attempting literal representation, the Impressionists sought to create a deeper, artistic truth. This, and the break from aristocratic patronage, set a new course. It is more complicated than that, of course, and Gompertz explains it better than I do. 

There are a few quotes or passages that stood out as particularly relevant to me. First is on the way that titles are given after the fact. In discussing the Post-Impressionists (van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cezanne), Gompertz notes that none of them would have considered themselves Post-Impressionists, for the simple reason that term wasn’t coined until they were all dead. Gompertz then discusses the problem inherent to the issue: how to describe an exhibition in a way that draws people in, while also meaningfully describing the art. He opines that this highlights a central tension in the art world: “public engagement versus scholarship. Curators and artists recognize the helpful role the media plays in communicating their ideas to a skeptical, non-specialist public, but in all honesty most would rather not bother. And they would rather have rusty nails poked in their eyes than acquiesce to an  exhibition title that might humiliate them in front of their peers by being remotely ‘populist.’” 

I also liked the use of a van Gogh quote about art, namely the modern “distortion” of reality in representation: “I have a longing to make such incorrectness, such deviations, remodelings, changes in reality, so that they may become, well -- lies, if you want -- but truer than the literal truth.” In this sense, for van Gogh, painting aimed to be poetry, a truth beyond literal truth. 

One chapter that really blew my mind was the one on Futurism. I will confess that this was not a movement I really was familiar with. Gompertz quotes Filippo Marinetti, the provoquer who wrote a manifesto for the movement - a manifesto which was proto-fascist. 

“We wish to glorify war -- the sole cleanser of the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of liberation, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.” 

Yikes. And yes, this was in the run-up to the rise of Fascism in Europe. 

On a more positive note, Gompertz really explains abstract art better than any other writer. He makes the observation, obvious in retrospect, that abstract art is an attempt to make the visual arts into an analogue to music: art, expression, emotion, beauty in its pure form, unencumbered by the needs of literal representation. It is the equivalent of a Mozart symphony - it isn’t “about” anything. It is music for music’s sake. 

I also have to quote Gompertz’ analysis of the the Soviet “non-objective art” movement.

In terms of global influence and longevity, the Russian artists beat their politicians hands down. Communism caused a cold war with the West, could have ended in Armageddon, and eventually failed. Whereas non-objective art gave form to twentieth-century modern design and provided the basis for Minimalism to emerge in America around fifty years later, a development that is not without irony. While the politicians embarked on a cold war, art was demonstrating that the two countries influenced each other more than either cared to acknowledge. 

And in a way, Gompertz is spot-on. Most of what we take for granted as “modernist” design - the very language of our buildings, appliances, fonts, brands, and so on, show great influence from the Russian artists. 

I will end with an observation of one of the reasons Gompertz is successful in this book. At the outset, he defuses one of the most enduring criticisms of modern art: that it is a sham foisted on the gullible public. Gompertz makes the cogent point that one need not “like” a particular work of art to understand its significance or its place in history. In fact, he gives full permission to dislike a work of art, or an artist, or a movement - and not everything ages well. We may well look back on this era and reevaluate which artists were truly great. But understanding how it fits together can make sense of what is considered great from our own time. I personally find this useful. I love art, as a general rule. But there have always been artists and eras that, while I appreciate that they are art, fail to move me. One example of this is a certain Baroque style, with the cherubs and allusions to Ovid, and so on. Great art? Probably. Do I enjoy it? Not really. Ditto for some modern art and styles. Just not my thing, and that is okay. 

Gompertz succeeds in his goal, which is to make sense of modern art and the threads that run through it. (Or, perhaps I should say, rail lines? One of the great things about the book is a map of modern art, modeled after the London Tube map. Seriously, it’s great. 

I do intend to find my own copy of this book - it can be the companion to my copy of The Rest is Noise, where I can look up artists and ideas whenever I want to refresh my memory of where things fit. It is a truly outstanding book, and helpful to any lover of art who wants to better understand the last 140 years. 


Not that anyone asked, but here are my favorite artists, in roughly chronological order. I have prints of some of these at my office. 

1. Albrecht Durer. I must have been in single digits when I first experienced his work. I love it all, from the realistic magic of The Large Piece of Turf to his allegorical works. 
2. Rembrandt. I have seen several of his paintings in person. There are no words to adequately describe the emotional impact. He is the visual equivalent of Dostoevsky, probing the darkest corners of the psyche of his subjects. 
3. Goya. Again, hard to put into words how these make me feel. He went to some dark places, but in a genius way. 
4. Delacroix. I usually get a blank look with this one. Which makes me sad. The Louvre has an outstanding collection of his paintings, and they are nothing short of spectacular. Liberty Leading the People is perhaps the most famous - for good reason - but literally everything of his I have seen has struck me with his amazing technique and vision. Each feels like a novel in itself, with a compelling story. 
5. Van Gogh. Call it a cliche if you wish. His works speak to me at an emotional level. And seeing them in person is an experience not to be missed. 
6. Cezanne. Again, this is definitely at an emotional level. I can’t even entirely explain it. I find my eyes drawn to his works in any gallery. 
7. Braque. My favorite Cubist. Again, I find my eyes seeking out his work - there is something about his art that draws me in. 
8. Frieda Kahlo. I love her works, particularly the allegorical stuff. 

