Pet peeves and pleasantries

  • I’ve been hunting for something clever to say about Hurricane Dorian, something that would connect it to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps something along the lines of realizing that the storm is remaining unchanged even as pictures of it grow larger. But so far, I’ve not been able to top the local newspaper, which printed a photograph of two people boarding up their home in Puerto Rico with the headline, “Dorian Blues.”
  • For decades, radio DJs have talked over the instrumental introductions of songs. As I age, I find the practice increasingly annoying. With some songs it doesn’t matter, but the opening chords of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” should never be eclipsed. Likewise for Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose.” And the opening guitar chords to “Shallow” from the recent movie “A Star is Born” set the mood for the song and should be heard without interruption.
  • One reason this practice of talking during the instrumental introduction annoys me is that the afternoon DJ on our local station seems to think she does it well. She doesn’t. At times she keeps on prattling into the opening words of the song. And she often neglects to restore the volume of the music after she has turned it down to hear herself talk. I could turn up the volume, but then I have to hurry to turn it down again before the song ends and her voice blares again from the speakers.
  • Another reason I’m annoyed by the talking DJ is that I only listen to the radio in my car. At work I don’t listen to music; at home if I want music I choose a CD. Now, many other things rattle my equilibrium when I am driving. Some drivers swerve from lane to lane going ten miles above the speed limit; others drift to the edge of the lane while driving ten miles under the speed limit—they are texting while they drive, which is why they drift; their drifting makes it difficult to pass them safely. Ergo, since I’m already annoyed behind the wheel, the DJ is only going to increase my discomfort.
  • Then there’s the issue of turning right at a red light. All too often I’ve had a driver try to squeeze in front of me when that driver was facing a red light and I had a green light. On the other hand, this happened again yesterday, twice: I was trying to turn right on a red light, but every time I inched forward to look for traffic, the car in the left turn lane also inched forward. That driver had nothing to gain from the adjustment, but it was to my disadvantage.
  • If you are a bad driver, please do not advertise your church or your beliefs with a sticker on the back of your car. If you are breaking the law or generally being rude and discourteous, the last thing you want to do is associate your community of faith with your behavior.
  • On a lighter note, one of my students of history made an interesting observation last night. On Tuesday we discussed the Harappan civilization of ancient India: they reached a high level of civilization many centuries ago, with amazing architecture, indoor plumbing, and a written language that no one alive today knows how to read. Afterward, their civilization collapsed, and no one is sure what happened to their descendants. Then, last night, we covered the Olmec and Maya peoples of the western hemisphere. Again, their architecture and use of running water and many other characteristics are astounding for the ancient world. Yet the Olmec abandoned their cities without a trace, and the Maya also walked away from their dwellings (though the Maya writings are being translated, and there are people living today who are descended from the Maya). My student noted that the common threads in these civilizations are their use of plumbing and the collapse of their civilizations; she thought there might be a connection. I told her to write a paper on the subject; it might make her famous.
  • It is worth nothing that one of the theories about the fall of the Roman Empire is related to plumbing. The Romans used lead pipes to bring water into their homes. Lead poisoning is thought to have weakened them to the point that they were overcome by invaders. It’s not a popular theory—many other causes are also given for the fall of Rome—but it’s interesting, all the same. J.
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A riddle for you all

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice joins a tea party which includes a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse. During the course of the conversation, the Hatter asks Alice, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Alice considers the riddle and finally admits that she cannot guess the answer. The Hatter acknowledges that he also does not know the answer to his question. Over the years, many fans of Alice have proposed answers to the riddle. The best, found in Frances Huxley’s The Raven and the Writing Desk (1976) is that “each begins with an E.”

In the course of my duties at work, I have encountered a similar riddle. It was printed on a scrap of paper, contained in a box with many other papers. Nothing else relative to this question was found in the box. The question, in full, is this: “Which is weaker: a carrot or a pumpkin?”

