Saturday, July 30, 2005

Jesus and Petroleum

I finally got a chance to watch "I Heart Huckabees" last night: a fun-enough pop-existential film a couple of notches up from "Garden State." It probably tries to be a bit too smart (the film centers around a couple of "existential detectives" well-played by Dustin Hoffman and Lili Tomlin), but at least it doesn't resort to name-dropping--despite ample opportunity to do so in a film that references angst and deconstruction.

But for my money, one scene was worth the price of the rental. Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) and Albert--the existential seekers in the film--end up in the suburban home of a nice Christian family. They sit to dinner with the family but when it becomes apparent that they have a couple of "philosophers" in the house, Dad becomes nervous. The one thing not allowed in their house is questions--no doubts, no anxieties, no sneaking out at night to expose oneself to the yawning abyss, etc. But Tommy and Albert are rife with questions about meaning and justice. And so a snippet of the conversation:

Mrs. Hooten: Albert, what brought you to the philosophical club?
Albert Markovski: You mean the existential detectives?
Mr. Hooten: Sounds like a support group.
Cricket: Why can't he use the church?
Mrs. Hooten: Sometimes people have additional questions to be answered.
Cricket: Like what?
Albert Markovski: Well, um, for instance - if the forms of this world die, which is more real,the me that dies or the me that's infinite? Can I trust my habitual mind or do I need to learn to look beneath those things?

Tommy's particular concern is humanity's wanton addiction to petroleum that is ravaging the planet and the fine-knit interconnections of the universe. So it doesn't take him long to castigate Dad for the mammoth SUV in the driveway, remarking how angry God must be with him for not being a better steward of creation--to which the young daughter replies:

Cricket: Jesus is never mad at us if we live with Him in our hearts!
Tommy Corn: I hate to break it to you, but He is - He most definitely is.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

On Joel Osteen's "Church": Does Jesus Exist to Make us Happy?

Just want to point readers to Jason Byassee's excellent piece on Joel Osteen. Jason is remarkably charitable to Osteen, but in the end--and because of that--offers a stinging critique of Osteen's version of what Rodney Clapp once called "Winnie-the-Pooh" theology. Pooh bear reasons as follows: If I hear buzzing, there must be bees about; if there are bees, there must be honey; and if there is honey, it must be FOR ME! Osteen translates that into a theology which populates a stadium each Sunday.

Yet another reason that the church stands in dire need of her own Orwell.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

America Supports UK War Against Terror: By Sending the LAPD to London

In 1984, George Orwell carefully describes the way that a state of "permanent war" is employed to solidify a people by getting them committed not just to national defense, but the more elusive "national security." The former requires a response in the face of hostility; the latter requires a pervasive and exhaustive attempt to eliminate any possibility of threat. This, of course, is a regulative ideal, which is to simply say that it is impossible. But permanent threat coupled with the goal of absolute security is an equation that can yield an (of course) "resolute" commitment to an end which will excuse all kinds of disturbing means.

While living in Los Angeles, we saw this played out in the Rampart Division of the city: given the mission of eradicating gang violence, all kinds of corrupt, yea fascist, practices were permitted as necessary means for attaining the given end. It seems that the UK has been watching "Training Day." With the news of the brutal execution/assassination of a tube passenger (5 shots, to the back of the head, while they had the "suspect" on the ground), London bobbies have put away their batons and opted for LAPD kind of tactics (quite apart from the Rampart "Crash Unit" in the late 90s, the LAPD also recent shot and killed an 18 month old baby in the arms of an admittedly armed criminal).

What is "security" worth? Is this an end we should even hope for?

Friday, July 08, 2005

America for Export: Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson

I think Christopher Hitchens is slipping.

That I came to his new book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, expecting a "line" is surely a sign that he is losing his independence. While he remains a "contrarian" voice, his contrariness is becoming more predictable and is almost taking on the flavor of a party line. In sum, I find less surprises from Hitchens anymore. And it's all because he seems to almost biologically recoil from anything remotely religious, especially "Islamo-fascism" (as he puts it)--though he seems less averse to the versions of Christian fasicism that traffic under the banner of "compassionate conservatism."

Of course, the conjunction of Hitchens and Jefferson warrants a reading, and readers will find Hitchens willing to paint an honest portrait of a fascinating figure. But despite his criticism of longstanding hagiographies, one gets a sense that Jefferson is let off the hook a bit too quickly on a few points. Indeed, having just finished Hitchens' Why Orwell Matters, I was surprised at the degree to which Hitchens was more suspicious and iconoclastic with respect to Orwell and more inclined to charitable, benefit-of-the-doubt interpretations when it came Jefferson (particularly on matters of slavery--if Jefferson "half-abominated" slavery, did he not also half-embrace it? One wonders if the latter significantly cancels out the rhetoric of the former). This seems especially true after having just emerged from Gore Vidal's less flattering account of Jefferson through the eyes of Aaron Burr (in Burr).

Hitchens' charity toward Jefferson stems, I would suggest, from a kind of apologetic project. As becomes clear in the book, Hitchens is looking to this "author" of America as a historical validation of his own endorsement of the Bush administration's unilateralism and neo-conservative foreign policy. This is coupled with Hitchens' sympathy with Jefferson's antipathy to institutional religion of any stripe. Both of these are combined in the opening pages where Hitchens notes that Jefferson "trenchantly restated the view that the American Revolution was founded on universal principles, and was thus emphatically for export. He laid renewed stress on the importance of science and innovation as the spur of Enlightenment, and scornfully contrasted this with more faith and credulity" (p. 3). That, in a nutshell, is the gist of why Jefferson matters today. Thus he ends on the same note (pp. 187-188).

This dual emphasis on exportation of the American experiment and anti-religious sentiment is crystallized in Hitchens' enlightening analysis of an oft-overlooked episode in American (or Western) history: The Barbary Wars. Their re-description today is charged with a sense of repetition: the scene involves rogue 'nations' (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli) controlled by "Muslim autocracies" terrorizing the coasts and shipping lanes of Europe and, increasingly, the young American Republic. (Hitchens especially highlights the Barbary appeals to the Koran and what amounts to sharia law.) In the face of Barbary barbarism, Thomas Jefferson emerges (in Hitchens' tale) as the, well, 'resolute' cowboy who refuses tribute and commands the outfitting of a naval squadron. Faced with a Saddam-like nuisance in Yusuf Karamanli, Jefferson "coolly decided to take this latent delcaration of war at face value. He secured agreement from his cabinet on the dispatch of a squadron, and further determined not to trouble Congress with the matter" (p. 133). In short, Jefferson's decision was unilateral even from a domestic perspective (and quite likely illegal), but that all receives a wink and a nod from Mr. Hitchens because of the spectacular results: "Over the next four years, the Barbary coast was effectively 'pacified' by a unilateral American expedition. [...] In essence Jefferson's policy was an unalloyed triumph for peace, and the freedom of trade from blackmail, through the exercise of planned force" (133, 135). One almost wonders if Jefferson landed on the deck of the USS Constitution with a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."

It's hard to tell whether we're getting Thomas Jefferson in George Bush's image, or vice versa. In either case, it seems that the price of Hitchens' being "right" about America's various current wars involves a loss of his independent streak--and hagiography by other means.