Has The Context Changed?

The main subject of today’s sermon from our local pastor was one that draws a great deal of attention in life, but one that is seldom addressed directly. Being creatures of habit, we generally expect (or should not be surprised to see) a great deal of continuity in life. That said, there are some points in life where we expect discontinuity, where we expect change to result. A great deal of disagreement can result because different parties view the same situation as time passes from different perspectives, if one person expects there to be continuity and the other person experiences or expects discontinuity. Unless these matters are brought into the open, they represent a hidden area of massive disagreement, whether we are dealing with personal situations among friends or family or loved ones, or whether we are engaged in political and theological discussions where the disagreement hinges on such issues. Although time does not permit an exhaustive look at this, we should at least be able to see some general outlines where these unexpressed expectations can result in immense difficulty, and perhaps at least start to think about such matters in our own lives.

The subject of today’s message dealt with theological expectations of continuity or discontinuity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the question of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Covenant has been a source of a great deal of debate and disagreement in my life. Yet the question at its core is one of continuity versus discontinuity. Those who view there being an essential discontinuity at the death and resurrection see no reason to follow the example of Jesus Christ, nor to look for examples of the continuity between that example and the behavior of the early church. On the other hand, those who see essential continuity, of which I am one, see the problem as being within the heart and mind of people who make covenants they are not able or willing to fulfill. This would include such covenants as marriage and baptism as well. Ironically enough, I suppose, a belief in the continuity between the Old and New Covenant as to terms and conditions (see, for example, Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8) tends to include a belief in the discontinuity of the life of someone at the point of baptism and the laying of hands and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is to result in decisive and visible change as a result of a changed way of life.

When it comes to questions of politics, the issue of continuity or discontinuity can also be great. I have reviewed at least a couple of books for the De Re Militari that addressed the question of the continuity or discontinuity between Rome and the Middle Ages. Those who wanted to paint the Middle Ages as a time of darkness and barbarism would argue heavily for discontinuity, while those who point to the survival of Roman ways and a conscious tradition of imitatio imperii in the successor states of European Christendom in the Middle Ages would argue for far more continuity. Likewise, the case of the Civil War and its aftermath are a clear example where competing visions existed. Southerners and Northern ‘conservatives’ in the postwar environment wanted as much continuity between antebellum and postbellum life, which tended to encourage the passage of Jim Crow laws and an establishment of a racial and social order that limited freedom and upward advancement for blacks and poor whites. On the other hand, those with a greater concern for social justice sought for discontinuity, and for a new beginning free of at least some of the institutionalized injustice in American society. In many ways, the sort of continuity and discontinuity one wants is related to the sort of world one wants to see.

Finally, in our own personal lives and those around us we are often concerned with questions of continuity and discontinuity, though we may not always imagine it so. For example, to what extent do we expect our own lives and the lives of those around us to be continuous or discontinuous at certain phase changes, like the change from a single person to married (or vice versa), or from child/teen to adult, or from someone who is actively in the work force to retired. All of these changes in status can be irrelevant to our conduct while being immensely relevant to the changes of the expectations that people have of our conduct. If not handled well, they can be the sources of a great deal of stress and unhappiness and difficulty in life. The way in which we are able to navigate these pitfalls of our own behavior and the expectations we have for others and that others have for us makes a great difference in the sort of success we see in life. No one ever said that managing the changing contexts of life was an easy matter, but at least by talking about such expectations openly and honestly and respectfully, and by building good communication with those around us to the greatest extent possible, at least we may hope for success in our lives.

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Sometimes I Feel Like A Fatherless Child

This morning, I woke up to the sound of buzzing from my cell phone as a teenage friend of mine from Chile sent me a photograph from the Feast of Tabernacles in 2000, which I spent with my mother, stepfather, and brother in Maitencillo, Chile. In the photograph I am holding my friend in my arms while she was five months old. Presumably her mother, who was a single mother about my age when the photo was taken, presumably was taking the photo, while my brother is smiling beside me and my stepfather and mother are not too far away. The photo was adorable, as not only is it a fairly typical thing for me to be holding other people’s adorable and small children. Yet all the same I could not help but feel a bit melancholy while looking at the photo and thinking about it afterward. Why is this so? I suppose it is worth discussing it a bit.