After looking for some sort of context in the rest of the papers in that box, I tried Googling © the question. I received many recipes containing carrots or pumpkins, and also a digital copy of a book about the history of gardening, but nothing I found answered the question.

If any of you have ever encountered this question and can offer some context, along with an answer, I will be delighted. Otherwise, any intelligent guesses will also be welcome. This little riddle could provide an interesting rabbit hole for all of us, or it may be just a smile before we go on to other things. J.

My newest book: Unveiling Revelation

Imagine seeing a woman and a dragon stretched across the sky. Imagine seeing four supernatural horsemen riding across the landscape, bringing death and destruction in their wake. Imagine watching as the mighty city Babylon is destroyed by enemies that used to be its friends. Best of all, imagine standing in the presence of God, surrounded by angels and saints, all singing praise to Jesus Christ the Lord and the Redeemer.

All these things happened to John the Apostle on the island of Patmos. He described his experiences in the book of Revelation, the full name of which is A Revelation of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is written in poetry with many odd and frightening vision. But the main theme of the book is good news: Jesus has won against all evil, and he shares his victory with his people.

In “Unveiling Revelation,” John’s book is studied by comparing it to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. After an introduction that outlines Biblical eschatology (the study of Last Things), the book breaks Revelation into sections and analyzes them one by one. More a devotional work than a commentary, it reveals the true meaning of what is described in the book of Revelation.

This is now the tenth book I have self-published through Amazon and Kindle. To celebrate, I reduced the Kindle cost of all ten books to four dollars each. In some ways, Unveiling Revelation was a difficult book to write—it was meant to be last summer’s writing project, and I didn’t finish it until this summer. But I think I learned a lot studying Revelation to write about Revelation. I’ve taught the book in Bible class at least five times, and before that I took a seminary course on the book of Revelation, so I hope other people will find my observations helpful.

On the other hand, not all readers are going to like my book. It does not follow the path of The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books. Instead, I treat passages such as I Thessalonians 4:13-18 as God’s clear messages about eschatology and use them to decipher the meaning of the poetic language of Revelation. Since everything in the Bible is true, and Revelation is in the Bible, it follows that everything in Revelation is true. But, as there are figures of speech elsewhere in the Bible—figures that must be interpreted in context and through comparing them to clearer sections of Scripture—so the same is true of the book of Revelation.

In one of the Bible classes I taught about Revelation, a young man spoke up to say, “I don’t understand everything in this book, but I’ve figured out one thing: Jesus wins!” That is certainly the most important thing to remember when reading and studying Revelation. If you don’t comprehend anything else, be sure to remember that Jesus wins. J.

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For the paperback, click here.    For the Kindle, click here.

Who are you calling racist?

I recently came across a four-page document meant for use in the classroom. Entitled “A Contemporary Glossary: Definitions of Racism,” it was published in 1983 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Most of its source material dates to the early 1970s. One professional educator (now retired) looked at my copy of this document and declared it badly outdated. However, I suspect many people my age were taught these definitions and still believe them. Moreover, I also suspect that they have passed along these definitions to younger generations of students who also believe them.

The document opens with a dictionary definition of prejudice: “Unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason.” It follows with a certain person’s definition of racism: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.”

I do not object to an effort to define prejudice as an opinion or feeling and racism as practices based on prejudiced opinions or feelings. I fear, though, that a focus on power and on major institutions of our society presents a distorted view of racism. Indeed, the rest of the document makes its premise clear. “In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values… blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racist.” It also says, “Racism and white racism mean the same thing….” And, “All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if whites are totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, they remain racists, for they receive benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions.”

I see no benefit and great risk in the statements that only white people can be racist and that all whites are racist, even if they have no racial prejudices. But I do understand why certain individuals, certain statements, and certain actions have been labeled “racist” even when I could find no racial prejudice in what the target of the label said or did. If every white person in the United States is assumed to be racist—even defined as racist—then it is easy to put a racist spin on anything a white person says or does.

