Book review: The Saddler’s Legacy, by Rosslyn Elliott

For summer reading that is both pleasurable and thought-provoking, I recommend a series of books which I just finished reading: Rosslyn Elliott’s “The Saddler’s Legacy.” The three volumes are Fairer than Morning (copyright 2011), Sweeter than Birdsong (2012), and Lovelier than Daylight (2012), all published by Thomas Nelson. The titles and cover art suggest that the books are romances, and indeed Elliott uses the style of a romance novel to tell her stories. But all three are also historical fiction, carefully researched, filled with adventure, and relevant to contemporary issues. They are set in Westerville, Ohio, with occasional visits to larger American cities, and they describe events in three generations of the same family, the Hanbys.

Fairer than Morning begins in the summer of 1823. Ann Miller is being wooed by Eli Bowen, but she meets Will Hanby, a saddle-maker’s apprentice. The romance is predictable (as is the case for all three novels), but around that skeleton Elliott builds a tale of working conditions in the early nineteenth century and questions about the system of justice, both issues that still matter in the twenty-first century. Her characters are strong and complicated, not cardboard cutouts. Most of them are Christian, but Elliott is not preachy in her writing. As she tells her story, she allows readers to reach their own conclusions about what is happening.

My favorite of the three is the middle book, Sweeter than Birdsong. Kate Winter, a student at Otterbein College in 1855, is painfully shy. Ben Hanby is a musician at the college. Fate throws them together, as they become involved in the Underground Railroad, that network of safehouses that supported escaped African American slaves on their path to freedom. It seemed that I could relate to both Kate and Ben with their talents and with their challenges.

The final volume, Lovelier than Daylight, is set during the Westerville Whiskey War of 1875, a battle of prohibitionists against the saloon industry. Susanna Hanby is one of the prohibitionists; Johann Giere is the son and heir of a brewer. When Susanna’s sister Ruth disappears along with Ruth’s six children, it appears that Ruth’s alcoholic husband is somehow to blame. But Johann, an aspiring newspaper reporter, is best equipped among Susanna’s acquaintances to track down Ruth and the children. Elliott handles the questions of prohibition, social justice, and violence with clear insight into the complexity of human behavior, complexity which leads to no easy answers.

All three books are engaging. Elliott never becomes lost in the details. The research behind her writing provides everyday lifestyles as well as historic persons and events. The characters are strong enough to keep a reader’s interest. I bought my copies through amazon.com. J.

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Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.

The Chicago Cubs will be champions again

Tomorrow afternoon the Chicago Cubs begin their season and their quest for another championship. They will get started in Texas against the Rangers. The roster has not changed much from the crew that won ninety-five games last year but stumbled in the playoffs. The biggest difference is that the players are healthier now, and they are determined to make their fans forget about last year by winning it all this year.

My parents were die-hard Cubs fans, and it was natural for me to follow in their footsteps. We listened to games on the radio back when the announcers were Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. (My father was not fond of Jack Brickhouse, the television announcer.) I vividly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins—they even had a pair of pitchers whose names were Hands and Fingers. The ’69 Cubs were far ahead of the competition all season, only to be overtaken by the Miracle Mets in September. Many people in Chicago joked that the Cubs were going to move to the Philippines and call themselves the Manila Folders.

Gradually in the 1970s the Cubs lineup changed, as all professional sports teams must do. Players came and went: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Bill Madlock, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, and Dave Kingman. Although they started some seasons strongly, the Cubs never put together enough wins to enter the playoffs in the 1970s or at the start of the 1980s.

This changed in 1984. Dallas Greene had been named General Manager of the Cubs, and he pulled together a championship-caliber team. He exchanged shortstops with the Philadelphia Phillies and persuaded them to toss in a young infielder, future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Greene traded for starting pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Rick Suttcliffe, and the Cubs won the National League East Division. They were favored over the San Diego Padres, winners of the West Division; but after winning the first two games in Chicago, the Cubs lost three straight in San Diego, coming from an early lead to fall behind in each game.