During the Feast of Tabernacles of 2000 I was nineteen years old. Among the friends I made was a young woman with a cute baby daughter who was for whatever reason no longer with the father of the girl. Being the sort of person who has always been a gentleman and particularly solicitous about the well-being of abandoned women and fatherless children. In looking at my more recent life, I have pondered that these same dynamics have made my life a great deal more complicated, all without fulfilling my longings for my own wife and family. I have encouraged and befriended plenty of other people in my time, been a gentle and tender soul with many, but in terms of my state, I am more or less in the same state I was at 19, with a bit more weight, a bit less hair, but basically serving the same sort of role as a public intellectual and generally friendly and kind and gentle person who nevertheless has not made any progress towards my deepest personal longings. It just feels as if so much of life has been wasted being in the same place, and not knowing what I am supposed to do for myself to improve my own personal position.

In looking at the course of my life, it would seem as if vulnerability in some fashion is what tends to provoke my gentleness and kind affection, and even love. Is someone an outcast with a dark life history, and serious personal struggles? Is someone struggling with the aftermath of broken and dysfunctional families but is sweet and kind and even some sort of innocent about it? If so, I am likely to feel a great deal of compassion and understanding towards such a person, out of our shared history and vulnerabilities, with the result that there will likely to be a rather intense sort of friendship. And it is not as if these elements have changed over the course of my life, but have remained consistent since I was very young. By the time I was a teenager the essential core of my longings and vulnerabilities was more or less set, and my life has consistently followed a certain trend and has largely not moved from that. This is not to say my life has been devoid of change, only that I have tended to go down the same roads over and over again by instinct, and kind instinct at that.

What have the fruits of this life been? For my own life, there has been at best mixed results. To be sure, I have done very well in finding friends. I have done terribly when it comes to my goals of marriage and family. But to what extent have others been bettered by my efforts. What encouragement have they received to fulfill their goals? What joy have they received from the time spent with me? What growth has been fostered by my presence in their lives. These are matters hard to understand. It is hard to know exactly who is paying attention to us, or how we effect the lives of others through our example and behavior, in large part because others may not know how they are influenced by us, nor may they communicate that influence to us. We have to live our lives to some extent in ignorance of various matters, and live a life that is filled with hope and trust that our genuine kindness and tenderness and our best example will ultimately serve to good for everyone. Like so much else, though, it is easier said than done.

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Book Review: Life Inside Out

Life Inside Out: How I Found True Freedom In God, by Mark Foss

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Life Sentence Publishing in exchange for an honest review.]

I must admit that while I read a lot of memoirs, that I seldom have the chance to read prison memoirs, and that is precisely what this book is about. There is a familiar narrative to this sort of conversion story [1]. The author covers the span of an entire life, or at least most of it. There is a u-shaped melodramatic narrative: often the author begins with a discussion of a life that starts out good, has an immensely troubling middle section, often where substance abuse, alcoholism, and serious errors in judgment occur, where reaching the bottom leads to a conversion and a life dedicated to serving others and seeking to make good upon the unmerited pardon of God for sins committed, followed by happiness in a (usually second) marriage and a general restoration to happiness and health and a good reputation even if scars remain.

This is a well-told tale. It does not whitewash the author’s culpability, it captures his genuine voice, even using some letters written while in prison and the text of a speech to give a flavor of the author’s mindset during the times discussed in the memoir. The capers discussed in the book do not blame his parents for his mistakes, which seems fair in this case, even if some alcoholism appears to have run in the family. Of particularly grim interest is the way that the author appears to be coy about some of his more serious mistakes, even if the general mood is confessional and he admits to some major mistakes, like living with a woman fifteen years younger when he was in his 30’s, or engaging in interstate drug trades, or getting in fights with bikers, or starting an ominously racist-sounding Minnesota gang that he declined to name, or making weapons for others while in one of his stints in prison.

No one reading this book would want to emulate the life of the author. To be sure, his conversion was remarkable, and his desire to help those in similar positions is entirely to be expected. The book is honest about prison life, about the grip of addiction, about the importance of making powerful friends to make an intolerable situation a bit easier to manage, and about the graciousness of God. This is the sort of book that makes one want to cheer on the author and hope that the past truly is past, and that there will be no relapse, no loss of restraint that would lead to further trouble in a life that has known far too much of it already. The sense of the book can be understood by the Bible verses above every chapter, and the author’s sincere and heartfelt regrets at wasted time and trust.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/book-review-i-almost-gave-up/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/book-review-stumbling-on-open-ground/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/book-review-jesus-my-father-the-cia-and-me-a-memoir-of-sorts/

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Book Review: Richard John Neuhaus: A Life In The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life In The Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Image Press, in exchange for an honest review.]

