How Should a Christian Handle Islam These Days?

The student who encouraged me to begin this blog as a means of promoting my literary ambitions is a devout Muslim.

Qanta Ahmad, author of a book I’ve just finished (In the Land of Invisible Women), is a fully credentialed M.D. who frequently and publicly criticizes the Saudi oppression of women… and she is also a devout Muslim.

Zudhi Jasser, another M.D. and author, likewise often chastises radical Islam as a FOX News contributor… and is likewise a practicing Muslim.

Abortion is not tolerated in the Muslim world; neither is homosexuality.  Though the Christian approach to such behaviors is (or should be) more nuanced than outright condemnation accompanied by severe corporal punishment, most denominations today will not so much as imply that pulling the plug on the unborn is in any way wrong, or that same-sex ménages –and even marriages–are more a reaction to past abuse than a healthy expression of developing identity.

And yet, the Koran is full of passages that advise (not to mention enjoin) persecuting (not to mention slaying) the infidel… and yet, the Old Testament is full of passages where God is said to slaughter the enemies of the Jews–man, woman, and child–or to command their slaughter.

Yet in 2016, Jews and Christians do not read these passages literally and obey them to the letter, for the most part.  A woman in my neck of the woods attempted to kill her three young sons a few years back (and succeeded in killing two) because, so she said, she was following the counsel of Deuteronomy 19.  She was treated as criminally insane–and rightly so.  Why, then, does terrorism remain a predominantly Muslim problem?

Most Muslims will never harm anyone–yet far too many seem unwilling to judge terrorist acts harshly in opinion polls.  How many American Christians, though, are disturbed by the Obama Administration’s escalating use of drone strikes in an orgy of killing that has left perhaps a thousand non-combatant children dead?

I would like to write much more about Qanta Ahmad’s book, and especially her understanding of Islam, at a later time.  She seems to be inspired with a keen sense of right and wrong, and to impose this sense as a filter upon her reading of the Koran.  One might say that she is deluding herself… but do not humane, upright Christians filter parts of the Old Testament in the same way?  Must they not?  Is not our common conviction as Christians that God has entrusted to the fastnesses of our soul the spirit of truth, such that holy writ only teaches us explicitly what the wind had already whispered to us?  And does that spirit of truth, then, not sometimes enlighten us in the interpretation of passages somewhat tarnished by cultural distortion?  And if this is so, then should not a Muslim, as a human being, have sufficient hearing to detect the same whisper in interpreting different passages?

I think there are more evil men cloaking their designs in Islamic piety right now than in the parallel pieties of a pseudo-Christianity.  We in the Christian world enjoy the odd luxury of being reviled by most members of our ruling class–a luxury which we should embrace more vigorously.  It is good to be reviled by the vile.  Islam has not achieved the same clarity, and appears to have a long way to go.  I have a feeling that we can help out more by calling any bad act by its name than we can by categorizing it first as the work of a Christian or a Muslim.

Three Things, and a Fourth

It’s not just every generation that believes its toys and trappings and ways to be wholly natural, and to have been around since the dawn of time.  Even well within generational parameters, we tend to forget that trends and fads in which we get swept up weren’t around when we were children.  Take three rather insipid phrases:

Back in the day.  I rate this one as maybe ten years old. Certainly no one was saying it in 1998, and I think its birthday is probably more recent by several years.

So… The use of this little conjunction indicating the approach of a result clause to begin a response where no clear condition precedes it in the speaker’s utterance is, perhaps, five years old.  Maybe a tad more.  You would always have said in the late, not-so-great twentieth century (and the other “so”–the adverb–appears in my hyphenated modifier), “The shoes wouldn’t fit, so [as a result] I sent them back.”  Today we hear interviewers launch long questions to which guests respond with an initial “so”.  “The market seems unconcerned about the national debt.  Could it be that the risk you identify is all a matter of perception?”  “So… we need to understand that every economy in the world is at least as fragile as ours.”  Very, very fuzzy connecting.

