Christianity

Devilish Lies

Donald_Trump_official_portrait

(Credit: U.S. White House)

Lies—big and small, noble or not—are the way of the world, whether we speak of personal, social, and professional relationships or of advertising, media, and politics. Lying is normal—so it seems—yet still disturbing.

When we testify in court, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is our oath. But as a juror, I find it difficult to determine whether the testifier’s truth telling is stretched, selective, or faked. Truth is not so transparent or objectively known as we’d like to think. Indeed, it is the jury’s job to make a judgment about what is true and what is false.

Among the factors that influence our assessment of a claim to truth, whether in the courtroom, the political arena, or elsewhere, are the credibility of the testifier, the coherence of the story told, common sense, our own experience, and perspective. Seldom, if ever, are we absolutely confident of our judgment, which can leave us feeling uneasy—a little or a lot depending on the circumstances and consequences. (more…)

An Allegory of Heroic War

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Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)

Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.

Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.

This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them. (more…)

Not This Woman, But Barabbas

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Hillary Clinton on 9 February 2016. (Credit: Ted Eytan)

Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber.

KJ, John 18:40

The Mozart of baseball journalists, an exquisite writer whom I have admired for decades, has shamed me into revealing—for whatever little it’s worth—my vote in the next presidential election. To read Roger Angell’s distinctive, lucid prose is like listening to the song of a water spirit in a fresh mountain stream. At the age of a youthful 96 years, Angell has taken to the pages of the New Yorker (his long-time home) to declare his vote for Hillary Clinton.

I once heard Ruben Berríos, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, say that a US presidential election was always a choice between “Mr. Hamburger and Mr. Hot Dog.” The customary spectacle in our time of two unfortunate male clowns lunging for the presidential chair has been—to say the very least—disheartening. But there is a never-before-seen wrinkle in this year’s election: it is a choice between Mr. Hot Dog and a Woman. Hillary Clinton may yet turn out to be another fool in our endless parade of presidential clowns, but there is no doubt that Donald Trump will be a vulgar buffoon.

I have taken my responsibilities as a democratic voter seriously in this election. At the risk of my sanity, I have heard most of the primary debates, followed the news assiduously in print and social media, and have taken the time—seeking surcease of sorrow—to review the history, speeches and debates of the greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln. At the end of this self-imposed Way of the Cross, through which I sought revelation in penance, I make mine Roger Angell’s words: “I will cast my own vote for Hillary Clinton with alacrity and confidence.” And let me clarify: I am not voting for Clinton because I think Trump is a punk (although I do). Trump, to my mind, was the very best of the stable of presidential candidates Republicans offered US voters in the primaries; I will vote for Clinton because I trust (I do) that as president she will walk on paths that I think best for this great country. (more…)

Myths and the Empire

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“Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond,” oil on canvas, by Gus Nall, 1963. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.

Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”

An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool. (more…)

Three Kings

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Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: “The Three Wise Men.” (Credit: Nina Aldin Thune)

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You’d wake up in the morning wondering if they were still there but you did not want to meet them, afraid of the magic of their passage which still infused the lighted Christmas tree that you could see in the living room down the hall from your vantage point at the doorway of your bedroom.

Xmas toys were small tokens that fulfilled the date peremptorily, almost a duty since you went to an American school in which instruction occurred in English. (Both Cuban and US holidays were celebrated and they had told you about Santa Claus coming to your house with toys on Christmas Eve.) We had no problem accepting gifts from Santa Claus, but the important toys—bicycles, Lone Ranger costumes, Tonto action figures, Zorro’s secret hideout (a miniature, plastic mountain)—were brought by the Kings on January 6. Train sets were also delivered, which you were not old enough to fix, but which delighted you by running round and around on their own power and on a single track.

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Land of the Dollar

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf," oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Adoration of the Golden Calf,” oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he saw the people of Israel dancing and worshipping the golden calf. “Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:9) During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)

And yet in the land of the free we have created the “Land of the Dollar,” and we worship Mammon and build temples to the Golden Calf. (more…)

The Devil’s Dictionary

"The Hell," mosaic by  Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Hell,” mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In times of trouble, I do not consult the Bible. I visit the astonishing and still very relevant Devil’s Dictionary by the bewildering Ambrose Bierce. Its word definitions—compiled during the last half of the nineteenth century—are cleansing, illuminating, and especially joyful during times when our minds are full of signs (indeed the certainty) that the prophesied and long-awaited Apocalypse is upon us.

Observe, for example, its sober definition of ABSURDITY = A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion. Take heed, all those who labor in “new” universities and houses of learning, of the dictionary’s stern proclamation of the decadence of such institutions: ACADEMY = A modern school where football is taught. (more…)

End of Empire

"Four Horsemen of Apocalypse," by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Four Horsemen of Apocalypse,” by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like Gabriel sounding the trumpet for the Final Judgment, or like an unwanted guest who names the rope in the hanged man’s house, Francis I stood before our Clown Congress and spoke the names of four American warrior saints. If our legislators would know them, or come to know more about them, they would realize that the Pope was urging upon us the consequences—in the course of time—of following the words of these Four Riders of the Apocalypse.   (more…)

Perish by the Sword

Sculpture of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, in the Abbey Saint-Pierre Brantôme, Brantôme (Dordogne, France). (Credit: Père Igor / Wikimedia Commons)

Sculpture of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, in the Abbey Saint-Pierre Brantôme, Brantôme (Dordogne, France). (Credit: Père Igor / Wikimedia Commons)

In the face of yet another massacre of young Americans, this time by a sick individual with guns in Oregon, some of our political leaders (Mencken’s Clown Dynasty) do not know what to do.

Others, like Pontius Pilate, are glad to wash their hands of the messy business. Jeb Bush summed up this attitude admirably the day after the shooting: “Stuff happens.”

If we are paralyzed into inactivity by the Second Amendment, by the NRA and its lobby, or by fellow Americans who worship guns and vote accordingly, perhaps we can find if not a new path, at least a new direction for a solution if we re-examine some of our premises about who we are, and remember what we claim to be.

First, President Obama presented the nation with this befuddlement in his address after the shooting: “We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.” The explanation for this puzzling conundrum is simple: despite our riches and our technical proficiency, we are NOT an “advanced country.” We are a nation of savages and barbarians who would rather see our children slaughtered than give up our guns. We believe in human sacrifice, and regularly offer up human victims to the natural law of the Second Amendment and to the bloody cult of the NRA. Any solution to the gun problem in this great country must begin with an acknowledgement of this sad fact. (more…)

History of Angels

"War in Heaven," ceiling fresco, Göttweig Abbey, 1739, by Paul Troger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“War in Heaven,” ceiling fresco, Göttweig Abbey, 1739, by Paul Troger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Jorge Luis Borges, in his brief pages dedicated to a History of Angels (1926), the angels are “two days and two nights” older than we are, and “these primitive angels were stars.”[1] As proof he cites the Book of Job, in which the Lord speaks out from the whirlwind about the genesis of creation “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”

In times like the present, when so many backwoods stupid things are being said about Muslims and Islam, Borges’s summary essay reminds us:

Islam, too, knows of angels. The Muslims of Cairo live blotted out by angels, the real world virtually deluged by the angelic, for according to Edward William Lane, each follower of the Prophet is assigned two guardian angels, or five, or sixty, or one hundred sixty.

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