It seems at times that I have an alarming gift for finding books about people with whom I share startling similarities [1]. This book is another of that kind, a somewhat lengthy (400 pages or so of core material) and friendly but critical account of a man with a startlingly prolific life. Raised in Ontario by German-American Lutherans, he was early on a very serious young man about faith, a bookish young man with a willingness to criticize his teachers when he was better informed than they were, a bit of a troublemaker whose exploits included a love for plays and panty raids on visiting coeds, which led him to be expelled from his first preparatory school. Throughout his life he was a fierce public intellectual with deeply nuanced political views that were frequently misunderstood from his days as a young radical opponent to Vietnam and proponent of Civil Rights to his decades of being caricatured as a theocracy-supporting neoconservative, and one of America’s most famous converts to Catholicism, all the while being a prolific writer with a difficulty in finding a secure place to pursue his diverse interests in writing and political action, which he eventually found as the editor-in-chief for First Things.

This book covers the entire span of a dramatic life, written from a favorable but by no means uncritical perspective. In reading this story of a life, I shudder at the ways that a similar biographer would handle my own life given his commentary of the subject’s penchant for namedropping, monopolizing conversations with witty and incisive and often long-winded monologues, tendency to be involved in trouble with authority and continual debates and fights provoked by a misunderstanding of his somewhat overheated and exuberant rhetoric. The book takes a chronological view that looks at the whole span of the author’s life, including a great deal of interview material and a close understanding of the author’s own staggeringly prolific writing output. What the book shows about the worthy and intriguing life of Mr. Neuhaus is that despite the twists and turns of his religious belief and political ideology, he had some very consistent and long-held views about the importance of human dignity, whether that was for blacks oppressed in Jim Crow days or unborn children subject to legal murder by their mothers. It is an interesting account of a man who served as a node for urban conservatism with a strong interest in political and religious ecumenical efforts, as well as witty and pointed putdowns of his opponents and rivals.

Besides offering an expansive view of an influential and complicated life, this book offers some very intriguing points about religion itself. For one, the book echoes the subject in appealing for an honest acceptance of the role of religion in American political life, pointing out that religion cannot help but be involved in political matters, and so it must be best determined, with a firm awareness of the delicacy involved, how religion is to be involved in informing political behavior. For another, the book demonstrates the tension between a public intellectual as a participant in matters of cultural, religious, and political importance as well as a detached critic of those same matters, as well as the goal of Catholicism in leading to a healing of the breech between Rome and its wayward daughters of the Protestant Reformation through a return to roots and an acceptance of the primacy of Rome. Neuhaus was a prominent intellectual in those efforts, which are ongoing today. Whether one is to cheer or feel concern about these efforts depends largely on where one stands. At any rate, while there is much I disagree about the Catholicism of Richard Neuhaus, I concur with the author of this book that it is a life well worth studying and examining, if critically.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/book-review-bonhoeffer-abridged/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/book-review-my-battle-against-hitler/

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Some Thoughts On The Minister As A Political Figure

Among the most famous sayings in the Bible about political matters is that in Matthew 22:21, in which Jesus Christ says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Of course, there is not a clear demarcation between which realm is which neither here nor elsewhere. In another place, Jesus Christ affirmed being a king, but said that His kingdom was not of this world, or else His servants would fight (John 18:36). Likewise, Christian doctrine has looked at secular authority as serving as the servants of God with the responsibility to punish evildoers (Romans 13:4). That said, despite the disinterest of genuine believers in seeking to establish God’s kingdom through control of the political realm, and the general command given to Christians to pray for rulers and seek God’s help for them (see 1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:17), the relationship between believers and political authorities has never been entirely smooth, because Christians serve God, and at times the demands of obedience to God outweigh the obedience to human authority (Acts 5:29), which puts Christians in the difficult position of being conscientious objectors to the wicked ways of this world, and subject to the wrath of those leaders who dislike being considered ungodly because their will contradicts the plainly expressed will of God in His scriptures.

If this is true for believers in general, it is certainly true of the ministry within God’s Church. After all, it is the ministry who often serves as the most visible ambassadors of the faith once delivered to the outside world. It is ministers whose messasges are heard by audiences in person, or which are saved online in audio and/or visual form, so that others may look at them at a later time to determine what a given organization or congregation believes about a certain topic. It is largely ministers who write the articles, and certainly the booklets, and that appear on radio and television as those who seek to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the outside world in such media as are available. At times, the doctrines of God touch on very serious political issues. What the Bible says about the dignity of mankind as being made in the image of God, whether rich or poor, male or female, unborn or old and suffering from terminal illness, of every ethnicity and tribe that exist on this earth has serious political implications. So does the question of how mankind is to be treated, and how we are to act with regards to personal and social morality. To be sure, these are not partisan implications, as no party of fallible men or women has ever stood in perfect alignment with the commandments of God, much less His expressed or implied will. Yet they are political matters nonetheless. At times, in order to preach the truths of scripture, it has been necessary to disobey the laws of man and the dictates of authority, and to suffer as gladly and as resolutely as possible in the knowledge that at all times believers have chosen to obey God rather than follow the unrighteous commandments of men. We must be careful to note, though, that the laws of man are binding wherever they do not contradict the commandments of God, even if such laws are at times inconvenient to our own pleasure or wishes or interests.

