Friday, September 27, 2019

“There’s somethin’ happening here...”

Depressed resignation: more common among Gen-X than Millennials.
My daughters will be involved in today’s proceedings.

Toronto is an absolute pass for me — just watching coverage of the Raptors’ victory parade was enough to trigger my agoraphobia. I am giving the local happening some consideration. We will see. I am increasingly chary about groups of any sort — to my own substantial detriment, I’m sure.

I marched when Reagan ramped up rhetoric and ICBM production, and again when Trudeau Senior permitted cruise missile testing in our hinterlands. Both gatherings reminded me so viscerally of the revival meetings of my youth that I declared my second march to be my last.

I was also taken aback by the extraneous agendas being brought to the protests. On the face of it the thousands who showed up were united in one common concern — no nukes. But the group ahead of mine was carrying a large “Pro-Choice” banner, while another banner further back read “Pro-Life.” I wondered what it might take for everyone to at least admit reproductive control is a variegated concern? Then I wondered, why is this a front-of-the-queue question at a no-nukes rally?

Any club that will have me...


Last week my wife and I threw out a bunch of books. Among them was her late father’s copy of My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers. We gave it consideration, as we do all books facing the bin. But c'mon: neither of us was ever going to refer to it. The title alone conjured sawdust floors, sweaty faces and disturbed sleep patterns — and for what? Buh-bye.
Like many of his contemporaries, Chambers was obsessed with the question of the individual’s autonomy and power. He was full of the 19th-century complaint against modernity, a complaint focused on the Industrial Revolution, which, in sending people en masse into factories and offices, had reduced them to “cogs in a machine.” He bemoaned the “commercialized” existence of modern men, for whom money seemed to determine worth. He distrusted the various political and philosophical ideologies that seemed to demand total allegiance from their followers — ideologies like nationalism, capitalism, socialism, communism, Darwinism, positivism, progressivism, rationalism, and scientism. 
Also and equally, he was against the religious ideologies that seemed to shut out science and rationality in the name of blind or unthinking faith. As a student of philosophy, he had an acute awareness of the mind’s tendency to be led astray by its own ideas and perceptions, to “believe its own beliefs,” and he was suspicious of the kind of charismatic leaders who, through “propagandistic” teaching or preaching, sought to win converts to their agendas. 
In short, Chambers’s vision of the individual was of a creature who was all too easily enslaved, by forces both external and internal. His vision of society was equally harsh: It was “civilization, organization, and Churchianity,” and it needed to be “smashed.”
That’s Macy Halford, who cultivated her consideration of Chambers' book into one of her own — My Utmost: A Spiritual Memoir. Halford's book received a glowing NYT review from Carlene Bauer, whose final paragraph appeals directly to my own sensibilities:
Halford acknowledges that growing up evangelical can make one feel that one has inherited a traditionless tradition. With “My Utmost” she reminds those of us who might have once dismissed Chambers as just another bewhiskered eminence that in this traditionless tradition there lives a man who read Balzac, Emerson, Nietzsche, Wilde, Dickens, Darwin and others with ferocity and humility, confronting dissent rather than hiding from it. “I begin to notice with astonishment that I do not read in order to notice what I disagree with,” Chambers wrote in the last year of his life. “The author’s conclusions are of very little moment to me, what is of moment is a living mind competently expressed, that to me is a deep joy.” Such generosity of mind is just as worthy of celebration as unshakable faith.
Hey, was that the recycling truck? Wait, waaaait!


I was clued into both links via Matt Cardin, who I was clued into via Erik Davis (“horror theologian”? Whut dat?), who linked to this interview. In one paragraph Cardin riffs off so many shared seminal influences — Peter Berger, Mircea Eliade, Lovecraft, Huston Smith, Alan Watts, RAW plus sleep paralysis? — it felt like I’d caught a glimpse of “my best life” being lived by someone else in the very same cosmos.

Not at all so, of course, but I am grateful for the introduction and look forward to reading Cardin’s latest, To Rouse Leviathan.
I hope to continue a little public thinking on ed-yoo-mah-CAY-shun. Until then, please reduce, reuse and recycle. And don't be too quick to throw out that old book.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Nudged to reconsider: the film criticism of Scout Tafoya

I am enjoying the film criticism of Scout Tafoya, posted largely (but not exclusively) at

Tafoya is doggedly contrarian, though not (for the most part) out of principle but out of emotional conviction. He seems to sincerely dig the grottiest material — e.g., standing up for It Chapter 2, or favouring the films of Rob Zombie to the current critical darling Ari Aster.

Similarly, long after I thought I'd given up on director Walter Hill (a youthful fling in my early days as a cineaste), Tafoya nudged me to give The Assignment a viewing. Were I to adopt the five-star rating system of the RogerEbert site, I'd say The Assignment struggled to make it to "3." Still, I don't begrudge the viewing — Tafoya makes excellent points and properly assays the intellectual integrity of Hill's contemporary efforts.

