It’s the end of the world as we know it

I didn’t realize Amazon had so many free comic books!  Ahhh…life as I know it may have just come to an end!

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American gods

I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Though I have long been a fan of the cinematic adaptations of his books, this is the first time I have actually read Neil Gaiman. I wasn’t sure what I should expect but I didn’t expect this. The book is weird; not China Mieville weird, but weird nonetheless. The basic premise is that the gods people have believed in over the millenia do exist. But they somehow are brought into existence through our faith and when we no longer believe, they are left in this weird, immortal, limbo. America is filled with the old gods, like Odin, who immigrants brought with them. These old gods are now being squeezed out by the new gods of American culture.

But while the premise is interesting, it lends itself well to some introspective thought on what is America and what defines Americans. Gaiman explores this somewhat through his main character’s extensive traveling with Mr. Wednesday (Odin):

“It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside,” he said.

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the green-back, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” 

Living in a Tri-State region, I’d have to agree. While there is much that unifies us, there is a tremendous difference in culture between the populace of the three states. In addition, being a transplant, I have an outsider’s perspective on where I live and it is very different from where I’m from.

So what does unite us? Gaiman makes the case that Americans are a very religious people: we worship lots of different gods. I’m always happy when I find something in pop culture echoing the Reformed faith. As John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols”  We worship our government:

“As they passed their first signpost for Mount Rushmore, still several hundred miles away, Wednesday grunted. “Now that,” he said, “is a holy place.” Shadow had thought Wednesday was asleep. He said, “I know it used to be sacred to the Indians.” “It’s a holy place,” said Wednesday. “That’s the American Way—they need to give people an excuse to come and worship.”

We worship technology and television. Even Media is a goddess in Gaiman’s book. Shadow is confronted with the god of tv in a hotel room when Lucille Ball starts to talk to him out of the tv:

“It’s not Lucille Ball. It’s Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I’m not even her. It’s just an easy way to look, given the context. That’s all.” She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

“Who are you?” asked Shadow.

“Okay,” she said. “Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”

“You’re the television? Or someone in the television?”

“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”

“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.

“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.” She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while watching Anthony Bourdain’s show Part’s Unknown he made a keen observation. This observation came while visiting Las Vegas and it had to do with another god we have come to worship. His commentary starts at around the 1.05 minute mark. Truly, if anything shows it, this scene shows us what “the kingdom and the glory” we have come to worship as Americans.

All of this leads to a pertinent question: when we worship something that doesn’t give life, are we truly living? In American Gods, the main character Shadow is confronted with this conundrum by his dead wife. I’ll end with their exchange:

“I’m alive,” said Shadow. “I’m not dead. Remember?”

“You’re not dead,” she said. “But I’m not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.”

This isn’t the way this conversation goes, thought Shadow. This isn’t the way anything goes.

“I love you,” she said, dispassionately. “You’re my puppy. But when you’re really dead you get to see things clearer. It’s like there isn’t anyone there. You know? You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She frowned. “Even when we were together. I loved being with you because you adored me, and you would do anything for me. But sometimes I’d go into a room and I wouldn’t think there was anybody in there. And I’d turn the light on, or I’d turn the light off, and I’d realize that you were in there, sitting on your own, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything.” She hugged him then, as if to take the sting from her words, and she said, “The best thing about Robbie was that he was somebody. He was a jerk sometimes, and he could be a joke, and he loved to have mirrors around when we made love so he could watch himself fucking me, but he was alive, puppy. He wanted things. He filled the space.” She stopped, looked up at him, tipped her head a little to one side. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings?”

He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head. “Good,” she said. “That’s good.” They were approaching the rest area where he had parked his car. Shadow felt that he needed to say something: I love you, or please don’t go, or I’m sorry. The kind of words you use to patch a conversation that had lurched, without warning, into the dark places. Instead he said, “I’m not dead.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But are you sure you’re alive?”

The State of the Union

If you aren’t seated you probably should go ahead and sit down.

Okay, are you sitting down?