I acknowledge that racism still exists in the United States. Some managers, sifting through a stack of resumes that are virtually identical, are more likely to arrange an interview with Jennifer than with LaKisha. In some workplaces, white English-speaking people are more likely to be promoted to higher-paying positions than black people or Spanish-speaking people. Black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be denied a loan for buying a car or a house, and if they get the loan they are likely to pay more than white individuals with the same income. These things happen. They are morally wrong. They are also illegal. When persistent patterns of racism in a workplace or other institution can be revealed, those guilty of making racist decisions are penalized.

But in schools and workplaces, black people and people of other minorities have risen to positions of power. They can hire, promote, or fire employees. If they should favor members of their own minority over whites, would that not be racist? And is anyone willing to go out on a limb and say that such things never happen in America?

Maybe it is true that the handout I found is outdated and no longer relevant. My questions are: when did things change, and what changed them? Was there a time that every white person in America was racist and no black person in America could be racist? When was that time, and what brought it to an end? Was it ended by court decisions and legislation? Was it ended by the Civil Rights movement? Was it ended by education, such as the document I found, which taught students about racism and so brought it to an end? Or, since racism can still be found, is it still true that every white person is racist and no black person can be racist?

I teach college students. I have had white students that did well and white students that did poorly; I have had black students that did well and black students that did poorly. Since I teach history, race and racism are mentioned in the classroom. I make the point that, biologically, all humans belong to the same race. Modern racism, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a result of evolutionary theories, assumptions that people are different because of the traits they inherited from their ancestors. Racists assume that strength, intelligence, endurance, and other qualities differ from race to race. But DNA tests do not bear out those assumptions. A white student and a black student in the same classroom might have more DNA in common with each other than either of them shares with a brother or sister of the same two parents. That’s simple science.

A student once asked me why we still talk about racism if there are not different races. It was a sincere question and a good one. I think the label remains useful to discuss prejudices based on the perception of different races, even though different races do not exist. And if someone—black, white, or any other appearance and culture—has the power to treat other people differently based on those prejudices, I say that misuse of that power is racist.

All people are sinful. Prejudice is one aspect of human sinfulness, stronger in some sinners and weaker in others. Humanity has developed many different cultures, and I believe that all of them are worth celebrating. Irish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Arab, African, Hispanic—they are all good. Each member of a culture should have pride in his or her cultural identity—pride, but not a sense of superiority. In fact, as we celebrate our various cultures, we should also take note of the celebration of other cultures and learn about our neighbors from their celebrations. By itself, that attitude will not eliminate prejudice and the possibility of racism, but openness to cultural diversity is better than automatic labeling with the word “racist.” Or so I believe. J.

Remembering Woodstock

I was vaguely aware that some rock concert was happening fifty years ago. At the time I was young and I didn’t follow rock music. I knew what hippies were—I saw a carload of them one afternoon that summer. But the term Woodstock was not very meaningful to me while it was happening.

A little more than ten years after (Yes, I did that on purpose.), the college I was attending showed the Woodstock documentary on a Friday night. My friends and I attended, and we were won over to the Woodstock spirit. In fact, that same fall we dressed as hippies for the Homecoming bed races and won the top prize for our costumes (and second prize in the actual race). I went out and bought the three-disc concert album and came to know most of the songs by heart. When it was available, I bought the documentary on VHS. When I wore out the tapes from repeated viewing, I replaced them with the DVD set (which included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and some other singers and groups that were omitted—at their own request—from the original movie). So of course I have watched the movie again this week, joined by my teenaged daughter, who has her own appreciation for hippies and Sixties culture. In fact, having watched Woodstock earlier in the week, we followed that last night by watching Hair, a movie made in 1979 that included the songs from the Sixties musical of the same name.

