Thursday, December 30, 2010

See Abigail Ski!

So Ab and I went to Ski Sundown today. It was her first time to go skiing. After her lessons, I took her up to the top of the mountain. She skied down like a champ. Watch out, Lindsey Vonn!

We had to take a break every once in a while. . . .

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Six New Books. WooHoo!!

So Michele's parents sent me a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, and my folks gave me some cash. So I took myself book shopping this afternoon. Here's what I came home with:

1. The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm: A Thousand Days in London, 1938-1940, by Will Swift.

2. American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America, by Edmund S. Morgan.

3. Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, by William F. Buckley Jr.

4. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, by Jon Meacham

5. The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball, by Nicholas Dawidow.

6. The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens.

Now, which one to read first?

Coming soon to Frankly Speaking: My 10 Best Books of 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Suffering in Second Timothy

Suffering and sacrifice just aren't a part of God's plan for you. True Christianity is all about having peace and prosperity and everything you want, or at least most of what you want most of the time.

No, I wasn't speaking for myself there. Yes, I was trying to give expression to what I hear a lot of these days. Sickening, isn't it?

For a few months now, I've been teaching a Wednesday-night adult class that's surveying the New Testament. A couple weeks ago, getting ready for our time with Second Timothy, I sat down and spent about fifteen minutes or more slowly (and I mean slowly) reading through this short letter. Here's some of what I noticed, or noticed again. . . .

It seems that by the time he writes this letter, Paul has managed to get himself into prison in Rome (1:16-17). At an earlier stage in his life, when he wrote to people like Philemon and the Philippians, Paul told them to get a room ready for him. Even though he was confined for awhile, he said he would soon be coming to see them (for example, Philippians 1:12-26 and Philemon 22-23) But this time around, usually referred to as his "second Roman imprisonment," he doesn't seem to be hopeful about getting out (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Timothy, on the other hand, is apparently at Ephesus (1:18), which is where Paul had left him according to 1 Timothy 1:3. From the first letter, it seems like Timothy was having to deal with a lot controversy. The second letter continues this theme. In a situation like that, says Paul, Timothy must teach his people to avoid disputing over words (2:14). Timothy himself must have nothing to do with these stupid, senseless controversies. And, he must avoid falling into the trap of becoming quarrelsome. He should be kind to everyone (2:23-24).

Apparently, handling this sort of assignment will not be easy for Timothy. Why? Because he is not one for taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. Running all the way through 2 Timothy is the hint that this young evangelist is very uncomfortable with conflict. At the beginning of the letter, for example, Paul says that he remembers Timothy's tears (1:4). What Timothy had been crying about is not clear. But what does seem clear is that Timothy is prone to being timid. Paul needs to remind him that the Spirit that God gave to us is not one of fear, but one of power, love, and self-control (1:7). Paul goes on to tell Timothy not to be ashamed. Neither he, Paul, nor his helper, Onesiphorus, were ashamed (1:12-17). From there, Paul goes on to issue several related examples and words of encouragement:
  • be strong (2:1)
  • take your share of suffering (2:3)
  • I am suffering (2:9)
  • I endure everything (2:10)
  • You have witnessed my persecutions and sufferings. Now you endure (3:10-15)
  • endure suffering (4:5)
These add up to a powerful testimony about the necessity for Christians, and especially their leaders, to endure hardship for the Lord's sake. So here are some questions we started out with in class. Before I asked these questions, I told the group that it wasn't my intention to bring everyone down. I was my intention to cause them to think about some things that are inevitable:

1. What is the most difficult thing you've ever had to endure? I'm not asking about just anything that was hard or painful. I'm thinking about enduring hardship for the sake of someone else, or for the sake of something that was important to you.

2. What is the most difficult conflict you've ever had with another person or group of people?

3. In those circumstances, what helped you or inspired you to hang on?

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Southwestern Wedding

So last weekend, Michele and Aubrey and I drove down to El Paso for a wedding. Eddie Cartagena and Marissa Hernandez (Michele's niece) got married.

It was a nice ceremony, something I would have said even if Michele's father didn't preside. He also conducted our wedding back in January 2004.

I don't think I'd like living in the desert southwest. But I did enjoy the warm weather in December.

The whole time we were there, I kept thinking about how, when we were there three years ago, it was safe for us to walk across the bridge over into Juarez. We found ourselves in a big crowd of out-of-towners who had come to El Paso for the Sun Bowl football game. What a difference a few years can make. Nowadays, you'd probably be safer in Baghdad or Tehran.

