Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Recycle or Merely Discard

Now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

C.S. Lewis recycles the bogus Liar, Lunatic Lord argument from Mere Christianity on page 48. Liar, Mad or Truthful may work with real human beings that you know personally, as in the context of the story, but I am beginning to wonder if Lewis believes that this is such an irrefutable bit of logic that it can be applied widely. I can't shake the feeling that it doesn't hold up much better in the Narnia context either but I'll have to ponder that for a while.

A lifetime in their moccasins

Just finished reading Dr Bart Ehrman's God's Problem about the ol' theodicy issue. It is an interesting mix of analysis of how different Biblical authors view the problem of suffering and Dr Ehrman's own views on the matter.

In the last chapter, Ehrman sums up and points out that some suffering in the world is avoidable. When he states that the income and goods in the world could be redistributed if we had the will I was thrown back in my mind to my days in Junior Achievement and my attendance of the National Convention in Terre Haute, Indiana. One speaker claimed that if the incomes of the millionaires in the US were redistributed it would amount to such-and-such an amount, implying that it would be a pittance. I don't know if this was true but I have noticed that people who make arguments about how happy the poor are or how money can't buy happiness or how a few thousand dollars isn't going to make a difference to the poor, these people NEVER offer to trade places with the poor. If being poor is so satisfying and so little different from being affluent, why do these people pursue affluence so eagerly. The same argument goes for school funding. If "throwing money at the problem" is not an excuse for taking no action at all, then let's just reduce the school budgets for their precious children to the level of Alabama's Black Belt or the Mountains of Honduras. There is a certain minimal level of food, medical care and educational resources below which life is really hard or a child's education will be incomplete. There is probably a point where "enough" needs are being met and anything else is just tennis teams but of the worlds 6 or so billion people, how many are getting enough.

I am no saint and am haunted by my own laxity, greed and inability to do anything but, shit, at least acknowledge the issue people!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Death, Acceptance, Life

The third of my related series of posts:

I had intended to write a separate article on my own musings on meaning and finality but circumstances have overtaken me – namely confronting the same themes in, of all places, a fifth grade book.

Standing on the deck of the ferry crossing from Denmark to Sweden I once aspired to being “an old guy with lots of stories.” Years later, my partner bought me a tee shirt for my birthday that read – “In order to be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid.” I am not sure my current standing as a Junior Curmudgeon, 1st Class would allow me to agree with that statement now but both these yearnings illustrate something about me. I am the kind of person (ENTP for you MBTI mavens) who has made a life long pursuit of “understanding” the universe. I have rarely professed it so specifically, even to my self. Indeed, only a fool would claim such a task. More often the quest has assumed the avatar of the desire to be “wise.”

Wisdom is a good thing, right? Of course, the pursuit of my quarry has been overshadowed somewhat by my inability to recognize exactly what it will look like when I finally have it my sights. Perhaps realizing that is the beginning of wisdom... This gets thick, fast!

But maybe I am tracking the Dragon when I think I hunt the Unicorn. I am attracted to idea of Wisdom, surely, but the beast that draws me is Acceptance. No more tortured metaphors, I promise…

Lately, it has occurred to me that Wisdom is not my goal; it is my means. I think that I have set my sights on Understanding in hopes that in doing so I will be able to - wait for it - accept my own Death. We know that many people reach the end of their lives and find themselves ready, satisfied that they have lived fully and well. The (in)famous Stages of Grief grant Acceptance pride of place. Even J R R Tolkien had his elves become world-weary. My wife’s grandmother often complained that “Jesus had not come for her yet,” but, even those without religious faith achieve this state. Maybe that is not such a bad definition of Wisdom.

An understanding the world in which we live stands on its own merits but is it the best route to Acceptance? Wiktionary defines Wisdom as “3. The discretionary use of knowledge for the greatest good.” In my forty-fifth year the thought has been stirring in me that accumulation of knowledge is a passive and selfish act without action. Is it time to cast off my callow youth and start working toward the good of the world? James Michener claimed that surviving to thirty was its own justification but inherent in that is that after age thirty, you are expected to bail with the rest!