These are the ones that I like best, but by no means are they the only ones I like. Art, like music, literature, poetry, and nature, are what inspire me, and make life more than a grinding routine. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Trans Atlantic by Colum McCann

Source of book: I own this. 

Every year, for the last quite a few, I have participated in a 10 kilometer run, the annual Rock to Pier race. My wife started it, the same way she got me into running as an adult. (I ran a bit as a teen, but not competitively.) Namely, she started doing it, and encouraged me to join in. Rock to Pier is run from Morro Rock (at Morro Bay, California) to Cayucos Pier, roughly 6.2 miles away. On the beach, at low tide, early in the morning. In other words, as fun of a run as you will find. The fact that they run it in July, when it is hot as Hades in Bakersfield, but is usually a cloudy 55 at race time in Morro Bay is a real bonus. All this to say that this weekend was spent at the beach. Which means I needed a beach read. 

I haven’t always been consistent in what I read at the beach. Some years, I have just brought whatever I was already reading. Last year, I did it right, and brought a P. G. Wodehouse book (Cocktail Time) - which is ALWAYS a good choice for light beach reading. Another year, I brought a Camus, which was perhaps a bit heavy for the occasion. Sometimes, my book is too big for a single weekend, as in the case when I started The Irregulars, about Roald Dahl’s spy work. 

Anyway, this time, I selected as my beach read a book that I happened to pick up used, by an author I enjoyed last time. (Definitely consider reading Let the Great World Spin. It is excellent.) This book is shorter, and rather different, but it showcases McCann’s wonderful writing and creative conceptualization. 

Colum McCann was born and grew up in Ireland, but immigrated to the United States, and has lived in New York for most of his career. You can tell that his heart is in both places, though, the country of his origin, and his adopted country. While Let the Great World Spin has an Irish connection, Trans Atlantic is explicitly about the connections between the two worlds. The first half of the book tells of three historical crossings between North America and Ireland, each of which had profound consequences for history. These three narratives are told from the point of view of three historical characters - with a bit of artistic license. The second half of the book is purely fictional, telling of four generations of women and their connections to Ireland and the New World. These narratives intersect with the historical narratives, although this doesn’t become clear until later in the book. In this sense, I spent the first half of the book trying to figure out how McCann was going to make sense of all the seemingly unconnected stories. I am not entirely sure he pulled off what he was intending, but I’m also not sure it matters. The book was thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating throughout, whether or not it truly gelled as a whole. McCann is a skilled writer, and a compelling storyteller, and that carries the book. 

McCann selected three historical events, all of which are - in my opinion - underrated and underappreciated. I suspect that McCann thought so too - and his short interview at the end of the paperback edition I own supports that surmise. 

The first in the book (although chronologically second) is the first transatlantic non-stop aircraft flight. And NO, IT WAS NOT LINDBERGH! (Sorry, I’m a bit of an airplane buff - my dad worked in aviation most of my childhood in addition to flying as an amateur pilot.) Lindburgh gets credit mostly because he - and his aircraft - were photogenic. And his kid was kidnapped and murdered. He was, to be sure, the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, but he did so a full EIGHT YEARS after Alcock and Brown did so - and several others made the trip in various aircraft and airships. (Also often lost to memory is that Lindbergh was an open Nazi, who was rebuked by FDR for his pro-Nazi propaganda efforts.) Anyway, Alcock and Brown made the crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, winning the prize for the first successful effort, and also bringing the first airmail from North America to Europe. 

The second crossing in the book is the first chronologically: the trip that Frederick Douglass made to Ireland to lecture and gather support for abolition. In 1938, the enslaved Douglass escaped and fled to New York, where he became a free man. Well, sort of. He was still, legally, a slave in the South. He was also vulnerable to being captured by slave catchers from the South working in the North - his life literally depended on his being able to escape from those who would enslave him again. Seven years later, in 1845, he would travel to Ireland and England to lecture. His letters reveal the sense of profound relief he felt on setting foot in Ireland, where he was legally a free man. McCann describes the tour of Ireland from the point of view of Douglass. While he does draw on the letters Douglass himself wrote, he also is clear that the book is fiction, and the individual incidents are not historical. This section of the book is also fantastic, in my view. Douglass arrived during the Potato Famine, and got to see first hand the crushing poverty and starvation. And, as McCann points out, the famine was far more complicated than just a potato blight. During the famine, Ireland literally produced enough food to feed twice its population. But the food was exported, leaving the locals to starve. Factors in this were the centuries-long oppression of Ireland by England. English landlords owned much of the land - even though they lived back in England. The food was exported for a profit (to the landlords, not the tenants) to feed England’s livestock, colonial armies, and territories. Laissez-faire economic policies allowed the wealthy to seek profits literally at the expense of Irish lives, and caused food prices to soar beyond the ability of the working poor - tenants of the gentry - to pay. A million died, and a million more emigrated - reducing Ireland’s population by 25%. The Famine stands as a sobering example of how unregulated capitalism can fail vulnerable people, while enriching the wealthy. It literally killed the most people in Europe in the 19th Century other than the Napoleonic Wars. The Famine also led to mass migration to the United States, causing the first major immigration panic (very similar to that of today.) 

