Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Torrential Downpour: Life in Ideas

Changing churches
Living a life devoted to ideas does not typically mean going along passively, or letting self-interest above all else dictate your life. It means altering your life for these ideas. Vegetarianism is such an idea: to devote yourself to the belief that humans shouldn't eat animals, you must make sacrifices in your life. The idea becomes more important to you than pleasure.

It also means that you may not stay in a church simply because it is what you are born (or married) into. You must consider your conscience, and be willing to change your life over an idea.

And so my wife and I are looking for a new church: we can no longer attend the church she has grown up in, and formed a community with, because it has such different values than our own. The differences are not superficial but quite deep and fundamental. In part it is a parenting decision: not only do we not want our children taught things we don't believe, but we don't want our children to see us attending a church that teaches things we don't believe.

But in part, I may be at the beginnings of a religious rebirth, and I have ideas of what I believe Christianity truly is (thanks to Dostoevsky, Yoder, and Hugo, among others). My wife shares with me many of these beliefs. And the church we currently attend is not that. For me, changing churches is not a terribly difficult choice to make: it is meaningful, but I'm not actually a member at the church we attend anyway (though I was married there and my son was baptized there: I do have an emotional connection). For my wife, she will be separating (though not entirely we hope) from a tradition and community that she has had her entire life.

Practical matters still determine what new church we choose: a near location and early service times are important. But we're able to make a conscious, deliberate choice about the church we wish to be a part of, about living a Christian life as we believe it is meant to be. This requires change. This requires sacrifice. But it is a choice one makes when ideas guide ones' life.

Falling with Valjean
You probably know the story of Jean Valjean's crime and redemption. If you listen to the Les Mierables musical soundtrack, the music takes you past the particularly distressing crime to his moment of forgiveness and redemption. It is inevitable; it makes the fall tolerable.

But to read the book, even if you know the redemption that is coming, you are still required to fall with Valjean. You see the darkness of that moment, before the eventual escape from despair and sin. Right now I have finished the chapter in which Valjean steals the silver, but I have not read further. I'm currently stuck in despair with him, experiencing that moment.

addendum: it's worth noting that the moment of forgiveness comes in the very next chapter; my stopping point in the book heightened the sense of loss.

Let me recommend the HBO series Rome. Now that I have seen the entire series (just two seasons), I recognize what an artistic feat it is. I'd compare it to Deadwood in complexity; it is more complicated than The Sopranos. In the closing scenes of the series, it is tremendously difficult to understand what we should feel about what we see.

Next week at this time, I'll have finished my first day of classes. I say this every August, but there is no way to mentally prepare for the separation of daily lifestyles between a break and a semester. Right now, I have no way to prepare or understand what teaching will be like, and as every summer, I have the fear that my brain has atrophied over the summer and I've forgotten how to teach. Of course in a week, it will be commonplace and easily dealt with. But it's a drastic switch in the calendar for which I've yet to find adequate preparation for. I go from staying at home all day playing with a baby, reading books, surfing the internet, watching TV, going for walks, and having little schedule or responsibility, to teaching college students about writing and literature.

Other blogs
If there's anybody that reads this blog but not Pacifist Viking (I doubt it), you might wish to read this post about intended audience, which could have just as easily fit at this blog. I've also been keeping up with the utterly useless tripe at We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard. And I'd also like to recommend my wife's new blog, Cruelty-Free Mommy, where she explores different issues that come up for new parents (I contribute occasionally).

Friday, August 24, 2007


Let's be honest. Last summer I listed to the soundtrack of Wicked, and it was inevitable that I would eventually read the book.

When I started listening to Les Miserables, did I not realize that nothing could prevent me from diving headfirst into Hugo's 1,463 page tome?

After just a few pages, the book (translated by Fahnestock and MacAfee) so far is excellent. I've had to mark three lines for future reference. Two are perhaps didactic and even cliched, yet somehow deeply meaningful to me.

"Err, falter, sin, but be upright" (13).

"Death belongs to God alone. By what right do men touch that unknown thing?" (16).

The other line just makes me smile in wry amusement:

"Clearly, he had his own strange way of judging things. I suspect he acquired it from the Gospels" (14).

I'm not even sure I understand it yet, but my summer reading is...changing my religious perspective. Giving it back to me, more accurately. Or giving it to me anew, even better. And I think it is continuing. The books I'm reading this summer are fundamentally changing me. It is always good for that to be possible.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Busboy

George: "That's a tough minute. It's like waiting in the shower for the conditioner to work."

(I kid you not, whenever I use conditioner I think of this line).

