Friday, June 16, 2017

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

23568868Sometimes I pick up a book on an entirely unexpected whim, and so I did with The Neverending Story. I saw the 1991 Wolfgang Peterson film of the story back when our daughters were kids, and I remember thinking that it was pretty good. (The younger daughter, upon being quizzed, reports that she found the movie frightening, about people losing their memories. Actually, the issue of memory came in the second half of the book and was the subject of a sequel, The Next Chapter. She has a good--albeit traumatized--memory!) Anyway, good children’s and YA lit usually packs in a good story, fun, and a quick read (unless you're doing so aloud). This proved entirely correct with this classic. The film, as best as I recall it, did a pretty good job of tracking the book, so I was happy to learn again about Atreyu, the heroic young warrior, Falkor, the luck dragon, the Swamps of Sadness, and the Child-like Empress. (In doing some research I learned that author Ende didn’t like the film production and tried to stop it, but he failed. It’s been too long since I saw the film one around the time of its release, but it is an elegant and involved book, and that almost always means that a film adaptation will often prove thin by comparison.)


I won’t go into details about the plot, but I do want to share an extended passage that I found especially resonant, demonstrating again intriguing literature comes in all manner of cover: 


(Gmork, the werewolf that has been hunting for Atreyu, while caught in a trap, enters into a conversation with the young hero about the fate of Fantastica, which has been slowly disappearing into the Nothing:)

"You ask me what you [Atreyu] will be there [in the human world]. But what are you here? One of the creatures of Fantastica? Dreams, poetic conventions, characters in the neverending story. You think you're real? Well yes, here are in your world you are. But when you been through the Nothing, you won't be real anymore. You'll be unrecognizable. You'll be in another world. In that world, your Fantasticans won't be anything like yourselves. You'll bring delusion and madness into the human world. Tell me, sonny, what do you suppose will become of all the Spook City folk you who have jumped in to the Nothing?" 
"I don't know," Atreyu stammered. 
"They will become delusions in the minds of human beings, fears where there is nothing to fear, desires for vain, hurtful things, despairing thoughts where there is no reason to despair." 
"All of us?" Asked Atreyu in horror.

"No," saidGmork,  "there will be many kinds of delusion. According to what you are here, ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever, you will become ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever lies." 
"What about me?" Atreyu asked. "What will I be?" 
Gmork face grinned. 
"I won't tell you that. You'll see. Or rather, you won't see, because you will be yourself anymore." 
Atreyu stared at the werewolf with wide-open eyes. 
Gmork went on:
"That's why humans hate Fantastica and everything that comes from here. They want to destroy it. And they don't realize bit that by trying to destroy it they simply multiply the lies that keep flooding the human world. For these lies are nothing other than the creatures of Fantastica who have ceased to be themselves and survive only as living corpses, poisoning the souls of men with their fetid smell. But humans don't know it. Isn't that a good joke?" 
"And there's no one left in the human world," Atreyu asked in a whisper, "who doesn't hate and fear us?" 
"I did know of none," said the Gmork. "And it's not surprising, because you yourself, once you're there, can't help working to make humans believe that Fantastica doesn't exist." 
. . . . [Gmork continues]: 
"When it comes to controlling human beings there's no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. Beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. That's why sided with the powerful and served them – because I wanted to share their power." 
"I want no part of it!" Atreyu cried out. 
"Take it easy, you little fool," the werewolf growled. "When your turn comes to jump into the Nothing, you too will be a nameless servant of power, with no end of your own. Who knows what use they will make of you? Maybe you'll help them persuade people to buy things they don't need or hate things they they know nothing about, or hold beliefs to make them easy to handle, or doubt the truth that might save them. Yes, you little Fantasticans, big things will be done in the human world with your help, wars started, empires founded . . . " 
For time to Gmork appeared at the boy out of half closed eyes. 
Then he added: 
"The human world is full of weak minded people, who think there as clever us can be and are convinced that it's terribly important persuade even the children that Fantastica doesn't exist. Maybe they will be able to make good use of you." 
172-174.
Okay, enough of your bedtime story. Sweet dreams! 

St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle by Karen Armstrong

28672094Karen Armstrong is among my favorite writers on the topic of religion, and this book only adds to my admiration. Armstrong is not a Biblical scholar nor an academic student of religion, but she’s someone who’s dived deeply into religious traditions and who brings her findings and observations back to the rest of us through thoughtful, carefully researched, and considered books. This book only adds to my admiration for her work.

