Sunday, July 31, 2011

In which an atheist responds to the American debt crisis by reading the Bible

I am an atheist but I was brought up among people of deep and convincing faith. By "convincing faith" I do not mean that they were convinced of their own faith but that I was convinced that they truly believed. I was convinced of their faith because they lived that faith every day of their lives.

I learned the 23rd Psalm by heart sitting on my grandmother's knee. I learned not that we should go to church on Sunday but that we were enjoined not to make others work on Sunday:
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates (Exodus 20:10)[1]
My mother liked to remind people that one of the greatest statements of love and devotion in the Bible was made by one woman to another:
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)[1]
My mother is dead but I still have the Bible that she was given when she was a child. Her favourite passages are marked and as I reread them I imagine her marching into Congress and standing on the floor of the House declaiming them:
Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the LORD, and it be sin unto thee. (Exodus 24: 14-15)[1]

Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow's raiment to pledge:
But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.
When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.
When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.(Exodus 24:17-22)[1]

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me:
I was sick, and ye visited me:
I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat:
I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not,
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment:
but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25: 34-46)[1]
I don't know what book the politicians in Washington are referring to when they speak about The Bible but I do know that it isn't the one my mother read and cherished. I know it isn't the one my father reads from every day. I know it isn't the one my great-aunt preached from. I know it isn't the one my uncle wrote sermons about. I know it isn't the one my grandmother loved.

My mother's greatest statement of condemnation for anyone was I wouldn't give him a cup of tea if he was thirsty. It was a threat that I never saw her carry out. She fed people whose politics she abhorred and she often made the bread that she broke with people who many of those politicians would call sinners.

If my mother was alive right now I think she might not be willing to give a cup of tea to the politicians in Washington who are threatening to take away the widow's mite and denying the poor the right to glean the once-harvested fields.

[1] All quotations are from my mother's copy of the King James Version of The Holy Bible.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Paying Guests

Paying Guests by E. F. Benson (1929)

Those who are familiar with E. F. Benson only through his Lucia and Mapp books may initially find this book disappointing since it is set in a different location both geographically and socially. None of the characters rise to the magnificence of Emmeline Lucas or Miss Mapp and the social circle of the residents of Wentworth is neither as wealthy as that in Riseholme nor as settled in its hierarchical patterns as that of Tilling. This reviewer encourages the reader (whether familiar with Benson or not) to read on. Paying Guests is a wonderful examination of a particular subsection of the English gentry that would be squeezed out of existence by the falling returns on dividends, the dismantling of the British Empire and the next World War. It is also a magnificent picture of the gender dynamics in England between the two World Wars. Finally it is a wonderful exploration of a recurrent theme in Benson in the last half of his writing life--the problem of how one fills up the minutes and hours of one’s life if one has no real interests, no real passions and no real work.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Would it have been less of a tragedy had she not been beautiful?

While I am not a particular fan of magazines, networks and TV shows that focus almost obsessively on "true life" crime I am aware of the major stories that saturate their pages and time. Indeed, for someone who researches popular culture it would have been difficult in the last few weeks not to be aware that Casey Anthony was on trial (in Orlando, Florida) for the murder of her daughter Caylee. And it would have been, if anything, even more difficult to remain ignorant of the outcome of that trial and the angry public response to that verdict.

At another time I may address both the verdict and the responses. Here and now I want to write about the framing of tragedy itself. In comment after comment on television, in article after article in newspapers and magazines and in post after post on the internet we are told (and reminded) that Caylee Anthony was a beautiful child. For example:

the tragedy surrounding the loss of this beautiful little girl cuts to the heart of everyone
[The Casey Anthony case and abortion: a tragic disconnect]

The alleged murderer of Caylee Marie, a beautiful little girl.[Casey Anthony Jury Selecton Under the Big Top]

From the start, her mother Casey willfully lied to the police about what happened to the beautiful little girl [Why Is Casey Anthony Smiling In Court]

I have never had any doubt that Casey killed her daughter. Her beautiful little girl with the big brown eyes.[Casey Anthony could take a lesson from Charlene Spierer]

a beautiful little girl's life was cut oh so short, and there's no doubt in my mind who did it.[Caylee Anthony: A beautiful life cut short]

This emphasis on the beauty of the victim is not unique to the Anthony Case. For example, consider the case of Natalee Holloway of whom one can read:

How did this beautiful, sweet girl end up murdered?.....[comment to the post Natalee Holloway: Jaw Bone Found in Aruba, Sent for tests at the NFI Forensic Institute in The Hague.

Dave and Jug, both busily trolling the Internet in their search for donated funds to enable on-island search efforts to resume, surely can have no excuse for their continued absence from Aruba, where Natalee Holloway, the beautiful missing-from-Aruba Alabama honours student, disappeared in the last days of May. [Natalee Holloway Is Missing From The Missing Persons Lists]

Or JonBenet Ramsey:
JonBenet Ramsey. The beautiful little girl who wowed crowds at beauty pageants [New DNA Clue Found in JonBenet Ramsey Murder Case]

A beautiful little girl with a dazzling smile lives a wonderful life with her family in their Colorado mansion.[The Truth About JonBenet Ramsey]

Or Elizabeth Smart:
Before June 5th of last year, the Smarts led the kind of life most people would consider blessed: a happy marriage and six beautiful children.[Elizabeth's Road Home]

Ed Smart and his beautiful daughter, Elizabeth[Transpcript: NANCY GRACE
Interview With Elizabeth Smart, Aired July 18, 2006 - 20:00:00 ET

Reading the typical newspaper coverage of crime, listening to the news and watching news magazines one wonders--do they only cover the abductions and/or murder of females who could be described as beautiful or or does the description "beautiful" simply mean "a life that we value"? Has beauty become synonymous to "worthy to live?" Do we only empathize with the parents who have lost a beautiful child? Do we only sympathize with the husband who has lost of beautiful wife? Are females who are not beautiful invisible? Are children who are not beautiful disposable?

The reader might argue that "obviously" I am exaggerating. They might argue that even the worst of the worst don't pick which child or woman to value on the basis of their beauty but ask yourself this question--why is it so important for writer and speaker to tell their audience over and over again that the victim of choice is beautiful?

The reader might also meditate on the glaring and painful disparity between the demographics of the country (and the demographics of the missing and murdered) and the demographics of those who are described as "beautiful."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell (1934)

The events of the book occur over a period of several summer months, centered chiefly iat Rushwater House, the rural home/estate of the Leslie family. Over that period of time the grandson of Lady Emily and Mr. Leslie turns seventeen and some gentle pairing off occurs of eligible members of their social circle. The plot, such as it is, unfolds with the greatest of gentleness such that it feels, at the end, that the reader spent a very agreeable weekend with the family and watched as their life unfolded.

past here, there be many many spoilers