Archive for June, 2010

Cry the Beloved Country

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

In Chapter 1 the narrator stands on a hill, looking around at valleys and mountains, a river and hills. Some names, like the Zulu Umzimkulu (a river and valley in Natal), and some words, like the Afrikaans kloof (a ravine), establish the South African setting. The Drakensberg (which means “dragon mountains”) is a large mountain range dividing the Orange Free State from Natal. The narrator says that in the hills of Natal the soil is so rich it seems “holy, being even as it came from the Creator.” Nothing has been done to harm it. But in the valley below, the land is red and bare. Sharp stones and grass hurt the feet. Food is so scarce that even the titihoya bird has left. The maize (corn) does not grow tall, and the red earth is so eroded that when it rains the muddy land seems to flow with blood. The land is ruined, and so are families. Men and young people have gone somewhere else, and only old people, women, and children stay. What has caused the damage to the land and desertion by the young? You’ll see in coming chapters.

At this point you can’t tell who is speaking to you–a situation that means the book is written from a point of view called third person omniscient narration. That is, some all-knowing viewer outside the story, someone you won’t really be conscious of as the story continues, is telling it. This narrator is not the author himself, but a story-teller created by the author.  This will become more important later.  The author, Paton, wants you to enter the mind of a third person, reliable narrator.  This narrator must be a black South African.  Paton must distance himself from his own background.

The language of the narrator is beautiful. You’ll immediately notice its difference from ordinary English. Its patterns are meant to echo African languages and parts of the Bible. This style will be used not only by the all-knowing story-teller, but also by the man we meet in Chapter 2–a man whose first language is Zulu, one of the Bantu family of languages, and whose second language, English, he encounters mostly in the Bible.  Kumalu, the narrator, is one of the most extraordinary protagonist in all of world literature.

Potiphar’s Wife

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

I don’t usually reference so heavily another person’s essay but I really liked this and wanted to share it with you in its entirety.  It is written by Adrianne Schwanke and can be found on one of my favorite sites www.bible.org.

Imagine you’re married to a really important person-so very important that they seems too busy for you. (Because someone must be crazy busy in order to feel important, right?) Well, whether they’re actually important or just really “busy,” you still feel a void.

Lonely.

Looking.

And then-in walks some smok’n hot employee who is now paid to be your personal assistant. That’s pretty much where Potiphar’s wife found herself-BAM! Smack in-between a busy husband and a sudden distraction named Joseph. He packs a broom, biceps, and a daily question for Potiphar’s wife:

“hey, can I help you around the house or maybe make you some lunch today?”

This pilot episode of Desperate Housewives nestles inside the book of Genesis:

so he [Potiphar] left everything he owned in Joseph’s charge; and … he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance” (Genesis 39:6)

Potiphar (the husband) is apparently such a special, busy leader that he felt the need to completely delegate his home life to another man. Whether that’s a model worth repeating, we’ll save for another discussion, but for now, it is what it is. And Potiphar’s wife was stuck with one wildly confusing view-a godly Hebrew paid to oversee her inner sanctum, home.

“Hello?”If you were placed in a similar circumstance, surely a day would come where loneliness and opportunity would combust into t-e-m-p-t-a-t-i-o-n.

If you were given the perfect set-up to sin, would you take it? Not sure? Me either.

So, let’s both take notes from a man who withstood:
“It came about after these events that his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she [Potiphar's wife] said, `Lie with me.’ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, … `How could I do this great evil and sin against God?’” (Genesis 39:7-9b).

When Joseph was presented with a clear invitation to swing Tiger’s club or set up a Jesse James sexting match, Joseph refused. Instead, he had a heart-to-heart conversation with his conscience. He wielded a mighty question: “How could I do this great evil and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9) When sin pulled, Joseph looked up to the God who saved him from the pit of abandonment. He looked up to the God who had given him a vision for his life that far surpassed the passing pleasure of sin.

And after considering God, Joseph.FLED“She [Potiphar's wife] caught him by his garment saying, `Lie with me!’ And Joseph left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside…” (Genesis 39:12).