Observing and appreciating the culture does not include approval of all its mistakes. I still believe in marriage and faithfulness, in respect for authority, and in private property. I shower every day, and I just got a haircut this week. I have no illusions about the Age of Aquarius (and, by the way, most experts in the field say we are still in the Age of Pisces). But most of my favorite rock songs are from the Sixties. The Beatles were the best rock band ever, and Abbey Road is the best rock album ever recorded. I still ache when I think about the 1969 Chicago Cubs, how they stumbled out of first place as summer drew to a close, being overtaken by the Miracle Mets. (And this year’s version of the Cubs seem destined for the same disappointing results.)

I wouldn’t want to be seven years old again. But the summer I turned seven was full of amazing happenings that are worth remembering and celebrating. J.

What I did on my summer vacation

We took a mini-vacation this week and rented a cabin in a state park for two nights. The weather was good, the scenery was awesome, and the opportunity to relax (even for three days) was good.

The drive up to the park and cabin was a bit grueling, a two-lane road with many hairpin turns. To my great relief, it was not raining and there was not much other traffic. Our cabin was ready when we arrived, so we were able to unpack and put food into the refrigerator right away. Then we set out on the Summit Trail, a one-mile loop up and down the side of the mountain. That went so well that we decided to try the Bench Trail next, a four-mile excursion around the mountain. While the Summit Trail went right past our cabin, the trailhead for the Bench Trail was about half a mile from the cabin. We thought it would be silly to drive the car half a mile in order to take a hike, so our total walking for the afternoon was six miles.

There’s one thing they don’t tell you about hiking in state parks. Not only does your lower body get a good workout on a hike, but brushing away spiderwebs and swatting away flies and other insects provides an upper body workout as well. We were accompanied by buzzing insects pretty much every step of the way. We also saw some beautiful butterflies, lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, and a fair number of deer. We spoke with other people at the park who had seen a rattlesnake and a bear. While we were there we heard cicadas, treefrogs, and songbirds, as well as blue jays and crows. One afternoon we sat on the porch of our cabin and watched a thunderstorm travel along a valley some miles away.

We brought food for our breakfasts and suppers, but we had our lunches in the town at the foot of the mountain. We discovered a wonderful Mexican restaurant, as well as an interesting shop that sold anything from tableware to lawn decorations. The town’s Front Street along the river had a sad number of empty stores, and the riverfront park itself was unexciting, but the town seems to be doing well. We were told more than once that it was good we had come during the week and not for the weekend, when the town would be filled with visitors for an annual festival.

All that hiking, especially the first afternoon, led to some tired muscles and early bedtimes. In fact my legs are still a little sore this afternoon. It was good to break the routine (although you can be sure that I brought along some leisure reading!). More than a century ago, we would not have been able to visit this location—it was a resort owned and shared by a few very wealthy families, not open to the general public. National parks and state parks are a wonderful resource. Even though our cabin cost a lot more than a motel room would have cost, we are glad that our dollars are helping to support the state park system. J.

Seven classic novels for children

I’ve been buried in words the last several weeks, as I have engaged in a host of literary tasks. First, I am copy-editing and tweaking my book on Revelation, with the hope of sending it to the publisher in a week or two. Second, I’ve been quickly reading a book about the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday) to which I’ve been asked to write a response. Third, I’m still enjoying First on the Moon as I celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo XI mission. Add to that my regular reading from the Bible and devotional material (I will finish Jerome on Monday—yea!), and have started reading Steinbeck’s novels, and am catching up on a stack of books I’ve acquired over the years without bothering to read them until now. On top of that, I chose this summer to revisit some old friends from my childhood.

In the family library downstairs I have my reading chair. Just behind the chair, on one of the corner shelves, are two rows of children’s books—some were bought for my children, but most have belonged to me when I was young. Working my way through Jerome and Steinbeck, I’d see these books out of the corner of my eye. Seven particular books are old friends, books that I would read and enjoy every summer when I was a boy. Finally, I couldn’t resist the temptation—I grabbed one of the seven and added it to my daily reading schedule.