How does the minister serve as a political figure? This is done in several ways, of a similar way to the general political role of all believers, but in a more conspicuously public way. For one, a minister serves as an ambassador of the Kingdom of God here in the realms of men, subject to God’s law, a model of righteous if not perfect behavior as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Like every other realm, God’s Kingdom has its laws, has its rights and privileges, and has its system of authority. While it would seem that our citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven would be unobjectionable it frequently is considered problematic because of the way that the kingdoms of mankind are at least occasionally seriously wary of the dual loyalties of those who are genuine believers. After all, states and realms do not like potentially disloyal subjects, and one cannot faithfully serve two masters. Those whose ultimate loyalty is to God will not serve the fallible kingdoms of mankind with the same zeal and fervor as rulers are accustomed to receiving, and will at times be critical of the flaws and failings of those realms, which can be a hazardous place to be even for someone who does not have ambitions for earthly offices. It should be noted that the human authorities who are less than thrilled at the dissent of others is not limited to those who have secular authority, but also those who serve in religious offices but who inevitably reflect the flaws and failings that are universal to mankind, would-be critics and reformers as well. The fact that a believer ultimately has in mind an alternative model of a perfect society than any human society possesses is also a matter of difficulty, as those who have alternative worldviews and foundational beliefs will always be in a state of ultimate disagreement, and only temporary and convenient alliance for shared purposes and goals. No lasting and deep peace is possible between corrupt and rebellious humanity seeking to rule itself and those who, however imperfectly, strive to obey the will of God, for they serve two different masters.

Indeed, a minister must serve as a political figure in order to serve God with a loyal and courageous heart. Those in offices of religious authority, who have been ordained by God to serve the body of brethren as a whole, have a responsibility to set the tone for how believers are to live as pilgrims and sojourners. Part of that responsibility is the responsibility to present and model the whole will of God across all subjects in its timeless and eternal way, yet always relevant to present conditions and contemporary culture. In doing so, at times a minister will have to speak of areas of controversy, yet are to do so from a perspective of what the whole of God’s word says about a given subject, rather than what is said by those political leaders who a minister may find more amenable to their own views. Ministers, indeed all believers, are to remember that we do not speak at present from the point of view of judges of the realms of this world, but as fellow human beings subject to the authority and judgment of God over the whole earth and the inhabitants therein. Like the disobedient prophet (in 1 Kings 13) who was killed for listening to the voice of man rather than God’s command not to eat anything in the land of Israel, we too may suffer judgment if we heed the voice of man more than the command of God. Sometimes it is lonely and unpopular to be righteous in an unrighteous world, for though we may not be hostile to anyone or desire any suffering for anyone, at times our principles will create difficulties in a flawed world where people do not wish to be reminded of their failings. If we wish to be a genuine servant of God like the prophets of old, we cannot expect the comfortable sinecure possessed by the corrupt court prophets whom the Bible holds in consistent scorn and contempt for their compromising cowardice.

The question, therefore, is not whether or not ministers are to be political figures, but what kind of political behavior they are to exhibit. Ministers are not to be ambitious for political office, but neither are they to shy away from the obligations of serving other people that result from their talents and abilities and the recognition of those talents and abilities of others. Ministers are not to shy away from biblical critique of corrupt political leadership, but are to do so not with a spirit of carping and hostility, or from a holier-than-thou position, but rather from a desire that ordinary citizens not suffer from the wickedness of leaders, which can cause a great deal of suffering to their societies and institutions. A minister is to be an encouragement to all, and a model of general obedience to law, as well as occasional and principled dissent and objection to wicked laws. Even should a minister run afoul of wicked authorities, they are to pray for the well-being of rulers, like Daniel did even in the lion’s den after being placed there through the corrupt machinations of rival leaders in the Persian Empire. This is not easy, and it certainly requires the assistance of God, as it goes against our own carnal and human tendencies to disagree without rancor or bitterness, or to critique from a standpoint of genuine love and concern, or to pray for those who persecute us. No one ever said the calling of a Christian, much less that of a minister, was an easy one though, and in the political realm, as in so many other places, we are called to tasks we cannot accomplish without the help of God. Do we have the humility to ask for that assistance, and the faith and confidence that our requests will be granted and that we may have the strength to endure that which we cannot escape?