So, what is the shortest distance between loneliness and lust? One loitering glance.

What then is the shortest distance between temptation and faithfulness? A gaze fixed on heaven.

… And feet ready to flee, like Joseph’s and Jesus’. Remember when Jesus lifted His gaze above Satan’s offerings? During the wilderness temptation, Satan dangling a mighty fine invitation: a chance to take His kingdom before God’s timing and instead He endured the palpable pain of the waiting and the agony of the cross. Jesus looked over and above loneliness, rejection, and feelings of abandonment to the glory set before Him-a coming kingdom and the Father’s plan for reconciling sinners to Himself.) And the result?

Redemption.

Resurrection.

Reclaimed femininity.

And now, because the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in those who believe, we can access this same perspective and power, too (Romans 8:11). We can look over our loneliness, sadness, anger, bitterness and up to the eyes that love, fill, and raise us from the dead areas in our life and marriage.

Ask God to give you a higher view of Christ. He is the coming King of kings galloping from heaven with a sword in His mouth and a name written on His thigh-Faithful and True. He is the Resurrection and the Life that changes an unfaithful bride into a woman of purity and faithfulness.

We are not a slave to Satan’s view of femininity-Playboy Bunnies hunting for men and putting them one by one into her basket whenever she feels the need for attention. No, we serve a King who laid down His life to redeem us and our view of self.  So, let’s look into His eyes that purify our feminine wiles. Turn back to your husband and love only him, again and again.

Ask God to help you flee temptation and run back to your spouse. I bet you he finds some new time in his busy schedule, somehow. Wink. Wink.

· What view stands out to you through the window of Revelation 19:11-16?

· Do you still have corners of your heart that harbor the Playboy Bunny mentality?

· How can wielding Genesis 39:6 or Romans 8:11 prevent you from living like Potiphar’s wife Part Deux?

· What area of your life do you need Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, raise from the dead for you? (John 11:25)

Alan Paton Biography (cont)

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

When World War II broke out in 1939, Paton tried to enlist in the South African army, but education officials considered him too valuable to let go. By the time the war ended in 1945, Paton was considered an authority on criminal rehabilitation, but he wondered how other countries ran penal institutions for the young. To find out, he financed an eight-month study trip. He didn’t leave home with the intention of writing a novel while traveling. What started him off, that September afternoon in Norway, was a tour of the cathedral of Trondheim. The beauty of its famous rose window made him yearn to write about his beautiful homeland and its people. As Paton explains in an Author’s Note to Cry, the Beloved Country, it was in San Francisco that friends read his manuscript and started contacting publishers. The book was first published in New York in early 1948.

The novel sold well both in North America and in Great Britain. It was soon translated into some 20 languages, and made into a film in England (1952) and a musical in the United States (Lost in the Stars, 1949, script by the playwright Maxwell Anderson and music by the German-American composer Kurt Weill). The South African edition, dedicated to Jan Hofmeyr, came out three months before Hofmeyr’s death at age 54 in December 1948. Book sales in South Africa were second only to those of the Bible, and Paton became famous.

Critic James Stern in the New Republic called it “one of the best novels of our time.” And Orville Prescott, The New York Times book reviewer, wrote in the Yale Review that Paton’s novel was “the finest I have ever read about the tragic plight of black-skinned people in a white man’s world.”

Another event of importance to the Patons also occurred in 1948–the coming to power of the Nationalist Party, pledged to separation of the races in every sphere of life. At Diepkloof the Patons had ignored people’s color in forming friendships, and they could not endure the new government’s opposition to interracial association. With the success of his novel making Paton influential, he ultimately became a full-time writer and spokesman against injustice. Years later, in For You Departed, he wrote about the novel and that time period: “It is a song of love for one’s far distant country…. It is a story of the beauty and terror of human life…. Just how good it is, I do not know and do not care. All I know is that it changed our lives. It opened the doors of the world to us, and we went through.”

