Saturday, August 26, 2006
The Gospel According to ...
... Charlie Brown, Tony Soprano, and other unlikely spiritual guides
The early church was awash in gospels. Yet early bishops managed to winnow the field, and for well over a millennium, Christendom knew of just four "evangelists." In the gothic chapel of the seminary I attended, they stare down imposingly from niches above the altar, four carved figures with enigmatic expressions, sometimes looking a bit alarmed at the content of the sermons.
The Gospel According
to Tony Soprano:
An Unauthorized Look
Into the Soul
of TV's Top Mob Boss
and His Family
by Chris Seay
Relevant Books, 2002
176 pp. $9.99
According to Tolkien:
Visions of the
Kingdom in Middle-earth
by Ralph C. Wood
Westminster John Knox, 2003
224 pp. $11.99
Do you suppose we could fit Tony Soprano in there somewhere?
On my desk, in addition to The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, are The Gospel According to Harry Potter, The Gospel According to The Simpsons, The Gospel According to Disney, The Gospel According to Tolkien, and The Gospel According to Dr. Seussa canon-within-a-canon of recent religious explorations of popular culture. Nearby is the coffee-table book The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors, and Sinnersa cornucopia of photographs, charts, and essays on American athletes produced by ESPN itself. (Alas, restricting myself to nonfiction meant that I had to pass over Christopher Moore's 2003 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.)
Nearly buried under the pile is the book that started it all. In 1965 The Gospel According to Peanuts was a faintly scandalous title. Robert L. Short was not exactly the first to apply the phrase to writers other than the canonical evangelistsone Woods Hutchinson wrote The Gospel According to Darwin in 1898. But before Short, at least according to the Library of Congress catalog, no one had applied the phrase to an artifact of mass culture. Peanuts was an early breach in the wall, now reduced to rubble, between high and pop, sacred and profane, Sunday sermons and Sunday comics. It sold ten million copies, and has never been out of print.
The success of Peanuts must have been something of a shock to John Knox Press, now Westminster John Knox. It was eight years until Knox tried a similar volume, to which Short contributed a foreword, and I sense something half-hearted in the title alone: The Gospel According to Andy Capp. Nor did the 1975 entry The Gospel According to the Wall Street Journal make much of a splash, though its cover is a reminder that even 30 years ago, an endorsement from Martin Marty ("emphatic, consistently informative, almost over-gentle") was already the nihil obstat of mainline Protestant publishing.
But Short's book has endured. (A second edition was released in 2000 with a foreword byof courseMartin Marty.) Short managed to marry high culture, or at least furrowed-brow seriousness, with pop culture. The first chapter, "The Church and the Arts," begins with a tour de force that would get chopped into attention-sized bits today:
"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4 RSV) is a question the Church, always finding itself in but not of the world, urgently needs to reconsider today. For it not only needs to reconsider how it can best make meaningful contact with the particular men of our particular time, with all of their own idiosyncrasies; but the Church also needs to re-examine its strategy of communication to men of all timessince the objection all men have to the Church's message is fundamentally the same: it is that universal hardness of heart lying far more deeply and steadfastly within them than any objection men can usually hold consciously.
Whew. More than one reader, expecting a book about, well, "Peanuts," surely stopped right there. Even those who waded through the imposing syntax would arrive at the disconcerting substance: for Short, the gospel begins with original sin. Art, including "Peanuts," is thus an end run around sin"disguising the truth in order to get it through the enemy's defenses." Short proceeded to offer a kind of illustrated neo-orthodoxy, correlating Kirkegaard and Lucy, Barth and Snoopy. If he treated the drawings more as sermon illustrations than as art worth interpreting in its own right, the fact that Schulz was a Sunday school teacher seemed to justify a few critical liberties.
The Gospel According
to The Simpsons:
The Spiritual Life
of the World's Most
by Mark I. Pinsky
John Knox, 2001
160 pp. $11.99
According to ESPN:
256 pp. $26.40
The book that revived Westminster John Knox's franchise was Mark Pinsky's 2001 The Gospel According to The Simpsons. The changing face of American religion is summed up in the distance between the two booksand not just the distance from Charlie Brown's puzzled innocence to Bart Simpson's knowing smirk. Where Short was a Christian pastor, Pinsky was a Jewish religion reporter, albeit one who took pains to appreciate the perspective of Christians. (In yet another sign of the times, the foreword for The Simpsons was written by crossover evangelical Tony Campolo.) Pinsky improved markedly on Short as a criticas a reporter without an evangelistic agenda, he simply watched nearly every Simpsons episode and collated the show's religious themes. The book was a hit (though, at 100,000 copies, only one percent of the hit that Peanuts was), propelled by a surprising message: the famously cynical show was infused with religion and even a kind of reluctant reverence.
This time around Westminster John Knox did not miss the marketing moment. Pinsky's new book, Disney, is part of a properly branded series that includes Harry Potter and Tolkien, along with David Dark's forthcoming The Gospel According to America. (Tony Soprano and Dr. Seuss are from other publishers.) Pinsky has once again performed a yeoman's job by sitting through every Disney animated feature, from Snow White to Brother Bear. But this time he is dealing with a massive entertainment company whose "fear of offending and fear of excluding" has rarely produced anything half as interesting as Homer and his brood. So Pinsky is reduced to chronicling just how Disney has bowdlerized various religious (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and cultural (Mulan) sources, still managing to offend many groups along the way.
If Pinsky's struggle to make something out of Disney's milquetoast mythology serves chiefly to remind us that all culture is not created equal, another pitfall for the "gospel according to" formula is inadvertently displayed in Dr. Seuss, a book of repurposed sermons by retired Methodist pastor James W. Kemp. When The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, you may recall from countless bedtime readings, the mischievous impresario stains the children's world pink, a stain that starts in the bathtub and eventually spreads to the snow outdoors. To Kemp, this naturally recalls Isaiah's words about Israel's sin being like scarlet, while Cat Z's serendipitous supply of magical pink-removing "Voom" recalls the atonement: "For Christians," Kemp writes with an apparently straight face, "this Voom is the restoring power that came in Jesus Christ." You can't help feeling that in mobilizing the cartoon in service of the gospel, the cartoon has gotten the upper hand. Are our sins scarlet, or are they pink? Something tells me there's a real difference. Cat Z may bemaybea Christ figure. But Christ is not a Cat Z figure.
In the unstintingly graphic HBO series The Sopranos, the sins are definitely scarlet. And yet Chris Seay, pastor of the arts-oriented Ecclesia community in Houston, falls into some of the same connect-the-dots temptations as Kemp. In the second season Carmela Soprano, the series' most active churchgoer, is driven to an anguished prayer when her nephew Christopher is shot in the chest. After expounding on the admirable qualities of her prayer, Seay feels compelled to add: "When prayer and meditation become an integrated part of a diverse life, the cares of this world fade and joy is renewed"followed by quotes from Brother Lawrence and Oswald Chambers.
Even when he resists such bathetic sermonizing, Seay seems unable to place The Sopranos in a wider context that might validate, or perhaps undermine, the series' spiritual significance. The book contains one cursory reference to The Godfather, whose shattering climactic sequencea baptism intercut with brutal assassinationsis indispensable to understanding the Soprano family's gangster Catholicism. When Seay suggests that Carmela "is seeking truth, and her choice may shake the foundations of this criminal underworld," he seems innocent of the commercial imperatives that guarantee that the future of The Sopranos, however packed with religious themes, will bring only more dramatic tension, not real repentance. The Tony Soprano who could actually write a gospel worth reading would not be a Tony Soprano worth watching.
So it is not enough to have rich source materialyou need a seasoned reader as well. And this is what makes Tolkien, by Baylor professor Ralph Wood, so extraordinary. Wood makes it clear that Tolkien's world is "pre-Christian," even if "the Gospel resounds in its depths." We are not meant "to identify Gandalf as Christ, though he is a wizard who lays down his life for his friends in death and who is then miraculously restored to life. Neither is Frodo the allegorical Son who is sacrificed by Bilbo the Father figure." Only after reading nearly a dozen Gospel According to ... books can one fully appreciate the sanity of these words.
"Tolkien is no sort of evangelist," Wood observes. "Tolkien the Catholic is confident that the sacramental and missional life of the church will convey the Gospel to the world without the assistance of his own art. He wants his epic fantasy to stand on its own as a compelling and convincing story, without any adventitious props."
Books discussed in this essay:
The Gospel According to Peanuts (Thirty-fifth Anniversary Edition), by Robert L. Short (Westminster John Knox, 2000).
The Gospel According to The Wall Street Journal, by Carnegie Samuel Calian (John Knox, 1975).
The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family, by Mark I. Pinsky (Westminster John Knox, 2001)
The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors, and Sinners, edited by Jay Lovinger (Hyperion, 2002).
The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker, by Connie Neal (Westminster John Knox, 2002).
The Gospel According to Tony Soprano: An Unauthorized Look Into the Soul of TV'S Top Mob Boss and His Family, by Chris Seay (Relevant Books, 2002).
The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth, by Ralph C. Wood (Westminster John Knox, 2003).
The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust, by Mark I. Pinsky (Westminster John Knox, 2004)
The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss, by James W. Kemp (Judson Press, 2004).
Hence "a pagan sense of Doomthe notion that the world's outcome is unalterably bent toward final destructionresounds like a dread drumbeat throughout The Lord of the Rings." Tolkien depicts the world with all the "deep fatalism that characterizes pagan life," in both ancient and modern forms. And yet he also infuses this gloomy cosmos with hope, as in the dying king Aragorn's parting words: "We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory." Wood does not treat Tolkien as an opportunity to extract sermon illustrations. He simply, and profoundly, reads Tolkien.