While I sometimes wondered about life on the other side of the Rio Grand, I also felt blessed to be on this side with my wife.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day the World Ended (1955)

I promise. This post has absolutely nothing to do with the previous one. I'm not poking fun. Not being deliberately ironic. It just happened like this.

On his way to becoming Hollywood’s king of low-budget movies, in 1955 a young Roger Corman produced and directed Day the World Ended. It was one of his earliest films. Dozens more would follow in the years to come. But in his 1998 memoir, Corman remarks that it was this movie that established him as a director in the science fiction genre (p. 31).

The film’s opening title card announces, What you are about to see may never happen. . . . but to this anxious age in which we live, it presents a fearsome warning. . . . Our Story begins with . . . . THE END!

Next we see an example of that now-familiar stock footage of an atomic explosion, and we hear the narrator, Chet Huntley. His voice has been modified to sound tinny with a bit of reverb, a convention that signals to the viewer that these words come from the Bible. (The same thing turns up in the Jule Miller evangelistic film strips). The narration interprets the nuclear holocaust with words taken from 2 Peter 3:10 according to the King James Version: . . . and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (Note: This passage is often cited as biblical proof that Christian eschatology expects the fiery destruction of the created order. Few people are aware that this verse includes a notoriously difficult textual problem. In fact, the KJV rendering quoted above is not an accurate English translation of the autograph of Second Peter. In all likelihood, the original document said that the earth and everything in it would be “revealed” or “found,” not “burned up.” For a discussion of the questions raised by the various extant Greek manuscripts, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 636-37).

As survivors of World War III emerge through the smoke, the narrator tells us, “Man has done his best to destroy himself. But there is a force more powerful than man. And in his infinite wisdom, he has spared a few.” Those few soon begin showing up at the home of Jim Maddison (Paul Birch). Maddison and his daughter, Louise (Lori Anderson, pictured below) are safe, at least for the time being. Their house is in a valley protected by high winds, and by hills all around that contain lead-ore. Jim, a veteran of the U.S Navy, had long suspected that the worst would eventually happen. Ten years before it did, he carefully chose where he would live and stocked everything he would need in order for his family to survive. The lovely Louise has a fiancĂ©, but we soon discover that he is among the victims.

The survivors who take refuge at the Maddison’s include a small-time crook Tony Lamont (Touch Conners, before he became Mike Conners of Mannix fame) and his girlfriend, an aging stripper named Ruby (Adele Jergens). A geologist named Rick (Richard Denning), who carries on his shoulders a man named Radek (Paul Dubov), follows them. Nearly dead, it seems, Radek has a bad case of radiation poisoning. Finally, a crusty old gold prospector, Pete (Raymond Hatton) shows up with his burro, Diablo, in tow. Thrown together by circumstance, the group spends the next several weeks waiting for the radiation to dissipate. Everyone stays inside for the most part, except for Radek who often wanders out at night and whose high roentgen count leads Jim and Rick to wonder why he’s still alive.

Eventually, they discover that Radek is some sort of partial mutant who kills and eats contaminated game during his nighttime ventures. As Rick describes things, Radek has survived because he’s the victim of “an entirely-new set of laws that we know nothing about.” But soon, Radek the hunter becomes prey. Stalking the valley is a full-blown mutant, actually Paul Blaisdell wearing one of the cheapest, most-pathetic monster suits in cinematic history. Soon after this monster with the huge head, bird beak, three eyes, and a 34-inch waist kills Radek, some of the other characters begin to kill off themselves or each other. Having grown impatient, Pete climbs out of the valley and onto the radioactive ridge. Tony, with his sights now set on Louise, stabs the jealous Ruby and throws her body off a cliff.

But Tony isn’t the only one interested in Louise. With the monster psychically calling to her, she wanders into the woods. When Rick discovers that she’s not in the house, he goes looking and finds her in a pond just out of the reach of the mutant, which seems to be afraid of the water. When Rick fires his rifle at the mutant, he discovers that it’s bullet proof, and he is also forced to take refuge in the pond. Just then, it begins to rain for the first time since the war. Immediately the monster begins to cringe, and it quickly dies. Louise tells Rick that, for some strange reason, she feels sorry for the mutant. And since it “spoke” only to her, viewers are left wondering if the monster was in fact Louise’s fiancĂ©! (Usually, the man turning into a monster is something that happens after the wedding, right?). At any rate, as Rick and Louise return to the house, Tony plans to kill Rick so that he can have the girl for himself. At the last moment though, Jim, lying on the couch with a fatal case of radiation poisoning, pulls a hidden pistol and kills Tony. Afterwards, Rick, Louise, and Jim try to make sense of everything that’s recently happened. Jim says of the monster, That thing was created to live in a poisoned world. The rain came, and it was pure. Louise: Man created it, but God destroyed it. He brought the rain and the fresh air. Moments later, Jim dies, leaving only Rick and Louise. The final scene shows the couple healthy and smiling as they hike out of the valley arm-in-arm.