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Book Review: Gunfire Around The Gulf

Gunfire Around The Gulf: The Last Major Naval Campaigns Of The Civil War, by Jack D. Coombe

This book has a horrible title, and its front cover text is full of a great deal of false advertising. For one, the title of this book would make one believe that it dealt with the end of the Civil War, but instead it takes a chronological look at the naval history of the Civil War from start to finish. Additionally, it claims to be the authoritative history of the Civil War’s most crucial naval battles, but it looks mainly at the Gulf naval war, with short discussions of the naval war on the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Coast, without much detail, and while it covers in some depth the early naval efforts that saved Florida’s main forts in Key West and Pensacola for the Union, the seizure of Ship Island and New Orleans, the unsuccessful efforts to take over Galveston, and the Mobile Bay campaign, it is not as if this book is complete when it comes to the Gulf of Mexico either, totally ignoring the First And Second Battles of Ft. Brooke (now Tampa) as well as the pivotal role of the Gulf Squadrons in moving troops around for the Rio Grande Campaign and Natural Bridge Campaigns at the very end of the Civil War.

In terms of its organization and structure, the book is very straightforward. It is about 200 pages of solid reading material, a good length, and it goes into a great deal of detail about the efforts to hold and seize New Orelans and Mobile, which are the core of the book. There are some chapters on other military endeavors relating to blockading and blockade running and commerce raiding, some comments about the unjust nature of post-battle decisions on both the Union and rebel side, and even some references to primary source material about poetic Confederate officers and bored sailors tired of doing the same drills over and over again. Even those who have never been involved with naval campaigns can relate to that, as well as to the complicated way that people received positions of honor and glory, and how defeat meant that someone needed to to be affixed with the blame. None of that will be unfamiliar to many readers as well.

At its core, this is a book that argues that the talent between the Union and Confederate side was close to even (the author makes an implicit contrast between Welles and Mallory as being roughly equal in sheer administrative talent, and between Semmes and Farragut being on the same level), but that the immense superiority in logistical capacity for the North is what led to victory. This seems a fair conclusion to me, yet it neglects the reality that the Confederacy was aware of its logistical shortcomings vis-a-vis the North before engaging upon their course of rebellion, believing that their superior military talent and general military culture would trump the obvious advantages in men and materiel possessed by the North. The rebels were wrong; the logistical advantage of the Union was too great for the rebels to overcome, especially as the North was at least the equal on a general by general and soldier by soldier level, given the nearly equal casualties despite the fact that the South was fighting on home terrain and had interior lines, where one would expect the attacker to have twice the casualties of the defenders. This book is merely more evidence to demonstrate the importance of logistics in warfare, a lesson that military readers and leaders forget at their peril. For that alone, despite its flaws, it is a worthwhile book.

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Abbott And Costello Must Have Done A Skit About This

Occasionally in life I find that a problem exists become something appears to be different to myself and someone else. Rarely has that problem been more literal than it was today for myself and someone at another company who I work with on a regular basis in the course of my duties. One of the data questions this other person had related to the amount of time that it took for the leads that came from his company to convert into policies. He was having some trouble with the mathematics, so he sent his report to me, I tweaked it a little bit and sent it back to him, and I figured it would be fairly straightforward for the problem to be solved. It wasn’t. First, there was a question about which columns I was using for the difference in dates. Then things got more surreal. He kept on questioning the data in one particular cell, saying that there was no way that there were 253 days between November 24, 2014 and April 8, 2015. I agreed, but on the spreadsheet I was looking at, it showed August 4, 2015 as the date, and the number of days in between was correct, and so we went back and forth and back and forth until he showed what he saw in his spreadsheet and I showed him what I saw in mine. I have no idea how they got to be different, but they were different, and so we had been debating each other back and forth while looking at different data that was supposed to be the same but somehow ended up different in the transfer. Towards the end of the discussion, I made an offhand comment that I’m sure Abbott and Costello must have done a skit about this.

Of course, Abbott and Costello are most familiar for their skit about “who’s on first,” a baseball skit that regularly appears in church variety shows. I have seen it done at least twice by different pairs of siblings in my acquaintance over the course of my life. Yet while Abbott and Costello probably did not do a skit about seeing different data, their skit about baseball represents a matter of perspective. Sometimes people literally see the data differently, and judge accordingly based on that data. As much as we would like to believe that two people would be looking at the same data and therefore have the same version of the truth, this is not always the case. As someone whose job relates to data on a continual basis, I am often amused and intrigued at the distinctions that result from people looking at different numbers, even if they are supposed to be the same and come from the same place. These problems are highly relevant to our lives and our experiences outside of the admittedly somewhat arcane world of data, and so I would like to share at least a few insights that I have gathered as a result of dealing with debates over data on a regular basis. This is not going to be an exhaustive list, nor will it be a lengthy examination, as could be done, but it should at least suggest the possibilities for insight that one can gain by staring enough at and talking enough about numbers in their raw form.