The biggest and best surprise of the lot, however, is The Gospel According to ESPN, though certainly not because it offers any clear understanding of the Christian gospel. In the manner of generations of sportswriters, it merrily plunders the heritage of faith in search of metaphorsMuhammad Ali is a "prophet," Pete Rose is a "fallen angel," Secretariat and Ted Williams are "gods." The book is full of over-the-top touches like this caption accompanying a full-page detail of Piero della Francesca's painting "The Battle between Constantine and Maxentius": "Emperor Constantine did for the Catholic Church what Pete Rozelle did for the NFLturned it into an imperial power." At least you know that the writer is laughing too.
But the writers in ESPNa dream team including Hunter Thompson and the late George Plimptonanchor the transcendent in beautifully realized observations of the particular. "He was a gawky 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, with a toothy grin and fast, floppy, loose-limbed walk, more of a running lope, really, that made his arms flap and his long curly blond locks bounce with every stride." That's Le Anne Schreiber on Mark Fidrych (a "savior"), but any baseball fan would know exactly who she is talking about.
And though such close observation reminds us that their subjects are all too human (or equine), the writers of ESPN come closer to the gospel than they themselves may imagine. Tolkien memorably suggested to his not-yet-Christian friend C. S. Lewis that the Christian story was "a myth that happens to be true." Sport is not exactly real lifemany athletes behave heroically on the court and pathetically off of itbut it takes place in real time, in a real place. It reminds us that real human beings can confront dramatic contingencies and still, at least occasionally, achieve mythic status. So sport offers us something, even if only in stylized form, that fiction does not. Charles Schulz never let Charlie Brown kick the football, but if he had, it would still have been just a story, no matter how it resonated with what the sportswriters call "redemption." But when the Red Sox win the World Series, it actually happens. It's a myth that happens to be true.
The game is, of course, only a game. But our games and our stories grope toward something beyond themselves, and in that sense they indicate the gospel by a kind of negative space, by the shape of their yearning. And this, it seems to me, is the reason to watch The Simpsons or ESPNnot so much to find the truth, but to find the space where the truth might fit. And to remind ourselvesas the best of these books dothat wherever we look in culture, that gospel-shaped space is there.
Next issue: an excerpt from David Dark's The Gospel According to America.
Andy Crouch is working on a book on Christian cultural responsibility. He lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Copyright 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
Friday, May 06, 2005
'The place at the edge'
By Nathan VanderKlippe
The Edmonton Journal
Sun 01 May 2005
ISACHSEN, Nunavut -- A little more than a thousand kilometres from the
North Pole, a line of snowmobiles snakes through a blistering wind.
Behind each snowmobile, a wooden sled called a kamotiq bounces its load
of jerry cans, tents and food across the rough and uneven ice of the
frozen Arctic Ocean.
Fluttering from the last snowmobile in line is a Canadian flag, its
bright red maple leaf the sole splash of colour in a landscape as
bleakly monochromatic as it is majestically vast.
This is the land that silence owns, a place where jagged sea ice runs
into sharp gravel cliffs and gently rolling tundra hills, all hidden
beneath a windswept coat of snowy sameness that obscures the border
between land and sea.
The snowmobiles ride over it all, the flag the sole indicator that this
land belongs to someone and that, though the men are closer to the
Russian coast than Ottawa, this is Canadian soil.
"We're trying to exercise sovereignty within the North," says Warrant
Officer Randy Cox, one of nine regular force soldiers participating in
a $1-million exercise that has brought the soldiers and 13 Canadian
Rangers to this barren corner of the Arctic on what's called an
enhanced sovereignty operation.
"In a nutshell, that means we just want to show a presence up here, in
the best interests of Canada," he said. "So that ever in the event that
someone else is trying to conquer this land or lay claim to it, then we
can at least say that we've occupied certain areas of it."
It's a claim that has drawn criticism from some quarters, from people
who dispute that expensive patrols like this one do anything to further
Canada's claims to the Arctic and the thousands of islands and
waterways in its archipelago.
But this is a critical exercise for the northern military, which is
charged with protecting the 40 per cent of the country's land mass that
lies north of 60.
The Rangers are Canada's most important contribution to northern
sovereignty. Their 1,500 northern members -- all military reservists --
in 58 communities monitor the land and waters within a 300-kilometre
radius of their hometowns, creating a federal presence with a wide
reach over the Arctic that is augmented by some 200 annual patrols.
Those parts that the Rangers do not touch are watched by occasional
overflights by surveillance aircraft, and the defence department has
begun work on Project Polar Epsilon, which will bring regular precision
satellite surveillance to the Arctic by 2009.
But there remain great uninhabited swaths of the Arctic, and part of
the tasking for the northern forces is to set "footprints in the snow"
on exercises like this one, called Operation Kigliqaqvik IV, after the
Inuit word for "the place at the edge of known land."
That perfectly describes the place where the Rangers and soldiers are
snowmobiling, breaking into two patrols as they leave Isachsen, the
site of an abandoned Arctic weather station on Ellef Ringnes Island,
for Meighen and Amund Ringnes Islands, smaller chunks of land to the
As they travel, a raging windstorm thrusts them on to another edge: the
outer limit of human survival.
Once every hour they stop, pulling their snowmobiles together into a
cluster against the wind and consulting a GPS unit for a brief location
check. The stop is short, however, and the GPS quickly tucked away
again inside a parka to preserve its batteries, which have already been
sucked of most of their energy by the frigid cold, a -50C windchill
that burns white frostbite circles on to the men's cheeks in minutes.
"As soon as you stop, the wind catches up with you and you can turn
into a casualty within 15 to 20 minutes if you're not careful," said
So the men soldier on, pushing against a hail of snow particles hurled
by the wind, not intimidated by the blizzard.
"It's how I grew up, being out on the land," said Paul Ikuallaq, a
22-year Inuk Ranger veteran from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, whose grandfather
was Roald Amundsen, the first man to sail through the Northwest
"We're not scared of anything, because we're right there with the warm
stuff -- the Coleman stove and the tent."
As the men drive, the wind continues to shriek at gale force. Sometimes
it gusts to hurricane strength, the entire sky assaulting the land and
the men, its force unbroken by trees or buildings.
And unbroken by land. Ellef Ringnes Island lies at the western edge of
the Canadian Arctic archipelago. From here to Russia, the wind blows
untamed over ice that never melts. When the island's weather station
was still active, the men stationed here sometimes had to crawl on
hands and knees between buildings to avoid being toppled by its
But lives spent above the 60th parallel have hardened the men on this
patrol against the cold. Some of the Inuit leave their faces uncovered
as they travel, but their weather-hardened skin is barely touched by
the lashing wind, which leaves only a few small "caribou kisses" --
purple frostbite marks.
David Nanook leads one of the patrols. A quiet Inuk man who speaks
little English, this land is his home and he is gifted with a
remarkable ability to navigate through the limited visibility. Instead
of using landmarks, he finds his way by keeping the wind at one side
and using the snowdrifts as compasses.
The drifts, some as hard as concrete, form according to the prevailing
winds and point in the same direction; to keep on course, Nanook cuts
across each one at a similar angle.
By evening, the men have reached their destination, and stop for
another GPS check. Nanook has led them for 84 kilometres, and largely
by his use of the wind, snow and sun they have stopped 250 metres away
from their target. They patrol the coast for a valley, where they set
up canvas tents in the searing wind.
The next morning, they hammer the feet of a metal cairn into the frozen
gravel, leaving a permanent marker of their presence for anyone who may
pass by here.
For some of the men, this is the longest they have ever been away from
home, and the farthest north they have ever travelled. Being here as
Rangers evinces a chest-swelling pride for many, who feel they are
protecting the territory they call "our land" for future generations.
"I wouldn't want a foreign person to own this land because of all the
animals around here," said Manasie Kaunak, an Inuk Ranger from Grise
Fiord, Canada's northernmost civilian community. "When we went on the
patrol, we saw caribou and there were lots of tracks -- I wouldn't want
anyone to hunt those besides Inuit people."
The military, too, sees this patrol as an exercise in guarding Canada's
frontiers from unknown intruders who might one day claim parts of the
High Arctic for the petroleum or mineral riches that could lie hidden
in its frozen depths.
"We're up here patrolling the boundaries of Canada to show that it is
ours," said Capt. Brian Wiltshire, the deputy commanding officer of the
northern Rangers. "If we can't put people here, then other countries
are just going to take it."
But experts say that while exercises like this may perk a few ears at
foreign embassies, they actually have very little bearing on Canada's
The Kigliqaqvik patrol is "next to irrelevant," said Franklyn
Griffiths, a retired University of Toronto professor who specializes in
Arctic matters. "If we really were interested in sovereignty, we'd get
ourselves some ice-strengthened naval vessels able to operate in the
ice up there," he said. "And that is not coming on."
Unlike Denmark, Canada has no military ships that can operate in
ice-choked waters, limiting the country's ability to enforce its
sovereignty over the Arctic.
And the Rangers have been dispatched largely on land, which no one but
"They call them sovereignty patrols but nobody is threatening the land
mass of the Canadian North," said Rob Huebert, a northern sovereignty
expert and the associate director of the University of Calgary's Centre
for Military and Strategic Studies. "Our sovereignty disputes are over
the waterways and that's really where we have to have sovereignty
Asserting ownership over those waters now could become increasingly
important as climate change melts the Arctic.
In the past 50 years, temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have
risen as much as four degrees Celsius. The thickness and extent of sea
ice have diminished by about 15 per cent in the last three decades.