In other words, unlike most of what the web throws at me, Tafoya persuades me to reconsider. Now go on and put a price on that.

Post-Script: I do feel compelled, like my friend Joel, to stress that "reconsideration" does not equal "conversion." Just one example: I will agree with Tafoya (and Ebert before him) that Rob Zombie's aesthetic is uniquely effective. But I can't say I get anything like the sense of release and catharsis that Tafoya experiences. More than that, I greatly prefer Aster over Zombie. And if that makes me a snob, what accounts for Zombie's music on my Infernal Device?

P.P.S.: while I'm on the topic of dogged contrarians: another alternative review I appreciated was Fabrizio del Wrongo's dismissal of Jordan Peele's Get Out, a film that seemed to garner universal adoration. Also: here is John Doyle encouraging us, "Don't be afraid of 'the worst show on Netflix'" (Neil LaBute's latest project, The I-Land).

Thursday, September 19, 2019


Hey, if you enjoyed my thoughts on Arthur S. Maxwell’s The Bible Story (and even if you didn’t) speed over to Phil Christman’s thoughts on The Hebrew Bible: Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter. I have linked to this before, it is just that good.

And while you’re at it, here’s Phil on writin’ — a piece that has received, deservedly, a LOT of link-love. Oh, and buy his book! Phil’s a guy I first encountered during the halcyon days of Peak Blogging and I am yoojly chuffed to see his current work receiving excellent attention. Excelsior, dude!

  • “Perhaps I was conditioned by that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood trailer (did Hanks’ Mr. Rogers really have to sound so much like his Forrest Gump?)” — Juxtaposing Forrest Gump with Once Upon a Time Hollywood, Kevin Dettmar delivers a review I wish I’d written.
  • Jacques Levy was, without question, a critical element to the phenomena of Bob Dylan’s The Rolling Thunder Review. And yet the Netflix/Scorsese “mock-u-rock-u-mentary” completely ignores him. Son Julien Levy puzzles over this — the sixties and seventies were a scene, man; due diligence to the scenesters, please! — and fills in some of the gap.

The Bible Story, by Arthur S. Maxwell, illustrated by various artists

I was recently tasked with clearing out a Sunday school shelf laden with teaching resources from generations past. Fated for the bin was a “display copy” of Arthur S. Maxwell’s The Bible Story, Volume One common to North American doctor’s offices in the mid-60s to early-70s. I took it home, snapped a few photos of the illustrations and posted them behind the blue-and-white velvet rope.
Below is the first picture I posted. Not sure who the artist is (illustrations are only occasionally credited), but I suspect it’s Herbert Rudeen. I captioned it, cheekily but not dishonestly, “My favourite page since I was a kid!”
"Whoa -- let there be Lights Out!"
Where Rudeen is rough, almost impressionistic, fellow painter Russell Harlan favours a velvety smoothness. Also, Harlan’s Eden clearly includes hairbrushes and safety razors.
Upon posting, a friend snarked, “Reassuring white children that the first two humans were white.” Very true — certainly that was my POV on the matter when I was a sprat. Once the narrative leaves Eden, however, the Maxwell biblical characters take on skin-tones and garb that are roughly approximate to the ethnicities that originally produced these stories. It’s a curious juxtaposition.
Nor does Maxwell stint on any biblical violence.
Perhaps the white-washing of Eden is an unconscious outcome of the story's intrinsic appeal? Certainly the Eden story is something children insert themselves into quite naturally. From the giddy joys of scampering around without a stitch of clothing, to doing something you were expressly told not to do, to suffering the consequences — this is every child’s origin story.
Including those whose skin-pigment renders them the colour of margarine.
But the biblical narrative slides into trickier territory pretty quickly after that. Noah’s Ark — another story kids love. Put all the animals in a big wooden boat, keep them safe! But the sons of God coupling up with the fairest of human women — how do you explain that?

On this matter and many others, Maxwell performs a parental dodge:
It is hard to understand how such things could have happened such a short time after creation, and such a little way from all the peace and harmony of Eden. Yet it is not uncommon even today for boys and girls to be cross and unruly right after church. Some can become real little pests just as soon as a nice picnic is over. It doesn’t take long for some to forget kindness and love that they should remember forever.
Maxwell strives always to keep the moral of the story (as he perceives it) clear, even during the Bible’s most viscerally irregular moments. Jehovah’s smiting of Aaron’s two sons during the first sacrifices in the brand-new tabernacle, for instance, falls under the heading “Two naughty boys.” Kids, be grateful for your spankings!