I have two children and hope I live to see them grow up and carry with them some of my values and, dare I say, wisdom. But I can’t help thinking that more is required of me. I am not ready for the Peace Corps but there are plenty of opportunities closer to home. Last year I spent a week repairing Katrina-damaged homes. I once spent a year tutoring biology to 9th grade girls in an inner-city school. Bits and pieces. I think I need a more unified effort and vision. I can’t escape the feeling that that is my next move, a part of the transition to the second half of my life (I physically shivered typing that).


Kid Lit - Death and Release

For me, the most moving scene in The Golden Compass series, was the moment when Lyra and Will release the now decrepit ruler of the universe from his crystal “cage”, the wind catches his form and dissipates him in a moment of release, not sadness. Likewise, the souls freed from the underworld experience a release and reunion with the matter of the universe when they return to the surface. Given his atheistic bent and statements, one can assume that Phillip Pullman, the author, meant this aspect of his work as an answer to the resurrection claims of the Faithful.

At the end of The Spiderwick Chronicles, we have the scene where Arthur Spiderwick, imprisoned timelessly by the Elves, is reunited with his now 80-year-old daughter, Lucy. Arthur may not touch his foot to the ground lest all his years come on him at once and reduce him to the dust that he would be but for his sojourn under the fairies’ power. In the movie treatment the elves transform the aged Aunt Lucille back to the little girl, Lucy, Arthur had left behind decades before and allow the two of them to dwell in timeless bliss forever.

Not so the book. Arthur Spiderwick says something to the affect of “I have overstayed my span of days.” He whispers something to his alarmed daughter and then steps forth onto the earth of the fairy glade and, indeed, returns to the dust from which he came. His daughter stands, dry-eyed. Would that we knew what Arthur had told her, eh?

This would traditionally be considered pretty heavy stuff for children’s literature. I am not sure what to make of it. J K Rowling was pretty cagey on the topic in spite of the claimed “unavoidable” religious themes. Pullman has obvious motives (that I might applaud). Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (Spiderwick) might just have lifted their scene from Pullman but that decision would remain deliberate. Are we in the midst of a campaign to redefine the way we view death and the way in which we teach it to our children? Would that Jerry Falwell were still alive!

Newberry Good - Spiderwick Not-So-Good

This is a spoiler for the book if you have seen the movie. On the other hand, if you went to see the movie you have no business crying, “Spoiler” in the first place!

My daughter had not read the last two books in the The Spiderwick Chronicles when I took her to see the movie. I repeatedly reminded her that the movie and the book are never quite the same and often the ending is radically changed. Well, the ending in the movie was so anti-climatic that I thought, “God, I hope they end the book better than this!” A lesson in managing expectations: the ending of the book was exactly the same EXCEPT worse. In the movie the situation is set up so there is some sort of expectation and plausibility. In the book, no such thing! A hand shoots out and, chomp, it’s over. No foreshadowing. No heroism. No meaning.

On related note, what’s up with angry young boys? Harry Potter spends a few thousand pages inexplicably (or barely explicably, if you prefer) angry. Whenever the plot needs to be driven, Harry gets mad. His character development ends up stunted irrevocably.

Now Jared Grace spends at least part of every book angry. In his case, the anger is placed in a more familiar context (children of divorce) and you get a sense that it is an issue that would benefit from some therapy (not that it ever comes to that, the school expels him for carrying a swiss army knife without getting a therapist involved - as if!). Even so, this is beginning to feel like a cop-out for authors of children’s books – just make the protagonist angry and you don’t have to be bothered with complex character development.

That said, my daughter’s current book is called Rules by Cynthia Lord and it is quite extraordinary. It features a 12 year old girl dealing with the autism of her 8 year old brother juxtaposed against her encounters with a wheelchair-bound boy who must communicate via a set of cards with words written on them. This has genuine young anger, frustration, uncertainty and self-discovery. As long as nothing stupid happens in the last third of the book, it looks like a great read and an excellent book to read with my child. I am going to start looking for the Newberry label on all her books.