The third historical crossing that McCann uses in the book is one which occurred during my lifetime. I confess, it didn’t really mean much to me at the time, mostly because its significance wouldn’t become apparent until years - decades - later. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an unprecedented peace to Ireland, has turned out, in retrospect, to have been one of the great triumphs of diplomacy of the 20th Century. While many deserve credit for making it happen, Senator George Mitchell was a key figure, chairing the talks, and making numerous trips across the Atlantic to facilitate the peace process. McCann chooses to tell the story of the final week of that negotiation from the perspective of Mitchell. 

A bit of my own experience here. I grew up during the Troubles. They were a constant background during my entire minority. They also served as the sole remaining example of Catholic/Protestant warfare. And also a graphic example of the fact that no conflict is either purely religious. Politics and religion are always intertwined, and the Irish Troubles were as much about hundreds of years of oppression and abuse by England and the tension between wealthy Brits who plundered Ireland as about any doctrinal differences. In fact, I suspect most of those involved at the street level could have really told you any meaningful differences in doctrine. It was always us versus them and hate and history and politics. In my late teens, I read a few early Tom Clancy books. (Before he became a brand…) One of those was Patriot Games, about the Irish conflict. It was the start, for me, of learning nuance in political/religious conflict, and, in my opinion, it is the best written of Clancy’s books. Also, during the time of the agreements, I discovered (after a childhood of hostility toward secular music) U2, and their refreshingly Christian take on violence and conflict. 

After these three historical episodes, McCann turns to the lives of four generations of women who come into the other stories. It starts with Lily, a servant girl in an Irish household (with a rather dark past), who decides, inspired by her meeting with Douglass, to take a boat to America. Once she arrives, she finds (like most Irish immigrants) that she is viewed as a “white n----r,” and less than the “native” white population. She has a child out of wedlock, he is killed in the Civil War, and she ends up marrying a Norweigian immigrant and having a family with him. Her daughter, Emily, becomes a journalist, despite the sexism of the times. (She ends up being forced into an affair with a married man to get her articles published, only for him to claim he wrote all her stuff.) With a daughter by this creep, she flees to Canada, and establishes her own career. She is there when Alcock and Brown take off on their historic flight, and her teenage daughter, Lottie, takes pictures. Later, Lottie meets an Irishman when they travel to interview Brown, and she marries him, settling in Ireland. An elderly Lottie later meets Mitchell at a tennis match. Lottie’s daughter Hannah completes the story, telling of her son’s death at the hands of some group or another during the Troubles, and her eventual loss of the family property due to debt and the changing of the times. 

The point of the book is definitely not the plot. I don’t feel I am giving away any spoilers, because there are no real surprises in that sense. The history is easy enough to know, and the specifics of the women’s stories are more about the psychology than the incidents. McCann emphasizes the question of belonging. Is Lily Irish, or is she American? And what does that even mean? Is she Catholic, Atheist, or Protestant? And what is the meaning of that for her anyway? And, for that matter, where is the meaning of her life: her mother forced into prostitution, her abandonment by the father of her child, the death of her husband in an accident, her success in a man’s world. Emily, likewise, must find her place. She leaves the United States for Canada, just as she leaves the rural Midwest for the big city. When her daughter remains in Ireland, while she returns, who is she? Lottie too has her questions. She chooses Ireland, but will always be “the American.” Of the four, Hannah is the least conflicted internally - she is of her land. But she is losing that land, and that connection. Where will she go? That question is left unanswered, but it is hinted that she may make the move back to North America and take her chances in her old age. 

This is where I must say that I really love McCann’s writing. His descriptions are economical yet evocative. In both of his books, I found even the minor characters to be intriguing, human, and well drawn. He rarely dwells on the successful sorts, but gives a human look to those who struggle. For this reason, his descriptions of both urban Dublin and rural Ireland, both with crushing poverty and desperation, are shockingly real. The little details, the chance conversation, the smells: it comes to life with his prose. 

On a related note, McCann has an eye for those who truly live their religion. The radical priest in Let the Great World Spin is one of the most memorable characters I can think of, to be sure. But in this book, the Quakers and the devout Irish Catholics (not the powerful, but the kind) are drawn with a nuance - and they become perhaps the most inspirational characters in the book. As McCann notes, it is those who dwell on the outskirts of society for various reasons, who understand empathy and human decency. The ones not quite accepted by the mainstream, the dissenters, those who marry outside race and class, those motivated by a love for neighbor and an abhorrence of oppressive hierarchies. 

This may all sound more serious and dark than the book is. It actually is a good beach or summer read, with a lot of optimism mixed with the realities of human nature. McCann has a knack for writing literary fiction that becomes a page turner because of character and story, not a thriller plot. You can’t wait to find out what happens not because it is a mystery or action adventure (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but because you care about the characters and want to find out how their lives turn out. 

I’ll end with the ending line in the book, which I love:

We have to admire the world for not ending on us. 

