Archive for March, 2012

Elisha’s Tears

Friday, March 30th, 2012

“I weep because I see what you will do to Israel . . .”

               At times we  are called on to deliver messages we do not want to deliver.  When Elisha was sent to Syria By God, he met Hazael.  As he looked into the face of this future rule of Syria, Elisha saw how much Israel would suffer at Hazael’s hand in the future.  No wonder the prophet, who loved his people, wept.  It is always good news to hear that a sick man will be well . . . unless the man who gets well will kill your children.

            Elisha wept . . .

After September 11, 2001,  we in America are especially somber.  I am not in anyway mitigating the horrendous crime that was committed on September 11, 2001.  It was a great disaster.  However, may I suggest, that we have looked into the face of Hazael.  We are both the perpetrators and the victim in our present situation.

In our own country, at the beginning of the millennium, in spite of unprecedented prosperity, we see the seeds of our destruction everywhere.  Increased crime, poverty, and unemployment.  Hopelessness and domestic violence. Some of us wonder whether our American covenant is being recklessly compromised by some leaders who are choosing to condone practices that we see as immoral. We see Hazael.  He will survive . . . but will we?  Will the American dream survive?

The End of all Things?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Based on his study of twenty-one civilizations Toynbee found that societies in disintegration suffer a kind of “schism of the soul.”  They are seldom simply overrun by some other civilization.  Rather, they commit a sort of cultural suicide. Disintegrating societies have several characteristics, Toynbee argues.  They fall into a sense of abandon People begin to yield to their impulses–especially in the sexual area.  They also succumb to truancy that is escapism seeking to avoid their problems by retreating into their own worlds of distraction and entertainment.  There is a sense of drift as they realize that they have no control over their lives.  Consciousness is adrift, unable to anchor itself to any universal ground of justice, truth on which the ideals of Modernity and then Post-Modernity have been founded in the past.

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Frederick Nietzsche warned us that this would happen over 100 years ago. 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 our contemporary world’s 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 ( 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. Finally, Nietzsche warned that a decline of religion’s influence in society presaged disastrous results.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

I was reading an essay by Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves To Death.  He reminds us that 1984 came and went and Orwell’s nightmare did not occur.  The roots of liberal democracy had held.  But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another equally chilling apocalyptic vision : Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. These are Postman’s words, but all our fears.  Are the fears and nightmares of Huxley and Orwell coming true today?

Brave New World

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Brave New World  is more a statement of ideas than a narrative or plot.

The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explains that this Utopia breeds people to order, artificially fertilizing a mother’s eggs to create babies that grow in bottles. They are not born, but decanted. Everyone belongs to one of five classes, from the Alphas, the most intelligent, to the Epsilons, morons bred to do the dirty jobs that nobody else wants to do. The lower classes are multiplied by a budding process that can create up to 96 identical clones and produce over 15,000 brothers and sisters from a single ovary.

All the babies are conditioned, physically and chemically in the bottle, and psychologically after birth, to make them happy citizens of the society with both a liking and an aptitude for the work they will do. One psychological conditioning techni










que is hypnopaedia, or teaching people while they sleep–not teaching facts or analysis, but planting suggestions that will make people behave in certain ways.


Society is based on several principles. One is that “history is bunk”; the society limits people’s knowledge of the past so they will not be able to compare the present with anything that might make them want to change the present. Another principle is that people should have no emotions, particularly no painful emotions; blind happiness is necessary for stability. One of the things that guarantees happiness is a drug called soma, which calms citizens down.

Bernard Marx, an Alpha of the top class, is on the verge of falling in love with Lenina Crowne, a woman who works in the Embryo Room of the Hatchery. Lenina has been dating Henry Foster, a Hatchery scientist; her friend Fanny nags her because she hasn’t seen any other man for four months. Lenina likes Bernard but doesn’t fall in love with him. Falling in love is a sin, and she is a happy, conforming citizen of the Utopia.