The Cubs were expected to do well again in 1985, but injuries to their starting pitchers triggered a losing streak in May from which they never recovered. They returned to the playoffs in 1989 but were handled by the San Francisco Giants, who were on their way to an earthquake-interrupted World Series against Oakland. In 1994 the Cubs earned a Wild Card berth in a season that included record-level home run prowess from the Cub’s Sammy Sosa and the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGuire, but they were beaten in the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves.

Hopes were high in 2003 when the Cubs won the National League Central Division. For the first time since baseball’s playoffs involved more than the World Series, the Cubs won a playoff series, beating the Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins were the Cubs’ next opponent. The Cubs were five outs away from earning the National League Pennant and a trip to the World Series in game six, played in Chicago, when the wheels fell off the cart. Surrendering eight runs in a disastrous eighth inning, the Cubs lost game six, the Cubs went on to lose game seven the next night, ending their championship hopes. They returned to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 but failed to win a single playoff game either year.

In 2011 the Cubs organization hired Theo Epstein to handle the structure of the team. He came with a plan, warning fans that it would take several years to bear fruit. Before the 2015 season, Epstein hired Joe Madden to manage the Cubs and then signed free agent pitcher Jon Lester. The team came together during the course of the summer and won enough games to be one of the two National League Wild Card teams. The Cubs beat the Pittsburg Pirates in the single Wild Card game, then went on to beat the Cardinals before being swept for the pennant in four games by the New York Mets.

The year 2016 was magic for Cubs fans. The team dominated baseball all season, winning the division by a clear margin. In the National League playoffs they outperformed the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing the first National League Pennant to Chicago since 1945. In the World Series they faced the Cleveland Indians. Trailing three games to one, the Cubs roared back to force a dramatic game seven in Cleveland in November. Despite several puzzling moves by Joe Madden, the Cubs jumped out to a five point lead. Four outs away from a championship, the Cubs allowed the Indians to tie the score. After nine innings the score was still tied. A rain delay allowed the Cubs to regroup, and they scored two runs in the top of the tenth. Although they allowed one run in the bottom of the inning, the Cubs managed to procure the final out. Early in the morning of November 3, 2016, the Cubs were finally world champions. Their previous championship had come in 1908, exactly 108 years earlier. There are 108 stitches in a baseball.

The Cubs returned to the playoffs in 2017, overcoming the Washington Nationals in a hard-fought series before bowing to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018 the Cubs won 95 games but were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the Central Division. Losing a single tie-breaking game to the Brewers in Chicago, the Cubs lost again the next night in a Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. This led to a long winter of discontent and a spring full of hope that this is the year the Cubs will return to their champion ways. J.

Seasons change

 

My family has four seasonal wreaths for our front door. On Memorial Day weekend, I put up the summer wreath—red, white, and blue, with a patriotic theme. On Labor Day weekend, I put up the autumn wreath—red, orange, and yellow leaves on branches. On or about the First Sunday in Advent, I put up the winter/Christmas wreath—evergreen branches, holly berries, and fake snow. On the second of March I put up the spring wreath—stalks of green grass, pink flowers, and butterflies.

Why the second of March? Because in the song “Camelot” (in the musical of the same name), King Arthur sings to Guinevere about the wonders of his kingdom. Among those wonders is that the weather obeys the royal command. “The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot. By orders summer lingers through September in Camelot.”

I have always been drawn to the Arthurian traditions. Whether it’s the Lerner and Lowe musical, or the T.H. White novel on which the musical is based, or Howard Pyle’s children’s stories, or the poems of Tennyson, or the late medieval rendering of Marlowe, or the earliest stories of King Arthur and his knights… it’s all  good. I have Camelot and Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in my movie collection, and I recently went to the theater to see The Kid Who Would Be King.

I also enjoy historical research into the roots of the Arthurian stories. There may have been a battlefield commander, a Latinized Celt, named Arthur (or something similar) who fought the invading Saxons after Rome withdrew its legions from Britain. He may have built a round hut in which he met with his forces. The French romances of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot came much later. Traces of pre-Celtic religion and legend may have contributed to the stories in their earliest versions. But every generation, it seems, has added its own contribution to the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table.

I’m sure that Lerner and Lowe chose the date of March 2 in an arbitrary way, because the date fits the song and not because it means anything more. But the date fits nicely as a near-midpoint between the First Sunday in Advent and Memorial Day weekend. Therefore, in the Salvageable house—as in Camelot—March 2 is officially the first day of spring. J.

