Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry (Christmas Day)

Merry Christmas!

It's not often that Christmas falls on a Sunday. And what better way to celebrate than with a poem by Wendell Berry, his sixth Sabbath poem -- and so unnamed, the title below being mine -- of the year 1990.

Blessings on this day of happy celebration.

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St. Vith, December 21, 1944

By Wendell Berry

Cut off in front of the line
that now ran through St. Vith,
the five American tanks sat
in a field covered with snow
in the dark. And now they must
retreat to safety, which they
could do only through gunfire
and flame in the burning town.
They went, firing, through the fire,
GIs and German prisoners
clinging to the hulls, and out
again into the still night beyond.
In the broad dark, someone
began to sing, and one by one
the others sang also, the German
prisoners singing in German,
the Americans in English,
the one song. "Silent night,"
they sang as the great treads
passed on across the dark
countryside muffled in white
snow, "Holy night."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Just Because: Predictions for the 2011-2012 Lockout-Shortened NBA Season

It's usually an annual October tradition -- see the last three years' iterations -- but, of course, the lockout has delayed and contracted this year's season; so now, the week of Christmas, I offer my usual predictions for how things are going to shake out in the National Basketball Association.

It's odd: continuity and experience take on a bigger role in this sort of season, even as youth and depth absorb the toll of 66 games in 120 days. (You read that right.) All in all, things look basically similar to last season, with the ascension of the Clippers to NBA royalty and my premonition that Indiana will make a leap. Note also the asterisk for Orlando and New Jersey: my pick for the Magic presumes the presence of one Dwight Howard, while if he leaves, they will almost certainly bottom out while their trade partner (the Nets?) will take their place in the playoff picture.

I'm also gunning for a first round Staples Center showdown between the Lakers and Clippers, though I have Kobe's maniacal competitiveness winning out over Lob City's inexperience. (Also a repeat of last year's Boston-New York series, with the same result.) And while the good guys won the prize last year, I have the Heat triumphing in the Finals over the ultimate good guys, the Thunder. LeBron and Wade holding a trophy while the camera pans to Kevin Durant in tears? That sounds just tragic enough to become true. Just know that, after the Spurs, I'll be cheering for OKC all the way.

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Western Conference
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (53-13)
2. Dallas Mavericks (49-17)
3. Los Angeles Clippers (47-19)
4. San Antonio Spurs (45-21)
5. Memphis Grizzlies (44-22)
6. Los Angeles Lakers (42-24)
7. Denver Nuggets (40-26)
8. Portland Trailblazers (36-30)

9. Minnesota Timberwolves (34-32)
10. Phoenix Suns (33-33)
11. New Orleans Hornets (27-39)
12. Utah Jazz (23-43)
13. Houston Rockets (19-47)
14. Golden State Warriors (13-53)
15. Sacramento Kings (10-56)

Eastern Conference
1. Miami Heat (56-10)
2. Chicago Bulls (53-13)
3. Orlando Magic (44-22)*
4. New York Knicks (40-26)
5. Boston Celtics (39-27)
6. Indiana Pacers (37-29)
7. Atlanta Hawks (34-32)
8. Philadelphia 76ers (33-33)

9. New Jersey Nets (32-34)*
10. Washington Wizards (30-36)
11. Milwaukee Bucks (29-37)
12. Detroit Pistons (18-48)
13. Toronto Raptors (13-53)
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-57)
15. Charlotte Bobcats (8-58)

Western Conference First Round
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) over Portland Trailblazers (8) in 5 games
Dallas Mavericks (2) over Denver Nuggets (7) in 6 games
Los Angeles Lakers (6) over Los Angeles Clippers (3) in 6 games
San Antonio Spurs (5) over Memphis Grizzlies (4) in 7 games

Eastern Conference First Round
Miami Heat (1) over Philadelphia 76ers (8) in 5 games
Chicago Bulls (2) over Atlanta Hawks (7) in 6 games
Indiana Pacers (6) over Orlando Magic (3) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (5) over New York Knicks (4) in 7 games

