Sunday, August 30, 2009

Street-corner Totalitarianism...

Disclaimer - I write this post not as someone trying to criticize Christianity, but in response to one particular Christian (at least, that's how he portrayed himself) who seems not to have bothered to do any research before he decided to preach on a street-corner.

Last night on the way to dinner, I happened to have to stop at a red light at the busiest intersection in town. It is the place where people often gather to get their message out to the world. This time, however, it seemed not so much a gathering - there were only two young men in evidence - as a takeover. There were signs planted in the ground. There were the two men. And there was a bullhorn.

If you know me at all, you know I had to put my window down so I could hear what the young man with a bullhorn was saying.

The Gospel of Luke, he shouted though the horn, says that it's fine to compel people to come to Christ.

Huh? What? Never heard that one before. One would think I would have come across that sentiment, if it exists in any widely accepted school of Christian thought. I graduated from a Christian university, after all, and took several Biblical studies and theology courses in the course of my education there.

He can't, I thought, be saying it's all right to force people to believe something, or to act as if they believe something, just because someone tells them the must.

The light changed, and I drove on, but what I had heard bothered me a great deal. There was some discussion of it over dinner, before the friend I was dining with and I went on to other topics.

It was still bothering me this morning when I woke up, so I decided to do a little research.

Thanks to an online Biblical search engine, I discovered that there is a verse in Luke's gospel which does, indeed, use the word "compel" in a parable that talks about a supper, a master, a servant, and bringing people to the table for supper. Or, the Supper, meaning, I suppose, to bring people into communion with Jesus.

In the King James version of the Bible, Luke 14:23 reads:

And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

That wasn't the sort of Christianity I was brought up in. I was always taught, at least before my lengthy foray into Mormonism, that god wants people to worship him because they want to, not because they are required to. No compulsion, no force involved.

That is the definition of "compel", after all: "to drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly"; "to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure" (Thanks, Merriam-Webster Online.)

Fortunately, there were links to Bible commentaries on the website I was looking at, and so I had a look around to see what the commentators had to say about this verse and it's meaning. The reading was interesting.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible casts the verse as an invitation to all, that the servant in the parable was not to take excuses such as that the invitee was not worthy of the supper, or that the invitee did not have proper dress to enter the master's house.

Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible states explicitly that the verse is not an "argument...for compelling men's consciences, nay, for compelling men against their consciences, in matters of religion." Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, calls the verse an instruction to the apostles to invite Gentiles to follow Jesus at a time when there were huge controversies about whether once must be a Jew in order to follow Jesus.

In another commentary to something called The Fourfold Gospel, the commentators follows Jamieson, et al. in insisting that the verse is a commission to make sure that no one holds themselves to be unworthy of the gospel. It specifically adds that they were to be constrained by moral and not by physical means" and that "Physical constraint would have been contrary to all custom" at the time.

That was clearly not what the street-corner preacher was saying last night. Even in the short bit of his screed that I heard, it was very clear that his intent was to say that it is just fine and dandy to force people to follow his particular brand of Christianity. That there is only one choice, his choice, and that he stood ready to "compel" - his word, not mine - people to follow Jesus.

I could hear it not only in his words, but in his tone, in his emphasis of that word, in his very posture, which was nothing if not aggressive.

Where do people get these ideas? That it is perfectly alright to force someone to accept Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or some other religion or philosophy, that they do not believe in.

And, how would he enforce this compulsion? By physical threats, economic threats, with firearms?

And what ever happened to the Christianity of my youth, where no one would ever have had this concept of what it means to be a Christian, that it is okay to force others to follow your religious beliefs, much less shouted it through a bullhorn as a threat on the busiest corner in Fresno?

I can only hope that this street-corner preacher was an aberration, that he was speaking only for himself and the young man who was with him, and not for the vast majority of Christians in America. Anyway, he wasn't speaking for the Christians I know.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Follies...

I love funny signs. I also love signs that aren't exactly what you'd call, oh, accurate.

I live more or less across the street from our local CSU campus. I won't mention it's name, but its initials are Fresno State.

This evening, as I was coming home from shopping, I happened to drive past the on-campus arena. The electronic message board was, as usual, flashing promotions for upcoming concerts and for beer. But, in between those, another message came up, this one in relation to the new semester, which starts Monday.

"Welcome Week, August 20 - September 16"


According to my calendar, that's not a week. It isn't even a fortnight. If it were February it would be whole month. Really. That is a span of twenty-eight days. Four weeks.

So, my question is...In an institution of higher learning, which is what Fresno State is supposed to be, who is the genius who decided that twenty-eight days makes a week? Surely there is someone on campus who realizes that one week equals seven days.