Kramer: "Well I'm not an idiot."

Comment: Jerry has a great opening standup bit about how he's eaten rolls off of hotel trays in the halls, how he's not joking its true, how nobody is going to poison a roll for a comedian to eat at 2 a.m. George obsesses about getting the busboy fired like the George we know, but it is sort of weird how selfless and concerned he is. He sometimes gets caught up into society.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pacifism and Watching

If you feel the value and desire of peace deeply and daily, you start to watch things differently.

Tonight I watched an episode of Rome which featured a large battle scene (rare for the show). I'm not sure what I was supposed to be thinking while the battle was going on; my reaction may indeed be what the makers wished. My continuing thought was, "What is this for?" Could the soldiers slaughtering each other really care whether Brutus and Cassius won, or whether Antony and Octavius won? How could it matter? Death, suffering, and waste, for nothing.

It goes beyond the major battles. So much of our entertainment features people seeking violent solutions to problems. Often the characters are sympathetic; often their principles are admirable. But we are supposed to accept that they are brave for violently fighting for their principles. It doesn't make for good entertainment to see people seeking their ends in non-violent ways. So I see characters fighting, and killing, and talking about honor and bravery, and it all seems foolish and wrong. I see honor in avoiding violence. I see dignity in choosing self-sacrifice over violent defense. I see bravery in standing against an enemy without attempting to fight him.

And yet as much as any show I've seen, Rome handles the deaths of major characters well. You sense the tragedy and the pathos of people recognizing the moments of their deaths. It is moving.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ideas and Life

One of the themes of this blog is that ideas matter, and not as abstract values but as driving forces of human lives. We carry this further in suggesting books matter, not as conventionally defined art or entertainment, but as sources of power that can change human life. Not all ideas are not worthy to change our lives, and very few books are capable. But the ideas exist, and the books exist.

And for me, John Howard Yoder's The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism is such a book. After reading it, I don't feel I can look at the world in the same way I looked at the world before reading the book, and not only in an existential weltenshauung way of looking at the world, but in a personal mode of action with which I interact with the world. This book may have changed my life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yoder on Constantinianism

Of particular interest in Yoder's The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, is Yoder's criticism of Constantinianism, of the church acting as "chaplain to society." Yoder suggests that since Constantine, the church has operated to sanctify and support the existing social order and power structure, whatever it may be in particular. Yoder suggest that the church needs to abstain from tying itself to the given social order, and that it is this close alliance with the given social order which leads the church too often to support wars (and wars that exist primarily to support the existing power structure of the particular society's self-interest).

Again, I feel like Yoder could be talking about 21st century America.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Yoder's pacifism

I'm currently reading John Howard Yoder's The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism. The most important part of the book is the general Christian ethic: he makes a convincing argument that pacifism or nonresistence is a key tenet of Christianity, and that Christian involvement in violence is an unbiblical, unJesuslike compromise with the state/world. He uses sound biblical and logical arguments not only to justify pacifism (he bases pacifism not on pragmatic utilitarianism but on the actions and words of Christ and on Christian eschatology), but to refute Christian justifications of violence.

Of secondary interest is this: if Yoder wrote these essays today (and I mean literally, today), they would work as direct critiques of various justifications made for America's war in Iraq. It's uncanny how directly his analysis can be applied to justifications for America's current war. One wonders whether 100 years from now, Yoder's critique would sound like a direct refutation of the justifications of whatever war is being perpetrated then. I only hope not.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Pony Remark

Jerry: We don't understand death, and the proof of this is that we give dead people a pillow.

George: Do you know how easy it is for dead people to travel? It's not like getting on a bus. One second: it's all mental.

Comment: In other episodes I believe Jerry writes left-handed; in this episode, he wears his baseball glove on his left-hand and tosses the ball with his right hand. Sometimes people write with one hand but throw a ball with another hand (Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick), or maybe there was just difficulty among the props people finding a left-handed glove.

Anyway, this is a slightly dark episode about putting ones' foot in ones' mouth.

There's also a common trend in the show that reveals characters' self-involvement: the cross current conversation. In this case, Jerry and his mother are talking about whether he killed Manya while his father talks about the expense of a flight home.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dostoevsky's Magic

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons, Pyotr Stepanovich says to Kirillov:

" was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you" (558).

This one statement explains the power of Dostoevsky's novels: he writes about people who have become consumed with an idea. It is not enough to call his books novels of ideas; they are books about people with ideas. As Bakhtin says, "In Dostoevsky's work each opinion really does become a living thing and is inseparable from an embodied human voice" (17), but "Dostoevsky portrayed not the life of an idea in an isolated consciousness, and not the interrelationship of ideas, but the interaction of consciousnesses in the sphere of ideas (but not of ideas only)" (32).