Western Conference Semifinals
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) over San Antonio Spurs (5) in 7 games
Dallas Mavericks (2) over Los Angeles Lakers (6) in 6 games

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Miami Heat (1) over Boston Celtics (5) in 7 games
Chicago Bulls (2) over Indiana Pacers (6) in 6 games

Western Conference Finals
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) over Dallas Mavericks (2) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Finals
Miami Heat (1) over Chicago Bulls (2) in 6 games

NBA Finals
Miami Heat (1) over Oklahoma City Thunder (1) in 7 games

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: G.K. Chesterton (Advent #4)

A bit belated, but better late than never. My assumption is, apart from one more Sabbath post next Sunday, it's going to be tumbleweeds around here for a few weeks. If so, have a blessed rest of Advent, and Christmas, and holiday break for the academics. I hope it's a good end to a good year, as it is for us.

The neat little poem below is taken from Chesterton's 1900 collection, The Wild Knight and Other Poems. And while you're at it, go check out Richard Beck's two recent posts on Christmas carols as resistance literature.

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A Christmas Carol

By G.K. Chesterton
The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O wear, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Rest in Peace

Christopher Hitchens passed away last night. Having done serious battle with the debilitating Stage 4 esophageal cancer that overran his life some 18 months ago -- as he put it, "There is no Stage 5" -- he finally lost the fight he knew would be a losing one.

A lifelong political journalist, Hitchens didn't hit the national spotlight in America until after 9/11, an event that changed his life in more ways than one. Once a card-carrying communist -- literally: in his memoir there is a picture of his "commie card" from the late 1960s -- Hitchens remained a leftist of some sort all his life; but 9/11 marked a line in the sand his former comrades found themselves on the wrong side of. Thereafter he became a recognizable spokesman for two things above all: the West's war on Islamist terrorism, as led by the U.S.; and a radical secularism bent on exposing the poisonous evils of religion.

This is largely how Hitchens' death will be received: as that of the secular fundamentalist who betrayed his politics in order to back an imperial invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And that description is no doubt earned. (Though I do wonder about the extent to which his politics were ever so far from where he eventually landed.)

However, Hitchens' death raises a different set of issues, and feelings, for me. See, Hitchens was (is!) one of my favorite writers. Though our politics were (are -- tense is challenging here) opposed, our worldviews disparate, our convictions contradictory, I loved the man's work. Over time I developed that curious feeling for his writing -- and so for him -- that is somehow capable of attending signs on a page or screen: affection. Whether reading his weekly piece in Slate, his longer monthly essay in Vanity Fair, his random book reviews and speeches to fellow atheist believers, or his fascinating memoir, Hitchens' writing brought me what I know he sought to occasion -- namely, pleasure. The literary world for Hitchens was not unlike a vast and unending pleasure machine; if we learn and grow, enculture ourselves in the process, all the better. I'm happy to know that, churning out material even in his final dying weeks, Hitchens the man succeeded in the singular thing he knew his life was preeminently given and ordered to, that which he so evidently loved with an almost religious fervor. Writing was his life, and he died one of the half dozen or so best living essayists in the English-speaking world. A happy thing, to die having fulfilled your call.

The second set of issues raised by Hitchens' death, hinted at by some of my language in the preceding sentences, is his radical atheism. I am a Christian, and a theologian in training. What does it mean to have affection for Hitchens, a man who in no uncertain terms ridiculed any and all who belonged to the Christian faith, as well as the God of that faith? And what does it mean to remember him in his passing, given traditional Christian convictions about postmortem consequences for those without faith?

