Roger Ebert, secular hero

All I’ll say is this:

Read this.

Then read this.

I flatter myself a touch that when somebody sent the link to the first one around a couple of days back that I responded “Reads pretty dry to me!” Which it was.

But really, just read both pieces. I’ll have more to say on Ebert’s larger thesis later, I think it’s one worth considering. Allow me to quote this, though:

These days, there is no room for ambiguity, and few rewards for critical thinking. Now every word of a politician is pumped dry by his opponent, looking for sinister meanings. Many political ads are an insult to the intelligence. Here I am not discussing politics. I am discussing credulity. If you were to see a TV ad charging that a politician supported “comprehensive sex education” for kindergarten children, would you (1) believe it, or (2) very much doubt it? The authors of the ad spent big money in a bet on the credulity and unquestioning thinking of the viewership. Ask yourself what such an ad believes about us. No politics, please.

To say ‘secular hero’ in the subject line of my blog forces the interpretation a bit, I admit. But it does so in this sense — it appeals to the capacity of ourselves to reason, deduce and interpret, rather than leaving it all in the hands of someone beyond ourselves.

And that, I’d say, is a clarion call to arms.

Fighting the good scientific fight in the educational trenches

There’s a Florida teacher out there by the name of David Campbell, and he’s my new instant hero. And a big part of the reason why is because he’s like my dad.

Browsing the net this morning I discovered this NY Times story about Campbell, which I urge you all to read. I’ll quote just a small bit here:

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

To explain a bit more why I thought of my dad when I read this story — Campbell’s a Navy veteran, an Anglican who regularly attends church services and a high school-level science instructor who teaches the evolutionary theory among other subjects. This is essentially my dad’s story as well, the only difference now being that he has since retired from teaching. Both men not only reconcile that supposed divide between faith and science, they embody the best values of both (admittedly I speak without direct knowledge of Campbell’s own practice of faith but I have a strong hunch it’s as thoughtful as his other work). In a slightly tangential way, it also puts me in mind of this excellent Discover magazine story I read the other week, “How to Teach Science to the Pope,” regarding the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and its related work, which among other things contains this lovely quote:

Expecting to hear a further defense of his faith, I ask [retired Vatican Observatory head Father George] Coyne what effect science has had on religion and, in particular, on the Bible.

“There is no science in the Bible. Zero, none,” Coyne says. “The Bible was written in different times by different people. Some of the books are poetry, some of them are history, some are stories.”

“Are you saying that the Bible should not be held up to scientific scrutiny?” I ask.

“That is correct,” Coyne says. “Absolutely.”

Returning to the subject at hand, this kind of work and thought that my dad did and that Campbell currently does is the kind of practical approach that enriches, extends and enlivens knowledge for a general population, education in the sense of continuing to learn. To my mind it is axiomatic, so to step back a bit and explain those axioms: when growing up, I did so learning in a household that implicitly encouraged knowledge of the Bible — I still remember reading adaptations of Biblical stories with my dad when I was eight or nine each night before going to bed, and I don’t recall doing so for any other reason than my own interest rather than being told I must learn — as well as scientific interests — I was a massive astronomy buff at around that same age, culminating but hardly concluding with the broadcast of that (literally) stellar encapsulation of deep physics and the structure of the universe, Cosmos, one of the landmarks of popular science. That its host Carl Sagan was well-known for his religious skepticism troubled my dad not at all, then again it never came up — I wasn’t raised in a household that divided the world starkly between a correct religious standpoint and an incorrect mundane one. For that I am grateful.

It should also be said that I encountered fundamentalism around that same time in a horrifyingly deceptive way — while I do not think she did so intentionally, a babysitter from down the street, the daughter of another Navy officer, once brought over some Jack Chick tracts with her. I believe she must have done so for her own reading, but seeing as they were ‘comics’ I guess I must asked after them and quite frankly got myself (and my sis, I think) all worked up, laden as they were with their melodramatic predictions of imminent doom. It was a fairly traumatic night to be introduced, very starkly, to that kind of mindset, with its combination of self-righteousness, sadism and that darkly American variant on the paranoid political style, the more so because the babysitter at no point questioned any of it, to my knowledge. I vaguely remember weepingly praying, in tears and shock, with her helping me along — and keep in mind again I’m nine years old!