Not so much.  Employing this phrase to express, “Not at all!” in ironic understatement has been going on for about five years, as well, by my reckon.  Again, you certainly would not have heard it in 2002, and I don’t think even 2007 saw its birth.  It’s of great interest to me that oral societies engage in such understating (the fancy technical term for which is litotes) all the time.  When Oedipus was struck by an arrogant charioteer (his father, as he unfortunately failed to realize at the time) and recompenses the man by killing him, he proudly recollects, “He didn’t pay me back the same amount.”  Gaelic bards would often praise a chieftain by declaring something on the order of, “Not light was his blow,” or, “Not timid was his step into battle.”

Some of our latest coinages do indeed suggest to me that we’re slipping back into a pre-literate habit of thinking and feeling.  Our electronic gadgets are luring us ever farther from the productive challenges of writing.  That’s a topic for another day.  All I mean to say now is that we should remember how much in flux are the comfy little customs and habits with which we surround ourselves.  Especially when we seek to travel back in history or far afield into another culture, we should attempt to erase from our consciousness all the shallow presumptions we make.  Phrases that we ourselves once spouted at least once a day (like the mysteriously sports-indexed curiosity, “the whole nine yards”) have utterly vanished.  Why, then, should we expect another culture to comprehend our perplexity about how to label restrooms, which is… what?  About a year old?

The disturbing truth is that we’re most willing to let go of moral principles grounded in human nature and common sense, while our fads represent those habits to which we demand a right as “human beings”, of all things!

On the Absence of Gears in the American Psyche

I don’t review movies, and I’m not even going to try to defend The Assassin as a film.  It sits at one star on Netflix, which means that the vast majority of the few who have seen it must positively have hated it.  The rank and file of the American public usually does detest anything that garners an award at the Cannes Film Festival, or is otherwise decked in artsy laurels.  Sometimes I’m one of those people.  For instance, I don’t see anything creative or inspired about placing a crucifix in a jar of urine.  If that’s art… then flush it.

The avant garde‘s pseudo-intellects have brought this upon themselves.  When they actually award a worthy creation, their verdict suffers from a bad case of Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome.  The sensitive, delicate people with rainbow colors mingled in their spiked hair and pondering over a Starbuck’s which gender pronoun and restroom to patronize today cheat themselves of a chance ever to be taken seriously by compromising their credibility in a thousand frivolous matters.  The Assassin really is a work of art–even if it did win awards.  I say this having given the film four stars out of five.  I withheld the fifth because I could never fathom the motives behind the plot or, frankly, locate much of a plot.  Some of my confusion–perhaps most of it–is likely a product of my cultural limitations: I’m sure things would have made more sense if I were Chinese.

Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that what bothered the great American audience the most wasn’t obscure motivation or buried transition, but rather the extraordinary degree of stillness and silence from one end to the other of this film.  Productions like House of Flying Daggers and Red Cliff did very well on Netflix, despite being drenched in exotic oddities.  Characters talked.  Things happened.  When Assassin offers intense combat scenes (and there are a few), they tend to melt into other scenes while the outcome is still in question.  Far more typical are studies of brooding courtiers shot behind waving veils, panoramas of mountains or forests in the morning mist, and sequences of the conflicted assassin herself standing still as a slender statue or meandering meditatively through a field.

I found the result mesmeric.  I confess that I came back to it over a period of days.  Consuming twenty-minute or half-hour stretches was a welcome escape from the all-too-hectic pace of the holidays.  And I watched alone, so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the complaining of family members.  I still don’t really know what I saw: I just know that seeing it admitted me to a trance-like state.

The way Shu Qi’s character was able to absorb all the silence and stillness into her being, into her beautifully brooding face without hope that seemed to incarnate the landscape, fascinated me.  Having studied and written about myths of journey to the Other World all of my professional life, I couldn’t help reading in her much of the shamanic outcast who is able to drift back and forth across the life/death interface.  I might almost hazard that the movie sees the land of the living from the boundary of the dead, where voices have grown inaudible and deeds have lost all their haste and purpose.

