Friday, May 2, 2014

Humanity Oozing Sin Like Pus

Here's a book review I published about 15 years ago in an obscure online journal the name of which I have long since forgotten.  I know it's sort of long, but it's a good review of a powerful book.  As they say in poker, "read it and weep."

    Proulx, Annie.  Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. (283 pages, $25.00)

            This is a collection of stories about “the damned human race” (to use Twain’s phrase). The Wyoming world that Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Annie Proulx creates here is so bleak, so dismal, so unflinchingly harsh, and yet so powerfully evoked that my response each time I completed another story (I read one long story a night till I finished the book) was to shudder and ask myself why I continued to read.
            But I did continue, drawn, I think, by the power of the storyteller and a hope for hope.  One of these stories, I said to myself, will reveal at least a hint of kindness, a glimmer of grace, or at the very least, a moment of gentleness.  And finally, near the end of the collection, I was rewarded, but ever so briefly.
            Of course anyone who has read Proulx’s The Shipping News, Accordion Crimes, or Heart Songs and Other Stories would know better than to expect in Close Range cheery tales of cowpokes singing folk songs around the campfire.  But these stories are even darker than her earlier works.  Diamond, a young rodeo bull rider in the story “The Mud Below,” was rejected by a father who would not claim him and a mother who tells him he cost her “everything.” He has become like one of the bulls he rides, a mean, sexual predator who is ready to inflict pain at a moment’s notice.  Near the end of the story, his young body broken and his heart emptied of any hope, he compares life “to the ranch hand, bent over a calf, slitting the scrotal sac.  The course of life’s events seemed slower than the knife but not less thorough. . . .  It was all a hard fast ride that ended in the mud.”
            In story after story, I saw brutal men--and women.  In “A Lonely Coast” the terribly intense Josanna Skiles (like a “house on fire in the night that you could only watch”) shot at her husband when they broke up, creasing his shoulder.  According to the unnamed first person narrator of the story, she also shot and killed her boyfriend in the confusion of a car accident/ road-rage incident because he had been flirting with her friend: “I think Josanna seen her chance and taken it.  Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.”
             The shortest story in the book, less than a page long, begins with Rancher Croom jumping off a cliff.  We then see his wife who is cutting a hole in the attic where she finds what she has suspected: her husband’s paramours, “some desicated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath the roof leaks.”   “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” is a tale of two families–the Dunmires and the Tinsleys.  The Tinsley’s son Ras runs away at sixteen, is nearly killed in a car wreck years later, and eventually returns home, terribly mutilated and unable to talk.  (“There was a whistling hole in his throat and a scarred left eye socket.  His jaw was deformed.  Multiple breaks of one leg had healed badly and he lurched and dragged.  Both hands seemed maimed, frozen joints and lopped fingers.  He could not speak beyond a raw choke only the devil could understand.”)  His one joy in life seems to be to ride his old horse through the country and expose himself to girls and women.  Eventually the Dunmire boys castrate him with a dirty knife and he dies of blood poisoning.  The story is set in the thirties and Proulx concludes it by saying, “Those hard days are finished. . . . We are in a new millennium and such desperate things no longer happen.
            “If you believe that you’ll believe anything.”
            Almost every story contains horrors such as these and in many cases the brutality displayed is traced back to a childhood in which the character is abused in some way.  But the brutality comes not only from the genes or the home; it seems to grow out of the harsh Wyoming  setting. In any time period, Wyoming is droughts, blizzards, lots of rocks and mountains and very little fertile soil.  But modern Wyoming is
disturbed land, uranium mines, coal mines, trona mines, pump jacks and drilling rigs, clear-cuts, tank farms, contaminated rivers, pipelines, methanol-processing plants, ruinous dams, the Amoco mess, railroads . . . the old ranches bought up by country music stars and assorted billionaires acting roles in some imaginary cowboy revue, the bleed-out of brains and talent, and for common people no jobs and a tough life in a trailer house.  It was a 97,000 square-mile dog’s breakfast of outside exploiters, Republican ranchers and scenery.