Scientists expect the future to bring a continued rise in temperatures,
which could melt away the permanent ice in the polar ice cap in
summertime by the year 2050.
ICE-FREE WATERWAY WILL SPUR A FLURRY OF RESOURCE EXPLORATION
That could bring a host of sovereignty challenges, as temperatures
unlock the Arctic's vast network of waterways, clearing the way for a
burst of resource activity in the unexplored hinterlands. It could also
open the Northwest Passage to transcontinental marine traffic,
potentially exposing the delicate Arctic to environmental disaster
since the international community does not recognize Canada's claim to
the passage as internal waters. If designated as an international
waterway, Canada would be unable to set its own environmental rules on
shipping through the passage.
Canada faces two other significant Arctic sovereignty disputes: the
U.S. does not recognize our claim to parts of the Beaufort Sea, an area
rich in petroleum resources, and the state of Alaska has for the past
few years invited oil companies to buy parcels of the disputed zone.
In the far eastern Arctic, Denmark and Canada both claim Hans Island,
an otherwise insignificant speck of gravel between Ellesmere Island and
Greenland, but one that has highlighted Canada's indifferent approach
to its actual sovereignty issues in the Arctic.
The past few years have brought increasing lip service to solving
Canada's far northern sovereignty dilemmas. Last summer, Prime Minister
Paul Martin travelled to Nunavut to underscore the Arctic's growing
importance to Canada, which was again emphasized in the October 2004
speech from the throne, which promised a strategy to "protect the
northern environment and Canada's sovereignty and security."
But despite a pledge in the April defence policy statement of steps to
"to preserve our sovereignty, including that of the Arctic," Canada has
done little to actually resolve the Arctic's sovereignty challenges.
Over the past two summers, the Danish navy has sent frigates on
flag-planting exercises to Hans Island. Canada has not responded in
turn. The Canadian Rangers, frequently held up as the country's
foremost northern sovereignty contribution, have only patrolled in
areas that are indisputably Canadian territory. They have gone nowhere
near Hans Island, or to any of the other disputed zones.
In fact, the closest the Canadian military has come to Hans Island was
two years ago in a chartered commercial aircraft, when Stewart Gibson,
the commanding officer of the northern Rangers, flew near the island.
He never landed on the island because, he said, "my boss has not told
me to go there. Right now, this dispute between the Danes and Canada is
at the political level, with (the department of) Foreign Affairs, and
they're trying to resolve it at their level."
But at Foreign Affairs, the various disputes have garnered little
attention -- none have prompted bilateral negotiations, and department
spokesman Reynald Doiron said there are no plans to send a military
presence to Hans Island.
"At this time and place there's no particular reason for either party
to either negotiate or to bring it to the International Court of
Justice, so therefore any presence over there by either side's military
forces would not be welcome," he said, despite Denmark's persistence in
sending its navy there.
At the same time, social change is beginning to shake Canada's
strongest argument for Arctic ownership: the fact that the Inuit have
used this land since "time immemorial."
Today in some places, their presence is dwindling, and several
communities along the Northwest Passage route have been left as ghost
towns, or are near collapse.
No one is left at Shingle Point in the Yukon, while settlements like
Bathurst Inlet and Bay Chimo, both on the northern coast of the
continent, have dwindling populations now at just over a dozen people.
Sachs Harbour, the only community on Banks Island, is dying away: it
lost 16 per cent of its population between the 1996 and 2001 censuses,
and is now home to only 114 people.
More worrisome still, the hunting traditions that once pushed Inuit to
the farthest reaches of the North are losing a battle against the
modern wage economy, which brings sustenance from a cubicle and a
grocery store rather than from the land. For those who still do hunt,
escalating prices have made it difficult to scrape together enough cash
to pay for bullets and snowmobile fuel. Ultimately, that has diminished
Canada's presence, and its "eyes and ears" across the tundra.
N.W.T. Premier Joe Handley said the remedy is to invest in the
communities themselves, and called on the federal government to invest
in tourism and municipal subsidies to help keep hamlets like Sachs
"The best way of ensuring sovereignty and security is to have good
strong healthy communities along right across the Arctic," he said. "It
wouldn't be very expensive because people who live in those small
communities are not looking for a six-digit salary. They like the
independence that comes with hunting and living off the land. It could
be a good investment to keep that going ... and much cheaper than
bringing in military hardware."
Still, both Huebert and Griffiths see value in exercises like
Kigliqaqvik, even if not for sovereignty in particular. By most
standards, the Ranger program is impressively cheap, costing about $6.5
million per year to run, and Griffiths says the patrols allow Canada to
be better keepers of the land --"in the sense of looking after it, we
keep it in good order and we manage and see that it is used properly."
Another part of the value is in showing the military's Arctic
deficiencies. On this most recent patrol, for example, the winds and
heavy ice fog grounded military aircraft for more than a week, delaying
the exercise. One Twin Otter scheduled to operate out of Isachsen never
made it there because it was equipped with skis that crippled its
"The lessons learned in and of themselves are of critical importance,"
said Huebert. "They drive home to those that pay attention the fact
that we are so severely limited in what we can do in the North that
hopefully the policy-makers make some decent policy decisions on what
we can do to shore up that capability.
"They call them sovereignty (patrols) but nobody is threatening the
land mass of the Canadian North. Is it really sovereignty? No," he
"But it is a very clear enforcement and presence capability, so it does
say to people, 'we're up here and we have this capability'."
Sunday, March 20, 2005
(Is true love possible in 90 minutes?
Also see 2nd item here)
A lot to do in 90 minutes
by Devin Rose
February 6, 2005
True love had better slip alongside me and bowl me over, because it's not
going to happen if it takes as much work as is spelled out in "How to Make
Someone Love You Forever! In 90 Minutes or Less" by Nicholas Boothman
(Workman Publishing, $16.95).
Not only do you have to dress right, flirt right, master small talk and play
talk (there's a difference), make eye contact, smile, use open body
language, learn how much to saunter or swagger, and use just the right
amount of self-disclosure and discreet touching, but none of it matters,
Boothman asserts, if there's no chemistry.
For love to grow, he writes, two people must be "matched opposites," or
people with complementary personalities who share things in common. Only
then can they proceed with all the games he encourages them to play.
The book does encourage readers to get out and meet people and offers tips
to do so comfortably. And it's indeed hard to grow to love someone you've
never spoken to, so this is certainly a place to start. But we'd suggest you
not buy the 90-minute scenario--even if it did work, why hurry love?
It's not you, it's me: "We don't fall in love with other people; we fall in
love with the feelings we get when we are with them."
C'mon, 'Baby' -- let's do the twist
You'll be surprised to hear why we hate spoiled endings
By Julia Keller
February 6, 2005
Relax. We will not be discussing the controversial ending of "Million Dollar
We will, however, be discussing the reasons why we can't discuss the
controversial ending of "Million Dollar Baby."
Firmly holding us back is the fact that the film's conclusion features a
plot twist -- an unforeseen narrative development inspiring reactions such
as "What?!" or "Wow!" or "I can't freakin' believe it!"
In order to write about the issues raised by "Baby," we must be willing to
reveal what happens in the end -- whereupon, if you haven't seen the film
yet, you'll promptly want to kill us.
Moreover, every court in the land would dub it justifiable homicide.
That's because plot twists are sacred in entertainment culture, as lovingly
protected as slumbering infants. And people who give away surprise endings
are shunned and ostracized, treated as if they've raffled off nuclear
secrets to terrorists.
Apparently, the worst sin a critic can commit -- judging from the zealous
care with which many critics announce that they are tiptoeing delicately
around certain plot points or earnestly warn that they're about to spill the
beans -- is to mistakenly give away a surprise ending. A recent Tribune
essay about the fuss kicked up by "Baby" was forced to interrupt itself with
a boldface disclaimer ("Note to readers: This story reveals a key plot twist
in 'Million Dollar Baby' ").
But why the extra care? Why the typographical traffic cop to warn readers of
secret-spoiling dangers ahead?
Sure, an unexpected nuance in a story can be enjoyable, but how did a single
aspect of a film, novel or play -- the "Boo!" maneuver -- acquire the noble
sheen of a universal human right: the right to be blindsided by a plot
As long as we've had stories, we've had shocking turns in stories. Before
"Million Dollar Baby" and its sucker punch of an ending, there was "The
Sixth Sense" (1999), "Primal Fear" (1996), "The Usual Suspects" (1995) and
"The Crying Game" (1992) and, even further back, "Psycho" (1960). There have
been TV series such as "Dallas" with famous season-ending cliffhangers,
echoing weekly adventure serials that played in movie houses in the 1940s
and '50s. Writers such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry, and
contemporary counterparts such as Stephen King and Dennis Lehane, can link a
large portion of their success to the desire of audiences everywhere "to be
completely bamboozled," notes Douglas Post, a Chicago playwright who
specializes in mysteries.
"I think people love to be fooled. It's the same thing as watching a good
magician at work," adds Post, a resident playwright at Victory Gardens
Theater. "If we know the ending, it somehow lessens the experience."
But what strange cravings in the human psyche are satisfied by the sudden
twist -- and aren't those cravings a bit infantile? Novelist E.M. Forster
once called our desire to know what's on tap in a story "the caveman
question -- What happens next?"
And can't we enjoy the show even if we know the big secret in advance?
Sigmund Freud, as it happens, would have appreciated the strenuous efforts
to keep "Baby's" ending under wraps, according to Dr. Arnold Goldberg,
psychiatry professor at Rush Medical College and the Institute for
"In his very first writings, Freud talked about how we seek out surprises
because they're pleasurable. It's the erotization of anxiety," says
Goldberg, author of "Misunderstanding Freud" (2004). "There are people who
love to get a little anxious, a little fearful."