Tonight, the President is going to obey the constitution(!). He will give his state of the union speech to Congress, and through the FCC, all of America. Or at least those Americans who care or are too lazy to change the channel. Alex Pareene, writing on Gawker, has a great editorial on presidential speeches. I’ve copied and pasted it here in its entirety but please feel free to click this sentence to return to the original source.

The State of the Union Is Dumb Hacks Writing Garbage Speeches

“Six years into the Obama presidency, I thought we’d finally run out of hotshot administration bros the political press could glowingly profile in exchange for future access to meaningless scooplets. I was wrong.

Yesterday, The New York Times introduced us to Cody “Hemingway” Keenan. The president has given him the nickname “Hemingway,” not because he is an overrated drunk— though he may indeed be that—but because he writes and has a beard. Unlike Hemingway, who wrote novels and stories that people still revere decades after his death, Keenan writes speeches that the president delivers and that everyone promptly forgets, because modern political speeches are disposable garbage. Judging by this profile, though, no one seems to have explained that distinction to Keenan, his friends, or Times reporter Michael Schmidt.

Keenan is presented as a classic hardboiled writers’ writer type. He drinks Scotch, like a man might do! He stares at a blank page, because writing is a difficult, solitary business. The words just won’t come! But also sometimes he stays up until 5 a.m. hashing out speeches with his other writer friend, because the only thing more writerly than writing is writing with another writer. They drink Scotch. They write, writingly. They are The Single-malt Scotch Bastards of the White House.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama will deliver his next-to-last State of the Union address from a text written, rewritten, revised and sweated over by Mr. Keenan. In all the policy pronouncements about tax increases on the rich and tax cuts for the middle class, Mr. Obama’s remarks are certain to address the struggles of ordinary Americans in some of the gritty, Everyman prose that has become Mr. Keenan’s trademark.

Ah, who can forget all those examples of President Obama delivering the “gritty, Everyman prose that has become Mr. Keenan’s trademark.” The president sounds like a regular Hank Chinaski these days, haven’t you noticed?

“He reminds me of some of the folks I grew up with in the old days in Chicago journalism — those hard-bitten, big-hearted, passionate writers who brought the stories of people to life,” said David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama and a former newspaper reporter.

Axelrod, in the spirit of political communication, is using words to advance not a set of facts but an impression. I have no reason to doubt the size of Keenan’s heart, or the force of his passion, but the Times helpfully provides a capsule biography on how “hard bitten” he is:

In fact, Mr. Keenan, born in Chicago, went to high school in the wealthy town of Ridgefield, Conn., in Fairfield County, where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, voraciously read spy novels and was president of the student body. He graduated from Northwestern University, and rolled into Washington at the age of 21 with just a fraternity brother’s couch to crash on and a cocky attitude.

Right, yes, he is exactly what he appears to be: Another of the legion of frat boys who go to DC after college to begin careers in politics. If he in any way reminds you of an old-timey hardscrabble Chicago newspaperman, you have been in politics far too long, or you are blind and illiterate.

Modern political speechwriting is not a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents. Aaron Sorkin should be shot into space for perpetuating this bullshit fantasy that still enamors hacks like Cody Keenan. Writing a 6,000-word presidential speech is a process that bears only a mechanical resemblance to writing 6,000 words meant to be read and appreciated by normal humans. Some political speechwriters may also happen to be good writers, but they would have to achieve success in a field other than political speechwriting to prove it. (Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, for example, is funny on Twitter and a good political columnist.Neither of those things were evident in his work as a speechwriter.)

I am not arguing that any untrained schmo off the street could write a State of the Union address. Modern political speechwriting is certainly a skill, and one that requires experience and practice to master. It is not, however, a literary endeavor. It is marketing, and not even particularly imaginative marketing. Advertising people who call themselves “creatives” do more actual creative work than political speechwriters. Do the people who write statements of risk for pharmaceutical ads walk around swishing single malt in tumblers and comparing themselves to The Lost Generation? (Well, they probably do, but they are wrong.)