            The brutal environment, the abused land, and the historical struggle to survive, along with, I suppose, the basic nastiness of humankind produce a citizenry that perpetuates brutality.  Children hear only harsh words from their parents; husbands speak indifferently to wives and wives to husbands, sex is hard and quick, something a man takes.  But, as I noted earlier, a couple of glimmers of grace can be seen.  In “The Governors of Wyoming” the central plot focuses on a saboteur brought in to do harm to the cattle ranches because their cattle are destroying the land.  As a small foil to this plot we meet the Birch family, who are farming “for the long run,” and have decided to try to restore the land with various sustainable farming techniques, not concerning themselves with profits.  We first meet Skipper, one of the Birch men, as he is gently braiding his aged mother’s hair at dawn.  It is a lovely scene, made more significant by the realization that years earlier Skipper lost two small children when they climbed in the trunk of the family car and suffocated.  He has been sustained for many years by the metaphysical poetry of the Puritan poet Edward Taylor.  And so in the midst of this Wyoming brutality, we see, for a moment, goodness and even grace. 
            When I finished the book, I asked myself again why I read it.  Was it worth my time and energy?  I can’t give an easy answer.  For years, I have criticized novelists like Grace Livingstone Hill and Jeanette Oke for their sentimental portrayal of reality. A work of art must reveal truth, and these sentimental novelists try to create a world in which most of the ugliness and pain in the world is dispatched with the quick fix of some God talk.  But what do we do with a novel that has virtually no hope, no love, and no goodness?  Hardy, Hemingway, Steinbeck–all give us scenes of love or personal fidelity or hilarity in the midst of the bleakness of their worlds. What do we do with a novelist who shows us only pain and grief and cruelty and despair?  I know I cannot expect Annie Proulx to agree with Katherine Patterson who suggests that while happy endings are not truthful endings, neither are hopeless endings.  If an excess of happiness and optimism is untruthful, can the same be said for an excess of cruelty and despair?
            That’s a hard question to answer.  Surely, Proulx is a far better writer than Jeanette Oke.
Proulx just plain knocks you off your feet with her writing:  Her characters are startlingly real, the Wyoming terrain is drawn with brutal fidelity, the dialogue and the dialects are always right on key. And while it is true that there is no hope in her world, it is also true that a strong sense of “this is not the way things are supposed to be” emerges from her stories.
            Faithful to her vision of reality, she looks with steely eyes at a humanity oozing sin like pus, and she paints it as she sees it.  She makes me see it and feel it far more profoundly than any newspaper or talk show or trendy novel can.  Yet there is no voyeuristic wallowing in the bizarre or the horrific.  Reading Close Range, I know that (paraphrasing Matthew Arnold) I have touched powerfully on life at some points.
            Still I want to say with Patterson that hopeless endings are not true endings.  Most of the lives of the people who live in my community are not hopeless. The people I know are loving parents and spouses, busy in church and community working for the betterment of others.  They buy girl scout cookies, attend their kids’ ball games and concerts, sing in church choirs, take care of their aging parents, tutor children with reading and math problems. Sometimes their marriages fall apart or their kids rebel or their choir sings off key, but usually they pick things up and make a life.  Many of them look to a future where all things will be made whole. 
            Proulx, apparently, does not know any of these people–or if she does, she does not see fit to people her fictional world with them.  Because of this her fiction is not quite true to the reality I know.  Nevertheless, I will take the pity and horror she evokes in me and, secure in my faith in a sovereign God, continue to read her stories of life in a sin-skewed world.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Ogallala and The Keystone

The Ogallala Aquifer is an American treasure.  Yet most Americans don’t know or care about it, for the Ogallala cannot be seen with the naked eye but only by an educated imagination.  If you drive across Nebraska heading for more gaudy treasures like Mount Rushmore or Grand Canyon, you might notice huge green crop circles of corn and soybeans.  An educated imagination might tell you that these crops are being irrigated by water that lies beneath the ground’s surface.  And they are—water from the Ogallala Aquifer.
And then if you knew the Ogallala contains approximately a million billion gallons of water, which is to say about 2.9 billion acre feet of water, you might begin to develop a sense of amazement about the Ogallala Aquifer. 