McCann has a knack for the final line. Let the Great World Spin ends with “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” It is this weird optimism, in the face of tragedy and hardship, that characterizes McCann’s writing. Life is hard, and often tragic. But it is, in its own way, beautiful, and the very fact that life goes on is admirable.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

James Dobson and "Spiritual Pornography" (or, how to feel good while doing evil.)

I was prompted to write this post because James Dobson, a prominent Evangelical leader (who was revered in my family when I was a kid), wrote an article which so utterly horrified and disgusted me, that I couldn’t remain silent. 

Having contemplated it for a while, I realized that it is of an all-too-common genre of the Religious Right, which I am calling “Spiritual Pornography.” 

Let me explain what I mean first, before I analyze the article itself and why I believe it is thoroughly unchristian - anti-christian really. 

The human creature is capable of pleasure of many kinds. I love food - perhaps a bit too much. I love music. I love poetry. I love the endorphins after hard exercise. I love nature. And yes, I love sex. Sex is, in many ways, the most visceral of pleasures. At its best, it involves body, psyche, and soul, and creates an intimate connection. 

Spirituality is a lot like sex. Ideally, it is an intimate connection to the divine and to our fellow creatures. As Christ put it, love of God and love of others. While not exactly the same, there is a certain analogous pleasure in these connections which resembles the ecstasy of sexuality. (I know some will violently disagree with this assessment - and I believe it is often because of the way sexual pleasure has been relegated to the status of “dirty” at best, and evil at worst. At least within Evangelical circles.) 

The thing is, spiritual pleasure, like sexual pleasure, is somewhat morally neutral in itself, and can be experienced in ways that are good, ways that are neutral, and ways that are thoroughly evil. To give an example, in the case of sex, a mutually pleasurable sexual experience with a willing and enthusiastic partner is a good thing. But obtaining sexual pleasure by raping someone is very much an evil thing, even if it feels good to the rapist. The key takeaway point, though, is that to a penis, the experience of ejaculation is the same in both cases, and the pleasurable feeling is not a good guide to the morality of the act. 

In my opinion, spiritual pleasures are experienced largely in the same way. We each have, in a manner of speaking, an organ in our psyche which experiences this pleasure. It can be stimulated by a morally positive spiritual experience, but it can also be stimulated by evil. 

I’ll come back to this later and explain how it works in context.


First, here is what Dobson wrote. (This is a “do not link” link, so it won’t give him hit counts.) 

Astonishingly, several people have linked the article and told me that if I actually read it, I would realize what a great thing it was.

In fact, I DID read it - all the way through - which is why I was appalled and called it thoroughly unchristian, cruel, and shameful. 

Basically, Dobson, who has been a close buddy of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named, was invited by said narcissist to go view the internment camps where we are imprisoning refugees seeking asylum in our country. After viewing the conditions, and the desperation of those fleeing violence and poverty in their homelands, he came away with a rather astonishing conclusion. (See below.) 

A good bit of the opening of the article lays out the horrors. Many of these are, to put it honestly, OUR FAULT. We chose and choose to incarcerate refugees rather than letting them in with a work permit while we go through the process. We do this essentially for political reasons - our laws since the founding of our nation have been hostile to non-whites, and our immigration restrictions since the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 have been intended to keep America white. There is no morally compelling reason for this mass incarceration, so any hardship and pain to immigrants and refugees is inflicted by US, and WE are to blame for that pain. (And I believe God will hold us accountable in eternity for what we have done.) 

The article also spends some time on the hardships of the journey here. And notes that there are a lot more families and children coming now than before. Although Dobson fails to understand the obvious point: things are so bad that whole families are fleeing - I mean, nobody travels thousands of miles with toddlers unless staying is unthinkable. 

Dobson is oh-so-careful to say in detail how his good “christian” heart bleeds for these people, and how it made him cry. And he wants them to know that “God loves them.” 

But then…

What is his solution to this pain and suffering and hardship refugees face?

Send them back where they came from, and build a giant wall to KEEP THEM OUT! And then change the law to prevent them from applying for asylum. 

I wish I were making that up, but he literally says that! After detailing the suffering, he says that this proves that Christians need to support Donald Fucking Trump’s giant wall. To keep poor and desperate people where they belong: away from us where we don’t have to see them. 

It gets worse!

Dobson then goes on to repeat Trump’s talking points about how immigrants are mostly gangsters and drug runners and diseased and poor and...well, we don’t want THOSE people here in our nice little [white] Christian country, do we? Heck, they might vote Democrat, and we know Democrats are evil, right? 

Let me give a few quotes here which illustrate the utter depravity of Dobson’s conclusions. 

I have wondered, with you, why the authorities don’t just deny these refugees access to this nation. Can’t we just send them back to their places of origin?
[Dobson explains where they come from, which is from quite a few countries, not just Mexico.]
What are we to do with them? The Mexican government will not take them back, and there is no place to send them. Our current laws do not permit us to repatriate them to their country of origin. This is a disaster with no solution or projected conclusion. 

Okay, did you get that?

Faced with overwhelming evidence of need and desperation, Dobson’s question - which he assumes his readers share - is “Can’t we just send them back?” 