Of all the nuclear-war films that have been made, it would be hard to find one that is more explicitly religious than Day the World Ended. As my synopsis indicates, while the story acknowledges that humans are responsible for the event that brings them to near extinction, it also firmly places this event under the sovereign power of the God of the Christian Bible. Likewise, the end clearly asserts that humanity’s ability to survive and even flourish in a newly-cleansed world is also the result of the providential care of this God. To underscore all of this, midway through, the movie includes a Bible reading. In the previous scene, Jim and Rick wander through the woods. The men are perplexed by Radek’s strange behavior and by the question of what the fallout might have done to the environment. Jim asks his new friend, “What can we do, Rick?” An earlier scene revealed that Rick’s brother, who was instantly killed in the nuclear attack, was planning to become a minister. Rick replies to Jim’s question, My brother believed that the Bible gave strength and revealed a plan for everything. Jim responds, Then I hope I find it before I lose my mind. Back at his home, Jim holds a Bible and reads to the group:

. . . for I am with thee to save thee and to deliver thee, saith the Lord. And I will deliver thee out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem thee out of the hand of the terrible (Jeremiah 15:20b-21).

This raises a number of unanswered questions. Why has Jim made his way to the end of Jeremiah 15? Who does he assume that “the wicked” and “the terrible” might be? What sorts of applications is the viewer expected make? My last question leads back to Lou Rusoff, the author of the screenplay. But it’s really not that complicated. According to the story, Jim just happens to have found and read a passage that promises him—or at least his descendants through Louise—eventual rescue from radioactive monsters and nuclear fallout, not to mention Tony. Yes, it is a greeting-card understanding of the Bible. It’s also a very popular approach in Christian history and American culture.

In these ways, then, Day the World Ended assumes the existence and benevolent care of the God of the Christian Bible. Consequently, in this movie although humanity is responsible for World War III and the near extinction of life on Earth, the providence of God ensures that there are survivors. It also provides for a natural cleansing of the planet so that survivors then have the prospect of repopulating the world.

Some Sources:

Corman, Roger. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Kaufman, Gordon D. “Nuclear Eschatology and the Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51 (March 1983): 3-14.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed., Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Date is Set for Christ's Return


Just in case you hadn't heard, Jesus is coming back . . . . on May 21, 2011. Be sure to mark your calendars.

My favorite part of the story: The article begins with, There are 24 shopping days left till Christmas. And 171 days left until Jesus' second coming. I looked through the comments section for this story. Here are some of the more interesting lines:

What? Jesus is coming back right after graduation? I'm SO done working!

Where are we going? And why are we in this hand basket?

Dangit! That's my dog's birthday. I'm totally going to have to change the theme for her party!

Does this guy also predict winning lottery numbers?

Isn't this strange? What do you think? Is it all a publicity and marketing campaign? Or do you think the people making this prediction are sincere?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Seven Days in May (1964)

I've been trying to work on a number of different historical projects lately. I know, I really should focus on just one. But I get distracted. Anyway, one of those projects has to do with feature films of the Cold War era. Here's a review of one of my favorites so far. Spoiler Alert! The first half of what follows is a full synopsis:

Seven Days in May
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
Screenplay by Rod Serling
Seven Arts Productions and Joel Productions
118 minutes

Seven Days in May begins with a riot in front of the White House. It's the late 1960s and U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Now, demonstrators for and against the treaty are coming to blows. The populace is afraid. The military-industrial complex feels betrayed. And the president’s approval rating has sunk to 29 percent.

In one of the opening scenes, the president talks with a sympathetic friend, Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien). He explains his reason for making the pact. Sure, the U.S. could have maintained “a nice, cushy feeling that we’ve got a bomb for every one of theirs. But . . . there’d have come one day when they’d have blown us up, or we’d have blown them up.”

President Lyman’s most forceful opponent is Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scott is a highly decorated war hero who never misses a chance to denounce the new treaty. In one scene, he tells a congressional panel, “There’s not a single piece of paper in history that’s ever served as a deterrent to a Pearl Harbor.” The next day, at a televised rally with thousands of veterans cheering him on, he rails against “the cynics, the one-worlders, the intellectual dilettantes,” those who believe that “patriotism is old-fashioned” and that “love of country is out-dated.”