An aquifer, as you probably know, is not an underground lake but something like a huge underground sponge—made up of water, sand, silt, clay and gravel.  The Ogallala is the largest aquifer in the United States and one of the largest in the world.  It covers 174, 000 square miles and stretches beneath eight states, but 67% of its water is beneath the state of Nebraska.  If the water of the Ogallala were ever used up, it would take 6000 years to replenish it.

Ogallala-irrigated fields produce 15 % of America’s wheat and corn, and 25 % of its cotton.  But this production comes at a cost to the aquifer, for the irrigation taking place has diminished the amount of water in the aquifer to such an extent that some experts predict the aquifer could be nearly used up in 2050.
The good news is that many farmers are learning to use the water more wisely and frugally in order to sustain the life of the aquifer far into the future, but changing attitudes and farming practices has been a slow journey aided by technology, education, and hindered at times by a tradition of over-use.  The realization that the Ogallala has already been exhausted by over-irrigation at some of its farthest reaches has caused farmers to think twice about extravagant use of the water. Still, much needs to be done to guarantee the future of the aquifer even as its water is used more carefully.

But now there’s a new menace.

The Canadian government wants President Obama to approve the building of a pipeline to carry sand tar oil from Alberta, Canada through the heart of the United States—including Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer—and down to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. 

Many American concerned about global warming oppose the building of the pipeline arguing that the sand tar oil from Alberta is unusually dirty and the use of it will only increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporters of the pipeline state that “the environmental issues have been dealt with decisively by the final and fifth environmental-impact statement by the U. S. Department of State.”  Joe Oliver, Canada’s minister of natural resources, goes so far as to say that “not building Keystone would increase greenhouse gas emissions.”  It is true that the State Department report raises no major objections to the pipeline.  But it also acknowledges that the proposed pipeline could accelerate climate change.

And so, as with many contemporary issues, we seem to have two truths:  the pipeline will increase carbon emissions; the pipeline will not increase—but diminish--carbon emissions.
President Obama continues to declare that our nation’s best interest can only be served if the problem of carbon pollution is not exacerbated by building the pipeline. 

Meanwhile, some Nebraska farmers through whose farms the Keystone is scheduled to pass, are protesting the pipeline for a reason that is not related to carbon emissions and global warming.  They know that pipelines break, and they know that when the Keystone breaks, dirty oil will gush into their aquifer.

They have good reasons to fear a broken pipeline.  In the last few months there have been three pipeline breaks in North Dakota each one spilling thousands of gallons.  In March 2014 an Ohio Forest Preserve was awash in about 10,000 gallons of oil from a broken pipeline.  A broken pipeline led to a spill of over 500,000 gallons of oil in Arkansas in 2013.  A pipeline spill allowed 42,000 gallons to flow into the Yellowstone River in 2011.  And the litany of broken pipelines and dirty crude pollution could go on and on.

Of course the major argument in favor of the pipeline is that it will generate jobs and wealth.   Sadly this is almost always the argument that wins the day, but I hope that when President Obama makes his decision on the pipeline this summer, he decides to do what’s best for the creation and for the America my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be living in.  I hope he considers not only the climate change issue but also the broken pipeline issue.

 I hope he has educated his imagination sufficiently to imagine two possible Nebraskas in the future:  :  A Nebraska alive with healthy communities and growing things carefully watered by the waters of the Ogallala.  And, a Nebraska dusty, bleak and barren, its waters polluted by oil or exhausted by excessive use

Thursday, February 27, 2014


My wife and I have seen four of the Oscar best-picture nominees, Philomena, Twelve Years a Slave, Nebraska and American Hustle.  Of these, Philomena is clearly the best picture.