And his answer is, well, no, because our laws forbid that - so we need to change the laws so that we can. 

Holy mother of Beelzebub. 

What kind of evil person comes to that conclusion? There is somehow a pathological lack of empathy and compassion that is ugly and disgusting in any human being - but doubly so in someone claiming to be “christian.” 

I won’t quote all of the rhetoric in this post, but in addition to the original (linked above), I recommend Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism’s more detailed look at the specifics

So where does this come from?

Here is a good hint:

“What I’ve told you is only a glimpse of what is occurring on the nation’s border. I don’t know what it will take to change the circumstances. I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation. America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.”

Hmm. Some of that language is VERY familiar. Let’s unpack it a bit. 

First, let me point out two points which should be obvious to anyone who has actually educated themselves about Immigration Law and the circumstances of the situation. It is not “illegal” to seek asylum. In fact, under international law (which Dobson loathes, but that is a different post), humans have a right to flee violence and persecution. Isn’t this kind of an obvious human right? I mean, it’s even in our own Declaration of Independence - the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Keep in mind that “happiness” in historical context doesn’t mean a feeling, but a state of well-being - a decent life free from oppression and destitution.) The second part, though, is also important. Let’s say Trump and Dobson get their way, and change the law so that seeking asylum IS illegal. Does that make it MORAL to deny people the ability to flee poverty and violence? I mean, Dobson claims to be a “christian leader.” Shouldn’t he be expected to answer to a higher standard than what is “legal”? 

On that note, notice that Dobson says we have been generous and caring – and Christian. But now it is time to STOP THAT!

Next, notice the slanderous dehumanizing of refugees. They “have no marketable skills.” (I guess farm labor, food service, health care, and other service sector jobs that employ millions of immigrants aren’t marketable skills?) They are “illiterate.” (So they are stupid and undesireable because they haven’t had access to an education?) They are “unhealthy.” (Nice euphemism for “dirty brown-skinned people” there. Also, there is a whole history of dehumanizing non-whites by calling them “diseased.”) They are “violent criminals.” (Hey, why not quote Trump, right?) They will “bankrupt us.” Because people who come here and work long hours at demanding jobs are clearly the cause of bankruptcy.

I continue to be astounded at how members of my former tribe, white Evangelicals, are so cavalier about slander, which is repeatedly listed as a serious sin in their own scripture. This is indeed slander - telling lies to harm others. And it is intentionally dehumanizing language. Because you have to dehumanize refugees before you can justify to yourself why you want to turn your back on them. 

And then, how about the next one?

“Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it.”

My response when I read this was “Oh. My. God.” Because this isn’t a new idea. As Tyler Huckabee puts it in his excellent article on Relevant Magazine, “That sort of fearmongering and doomsaying plays into some very, very ugly and very, very old fears in the U.S.” 

I’ll be more explicit:

They are indeed very, very ugly and very, very old. In fact, that is pretty much the exact language used historically by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in their nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Of course, originally, it was the dirty Catholics from Ireland and Italy which would “overwhelm” the “Anglo-Saxon blood” of “true Americans.” It is the same language used to argue against interracial marriage. It has a history literally hundreds of years long as the rhetoric and fearmongering of White Supremacy. 

Calling this sentence a racist dog whistle is generous. I would call it outright White Supremacist propaganda.

It is naked racism.

And it has NO place in the words of a person who claims to follow Jesus Christ. 

What this whole incident has made clear, though, is this:

White Evangelicalism isn’t really a Christian religious movement. It is, at its heart, a White Supremacist political and cultural movement.

Need proof? Well, compare the teachings of Christ (and the Torah, and the Prophets, and the Apostles) on how we should treat the needy - the poor, the ill, the refugees - to Dobson’s vile article. (See below for references.)

Does what Dobson says look anything like Christ?

Or does it look eerily similar to White Nationalism?

And, when Christian values of compassion and caring for the needy conflict with the White Supremacist hatred for immigrants, particularly those of brown skin, which one wins?

(Dobson literally says we should stop being generous, caring, and Christian…because of white supremacist fears.)

And no, don’t put this down to “Dobson is an outlier.” I have literally heard versions of this rhetoric from many, many white Evangelicals in my life. Friends. Family (including close family.) Pastors around the country but also in my own city. A solid dozen people (including leaders) from our former church. I ended up unfriending an acquaintance who is outspoken about her faith because she posted - and then defended Dobson’s article. This is endemic to white Evangelicalism. Not everyone. But a hell of a lot of them.

It is also, as I have noted before, a huge reason that Evangelicalism is losing the next couple of generations


A Christian analysis of the issue.

What is astounding to me is that those claiming Christianity - of all people - should defend this tripe. It is contrary to the teachings of the Torah, the Prophets, the Apostles, and especially Jesus Christ himself. Yahweh describes himself as the god of immigrants.

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD [YHWH] your God. (Leviticus 19:34) (all quotations from the NIV unless otherwise noted – it’s what I grew up reading)

As professor Christine Hayes points out in her excellent lecture series on the Hebrew scriptures (available free online from Yale), “I am YHWH your God” is a standard formula with the meaning of “This is my character - it is who I am.” So, in this context, God is literally emphasizing the importance of the preceding sentences as a core value of his own being. “I am YHWH, the god of immigrants.” 