Political speechwriting is an exercise in the proper arrangement of cliches and platitudes, with a bit of “messaging” of policy ideas to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Speeches like the one the president will deliver tonight are designed to deliver pleasant inanities (The State of the Union is Strong) and sell certain carefully audience-tested proposals as vaguely (or misleadingly) as possible. The State of the Union is less written than it is designed, structured and organized around applause prompts and camera cues.

Here, for example, is some of Keenan’s hard-bitten, muscular prose, from a previous State of the Union address:

“Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades,” Mr. Obama said in the opening lines of last year’s State of the Union address, written by Mr. Keenan.

The president went on: “A farmer prepared for the spring after the strongest five-year stretch of farm exports in our history. A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford. A man took the bus home from the graveyard shift, bone-tired but dreaming big dreams for his son.”

That is boilerplate State of the Union rhetoric. Do you know what it doesn’t sound like? Good prose by a good author. Peggy Noonan could down two bottles of white wine and crank this kind of shit out in ten minutes before passing out. Paul Harvey would’ve been embarrassed to read this on the radio. It’s a storyboarding session for a TV commercial. If you actually imagine those images, the first thing that comes to mind is a soothing voice rapidly reading pharmaceutical contraindications.

Because Barack Obama is himself actually a decent writer, and because he is a good orator who has delivered some memorable speeches, his speechwriters have been showered with attention since before he was even elected president. Jon Favreau got a similar Times profile during the 2008 campaign, one of the first of a flood that would be written about him until he left the White House for the more lucrative fields of consulting, speaking, and screenwriting.

It’s not even limited to the Obama bros. John McCain had his own ersatz Hemingway in longtime aide Mark Salter—who at least ghostwrote McCain’s books, something that more closely resembles literary writing than preparing campaign speeches or Senate addresses. Salter was the recipient of numerous profiles during the 2008 campaign. (“Salter, 53, comes by his love of grit and combat honestly.”)

It probably all dates back to the cult of Kennedy, and JFK’s partnership with Ted Sorensen. But political rhetoric has inarguably declined in literary quality since the 1960s about as much as it had already declined, by then, since the 18th and 19th centuries. No one currently involved in speechwriting is ever going to craft a Lincoln’s Second Inaugural or a Washington’s Farewell Address, because speeches of that nature are not considered effective political communication in the 21st century. Modern speechwriters are certainly not doing anything comparable to writing deathless fiction about the realities of the American experience, because it would be weird if a politician delivered stark observations on the human condition instead of trying to make himself appear more acceptable than his political opponents to people who pay attention to presidential speeches once a year.

Tonight’s State of the Union might be an effective speech, but it definitely won’t be a good one.”  ~ Alex Pareene

Will the real Iron Man please stand up?

Elon Musk, the closest thing we have to a real Iron Man, has decided to pursue another ambitious project. He would like to use his space company, SpaceX, to deploy satelites around the earth. These satelites would in turn, make it so that every single part of the earth had access to the internet. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he wants to do the same for Mars. Because, you know, he plans to colonize Mars.

You can read more about his internet/satelite plan here.

Malarkey

Earlier this week news broke that Alex, a boy who was in a terrible car crash and subsequent coma, did not end up spending time in heaven as he claimed. The boy, who has the unfortunate last name of Malarkey, made the whole thing up. However, this should not be surprising. In the few places in Scriptures where we gain glimpses of heaven, it is not a comforting place. It is a place where awe and terror are so seamlessly one that it is hard to distinguish between the two.

In a story I saw later on in the week on this story, it appears the poor boy was taken advantage of. The above linked article has his mom claiming he has never been paid for the book. But while the substance of the book was malarkey, the boy did say something true when he recanted:

“When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”

Wow. Now that is a remarkable statement. A few observations that I’d like to point out.  First and foremost, the nature of revelation.

Protestant Christians happen to believe that revelation came from God through the Holy Spirit and was made clear through the Holy Scriptures. That is to say, the Scriptures are the first, middle and last word of God. Any further revelation is not to be trusted, especially if it contradicts what is found in heaven. Even if a boy should die and go to heaven and have amazing visions or an angel should appear with a fantastic message–if it is different than what Scripture has already made clear we should not believe a word of it.  The apostle Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Galatia (1.8): “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

I don’t know if what Alex wrote contradicted Scripture or not: I haven’t read his book. I haven’t read any of those books. I don’t need to, I have this book called the Bible.