Why?  Well, of course, it stars Judy Dench.  Who’s better?  And her co-star, Steven Coogan is first rate as well.  Not only that, but, along with Jeff Pope, he wrote the screenplay.

And it is the screenplay more than the acting that makes this movie great. The story, which is a true story, has deep significance, eternal significance one might even say.  Based on the book Philomena by Martin Sixsmith (Sixsmith, played by Coogan, is the journalist who help Philomena unravel the mystery of her son’s life), the movie tells the story of an Irish woman who got pregnant out of marriage as a young girl, gave up her child to the nuns, watched helplessly as her child was spirited away while she worked in the convent’s laundry, and then as an older woman set about to find her child.

When Philomena and Sixsmith seek information about her son, the nuns deny them access to all records and conversations and lie to them again and again.

The story reaches its climax when Philomena realizes that her son had been trying to find her for years, that he had been to the convent in search of her, and that his body is, in fact, interred on the convent burial grounds.  (He had died of AIDS in his forties.) 

At this point, Sixsmith is ready to tear the nuns limb from limb for their cruelty and perfidy.  But Philomena says simply, “I forgive you.”  She does it because she believes in a God who is forgiving.  She says to her journalist friend Sixsmith, “If I don’t forgive, I will be like you.  That must be terribly exhausting.”

And so we have the conflict between doing justice, that is, calling attention to the nuns’ hateful and misguided behavior toward Philomena and many other young girls, and forgiving them.  And perhaps Philomena gets both, for she gives Sixsmith permission to tell the story--which is a sort of justice.

People react differently to movies.  Even in our group which attended the movie, some felt she forgive too easily and some did not.  But we all, at the same time, wanted justice.  Justice and forgiveness.  It’s the tension between these two that makes for great religious art again and again.

Like all rich stories this film is about other things besides the justice/forgiveness conflict, things like sexuality, homosexuality, innocence and experience. Philomena is a film that says significant things. So do Nebraska  and Twelve Years a Slave, but of the three, in spite of (or maybe because of) its age-old theme, Philomena seemed the freshest and most engaging.

Final Note: Anyone reading this in the Sioux Center area can encounter this same tension if they go to see the Dordt College Theatre’s production of Doubt on February 27, 28, and March 1.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Spiritual Formation: Abraham Kuyper and the Dissolving Self

In 1907 Abraham Kuyper began a series of 158 articles on the lordship of Christ, collected as Pro Rege.  It is best read, says James Bratt, as “his diagnosis of the West one decade into the twentieth century.”

One of Kuyper's concerns is a “general decline of religious consciousness” in people, which he attributes, in part, to the dissolving of the self,  caused by increasing technology, an unprecedented knowledge explosion, and a preoccupation with mammon, that is, wealth and the accumulation of wealth.

We might respond with a yawn and say, “just another old man who can’t adjust to the changes that time inevitably brings—Wordsworth in the 18th century exclaiming that “the world is too much with us,” that “getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” Thoreau in the 19th  century lamenting that  “The civilized man has built himself a coach but has lost the use of his feet.”  Schelhaas in the 21st century complaining about Smart phones and Twitter and Instagram.

But before you dismiss Father Abraham as just another cranky old guy listen to a bit more from him:
“The spirit of a person from youth up becomes dispersed and divided over all sorts of things. . . .  Religion demands above all the concentration of the spirit. . . . [It] is a thrusting into the unity of all things so as to come to grips in the hiddenness of the soul with the unity of the One from Whom it all comes.”  But, Kuyper goes on, people “don’t want that anymore.  They’re scared of it.  And they’re too strewn about for it.  The spirit is always too full, too beset, too overburdened for it.”

I think he’s right.  And if he was concerned about distraction back in 1907, imagine what he would say today.  CNN tells me that the average teen sends 3000 texts a month!  And then there are ear buds and Netflix and Facebook and a hundred other media waiting with open arms.  Does the average teen-ager have space in his day “to come to grips in the hiddenness of the soul with . . .the One from whom it all comes”? 

