Friday, May 20, 2016

"The sky is red, dumb ass," or -- humor in Matthew (we found some!)

If you are reading it for the first time in twenty or thirty years, it may strike you as something out of a Seth Rogen movie. Just one small paragraph, seven verses. In fact, let's pretend it is a movie script, and we are millennial hipsters writing it.


(Working title: The Sky is Red, Dumb Ass)

Scene: ancient Israel, during the Roman Empire, about the year 30 A.D. The frenzy of Jesus of Nazareth's career is at the height of its -- well, frenzy. He travels about a smallish quadrant of a very small land, mostly staying near the sea of Galilee, preaching, telling the Jews their religious authorities are corrupt (a la James Kirk -- "your Bible is a lie!" though of course, not that exactly), and especially healing people. People being what they are, they mostly come out for that. In droves, in crowds, in throngs. Over and over again we are told "the crowds were so great," "great crowds followed him," "they brought him many" to be cured. Once they are cured they tend to go away. Or he sends them away, perhaps knowing what they are. We don't often hear "and the paralytic stayed and listened to what else he had to say." 

There have also been huge miracles and bizarre sights. He has calmed storms at sea,
 he has caused a few loaves of bread and fish to be enough to feed thousands, he has walked on water from shore to his disciples on a boat, pitching about in a storm on the sea of Galilee. 

Frequently, after some course of miracles and healings and teachings, the presumably exhausted Jesus goes away by himself somewhere. Usually when he comes back they all climb into a boat and cross "the sea," and the cycle of working the crowds begins again.

As this scene opens, not only is that new cycle beginning, but food and bickering about food is on everyone's mind. (Incidentally we're talking about a world in which hungry men eat grains of wheat off the stalk in a field, or pluck figs off a tree by the road. Memo to casting director, everybody is skinny.) In his most recent fracas with the religious authorities, Jesus has had to answer questions about why his followers don't wash their hands (ritually?) before eating, plus he has had to deal with the Canaanite woman who rebukes him about 'dogs eating the scraps from the table.' Then he feeds another several thousand with a few loaves and fishes.    


Dawn on the sea of Galilee. A few minutes of gray coolness, even mist, are left before the heat begins. The boat glides in to the bank, and the disciples splash wearily one by one into the water, to pull it all the way in. (Memo to set director, were there wharves and piers? Did guys just run boats up on to the sand? Is the shore of Kinneret sandy or rocky? Find out.) Jesus also gets out and helps pull. Well, he would. He is the farthest ahead of all of them.  

The last couple guys picking up their stuff from inside the boat, before they get out too, notice that nobody has brought any food. In all the everlasting hubbub that their lives have become, "they had forgotten to bring bread." Or, maybe they had been saving those last few loaves that he just used to feed the crowd
. Present are: Simon called Peter, and Andrew (brothers); James and John (also brothers); Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew the tax collector; James "the son of Alphaeus;" Thaddeus; Simon "the Cananean;" Judas Iscariot. Jesus.

THADDEUS. (Still in the boat. Rummaging in a bag.) Ohhh ... (Did the disciples ever use oaths? They were, after all, ordinary guys before.)


THADDEUS. You're not going to believe this.


PHILIP. What's the matter?

THADDEUS. Let's just say it's a long walk back around to that bake-shop woman.

SIMON. Are you kidding? We don't have bread?

BARTHOLOMEW (breathless, working in the water). I'd go. She was cute.

JUDAS. (Furious.) Fuck. (Yes, he would say it.)

MATTHEW THE TAX COLLECTOR. (Looking up, knee deep in the water, a rope over his shoulder.) Don't. What is it?

JUDAS. It seems we've forgotten bread, because we're all so brilliant like that. (He jumps over the side, followed by Thaddeus, James son of Alphaeus, Philip, and Simon. The boat is empty. The men heave and push it to shore. One tosses the anchor up on the grass (the sand? The rocks? Find out.) They wring out the hems of their clothes. They would normally gather to sit and eat now. Judas stalks a little away, to get his bearings, to look for a road.)

BARTHOLOMEW (approaches Simon Peter.) We'll have to live on mutual admiration until the next town. We forgot the bread.

SIMON PETER (turning, then grins). At least there's no lack of water. 