And when someone else is in the driver's seat -- the playwright, novelist or
screenwriter -- we're forced to surrender control. "Freud wrote that
surprise always has fear at the base of it," Goldberg says. "Unexpected
changes rock us."
Post, author of plays such as "Blissfield" and "Murder in Green Meadows,"
likens that frisson of fear to the chill one gets on a roller coaster. "It
can be thrilling. And there's something primal about it. We get a glimpse of
a covert reality -- the truth behind the mask."
Twists, Post adds, are a way of keeping the audience on its toes. "People
tend to pay a little bit more attention than they would otherwise. There's a
bit of gamesmanship.
"The first question people ask each other [after the show] is always, `Did
you see the ending coming?' And the second question is always, `When?'"
The proliferation of surprise endings, though, tends to irk Betty Shiflett,
novelist and emeritus professor in Columbia College Chicago's fiction
writing program who still teaches at the school.
"It's a manipulation," she declares. "That kind of withholding is a cheap
shot, just to make suspense."
Student writers often overuse the surprise ending, Shiflett says. "It's
somehow impregnated in them in kindergarten. It has such a hold on us."
She acknowledges, though, that many great works of literature, from the
"Oedipus" plays to Shakespeare's dramas and comedies, have endings that
catch audiences unawares.
Out-of-nowhere plot twists don't bother Cynthia Ozick one bit. "It is a
convention, and much trivialized, but I really think it represents some of
our most sophisticated thinking," says Ozick, award-winning novelist and
critic. "Coincidence and surprise are how we live. Real life is precarious
and fragile. Think of the day before 9/11, the day before the tsunami."
Ozick recalls her first reading of Forster's "The Longest Journey" (1907),
in which the fourth chapter opens with the unexpected death of a major
character. "It came as such a surprise, such an astounding shock. You think
about it and think about it and then you think, `Life is such a shock.'
"When I read that chapter, I was stunned. I was stunned for life. I still
think of it." She rereads Forster's novel annually, Ozick adds, "and I never
tire of it. I'm not surprised anymore -- but I am still shocked."
After a plot twist has been exposed, then, a reader or viewer doesn't have
to walk away. A novel or play or movie can still reward repeat visits, even
though the initial surprise -- the one that prompts a sharp intake of
breath -- is no longer possible. It's a different experience. Not
necessarily lesser, just different.
All of a sudden
And sometimes the writer herself is surprised by a plot twist, adds Ozick,
whose latest novel, "Heir to the Glimmering World" (2004), includes some
narrative developments that sneaked up on her. "The writer and the reader
can undergo that sense of surprise. Everything in the world consists of
these sudden, sudden turnings."
But might there not be a danger in a too-keen appreciation of plot twists?
Distracted by waiting for a vivid moment in which everything changes, a
reader or viewer could miss other worthy aspects of a story -- dialogue,
Such is the fate of John Marcher, protagonist of the Henry James short story
"The Beast in the Jungle" (1903). Convinced that an extraordinary destiny
awaits him, Marcher's life becomes "the simplification of everything but the
state of suspense." He waits, day after day, for the thing that "lay in wait
for him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a
crouching beast in the jungle."
At the end of his life Marcher discovers -- if you've been meaning to read
James and don't want to spoil the surprise, please skip to the next
paragraph -- that the amazing fate was the fact that there was no amazing
fate. "He had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth
was to have happened." Waiting for the twist, Marcher missed out on life.
Worth the ride
So once you know there's a significant surprise at the end of "Million
Dollar Baby" -- a surprise so touchy and topical that it has created a
raging controversy among critics and ethicists -- can you just sit back and
enjoy the balance of the film, without jumping with anticipation at every
Probably not -- but that's OK, Post advises. The final, stomach-flipping dip
could be worth whatever you miss along the way while waiting for the payoff.
"Think of the roller coaster. It's no accident that they save the biggest
drop for the end."
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Catching Light: Looking For God In The Movies -- by Roy M. Anker
Capsule submitted to The Banner
It's been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Why write about music when you can listen to it? The same may seem to be true of movies--isn't the point to watch them, not to read about them. Roy Anker shows just how wrong this statement is. In 13 florid essays, he illuminates the spiritual narratives of some of the most memorable films of the modern era, from The Godfather trilogy to the stories of Steven Spielberg. His insights go far deeper than reflexive announcement that the protagonist is a Christ figure. Instead, Anker sheds light on how these modern-day mythologies function as "parables of hope," captivating us not only with their images and special effects, but with their truly theological themes: depravity and epiphany in American Beauty, redemption in The Mission, the incarnation in Superman, providence in Grand Canyon, truth's triumph over the principalities and powers in Star Wars. But Anker's vivid writing is anything but preachy; he embeds keen observation in some gorgeous sentences. There are many good movie reviewers out there, but few good essayists about movies. Anker is one of the best.
Monday, January 24, 2005
Posted 12:45 PM <2003_06_08_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
E-mail from history professor on Robert Putnam, individualism, and
The Putnam reference is pretty interesting, and in fact this question came
in one of my classes this week (I think I was the one who raised it though
Are we really not as individualistic as he says we are? I think Putnam would
say that the compassionate response isn't necessarily evidence that things
changing, or that he's been mistaken. In the book he focuses on the
of joining organizations, those social situations that require people to
longer term, to put up with irritating people, to go along with the
when you don't entirely agree, to work for a greater good down the road--the
kinds of situations that make us into mature, civic-minded people. My guess
that we're seeing at least in part an example of the "minute-man tradition"
our culture--we have an amazing ability to rise up in response to crisis,
are not good at dealing with long-term, deeply rooted social problems (the
aborted War on Poverty being a case in point).
Plus, so much of this volunteerism seems to be couched in distressingly
one-dimensional patriotic language: we are good, and they must be evil.
really not interested in analyzing what went wrong in the larger world to
the evil, or dealing with messy political and social problems long-term.
if this sounds cynical, but there are an awful lot of flags on cars, houses,
around here, and a lot of God and country pieces in the Grand Rapids Press.
a little overwhelming.
Posted 12:44 PM <2003_06_08_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
E-mail from Will R in response to my thought of
the day on religious freedom
A free intellectual/moral marketplace -- a marketplace of ideas, if you
will -- and a free economic marketplace are not the same thing. The
former functions better with less government intrusion; the latter
needs repeatedly to be beaten with a stick to avoid devouring us.
Point well taken about the strip club thing, but -- and don't shoot me
for this one -- I do think they should be protected by the first
amendment. My reason is this: How can we say we are of strong moral
fiber if we come morally unglued as soon as the threat of temporal
punishment is lifted? My nausea over the tepid moral cesspool that is
America could not be greater, and I too agree with conservatives on
that, but the fact is we're no different than we were. The State
carries specific powers that I don't think should be used to enforce
morality, namely the power to revoke liberties and, whether through war
or capital punishment, to kill. If you hold someone at gunpoint and
tell him to do the right thing, that he does so is not a reflection of
his character, merely his desire to survive. The increase of civil
liberties affords the Church a unique opportunity to confront depravity
in ways that were impossible before, because the veil is lifted. People
will say what they really think, and we can answer them in ways we
could not. There should be laws, granted, so that the frontier between
my rights and yours is clearly defined and enforced, but only the
minimum that are necessary.
It is very tempting to apply these principle to capitalism, as our
President likes to do. (An funny side bar: Bush's name in Chinese, a
phonetic transliteration pronounced "boo sure", is a homonym
of "incorrect" or "it is not so".) To some extent they apply, but only
mutatis mutandis. Bush seems to think that it's a few bad apples that
are the problem -- it makes me wonder how many more companies have to
fold in scandal for him to see the need for systemic change. I happen
to think that in the case of corporate governance, the CEO dogs need
shorter leashes. I propose having a board of directors elected by the
shareholders -- the people who really got screwed when Enron, WorldCom,
et al., went under -- and having the authority to hold the CEO to
account, much as the President is accountable to Congress. It may be
that tighter regulation is necessary to effect this, in which case I'm
all for it. I'm not one of those let-the-market-sort-it-out, Wall-
Street-Journal-Editorial-page-is-my-Bible conservatives. The market is
a firehose that needs to be directed by human efforts in order to work
effectively and not put somebody's eye out.
Your comments about de Toqueville's "tyranny of the majority" are good.
Once again, I have been helped in this department by Uncle C. S. He
says the majority of people -- including himself, but also the sort of
people who "think in catch phrases, believe advertisements, and spread
rumors" -- don't deserve a share in governing a hen roost, much less a
government. The Founding Fathers had no intention of letting them
govern; hence the electoral college. Also, the Senate was not designed
to be directly elected, but to be elected by state legislatures. Their
dilemma is spreading power thinly enough to prevent tyranny without
letting the great unwashed influence policy too much. I agree with
Lewis that equality is a necessary legal fiction for avoiding tyranny,
but it is just that -- a fiction. Nature knows no equality. We are
God's equals. I am not Melville's literary equal. Americans seem to
have forgotten that this is a fiction and want to apply it to their
everyday lives, and Christians seem especially susceptible to it. It
seems like everyone and their dog writes a Christian self-help book
these days. Many of these people comment on things they have absolutely
no business commenting on. That there are many cultural voices, and
that they are all equally valid does not mean that everyone who can
read and write has a cultural voice. Many people can neither understand
nor articulate the nuances of cultural debate. They should accept with
gracious humility that God made them for something else and should give
a certain authority to the people God has designed for this sort of
thing, just as I defer to my doctor's judgement about what's wrong with
me. He knows better than me, simple as that. One relatively recent
example comes to mind that illustrates this. There was a golfer a few
years back, Casey something, I can't remember his name, whose swing,
they say, was in the same league as Tiger Woods, but who was excluded
from the PGA tour because of a medical condition that prevented him
from walking the course -- he had to use a cart, which is prohibited by
PGA rules. He could walk fine, but didn't have the endurance for 18
holes. The Supreme Court absurdly ruled that the PGA tour let him use a
cart -- let him cheat, in other words. Having the endurance to walk is
part of the game, but he felt he should be exempt from that because he
couldn't help his medical condition. I can't help that I suck at golf,
but does that mean I have the right to an exemption from the rules? No.