Yahweh does so again in Deuteronomy:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

There are other places in the Torah, commanding Israel to apply the same law to native born and foreigners, commanding that gleanings be left for the poor and immigrants, and more. Heck, we forget that the Tithe (which preachers LOVE to claim for themselves) wasn’t there to pay for church buildings - it was there to provide food for the poor, the fatherless, the widows, and...the immigrants. This whole “why should we feed these ignorant, diseased poor people?” is thoroughly unbiblical and unchristian in the extreme. 

And how about this? In the list of curses in Deuteronomy - you know (I hope), the section where the whole assembly of Israel is supposed to listen to the list of behavior which leads to curse, and shout out “Amen” in response, thus binding themselves to obey or else suffer the (rather horrible) curses which follow? Here is one:

“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” (27:19)

How about the prophets? Well, in the list of offenses against God that Israel is condemned for, oppressing the poor and immigrants is high on the list. Just a few examples:

From Psalms, again showing that Yahweh is the god of the oppressed and the immigrant:

He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
     the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
 The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. (146:7-9)

Hmm. It looks like God identifies with the oppressed, hungry, prisoners {ahem} and the foreigner. And not with the wicked who oppress them. 

If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly,  if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm,  then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7) 

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3) 

“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel.  You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.  In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 47:21-23)

Wait, what? You mean we have to SHARE with the immigrants? Horrors! Isn’t this one of Dobson’s objections? That we might have to sacrifice a bit of our own wealth to care for others? Hmm, I thought that was actually a commandment of Christ, but whatever. 

There is a particularly interesting passage in Zechariah 7, where the translation only partially draws out a parallel more obvious in the original. Here is how the NIV says it:

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah:  “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’
 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.  They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.
 “‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty.  ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’”

The literary parallelism is an example of why the Bible - particularly the prophets and poetry - is breathtakingly beautiful as literature. But also, the literary devices make the point just leap off the page. Let’s look at it. 

Again, we have the four classes of people which are the standard language for the vulnerable in a society: the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, and the poor. (You see these groupings throughout the Old Testament - and they are echoed in the words of Christ and the Epistles. 

There is also a common repetition here. First “do not oppress...the foreigner.” Then, “I scattered them...where they were strangers.” Finally, “The land...was so desolate that no one traveled through it.” 

These are all related words. Oppress the stranger (foreigner, immigrant), and I will exile you to a land where YOU will be the stranger (foreigner, immigrant.) And the land itself will be inhospitable to everyone - not just immigrants. 

So, here is how it works: “you oppressed the immigrant, so God made you an immigrant yourself, and your own land is so bad now that people not only won’t live there, they won’t even pass through to somewhere else.” Powerful stuff. 

One final one from the prophets, this one from Malachi 3

So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

Again, note the four categories: the widows and fatherless, the poor (who are cheated of a living wage), and...foreigners. And then, immediately afterward, the favorite proof-text for pastors who want to bully their flock into giving them money. But remember, the Tithe wasn’t to support church buildings or pastor salaries: it was to feed the poor, the orphan, the widow...and the foreigner. 

Let’s move on to the New Testament. 

First, let me start with a bit of Greek. In that language, there is a word, xenophilia, which is the opposite of xenophobia. Rather than “fear of the outsider,” it means “love of the outsider.” (The opposite of fear is love.) And, it is translated in various places as “show hospitality to strangers.” And again, remember that the word translated as “stranger” is better translated as “foreigner” or “immigrant.” It is a person outside the tribe, so to speak, who is in need. 

With this understanding, look at this passage from Romans:

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality [xenophilia]. (12:13)

This is a sign of a true Christian (in the Christ follower sense): do they help immigrants and refugees? Also interesting in the same passage is an exhortation to give food and drink to your enemies. And, a warning against being proud - instead, be willing to associate with people of low estate. You know, like those “illiterate,” “diseased,” and “no marketable skills” poor people at our border. 

From Hebrews:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers [xenophilia], for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (13:2)

Again with the love and care for immigrants and foreigners - those outside the tribe. We are to view them as literal messengers from God. 

And one more from the Apostles. Growing up in Evangelicalism, I was taught that the Epistle of Saint James was about faith and works and stuff. What I was NOT taught (for what are now obvious reasons) is that the main point of the book is addressing rampant favoritism toward the wealthy - and, on a related note, the greed and slander that always go along with contempt for the poor. And look at what it says regarding faith and works: 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (2:14-17)

Remember, this comes after a whole section on how God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith, and that it is the rich who are oppressing others. (And, in chapter 5, Saint James specifically addresses the rich, castigating them because their wealth is built on the theft of wages from the poor.) 

I cannot think of a more applicable portion of scripture to apply to James Dobson right now. 

He literally went to see desperate people, and said “God loves you” and did NOTHING to help them. Instead, he called on his followers to support sending them back to...well suffer more or die I guess. And build a giant wall to keep them out. 