Scott’s aide at the Pentagon is Marine Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas). Casey admires Scott and shares his mistrust of the Soviets. But unlike the outspoken general, Casey stays clear of any public criticism of the administration. A series of clues leads Casey to an uneasy suspicion about his boss, and he requests a meeting with the president. At the White House, Casey reports what he has recently seen and heard. Finally, when President Lyman presses him to speak candidly, the colonel tells him, “I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government.”

The president regards the conspiracy theory as possible, and he calls together a small group of trusted aides and officials, including Casey, to investigate. Casey approaches Scott’s former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner). Though he is genuinely attracted to her, he visits Holbrook at her apartment in order to find out what she knows about the general. Casey leaves with a stack of love letters written by Scott, letters that can be used against him. The rest of the team discovers that General Scott is, in fact, planning a coup. The scheme is impressive. Scott has set up a clandestine military base near El Paso where unknowing troops are training for seizure. A scheduled alert exercise in a few days will serve as the pretext for mobilizing the military and isolating the president. The armed forces will commandeer nation-wide communications, including the television networks. Almost all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key member of the Senate, Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell), are in on the plan. A popular television newsman, Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) will manage the media in the replacement government.

At first, President Lyman intends to derail the conspiracy by exposing it. But General Scott’s team, well organized and determined, prevents the president from assembling the evidence he needs in order to make his case to the public. Then he learns that Scott has rescheduled the alert for late Saturday night, instead of Sunday morning. With time running out, the president phones the Pentagon and demands to see the general immediately. At the White House, Lyman confronts Scott, accuses him of treason, and demands his resignation. The general first denies the plan and then defends his motives. As he leaves, the president vows to fight him.

The next day as the president holds a televised press conference, he receives word that a key piece of evidence exposing the junta has been discovered. Soon, he reports that members of the Joint Chiefs have tendered their resignations. On hearing the news, General Scott tells his driver to take him home.

The film ends with President Lyman speaking to the nation. He declares that in spite of the negative national mood, “the whisperers, the detractors, the violent men are wrong.” The United States is still a strong nation, “strong enough to be a peacemaker.” It is still a proud nation, “proud enough to be patient.” He concludes with the rousing prophecy that “we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.” As he leaves the podium, the press corps stands and applauds.

One of the truly great movies depicting the Cold War, Seven Days in May captures so well what seems to have been its cultural context, the attitudes and the atmosphere in America at the time. In 1960, Nixon and Lodge, who nearly won the election, had used a slogan that could have been part of the script: “They Understand What Peace Demands.” Two years later, in October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis heightened the nation’s awareness that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed a large arsenal of incredibly powerful nuclear weapons, and that even an accidental first strike would likely result in retaliation leading to full escalation. In 1964, the year the film was released, such fears were the basis of a clever response to a slogan used by the Republican presidential nominee. The Barry Goldwater campaign declared, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Supporters of Lyndon Johnson responded with, “In Your Heart You Know He Might.”

More than that, the film also editorializes by presenting a vision of the sort of Americans who can guide the nation to survival and even prosperity. The film “takes a side” in a vital debate during the Cold War. But it also attempts to make room for the opposing side. For example, during his televised press conference, President Lyman assures his hearers of their right to dissent. Viewers overhear him say:

Americans traditionally and historically have given vent to their views. On the date that this government does anything arbitrarily to stifle those views, it will have to change form. It will cease to be a democracy. And I can state quite frankly that this day will not come.

Earlier, when he faces off with the general, the president never suggests that his opponent’s militaristic views have no merit. Although he disagrees with Scott, Lyman does not debate the general’s position. What he objects to is Scott’s attempt to circumvent American rules and procedures. When General Scott professes “an abiding concern about the survival of this country,” President Lyman responds:

Then, by God, run for office! . . . You want to defend the United States of America. Then defend it using the tools it supplies you with, the Constitution. You ask for a mandate, General, from a ballot box. You don’t steal it after midnight, when the country has its back turned.

Colonel Casey, a third alternative, personifies a hawkish position that at the same time defends duly elected civilian authority. When the president meets with the colonel at the White House, he asks him what he thinks about General Scott’s militaristic views. Casey answers:

I agree with General Scott, Sir. I think we’re being played for suckers. I think it’s really your business, yours and the Senate. You did it and they agreed. So, well, I don’t see how we in the military can question it. I mean, we can question it, but we can’t fight it. . . . We shouldn’t anyway.

From the vantage point of the film, Lyman and Casey are ideal Americans. They are strong enough to act responsibly and to show respect even while they believe that they are in the right and that others are wrong. Seven Days in May seems to assume that strength and purity of character combined with uniquely-American institutions will always generate a way for the United States to prevail. Thus, the film reflects and encourages the values of that religion or folk philosophy that has been called "Americanism."