Not freaking twenty-eight.

I'll grant that "Welcome Month" isn't alliterative, like "Welcome Week" is. Which makes it the English department's fault, yes? They like alliteration over there.

Still, it makes me nervous that the same people who are educating the state's children apparently can't tell the difference between a week and a month. It's just...wrong.

Wait. Stop the presses. I know who did it.

It was the same dumbass who scheduled one of my finals there (one of the two semesters I attended the school before fleeing for a more promising campus) for 8 p.m. on a Friday night.

Has to be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Maybe you can help me understand this...

So, I'm starting to re-read Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone, 1995), by James W. Loewen. I mentioned it in a post a few days ago as covering some of the same territory as Michael Parenti's History as Mystery, only in a better, more interesting way.

In the Introduction, on page 15, Loewen writes, after discussing how boring history textbooks (and especially high school history textbooks) are and how often they aren't exactly accurate:

Often a textbook is written not by the authors whose names grace its cover, but by minions deep in the bowels of the publisher's offices. When historians do write textbooks, they risk snickers from their colleagues--tinged with envy, but snickers nonetheless: "Why are you devoting time to pedagogy rather than original research?"

I knew that textbooks (of most kinds) are often not written by the named authors, but ghostwritten by publishing company employees. They're kind of like U.S. Supreme Court decisions that way; those are often written not by the Justice whose name is on the majority opinion, but by their law clerks. So that is not a shocking revelation to me.

However, I'm having a serious problem with his characterization of the attitude of many professional historians to the writing of textbooks. Why would they not want to participate in the writing of textbooks? Why would a professional not care whether or not the knowledge in their field is accurately presented to the next generation?

Maybe Loewen is exaggerating the problem? I don't know. I do know that the history textbooks I had in school, and that I've run across along the way are mostly very boring. I've never done a fact-check of any of them...although that would probably be an interesting project (yes, I'm a geek). But, despite the fact that whoever writes the books has to get a lot of information into a fairly small amount of space, I don't believe that history textbooks have to be boring and error-ridden. And certainly, even if the books are name/date/fact heavy, teachers can make the subject interesting. I've seen that done before. Not in my own junior high and high school classrooms, but that's another story for another time. It can be done.

What do you think? Can history textbooks be interesting and accurate? If Loewen is characterizing the attitude among professional historians toward the writing of textbooks accurately, do you think they need an attitude adjustment? How can that be accomplished? Do you think part of the problem lies at the hands of the textbooks publishers?

Oh, and one more question: If the minions are going to continue writing the textbooks, how do I get to be a minion? I think that would be a fun job to have. Well, maybe not if I have to do it in a basement, but still...I'm a writer, I love history, and I wouldn't have a problem with checking facts. I love to do research.

Edited to add: I do not mean to cast aspersions on the motives or attitudes of any professional historians by what I've written here. I'm asking these questions for a couple of reasons: 1) I don't know how accurate Loewen's characterizations are. 2) It is an issue that I'm concerned about as a writer; I want all books to be interesting, no matter what the subject, and I believe that they can be. I'm just here to learn.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: West of the West...

I don't usually go around telling people they must read a book. Mainly, that's because I don't generally like people telling me that I must read some that they've just finished reading. I don't mind recommendations, mind you. Love them, in fact. But I just figure that you like what you like, I like what I like, and those two things might not be the same thing.

I'm going to make an exception here. Bet you saw that coming.

Whatever you're doing right now, go out and find a copy of West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (Public Affairs, 2009) by Mark Arax, and read it.

Well, finish reading this first, but then go get the book and read it.

West of the West is a spectacular book. It is a series of essays that grew out of Arax's reporting (he was a writer for the Los Angeles Times and is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine) and his life. The stories he tells are fascinating, and his writing is graceful without being inaccessible. No matter who or what he writes about, he is present and engaged in the story he is telling.

And he tells a wide variety of stories here. There are several stories about immigrants...from Armenia, from Mexico, from Pakistan, from Vietnam. Besides the immigrants from other countries, he also writes about immigrants to California from other parts of the United States, in a piece called "Last Okie of Lamont", that mourns the passing of the Okies from the town where the labor camp John Steinbeck used as his model for the camp in The Grapes of Wrath was located.

He also writes about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how it has affected two families in the heart of the state; about Humboldt County, in the north state, where the debate is not whether or not to grow marijuana, but whether to do it in an environmentally responsible way or in a higher-yielding but far-from-green way; about a dairy farmer who only wants to be left alone to provide raw milk products to consumers who wish to buy them.