Okay, maybe not in the running for your favorite Christmas movie.  But hated it?  Everyone who has watched The Assassin on Netflix has hated it?  Can we not content ourselves with saying, “I’m just not in the mood for this right now,” or, “Something’s going on here that I just don’t understand.”  How about two stars, at least?  Do you have to hit the “terminate” button on everything that doesn’t offer explosive car wrecks to a heavy-metal soundtrack?

That’s what really nags at me: the one star.  I’m reminded of the story about Bum Phillips after the Oilers won the Superbowl.  He ordered champagne, was told that the bottle brought to him was twenty years old, and complained, “Hey, this is a celebration!  Bring us the new stuff!”

I wish we had a gear for stillness and silence.  It would come in handy for Christmas, especially.

Two De-Politicized Thoughts About Terrorism

More than a day later, mainstream news outlets in Germany have only barely resolved–and only after receiving the blessing of their PC puppetmasters in Brussels–to call the Berlin marketplace slaughter a terrorist attack.  Nine bystanders were killed, and at least fifty more wounded, when a tractor-trailer plowed through a crowded shopping area in an attack distinctly reminiscent of the slaughter in Nice, France, a few months ago.  The legal driver, officially employed by the Polish trucking firm, was found stabbed to death in the passenger seat, and a 23-year-old Pakistani immigrant was apprehended fleeing the scene.  Yet the Deutsche Welle source from which I garnered details dropped the word “Polish” so often that one might have concluded the assault to be payback for the Third Reich’s leveling of Warsaw.  Oh, and a semi-automatic handgun was found in the cab.  It wasn’t used in the butchery–but we needed to know that the perp possessed such a forbidden item.

I’m really, really tired of politicized news, and I want to abstain from contributing to Such toxic slop in this space.  Allow me, then, merely to make two observations about terrorism which I’ve been repeating (to the interest of no one, apparently) since 9/11.

Observation One: massive, mounting unemployment is the inevitable destiny of unskilled laborers as the Industrial Revolution advances into its fully automated stage.    Young people were being siphoned off of farms and into cities as early as the late seventeeth century.  They could not always find employment, and what they found did not always pay a livable wage or escape the cyclical lay-offs integral to the free market.   They were never in any danger of being permanently replaced by robots, however. Now their descendants are in just such a pickle.  About the only work available to an uneducated street urchin is kidnapping and ransoming rich people or… growing and selling dope.  Ironically, the latter signals a return to agriculture.

Observatio Two: our high-tech world is encircling us in risk as sure as a python coils around its prey–yet we just keep calling for more coils.  We put ourselves in missiles filled with highly flamable explosive… and congratulate ourselves on modern air travel.  We build skyscrapers that may soon reach a mile into the clouds, if the one planned in Hong Kong gets off the drawing board… and we celebrate our economical use of space.  We construct major cities on seismic fault lines or along tsunami-prone coastlines… and we admire the view.  Soon our cars will be driven for us via satellite… and at this very instant I am wondering why my TV won’t pick up any channels.  We never ask before surrendering ourselves and our families to a new technology, “Now, how might this be abused by an evil mid?”  Never.  Always full speed ahead… and then we’re shocked when some unemployed, vindictive punk throws a wrench in the power grid.

At least some pieces of the terrorist puzzle are put on the table by the nightmare-rich potential of our surging, all-but-ungovernable technology.  Why can’t we use our high tech to irrigate the young punk’s ancestral desert, and send him home to farm?  But no, the great rivers of India and China are now too polluted to grow anything but killer bacteria; and as for the Middle East, the only rivers of any interest to us there run black.

Pharaonic Egos Balancing on Sphinxian Riddles

I watched something about the Egyptian Sphinx on Netflix the other day during my afternoon workout.  I should say that I watched with half-attemtion, because I don’t remember any names or titles; and I’m not going to look any of them up, though I easily could, because pinpoint accuracy is not relevant to my intent.  What I mean to show, rather, is that I could poke holes in the Alpha Tenured Professor’s case even while counting my push-ups.