The first question, though problematic for some, is not for me. As I knew and know him in his writing, Hitchens was and is a friend -- one gained, to be sure, from books and essays and speeches, and so an odd sort of friend, but a friend nonetheless. Therefore there is nothing strange in having affection for him and his work, just as I have had and do and will have friends in life with whom I disagree fundamentally about ultimate matters. I would have been happy for Hitchens to know while living that he had a Christian theologian -- a "true believer"! -- for an admiring reader. I'm sure he would have laughed, and got on with it. Fine by me.

The second question seems to me the more pressing. How do Christians pronounce the blessing Requiescat in pace on behalf of a man like Hitchens without some irony, doubt, or even hypocrisy nagging at their conscience? Not because we do not want him to rest in peace, but because the overwhelming claim of the tradition is that he will not in fact do so.

The challenge is not solved by a resolute universalism. For, as Hitchens was quick to point out to his still-evangelizing Christian readers, would it not be better for him to retain the integrity of his convictions to the end, rather than abandon them out of fear and self-concern? From the Christian vantage point -- this is perhaps the voice of C.S. Lewis -- should we not afford an unbeliever like Hitchens, following God's own lead, the courtesy of his commitments and so not relegate him to heaven's dark corner of unwilling converts?

I don't have a quick fix for these theological problems. Christians trust the God of cross and resurrection to act in exact accordance with the love, mercy, and grace revealed in Christ. In this way -- in a profoundly freeing way -- the fate of the departed is simply and completely out of our hands. It is just not up to us.

Given this position, then, what are we we left with? What is our "stance" in such a situation? I have two suggestions.

The first is an absolutely steadfast faith in the victory of God's love in Christ. Christopher Hitchens was as subject as you or I to the vagaries and consequences of a world filled with sin, violence, falsehood, and death. And the God who created Christopher Hitchens, who upheld him at every moment of his life, who quite literally loved him into being and sustained him in love for more than six decades -- this God came near in Christ and acted once for all to deliver all things from bondage to death. If Christian faith excludes the Christopher Hitchenses of the world from the scope of God's redemption, it might as well give up the game.

My second suggestion is much smaller in focus, a rather homely theological gesture. I shared above of my affection for Hitchens. Though it did not take much effort -- and, of course, required zero cost -- this could be interpreted as a kind of literary love of enemy: Hitchens' distaste with me-and-mine could not win out against my genuine fondness for him. In the face of the rhetorical violence he perpetrated against "religious people," and even the actual violence he commended against those he deemed unworthy of life, I sincerely desired Hitchens' well-being; I wanted him to flourish, to succeed, to know love and health and long life. (I also hoped he would lose his enchantment with the Enlightenment, and open a book of real theology, and reject the myth of redemptive war -- but then, those are forms of loving him, too.)

In other words, my affection for Hitchens the atheist fundamentalist overwhelmed any other feeling or attitude I might have had for him. And I suspect this is something like the stance Christians should take in relation to all the (radically) unbelieving departed; for when I say "rest in peace," I really mean it. Not because I have worked-out ideas about the afterlife, or a backdoor deal with God, or secret hope that Hitchens was "right with the Lord" when he died -- although, to reiterate the first point above, Christian faith should presume and pray for the universal victory of God's love. No, my blessing on the life of Christopher Hitchens, and on his passing, comes not from intellect or doctrine, but from a love that overrules these other instincts. And my sense is that something like this overruling love is closer to where we ought to be than sure knowledge of any person's eternal fate.

A last time, then: Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. May the wordy affection your work inspired in this believer be a testament to your lifelong gift, and a lasting irony you would have enjoyed to no end.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Capitalism at its Best: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt on the Purpose of Social Networking

Last week Slate published an interview with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and I thought I'd pass along the concluding back-and-forth, which is both telling and damning. Ask yourself: Why is Google et al in the social networking business? Hint: It's not for the sake of social networking. You’ve launched three social networks in two years with Wave and Buzz and Plus…

: I’m not sure Wave is a social network. Wave was a different version of e-mail. But yes.
: Why would Google+ succeed where Wave and Buzz didn’t?

: Well these things are hard to do. I want to say that what Facebook has done is very difficult to do and they should be given credit for that.