ANDREW (the disciples have begun to gather in two knots; Andrew crosses from one to the other, drawing them together). I hear we have ...

JAMES. Yes, yes. Now what?  

JOHN (shrugs). Move on, find a town, buy bread. Or beg it. 

ANDREW. They'll love us.

JUDAS (returning). They might.

PHILIP. They often do by the time we go. 

JESUS (He has been standing a little away. Now he comes toward them, brushing the dirt from his hands). What is it? 

JOHN. Nothing too serious. Just annoying. We forgot bread.

JESUS. (Still slowly brushing his hands. His mind is always working at a different level. Food -- bread -- the Canaanite woman -- scraps for the dogs -- healing -- the sick, the sick, the sick -- why don't you wash your hands? why do you pick grain on the Sabbath? -- the crowds, the crowds -- the sea, the sea -- bread comes from grain, all you need otherwise is water -- but also leavening, yeast -- show us a sign.) Well. (He smiles, absently, a bit grimly.) Rather beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (He walks a little way off, up the rise toward the road.)     

THADDEUS. I'm sorry, what? 

JAMES. What was that? 

SIMON THE CANANEAN. Do you think he's mad? 

JUDAS. I don't think so. 

JAMES SON OF ALPHEUS. Who would forget bread?

THOMAS. We all forgot it, do you mind? 

SIMON PETER. It's those loaves he used the last time. The second time. That's what we packed for now. 

JOHN. Would you rather he not have fed hungry people? 

SIMON PETER. No. I'm just saying, we're not stupid, that was what we planned. 

JAMES SON OF ALPHEUS. Well then, we should have made adjustments in our plans. Look, what are we, a bunch of women here? Can we move on? 

THOMAS. I agree. I’m starving.


ANDREW. What about the boat -- 

JESUS (Suddenly he is just there, as if they had forgotten about him for years). What is it? 

JUDAS (After a pause). Nothing -- we're sorry we forgot --

JESUS. It's not the bread! You've seen bread. You've seen five thousand people fed with five loaves, you've seen four thousand people fed with seven. You've collected the leftovers yourselves. Have some faith. What I said was, 'Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.' You know, the powers that be? 

SIMON PETER (actually squinting). You mean ... the leaven...

JOHN. What transforms. A small amount changes everything.

PHILIP. All through the bread.  

JESUS. Yes! 

THOMAS. Makes it what it will be. You can’t unmake bread.

THADDEUS. Makes us what we will be. What we might be.

PHILIP. Their teachings are like leaven, in people.

BARTHOLOMEW. And, going forward ... because we'll meet them again. 

JESUS (Gestures a 'hello, dumb-ass' Yes, not to any one of them, but more to the day in general

(They all turn to go, Jesus first with Judas close behind, followed by the rest. As they walk, one disciple quietly explains to another, in snatches and whispers. "He didn't mean the bread. 'Leaven' is teachings, how they work in you like yeast works in dough ...." 

(The straggler is Andrew. Once or twice he looks back at the boat.) 

ANDREW. What about the boat? Should we just leave it? That's not our boat, right? 

They keep walking, and he runs to catch up. 



(Minor note: it’s amazing how often, if this were set in modern times, the characters would have said “Christ” or “Jesus” as a throwaway oath. Frequently had to stop myself from typing it in automatically.) 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Driving to work with Chesterton

Listening to Chesterton's Orthodoxy on disk in the car. So far he seems to be saying that the modern Western world is living in a state of insanity because we are governed by single-subject intellectuals who function as the insane do: they reason perfectly inside their own tiny circles of obsession, but are as untruthful, in day to day living as humans, as lunatics are. We know our modern joke about the man wearing a tin-foil hat. In Chesterton's day they were said to stick straws in their hair. "The madman has reason, and nothing else," Chesterton says.

And this in 1908, when the single-subject intellectuals at least propounded rather meaty codes like "materialism." They at least knew they were objecting to Christianity which, as Chesterton saw, they were glad to use "any stick to beat with." Too meek! Too violent! Unscientific! Uselessly scholastic! Today their great-great-grandchildren (in spirit) know nothing whatever. But they have only to nod their royal heads at the society under their care, to put women in combat and men in women's bathrooms. Just mopping up operations, as it were.