Arax shows the reader a bit of his own life as well, and in the process perhaps a bit of how he had become able to see the world around him the way he does.

I recently heard Mark Arax speak at a writers group I belong to, and one of the things he said that day struck me as particularly important. He said that it is impossible for a writer to be completely objective, because writers are not robots, but humans. So, the writer's goal is not to be objective, but to be fair. As far as I can see, he has met that goal admirably in these essays. He has a point of view, and he sometimes shares it, but not at the expense of the point of view of others.

Perhaps the reason, or one of the reasons, I like these essays so much is that a fair amount of them strike personal chords for me. I am an Okie on my mother's side of the family, which made much in "Last Okie of Lamont" familiar. My father was an immigrant to this country, so those stories about immigrants made a lot of sense to me, as well, despite the fact that their experiences are really not at all like his in most ways. And he writes more than once here about Fresno and the surrounding area, where he was born and where I live. Some of the places he mentions are places I drive by weekly, if not daily. There are events he explores that I knew as stories in the local news section of the paper when they were taking place.

But this isn't just a "Fresno book" or a "San Joaquin Valley Book", but a book about the California experience. And although Arax has picked and chosen the stories he tells, the real and complete California experience is here. Not the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and not just the big cities and the beautiful people, but the real California. Arax's California is the California where the very poor live cheek-by-jowl with the very rich, where the farmers have to argue with the cities for their water and with the government for their very right to exist, where the most horrible and wonderful things can happen.

Okay. I'm done now.

Go. Read. This. Book.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In which I finally manage to finish reading a book...

It took me a week, but I finally finished reading Michael Parenti's History as Mystery. I was nearly finished, but it took most of a week to make myself sit down and read the last ten pages or so, which are the end of a screed criticizing what he calls psychopolitics, the psychoanalysis of historical figures.

It isn't that I completely disagree with him on this, but it was also the part of the book where he explicitly (and finally) comes out as a Marxist historian, not my favorite way of analyzing history. As I said in an earlier post, it isn't because it's Marx, but that I find it a fairly simplistic way of looking at history. This is probably because I see a variety of things shaping historical events rather than just putting everything down to class conflict.

So, it was really funny to find Parenti, on page 265, calling psychopolitics "simplistic in its interpretation" and "reductionist", since that is pretty much how I view Marxist historical analysis. Just proves, to me anyway, that how you feel about historical analysis is relative, based on your own biases.

And, goodness knows, we all have our biases. I'm just more comfortable when a writer can recognize that they have biases and is willing to acknowledge them. My bias, then, related to my feelings about Parenti's book, is that, as I said, I don't like any analysis of history that reduce all causation to one single issue, such as class conflict. (Ouch! How many commas can I get into one sentence?) The world is a complicated place, motivations of the people who have shaped history are complicated, and to say that all of history comes down to any one aspect of all that is too simplistic for me.

Ah, well. It was an interesting book anyway, and Parenti has some interesting things to say. One of the most important things he writes about is the idea that "history", as it is viewed and taught in US public schools, is avoiding controversy and turning the student into a good citizen who does not question or criticize orthodox interpretations of How Things Should Be. This is not an original thesis, and has been explored by others, including Frances Fitzgerald in America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (Little, Brown: 1979) and James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New Press: 1995). Both are very good books and do a better, more thorough job than Parenti does in looking at how US history is taught in US public schools. I recommend both books; in fact, I'm about to go back and re-read Loewen's book, and perhaps Fitzgerald's, as well.

Parenti, on the other hand, goes farther afield and his scattershot approach, while uncovering some interesting issues in history and historiography, is sometimes a bit difficult to follow and I would have liked it better if he had taken more time and care to tie all the threads here together into a more coherent whole. As it is, despite the valuable places he goes in the book, I was left wondering what his point was, aside from the fact that he advocates Marxist historical analysis.

Maybe that was he only point, in the end. He could have said that more clearly, rather than just tacking a one-page "afterward" to the last chapter, the one on psychopolitics, where he sort of just sticks his tongue out at orthodox history and historians and essentially proclaims that "My historical analysis can beat up your historical analysis."

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A weekend with no reading...

But there was a good reason...I was at a family reunion, and it was lovely.

I took books along, all three that I'm reading at the moment. And I think I read about three paragraphs last night before I went to bed, and I can't remember a thing I read, so I'll have to go back and read those paragraphs again.

The only bad part of the weekend was the traffic.

