Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Thoughts After Dinner at Wendy's

At Wendy's they are advertising a new sandwich; it is called 'The Baconator' and is essentially a double cheeseburger garnished with a mound of bacon. The tagline for this sandwich is "Careful, it can sense fear." The audience for the sandwich, obviously, is the young male. I did not partake, but it did cause me to wonder, what does it say about a society that masculinity is asserted by eating a certain sort of sandwich. Wendy's' advertising tactics have even taken this idea to a new place. For it was not long ago, if I remember correctly, that a similar sandwich at Burger King was advertised merely as "Meat and cheese, cheese and meat," a satisfying chiasmus that cut straight to the point, as it seemed. But Wendy's has gone further, and, even more than presenting its sandwich as a challenge to masculinity, as is also often done, has portrayed it a beast of sorts to be hunted. In eating this sandwich, says Wendy's, a man has not only asserted his masculinity by showing he consumes something with the proper cultural resonances, but has ritually acted out a sort of hunt and struggle, and emerged triumphant on his strength, the original man, the pure man of the jungle.

This all led me to wonder at what point in history masculinity in our culture began to be asserted in the sort of food one eats (one could also ask what has elevated the sort of animalistic baseness described above to masculinity, but that is probably a far far more complicated question). Food has always been linked to culture, of course: only a barbarian would drink beer and use butter where a civilized man would had his wine and olive oil in the ancient world. It is also probably true that, as men are on the whole larger and stronger than women, it is a cross-cultural phenomenon that men generally eat more than women. Yet Wendy's is not appealing to biology, but rather to a sense of masculinity that recommends a sort of primal force and vigor; furthermore the man who eats the sandwich has no more to do than eat it. He pays for it, it is prepared for him, he consumes it. Somewhere there he has become more manly, and nowhere there has he done much of anything.

It seems to me this all comes quite easily down to the capitalistic system; many things do. After all, the man is spending his money to construct his identity. He does not participate in civic ritual to gain it, he does not come into it by right of birth, does not create it in action, neither forms it under tutelage; he buys it. 'The Baconator' is one of those things that practically screams commodity fetish. However, I have not taken the time to research this fully; it would be interesting to see how the eating of meat, or of other things, for that matter, has been viewed in other cultures as an indicator of masculinity.

In any case, I just wanted to make your next fast food experience that much more complicated.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mark 10:28-30

Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life." (Mark 10:28-30)

I was today stirred by this passage as I read it because it speaks firmly to the community and unity of the body of Christ, the way in which the Christian is linked to his fellows. For Christian is joined to Christian in a way that merely naming cannot capture. We are one with one another because we are one in the same Lord; “You are all one in Christ Jesus” says St. Paul (Galatians 3:28). For when we leave the family that is ours by the laws of flesh for the sake of Christ we come into a greater family by the Spirit wherein God adopts us as his own (Romans 8:15). However many siblings we had in the flesh, there are more and truer in Christ; however loving a mother, there is no care as that of many Christians; however good a father, there is none good but God (Mark 10:18).

If the Christian has indeed laid aside all that ties him to the systems of the world for the sake of the one who was sent from heaven and the word he was sent to preach, he has but chosen to dedicate himself to that only which is worthy of dedication. Yet because God is a gift-giver beyond all accounting, he requites even this good loss with a greater gain in the same kind. The Christian has left behind him a house, but every house that will receive his peace is open to him (Luke 10:5-7). The Christian has lost a brother, a sister, a mother, perhaps children. He has gained for his brother and sister every Christian around the world, and by a better bond than ever human blood or human custom could provide; for it is the love of God and not the tradition of man that effects it. His mother is every Christian which nurtures him and cherishes him and consoles him, and his children are all the Christians that he nurtures, cherishes, and consoles in turn. Perhaps he has left behind land, but the whole world belongs to his Master.