In 1953 the Liberal Association of South Africa (later the Liberal Party) was formed, and Paton was named its first national chairman. For the next 15 years Paton’s life was dominated by activities of the racially mixed party, by writing plays for multiracial casts and audiences, and by political writing and speaking. One play, Mkhumbane, drew packed houses in Durban City Hall in 1960–a time of peaceful black protest against apartheid at Sharpeville and Cape Town that was dealt with extremely harshly by the government.

For his work on behalf of the people of South Africa and against the evils of apartheid, Paton has received international recognition. In 1960, the noted American poet Archibald MacLeish toasted Alan Paton when the South African received the Freedom Award from Freedom House:

To live at the center of the contemporary maelstrom; to see it for what it is and to challenge the passions of those who struggle in it beside him with the voice of reason–with the enduring reasons of love; to offer the quiet sanity of the heart in a city yammering with the crazy slogans of fear; to do all this at the cost of tranquility and the risk of harm, as a service to a government which does not know its needs is to deserve more of history than we can give to Alan Paton.

Until shortly before her death in 1967, Paton’s wife typed all of his work, including the novel Too Late the Phalarope (1953), the story collection Tales from a Troubled Land (1961), and the biography Hofmeyr (1964). Since her death, Paton’s best-known work includes For You Departed (1969), a memoir dedicated to her, and The Long View (1968), a collection of articles from a Liberal Party publication. More recent is his novel set in the 1950s, Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (1981)–the title is a phrase borrowed from bewildered tourists who give up trying to understand South African politics.

All of Paton’s books show his love of his country and his compassion for all South Africans. He still hopes that violence there will end, that the dynamite will never be ignited, and that the views that will prevail will be like those of Arthur Jarvis and Msimangu in Cry, the Beloved Country. (Barrons Booknotes)

Alan Paton Biography

Monday, June 21st, 2010

For the next few days, and weeks, I am inviting you to grab a great book and let’s read it together!  My choice for this summer is, my last selection for my World Literature Course, Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, by South African author, Alan  Paton.   The following is background information from Barron’s Booknotes:

As the principal of a reform school in South Africa, Alan Paton was studying prisons for the young in Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the United States. The words he wrote about the hills of his home province of Natal released a torrent of thoughts for the lonely Paton. He thought about his country, its people, and the causes of the high crime rate among young blacks in South Africa. By the time he reached San Francisco in early 1947, he had completed the manuscript of Cry, the Beloved Country. As recently as 1982, Paton still spoke of the 1948 publication of Cry, the Beloved Country as the central event of his life.

Like Arthur Jarvis in this famous novel, Paton came from an English-speaking family in the South African province of Natal. He was born in Pietermaritzburg on January 11, 1903. His mother was a third-generation South African of English descent. His father was a Scot who had come to South Africa as a civil servant just before the South African (or Boer) War (1899-1902).

Paton’s childhood came during a time of promise. The British, who were relatively forward-looking on racial matters, had won the South African War, a bloody conflict with the Boers. (Boers, or Afrikaners, are descended from settlers of mainly Dutch, French Huguenot, and German descent. They speak the Afrikaans language, which is derived largely from Dutch.) In 1910 the British linked Natal, Transvaal, Cape, and the Orange Free State to form the self-governing Union of South Africa.

Paton’s parents held comparatively liberal political views. They also taught their children that Afrikaners had a right to preserve their own culture. Paton was educated at a high school for white boys, Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg, and then Natal University College, where he majored in math and physics. At the university college he not only gained an education, but also broadened his understanding of Afrikaners, blacks, Coloureds (as persons of mixed ancestry are called by the government of South Africa), and Indians. He was especially active in the Student Christian Association, a society dear to Paton’s hero, the South African political leader Jan Hofmeyr. Unlike Paton, Hofmeyr was of Boer descent, but he urged his fellow Boers to abandon bitter memories and to work for the good of all South Africans.

As a young man Paton also learned to speak both Afrikaans and Zulu, like Arthur Jarvis in Cry, the Beloved Country. In fact, Paton might be taken as a model for Arthur–a man with strong Christian beliefs who gradually decides he wants to devote his life to improving race relations in his country.