But -- the problem with Chesterton is that after a short while he is so annoying. I tried Napoleon of Notting Hill once, on a Kindle, so perhaps I could not do it justice one tiny screen at a time. At any rate I had to bail quickly. He described two friends walking together. Every so often one friend lay down on his back and waved his arms and legs in the air. Probably the author was on his way to some fine lesson about crazy behavior in public actually being holy, or about how long it takes bystanders to question crazy-holy behavior, or something. This went on for page after page, and it was early in the book. I shut off my Kindle and thought "Chesterton was insane."      

Now with Orthodoxy we have, I am sure, many fine thoughts and lessons, but all done in strings of sing-song paradoxes that just go on and on. "Far from the lion eating the baby, the baby ate the lion." Not exactly that, but very much like it. On and on. I pulled into the parking lot after thirty minutes of this, parked, pulled out the disk from the player and thought, "This guy was mentally a mess." A terrible thing to think of Chesterton -- twice -- the happy and healthy and productive and satisfied. But I couldn't help it. He mentions Nietzsche often, the "God is dead" philosopher who went insane. But what with the sing-song, and the artistically blurred photo of himself on the disk cover, glaring and mustachioed, I thought again -- well sir. I'm sorry but you look a bit like Nietzsche yourself.                                

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The answer

I think I've discovered the answer to all the nation's problems!

To wit.: return to taxation based on population, not income. This is what the Constitution provided for. (When Progressives got the income tax amendment ratified in 1913, "they won the war," as an old econ. textbook of mine said.) Think of the results: the problem-children regions of the country, the leftist coasts, the ossified Democrat-plantation cities, would bear a fairer share (isn't it delicious?) of the burdens that they are. Especially considering that they attract the bulk of illegal immigrants who are then counted in the census, which ends up giving those regions more votes in the Electoral College, and so eternal power over us poor benighted bill-payers anyway. And we would keep more of our own money.

There. Take it or leave it. Now I'm off to write my novel.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

What kind of balance

Random thoughts, random questions. 

Why do our (mostly) young leftist friends feel free to make grand political statements, context-less pronunciamentos, at family gatherings, or indeed anywhere? I heard a few exasperated oh-God-I'm-sorry-I-brought-it-up Easter survival stories recently. So I heard about people who found it necessary to casually proclaim, for everyone, which of the presidential candidates are xenophobic and exclusionist while handing the ham and scalloped potatoes. It's exactly reminiscent of some very minor P.G. Wodehouse character wolfing tea and sardines and lamenting that the foodstuffs have been "wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor." That was already a hundred years ago ("Comrade Bingo," 1922). On other days I have listened to wine seminar leaders brightly yip about climate change, and I've known a gynecologist purr "Thanks to the Affordable Care Act ..." while absolutely attending to his duties. I wonder if it felt like this for centuries while the Christians in antiquity took over. Granted they did far more good than our Comrade Buttses have ever done (though the comrades are certainly plying a religion). I would much rather have lived in a world of monasteries and hospitals than of arenas where slaves fought wild beasts. Still. The time must have come when decent people who happened to be pagan no longer felt free to speak. That willowy triumphalism forever at your elbow can't have been pleasant. 

And where is our modern novelist, our Wodehouse or our Barbara Pym, to chronicle it? This spontaneous scolding is as prime a fact about life in society, which is what novels chronicle, as gaslight in Victorian London or Wodehouse's harmless upper class twits or Pym's postwar spinsters, living quiet lives but yearning for the archdeacon. We want a novelist to immortalize the character of what Rush Limbaugh calls the "millenial snowflake [i.e., each one unique] _________" -- fill in the blank. The reporter, the hipster, your niece's boyfriend, forever performing these little mopping up operations long after their victory. Oh but um, wait. Any novelist chronicling that has to get past the millenial snowflake editorial assistant gatekeepers first, the ones wearing rainbow/Che Guevara t shirts, whom we have already seen give the nod to all the right genuflections in some of our recent, random contemporary reading. The teen boys kissing, the Russian monarchist emigre slamming Margaret Thatcher, the olive oil researcher blessing Mohammed, each in the earliest pages of their respective thick books.   