Bernard is neither happy nor conforming. He’s a bit odd; for one thing, he’s small for an Alpha, in a world where every member of the same caste is alike. He likes to treasure his differences from his fellows, but he lacks the courage to fight for his right to be an individual.

Bernard attends a solidarity service of the Fordian religion, a parody of Christianity as practiced in England in the 1920s.

Bernard then takes Lenina to visit a Savage Reservation in North America.

At the Reservation, Bernard and Lenina meet John, a handsome young Savage who, Bernard soon realizes, is the son of the Director. The rest of the book is somewhat confusing but Huxley is trying to make some points about the future.

Community, Identity, Stability is the motto of the World State. It lists the Utopia’s prime goals. Community is in part a result of identity and stability. It is also achieved through a religion that satirizes Christianity. And it is achieved by organizing life so that a person is almost never alone. These are values that mock, and satirize, early American notions of the “rugged individual” and the “American dream.”


Identity is in large part the result of genetic engineering. Society is divided into five classes or castes, hereditary social groups.

Huxley wrote before there was an atomic bomb. He was more worried about the misuse of biology, physiology, and psychology to achieve community. Ironically, complete control over human activity destroys even the scientific progress that gained it such control.

Every human being in the new world is conditioned to fit society’s needs–to like the work he will have to do.

A society can achieve stability only when everyone is happy, and the brave new world tries hard to ensure that every person is happy. It does its best to eliminate any painful emotion, which means every deep feeling, every passion. Rather than offering satisfaction, the brave new world anesthetizes its members.

This society offers its members distractions that they must enjoy in common–never alone–because solitude breeds instability. The combination of genetic engineering and bottle-birth means there is no marriage, or family. “Mother” and “father” are obscene words that may be used scientifically on rare, carefully chosen occasions to label ancient sources of psychological problems.

The brave new world insists that death is a natural and not unpleasant process. There is no old age or visible aging. Children are conditioned at hospitals for the dying and given sweets to eat when they hear of death occurring. This conditioning does not–as it might–prepare people to cope with the death of a loved one or with their own mortality. It eliminates the painful emotions of grief and loss, and the spiritual significance of death.  In other words, death is a reality.  The Brave New World cannot mitigate that reality.  But it dilutes its effect by removing the concepts “grief” and “loss.”

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Although written as a novel of the near future, to George Orwell, and now, to us, the distant past, 1984 is not science fiction. It is a socio-political parable, a futurist work, whose effectiveness comes from Orwell’s astute assessment of the world around him and his anticipation, and prediction of the world that is to come.

In a dystopian 1984, Winston Smith endures a terrible existence in the totalitarian Oceania under the constant surveillance of the Thought Police. The story takes place in London, the capital city of the territory of Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain).

The protagonist Winston works in a small office cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history in accordance with the dictates of the Party and its supreme figurehead, Big Brother (who is probably simply a creation of the mind). Winston keeps a secret diary of his private thoughts, thus committing the crime of independent thought, contrary to the dictates and aims of the Party.

Eventually the recalcitrant Winston is apprehended, “reeducated” and repentant of his crime.  The novel ends with a completely changed Winston, loyal and true to “Big Brother.”

1984 still captures the imagination of generations of young Americans.  It remains a warning about the power of a ubiquitous state.

The Party has a slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The past exists only in written records controlled by the Party and therefore in memories controlled by the Party.

Winston is a great threat becasue, lacking humility and self-discipline, he did not allow his memories to be controlled. “You would not make the act of submission, which is the price of sanity,” he is told. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.” The mind, of course, is not the individual mind, but the mind of the Party, “which is collective and immortal.” The only truth is the Party’s truth. O’Brien reminds Winston of his fatal diary entry–that freedom means being able to say two and two makes four. Using torture, he tries to get Winston to say that two and two make five–because the Party says so.