In 1925 Paton began teaching at the white high school in Ixopo. (His love of the area shows in Cry, the Beloved Country, from the first two sentences on.) While teaching in Ixopo, Paton met Doris Olive Francis, a third-generation South African whose husband was ill with tuberculosis. In 1928, three years after her husband died, she and Paton were married. The strong attachment to the Anglican Church that Paton developed in this period in his life shows in Cry, the Beloved Country–all the major characters are Anglican.

The newly married couple moved to Pietermaritzburg so that Paton could take a more promising job at his old high school. Six years later he suffered a severe attack of typhoid and was hospitalized for more than two months. During his recuperation he decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life teaching the sons of the rich. By that time Jan Hofmeyr was Minister of Education, so Paton asked his advice. Hofmeyr and the Prime Minister, Jan Christiaan Smuts, had just gotten three reformatories for delinquents under age 21 transferred from the justice department to the ministry of education. Hofmeyr advised his friend to apply for the job of warden at all three places.

Paton did apply, despite his lack of experience in the criminal justice system, and was appointed warden of Diepkloof Reformatory for African Juvenile Delinquents, a grim place outside Johannesburg enclosed by a barbed-wire stockade. Even Hofmeyr said, “It is hard to know what can be done with it,” but Paton was excited–at the age of 32 he’d been given a prison to turn into a school. Like the young white man from the reformatory in Cry, the Beloved Country, he felt he had a chance to change the lives of young blacks. The job lasted from 1935 to 1948, a period during which Paton also wrote articles like those in Arthur Jarvis’ desk drawer. In fact, one of Paton’s essays–”Who Is Really to Blame for the Crime Wave in South Africa?” (The Forum, December 15, 1945)–presents the themes of the novel as well as those of Arthur’s paper in Chapter 20 on the causes of crime among young blacks.

Given a free hand, Paton transformed Diepkloof. It held 400 boys (later more than 600), mostly blacks of the Xhosa ethnic group. He was appalled at the joyless atmosphere, and, every morning, at the stench. After supper and a full workday on the prison farm, the boys were locked up for 14 hours. From 5:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. they used buckets in their cells as latrines. Paton immediately began opening cell blocks till 9:00 P.M., starting with those of the younger boys, so they could use the prison bathrooms till then. He also let the boys romp, sing, and paint pictures on the whitewashed walls. By the time he was opening all the cell blocks, he had also had more bathrooms built. His changes brought some joy to the place, eliminated the morning stink, and also ended the typhoid outbreaks that had previously caused many deaths.

T. S. Eliot

Friday, June 18th, 2010

T. S. Eliot is arguably the greatest poet who ever lived.  Late in life he make a commitment to Christ that transformed his poetry.

I have a few regrets.  I suppose you have a few too.

I regret not spending more time with my children when they were children.  They are far from me now and I rarely see them.

I regret not keeping up with old friends. My best friend, Philip, died suddenly in his sleep a few years ago.  I had not see him in 20 years.  Why did I wait so long?  And it was too late now.

It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.

Resign yourself to be the fool you are.

You will find that you survive humiliation

And that’s an experience of incalculable value.

That is the worst moment, when you feel you have lost

The desires for all that was most desirable,

Before you are contented with what you can desire;

Before you know what is left to be desired;

And you go on wishing that you could desire

What desire has left behind. But you cannot understand.

How could you understand what it is to feel old?

–From T. S. Eliot, “The Cocktail Party” (1949)

I have regrets but no despair.  I know someday I will see my friend again.  And while we shall never again hike the Appalachian Trail, like we once did 35 years ago, we will spend eternity together at the feet of our Lord glorifying Him forever, into all eternity.

For me at least that soothes the hurt of regret.

Blog 4 Summer Reading

The following are some summer reading choices I would offer on the American family.

1. James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars

Hunter discusses how the Church is handling the family issue.  He argues that Mainline churches, by and large, have left the field to more conservative, and in some cases  non-denominational religious groups.

2. Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism

Reich argues that a polarization between rich and poor in America and throughout the world raises fundamental questions about the future of modern society.  He would categorize the problem in  American society under socio-economic inequality rather than a confusion in sex-roles or the decline of the family.