Like I said, I don’t think she came over there that night with the idea of trying to convert me or anything — at least I hope not. I do remember hearing later that my parents and her parents ‘had a talk,’ as they say, and the situation did not repeat itself. Neither am I so blinkered as to think all fundamentalism expresses itself in the, shall we say, ‘imaginative’ fashion of Mr. Chick and those who think him a theologian. But almost certainly that’s where my sense of suspicion and, later, anger over this particular vision of the world grounded itself, as I was able to look back with a more thoughtful eye on what happened that evening. I had already confronted the simple idea of death itself a couple of years previously, when I was seven or so — I remember a series of evenings laying awake in bed starkly and sadly grasping it, and at least one sorrowful conversation with my parents about it — but this was something alien to me, something far harsher, and more to the point, as I reflected about it, something based in fear of the unknown, of the idea that there was something else out there other than stark moral simplicities. When confronted with larger possibilities — and advances in scientific knowledge kept expanding them for all over the decades and centuries — the result was regression and despair.

And yet — as noted, folks like Campbell, like my dad, like many others, denied that fear and regression, they incorporated and embraced and looked forward and out. Teaching on any level is a combination of the urge to share knowledge and the act of performing that knowledge, if you like — the discussion in the article about Campbell’s sense of how best to convey it to his students is familiar to me from my days as a TA back in the early nineties, on a much different level. It takes a certain type to always aim to be on, it’s a stressful job, however much one wants to think back to one’s own student days and remember little but being bored in a classroom on a hot early afternoon, say. It takes even more of a certain type to tackle what is still a touchy subject, to understate.

The construction of the article inevitably results in simplicities — Campbell and Haas are almost designed to be the central casting choices in a film version of this story, wise but concerned teacher deals with passionate, inflexible student — and inasmuch as upbringing determines type, it’d be easy enough for me to dismiss Haas if I didn’t note that, as the article says, he’s a fellow “whose parents had made sure he read the Bible for an hour each Sunday as a child,” and who had been struggling with his father’s passing the previous year and finding comfort in religion. Much different from my story, where my religious interest was encouraged but not required, and where I suffered nothing so traumatic at that age.

It would be easy enough for Campbell to dismiss Haas as well, if he were so inclined, but he does not do that — he is trying for something else, as he says at one point to the class as a whole in response to a challenge from Haas:

“Faith is not based on science….And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

“But I do,” he added, “expect you to understand it.”

Again turning back to that Discover piece, consider how Campbell’s quote readily and easily squares with this statement, a religious statement of belief that understands and works with science and the application of the scientific method and the results gathered rather than trying to pretend it does not exist:

As a scientist who is also a Jesuit brother, [Vatican Observatory worker/Jesuit brother Guy] Consolmagno suggests that science poses philosophical questions that in turn spark religious inquiries.

“A hundred years ago we didn’t understand the Big Bang,” he says. “Now that we have the understanding of a universe that is big and expanding and changing, we can ask philosophical questions we would not have known to ask, like ‘What does it mean to have multiverses?’ These are wonderful questions. Science isn’t going to answer them, but science, by telling us what is there, causes us to ask these questions. It makes us go back to the seven days of creation—which is poetry, beautiful poetry, with a lesson underneath it—and say, ‘Oh, the seventh day is God resting as a way of reminding us that God doesn’t do everything.’ God built this universe but gave you and me the freedom to make choices within the universe.”

Turning back to Campbell again, his message to his students, to me, is as key a statement of purpose as any on this subject, and in this life. I have no patience with those who choose not to understand, or if you prefer choose not to make the attempt to understand. If I may draw a somewhat specious but hopefully relevant comparison — it is like doing nothing but reading political blogs and news sources that only reinforces one’s own point of view, instead of looking at other sides, other takes, and trying to understand them. In my trying to understand hard-right/conservative points of view, I do not find my own basic beliefs and interpretations changed, but in many ways strengthened both by the differences and, strange as it may sound, the commonalities, sometimes surprisingly so (it is noteworthy that there are many conservative bloggers who are religious agnostics or atheists that argue passionately, and strongly, for evolution and the scientific method, for instance).