Sources:
Farber, David, and Bailey, Beth. Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

The Internet Movie Database. “Seven Days in May (1964).” http://www.imdb.com/ title/tt0058576/

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Kennedy Imprisonment, by Garry Wills

Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1982).

Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, wrote this book in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like a political observer trained in family psychology, the author attempts to explain the unique privileges, burdens--and now failures-- of the youngest Kennedy son.

He describes it all as the result of the family’s development and abuse of power over many decades. For example, in “Part One: Sex,” Wills tells a number of stories about the philandering father, Joe Kennedy Sr. He suggests that John Kennedy, also a compulsive womanizer, was both acting like his father and trying to compensate for his own weak constitution. Only years later would the moral weight of this “masculine” family habit fall squarely on Ted’s shoulders. His lonely and damaged wife, Joan, and the candidate’s obvious reluctance to come close to any woman in public were just two of the pitiful consequences of a pattern of immorality spanning two generations.

In subsequent parts, Wills likewise depicts Ted as the prisoner of “Family” and “Image,” and “Charisma.” To devastating effect, he describes a Joe Kennedy Sr. obsessed with the goal of portraying his children, especially his sons, as a group of indomitable winners. For example, working behind the scenes Joe began with John’s senior paper at Harvard and managed to have it padded, reworked, and promoted as a noteworthy book, Why England Slept. He also saw to it that the story of PT 109 was carefully crafted and publicized so that John emerged as one of the best-known heroes of World War II. Again, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Years later it was not John Kennedy, but Ted Sorensen assisted by Jules Davids, who wrote almost all of Profiles in Courage, a book that, incredibly, garnered for JFK a Pulitzer Prize. Of course, the decades-long tradition of deception and empty credentials would inevitably come crashing down. But again, in this tragedy of Shakespearean proportions the older Kennedys experienced the pride. It was Ted, in so many ways alone, who would know the fall.

In the last major section of the book, “Power,” Wills sets out to demolish, among other things, the American myth of the Cuban missile crisis. One by one, he takes out each pillar holding up the structure: Notwithstanding the attempts to spread the blame, only President Kennedy could have launched or prevented the Bay of Pigs. With a mixture of hubris and ignorance, he opted to go with the plan, in part because it was clandestine, unconventional, and high brow, “a James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by Ph.D.s” (231). And why not risk it? The president had been so lucky up till then.

The early, conventional portraits of the Kennedy administration suggest that not only did JFK learn several important lessons from his humiliating defeat, it was this new found wisdom that supposedly enabled him to act so effectively during the missile crisis. But Wills insists that the facts speak otherwise. He says that after the Bay of Pigs, the president never questioned the general purpose and plan of the scheme. To the contrary, he increased his dedication to an anti-bureaucratic approach that specialized in things like paramilitary assaults, counterinsurgency, and guerrilla warfare. In other words, after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy did not change his course. Instead, he became more devoted to the prospect of unseating Fidel Castro, this time by means of the secretive Operation Mongoose. Plans designed to topple the Cuban dictator were well known by both Castro and Khrushchev. Thus, the reason why Castro reluctantly agreed to have Soviet missiles sent to Cuba was because he wanted a deterrent against an invasion by the US. When Cuba and the USSR made this claim during the crisis, they were telling the truth.

And what of the legendary restraint shown by Kennedy during the crisis? Wills answers that the president’s claim that he made “every effort” in order to provide room for his adversary is “demonstrably untrue” (265). Among other things, Kennedy ruled out open diplomacy from the very beginning of the crisis, insisted that the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey must not be seen as a quid pro quo, and eventually gave the Russians a 24-hour deadline along with his proposal, a move that actually increased the likelihood of war.

Wills says that by acting in such unrestrained fashion, Kennedy helped to precipitate the fall of Khrushchev, a relatively-easy opponent who was replaced by a Soviet hard-liner. Having been treated this way once by the US, leaders in the USSR were in no mood to make compromises later. Not only that, Kennedy’s behavior in the crisis established a pattern of insisting that the US always deal with adversaries from a superior position, instead of as equals. For these reasons, Wills concludes that the Cuban missile crisis was not, in fact, a great victory for Kennedy and America.

The Kennedy Imprisonment was intended for a general, non-academic audience. It is extremely well written and reads easily. Nevertheless, any book making so many counter claims, several of them audacious, really should be accompanied by documentation. There was no good reason for this work to be published without some sort of notes. Their absence significantly weakens the credibility and usefulness of what might have been a convincing, as well as telling, critique.