Now, not all Christians feel this way. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in non-biblical revelation. This non-biblical revelation can be summed up with the word “Tradition.” That is, the teaching of the church. But their teaching is more in line with the historic faith because they still trust what the Bible says as being true.

However, there are major religions which “trust” the Bible while believing in non-biblical revelation. Specifically, heavenly or angelic revelation. These religions are Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints. Actually, if you study Mormonism and Islam, you’ll discover that they have quite a bit in common starting with how they were formed: Joseph Smith and Mohammed had an angel from heaven appear and let them know there was more to their faith than what the Bible had revealed.

This is why Galatians 1.8 is so important–a Protestant would not fall for Mormonism, Islam or any other teaching that adds to Scripture because we know that even if that teaching comes from an angel–it isn’t to be trusted.  So kudos to Alex for coming clean. Remember–if it doesn’t add up to Scripture don’t believe a word of it.

Gin again?

A Reformed evangelical author/pastor posted this on FB. Since Gin is my favorite, I thought I’d share.

11 Perfectly Good Reasons To Drink More Gin

image - Flickr / Tomas
image – Flickr / Tomas

1. Gin contains natural ingredients.

Of course, every gin is made with a different combination of ingredients, but besides the main berry, juniper, gin can include coriander, sage, cassia, nutmeg, rosemary, and angelica root. It’s like a much more fun version of the paleo diet…right?

2. Juniper berries are jam-packed with health benefits.

The main ingredient in gin is taken by many people as a daily supplement due to it’s medicinal properties. It combats infection(gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria), renal insufficiency, bad coughs and lung congestion, and can jump start a late period.

3. It’s a natural remedy for arthritis.

The stuff that helps chronic conditions is found in gin and cantherefore help with loss of tone in tissues and organs, as well as joint pain, gout and rheumatoid arthritis. Many people haverecently started to eat gin-soaked raisins at night as a homeopathic formula to keep inflammation at bay.

4. It can help eliminate wrinkles in your skin.

Alcohol, in general, contains antioxidants, but the added juniper-boost aids your body in regenerating cells, which in turn is great for maintaining smooth, line-free skin.

5. It fights kidney and liver disease.

Gin contains diuretic ingredients, which eases kidney filtration and therefore helps get rid of bad bacteria.

6. A gin and tonic can help prevent malaria.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get shots before travelling, but the cocktail was used in the days of the British Empire to prevent catching the disease that was ravaging both its colonies and colonizers. Quinine, which is used to make tonic water, was consumed religiously by English colonial people in order to stay healthy, and it didn’t take too long for people to realize that adding a bit of gin would make the tonic water a little more exciting.

7. Your digestive system will thank you.

The bitter herbs contained in gin can cause increases in digestive enzymes and stomach acid secretions, which helps break down food quickly and improves digestion.

8. It fights cancer.

The high antioxidant levels in gin help to “neutralize free radicals in the body,” which are some roots of cancer. These same kinds of benefits are found in fad drinks like kombucha, but wouldn’t you rather skip the ‘buch and get tipsy?

9. It won’t jeopardize your waistline

Gin happens to be one of the least calorific types of alcohol atabout 97 calories per 1.5 ounces. Since your digestive system is being revved up by the juniper, you’re also less likely to bloat and develop a urinary tract infection as it helps flush out toxins. That’s the kind of cleanse we can get behind.

10. A decent gin will not cost you an arm and a leg.

11. Frank Sinatra liked it. How much more classy can you get?

Ups and Downs

The Washington Post has created a hilarious, and disturbing, compliment engine. Drawing on Joe Biden’s memorable, and inappropriate, compliments and statements during his tenure as Vice President you can now be personally complimented by him! Check it out, it is hilarious and fun.

And just in case you think I’m being partisan, nothing beats the original: the Martin Luther insult engine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Luther was the most quotable person in history. And many of his quotes are hugely inappropriate. Check it out and enjoy being insulted by the great Reformer.