To do all this requires activity, action, and the desire to share knowledge and encourage its pursuit in others. I trust I don’t flatter my dad in saying he always aimed for this — to my mind it’s just the truth. I’m assuming the same of Campbell — and I hope he does so for a long time to come. His is the kind of story that makes me proud and happy — and he’s not alone in this world doing what he does. A good thing indeed.

Swords and sorceries…well, swords and apologies

During my trip home — actually on the final plane trips back — I had a chance to read and enjoy Michael Chabon‘s most recent work, a wonderful little fillip of a short novel called Gentlemen of the Road. Originally published last year as a serial in the New York Times, it has the episodic feel of such a thing down — indeed, perhaps more than most anything else he’s done, this is a clear tribute to an established form, in this case the rollicking adventure as broadly described, though with an emphasis on land-based swashbuckling, if that makes any sense. Its appeal is manifest and its justification for being told in the first place is obvious and need not be stated — and yet that’s part of the problem I had, not with it, but with how he talks about it in a separate afterword done for the book edition. But more on that later.

To boil the book down to its simplicities, it’s a classic buddy story, in this case the adventurers Zelikman and Amram, roaming around a world of distant kingdoms on the steppe, raiders from foreign lands, revenge-obsessed scions of slaughtered families, mournful monarchs and bizarre landscapes. Said on that level one is practically invited to think about heroic fantasies in a Robert E. Howard vein — the jacket sleeve mentions Fritz Leiber‘s classic duo of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and it’s not a bad reference point at all in this case. The trick, though, is that this is in fact our own world about one millennium back, that there’s no magic at all at play — at least, nothing supernatural — and that the landscape they wander is a familiar one to us now but then was a borderland, the Caucasus Mountains and the lands on the Caspian Sea.

What actually really caught my attention when skimming the jacket copy was the mention that the main setting of the story was the Khazar Empire. To explain — ever since I read a fascinating (but heavily controversial) account of this empire by Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe, when I was in high school, I’ve long had an interest in this simultaneously well-known and obscure nation, largely due to one salient fact that partially drives the plot of Chabon’s book. Unlike any other nation in recorded history, when the Khazars encountered the world of monotheism in the Eurasian/Near East context, they chose, not Islam or Christianity, but Judaism — and converted wholesale. And so for a stretch of time there was a thriving Jewish kingdom in what is now part of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan — insert Borat joke here.

You can follow the links for more — there’s LOTS to talk about, believe me — but suffice to say this was enough for me to give this book some time. As both a stellar choice of setting and a further grounding for what Chabon briefly addresses regarding Jewish identity and life in that historical context in the afterword — he notes that his original plan for the story was to call it Jews With Swords — it’s welded perfectly, intrinsically with the model of heroic adventure he works with otherwise. His heroes — Zelikman, a pale, thin German Jew and Amram, a mighty, muscle-bound Ethiopian Jew — are at once perfect mismatched/in sync archetypes (the Fafhrd/Grey Mouser comparison once again at work) and people grappling with the effects of bigotry and the stupidities of the world in familiar ways.

With this at the heart, Chabon otherwise lets fly with his imagination and scores a bulls-eye. Not comfortably so at all points — no question it’s an accurate portrayal of the gender-biased times and societies, but that it’s very much a man’s tale in a man’s world, where nearly all the women are whores, wives and/or victims of assault, if in memory or offstage, makes for a disconcerting feeling overall. That the main female character (and the only one that the story dwells on in terms of any sort of detailed inner life) must disguise herself as a man to make her way in this man’s world is part of the classic arc of such a romp, but that she must suffer a brutal outrage at the hands of the villain when her secret is discovered is both wearily understandable and still not easily acceptable, even when she is able to see revenge meted out via an unexpected source. That Chabon is skilled enough of a writer to not let these points slow the breathless pace and feel of the story is to his credit, and again it’s hard not to say that this kind of thing doesn’t simply call the time as it was and the human species’s worst impulses as they are. Even so, it can’t and shouldn’t be simply ignored or explained away.