An Academic Maverick made the simple observations early on that the Sphinx’s head is far too small for its body; that the body is that of a lion; that the body’s stones show clear signs of water erosion while the head is comparatively clean-cut; and that the monument would therefore have originally represented a lioness and have been constructed before any of the pyramids, the human head being added much later and–of course–shrinking the original lion’s noggin.

This cluster of theories dribbles challenge all over Egyptologist orthodoxy, apparently (and you may take my metaphor as aquatic, or you may picture a male feline marking out turf: the latter is much more appropriate to academic protocol).  Alpha Tenured Scholar made his appearance immediately after Maverick’s, and his mug ruled over the rest of the flick like a bust of King Tut.   Scholarly Maverick’s theories are balderdash (Alpha argued) because 1) the Sphinx would have been built downstream in a flood plain if the walls of the pyramids hadn’t been previously constructed; 2) there would have been tools lying about such early construction, for some unexplained reason; 3) the stones in the Great Pyramid were plainly quarried from the pit in which the Sphinx’s body nestles, proving that the Great Critter was a cleverly carved leftover; 4) the Sphinx aligns with the Great Pyramid to mark equinoctial events; and 5) representing Pharaoh X on a lion’s body would have expressed appropriate reverence to the Sun (for arcane ritual reasons), now that his pyramid had been built.

From various awkward positions on my sides and back, I wondered 1) why Professor Alpha thinks that the Sphinx did not suffer water damage when the erosion is evident up to its neck; 2) why any tools could not have been carried away by the water, if not leaving them lying about would grossly have violated Egyptian etiquette; 3) why the stones from the Sphinx’s pit could not have been used on the Great Ptramid in afterthought (lifting out blocks being, at the time, the preferred technique of roughing out the enigmatic creature’s figure); 4) why one structure necessarily had to be built before the other to produce whatever celestial alignment was desired; and 5) how a given sacred structure of an agrarian, proto-literate culture anywhere in the world could possibly have nothing to do with solar or seasonal cycles.  Such alignments are still discernible in the Native American mounds up and down the Mississippi Valley, and in Chaco Canyon.

In particular, how is it that the Sphinx’s head is so bloody small?  Never really answered that one, did we?  And back to Numero Tre… how did the quarriers just happen to leave a huge island in their pit that was just the shape of a lioness’s recumbent body if the original intent was not, in fact, to make the Sphinx?

What’s pompously styled scholarship is often no more than fashioning shapes out of fluffy clouds… and then promoting or firing people around you on the strength of their agreement or disagreement.  The one or two really obvious, slap-in-the-face facts sometimes get ignored completely as Professor Pharaoh and his minions labor to erect a lasting monument to his brilliance.

Believe me: whatever we know about the distant past is likely to be found in the pile of “things we don’t know that we know.”  Our explanations are so sloppy and incoherent that entire TV serials are made interpreting all the mystery as evidence of extraterrestrial visitation.  Sure… makes as much sense as the “scholarship”.

Why I Avoid the “C” Word Now

Whenever you do any posting on the Internet, you need a bundle of words and phrases that tell the world–in no wasted space–exactly who you are and what you’re up to.  Good luck with that!  In starting this blog, I was once again faced with the chore of distilling myself into keywords, a ritual which is but one of the e-world’s resemblances to tribal primitivism.  What feathers are you wearing?  Do you wipe your warpaint over the cheeks or the forehead?