Armstrong is no stranger to challenging topics: the monotheistic tradition from its Judaic origins to the present (A History of God), Buddha, Mohammed, the Bible, the Axial Age, and religion and violence. But still, St. Paul can present a unique challenge. As Armstrong reports at the beginning of this book, she’d tackled the subject of St. Paul early in her career as a journalist and student of religion. She began that project, undertaken in the late 1970s, with the assumption that Paul took Christianity in a wrong direction, away from the legacy of Jesus. But as she learned more about this enigmatic and fascinating man (although in some ways we know little about him), she changed her opinion. Thus in 1983, she published The First Christian about Paul, whom she initially thought of as the source of misogyny, authoritarianism, and anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition. She reports that she changed her perception in the course of producing that book (and accompanying television series). This work, published in 2015, updates her quest to come to grips with this “misunderstood apostle.”

No one can doubt Paul’s influence. Indeed, I remember some years ago seeing a poll of scholars about the most influential persons in the Western tradition. In that poll, to my surprise at the time, some of the respondents rated Paul’s influence as greater than that of Jesus. I was shocked, but the explanation provided was that without Paul, the nascent tradition surrounding Jesus would have remained within the existing tent of Judaism. Paul, the Pharisee turned apostle after his vision on the road to Damascus, brought the “Good News” to the Gentiles. Paul's ministry caused chagrin to the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus, who intended to remain within the Judaic tradition, or who at least would have required Gentile converts to adhere to Jewish law and custom.


Another intriguing aspect of Paul’s story is the fact that his letters are the oldest documents to be included in the New Testament canon. (Aand I do mean his letters because some letters were later attributed to him by tradition.) Armstrong undertakes a vital project for her readers, in working to separate out what are certainly authentic Pauline letters and words from those later (inaccurately) attributed to him. Also, his authentic letters, epistles, were scrambled in what came to be the official versions, sometimes mixing letters and dates and subjects. Also, later editors would occasionally interject their own words. The Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, comes after Paul’s letters and provides a different (and not especially accurate) account of Paul’s mission. In fact, some of the most controversial (by contemporary standards) passages in Paul’s letters are later interpolations, such as the injunction for wives to be submissive to their husbands, or (maybe) his injunction to defer to the political authorities. (However, Paul, like Jesus and other earlier followers, believed the end times were imminent, and therefore any injunctions were for a transitory period.) Armstrong notes that Paul’s real value was in his proclamation of the Good News to those outside of the Judaic tradition (although Paul was very much a part of that tradition and was never anti-Jewish). Paul's injunctions about love, justice, and equality became fundamental (if all too often ignored) aspects of the Jesus Movement and then Christianity. 

Even misreadings of Paul, such as those of St. Augustine and Martin Luther, have shaped the course of Christianity. How Christians understand, appreciate, and use the legacy of St. Paul remains as vital as ever to the Christian tradition, and Karen Armstrong provides a trustworthy guide to continuing that quest.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

History & Prophecy
Tim Snyder, professor of history at Yale who specializes in modern East European history, has emerged as a leader in the resistance to the threat to democracy posed by the election of Trump. This book reveals why Snyder might have such committed and informed opinions about our current situation. The story of East Europe in the 1930s and 1940s is one of radical anti-Semitism (and the persecution and elimination of other groups) followed by state destruction by both Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes. The chaos that followed state destruction allowed the Holocaust to evolve into the mass murder that it became. The Holocaust is a familiar story, but it’s one that Snyder brings further insight to.

At the beginning of the book, Snyder addresses Hitler’s ideology. Hitler was an extreme and rabid anti-Semite, and he wanted “Lebensraum” (living room) for the German people. Snyder argues that Hitler’s concern with Lebensraum is not merely a matter of grabbing more land for Germany (although it certainly entailed that), but it also referenced a standard of living that looked to the U.S. for its inspiration. Hitler was infatuated with the problem of a Malthusian trap and the hunger and deprivation that Germany suffered in the First World War. To offset these fears, Hitler saw the Slavic and Jewish lands to the east as the equivalent of the American West, which was taken by force from what the white the white settlers considered as the ignorant and expendable natives. What Hitler intended and what his beliefs about Jews and Slavs would entail were not hidden.

Snyder also reports on how the Polish government tried to address the “Jewish problem” by helping to arm and train fighters to allow Jewish emigration to Palestine. But the Polish state was caught between the Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and as a functioning state, it disappeared in the joint onslaught that immediately followed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that secretly divided Poland and the Baltic states between the USSR and Germany. The destruction of the Polish state also ended the most effective state advocacy for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.