This major caveat noted, if you slip into the story in full it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up, a classic yarn that knows what it’s working at. The most telling part of the book might be Chabon’s dedication — ‘To Michael Moorcock.’ As a longtime fan of that writer I had to approve and there’s no question that the character of Zelikman, with his pale skin and hair, thin build and black outfit, and feels of anger and angst interspersed with tender care for others, not to mention a beloved sword, is an out and out tribute to Moorcock’s iconic literary creation, the albino warrior Elric, the tortured, self-exiled emperor wandering a collapsing world. But there’s also a lot of the tone of Moorcock’s wry narrators in Chabon’s own narrator as well, both of course drawing on similar sources of inspiration to tell a story in a way, say, that is miles removed from a narrator like Tolkien’s for The Lord of the Rings, all serious and, especially, free of irony.

In contrast the ironic, light touch permeates Chabon’s whole story, helps to take the sting off the rougher edges without losing its realistic kick. In this he’s helped by the book edition’s illustrator Gary Gianni, current artist for the long-running Prince Valiant strip and well-aware of his own visual forebears in heroic fantasy and adventure as Chabon is on the literary front. Contributing one visual per chapter in the serial style, Gianni’s black-and-white illustrations are classic pulp work in excelsis, capturing landscapes and characters just so. A great moment sums up how he and Chabon worked well together here — an action moment of our heroes and heroine charging a group of guards on a staircase when hopes of avoiding them had failed illustrates a bulls-eye laconic line of the narrator: “A commotion was therefore unavoidable.” Just PERFECT.

So this all said, why did I feel that this fine little story, even with the previously noted gender concerns, let me down at the end? Again, it’s not the end — which is just right, all in all — but the afterword, namely Chabon’s essay about the origins of the story, why he wanted to write it and so forth. If it was just that I’d have no problem, but as it turns out he does something which I seriously think he shouldn’t’ve had to do at all — namely, he has to apologize, indirectly, for the story’s existence to a certain literary audience that expects him to do other things, that would think that the existence of the story is a waste of their time and his.

That may sound extreme, but to quote the start of one paragraph shortly after the beginning of the afterword where he first speaks of the alternate Jews With Swords title, “I know it still seems incongruous, first of all, for me or a writer of my literary training, generation, and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords.” Now Chabon knows his language, so he knows how this has to read, and his word choices aren’t lightly chosen either — but the implications are unavoidable: “Yeah, gee, isn’t it really odd that I, Mr. Serious Novelist, have gone ahead and written a full-on adventure story, rather than keeping themes of high adventure still grounded in the modern realistic world like my one comic-book-writer novel that won the Pulitzer? Sorry if that seems weird to you, do let me explain.”

Think I’m kidding? Hardly. Over the course of the next few pages, he references everything from the typical signifiers of the ‘serious’ fiction reader (talking of stories that appeared in ‘sedate, respectable…places like The New Yorker and Harper’s and featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters,’ for instance) to almost painfully self-conscious irony over his whole explanation. Consider this opening of a sentence, where all punctuation is as he has provided:

If this impulse seems an incongruous thing in a writer of the (“serious,” “literary”) kind for which I had for a long time hoped to be taken…

By the time he gets to saying the phrase, “…if there is incongruity in the writer of a piece of typical New Yorker marital-discord fare,” I about throw up my hands. Now, it needs to be made clear, as he rightly does, that he’s not simply disowning this work at all due to its subject matter — it’s part of what he has done, and in the same way that anyone creative looks upon past work, he singles out some favorite pieces, lets others quietly slip aside. Yet it is just so frustrating, so painful to read somebody having to constantly couch himself this way — but the thing is, as was also clear in reading it all, that he wasn’t talking to me and anyone who thinks like me in the slightest. We’re not the intended audience.