You know, maybe HE could show God’s love to them, rather than saying a platitude and then trying to harm them?

Am I REALLY the only white Christian who can see this? 

Finally, there are two passages in the Gospels where Christ talks about eternal punishment. (Dobson preaches about Hell, naturally, so he had better hope he is wrong…because he is doing his best to go there.) 

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

I am simply astounded at the number of self-proclaimed “christians” who can read this passage and apparently believe that they have ZERO duty to vulnerable and needy people. Remember, again, that “stranger” means “immigrant” or “foreigner.” This is pretty explicit. How we treat vulnerable, needy people, is how we treat Christ. 

Each and every one of those needy people at our border and in our internment camps should be viewed by us Christians as if they were Christ himself.

This is not a negotiable minor doctrine of the faith. It is a direct teaching of Jesus Christ himself! And He says our eternal destiny depends on it. Shouldn’t we take that seriously? 

There is one more spot in Luke that seems applicable here. The only other passage where Christ talks about eternal punishment is in the story of Dives and Lazarus. 

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores  and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Let’s look at this. We have a rich man (by tradition, named Dives, although this isn’t in the text.) Very rich, apparently, because he had a nice big wall around his property – to keep the hoi polloi out. Lazarus sits by the gate, walled off from the luxury Dives enjoys - and apparently doesn’t share. Lazarus can’t even get the crumbs. 

They die, and Dives discovers that there is a...wait for it…large chasm separating him from the comfort Lazarus enjoys. Of course, Dives is such a prick that he thinks he can have Lazarus be his slave boy and deliver a drop of water. But Abraham reminds him that Dives has had his reward - and he now receives his punishment.

And there is that chasm. Remember the parallelism? It’s here too. Dives builds a big fucking wall around what is “his” to keep out the poor and the needy. And he finds that he has also dug a giant chasm between himself and his salvation. 

Doesn’t this sound relevant today? Let’s build a big fucking wall to keep the illiterate, diseased, and impoverished people out of our nice little rich white country. They can go back and starve or get raped and murdered or whatever - it’s not OUR problem, right? 

Jesus Christ begs to differ. 


I want to return to the idea of “Spiritual Masturbation” again. James Dobson, like most of us, wants to feel good about himself. He wants that thrill of feeling good and righteous and decent. 

But he has no intention of actually BEING good and righteous and decent. He wants to be vicious and cruel to vulnerable people by sending them away and locking them out. 

So he needs another way to reach spiritual orgasm. 

Look again at his article. Notice all the careful language describing all the suffering. He wants the reader to feel just how empathetic and sorrowful he is. He cries with them, you see. He yearns that those poor children know that God loves them (even as he flat out refuses to actually show God’s love to them by his actions.) 

This is intentional, and it serves a purpose. Dobson needs to feel good about being bad - and he needs his audience to feel the same way, or they might notice his cruelty and call bullshit on him. 

So, he creates an emotional response - seeing our fellow beings suffer tends to do that if we are not sociopaths - and crafts the appearance of empathy. That “Biblical Boner” or “Kristian Klitoris” starts getting aroused. The feeling of well-being because of empathy starts getting closer. It’s coming, it’s coming…

And then, Dobson does a nice little switch. With all that spiritual/empathetic arousal going on, he switches away from empathy for the hurting. He makes “those people” into threats, and re-directs the empathy toward the reader, who is encouraged to feel fear and loathing toward “those people.” See how that works? 

Dobson has written pornography here. 

This is a species of what is known as “Poverty Porn.” To give a quick definition:

 “Any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor's condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. It is also a term of criticism applied to films which objectify people in poverty for the sake of entertaining a privileged audience.”

There is a long and sordid history of this both with charities and organizations like National Geographic. In some cases, the cause is at least noble - raising money to fix problems. However, as the marvelous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie notes, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In essence, Poverty Porn denies the impoverished their own voice. 

Dobson goes one worse, however. His cause is most certainly NOT noble. He is literally calling for great harm to be done to the vulnerable. But he is still exploiting the victims of his cruelty. He builds up a feeling of goodness and empathy, and then twists it to fear and hatred of the refugees. It’s astounding to me. But it appears to tap into a dark part of human nature. 

I remember in 2015, President Obama took some heat for making a very astute observation regarding ISIS (which he called a “death cult):

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” 

The thing is, Obama was absolutely, completely correct. There is indeed a sinful tendency in us to make cruelty and violence to outsiders part of a religious ritual. Which is EXACTLY what James Dobson has done here. 

I strongly recommend Jamelle Bouie’s article from 2015 on the way lynchings were a religious ritual. It is vital to understand that white Southern Evangelicals were obsessed with female sexual purity - like modern Evangelicals. And that obsession manifested in a hatred of black men, which were deemed the threat to white virginity. All toxic religions demand sacrifice - usually of “other people.” And thus, African Americans were murdered in the name of “christianity” in order to preserve “purity.” 

You can see the same vile principles at work in Dobson’s article. Those “diseased” poor people are a threat to “the culture as we have known it” and thus must be kept out. If they die, so be it. Purity is to be preserved at the cost of those dirty “other people,” who aren’t fully human anyway. 