As to persecutions, by which all these things shall come, or which shall come along with them (the Greek accepts either reading), we have the assurance that we are blessed in them (Matthew 5:10), and we perceive that they are a natural result of such loss for the gospel’s sake. For whoever would cast off all that the world values to serve a man executed under due process of the law cannot long continue without the scorn of that world; and what part shall not scorn him shall stand perplexed, so that they will either harden in their hearts and become persecutors in their turn, or search out the Power that has so confounded them; and they shall find him if they seek him. So is this dedication to Christ the source of many blessings and various, both for the one who comes to follow and the followers he joins, to the ones that receive him, and the ones that see him go.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shocking New Discovery

One of the many sharp exegetes of the biblioblogosphere has recently brought to light this reading of a text central to many Christians; he may well prevail against the very foundations of the Church.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How I Waste My Time

There are, of course, many ways, but one of them is online quizzes, which I find quite amusing. Here's one that's been going around the 'biblioblogs' (as they call themselves):


I tested as Linear A, the more mysterious of the two systems of writing which preceded the Greek alphabet in the Bronze Age Aegean . Linear A's younger brother, Linear B, which seems to have been current in mainland Greece and parts of the Aegean such as Crete in the 13th century BC, has been deciphered, but Linear A, which appears to have been in use on Crete from roughly 1800-1450 BC, remains unknown. Linear B was used to write a very ancient dialect of Greek using a mix of ideograms (idea-pictures) or logograms (word-pictures), which, according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary ("pre-alphabetic scripts (Greece)") were "in origin pictorial, but often [developed] into unrecognizable patterns," and syllabic symbols. From what we can tell, Linear A seems to have operated in a similar fashion, but, as we do not know that language that matches the script, it is impossible to do more that conjecture.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Words That Mean Only Themselves: Asbestos

This is the first installment in what I hope shall become an intermittent series for this blog. The title refers to that class of words which both have a very tightly circumscribed meaning, and have been brought into English from other languages. Such words do not present the English speaker with their component parts, but rather arrive as a single unit, and therefore, to the uneducated take on a sort of mystical status in their meanings.

Take for example, the words ‘stance’ and ‘standing;’ both are formed in the same way from the verbs (identical in basic meaning) stare and stand, respectively. However, since ‘stance’ is a word adapted to English use from Latin (through Italian and French), the presence of this link in meaning to the whole system of ‘stand’ words is not as obvious as it is in ‘standing,’ which is an English word. ‘Stance’ and words like it are as slippery as they are untethered: we cannot grasp them because their meanings are so inflexible and fixed and we cannot identify their place within the bounds of our language because they did not spring out of it; they have only specific and complex meanings, and not simple or intuitive ones, because they are not native to English, and therefore must always exist, to some degree, as jargon. For these reasons I have identified them in the title of this post as meaning only themselves. I hope I will not be alone in finding it a fascinating and edifying task to uncover the etymology of such words.

I encountered today’s word, asbestos, in reading the Gospel of Matthew, 3:12, where the chaff will be burnt πυρι ασβεστω, with unquenchable fire. The Greek ασβεστος is formed from the root of the verb σβεννυμι, quench, and the Greek equivalent of un-, what grammarians call the Alpha Privative, or “The A That Takes Away,” which English speakers will be familiar with from words like 'atypical.' It therefore means, quite simply, unquenchable (Liddell and Scott says “of fire and laughter etc”). The modern meaning that you’ll find in the dictionary is derived from its application to certain minerals. Yet because of popular knowledge of the dangerous effects of those minerals, asbestos has come, in colloquial language, to be almost exclusively associated with poisoning, a turn which seems unfortunate for what was once such a fine poetic word in its original tongue: my Greek lexicon cites a beautiful phrase of Aeschylus, ασβεστος πορος οκεανου, “Ocean’s inextinguishable passage.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What Jeremiah Said to the Enlightenment

Reading tonight from the prophet Jeremiah I was struck by his description of false prophets (23.16-17): Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you;” and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”

This false prophecy is surely the wisdom of our world, the wisdom of religious tolerance, that smiling sickness that bids us rather respect our neighbors than love them, that sets the revealed Word of God beside the vain imaginations of men, and the Creator among his creatures. And I know that I not least among many Christians of this age remain chained to these destructive worldly habits, and do but lend justice to God’s wrath in my every abstinence of exhortation and evangelism. And like the ancient Israelites, reproved and repentant, I still come back to Baal, as these words testify which I wrote some while ago upon this very subject.