I have hazarded the word “Christian” on these occasions before… but I won’t go that way again.  About twenty years ago, I wrote a novel titled Seven Demons Worse and tried to market it through a tiny publishing company which had been assigned a FAX wherein 666 appeared prominently.  My “Christian” clientele crucified me–even though the seven demons are an allusion to one of Christ’s parables.  Generally speaking, more often than not, somebody in my part of the woods who wants to assess your religious faith will ask, “Have you accepted Jesus as your lord and savior?”  And if you return the serve and ask him, “Have you?” you’re likely to get such a cataract of mawkish, quasi-narcissistic sentimentality that you’re reaching for an umbrella with one hand and disinfectant with the other.  Yet if you should ask this person further, “What is the Christian calling?  Is it to help others, or to serve the spirit that others are often trying to throttle in themselves?  If that spirit is the key to our identity, then what comtribution to it does our individuality make?  And do we live eternally only in one great spirit, or does our unique nature continue to color reality beyond this life?”… well, you’ll soon be rid of your companion.  Such questions are received with the same smiling, nervous, arm’s-length discomfort as an outburst from a Turret’s Syndrome sufferer.

So that’s a “c” word which I no longer pin to my lapel when I go audience-hunting.

The one I avoid most cautiously, however, is “conservative”–and not because I’m averse to conserving.  On the contrary.  I want to conserve a pace of life measured by human steps, where people pass each other on sidewalks and speak civilly.  The new “conservative” wants more cars on the roads because more businesses will be reached and drilling for oil will provide more jobs.  I want to conserve an independent way of life where my needs are few and basic enough that I can meet them mostly through my own efforts.  The new “conservative” mocks people like me while proudly confessing his addictions to the latest i-gadgetry and the most convenient remote-control mechanisms.  I want to conserve my dominion over myself and also a certain stilted system of manners that keeps us from grating upon each other too directly.  The new “conservative” wants his appetites satisfied without government intrusion and increasingly allows himself crude displays under the guise of free speech.

That’s not the world of my grandfathers.  I see nothing in this new dog kennel that I want to hold tight.  Indeed, I see an ideology of flux trying to distinguish itself from progressivism by disdaining every centralized–and centrally promoted–vision of the “common good”.  I don’t like thought-police, to be sure: not in the least.  But I want to preserve my freedom of thought precisely so that I may think.

If conservatism is merely intellectual moonshine, then… then I’ll just drink water, if it’s all the same to you.  And even if it’s not.

Why “Nil Novi”?

“What has been is what will be,” sayerh the Preacher. “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The final words of Ecclesiastes (the Greek word translated as “preacher”) would be rendered sub sole nil novi: “under the sun, nothing of new.” (Many languages, such as Russian, join the classical ones in using a possessive with a negative. Of all that’s new, not a particle finds its way into daily life… that kind of thing.)

Seems like a strange handle for a blog, I know. The Internet, news, blogposts, the latest–all of this appears diametrically contrary to the notion that life moves in circles. In the first place, I could plead weakly that the other monikers for which I made a bid were taken. My initial choice was “paleo forever”, reflecting my steady affection for things past… but that, improbably, was taken. (And here I thought that I was the only person who regarded novelty as cheap luster!) To move from that abortive first choice to claiming that there’s nothing new whatever, though, represents a small step deeper into skepticism than I had intended.

But I also must confess that I really do agree with the Preacher. “The more it changes,” quipped a French wag in the same vein, “the more it stays the same.” Here I sit, trying to figure out the intricacies of WordPress so that, in the long run, I may build up an online ebook-publishing concern… and the banner at my masthead reads, “Nothing new”? Have I no shame?

I have, and that’s why I’m writing this post. You see, the publishing game has always been a mess of contradictions–at least if you play it with a conscience. You’re trying to get people to stop and notice a discussion so that they will devote several hours to it–and most people have neither the time to spare as they are blown about in the wind nor the intellectual stamina to hold onto a discussion from p. 1 to p. 200. Those that do are hidden in the crowd, a diffuse and quiet minority. Will they respond to the bull horn or the firecracker? Probably not. Be more subtle… but is subtlety not first cousin to trickery?

That’s how you end up writing a blog titled, “Nothing New”. The paradox is not of my creation, but of life’s. And it has always been so: human life has always been paradoxical.