Among the most elementary lessons is that which can be understood from such discussions is that sometimes people are actually looking at different data. How data becomes corrupt and degraded from one person to another, even when one person is the source of data for another, is rather curious. How was it that my conversation partner and I were looking at different data? I don’t know. Once we saw that the data was different, and that neither of us was seeing things wrong, the conversation took a different turn, as we were left to ask other, deeper questions, about how we were acquiring the information and how it may have gotten changed over time. In life, we see different things than other people do, even when we by chance are looking at the same phenomena. It is little wonder, therefore, that since our observations are different, and even our underlying raw data by which we make decisions is different, that we would come to different conclusions. This is not to say that there is not one underlying truth, but recognizing that truth and understanding it is a difficult matter even when it exists and its existence is believed and acted on by different people. Not only must the data that everyone is working with be the same, but there must be some sort of relationship between the data that is being used and an underlying reality.

This itself is problematic. Any system of data that depends purely on user input is going to cause problems. One may have a clean record, without degradation, from a given source, but yet find that source entirely untrustworthy because the incentives to cheat are so high and the ability to monitor such behavior is so low to nonexistent that one cannot believe in the basic integrity of the data. Here the question is not so much that the data may be corrupted or degraded in some fashion, because of errant key strokes or because Excel decided to act in a different way in Montreal, Quebec as it did in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, but rather because the integrity of the people inputting the data cannot be trusted. I find in the course of my work that there is a lot of untrustworthy data, often changed to make certain aspects of work easier. For example, putting information in a certain format in order to make it easier for a policy to sell and be successfully submitted and to avoid confusing a customer about subsidies on insurance premiums may simultaneously make it more difficult to gain an accurate picture of the actual policy premium submitted for a given campaign or carrier or insurance type, or the amount of revenue that is to be collected from said policy. All too often data is manipulated for specific purposes in a given process that leads to inaccuracies in reporting on that data. This happens a lot in life as well, as we may act a certain way in order to gain a certain short-term tactical goal that makes longer term strategy and logistics more difficult to accurately accomplish. All too often what we do and what we really are about and what we really want may be at cross-purposes.

Additionally, there may be wide variances in what people can see based on where they stand. Once, not too long ago, I was sent a rather airily worded discussion of best practices for a given type of report, only to find out that I could not view data given the standard that the person sending the e-mail proposed. The option for dates available for that person on their custom reports was simply not available for me, which was particularly unfortunate in this case given the amount of reporting I do and the ubiquity of the information I generate through my own queries and data pulls. The standards and criteria we look at make a large different about what we see. Whether intentionally or not, such criteria often serve as a filter, changing what we see based on what particular records contain the particular quality we are looking for. Here we are back to the beginning, almost, in that two people looking at the same large collection of data can see wildly different and inconsistent results because they have different criteria by which they are filtering and structuring what they see. It is fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, to see just how differently people can see the same things because of the filters in their mind and in their data that they are not aware of at all. If there’s not an Abbott and Costello skit about this sort of thing, there should be.

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I Will Remember Them No More

Very recently the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, famous in history for the resistance of their queen Xenobia to the Roman Empire for several years during the tumultuous third century, fell to the forces of the so-called Islamic state, which rules over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Part of the modus operendi of this particular group is the destruction of ancient pre-Islamic ruins, presumably on the grounds that it is immoral to preserve the memory of heathen societies. While I am unaware of any particular hadiths or quotations from the Quran that mandate the destruction of heathen religious sites, it is striking that ISIS follows a general trend among contemporary reactionary Islamist groups to destroy historical artifacts that it deems idolatrous. In comparison, one can look at the rock Buddhas in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in the recent past, which falls under the same sort of behavior. It is immensely unsettling to admit any sort of common feeling with such people as ISIS, but their desire to consign ungodly and wicked historical sites to destruction, to destroy the memory of such heathen practices, is one I can certainly understand on some level, the fact that such sites are immensely significant from a historical perspective notwithstanding. There is an obvious tension between the desire to obliterate all trace of evil and wickedness and the desire to leave an accurate and complete record of life as it really was. It is a deep tension in our lives that, I believe, is not examined nearly often enough.