One of Snyder’s most arresting insights comes from his description of how the destruction of states by one side and then the other (after Hitler invaded the USSR) facilitated and encouraged the Holocaust. Snyder notes that Jews in these twice-invaded lands perished at extremely high rates, while those who lived where states (which entail bureaucracies) remained intact survived at much higher rates, even in Germany. The double-destruction created a moral and practical anarchy that stripped individuals of legal rights and their basic humanity, and that allowed the criminality of the Nazi regime to act unchecked by any rival authority. Snyder shares some stories of survival and those heroic few who saved others, but the offset against the truly staggering death tolls doesn’t create a balance, just a crack of light shining through a crushing avalanche of human depravity.

Historian & prophet
Snyder’s account summarized above makes for fascinating reading. The history of ideology, diplomacy, and criminality by states (Nazi and Soviet) and individuals is deeply engaging and troubling enough. But it is in his concluding chapter that Snyder goes beyond the role of historian to that of a political and practical thinker. In his concluding chapter, Snyder contemplates how our times share characteristics with those of this truly awful period in human history. Snyder writes:

There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized. If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in the broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and open the way to an unprecedented crime. (320-321).

Snyder explains:
By presenting Jews as an ecological flaw responsible for the disharmony of the planet, Hitler channeled and personalized the inevitable tensions of globalization. The only sound ecology was to eliminate a political enemy; the only sound politics was to purify the earth.” (321). (This refers to Snyder’s initial consideration of Hitler’s ideology; the use of “ecology” is an anachronism but a quite appropriate one.) Snyder goes on to note that “the course of the war on the eastern front created two fundamental political opportunities. At first, the zoological portrayal of Slavs justified the elimination of their polities, creating the zones where the Holocaust could become possible. (323).
 . . . . 
Just as Hitler’s world view conflated science and politics, his program confused biology with desire. The concept of Lebensraum unified need with want, murder with convenience. It implied a plan to restore the planet by mass murder and a promise of a better life for German families. Since 1945, one of the two senses of Lebensraum have spread across most of the world; a living room, the dream of household comfort in a consumer society. The other sense of Lebensraum is habitat, the realm that must be controlled for physical survival, inhabited perhaps temporarily by people characterized as not quite fully human. In uniting these two passions in one word, Hitler conflated lifestyle with life. For the vision of a well-stocked cupboard people should endorse the bloody struggle for other peoples’ land.  Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war on those who are poorer in the name of survival. Tens of millions of people died in Hitler’s war not so that Germans could live, but so that Germans could pursue the American dream in a globalized world. (324).

Reflect on this as you consider world population growth, the rise of demand for food and other goods by China and India and other developing nations, and our (American) attachment to material prosperity. Consider also this:

Hitler the thinker was wrong that politics and science are the same thing. Hitler the politician was right that conflating them creates a rapturous sense of the catastrophic time and thus the potential for radical action. (325).
 
Does this sound like any contemporary politicians? I think that it reminds Snyder (and me) of some. 
The similarities between now and then (the 1930s and 1940s) arise foremost from globalization. Snyder writes: “Hitler was a child of the first globalization, which arose under the imperial auspices at the end of the nineteenth century. We are the children of the second, that of the late twentieth century. Globalization is neither a problem nor a solution; it is a condition with a history.” (326). It promotes thinking—for good or ill—on a planetary scale. And when a “global order collapses, as was the experience of many Europeans in the second, third, and fourth decades of the twentieth century, a simplistic diagnosis such as Hitler’s can seem to clarify the global by referring to the ecological, the supernatural, or the conspiratorial.” (327).
In the past 25 years of so, we’ve experienced new collapses of order, in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for instance, where virulent, fearful ideologies team with economic and ecological precariousness to unleash new genocides. As pressures continue, especially in light of continued climate change and world population growth, we’ll continue to see these problems pop-up as they do in daily headlines. Hitler used bad science to foresee a bleak future, not appreciating the Green Revolution ahead, but we don’t’ know if we have further Green Revolutions available. And we have grave reasons to doubt that the fortuitous climate that civilizations have come to depend upon will continue in light of continued human activities that alter the climate.
A closing thought from Snyder:
States should invest in science so that the future can be calmly contemplated. The study of the past suggests why this would be a wise course. Time supports thought; thought supports time; structure supports plurality, and plurality, structure. This line of reasoning is less glamorous than waiting for general disaster and dreaming of personal redemption. Effective prevention of mass killings is incremental and its heroes are invisible. No conception of a durable state can complete with visions of totality. No green politics will ever be as exciting as red blood on black earth. But opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and polities, order and freedom, past and
future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as an image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but it handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labor of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination, maturity, and survival. (342).

To which I say, “Amen,” let it be so.