I am not equal to the champions of golf; neither was this guy. Tragic?
Yes. It is a shame that someone who can hit the ball so well should
have such a handicap. Unfair? Not in the least. He simply was not good
enough. The irony is that when everyone plays under the same rules, or,
to put it in legal terms, when all are equal under law, our true
inequalities and differences come out. God made us this way and we
shouldn't try to change it. Each of us is a bundle of unique strengths
and limitations. The limitations are the result of sin, or flaws in
God's creation; he put them in us to keep us humble, to remind us that
there is One who can do all. No one is God but God. We forget that
Posted 12:41 PM <2003_06_08_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
By Nathan VanderKlippe, February 2003
It’s not every day you get paid to be a human penny, rolling down a
super-sized version of one of those mall charity funnels.
But the West Edmonton Mall was opening a new slide called the Tropical
Typhoon, and duty called: I came to work armed with my swimming shorts.
Best to arrive informed, I thought, and called Kevin Hanson, the mall’s
operations manager. He says the big funnel cost $300,000 and is the
only one in Western Canada.
"We like to bring stuff in that’s going to dazzle you a little bit or
amaze you," he explained. Over the past few years, waterpark usage has
stagnated at around 500,000 people annually and the park is trying to
freshen up. It’s investing $1.2 million in renovations and new slides
this year alone.
I had to know what to expect on my first ride, so I asked Hanson.
Little did I know he would throw down the gauntlet.
"We’ve had guys that have made up to four spirals on it before they
drop out the middle," he said. "I would suspect if you’ve never ridden
it, you’ll do one turn before you go out the middle."
Just one measly turn? This man didn’t have much faith in me. I mean,
you get at least six or seven satisfying spirals when you chuck a coin
into one of those charity funnels.
What I needed was professional help. If anyone could help me beat the
laws of nature it had to be someone who knows them inside out so I got
Doug Schmitt, a University of Alberta physics prof, on the line.
"It would depend on basically how fast you were going," he opined. "So
the faster you’re going, the higher your kinetic energy. Basically that
would dictate what level you’d spin around on the funnel."
OK, got it. Minimize the friction, keep up the kinetic energy and see
if this unsculpted body can beat gravity. I have visions of my torso as
a human version of one of those Olympic skeleton sleds, lithely snaking
my way around the funnel’s bowl.
But, I figure, I’ll likely end up looking more like a soggy sack of
These thoughts in mind, I spend 35 minutes in line waiting to mount the
shiny new ride which looks a bit like a UFO being watered by a big blue
straw. I’m surrounded by students from Cardinal Leger Catholic Junior
High who are slip-sliding their way through Valentine’s Day.
Fourteen-year-old Nicholas Rocchio is one of them, and among the very
first to test the new slide when it opened at noon.
His verdict: "it’s the best slide I’ve ever been on!"
Now it’s my turn. I swing my way into the blue tunnel and start
plummeting toward the watery bowl. I close my eyes when I hit and feel
centrifugal force press my back into the plastic. I whip around, then
lose speed and tumble out of the bowl with all the elegance of an
elephant doing his business.
As I clamber up the ladder, I ask the slide attendant how many times I
made it around.
"Four," he tells me.
Nicholas, for all his youthful agility, only made it around twice.
Victory is mine.
Monday, June 02, 2003
Posted 12:04 PM <2003_06_01_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
Why did the chicken cross the road?
GEORGE W. BUSH
We don't really care why the chicken crossed the road. We just
know if the chicken is on our side of the road or not. The
either with us or it is against us. There is no middle ground
I invented the chicken. I invented the road. Therefore, the
crossing the road represented the application of these two
functions of government in a new, reinvented way designed to
greater services to the American people.
Now at the left of the screen, you clearly see the satellite image
the chicken crossing the road.
We have reason to believe there is a chicken, but we have not
allowed access to the other side of the road.
MOHAMMED ALDOURI (Iraq ambassador)
The chicken did not cross the road. This is a complete
don't even have a chicken.
This was an unprovoked act of rebellion and we were quite
dropping 50 tons of nerve gas on it
The chicken's habitat on the original side of the road had been
polluted by unchecked industrialist greed. The chicken did not
unspoiled habitat on the other side of the road because it was
by the wheels of a gas-guzzling SUV.
To steal a job from a decent, hard-working American.
I don't know why the chicken crossed the road, but I'll bet it was
getting a government grant to cross the road, and I'll bet
there is already forming a support group to help chickens with
crossing-the-road syndrome. Can you believe this? How much
can real Americans take? Chickens crossing the road paid for
tax dollars, and when I say tax dollars, I'm talking about your
money the government took from you to build roads for
No-one called to warn me which way that chicken was going. I
standing order at the farmer's market to sell my eggs when the
dropped to a certain level. No little bird gave me any insider
Because the chicken was gay! Isn't it obvious? Can't you
plain truth in front of your face? The chicken was going to the
side. That's what they call it-the other side. Yes, my friends, that
chicken is gay. And, if you eat that chicken, you will become gay
say we boycott all chickens until we sort out this abomination
liberal media whitewashes with seemingly harmless phrases
Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad?
chicken crossed the road, But why it crossed, I've not been told!
To die. In the rain. Alone.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
I envision a world where all chickens will be free to cross roads
without having their motives called into question.
In my day, we didn't ask why the chicken crossed the road.
us that the chicken crossed the road, and that was good
enough for us,
and that's the way it was and we liked it!
Isn't that interesting? In a few moments we will be listening to
chicken tell, for the first time, the heart-warming story of how it
experienced a serious case of moulting and went on to
life-long dream of crossing the road.
Imagine all the chickens crossing roads in peace.
It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.
It was an historical inevitability. I would cross and the chicken
I are cousins.
I may not agree with what the chicken did, but I will defend to
death its right to do it.
To boldly go where no chicken has gone before.
You saw it cross the road with your own eyes! How many more
have to cross before you believe it?
I have just released eChicken 2003, which will not only cross
but will lay eggs, file your important documents, and balance
checkbook - and Internet Explorer is an inextricable part of
Did the chicken really cross the road or did the road move
I did not cross the road with THAT chicken. What do you mean
chicken? Could you define chicken, please?
I missed one?
Monday, May 05, 2003
Posted 12:42 PM <2003_05_04_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
Ventura County Star
February 1, 2003
Freedom to search
Unitarian Universalists find liberation in individual interpretations of God
Tom Kisken; email@example.com
Who or what is God? In a Unitarian Universalist religion that prides itself
on challenging questions, this one is a doozy. It's sparked by a national
controversy spiced by allegations of faulty journalism, the temptation to
pin labels on the infinite and the role of divinity in a faith community
where belief in God is optional.
Howard Bierma, of Thousand Oaks, says he uses the word sometimes, maybe
after someone sneezes or when he has banged a finger, but not to express his
spirituality. He is an atheist and humanist who has been a member of the
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo Valley for about five years
and defines religion as interaction among people aimed at improving
He answers the question of the day this way: "Creation is all random, so I
wouldn't define God."
Bierma's take is a reflection of the spiritual breadth of the 200 or so
members of the Thousand Oaks church and certainly not a cloak identifying
the community. Those attending the weekly services include people who
identify with Christianity, Judaism, pagan religions, Buddhism, humanism,
Taoism and varied combinations. Some prefer phrases like the holy, ultimate
importance or reverence to God.
Their Sunday service is so eclectic that members sing "Amazing Grace,"
the line "that saved a wretch like me," and later discuss the concept
people are born saved. The minister's caveat -- "whatever that means to
you" -- fits virtually every word spoken.
Lee Anne Christensen, of Thousand Oaks, joined because of the church's
openness, because the other members don't tell her how to think. As a child,
she was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She
believes in God as someone or something that provides solace.
Dennis Weiher isn't sure about God but knows he doesn't think of the concept
as a tangible entity. "God is something that is within us all. It's that
part of us that makes us human and connects us to each other," said Weiher,
who is board president for the Conejo Valley church and has been a Unitarian
Universalist for about 40 years.
He sees his religion's diversity as freeing. "It allows people to search
their own spirituality and be supported by others in the community," he
said. "It absolutely gives you the freedom to search without fear of being
castigated or being looked down upon."
The UUs, as they call themselves, came to be 42 years ago when two separate
churches -- the Unitarians and the Universalists -- merged. While
Christianity asks its members to believe in the trinity and Muslims base
their beliefs on the teachings of the Quran, the UUs have no single,
They do ask their members be sympathetic with stated Purposes and Principles
that include an affirmation of the dignity of every person and also a call
of respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
That signature statement was wrapped into controversy when the national
president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William
Sinkford, noted in a January sermon that the Principles lack religious,
reverential language. He called for people to identify the aspect of faith
that some label as God.
"Put a name to what calls you," he said.
The Forth Worth Star-Telegram newspaper covered the sermon and published a
story that was picked up by papers across the nation, including the Ventura
County Star. It said Sinkford was pushing to include the word, God, in a new
UUstatement of principles.