The reunion was in Folsom, which is about a three hour drive from here. And I expected the traffic to be bad on Friday. I didn't get on the road until 3:20 p.m., after having to wait for my rental car, which turned out to be worth it since I got to drive a brand new Chevy Malibu. It had all of 7 miles on in when they gave it to me. So, I hit Stockton right about at rush hour, but traffic was heavy the whole way up there. And, as I said, I was expecting that.

But I really didn't expect so much traffic when I started home at just before 2 p.m. I don't know. Maybe everyone else took off this weekend, and they were all going home just when I was. But, I've driven home from places on Sunday afternoons before, and the traffic today was worse than I remember it usually being on a Sunday.

Well, expect for the Sunday after Thanksgiving, coming home from LosCon in Los Angeles, I suppose. But that's a special case.

Still, the traffic was worth it to be able to spend the weekend with family I don't get to see very often. We spent a lot of time talking, comparing memories, sharing stories and genealogical information, and just laughing a lot. least I got a little bit of knitting done.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

In which knitting takes precedence over reading...

I didn't get to read anything at all yesterday, aside from research for work.

By the time I finished with work it was time to get lunch, and then I went to knit. I got home from knit night about 8:30 p.m. and sat down to watch television for a few minutes before doing some reading...and promptly fell asleep for the next two hours. Now, I'm good, but not good enough to read while sleeping.

Today could be the same. After work (which I should get to soon), I've got to go pay some bills, check on my car rental for the weekend, and probably do some laundry. There are probably some other things I'll need to do that I just can't remember right now.

Knit night was fun, though, so I don't regret throwing reading over to attend. My knitting group is a wonderful community...definitely not your grandmother's knitters. There were about 30 of us there last night (attendance was enhanced by the fact that it was Pineapple Pizza Night), and as far as I could tell, everyone had a marvelous time. I know I did.

Well, time for breakfast, and then work. Or breakfast while I work, more likely.

Monday, August 03, 2009

I get these scathingly brilliant ideas sometimes...

And I intend to write about them, but then I get distracted by Ravelry or Facebook or Twitter, and before I know it, I'm about to fall asleep or its time to go to bed even if I'm not sleepy.

But I'm getting better. I managed to tear myself away from Ravelry (if you knit, crochet, spin, or dye, you might want to go visit) after only 45 minutes or so, and here I am. It's all in the willpower.

Yeah. Right.

Anyway...I'm still in the middle of my...well, it isn't a love/hate relationship, so just call it a like/throw it across the room relationship with History as Mystery. So, I'm not really prepared to write about it yet, but while I was reading at dinner tonight (at Irene's, home of the world's best hamburger and fries), I got what I can only call a scathingly brilliant idea.

I'm in the middle of chapter 5, in which Parenti writes about history and historians in academia. He complains (rightfully, to an extent) about the trouble leftist historians have had in the past in getting and keeping university appointments and points out that conservative (I think he really means rightist) historians have not had this problem, which is probably more true than not. But it struck me that he probably wouldn't be complaining if it was, say, Newt Gingerich, who lost his teaching post because of his ideology.

To be perfectly honest, I don't think that personal ideology belongs in the classroom. I've run up against that, on both ends of the political and ideological spectrum, and it just bothers me. However, there is no way that teachers, especially in history and political science, are going to check their beliefs at the door, so there needs to be another way to deal with how students are taught history.

Bingo. Right in the middle of munching a French fry, my scathingly brilliant idea sprouted. Because there needs to be room for left, center, and right (not the loony right, but real conservatives...and yes there is a difference, a big difference) on the university campus, there also needs to be a way to neutralize that for students. So, my idea is that, for history majors at least, to take their survey courses in U.S. (here in the States) and world history three times...once from a conservative professor, once from a centrist or moderate professor, and once from a leftist professor. At the same time...all three US history courses at the same time, and all three world history courses at the same time, so that they get all three perspectives in a way that can allow the students to compare and contrast and, oh, make up their own minds which is the most useful and accurate. Rather than be at the mercy of whichever point of view from whichever professor they happen to get because that course section fit into their schedule.

Yeah. I know. No university would ever go for that. I still think it is a brilliant idea. And I'm going to go on thinking so, because I don't get scathingly brilliant ideas very often.

So. I need to finish reading this book...I'm about three-quarters of the way through it. And I need to finish the other two books I'm reading, as well. The goal is to have Parenti finished before I head out of town Friday to go to my family reunion, seeing as it's due back at the library Monday anyway. Then, I'll take one or both of the others, if I haven't already finished them, with me in case I find some time to read in the evenings. But I'd like to have the fluff book finished before the weekend, as well. We'll see.

So, how was your day?