3. The Christian Century, July 14-21, 1993

This entire issue is devoted to the American family and ways that the Church can deal with problems related to the decline of the two-parent family.

4. Losing Ground, Charles Murray

Murray makes a bold assertion that the present welfare system is failing abysmally–not only is it too expensive, it is actually harming the ones it seeks to serve by creating harmful co-dependency between the federal government and the poor.

5. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged

Wilson does not blame American poverty on racism or confused sex roles.  Rather, he identifies chronic unemployment among minorities as the real culprit.

6. David Wagner, “The Family and the Constitution,” in First Things Journal, August/September, 1994

Wagner argues that the family is under assault from the state.  In the name of the “Community,” Wagner argues, the state is radically changing the notion of “family” by attacking notions of “individualism.”

7. Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925

Gutman offers some historical perspective on the African-American experience.  African Americans, Gutman argues, were able to survive as a community by developing a sophisticated family and kinship network that has fared them well (until recently).  I believe Gutman would say that the present welfare state has compromised that fragile family structure.

8. Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class

Ryan argues that the benevolent, Church societies of the 19th century did a fine job of providing welfare for the local community (at least in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865) with no federal financial help whatsover.  Chuck Colson and Jack Eckerd, Why America Doesn’t Work develops the same theme.

9. Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom

Levine, like Gutman, explores a minority culture and shows how important–and fragile–this culture is.

10. Paul Jewett, Man:Male and Female

Jewett’s work represents, for my money, the best overview of biblical understandings of male/female relationships that exists.

We have lost the prophetic edge

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Observation: we have lost the prophetic edge.  Everyone looks for therapy.  The one who sins, the one to whom the sin is committed, and the one who observes the sin but does nothing.  We all watch and hurt and do nothing.  We talk.  We examine the problem.  We hope that time will heal.  But it does not.  Because no one says “no, don’t do that.”  Or, “The Bible teaches something else.”  We just talk about how we feel, how we hurt, what is wrong with the other person.  We watch; we wait; and then we watch the Church become ineffectual.  Nothing is really wrong.  Nothing is really right.  As T.S. Eliot oberved, “The world will end with a whimper.

I have news flash for you:  Jesus Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life.  I don’t care if it is political correct.  I don’t care if it offends.  I don’t care if it feels good or not.  It is the truth.

My neighbor in McGehee, Arkansas, Jim Myers, and I used to go to the movies for free on Saturday morning.  We collected RC Cola bottle caps (ever had an RC and moon pie?  Yummy!  That avocation is one reason I am overweight today).  We would ride our flexible fliers 2 miles to the Malco Theater, burn in our 5 RC Cola bottle caps, and get a free movie ticket for the latest Superman movies (that were exciting serial versions).  If we had drunk more than 5 RC colas the previous week, we could turn in another two for a pickle (which only cost 5 cents anyway).  We would take our pickles and spend a glorious Saturday morning together with Lois Lane (without a doubt the most beautiful woman my 9 year old eyes had ever beheld) and Superman.

On more than one occasion we would ride our bikes back home, stopping at Pop’s Store to drink another RC cola (Pop, who loved my grandmother, would sometimes give us a soda free).  We called all sodas—RCs, 7 Ups, Coca Colas—“cokes.”  If didn’t matter if you wanted a “Dr. Pepper” or a “7-up”  you told Pop, “Give me a coke.”  He would ask what kind.  And you would have to say a “Dr. Pepper coke” or a “RC coke.”  The coke product had earned the right to be the generic, ubiquitous name for all soft drinks.  One had to begin with asking for a “coke” and then delineating the special type after that.

When we arrived home we pretended the rest of the day that we were Superman.  We took turns being Superman or a villain like Lex Luthor.  I was a better pretender than Jim Myers, so often I was Lex Luthor.  I played the role better, I must confess.  One day, however, we decided that we both wanted to be Superman and we both wanted to fly.

