Monday, November 24, 2014

Yashmak

(Poetry Scales 26)

In the spectrum
between burqas and bikinis,
where is that happy medium?
Either end makes of women
an object; on either
end you can’t
really see them.
When it comes to
conversation, parlance, or
interaction; desire or disturbance…
each amounts to distraction. The
coverage most flattering,
of cloth on a model
is neither inches
nor yards, but the
good taste in
the middle.

Neither property nor treasure is ever so pleasurable as a friend, a person, a being, a soul.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout

I would consider myself a fan of Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Even though I have only worked my way through about one fourth of their cases in my 30+ years of reading. For one thing, they are hard to find on shelves, but they are also a pleasure I like to take and digest as opportunity presents. I have not actively sought out the full collection. Perhaps I should.

Following a suggestion from Eugene Peterson, I like to play with the idea of Nero Wolfe as a type for the church. I also simply love to read the stories and thoughts in Archie’s words. If I were to make a list of my favorite sleuths in fiction, Archie Goodwin is sure to be very near the top.

At first, “Too Many Cooks” is a bit uncomfortable to a modern reader. Written in the thirties and taking place in the “high society” of West Virginia, it presents an unpalatable picture of race relations. However, one quickly realizes that Wolfe and Goodwin are not a part of that picture. They are men of their time and culture, but ahead of their time in their attitudes about race. Wolfe expresses an attitude outside of the setting, when addressing a room full of black men.

“The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.”

What is even more forward thinking is the context of that statement. Wolfe is calling a room of witnesses whom he thinks are biting their tongues to protect a fellow black man racists. Subsequent American history is full of such racist examples on both sides of the divide.

Bits of insight are aplenty. Addressing a “certain type” of woman, the kind who uses men or more precisely her sex to advance her state in life, Wolfe offers the following brilliant run-on sentence:

“Nature plainly intends that a man should nourish a woman, and a woman a man, physically and spiritually, but there is no nourishment in you for anybody; the vapor that comes from you, from your eyes, your lips, your soft skin, your contours, your movements, is not beneficent but malignant.”

Another wonderful idea that fits well with the game of using Wolfe to represent the church, is the following ideal:

“I wouldn't use physical violence even if I could, because one of my romantic ideas is that physical violence is beneath the dignity of a man, and that whatever you get by physical aggression costs more than it is worth.”

Philosophy and intelligent ideas aside, “Too Many Cooks” is also a great closed-room-mystery. Check it out!

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Bryant and May on the Loose" by Christopher Fowler

“On the Loose” finds Bryant and May directionless, having been fired after a previous case. The narrative feels a little disjointed as well. And, even when another case surfaces and they are called back in for one more effort, things are a little hard to keep straight. Perhaps that is the way murder investigations are in real life, but novels demand a little more order. Here we are not even sure who has been killed, and at one point it feels like they have two copies of the same body. Characters abound, and for some reason I had a lot of trouble remembering who was who.

All that said, it is clearly another case in the very well defined and consistent Bryant and May universe. We have a mystery whose solution is somehow stumbled upon by our heroes, seemingly in spite of themselves. As always it has to be chalked up to Bryant’s intuition. And, as always, it is arrived at whilst he is chasing fringe theories and arcane histories. Because in this world, culture and events are tightly intertwined with their locations and histories.

London’s King’s Cross district is apparently just a Christian veneer laid over the oldest pagan site on the island, and that somehow drives a murderer to replicate ancient sacrifices that were practiced there, not intentionally but coincidentally. Our detectives chase several red herrings and outright mistaken theories until the solution is stumbled upon, but in the end we will get another novel with the same villain.

Hopefully that spoiler doesn’t ruin the book, but quite honestly it is the first of this series that I am not recommending, so maybe it doesn’t matter. The other ones I have read are much better and I would suggest checking them out. Here, here, and here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Comfortable Crusading

Last week a bunch of people were sharing the heart-warming story of a man who had developed a font designed to help dyslexic people read. The idea was inspiring. People wanted to get the word out. More people need to find and use this tool to help. Or do they? A little more digging reveals that the font has been around for several years. Long enough to be tested. It turns out that the font is no better for dyslexic readers than other ones.

But what really matters, the results or the intentions?

In today’s culture we definitely trend towards intentions over tangible results. People want ideas that feel good and that can be sold. We avoid hard problems or tricky solutions.

In another do-good-the-easy-way front, today in Dresden there is a protest against the opening of a new clothing store. People are protesting against sub-standard, inhumane working conditions. They want more fair trade and better conditions for workers in Asia. However, simple, slight investigations into the company reveal that—while there are problems across the board in the clothing industry—the chain they are protesting is one of the ones that is trying to do something to change things. Not only that, but a lot of the accusations against them have been demonstrably falsified.

The real problem is that the protestors want to effect change, but are choosing the easy way out. They are piggybacking on the publicity the store is generating to advance their cause. All the while other, more egregious chains already operate in town. The chances these protestors will impact the multinational company with their spectacle are minute, but local families will be hurt.

It is just another example of crusading in the modern, technological age. We have too much information but not enough willingness to vet it. We have too great an ability to broadcast our voice, but are not willing enough to invest the energy to say the right things.

Too much intention and too little concern for real impact.

Monday, November 17, 2014

An Aside on the Mocking, Rejecting, Domineering Impulse (Mark 15:16-32)

In more of an aside than a direct commentary to this passage, one is struck by the humanity—the negative aspect of humanity—that is clear in this story. As Christ goes to the cross to die and achieve the salvation of sinful mankind, He is scorned, mocked, beaten and rejected at every turn. And as much as we want to stand in condemnation of those soldiers, leaders, and criminals; we recognize a nit of ourselves in them.

On the one hand, people can be terrible. There is an element of sadism in humanity—a little bit in all of us individually, and a portion of society that is driven by it. In Roman culture one could see the more sadistic types gravitating towards being soldiers. But it is not just the professional thugs and killers in action here. Jewish leaders do their part.

Leadership and power is where we most clearly see this aspect of sin nature. Even today, even in the church, we embrace this idea of “strong leadership.” The Roman government could not tolerate any sedition—even from someone as seemingly insignificant as the Nazarene and His band of followers. Combine that need for a “show of strength” and the sadistic tendencies of the men in charge, and you get the scene that is here recorded. And the religious leaders of Israel were no better. They saw their herds of followers being drawn away by Jesus’ teaching and they conspired to get Him not just silenced or disqualified, but killed.

Jesus teaches another form of leadership. Service and sacrifice. Sadly the forms and models of “strong” church today do not follow His example. Today the strong, CEO model of celebrity Pastor is raised up as the type to imitate. This whole line of thought has been a bit of a leap, admittedly, but as an aside it does expose the trend.

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