Is it possible that the masses can be so entranced by their distractions that they cease to struggle with questions of God, existence, the universe?  I don’t know but I think so.  “Oh brave new World.”

My church (CRC) has devoted a lot of time in recent years to the question of spiritual formation, and I’m sure it has struggled with the concern that Kuyper raises here.  But I’m not sure how they or anyone answers it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Christian Democrat

In a couple of weeks I will chair the Sioux County Democratic Party Convention.  That news will not impress anybody who knows anything about the Democrat Party in Sioux County, for we probably represent less than 5 % of the voting population. Furthermore, I am not even president of the Sioux County Democrats—merely vice-president.

If I could choose my identity as a Democrat, I would prefer to call myself a Christian Democrat, but that phrase, which has some significance in Europe, has virtually no cachet and conveys no real meaning in the United States.  But I have been thinking that it might be time to organize a wing of the Democratic Party called the Christian Democrats.  Let me explain.

In the last weeks I have been reading James Bratt’s biography, Abraham Kuyper, Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.  Yes. There it is.  The great Neo-Calvinist political leader of the Netherlands between 1870 and 1920 (and patron saint of Dordt College), when he visited the United States at the height of his power, described himself to a Grand Rapids Democrat (newspaper) reporter as a Christian Democrat, and that occasioned an amusing exchange:  “He’s a Democrat!” screamed the headline in the Democrat.  The local Republican newspaper, the Herald, responded with a headline asserting that was not true.  After that, Kuyper had to explain that he could not support the Democratic Party in the U. S. because of its commitment to the Jeffersonian principles of the French Revolution which with their individualism and atheism were abhorrent to him.  (Kuyper’s party in the Netherlands was called the Anti-Revolutionary Party.)
But Kuyper had a great deal of sympathy for socialism.  He said that the “Social Democrats in the Netherlands were right” to blame the evils of the Dutch circumstances on the “entire structure of our social system.” Where he disagreed with them adamantly was in the fact that they had no true foundation, namely God’s eternal ordinances.

So while he denounces laissez-faire capitalism as “inimical to human well-being, material or physical, out of  tune with Scripture and contrary to the will of God,” his objection to (Marxist) socialism was that though they honored the second part of Jesus great commandment to love neighbor as self, they ignored the more basic first part to love the Lord your God with all your mind and strength. 

The laissez-faire capitalism of the Conservative party not only brought about injustice to the poor but was fundamentally unchristian in its promotion of greed.  The philosophical materialism of the socialists denied the very existence of God.  But Kuyper, like Calvin before him and like the socialists, believed government should play a significant role in changing social structures to bring economic justice to the poor. 

And so he called himself a Christian Democrat. 

And so I call myself a Christian Democrat.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why I've Been Writing about Advertising

More than thirty years ago, I developed and taught a high school course called Mass Media in which one of the primary units dealt with advertising.  The focus of the course was not to help students become effective marketers of some product but to become discerning users of mass media.  Since mass media—newspapers, books, radio, television, and (the just emerging) computer services, etc.—filled  much of the world our students lived in, we (the English Department of West Michigan Christian High School) believed that they should understand how media worked and how it worked on them—informing, persuading, inspiring, manipulating, and seducing them.  In that context I used Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and became convinced of its significance.

Recently I picked it up again, a ripped and tattered paperback with lots of underlining and folded corners of pages, and was again convinced of its significance. As I read it, I wondered if anyone today is worried about the moral issues inherent in so much advertising.  Do Christian high schools and colleges struggle with concepts like the permissible lie, exploitation of sexual/psychological sensitivities, caveat emptor, and psychological obsolescence as they are used in media?  Are they concerned with the way advertising objectifies humans as consumers so that we are no longer homo sapiens (thinking persons but what Erich Fromm called homo consumens (consuming persons)?