Thus, Dobson hasn’t just made Spiritual Pornography. He has made a rape and snuff film, where his voyeuristic readers can get their spiritual rocks off reading about suffering - and then taking action to harm those who suffer. 

This has to be the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. 

I need to go take a shower now.


Having laid this out, let me conclude with this:

James Dobson is openly advocating for sending desperate people back to suffer more.
James Dobson’s response to the suffering of others is not to invite them in, as Christ commanded, but to send them away still suffering. And build a big fucking wall to keep them out. And change the law so they have no ability to come here. James Dobson manipulates the emotions of his readers through Poverty Porn, using moral and spiritual arousal to excite hate and cruelty toward vulnerable people. 

There is a word for this:


Pure Evil. 

James Dobson is an evil man, and we need to say so. 

He is also a Sodomite:

‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’ (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

This was a particularly horrible discovery for me, given my background. Dobson was one of the big figures in my childhood. We enjoyed the Adventures in Odyssey radio program, among other things - but there is no way I am letting my kids near his stuff now.  My textbook on puberty was Preparing for Adolescence. I read (and then had to completely unlearn) his book on women. What a total joke that was - wildly inaccurate about...pretty much everything. 

But for a long time, I thought that he was, like my parents and others who followed Dobson, wrong but misguided on a bunch of stuff. 

But it turned out that, like sexual predator Bill Gothard, James Dobson wasn’t just wrong. 

He was evil.

He wasn’t a Christian at all, but an anti-Christ.

He wasn’t following Christ, but following the call of White Nationalism, misogyny, and abusive parenting. His words and actions are the fruit - and they reek to high heaven. 

And make no mistake - he is very much the enemy of true Christianity. He is a threat to vulnerable people, particularly refugees. Rather than help and defend the vulnerable, he advocates for sending them away where he doesn’t have to see them die. Although I would welcome true repentance on his part, I am not holding my breath. (True repentance requires restitution, and he has a HELL of a lot of damage in his wake.) But I do hope he reads this. It is high time he was rebuked for his evil and called to repentance. And the same goes for his followers. Those of you who reposted Dobson’s nastiness: you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself, and have no right to name the name of Christ while doing so. You stand against the very teachings and example He gave us. 

For the rest of us, we have a choice. Will we continue to defend the unjust and show partiality to wicked men like Dobson? Or will we side with the vulnerable and defend them from the evil that Dobson and others would do to them? 

“How long will you defend the unjust
    and show partiality to the wicked?
 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
 Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:2-4)


I wrote this a few weeks ago, and posted it to Facebook, but not the blog.

Some Sunday Morning Thoughts: 

There has been a good bit of discussion as to whether our immigrant "detention facilities" qualify as concentration camps. Under the most textbook definition, they clearly are. Civilians are detained - children included - despite having committed no crime other than that of trying to migrate the the US. They are detained because of their national origin - essentially their race or ethnicity. They are, to put it bluntly, detained for political reasons, namely that a significant portion of the white citizens of the United States do not want more non-whites to come here. (Otherwise, we would have fixed our immigration laws to match those of the 1800s, when borders were largely open to immigrants.) On the other hand, the term "concentration camp" conjures up images of the Holocaust - when "christian" white people in Germany did their best to exterminate a people group.

I have been to Dachau - a concentration/extermination camp in southern Germany. I have smelled the remains of the ashes in the crematoriums. (I will never forget that.) I have also been to Manzanar, the concentration camp where thousands of innocent men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned for no crime other than their ethnicity. To be sure, we didn't try to exterminate them - but what we did was still a moral shame and outrage, and a blot on our history.

But let me lay it out: when you have come to the point where you are having an argument over whether your particular prisons for innocent civilians - men, women, and children imprisoned because of their national origin and inconvenience to the rest of us - qualify as "true concentration camps" or not, your morality is already fucked up beyond repair. To anyone seeing this from the outside, these prisons have more in common with Dachau than not - and are indistinguishable from Manzanar. Innocent people are being imprisoned, not because they have chosen to commit immoral acts which endanger the rest of the community - but because they have had the gall to flee violence and poverty and seek a better life for themselves and their families - and the color of their skin makes racist white people uncomfortable.

The fact that these uncomfortable people are overwhelmingly self described as "christian" and "evangelical" is an incredibly powerful argument in favor of atheism as a morally superior religion/philosophy - and overwhelming proof that "christianity" in America is a morally bankrupt mess.

On a related note: we are not in church this Sunday, have not been for the last 2.5 years, and have no intention of doing so in the foreseeable future. #irefusetosellmysoul #exvangelical #emptythepews


It might be worth closing with this one, from a perceptive artist, dramatizing one of the great early humanists, Thomas More, who literally died for his moral principles. 

From the hand of William Shakespeare (his contribution to Sir Thomas More):

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
Let me set up before your thoughts, good friends,
On supposition; which if you will mark,
You shall perceive how horrible a shape
Your innovation bears. First, ’tis a sin
Which oft the apostle did forewarn us of,
Urging obedience to authority;
And ’twere no error, if I told you all,
You were in arms against your God himself.
...Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.