Wikipedia, in its infinite wisdom, thus says that "his characters are driven by ideas rather than by ordinary biological or social imperatives. In comparison with Tolstoy, whose characters are realistic, the characters of Dostoevsky are usually more symbolic of the ideas they represent."

Here I have to disagree. Yes, the characters are driven by ideas; however, this only makes them symbolic of the ideas they represent if you believe people cannot actually be driven by ideas. If you are not driven by ideas (if you have never changed your life for an idea), then indeed, you may see these characters as symbolic.

But people can be consumed by an idea, and people can live their lives more by an idea than by "biological or social imperatives." And this is where, to me, Dostoevsky could be called a realist. He portrays individuals consumed by ideas, and after all, individuals consumed by ideas do exist.

But Dostoevsky's power comes partly in the way he merges realism and ideas. He doesn't offer us the dull realism that so many dull realists think they must offer if they are to be realists. And he doesn't offer us abstract philosophy. He offers us ideas existing among people in the world; he offers us people with ideas.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Tr. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1994.

"Fyodor Dostoevsky." Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Aug. 2007. 9 Aug. 2007. <>

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Distrust of the Subconcious: it is not our own

I do not trust my subconscious mind; society has placed too much junk there. Society has placed many negative assumptions about race, gender, class, sexual preference, appearance, age, weight, disability, language, job, religion, etc.

I do not believe it makes you a bigot to be aware of many bigoted stereotypes. I do not believe it makes you a bigot if sometimes these bigoted stereotypes pop into your head. These thoughts are, after all, not your own, unless you choose to own them. Society has been planting them in your head for your entire life, and you really can't help it if you are aware of the negativity placed there. You must only rely on your conscious mind to recognize, understand, and resist all the assumptions society has planted in you.

We have all these assumptions about all sorts of things. We consume this culture whether we want to or not, and this culture contains negative stereotypes about race, gender, class, sexual preference, appearance, age, weight, disability, language, job, religion, etc. We must always try to weed this junk from our conscious thought, and be aware of this junk in your subconscious. But it's always going to still be there.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Worldview: Hazard

I cut my teeth on Hemingway, I dig Sartre, and I rounded myself out with Fowles. Whether they taught me, or whether they appealed to me based on what I already felt, I can't know.

But I believe Hazard guides most of our lives. Random, unguided, indifferent chance.


A bridge collapses on a given day at a given moment. Why that bridge, why that moment, why with those people on it (rather than the people who just crossed it or the people who were just about to go onto it or the people who took a different route). There is no reason or explanation for this. Why some were on the bridge and others weren't. You can speculate on God's plan. You can lay blame on human failure to recognize the bridge's problems. But at the end, why it collapses that day, at that moment, with those people on it, can only be chance.

Your life could be entirely different, had one moment gone differently. A moment out of your control. A moment guided not by providence or the machinations of men. A moment guided by nothing. Actually, there are thousands of these moments. Thousands of moments that may or may not change or life, and whether they do or do not depends entirely on chance.

Random hazard.

Meaningless, random hazard.

Even as I write this, I don't consider it an atheistic worldview. No, I believe in God (or at least I want to believe). I consider myself a Christian (after a fashion, I suppose). But when I consider the age and size of the universe, I don't believe God is doing much to interfere. Mostly, our lives are left to chance and whatever bit of will we can contribute to it.

You can try control your own life. You can try to take precautions. You can do what you can to be safe, you can make plans. You can try to force your will onto your existence. You can pray for providence, for divine protection and guidence.

But you still might end up on a collapsing bridge.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"He wants me to tell him something pretty"




The season ends.

Hearst wins. He owns everything, He escapes punishment for his crimes, he controls elections, and he will soon be disseminating his own news. America is run by the tycoons.

Bullock loses. The last moment, as Hearst looks arrogantly, contemptuously down at Bullock before saying "Drive on" is going to continue to sting.

And the series is canceled; we'll have no further closure.

"He wants me to tell him something pretty," Al says, as he cleans the blood of the innocent woman he killed off the floor.

Indeed: wouldn't we all like to be told something pretty.

But we can't be. At the end all is lost. All the arrogant villains win. Anybody with honor loses. We're left with sickness. Not a lack of closure--no, there's closure. But the closure is not any closure we want. It's not even the closure of a hero dying nobly; it's the closure of the villain winning, and knowing it, and everybody else left standing knowing it.