Reformed Christians believe that humans are made in the image of God and they often develop Christian schools in an attempt to educate the minds and hearts of their children to desire biblical truth and beauty and justice. But how can that happen if simultaneously they allow media to shape them into consumers?
I suppose one can assert, as George Will does (see previous blog), that advertising does not really have much effect on our desires.  But virtually all businesses seem to believe the opposite.  Or one could assert that it is an essential part of human nature, a part of the image of God in us, to constantly want new and different things. But there’s no biblical evidence for that but is evidence  to the contrary.

In America today, consuming stuff is considered a patriotic duty.  Whenever people buy more stuff (houses, durable goods, Christmas presents) than they have been buying, the media tells us this is wonderful news.  If people buy more stuff, then more workers are needed and unemployment goes down and our standard of living goes up and, we are in effect told, all’s right with the world.  But is it?  Does our stuff bring contentment?  Does the manipulation worked upon us by marketers bring us nearer to God?  Does the degradation of creation that comes with excessive production please God?

As I said at the top, I wonder if Christian schools—grade schools, high schools, colleges—concern themselves with these questions in their curricula.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

George Will, Vance Packard and the Creation of Needs

Vance Packard was not the only one concerned with the effects of motivational research applied to advertising back in the 1950’s.  Even Public Relations people were asking themselves probing questions.  Nicholas Samstag in The Engineering of Consent wrote, “It may be said that to take advantage of a man’s credulity, to exploit his misapprehensions, to capitalize on his ignorance is morally reprehensible—and this may well be the case . . . .  I do not know.”

W. Howard Chase, president of the Public Relations Society of America in 1956 said, “The very presumptuousness of molding or affecting the human mind through the techniques we use has created a deep sense of uneasiness in our minds.”

I could add another hundred such quotes from ad men and scholars of the fifties to these, but I would have to conclude the list by saying that in the end all this concern made little difference in the practices of ad agencies and businesses.  Nor did they evoke much concern in the minds of the American public.  To be sure, battles were fought and won concerning ads that manipulate children to buy “harmful” products like sugar-coated cereals, but for the most part, the American people surrendered to the media’s manipulation like sheep. Psychological manipulation of consumers won.  Business won.

In 1986, when Vance Packard died, the conservative pundit George Will, in a column written shortly after  Packard’s death, did a little dance on the grave of Packard.  After accurately describing Packard’s work as a warning to the American people about its “deepening submission to a subtle tyranny of selling” that turns “wants into synthetic needs,” Will dismisses these warnings as groundless fears, just another failed liberal cause. He offers as proof of his argument that Americans “are not plastic to the touch of the persuaders” the story of the failure of Ford Motor Company to entice Americans to buy the Edsel though Ford had spent huge sums of money advertising it. 

But that really proves nothing about Packard’s thesis.  Packard would never argue that Americans surrendered their entire mind to ad manipulation, and he would probably have said—if could respond from the grave—that the need for big powerful automobiles was a need created by advertising—as it surely was.  The fact that the design of the Edsel was dramatically inferior to the design of three or four GM cars in another thing entirely.

Will acknowledges a few paragraphs later that “most advertising aims less to increase aggregate demand for a category of goods or services than to increase a brand’s market share.” GM did a better job of increasing its brand’s market share than Ford did, but that does not take away from the power of advertising to manipulate.

Will also argues that advertising does not usually seek to create the need for a new class of products and he is probably right about that.  Most of the ads we saw during the Super Bowl were “product differentiation” ads, that is, ads that sought to show why we ought to buy this car or breakfast food rather than another.  But if you doubt the fact that ads also create the needs for new products, ask yourself what kind of cell phone you had ten years ago or three years ago.  We are constantly confronted with new products in ways so seductive that we just have to go out and buy them.

So George Will can do his little dance and sing “I was right and you were wrong” to a deceased Vance Packard because, in the end, business won—in part—because clever marketers created a nation of consumers.

But if you think we were made for something more profound and believe that messing with the psyches of people to get them to buy stuff is a nefarious business, then you might, like me, bemoan the fact that virtually every aspect of our lives in now dominated by the “business mind” which automatically carries with it the menace of manipulative advertising.