Oh, and extra points to anyone who can tell me what movie the concept of the "scathingly brilliant idea" came from.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Getting back on an even keel...

One of the things I didn't get to do nearly enough of during the time I took care of my mother was reading. It wasn't so much a matter of time constraints as that it was difficult to get to the library, and while I own a good number of books, that didn't mean that I always really wanted to read the books that were on hand.

Anyway, I've been trying, in the past few months since my mother died, to get back into the habit of reading...and of finishing the books I start. I've always been bad about picking up a book and starting it and then never quite getting around to finishing. Part of that is the fact that I just won't finish a book that I don't like; I might be OCD about a lot of things, but that isn't one of them. And part of it is that when a book is due at the library, it has to go back even if you're not done with it. Since I depend so much on libraries for my reading material, that is often a factor.

But, I've determined that I'm going to read more books, and I'm going to try to finish more of the books I begin. And I'm going to write about reading. If I do that, maybe I'll be more conscientious (damn...spelled it right the first time; go me!) about finishing the books I start. It just wouldn't do to have to keep writing, started X book...didn't finish; started Y book...sat it down halfway through; started Z book...threw it across the room.

(Yes, I throw books across the room. I threw The Grapes of Wrath across the room in high school; and I've been throwing them ever since. I would have thrown Catcher in the Rye in eighth grade, but I hadn't quite gotten yet that just because it was assigned didn't mean that I had to actually finish the cursed thing.)

The fact that I haven't been finishing things, however, doesn't mean that I haven't been reading anything. I've started lots of books in the past few months. And I've either gotten bored, or gotten hold of something that is more interesting than what I was reading when I found it, or just forgot that I was reading it and had to take it back to the library. There were even one or two that were just unbearable.

Anyway...I'm in the middle of three books now. Well, four, but one was put down so long ago that I'm not counting it, and besides that one is a re-read, so it isn't quite as bad that I haven't finished it this time.

I'm reading a silly trifle, Dirty Sexy Knitting, by Christie Ridgway (New York: Berkeley Books, 2009). Basically a romance novel, and not my usual sort of reading, but it's fun...although it hasn't exactly scorched my eyeballs yet, as the fellow knitter down at Ancient Pathways (my local knitting shop) who brought it in to pass around said it would. Maybe I just read more, um, adventurous, things than she does.

On a more serious note, I'm reading History as Mystery, by Michael Parenti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999). This one is interesting, basically trying to make the case that most of history as we know it is a lie, or at least willful misdirection in order to make the powers that be look good. Parenti, a Ph.D. in history, has made some good points so far, but his is basically a Marxist interpretation of history, something I'm not that big a fan of...not because it's Marx, but because I've always found it kind of a simplistic way to look at history. There's lots of finger-pointing at those he does not agree with, without much of the same toward those he does agree with but who have done some of the same things that he criticizes. Still, as I said, he is making some points that probably need to be made if historiography is not going to degenerate (if it hasn't already) into a tug-of-war between ideologies. I'll be writing more about all of this once I've finished reading and thought about it all a bit. Which is one thing I like about this book...about any book...I love a book that makes me think about things, and that challenges me to confront my own biases and opinions.

The third book I'm reading is West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State, by Mark Arax (New York: Public Affairs, 2009). This is a series of essays, some that have appeared in different form elsewhere, that grew out of Arax's work as a journalist and out of his own life. Very, very good so far. I read his first book, In the Name of My Father, which is a memoir about his family, growing up in Fresno, and dealing with the murder of his father when Arax was a teenager, when it was first published. Now, this past Saturday, he came and spoke to my Sisters in Crime group and so I had the chance to get this new book as well as a copy of his first book, which I will re-read soon.

Arax's talk Saturday was fabulous, by the way. It has me more motivated than I have been in a long time to get on with my writing. It's nice to hear the other writers who come speak to the group, but most of them are novelists and short story writers. Which is fine; I'm trying to learn how to write fiction. But I mostly write non-fiction, and I self-identify as a non-fiction writer rather than as a would-be novelist. So, it was good to hear from someone who does what I do, what I try to do. And I loved that he said that the objective of a non-fiction writer is not objectivity, which is impossible unless you are a robot, but fairness. This is something I've believed for a long time, and it was nice to hear that a writer as successful as he is agrees.

Well, it's late, and 7 a.m. comes very early. I just hope I can get to sleep; I slept 'til 10:30 Sunday morning, and then took a three-hour nap in the afternoon. Catching up was a good thing, but now I'm not sleepy although it's after midnight.

Oh, and I wanted to ask you...what are all of you reading right now?