We must not think that such obliteration of the past is only a matter of groups like ISIS and the Taliban, however. When I lived in Central Florida as a young adult in my mid-to-late 20’s, one of my coworkers was a professional engineer who was fond of Southern culture. While I have never considered myself particularly sympathetic to the worldview of Southern aristocratic domination throughout American history, there is no doubt that movies exist with a racial worldview that is extremely uncomfortable to most contemporary audiences. You see, my former coworker had wanted to obtain a copy of Song of the South, but found that it was extremely difficult to do so, as the leftist Taliban of political correctness had sought to obliterate the memory of such racist comedy and remove it from existence as best as possible [1]. This presents us with a heavy irony, one we must see on both sides. Regardless of our political and religious and moral worldview, we have the temptation to seek to erase evil from historical memory, so that it does not tempt anyone to follow its example. We may not think that it is reasonable for contemporary Islamists to fear the historical memory of ancient Palmyra or the long-departed Buddhists of Afghanistan, but Germany still wishes to cast any memory of Hitler’s Germany down the memory hole, as does the contemporary United States with regard to the Brer Rabbit tales and references to tar babies and inaccurate portrayals of simple-minded and unsophisticated black folk. What is shared in all of these cases is a desire to obliterate memories of evil so that they are removed as a source of contemporary trouble.

As much as I am an advocate and a practitioner of free speech, much to my own harm and peril at times in my life, I have strong sympathies to this view, at least in some aspects. For nearly my entire life, since I was a very small child, I have been tormented by the memory of the horrors of my youth. I have never been allowed to forget what it felt like to be little. There is a lot in my own life that I too would want to consign to the memory hole, to obliterate from existence as if it it never happened, but I have not been so fortunate. I have refused to indulge in the blackout-inducing drinking habits of many of my relatives, for as comforting as such oblivion is, I am not willing to lose control over my impulses and actions that would be involved in such actions. How does one have perfect memory and perfect forgetfulness, so that one remembers the lessons of the past, and so that one can draw strength from our record of resilience without being tormented in the present day by the memory of the past. How does one gain restraint in the right ways from the past, and not a crippling timidity in certain areas of life and behavior. Memory and its implications are a matter of grave personal difficulty, and finding the wise and proper course of action given the past a matter of seeming impossibility to navigate successfully without help from another place.

The Bible speaks in numerous contexts about remembering no longer. Proverbs 31:7 counsels the poor to drink and remember their misery no more [2]. Heman, the author of Psalm 88:5, says that he felt like he was adrift among the dead, whom God remembers no more [3]. Hosea 2:17 says that God will take away the names of the Baals from the mouth of Israel so that these false gods with no longer be remembered [4]. Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17 both comment, in a quotation of Jeremiah 31:34, that God will be merciful to His people and remember their sins and lawless deeds no more. Still other places, like Psalm 83:4 and Jeremiah 11:19, show that the wicked desire to destroy the memory of the righteous from the earth, so that the victims of their evil are remembered no more. Memory is a complicated matter, far from cut or dry. In truth, we all desire for some aspect of our lives or of our history or of the larger past to be remembered no more. What we desire to be forgotten, though, depends on who we are, what we have seen or suffered or done, and our moral worldview. Who is there that can be trusted to have the perfect memory and perfect forgetfulness to know what is to be preserved and what is to be consigned to oblivion? Clearly, we cannot be trusted to handle this task ourselves.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/its-the-truth-its-actual-everything-is-satisfactual/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/proverbs-31-1-9-lemuels-mother-and-the-duties-of-kings/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/psalm-88-for-my-soul-is-full-of-troubles/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/and-will-no-longer-call-me-baali/

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Book Review: This Is Your Captain Speaking

This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith, & Life, by Gavin MacLeod with Mark Dagostino

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

When I was a boy, I had a great-grandfather in his late 80’s and early 90’s who had lived a very eventful life who loved to regale me with stories of the famous people he knew, even if he was somewhat modest of his own achievements. This book reads like the memoir of that kind of man, someone with ups and downs, someone who certainly has flaws but also a compelling life story to tell, and a great deal of achievements for which the author is very obviously and immensely grateful. On almost every page of this book is full of stories about marriage, family, the details of work as a corporate pitchman and an actor who really loves live performances in theater. The stories are honest and generally positive, and full of humor and good nature.

In terms of its order and structure, this book is pretty straightforwardly chronological, with a lot of digressions and flashbacks, but the overall narrative is a classic one: starting in media res at the beginning of the author’s acting career, then going back to family background and early life forward through a long and illustrious career, ending at a natural break in the author’s career, in declining health due to aging, retiring from acting in his 80’s, and focusing on family and his religious beliefs. The chapters are short and easy to read. For the excellence in style, a great deal of credit must be given to the co-writer, who appears to have done an excellent task in taking the author’s stories and put them in a reader-friendly fashion. Given the occasionally tough content this book contains, that task was done well and was certainly a more difficult one than one would gather from the friendly cover picture of the author in his Love-Boat days.