Now that was really not too hard to do.  We were convinced we could fly.  We sincerely believed we could fly.  We even borrowed our mother’s umbrellas from their hall closets just to be sure.  If our sincerity took us beyond our credibility we still could rely on the umbrella to save our little naïve necks from really hurting ourselves.  Or at least that was the plan.

So climbed up on Jim’s German barn, the kind with neat middle door that opens up in the roof.  And we stood in that window and I had an inspired though:  I would be a noble gentleman and let Jim jump first.  Like the actor Errol Flynn playing Robin Hood let his robber buddies go first across a bride.  I was going to let Jim jump first.

Jim was really cool but not the brightest light bulb in the house (sorry buddy—if you read this, Jim, I still love you old friend!) and I coyly suggested that Jim, being the oldest (by 9 months), and being the bravest (or stupidest) superhero, that he should jump first.  I even let Jim borrow my mother’s umbrella, with was the uncontested ,biggest, most ostentatious, umbrella in South Arkansas.  It sported pink frills too that no doubt would help Jim defy gravity.

Jim sincerely believed he would fly.  So did I.  We both did.  We really did believe that.  Jim held his nose—as if he was jumping into water—never understood why—and jumped with my mom’s umbrella extended to it full, glorious capacity.

You know what happened.  Jim and my mother’s umbrella landed with a dreadful thump on the ground.  Jim’s ankle was broken and worse to my 9year old mind my mother’s umbrella was irretrievably a mess.

Sincerity and good intentions, in this old world, will simply not get us anywhere.

Everyone looks for therapy.  The one who sins, the one to whom the sin is committed, and the one who observes the sin but does nothing.  We all watch and hurt and do nothing.  We talk.  We examine the problem.  We hope that time will heal.  But it does not.  Because no one says “no, don’t do that.”  Or, “The Bible teaches something else.”  We just talk about how we feel, how we hurt, what is wrong with the other person.  We watch; we wait; and then we watch the Church become ineffectual.  Nothing is really wrong.  Nothing is really right.  As T.S. Eliot oberved, “The world will end with a whimper.

The Emergent Church

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

I am reading a book on the Emergent Church and I am concerned.  The emerging church is a Christian movement of the late 20th and early 21st century that crosses a number of theological boundaries: participants can be described as evangelical, post-evangelical, anabaptist, liberal, post-liberal, reformed, charismatic, neocharismatic, post-charismatic, conservative, and post-conservative. Proponents, however, believe the movement transcends such “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” calling the movement a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.

I am concerned because this movement feels like existentialism vs. confessional Christianity.  It feels like a faith that is based on “feelings” rather than on the Word of God.  Face it.  Taking a stand for Christ is not popular.  And while I will not break fellowship with you if you are an Armenian (I am a Calvinist) that does not mean I will pretend we agree.  For example, my life companion, my beloved wife, is an Armenian and of course I would die for that woman.  She is the best thing that has ever happened to me.  But, honestly, she is wrong!  Once saved we are always saved.  But if I love her more than life itself, and I can covenant to live with her forever.  And I have done this.  That does mean that I have to say that she is right on this thing.

Do you understand?  I have the sort relationship, with this believer, this person, that no human or spiritual power can break.  But, in the same moment, in real time.  I tell you sincerely that my Karen is theologically mistaken.

There is something to be said about a brother and sister who make life together without agreeing on every doctrine, but not pretending that they can “transcend” this disagreement into an “emerging faith.”  Indeed not.  We have something more powerful—we agree to stand together in certainty and in truth for lifetime.  I am sure that someday God will reveal the error of Karen’s theology and she will agree with me (just joking sort of).

What do you think?

God Playing, Frankenstein

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

The following is a quote from a popular novel at the turn of the century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In this novel Mary Shelley creates a memorable character, Victor Frankenstein who is “God playing” by creating “life.”  However, the experience becomes a nightmare that destroys everything Dr. Frankenstein loves and holds dear.

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.  .  . It was on a dreary night of N ovember that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.  .  .Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.

I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness. Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!