Statistics that matter only to me

In 2018 I finished reading 143 books, bringing my yearly average for the last eighteen years up to 121.

During the twentieth century, I pretty much read what I wanted when I wanted (aside for school assignments, of course) without operating from lists or keeping any permanent records. In 2001 I decided to keep a list of what I was reading and what I wanted to read, and that action set a pattern that I continue to follow today. Typically I am reading selections from four or five different books every day, not including the Bible which I read through once a year. But I read through sets of similar books: fiction, philosophy, history, science fiction, or the like. Last year I read through the Christian medieval writers, from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy through the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing. I finished a series of science fiction/fantasy and then turned to ancient philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. I finished a series of books related to the Nixon administration and Watergate. I also read novels written by Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Chaim Potok, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Pynchon.

In addition to reading, I also wrote and published. In 2018 I published a study of the parables of Jesus, a collection of essays (most of which appeared first on this blog) called My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife, a study of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and a collection of short stories.

And, of course, I wrote for this blog. In 2018 I received 7,805 views from 5,223 visitors. I realize that many of my readers have considerably more views and visitors, but I aim for quality rather than quantity. (Who else recently said the same thing?) During the past year my most popular post was “23 Odd Facts about Man in the Moon,” which I suspect must be featured on some Andy Kaufman fan web site. The runner-up was “Hello, my name is Joe,” which I know is featured on a web site about robocalls. Next came “Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?” an essay which I included in My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife. In fourth place was “Four Heavens,” explaining the uses of the word “heaven” in the Bible, including what it means in Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth” and Paul’s reference in II Corinthians to the third heaven. Finally, a post that I wrote during the 2016 presidential campaign—one which received more than a thousand visits that year—is still performing well. Evidently Google and other search engines consider me a reliable source to answer the question, “Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?

I hope to continue to be a prolific reader and writer in 2019. I have already finished three books which I started last month, and I have several writing projects in store as well. May all of you enjoy your reading and your writing this year. J.

The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

Remembering John Lennon

John Lennon was the first Beatle.

He was leading a skiffle band when he was introduced to Paul McCartney. Skiffle is English folk music—Beatle fans have heard skiffle-sounding songs such as “Baby’s in Black” on Beatles for Sale and “Maggie Mae” on Let It Be. John and Paul became musical partners, and George Harrison soon joined them. Other musicians came and went, including Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best as the Beatles were preparing to make their first hit record. The rest, as they say, is history.

Older baby boomers know that “the day the music died” is February 1, 1959—the day Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. For late boomers like me, the day the music died is December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City. I was a college student at the time. I was sitting in a friend’s dormitory room that night when Dan Rubens noticed the open door and called into the room that Lennon had been shot. Dan didn’t know any of us in the room, but he had just heard the news and wanted to share it with someone.

Stereotypes about the Beatles include the thought that Lennon was more adept with lyrics and McCartney was more adept with melodies. This overlooks the fact that Lennon penned some admirable melodies, from “If I Fell” to “Across the Universe,” not to mention his post-Beatles hit “Imagine.” But Lennon definitely had a knack for words, which he demonstrated especially in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I am the Walrus.” The music of the Beatles has remained popular for decades and has reached several generations. In many ways, it defines the popular culture of the 1960s.

John Lennon was the first of the Beatles to marry and the first to father a child. He was also the first to divorce and remarry. Lennon’s own childhood was difficult—his father abandoned the family, and his mother died while Lennon was young. (Paul’s mother also died while Paul was young.) He was raised by an aunt. Although Lennon sang about love, he was distant and cold toward his own family members, as he admitted himself in interviews toward the end of his life. Like most musicians of the time, the Beatles experimented with drugs—first pills to keep them awake and energized for their hours on stage, then later marijuana and LSD. Lennon even had to break a heroin habit in the 1970s.

In 1966, John Lennon commented to a reporter that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. When this remark was printed, it caused considerable controversy. Lennon half-apologized, explaining that he was only stating a fact about the Beatles’ popularity in England and was not claiming to be better than Christ or to deserve to be more popular. Lennon’s own views about Christianity (and religion in general) were well-known even before he wrote and recorded “Imagine,” in which he pictures a world of peaceful cooperation without politics and religion to divide people from one another.