Now then, re: the jihad murders in Brussels. Or, pick one. Something else will probably happen before I finish this. Did you know that the Jews in Europe held a kind of one-off candle-lighting ceremony in 1942 or '43, to honor Jews who had already been killed by the Nazis? You will find the story documented, I think, in Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died (1967). Of those who lit candles, another million or two were destined for Auschwitz themselves when their own countries fell. Hungary for example. I don't coarsely compare war crimes, I just note a possible pattern in the way prey can't believe predator is serious, even to the end. Even ISIS -- which some observers, writing in financial magazines of all places, claim really is "on the run," picking soft targets in Europe because its commanders are being killed off in Iraq -- even ISIS taunted "what [commemorative] color will the Eiffel tower be next?"  

Let me ask you this. What kind of balance is the aware person obliged to find, between the little frivolities and escapes of civilization -- and the massive threats to it which make one think it's a dereliction of duty not to focus forevermore on politics and war? On the mere survival of human possessions like the Gospels or the idea of murder being wrong? Here are some of the birds of Kenya. For example. 

And yes, I want you to cook amazing food and drink amazing wine. I want you to savor the Turkish rose botanicals in Nolet's gin. Would you believe, once in a while very kind p.r. people still contact me to ask whether my readers would be interested in a certain product? Then, I presume, they open a new tab and get a look at Pluot, and they email again asking, Um, what other publications are you writing for? 

Have you ever read much about astronomy? Have you ever read Astronomy magazine? 
Supermassive black holes blast matter into their host galaxies with X-ray-emitting winds traveling at up to one-third the speed of light. In the new study, astronomers determined PDS 456, an extremely bright black hole known as a quasar more than 2 billion light-years away, sustains winds that carry more energy every second than is emitted by more than a trillion Suns (Astronomy, February 20, 2015).
That's fine. It's also meaningless knowledge, except that human beings know it. And except that knowing it, like knowing a few Kenyan birds, may be more important than anything else. Art and science, escape and frivolity. In order to grasp that, you have to turn around and grasp that there is something better than and outside politics, something a civilized politics should leave one free to know. I think it was John Adams who said he fought the American Revolution so that his son would be free to do politics, and his son devote himself to the arts. But politics -- or whatever it is now, that random triumphalist scolding -- seems to invade all and shrivel all. Your Easter brunch, wine seminars, doctor visits and everything. Even astronomers clamor at the doors of global warming, begging for someone to notice them. For power. 

Here I pipe up about terribly serious things, even though to do so makes me feel like a pill. It seems so  disjointed, so single-issue. The botanicals in gin are more fun. But they do it, they pipe up all the time ....  

I chanced to watch thirty seconds of the movie Platoon recently. It was just at the scene when Willem Dafoe looks up into the murmuring jungle dusk and says, "We're gonna lose this war. We've been kicking other people's ass so long, I guess we got it coming." There, I suppose, lies the entire thrust of American politics for the last forty years. Politics, again, in the sense of your hipster nephew's pronunciamentos at family parties, not in the sense of foreign policy necessarily. Who knew Oliver Stone would have that much power? And I will admit: thirty seconds of Platoon teaches that if nothing else, the beauty of the single life is that you don't have to feign a pleased interest at this, too. And then discuss it. You can switch off the t.v. and go to bed. 

Last, and it is terribly serious, do you think it's likely that Ambassador Christopher Stevens died of something else besides smoke inhalation at the embassy in Benghazi on September 11, 2012? I have Facebook friends who post links attesting that it was worse than that, but I must admit these friends have a rather gamy taste in "likes" and links. No respectable source I know has ever raised the possibility. Still. Is some other cause of death likely? Is it likely we will never be permitted to know? Is it likely that previous generations of Americans would have demanded to know and would have been answered? Is it likely that the woman responsible for broadcasting the ambassador's whereabouts, ignoring pleas for help, and then swearing repeatedly afterward that his killers must have been provoked by an amateur movie, and then for infamously asking What Difference At This Point It All Makes -- is it likely that she will be the next President? Is it likely the ambassador never should have been there, negotiating "freedom fighting" and "nation building" with people who don't want either? Possibly, yes. All of the above. 

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...