There are a few notable and serious lessons that one can gain from this book. For one, the author perhaps unwittingly discusses some elements of bad family background. With alcoholism rampant on both sides of the family, it is not a surprise that he too suffered from it, to such an extent that it was a major contributor to his first divorce. With his father dying young, when the author was only 13, and with the father having been one of those emotionally remote types that believes expression of emotion is weakness, it is little surprise that this book is full of the author seeking fatherly praise from older role models and authority figures, and being insecure and feeding off of the applause of live theater acting. Additionally, this book contains some heavy commentary about death, depression, and the struggles of keeping a marriage together in Hollywood. A great deal of the last part of the book is focused on the author’s evangelical work, especially after remarrying his second wife after their split due to his selfishness and communication problems. Issues of divine providence are present to a great degree here as well, and it is lovely to read about how the author influenced culture by serving as an ambassador for the pleasure cruise industry, something I enjoy when I have the opportunity to do so, and pleasant company. All in all, whether one wants a Hollywood memoir that tells almost all, or a book that looks at the faith of someone connected to popular culture [1], this makes for an excellent read.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/book-review-stumbling-on-open-ground/

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A Place In The Sun

Some time ago I had a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who grew up (like me) in Central Florida. Among her few complaints about life in the Pacific Northwest was the fact that she missed feeling the heat of the sun upon her skin. If one wants frequent sunlight, one can go to the High Desert, which is only a few hours away, but alas, the sunlight there does not come with a great deal of heat. I have known other people who likewise find the heat from the sunlight to be essential to living happily, although I must admit with my own uneven melanin production, I have never particularly enjoyed direct light and heat myself, being far more fond of indirect light, which is less blinding and less likely to give me unwanted sunburns because I cannot handle the heat of the sun full-on. Nevertheless, I too can understand the enjoyment one gets from seeing light after a long experience of living under dark clouds and in the shadow.

A few years ago I had pondered writing an extended narrative, perhaps even a memoir, about a certain era of my life. As I moved from college into young adulthood, I started musing a great deal on where I belonged in the larger world. Being a complicated person, with fairly severe sensitivities, has made it a bit of a difficult process to find a place in the sun in certain parts of life. My own life became sufficiently dark after I had conceived the idea that I decided not to write about it at length, as it was too painful to do so. This is not to say that I stopped puzzling over the questions in my head, but rather that some things are impossible to write about for a concentrated period of time or at length, but must be addressed little by little, so that they can be borne at all. I imagine I am not the only one who feels this way, but all the same it is something that is very true about me, that what is darkest must be dealt with a little bit at a time.

In his 1951 poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” In life, we may often fight for a place in the sun, seek after our own selfish ambition, only to realize belatedly that not everything was created for the harsh sunlight. Some people are made alive by the white heat of a spotlight; others wilt under the glare. Symbolically speaking, of course, to seek a place in the sun is to seek places where we may succeed, where we fit, where we belong, where we may receive the honor and respect that we are due. This is far from a straightforward task. The playwright Lorraine Hansberry, for example, wrote a famous play called “A Raisin In The Sun” that mirrored her experiences as a child being a black child in a hostile white neighborhood where her father fought against the restrictive covenants that kept blacks out of the best Chicago neighborhoods of the time. Yet as a teenager I grew up as the only white kid in a black neighborhood built over a reclaimed garbage dump wondering why all the bad neighborhoods in Tampa seemed to refer to heights or highlands as part of their name, while the lowlands near the river or especially the various bays in the area were much more highly sought after despite the dangers of flooding and storm tides. Life is strange.

What is it that we want in life? Much of what we want in life is not within our power to demand, because we are dealing with other beings possessed as we are of free moral agency, who can choose to give and choose not to give what we are looking for. To be sure, we want to be able to sleep at night in peace and with a certain amount of dignity and self-respect, but even this may not be within our power to accomplish. Certainly the love and respect we want from others, the opportunities for success and honor, and so on, depend on other people. Even our own efforts to better our lives may be greatly benefited or hindered by others. Very often, our success depends on the abilities that we have to enable the larger success of others. We exist in complicated networks, where our skills and abilities may be liabilities to understanding the capabilities of others we deal with, where our weaknesses and vulnerabilities can be a source of empathy and understanding, and where even our discontent can be a spur to growth and progress. Yet so much of what we long for is far more complicated than we wish it to be, and fulfilling our deepest desires can be a far more difficult process than we imagine. Small wonder there is so much shadow, and so little lightness, in so much of what we do. At least we can treasure those moments of lightness and joy when they occur, even if we would want to enjoy them far more often than we do.

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