In no particular order, here are my seven old friends.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Mathematician Charles Dodgson created amusing tales for his friend and neighbor, Alice Liddell, and her sisters. Using the name Lewis Carroll, he published these stories to share with the world. Starring Alice, the two stories follow a little girl on two amazing journeys, one down a rabbit tunnel where she meets a variety of interesting characters, many of whom are members of a deck of cards. The second takes here through a mirror where she joins a chess game as a pawn, eventually crossing the board and becoming a queen, also meeting a variety of interesting characters along the way. In both stories, Dodgson (or Carroll) intersperses plot with poetry, sometimes with nonsense poems and sometimes with satires upon classic children’s poetry. He also blends in simple logic puzzles and other signs of his brilliant mathematical mind.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Journalist Samuel Clemens also took on a pen name, calling himself Mark Twain as he wrote amusing stories to appear in journals and in books. His childhood memories that he blended into the character of Tom Sawyer and his friends are among his most remembered and beloved stories. Tom is a lively rascal, flitting from one adventure to another, but getting involved unintentionally in some of the greater drama of his community. Much of Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, is dedicated to his memory; I recommend a visit there during summer travels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: More than a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn tells the story of a lost boy, son of the town drunk, who eventually takes a raft down the Mississippi River in the company of an escaping slave. Without straying from plot and adventure, the book also wrestles with the problems of race, slavery, and human nature in general. One episode, set in an unnamed Arkansas riverside city (probably Napoleon) has the two travelers who have joined Huck and Jim swindle an entire city of naïve citizens. Tom Sawyer makes an appearance toward the end of the book, but he’s not the same carefree boy of his own novel. Instead, he builds an intricate web of intrigue to rescue Jim from confinement, even though Tom knows all along that Jim has already been freed by his owner.

Heidi: Johanna Spyri describes a young Swiss orphan who is left to her grandfather, a recluse living high on a mountain. The title character brings life and joy to all the neighborhood, but suddenly she is snatched away to be the companion of a crippled girl (probably a polio victim, although the book does not say) in Frankfurt. Heidi is miserable in the city, but she continues to bring life and joy to others. Along the way she is introduced to Christian piety by Klara’s grandmother, who teaches Heidi to pray and to trust the Good Lord. Heidi does as she is told, is whisked back to her grandfather on the mountaintop, once again brings life and joy to her neighbors, and does the same for her newer friends when they visit from Frankfurt. If you have only seen the Shirley Temple movie based on this book, you must read the book for yourself.

The Wizard of Oz: Frank Baum created a story which may or may not be an allegory of American politics. Dorothy Gale lives on a farm with her uncle and aunt and her little dog Toto, until one day a tornado lifts her and Toto to the land of Oz. There, she must travel to the capital city to see if the wizard can return her to Kansas. Along the way she is joined by a scarecrow seeking brains, a tin man needing a heart, and a lion wanting courage. To earn what they seek, they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie version, starring Judy Garland, omits many of the interesting events in the book; and the movie destroys the story with its resolution of “it was all a dream.”

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew: This story was written by Margaret Sidney. Three boys and two girls are being raised by their mother in poverty, but for the most part they are happy in spite of their lack of material comforts. About with the measles tests the family’s endurance, but afterward they cross paths with a rich family that dotes on the Peppers and mentors them. Unspoiled by their taste of wealth, the Peppers (like Heidi) continue to bring blessings into the lives of those near them. Even though I read the book every summer, my favorite chapters relate the family’s effort to celebrate Christmas in spite of their poverty.

Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson begins his adventure with the son of an innkeeper. One of the inn’s residents is a retired pirate, now in hiding. When the pirate dies, his treasure map falls into the hands of the innkeeper’s son, just ahead of the effort of the other pirates to recover the map. Two wealthy gentlemen join with the son to sail to the island and find the buried treasure. Unfortunately, much of the crew that they hire as sailors consists of former pirates seeking the same treasure. Jim—the innkeepers’ son and now a cabin-boy, happens always to be in the right place at the right time to learn the plans of the pirates, led by the one-legged Long John Silver, and to foil those plans.

This is just some of the classic literature I am enjoying this summer. J.