It’s hard to get the privacy right, it’s hard to get the scale right, it’s hard to get people to spend time on it and so forth. In Wave, the product simply didn’t work, from the moment we announced Wave, its adoption declined. In Buzz, we had problems with privacy because it was centered on email, and we made some mistakes there. So we canceled them both.

With Google + we learned from those two experiences. I use Google+, and I find the quality of the comments are very sophisticated because there is more trust inside of Google+ than there is inside of Twitter and Facebook for example.
: Would you consider not pursuing the social network if this doesn’t work?

Schmidt: We need the information about yourself and your friends to make our products work better so we will always, I think, have something like that.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. S. Thomas (Advent #3)

It's been an R. S. Thomas year for me, in terms of poetry, so what better way to mark Advent than one more poem from the Welsh master? Especially fitting, given Advent's penitential character, is the poem below, "Christmas Eve." An anti-consumerist indictment of the so-called holiday season from the pen of a priest born the year before World War I began, it was written during Bill Clinton's first term.

Thomas was a great poet, and -- as should by now be clear -- part of that greatness is his enduring, almost absolute relevance. Enjoy.

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Christmas Eve

By R. S. Thomas

Erect capital's arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit --

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Week's Reads: Incarnation, Christmas, Wendell Berry, and more

As school takes the time for writing I would otherwise use for blogging, I thought I would at least share what I'm reading this week (and perhaps going forward). Here goes:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Andrew Hudgins (Advent #2)

This past Thursday Yale Divinity School hosted poet Andrew Hudgins as part of its ongoing Literature and Spirituality series. (Past guests have included Barbara Brown Taylor and Franz Wright, among others.) It reminded me how much I enjoy Hudgins' work, from which I have shared at least one poem before in this space.

Per request, Hudgins concluded his reading with the poem below, "Piss Christ: Andres Serrano, 1987," published first in 2000 in Slate Magazine. I had read it before, but to hear it again was deeply powerful in a new way, not least due to our being in the YDS chapel. The poem also reminded me of an anecdote I have shared often with others. When I first saw and learned about Serrano's "Piss Christ," I assumed without a second thought that he was a Christian, and the work of art was a deeply faithful reflection on the mystery of the incarnation. People had to clue me in after the fact that the work was considered "outrageous" and "blasphemous" by the general Christian community upon its arrival, and caused all sorts of public outcry.

Fortunately, even as my naivete about popular sentiment can know no bounds, I find solace in the fact that Hudgins gets it, too. As we prepare for the unaccountable miracle of Bethlehem during the season of Advent -- as we wait for none but God to act -- let us be mindful of what Serrano and Hudgins will not let us forget: "if there was a Christ," then Christ, too, like us, was "born between the urine and the feces." If we affirm anything less of the incarnate one, we might as well be silent.

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Piss Christ
Andres Serrano, 1987

By Andrew Hudgins

If we did not know it was cow's blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Read: (Film Critic) Charles Taylor on "The Problem with Film Criticism"

Charles Taylor, New York film critic (and not eminent philosopher), has written a sterling piece in Dissent Magazine entitled, "The Problem With Film Criticism." Go read the whole thing, but here's a teaser:
The same progressives who bemoan the way Fox News has polarized political discourse in America, masquerading as news while never troubling its followers with anything that would disturb its most cherished and untested convictions, happily turn to the satellite radio station of their preferred genre or subgenre of music or seek out the support group or message board that fits their demographic, the political site that skews their way. Entering the realm of the other seems done solely to express rage.

The rigorous division of websites into narrow interests, the attempts of Amazon and Netflix to steer your next purchase based on what you’ve already bought, the ability of Web users to never encounter anything outside of their established political or cultural preferences, and the way technology enables advertisers to identify each potential market and direct advertising to it, all represent the triumph of cultural segregation that is the negation of democracy. It’s the reassurance of never having to face anyone different from ourselves.