War of the Worlds

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

One futuristic fear seemed to be coming to pass on Halloween Eve, 1938. Millions of Americans regularly tuned in to a popular radio program that featured plays directed by, and often starring, Orson Welles. It was the most popular radio program in America, syndicated all over the nation.

            Performances were live and transmitted to substations and other places around the world. The performance that evening was an adaptation of H. G. Well’s scien














ce fiction novel The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth. But in adapting the book for a radio play, Welles made an important change.  Originally Wells wrote this play as a fictional invasion of 1880 England.  Orson Welles adapted the play and pretended there was a real time invasion of the Eastern United States. Under Welles’ direction the play was written and performed so it would sound like news broadcast about an invasion from Mars, a technique that, presumably, was intended to heighten the dramatic effect.  It certainly did!  Its real effect was spectacular!


            As the play unfolded, contemporary dance music was interrupted a number of times by fake news bulletins reporting that a “huge flaming object” had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey.  To the average listener, it had all the markings of a legitimate news broadcast. The Hindenburg disaster, after all, had occurred less than a year ago. The Hindenburg disaster took place on  May 6, 1937, as the German passenger zeppelin airship caught fire and was destroyed.

            Listeners, then expected to hear news of another Hindenburg-type disaster.  What they heard was breathtaking.

            As members of the audience grew increasingly interested, actors playing news announcers, officials and other roles one would expect to hear in a news report, described the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States.

            The broadcast also contained a number of explanations that it was all a radio play, but if members of the audience missed a brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn’t arrive until 40 minutes into the program.

            At one point in the broadcast, an actor in a studio, playing a newscaster in the field, described the emergence of one of the aliens from its spacecraft. “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” he said, in an appropriately dramatic tone of voice. “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It…it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate….The thing is rising up. The crowd falls back. They’ve seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words. I’m pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I’ll have to stop the description until I’ve taken a new position. Hold on, will you please, I’ll be back in a minute.”

America was literarily terrified! People packed the roads, ran to shelters cellars, grabbed their guns, even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas. Educator Ken Sanes explains, “Oblivious to the fact that they were acting out the role of the panic-stricken people were stuck in a kind of virtual world in which fiction was confused for fact. News of the panic (which was conveyed via genuine news reports) quickly generated a national scandal. There were calls, which never went anywhere, for government regulations of broadcasting to ensure that a similar incident wouldn’t happen again. The victims were also subjected to ridicule, a reaction that can commonly be found, today, when people are taken in by simulations. A cartoon in the New York World-Telegram, for example, portrayed a character who confuses the simulations of the entertainment industry with reality. In one box, the character is shown trying to stick his hand into the radio to shake hands with Amos n’ Andy. In another, he reports to a police officer that there is “’Black magic!!! There’s a little wooden man — Charlie McCarthy — and he’s actually talking!’”

In the popular newspaper New York Tribune, Editor Dorothy Thompson presaged that the broadcast revealed the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to create theatrical illusions, to manipulate the public. “All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time,” she wrote. “They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic. They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.  .  . Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words. But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all.”



Friday, March 23rd, 2012

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” — C.S. Lewis

Choosing Television

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012
Recently a test sample of teenagers was asked this question: “Would you rather give up your father or television?” The young people chose television over their fathers at a rate of three to one! Given that fact, at a time when it is rare … indeed to hear a young person speak of his father with affection, Clarence Day’s book Life With Father is especially needed. Clarence Day’s father was a firm man, but deeply appreciated and adored by his son. He was a good father. Jairus is a good father, too. But Jairus’ daughter is dying. Jairus is an important official, and it is not judicious for him to grovel before the scandalous rabbi from Nazareth. In fact, Jairus could lose everything if he did. But his daughter is dying. She needs the Master’s touch. So Jairus risks everything for his little one….

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Elizabeth told her wayward husband John in Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, “I never thought ye bad, John, just somewhat bewildered.” Likewise I fear our poor country is not bad only bewildered by the plethora of challenges that we face.