The first part of the poem (which is hardly presentable as yet) described all the outward signs of a pious man; the silent watchman is from Ezekiel 33:1-9, and the burning tongues from Luke 16:19-31.

Thankful of Grace he is no means of Grace
To others: he will not upset the weights
That keep him in his comfort. How shall fare
This silent watchman when his righteous God
Descends from heav’n to judge the wanting earth?
Drenched in his fellows’ blood, his trembling knees
Shall scarce support his suppliance; all the words
He left unsaid, each brother unconsoled,
Untended, unrebuked, each one unloved
Shall cry to him “But wet our burning tongues!”
And he shall weep that he within him held
The cup of all Salvation and the spring
Of life eternal, and in all his time
Did never think to bring it to their lips.

God have mercy on us all.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Two Hours' Traffic

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City, and although I know I am not alone in finding the great many flaws of this play at odds with its popularity and reputation, it would be dishonest of me to claim that its mixed genres and sudden narrative undo the excellence of its poetry or the good painting of its characters. This production was far from perfect. Yet if it lacked much in Romeo’s part it boasted a fine Mercutio and a passable Juliet; Tybalt was more senseless but the Friar more sympathetic than usual; Paris was restrained rather than empty or caricatured, and the nurse was not so bad as she often is. Indeed there was much to like about the production, but I have a few things I would like to comment upon especially.

There is a common tendency among performers of Shakespeare, I feel, to rush their lines. I have observed this in amateur as well as professional productions, and therefore I judge that it is not so much a sign of poor acting as an aesthetic choice. Now I have heard generally two defenses of this method: first, that the lines were meant to be spoken quickly, after the manner of the time, and, second, that it is more realistic for the characters to speak quickly and less formally, and makes the play fresher for the audience. As to the first, it would be quite a valid point if the audience were accustomed, as the Elizabethans would have been, to take in sometimes complicated poetry by hearing it; suffice it to say that this is not true, on the whole, of the modern audience. The second justification has its merits, I think especially in dusting off bookishness from the plays, yet it imposes a sort of realism on the Shakespearean stage that it did not know. Blank verse is a very flexible instrument, but I feel it sometimes escapes the notice of actors full of base modern prose that the verse these characters are speaking in is not, by its very nature, realistic or colloquial, and that in this it is not merely different, but higher than everyday speech. Naturally this is truer of some characters than others.

A character of whom this is especially true is Juliet, and it was therefore most unfortunate to find this production’s Juliet quite the line-rusher. Juliet is a partner in the play’s best exchanges and the speaker of its best (and most poetic) speeches. Indeed the finest speech in the whole play belongs to her as she prepares to take the Friar’s potion (IV.iii); when she says “Here’s drink,” the audience should look on in chill terror. Yet if Juliet has rushed the unsettling imagery of the speech that gives that little line great power, it will hardly have weighed upon the audience with its foreboding, and there will be no stares and shivers. In this particular scene our Juliet’s line-rushing appeared to try to capture a frantic state of mind; yet this simply cannot be done in a poetic speech of some forty lines, if the audience is to get something from the words and not merely how they are said.

The Mercutio of this production was a fine balance to this, especially in his Queen Mab speech, which he delivered at a refreshingly measured pace. Now the Mab speech holds hardly half the complexity of conceit that Juliet’s major speeches do, and it is perhaps so popular as a set piece precisely because it is far easier to get at its progress of descriptions than the extended metaphors that Juliet runs in. In any case, our Mercutio either felt no need or resisted the urge to put some sort of character interpretation ahead of the audience's understanding of his lines; and in doing so the scene as a whole maintained a much greater coherence than it had in some other productions I have seen over the years, in which the speech becomes a set piece for the actor and not the poet.

This production also repeated the common error of forcing an intermission into the play when the real plot has just begun, at the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, and so doing damage to an already interrupted tragic momentum. As I commented to my mother after the play, Shakespeare keeps the Aristotelian unities loosely enough as it is; we should hardly encourage him with an intermission.