Returning to the visual contrast — though Maxwell endeavours to make the narrative relatable to his young listeners/readers, there remains a historic and aesthetic distance to bridge, to say nothing of culture. The aesthetic results are, to modern eyes, uncomfortably superficial. In effect the pictures declare, The sandals and bathrobes and tea-towels — are we not all victims of fashion, finally?
Approachable, sure -- but would it kill him to try on some pants?
We return to the opening pages of Maxwell’s tomes, to the present — in this case, 1954.
Blue-jays! Even better than the lowly sparrow!
Bucolic kitsch, not that far removed from Harlan’s depiction of Eden. Except — the “present” appears to be more integrated than our shared biblical past was. And remember — we’re talking 1954.
The neighbours!
Or perhaps I am getting ahead of myself — judging (again) by fashion, some illustrations appear to have been inserted a decade or two after the initial release of Maxwell’s The Bible Story.
Skirt-lengths will vary, but the kimono transcends all eras.
"Erm, that's right, little brother -- the Bible does say 'Scram!'"
Anyway, thus began my education. From the age of five to nine I heard these stories told this particular way on a near-daily basis at home, at school and at Sunday School.

And I dug the pictures — some more than others.
...say, she kinda looks like our Sunday School teacher...

Friday, September 13, 2019


At my daughter’s convocation last year a young graduate of Mediterranean descent, when called, strode across the stage and, brandishing a kippah in one hand and rosary in the other, shouted, “I will bring brutal justice to this continent!” He then politely accepted his diploma, returned to his seat and, like the rest of us, calmly endured the remainder of the service.

Another true story: at a coffee bistro just off-campus from a Canadian university, a fellow wearing a red “Make Canada Great Again” T-shirt ordered a cup of slow-pour. He paid, thanked and tipped the barista, and left. A university student photographed the customer, posted it on social media and decried the proprietor for not showing the customer to the door sooner. You know the rest of that story.
"MCGA" "Mc-GAH?" Mebbe that's the noise one makes when refused a cup of coffee?
In the first case we have a student who has graduated from training in the hospitality services. Clearly his chosen extra-curricular studies intruded on his vocational path.

In the second case we have a student at a university that offers degrees in the sciences and liberal arts. Now, I do not know this student or her declared field of study, but I am willing to bet money it is not in the sciences.

And yet in both cases we have a moral stridency that, to my eyes, looks uncomfortably similar.

“Whither education,” eh? Anyone who asked me the question when I was in my 30s-to-late-40s got shrugged off (my apologies, Gideon!). My mid-50s finds me doing some heavy ruminatin’ on the matter.

Part of this is due to the question’s pride of place among the chattering classes. Part of this is due to watching my daughters navigate the Horrible Decade (20-30), which in their case means navigating the vicissitudes of a post-secondary education circa 2020.

And of course I am contrasting all of this with my remembered experience of my own post-secondary education from the mid-80s to the mid-90s — which is surely flawed, due to the viscous nature of memory. But hey, it’s all I’ve got.

I will try to unpack all this in short and hopefully more frequent posts than of late. Keep coming back, woncha? In the meantime here is Steven B. Gerrard: The Rise of the Comfort College. Sample quote:
At the beginning of Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates leads a dialogue centered on the question of whether there are alternatives to force. One of the participants, Thrasymachus, challenges Socrates and gives his own famous definition of justice: “I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” In other words, might makes right, but this requires some unpacking. 
The key distinction is between power and authority. Suppose, in some weird version of Prohibition-era Chicago, I want to open a speakeasy on the corner of 57th and Ellis. Both Al Capone, whose turf it is, and Eliot Ness, the famous G-man, can stop me, but the first with power (I’m afraid of machine guns) and the second with governmental authority. 
What gives the government the authority to stop me? This is one of the foundational questions of political philosophy, and something we’ve been trying to answer for the last 2,400 years. The divine right of kings was the most popular answer for centuries; now “the consent of the people,” as seen through the prism of social contract theory, dominates. Thrasymachus, however, is saying there is no such authority at all: It is simply an illusion propagated by the strong. It is power all the way down.
Sooooo . . . who’s got the real power today?

Friday, September 06, 2019

Christian Humanists and High Weirdness

I never expected any Venn overlap to occur between High Weirdness and The Year Of Our Lord 1943 — after all, what could an academic account of three west coast hippies who dropped a ton of drugs and sought direct contact with demonic entities* have in common with a loose coalition of Christian public intellectuals who earnestly hoped to influence the direction of education in the post-war West?

Quite a bit, it turns out — much of it due to a shared horror of the Military Industrial Complex that took shape during the '40s and became the dominant force of the 20th Century.

I hope to explore some of this overlap, because RAW and McKenna would be equally horrified to consider themselves companions to the likes of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden. And I can only imagine Davis and Jacobs rubbing eyes in disbelief at my breezy assimilation of their work.

Somewhat in sync with both these books: School Daze by Keith Gessen, and The Real Problem At Yale Is Not Free Speech by Natalia Dashan. We have been collectively besieged by (and, I think, have collectively bought into) a “Phooey On The Elites!” attitude — mebbe, perhaps, some sober second-thought is called for?

Alright, one excerpt each from the two books in question — 1943 and High Weirdness — and I am off to can tomatoes. A happy weekend to you!
*Well . . . two of 'em went magickal (Terrence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson); Philip K. Dick's experience seems to have been a) unbidden and b) distinct in both character and outcome from the others.