He’s talking to that ‘serious’ ‘literary’ audience he identifies, scare quotes and all, represented perhaps by an archetype apparently constructed of some combination of tweed, opera tickets and the collected essays of Edmund Wilson, dedicated to modernism, realism and nothing else — and maybe it is only a strawman construct in the end, who knows? Perhaps he’s just overly scared and concerned. Personally speaking, I would hope that is the case. All I know is that I don’t know anyone of my acquaintance who identifies him or herself as a serious, literary reader that doesn’t have at least an appreciation and at most an enthralling love of imaginative fiction, of adventure stories, of romps, whether they’re written or visual, TV series or movies, old classic pulps or retold myths, comic books or historical romance novels or mysteries.

There’s no artificial division there, no sense of slumming and wasting time with something not worthy. Sure, I do think sometimes there’s a lot of reverse activity going on which I haven’t been immune to either, a straining in trying to push for the exact relevancy to the workaday world of some stories or artificial universes or scenarios in order to justify the time and attention spent on them as creators, fans or obsessives, though I don’t think this is a unique flaw for the time or place. Speaking broadly and in terms of a different medium, regardless of whatever is thought individually about them now, Gene Roddenberry and Joss Whedon will both be seen by future generations as well-meaning types with incredibly clunky, embarrassingly-obvious-in-retrospect ways of making their Big Moral and Social Points in flashing letters — even while said future generations venerate someone else who supposedly shows a lot more sophistication.

Again, though, the point is, we’re not that audience — and if I were Chabon (and of course, I’m not), I don’t think I would have to have apologized for anything this way, for writing something that would apparently offend certain sensibilities by simply existing. That a certain kind of audience — not necessarily an academic one, but often identified with that mindset — demands generic elements in its tales as much as any other literary subculture does isn’t a surprise, and that they want it to be set in the ‘real’ world and have it be something which involves ‘real’ people doing ‘real’ things without exception is its own comfort food, its own fallback position. Mystery writer Bill Pronzini once claimed in passing a couple of decades back that ‘the self-styled “literary establishment” considers any prose that has a plot, makes a linear kind of sense throughout and does not involve suburban sexual angst to be trash, or at best subliterary,’ and while he was gleefully snarking on a strawman as well, when it comes to the subject matter he still cuts to the heart of what a presumed baseline should be in American terms, a ghost from the 20th century machine that hasn’t been fully exorcised. To exercise the imagination in such a way is to escape, it says — the eternal complaint, as tedious as it always was.

Yet perhaps because of the lingering power of the complaint, it did need to be said in this end, this explanation of Chabon’s, this apology. In its own overdetermined, overwrought way, it’s almost as if he’s boiling it down to a simple cry — “Look, could you people just all finally RELAX and let me write whatever the hell I want to rather than what I’m supposed to be writing? Especially since I am anyway?” It’s almost like the story of Wonder Boys, appropriately enough, but from a different angle — after Kavalier and Clay, after Summerland even more so, it’s clear that Chabon doesn’t feel much of a need to fit into the constricting box, to live up to the presumed expectations. But maybe by spelling it out so completely, those who still can’t get it might finally can.

The slyest observation — and the calmest in Chabon’s piece — almost passes one by on first blush. But in talking about his early stories in ‘sedate, respectable places’ and the forces his short-story characters dealt with, the ‘serious’ stuff, he runs off a list of subjects: “disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace.’ It was only after rereading the afterword that I realized something — each of those issues, along with others, had cropped up in Gentlemen of the Road, one way or another, sometimes to the fore, sometimes a calmly portrayed undercurrent. His characters had, in their ways and contexts, dealt with the ‘serious’ stuff, and had done so in ways that moved and connected while the story remained the quickly-paced serial it was — set in our world, no magic, no dragons, nothing fantasy about it.

An intentional point on Chabon’s part? I’d like to think so. Even if not, though, it’s as good a note to end on — here’s to hoping that as time continues the perceived need for this kind of explanation dies away, at the least bit by bit and at the most in a heap. There can be swords without apologies.