Shelley warns her readers of relying too much on science.  The end result could very well be a “monster.”  Likewise many modernists, suspicious of tradition but excited about the advances in technology have a love/hate relationship with science.  Why does modernism embrace and reject science, both at the same time? That is a good question but its answer betrays the contradictions that are inherent in our society.

Poster Boy for Modernism

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Frederich  Nietzsche was the poster boy for the modernists. Born the son of a Lutheran pastor in Germany, Nietzsche likewise wished to be a pastor.  He quickly abandoned his initial pursuit of theology in order to specialize in philosophy and literature. When ill health forced an early end to his teaching career, Nietzsche began to write philosophy. Nietzsche never recovered from a serious physical and mental collapse.  Most of his works were published posthumously.

Nietzsche sharply criticized the Greek tradition’s over-emphasis on reason.  This was right up the modernist alley! Reliance on abstract concepts in a quest for absolute truth, he supposed, is merely a symptom of the degenerate personalities of philosophers like Socrates. From this Nietzsche concluded that traditional philosophy and religion are both erroneous and harmful for human life; they enervate and degrade our native capacity for achievement (www.philosopherspages.com).

Progress beyond the stultifying influence of philosophy, then, requires a thorough “revaluation of values.” Nietzsche bitterly decried the slave morality enforced by social sanctions and religious guilt. Only rare, superior individuals—the noble ones, or superman—can rise above all moral distinctions to achieve a heroic life of truly human worth.

Modernism

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Arising out of the avant-garde mood of optimism in the early 1900s, modernism was a radical approach that yearned to rethink, to rewrite, to recreate the way modern civilization viewed culture, politics, and science. This new thinking engendered a sort of rebellion that merged in full force by the 1920s. There were certain assumptions that modernist England made: European culture was old-fashioned and dysfunctional. Society was bound by the facileness of a society that was too preoccupied with image and too recalcitrant to embrace needed change. This disillusionment with everything status quo European led modern thinkers, writers, and artist to access cultures heretofore ignored. The Puritans embraced neo-classicism.  The romantics were nature lovers.  The modernists examined and replicated the lifestyle of Amazon prehistoric culture.  This of course was impossible and laughable.  Modernist subjects included primitive people groups who looked like they had just descended the steps of Piccadilly Station. In short, the emerging culture would undermine tradition and authority in the hopes of transforming contemporary society. They would fail abysmally.  They could not have their epistemological cake and eat their pneumatic icing in the same meal.  It was like mixing oil and water.   So, perhaps the best way to describe modernism is “nihilism.”

Nihilism was the questioning of all religious and moral enculturation principles as the only means of obtaining social progress. Ironically, a sort of modernist religion replaced the old orthodox religion and no progress was made at all.  Like poor Elmer Fudd and his futile quest to bag Bugs Bunny, there arrived a moment when Elmer exclaimed “West and wewaxation at wast!”  But poor Elmer and the modernists had neither bagged their prey nor knew how to rest!

Nonetheless, the modernists repudiated the moral codes of the society in which they were living. In other words, the modernists ran from Victorian morality as quickly as they could! The reason that they did so was not necessarily because they did not believe in God, although there was a great majority of them who were atheists, or that they experienced great doubt about the meaninglessness of life. Rather, their rejection of conventional morality was based on its perceived conformity, boring predictability, and its exertion of control over human feelings. In other words, they saw morality as a restrictive and limiting force over the human spirit. The modernists wanted to start again in the universe of ideas.

There were some historical reasons for all this chaos. With so many scientific discoveries and technological innovations taking place, the world was changing so quickly that culture constantly reassessed its direction and substance. The modernists embraced and believed in science, as cold and sterile a life partner it may be. As a consequence of the new technological dynamics, the modernists felt a sense of constant anticipation and did not want to commit to any one system that would thereby harness creativity, ultimately restricting and annihilating it. And so, in the arts, for instance, at the beginning of the 20th-century, artists flirted with so many different styles: cubism, futurism, constructivism, dadaism, and surrealism. Pablo Picasso, for instance, went as far as experimenting with several of these styles, never wanting to feel too comfortable with any one style.