The Rev. Betty Stapleford, minister of the Thousand Oaks church, received 45
e-mails about the story, ranging from people who liked the God proposal to
those who said if it was true they would have to leave the religion.
Sinkford sent out his own e-mail saying he was misquoted. The paper printed
a clarification acknowledging the association president did not call for a
God amendment to the faith's statement of principles.
It was a big deal because pinning one name on what people believe is holy
constitutes a limit in a community that doesn't believe in limits and
reaches unanimity with the frequency of a solar eclipse.
"If you get together two UUs, you have at least three opinions,"
said. "It would have said, 'This is what you have to believe.' "
Stapleford is walking, talking advertisement of the diversity that
symbolizes her faith family. The doctoral student at Claremont School of
Theology was a Methodist who became a humanist and is now a panentheist,
meaning she sees God as a force that is within every living thing and
connects all life. She's influenced by Taoism and, at her home, has a large
stone Buddha and the kind of gong used in Bali to call Hindus to faith.
She defines being a Unitarian Universalist as not just accepting diversity
but supporting differences in people and together tackling life's biggest
questions whether or not finite answers are possible.
Stapleford doesn't want to limit conversations within her church to one
perception of what is holy or divine. But like Sinkford, she doesn't want to
exclude God either.
"If we give up the right to talk about God, we've let someone else define
what it means for us," she said.
That it means many things to different people is evidenced by one in a
rotation of sayings that accompany the opening page of the Unitarian
Universalist Association Web site.
"You don't have to see God as straight, white and a man," offers the
At least a few UUs would define God as omniscient, said the Rev. Jan
Christian, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura. Others
would say the traditional concept isn't relevant to their lives.
And some use the word as a verb.
"God is how we are to each other," said Christian. "God is
Some UUs talk of holiness as they talk of everything else, with varying
shades of ambiguity. Everything is a question.
Christian acknowledges a few in the faith family know more about what they
don't believe than what they do. But she doesn't buy the notion that
Unitarian Universalists can believe anything. Their beliefs have to be
pointed toward goals that are pursued not only as individuals but as a
"Religion is something that binds people together in community in a search
for ultimate meaning, truth and an ethical way of life," Christian said.
So back to the question. Who or what is God?
Before Christine Blasman of Newbury Park answers, she offers a
clarification. It's not God in her mind; it's Goddess -- a multifaceted
energy that surrounds and encompasses people. She believes in an Earth-based
faith and calls herself a pagan. She was raised a Christian. Her husband was
Jewish. They joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo
Valley about seven years ago. They wanted their then-13-year-old daughter to
go a church that taught youth to understand not just one religion but many.
Some at the Thousand Oaks church say they experience the holy as a feeling,
not an intellectual concept. Three members try words to pinpoint their
definition of reverence or of God. Then they try sign language.
Finally, a visiting UU from Manhasset, N.Y., offers an observation that
brings a chorus of agreement.
"We pray," said Sydelle Lopez, "to whom it may concern."
Ventura County's UU churches
There are three Unitarian Universalist churches in Ventura County. Each has
a unique personality. They are:
Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula; services at 10:30 a.m. Sundays
at 740 E. Main St., Santa Paula, 525-4647.
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo Valley; services at 10 a.m.
Sundays at Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks,
Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura; services at 9:15 and 11 a.m.
Sundays at 4949 Foothill Road, Ventura, 644-3898.
Here are the seven core principles of the Unitarian Universalist
n The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
n Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
n Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our
n A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
n The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our
congregations and in society at large;
n The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
n Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a
On the Net: For more information, try www.uua.org.
GRAPHIC: The Rev. Betty Stapleford of the Unitarian Universalist
Fellowshipof the Conejo Valley welcomes Rhami Christian Ryon Alsadek, 2,
into thecongregation as proud daddy Abdallah Alsadek looks on. Stapleford
wantscongregants to feel free to discuss views of God or what some call
ultimateimportance but not to be forced to accept someone else's
Dana R. Bowler / Star staff
Saturday, May 03, 2003
Posted 6:09 PM <2003_04_27_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
60 above zero:
Floridians turn on the heat.
People in Michigan plant gardens.
50 above zero:
Californians shiver uncontrollably.
People in Saginaw, Michigan sunbathe.
40 above zero:
Italian &English cars won't start.
People in Michigan drive with the windows down.
32 above zero:
Distilled water freezes.
The water in the Detroit River gets thicker.
20 above zero:
Floridians put on coats, thermal underwear, gloves, wool hats.
People in Michigan throw on a flannel shirt.
15 above zero:
New York landlords finally turn up the heat.
People in Michigan have the last cookout before it gets cold.
People in Miami all die.
Michiganders close the windows.
10 below zero:
Californians fly away to Mexico.
People in Michigan get out their winter coats.
25 below zero:
The Girl Scouts in Michigan are selling cookies door to door.
40 below zero:
Washington, DC runs out of hot air.
People in Michigan let the dogs sleep indoors.
100 below zero:
Santa Claus abandons the North Pole.
Michiganders get frustrated because they can't start the Mini-Van.
460 below zero:
ALL atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale.)
Michiganders start saying..."Cold 'nuff fer ya?"
500 below zero:
Hell freezes over.
Michigan public schools are closed.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Posted 3:26 PM <2003_04_13_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
By Steve Rushin
Sports Illustrated, May 28, 2001
The elevated train clatters toward Wrigley Field and a female conductor
drones "Addison is next" and "Stand clear of the opening doors" and
"Parents, hold the hands of your children as you leave the train."
Then--from her sealed box, through crackling speakers--she sighs, "It's a
beautiful day for a ball game."
Exit the station, blinking against the sunlight. A panhandler says, "Help
the beerless?" Chicago cops in checkerboard hatbands tell him to beat it.
The sign outside Hi-Tops bar says WELCOME BACK CUB FANS.
An old man in a John Deere feed cap poses, at Sheffield and Addison, before
a statue of Harry Caray. His wife tries to take his picture, but she can't
find the shutter button. So the old man stands there, stiller than the
statue, while his petrified grin becomes a grimace.
It's the last thing you see before you're swept through a turnstile on a
tide of humanity and into the Friendly Confines. The stadium smells like
concrete and Lysol. An eight-year-old boy in the concourse beneath the
grandstand has the blue lips of a choking victim. Then you see, in his right
hand, a bale of Smurf-blue cotton candy. He smiles, and his teeth are the
color of babershop-comb disinfectant. And you think, Where on earth would I
Follow a shaft of sunlight up a tunnel to your seat. The
thwock-thwock-thwock of batting practice echoes off the bricks. The field is
awesome, a brushed baize poker table. Atop the scoreboard a riot of flags
flutters in the breeze, like the handlebar tassels on a girl's bike. The
beer man arrives unbidden and says, "What'll it be, guys?"
For a couple of brews our change from a 10-dollar bill is one single, soaked
in Bud Light. A tractor drags the infield in circles, which looks right
because the ballpark organ sounds like the calliope on a merry-go-round. We
are drinking beer at noon on Thursday and feeling fully alive, like
fugitives from justice, while the rest of the world is at work in a cubicle.
The Cubs were co-owners of baseball's worst record last year and have lost
six straight games. Still, 36,014 fans are inside the stadium, and there are
filled rooftops beyond the bleachers and, on Waveland Avenue, invisible
figures with baseball gloves and radios. So when Houston Astros outfielder
Richard Hidalgo hits a home run over the bleachers, the ball is regurgitated
onto the leftfield lawn before he can cross home plate, and a cheer goes up
for the Unknown Fan responsible.
A cell phone bleats behind first base, and the shirtless man who answers it
says, "What? I can't hear you. No, I'm at Wrigley, watching these &@#%!
losers lose." But the complaint sounds insincere, halfhearted. So, too, do
those in the men's room: Strangers stand at stainless-steel, trough-style
urinals, each man staring a hole in the wall in front of him, while voicing
his shock and disappointment in this year's lineup--even though the Cubs, as
every one of them knows, haven't won a pennant since 1945.
Shadows travel east across the diamond, from the third base line toward the
pitcher's mound, but here, along the rightfield line, the seats are forever
in sunshine. Four hours into the afternoon, every hatless head in our
section is turning red and painful-looking, like a thousand thumbs struck
with hammers. Nobody cares.
Because Sammy Sosa is rabbit-eared and responds in rightfield--with a head
nod or a flick of the glove--to each lone voice that hollers his name.
"Sammy!" (Nod.) "Sam-may!" (Flick.) This happens every time without fail,
regardless of what's going on in the game, and children sneak down to the
front-row railing to yell "Sam-may!" and have a superstar athlete
acknowledge their existence.
At the seventh-inning stretch, Chip Caray leans out of the broadcast booth
and sings, like his grandfather before him, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. We
sing along: "Well, we'll root root root for the Cuhhh-bees, if they don't
win it's a shame " They don't win. It's a shame. A glum face stares from a
square in the out-of-town scoreboard, on which appear eight letters,
stair-stepped down from left to right, across four empty line scores: They
spell NITE GAME. (Nite is misspelled, like Sox or sno-cone, in the venerable
Just before we exit the ballpark and repair to Murphy's Bleachers bar for
"one more," we cast an eye at all those poor be-nited cities on the
scoreboard: at New York and Los Angeles, Atlanta and Oakland. And we wonder
why, in a free society, everyone doesn't live here.
Monday, December 02, 2002
Posted 10:16 AM <2002_12_01_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
E-mail rec'd, re: Olbermann reax
Most of this information has been widely circulated in rumors and
accounts since Olbermann's departure. To this day, I think it was a
"lose-lose" for ESPN and for Keith Olbermann. His exit led to the
ascent (or BAD scent) of Stuart Scott, which then enlightened us to the
ebonics we never
knew ... or wanted to know ... like "pimp-slapped" and "shakin'
what yo' mama gave ya".