In 1980 Lennon returned to the recording studio after several years of retirement. His single “(Just Like) Starting Over” was rising in the charts when Lennon was killed, eventually reaching the number one spot. Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy, also made it to number one after Lennon’s death, and it won a Grammy award as Album of the Year. It is difficult to imagine how John Lennon’s career would have continued had he not been killed. Two of his songs were included in the Beatles Anthology of the mid 1990s; Lennon was accompanied by added tracks of Paul, George, and Ringo, making the songs the closest possible approach to a reunion of the Beatles.

The walrus is sadly missed. J.

Another post about baseball

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.

Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.

When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.

Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.

Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.

As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.

Star Wars, truth, and redemption

When George Lucas first envisioned the movie that became Star Wars IV: A New Hope, he was planning on a single epic movie, not a franchise. As the script developed, the story and characters went through many changes. Lucas came to realize that the story he wanted to tell would not fit within a single movie. In the end, he introduced his characters and then moved them immediately to the big ending he wanted to show: the destruction of the Death Star. When the original Star Wars became wildly successful, Lucas was invited to make more movies with the same characters. He rounded out the trilogy, ending the third movie with another destruction of another Death Star. Along the way, he introduced more ideas about the characters and their setting than had been in the script for the first movie.

As a result, the great Jedi warrior Obi-wan Kenobi is trapped in a pair of blatant lies in the original movie. Handing Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, Obi-wan says, “Your father wanted you to have this.” Shortly thereafter, Obi-wan informs Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. In the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Vader reveals the truth to Luke when he tells him, “No; I am your father.” In Return of the Jedi Luke confronts Obi-wan with his lies, and the warrior feebly twists the family history so that he can tell Luke, “In a way, what I said was true.”

In any other galaxy, Luke Skywalker would have wondered, “How can I believe anything this person tells me?” Honesty ought to be one of the qualities that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Half truths and twisted truths ought to be the tools of evil, not the strategies of good. But in the Star Wars galaxy the bad guys are powerful enough to be open about their plans, while the virtuous rebels must rely on deception to prevail against the Empire.

Philosophers have struggled with the ethics of telling the truth or lying. In a classic puzzle, they ask whether it would be moral to lie to protect a life—such as if an agent of evil is looking for a certain victim, you know where the victim is hiding, and the evil one asks you directly where that person is. Should you tell a lie to keep the potential victim safe, or should you speak the truth, salving your conscience with the thought that the agent of evil would cause the harm; you would be blameless. Most people, I think, would find a lie acceptable, even honorable, under those circumstances. Immanuel Kant (a German philosopher who lived roughly two hundred years ago) disagreed. He insisted that, once you have found one justification for lying, you make all lies acceptable, and no one can trust anyone else anymore. By insisting that no circumstance justifies lying, he upheld what he called the moral imperative of always telling the truth.

Christians know that Jesus Christ is the Truth, and Satan is the father of lies. We would rather speak the truth than tell a lie; we want to avoid the habit of lying. But under a condition where harm would be done by speaking the truth, most Christians would lie. For we have something Kant did not have in his system: we have the forgiveness of our sins. We avoid sin whenever we can; but to save a life we would tell a lie. We would not call the lie justifiable, but we know that we are justified. All our sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He has justified us, redeeming us and bringing us back to his kingdom of pure and perfect truth.

In George Lucas’ universe, even Darth Vader could be rescued by sacrificial love. In his story, the father was saved by the son. In our truth, the Son redeems those who have fallen into evil and makes them acceptable to the Father. In a way, Jesus accomplishes this through a holy deception. He clothes us in his righteousness and takes the blame for our sins. By transferring guilt to his Son and righteousness to sinners, God the Father participates in this deception, and by it we are saved.

Obi-wan’s lies happened only because George Lucas did not know what would be in his second Star Wars movie when he filmed the first one. But God knows everything. When he created the world, he knew about our sins and about the price that would need to be paid to redeem us. God went ahead and created anyhow. He thought we were worth the cost. J.

The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.