Forgiveness as Self-Indulgence

Glenn Beck does more charitable work in a day than I’ll do in a lifetime.  He has lately started a project to rescue Haitian children who have been sold or forced into sexual slavery.  Nothing I write here is meant to disparage that heroic and noble undertaking, or any other of its kind.

But I heard the Beckster to say within minutes of describing his work in Haiti that we should forgive everyone–even those who don’t seek forgiveness.  He had already shifted context: he was discussing, I believe, the recent book of a former “guest” at the Hanoi Hilton (i.e., a POW held by the Viet Cong).

I have this to say about that.  If the man who had kidnapped your eight-year-old daughter and rented her out to perverts for three years were captured, put on trial, and released on a technicality, would you forgive him?  Knowing that he had smirked at you in the courtroom and entertained every intention of resuming his lucrative profession, would you simply lift your eyes to heaven and sigh, “I put down this burden–let him go in peace”?  Such “forgiveness” would strike me as grotesque and rather comtemptible.  Sorry… but I don’t think you would be much of a parent, if that were your frame of mind.

Now, I’m not saying that you should plot to ambush the guy and feed his testicles to stray dogs as he watched.  You must not allow a beast to reduce you to another beast.

But I know from my own youthful experience that forgiveness can be an intoxcant–and a relaxant.  Something’s eating at you: you can’t get any food down, you can’t focus, and you can’t sleep.  You have to let it go.  And so you tell yourself, “Though I haven’t deserved this treatment, I have surely deserved punishment for other things I have done that passed unremarked.  The best man who ever leaved was among the most tortured–and I’m not worthy to kiss his toe.”  With that mindset, you can eat again, sleep again.  So liberating!  You feel that you have really climbed to a new spiritual plateau.

What you’ve really done, though, is find a way to eat and sleep again.  Is it morally good that you should be able to eat and sleep… or is it just materially pleasant and helpful?

If someone has truly done you an outrage, is letting go of the hurt a spiritual triumph… or is it a facilitating quietism that leaves the scoundrel free to claim more victims once you stop pressing your suit?

Many Irish peasants in the mid-nineteenth century embraced the notion that the Potato Famine was God’s punishment upon their weak faith.  Thinking that their misery was deserved made it easier to bear.  Nevertheless, what a horrible, ultimately blasphemous idea!  The popular version of forgiving can provide the same kind of Bandaid: wounds can heal beneath it–but more because of what it screens out than because of any inherent curative properties.  In fact, the skin can turn white and anemic under such “protection”.

I would claim that this is not true forgiveness at all.  I think the word is much abused.  Sometimes you’re just doing what you have to do to survive.  Be honest about that and don’t kid yourself.  A good night’s sleep is not necessarily a sign that you’re traveling the right path.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Cultural Meltdown

Grading final exams is a dismal enough task: the “someone… they” agreement errors, the use of “like” and “however” as conjunctions, the utter cluelessness surrounding “whom”; but when students who can’t get any of this stuff right begin to lobby for pronouns that don’t “offend” by expressing gender, then I know that I may have missed the TITANIC’s last lifeboat.  Why are you offended?  Because you’re neither “he” nor “she”?  Well, we have “it”… but that’s most offensive of all, because you now sound like an impersonal object!  But if you have no gender… oh, excuse me!  You do have a gender, only you’re neither male nor female!  But if you’re a male identifying as female, would you not be “she”, and vice versa?  Or if you are neither and not neuter, then exactly what are you?

Students clamor for this non-existent fourth option because other professors have primed them to talk and think rubbish–and because, of course, they want to appear broad-minded and compassionate.  Yet how is the stilling of tongues in impotence lest they utter a substantial thought compassionate?  Say that our conversation in the present constantly reminds me of times past.  I want a tense that accomodates both the currency of our words and the nostalgia that their echo awakens in me.  I’m so frustrated!  My language will not do this; and you, by speaking to me in one tense or the other, are collaborating in the offense!  Ouch!  You’re hurting me!

Vanitas vanitatum.  What an infantile, futile, facile era we live in…