There is no worse hiring in the history of sports television than ESPN's of
Stuart Scott. I cringe with disgust every time I see his ugly, dim-witted
on the Sportscenter set. He is an idiot - but worse, he THINKS he is
knowledgable ... and somehow, he has fooled the ESPN execs. Or, in my
view, fills a quota with a stereotype that keeps black viewers quiet. A
minstrel character, like J.J. on "Good Times", which demeans and
insults black Americans. Rather than promote and reward solid performers and
speakers like David Aldridge and Mike Tirico ... Scott receives the bulk of
the network's "pop" promotion. If I have to hear one more story about
Stuie's glorious athletic accomplisments ... on the little league fields -
joking, he actually does this ... I will vomit. Again.
The intellectual banter of Olbermann and Patrick was classic comedy. It was
truly witty, funny, provocative, and informative. It riveted you on each
episode, and left you eagerly anticipating the next one. Olbermann's fatal
flaw was exactly what he outlined - obsessive compulsive, paranoid, insecure
perfectionism. His career has never quite gotten back to where it was prior
to his departure from ESPN. This may be his first attempt to get back in the
network's good graces, but we've all heard a lot of bridges were burned - by
Olbermann - that may prevent his ever from happening.
Kenny Mayne approaches Olbermann's wit, dry humor, and timing - if not the
vast knowledge of sports history.
Trey Wingo is steadily improving, and Rich Eisen is decent. John Anderson
made significant strides in carving out a niche personality, armed with an
overt sense of humor.
Scott Van Pelt is still a golf reporter doing sports news, but that may be
unfair preconception based on his former role exclusively covering the PGA
Linda Cohn is steady and sharp, and has improved her ad-lib abilities.
Many of the rest are largely unremarkable.
ESPN has done a very good job in hiring women. I have always loved Suzy
Kolber. She is cute as a button, but beyond that - rock solid in football
knowledge ... far surpassing the sophomoric blithering of Stuart Scott. Pam
Ward is the best female play-by-play announcer I've ever heard, better than
many men. She can call men's basketball and football games, and you don't
even focus on the fact that she's a woman. Andrea Kremer always does solid
work, and is highly respected in NFL circles. ESPN has avoided hiring eye
candy, based solely on their appearance, unlike Fox. Some may point out
Melissa Stark, but she is cursed by her stunning looks - overshadowing her
decent, developing skills.
It would be a remarkable media event, and potential ratings boon, for ESPN
bring Olbermann back to Sportscenter. Many faithful, long-time viewers -
myself - would applaud such a move. For Olbermann to take the first step
a forthright apology, regardless of any ulterior motives, demonstrated
humility - at least publicly. More importantly, should Olbermann apologize
directly - in private - to ESPN executives, this may be the tonic required
settle what has been a very ugly divorce.
Bring back Olbermann. Fire Scott.
Saturday, November 23, 2002
Posted 10:34 AM <2002_11_17_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
The New York Times
October 20, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 37; Column 2; Metropolitan Desk; Second Front
LENGTH: 1457 words
HEADLINE: Crimes Admitted, But Not Committed;
Confessing Can Seem Easy After Hours in a Hard Light
BYLINE: By JIM DWYER
Yes, the interrogation had taken a long time, but the murderer had freely
answered the questions, the lead detective said, each ghastly detail
cheerfully supplied upon request. "There was no reason to persuade him; he
was very cooperative," the detective, Joseph Di Prima, testified. "The thing
didn't flow from him, because he was slow in responding. All I had to say to
him was, 'What happened next, George?' "
A thousand people had been questioned before that one man, George Whitmore
Jr., answered for the "career-girl murders," the killing of two young women
on the Upper East Side, a crime that all New York had heard about in the
summer of 1963. Mr. Whitmore, as it turned out, had nothing to do with it.
Yet after 22 hours in the custody of detectives who had picked him up in
Brooklyn as a suspect in another case, Mr. Whitmore eventually decided that
he had plenty to say about whatever they wanted to talk about.
"Composed and alert," as a prosecutor later described him, Mr. Whitmore told
interrogators that he had ridden a train to Times Square on Aug. 28, 1963,
then wandered uptown and by chance walked into the building on East 88th
Street, climbed three flights of stairs, and found Apartment 3-C unlocked.
He told the police about assaulting and killing the two young women, Janice
Wylie and Emily Hoffert, and how he had taken the murder weapons, kitchen
knives, and stepped on the blades to break them. He even named the brand on
the three soda bottles that were smashed during the attacks. These were
details only the killer would know, a senior police official announced.
His admission was clear, convincing and totally untrue, a lurid fabrication
that took shape deep in the night. The Whitmore confession was exposed, in
time, by lawyers and reporters who found that the simple, easily-led man had
a solid alibi for the day he claimed to have murdered the two young women.
The spectacular collapse of the case led to important changes, not only in
New York but across the nation.
The Whitmore case weighed heavily in legislative debates in 1965, when the
state dropped the death penalty for most crimes. In 1966, the United States
Supreme Court mentioned the Whitmore confession in the landmark Miranda
ruling, which held that a person suspected of a crime must be informed of
the right to a lawyer and of the right to remain silent. In a television
movie, the Wylie-Hoffert killings were renamed the Marcus-Nelson murders,
featuring a fictional lollipop-licking bald detective named Kojak. A
television series ran for years.
The laws changed. "Kojak" drifted into the thin air of reruns.
And people are still confessing to terrible things that they did not do,
while many people -- maybe most people -- believe that the very idea of
false confessions ranges from the implausible to the utterly preposterous.
Those realities are poised to collide once more. A new inquiry into the
convictions of five Harlem teenagers in the 1989 Central Park jogger case
has come up, so far, with almost nothing to back the original findings of
guilt and with quite a bit that undermines them. The original convictions
were largely based on a series of videotaped statements made by four of the
five teenagers, admitting some involvement in an attack on a 28-year-old
A murderer and serial rapist, who had never been charged in the case, has
come forward to say that he alone attacked the woman, and insists that the
five men convicted of the crime had nothing to do with it. His DNA matches
evidence from the crime.
The Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, has arranged for
additional DNA tests that may yet corroborate the original confessions, but
he has said the tests are a "long shot."
In this case, the classic false-confession argument has been joined. So far,
the polarities of that debate can be roughly summarized in two words:
History provides a few more dimensions to the discussion, even some
insights, though they are not universally applicable. The use of physical
force to obtain confessions was banned in 1933 by the Supreme Court, after
it heard the case of three black men in Mississippi who had been tied to a
tree and whipped until they confessed. The right to counsel has been drilled
into the head of anyone who has ever watched "Kojak," "Dragnet" and all
Despite these changes, false confessions still have a bizarre internal
rationale, a kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot logic, representing a way
out for a cornered mind.
In place of the rubber hose, the law grants wide latitude in the use of
psychological pressures -- the kind of cajoling good-cop-bad-cop routines
seen on "NYPD Blue" that are part of standard police training manuals. That
these techniques produce thousands of authentic confessions from criminals
every year is beyond dispute. That these same techniques also produce a
number of false confessions is also beyond dispute.
Who confesses, and why?
Two years ago, a man admitted during questioning that he had used a chunk of
concrete to crush the head of a young woman on a Midtown Manhattan sidewalk.
The case was dropped when a videotape from a surveillance camera in a record
store showed that the man was browsing inside at the time of the attack. The
man, who had psychiatric problems, said he had been pressed hard by his
In California, Michael Crowe, 14, and two friends confessed in 1998 to
murdering his sister in her bedroom. When the defense lawyers argued that
the confessions were coerced, the prosecutor raised an obvious rebuttal: How
could three people each give a false confession to the same crime? Part of
the explanation, say social scientists who examined the case, is that the
teenagers were tricked and told that they had failed a "voice stress" test
that showed they were lying. They were also told that their friends were
implicating them in the crime. Under those circumstances, the social
scientists say, a false confession may seem like an exit ramp from an
impossible predicament, just as a bear might chew off its own foot to escape
from a trap.
As it turned out, the police had already collected the clothing of a
mentally ill 31-year-old man who had been knocking on doors in the
neighborhood that night. Three spots of the victim's blood were found on his
clothes. That man was charged with the killing in May. The charges against
the teenagers have been dropped, and the state attorney general says they
were not involved in the murder.
Just last Thursday, in Illinois, Gov. George Ryan pardoned four men who had
been sent to prison as teenagers for the rape and murder of a medical
student. Two of them had confessed and implicated the other two. None of
them, DNA tests later showed, had anything to do with the attacks. That same
DNA evidence recently implicated two other men. Why did the first group
falsely confess? One man said he figured that at age 17, by cutting a deal,
he would get out of prison by the time he was 23. The second man had an I.Q.
between 65 and 70, according to his lawyer, and quickly buckled under
Nearly 40 years ago, Eric Seiff was an assistant district attorney in
Manhattan when George Whitmore was accused of the career-girl murders.
Today, he is the lawyer for Kharey Wise, one of the five men seeking to
overturn convictions in the Central Park case.
Mr. Seiff, who was not personally involved in the Whitmore case, recalls
pulling out the transcript of questions and answers of Mr. Whitmore.
"I sat down and read it, and I saw nothing wrong with the Q. and A. -- the
whole 50-, 60-page fictitious confession," he said.
Decades later, he watched the videotaped interrogations of Mr. Wise,
conducted by another assistant district attorney, Elizabeth Lederer.
"She was completely professional in her approach," Mr. Seiff said.