“The real battle now is among evangelicals.”

David Kirkpatrick’s story today in the NY Times is essential reading for just about anyone interested in modern American political and religious dynamics, a snapshot of a crossroads being approached rapidly. Good thing too, frankly.

I can’t recall what if anything I’ve spoken about my religious upbringing on here, but in brief, I was raised Anglican, learned my Bible early on in a variety of kid-friendly reductions and summations, and in a very slow process moved from that towards the general state of agnosticism I hold today. Every so often I somewhat melodramatically veer towards outright atheism but ultimately I prefer to accept a certain belief in not knowing for sure (and indeed, many of the most vocal atheists I know push their unbelief as strongly as religious fundamentalists I’ve encountered, which leads me to conclude that the impulse on that front is not one grounded on belief or lack thereof so much as it is on questions of how to express convictions in one’s world-system). I believe ethics can exist separately from specific religious belief, and think that one can punish oneself enough for flaws and mistakes via one’s own conscience (but, more positively, that one can and should learn from them too); beyond that my own approach to religion is private and is best expressed in terms really only known to myself.

My own experience with fundamentalism on a personal level occurred many years ago, when I was eight — a babysitter from down the road in Navy housing, a teenage girl, watched over my sister and I one night, and she’d brought over a few of the more virulent Jack Chick comics with her. Why, I’m not sure, and it’s entirely possible she had them for her own reading rather than trying to force them on us. However, I read them, got extremely upset and by the end of the evening was somehow in terrified prayer with her. I conveyed a lot of this to my parents either that night or the following day and I gather there was a detailed conversation between my folks and the babysitter’s parents. She never babysat for us again, I think.

Either way, the sense of fear and horror that the comics induced in me were incredibly strong and lasted for some time. In retrospect, the fact that said babysitter, intentionally or not, essentially encouraged me to follow along the lines of thought in them with little thought to whatever my parents might have thought, or what effect the tracts were clearly having on me, explains a lot of my extreme annoyance with religious fundamentalism in any guise in later years. It is, I think, clear enough that fear should not be a driving factor on such deep matters — otherwise that would sanction a form of emotional sadism that is pretty disgusting.

This hasn’t determined my entire conclusion towards what can be called the religious right in America but it does inform a fair amount of it still, and while one should never judge the whole by the part, the fact that so much of the whole was publicly defined by the part is not my burden, but the whole’s to struggle with themselves. To turn back to Kirkpatrick’s article, an encouraging thing to read is that part of the corrosion of the seemingly permanent affiliation between harshly condemnatory evangelical Christianity and the Republican party comes from what is talked about on page 5 of the article as a split between that form of Christianity and a newer approach with an emphasis on “spiritual formation,” as quoted in the piece, referring not to threats of hellfire but encouraging the ethics of love and charity. Personally I think this is a good thing no matter what one’s beliefs — it reminds me of what a friend once said two years back about Depeche Mode’s interpretation of the traditional song “John the Revelator”: ‘one of the best quotes I ever heard from my father was “I can’t stand Christians who are more enamored of John than they are of Jesus.”‘

But those who are enamored of John are of course still around, and the stink of fear and hate still rises from them. I am pleased to see them being seen in a harsher light now, though of course I feel angry and frustrated that, if the article’s conclusions are to be accepted, in large part it took the deaths of thousands in Iraq to help bring that about. (Though there is a very, very perverse irony in the idea that the crypto-religious war that certain evangelical figures were pushing following 9/11 has come back to get them instead, if you like.)

Yet really, they condemn themselves with their own words better than anyone else — consider this concluding quote, from a preacher expelled from his post because, as said at the article’s start, the deacons felt his activism meant more than actually preaching the Gospel:

Fox told me: “I think the religious community is probably reflective of the rest of the nation — it is very divided right now. This election process is going to reveal a lot about where the religious right and the religious community is. It will show unity or the lack of it.”

But liberals, he said, should not start gloating. “Some might compare the religious right to a snake,” he said. “We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”

Not much from the Sermon on the Mount here.