Mr. Wise changes his story at several points, each time increasing his
culpability. To Mr. Seiff's eyes, his client is betraying not his guilt but
his eagerness to please, time and again. "You have power against
submissiveness -- and I don't say that to fault Elizabeth Lederer in the
slightest," Mr. Seiff said.
At one spot on the videotape, Ms. Lederer remarked that there was a can of
soda in front of Mr. Wise -- a minor detail, but one she pointedly took note
of, most likely to protect against later claims that the prisoner had not
been fed or given anything to drink during his hours in custody.
As soon as she mentioned the soda, though, Mr. Wise immediately apologized
for having it, and seemed to look for a place to discard it. No, Ms. Lederer
assured him, it was O.K. for him to have it. So he kept it.
GRAPHIC: Photo (Illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
More from Grant Barrett on the evolution of slang (see below for his multi-tentacled bio):
The people who have to look up the meaning of
chillax are people who are disconnected from the common sources of
slang, such as hip-hop or youth culture or technology or the Internet.
If you're on the leading edge of language, such words come with their meaning in context, so you have no need to look them up when you come across them. It's only when the words begin to leave their fostering communities that they encounter
English-speakers to whom they are strangers.
In an essay on Hemingway, John Updike quotes a line Hemingway wrote to
his sister: "All slang goes sour in a short time." (You can find it in
this book). This is exactly right: there are mappable
up-slopes and down-slopes on the bell curve of
hipness/currency/insider-ness. The down slope is where the slang is
sour. Most of us want to be on the up-slope so we can feel and be seen
as connected, hip, with it, cool. So when you get an article blathering
on about "word of the year" with any seriousness, the reader needs to
understand that for a word to be so common as to merit such attention
it is automatically on the down-slope of hipness. To call a term "word
of the year" means someone or some organization thinks it reached some
kind of zenith (or perhaps plateau) that calendar year. If that word is
new to you, you've come late to the party. For anyone who wants to be
on language's leading edge, the word is played. If you're trying to be
hip, you need next year's words, not the ones on that list.
The problem is knowing when or where the peak occurred or will occur
for a particular term, not just for Joe Slangspeaker but for folks
employed in the word trades, too. It's a fool's gambit to predict
chillax or any other word will break through in 2005. It's a
crap-shoot. But it's harmless and fun and no worse than a loony psychic
making bold claims in the tab rags. I'd describe most of the WOTY
announcements in the same way.
The key to getting away with such predictions and to making "word of
the year" lists is knowing that most words are new to most people. Just
two weeks ago in an English-language paper from Trinidad I saw a
columnist commenting on "bling" as a new word. Even on an island that
is inundated with off-island Anglophone media and entertainment, there
are still people for whom "bling"--a five-year-old word now well on its
downward slope of hipness and currency--is a new word. But because of
the way language spreads, even on that down-slope, a good number of
people will be suitably interested, impressed, entertained, and
educated by a word of the year proclamation or a prediction about
upcoming hot words. It'll all be new to them.
FYI, off the top of my head, I'd say that once a term appears in
advertising, it's already over as cool or hip (though, of course, it
will continue to be used long after the the shininess has dulled). Once
it appears in the news-weeklies, it's over or just about so. I'd say
the zenith is upcoming once it appears in large urban newspapers. If it
appears on a MTV program, it's worth keeping an eye on. If it it shows
up in the lyrics of more than one hip-hop artist, there's a good chance
it's on the up-slope. If it appears on the web sites Slashdot,
Metafilter, or Boing Boing, it's probably on the up-slope.
-- Project Editor, "Historical Dictionary of American Slang," Oxford
-- Editor, "Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of
American Political Slang" (2004)
-- Editor, Double-Tongued Word Wrester, http://www.doubletongued.org/
-- Webmaster, American Dialect Society, http://www.americandialect.org/
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
Reprinted by permission of the ACTFL
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
2004 Convention – Chicago, Illinois
OPENING GENERAL SESSION
November 19, 2004
Ambassador Michael Lemmon
Dean – School of Language Studies
Department of State / Foreign Service Institute
Language Policy and the State Department:
A Strategic Plan and Roadmap
The theme of this Conference: “2005: The Year of Languages” is testimony to the realization within the language teaching community, the Government, the press and public, that language competency is not only a national security issue, but a broader economic and societal issue, and a shared challenge. It provides us a superb opportunity to explore the dimensions of our common needs and how we can make common cause among ourselves, and with others – Congress, the education establishment and the broader American public – to address them. It is especially gratifying to note the growing level of concern and commitment from Members of Congress who have drafted a number of forward-leaning initiatives in this critical area of national language policy. But we all know that there is a wide diversity of opinion and interests involved; our challenge is to find that creative way forward that takes account of those legitimate differences at the federal, state and local levels and seeks a mutually beneficial outcome that goes beyond a “one size fits all” approach.
But such an undertaking requires a strategic vision and an implementing game plan. In the broad area of language policy and building the capacity to meet emerging linguistic challenges, some of those elements are beginning to emerge. A “national language conference” this past June co-hosted by the Center for the Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland and the Department of Defense, resulted in a draft “white paper” outlining a strategic long-term plan to meet the United States’ need to dramatically increase its collective skills in languages and cultural knowledge.
The strategic vision enunciated in the White Paper is as follows:
Our vision is a world in which the United States is a stronger global leader through proficiency in foreign languages and understanding of the cultures of the world. These skills are strengths of our public and private sectors and pillars of our educational system. The government, academic, and private sectors contribute to, and mutually benefit from, these national capabilities.
The traditional approach to language policy within the USG, as in the country as a whole, has been fragmented and frankly flawed by inadequate interagency collaboration, failure to share expertise and resources, competing priorities and uncoordinated approaches to common problems, and extensive bureaucratic stove-piping. It has emphasized local autonomy over coordinated planning and action. We all know that we need to find a way to address our shared foreign language challenge better than we have done thus far.
We face challenges in meeting both the immediate and long-term needs for language capability—in foreign affairs, defense and law-enforcement—in sum, national security. We also face those challenges in our society here at home in a vast range of contexts across the local, state and federal levels and cutting across the public and private sectors. All of this begs for a more coherent and cohesive national language policy that goes beyond this country’s traditional decentralized approach.
The draft White Paper attempts to address the broad national questions. Let me quickly sketch for you something of what we in the State Department are doing that may be a possible analogue of what might be done in the country as a whole.
We’re implementing a coherent, integrated strategic language plan that involves targeted recruitment, credit in the hiring process for language proficiency, and incentives to acquire languages, improve to advanced levels, and maintain and re-use the proficiency over a career, especially in the critical and difficult languages that are in short supply. This is all coupled with a strong corporate cultural value placed on language proficiency among our officer corps.
One powerful new tool in meeting our “gaps” is our new Language Continuum—a roadmap for implementing new and wide-ranging options for advanced language skill development and to meld the principles of strategic workforce planning and our assignments system. Its role is to help employees and eligible family members plan a career-long integrated approach to language learning, maintenance, and high-level use, and we believe this will be instrumental in meeting the goal we all share in advancing America’s interests.
At FSI, our mandate has always been broad and very general—to train Foreign Service personnel to a required level—usually Level Three (ACTFL Superior)—in speaking and reading in what is now nearly 70 languages.
9/11 confirmed for us something that we already knew: that we need more than that—we need people with even more advanced proficiency, especially in those languages critical to our national security interests and policies—what we are now calling “critical needs languages.” We also need a core cadre able to speak at the more advanced levels required to do what I term “Crossfire” on television in Arabic or Chinese or Farsi or whatever language is needed at the moment.
Ambassador Edward Djerejian, who did a Congressional study of our public diplomacy efforts in the Islamic world, recently noted that with respect to our adversaries we can only reach out and inform them of our views “through learning their language…their culture, and to be able to…listen, understand, then begin to inform, engage and influence...” He went on to opine that “we have failed to listen. We have failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us….We simply can no longer afford such shortcomings.”
Ambassador Djerejian’s harsh assessment has underscored to us at FSI what we need to do better, and we are working hard to rise to the challenge. For the long-term good of our nation, however, in addition to what language educators in the Government must do, your role as language educators is crucial—to broaden and deepen the pool of language competency available, and to maintain the pipeline of sophisticated and proficient users of foreign languages who can take their place on the national scene, whether in Government at the state, local or federal level, in business or in the private sector providing vital medical, legal, and social services.
The key to America’s success in meeting our shared language challenge will be combining complementary and mutually supportive action in Congress, the “national security community,” and among the broader federal, state and local government entities, NGO’s, and the colleges, universities, and state-and-local educational establishments. This will take serious thought about the articulation of language study from Kindergarten through secondary level to the university and beyond. That will require all of us to embark on an unprecedented level of collaboration and will demand substantial funding from all sectors of government and industry. I have an 8-year old son, and I harbor the hope that he and his generation will be able to partake of the fruits of the new initiatives that are abroad in the land and being fostered by the “Year of Languages”.
This week is International Education Week. Secretary of State Colin Powell has issued a press release on this, which reads in part, “Meeting the 21st Century challenges that confront all countries requires an unprecedented degree of understanding and cooperation among nations and among leaders in every field.” To which, Secretary of Education Rod Paige has added: “…we truly live in an interconnected world. Although we have made great strides forward, we do our students a great disservice if we do not prepare them for a global environment by encouraging them to study foreign languages and cultures.”
I thank you very much for the honor of being part of this distinguished gathering and look forward to talking with you further in another session later today. I am optimistic about the positive outcomes for all of us from this Conference and the visionary program for the “Year of Languages” that has brought together such a superb group of professionals and leaders.