Previous month:
July 2017
Next month:
September 2017

August 2017

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape PainterAn Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With very precise language the author crafts a rich and even mysterious story about a painter's encounter with the Argentine frontier. I will now definitely read more of Aira's work.

An example:

Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the dangers and difficulties of a route that was tortuous and terrifying at the best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying: it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind would have regarded it as a means of suicide. Near the watershed, at an altitude of two thousand meters, amid peaks disappearing into the clouds, rather than a way of getting from point A to point B, the path seemed to have become quite simply a way of departing from all points at once. Jagged lines, impossible angles, trees growing downwards from ceilings of rock, sheer slopes plunging into mantles of snow under a scorching sun. And shafts of rain thrust into little yellow clouds, agates enveloped in moss, pink hawthorn. The puma, the hare and the snake made up a mountain aristocracy. The horses panted, began to stumble, and it was time to stop for a rest; the mules were perpetually grumpy.

View all my reviews

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Often beautiful sentences and rich characters populate this mess of a novel. I believe it is supposed to be a mess, but that doesn't stop me from think it is messy.

I came away from reading it with a heavy sadness about the deplorable state of our world. The last novel I read that gave me insight into Kashmir was Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown. The Kashmir elements of Roy's novel are much more difficult to take. Horrible things have transpired in the last thirty years, largely unknown to this American.

In fact the overall theme of the novel seems to be how India has been fucked by its war in Kashmir and the rise of Hindu nationalism. Rushdie's novels always revealed the precarious state of India's democracy and pluralistic civil society, and Roy takes that theme to the extreme. Her main characters are almost exclusively outsiders. Even the great villain of the story is a Sikh and one is reminded of the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, so even he may have a history of trauma that explains his actions.

The first major section of the novel is the too quickly told story of one hijra when it abruptly shifts to a complicated story of Kashmir and many characters. Only near the end do these stories draw together, and it is never clear to me that they all relate well to one another. There seem to be two novels here.

Roy's political points are always on the surface, which is informative but at times burden the story too much.

Despite my criticisms, I still recommend it. But be prepared for the messy, heavy load.

View all my reviews

A New Gospel for Women

A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian FeminismA New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism by Kristin Kolbes Dumez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A revelation that Katharine Bushnell, an evangelical feminist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century developed a complete theological reconstruction and new interpretation of the Bible that anticipated developments of the 1970's sometimes as often as 80 years before. Dumez is trying to recover this forgotten figure and use her as a resource to help 21st century Christian women in the global church to draw simultaneously upon Christian faith from an evangelical hermeneutic and the feminist reconstruction of the faith.

This is a clearly written, well researched book, about a fascinating figure and an entire movement in American political and religious life of which I knew very little.

View all my reviews

We Need a Holiday

We Need a Holiday

Esther 9:20-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

20 August 2017



    Sidnie White Crawford, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at UNL, gives this introduction to the Book of Esther:


The Hebrew book of Esther is an exciting, fast-paced story that has captured the imagination of Jews over the centuries, although it has been less well-received by the Christian church. It contains all the elements of a popular romance novel: a young and beautiful heroine; a wicked, scheming villain; a wise older father figure; and an inept and laughable ruler. In the story good triumphs, evil is destroyed, and all ends happily. It is no surprise, then, that the book of Esther was so popular that, despite certain objections, including its failure to mention God even once, it made its way into the Jewish canon by popular acclaim. Beneath its lighthearted surface, however, the book of Esther explores darker themes: racial hatred, the threat of genocide, and the evil of overweening pride and vanity. These layers of meaning make this book a worthwhile object of study.


    Hear now this story from the Book of Esther:


Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.


For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.



    Do you remember the film The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, and Diane Wiest? Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are a gay couple who own a drag club in Miami, Florida. Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest are the parents of the young woman their son is going to marry. The film is about the meet the parents dinner and how everything goes horribly, comically wrong.

I went to see The Birdcage with two of my good friends, John Eggleston and Laura Picazo. We went to see the movie in our small town of Shawnee, Oklahoma. The theatre was packed, maybe because of the cast who were at the peaks of their careers. Throughout the movie, John, Laura, and I were often the only people laughing at the jokes and gags. And we laughed loud and heartily. I guess the crowd of mostly small town straight people just didn't get all the campy jokes.

    For us queer people camp is an important part of what we do and who we are. When we get together socially we often get really silly. We play up all sorts of stereotypes. Sometimes we dress in outrageous and stupid clothing. We enjoy drag shows.

    It is easy to see the artistic contributions and importance to gay history and culture of works of art like Homer's Iliad, Plato's Symposium, the poetry of Sappho, Shakespeare, and Whitman, the paintings of Michelangelo, the novels of Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and E. M. Forster, and so many other masterworks of world culture.

But deep significance also exists in our lighter moments, our silliness, our camp. And why? Why do queer people sometimes act silly and enjoy absurd things?

    Largely, because we can.

Because we have been an oppressed people, our lives are filled with absurdity. So, in response, we played up the absurd and enjoyed every minute of it. It's our expression of freedom.

    Our stories, our humour, our movies, our music, our fashion, all of these are expressions of freedom. Together these elements of our culture tell the story of an outcast and oppressed people longing for liberation.


    So, what does any of this have to do with the biblical book of Esther? I hope you are asking that question.

    Mona West, in her intriguing essay on Esther says that this book is a form of camp and the purpose of Esther is to make us laugh. The book is full of hilarious comedy, parody, exaggeration, cross-dressing, queer characters, wild parties, and more. The purpose of all of this is "provide subversive critique" of power and gender and all the ways identity is constructed.


    Here is the story in a nutshell.

The Persian emperor Ahasuerus, known most commonly to history as Xerxes, holds a six month long party. Near the end he wants his queen Vashti to appear so that he can show her off. Vashti doesn't want to be a sexual object ogled by the court, so she refuses. Xerxes divorces her for fear that her disobedience will spread to the other women of the empire. Then he holds a beauty pageant to find a new wife and Esther, a Jew, wins.

    Meanwhile Xerxes' evil court official Haman gets angry when the Jew Mordecai doesn't bow down before him, so he gets the king to sign a law that on a certain day people throughout the empire can kill Jews with impunity.

    Meanwhile Mordecai saves the king from a plot two eunuchs hatched. The king compels Haman to honor Mordecai in an over-the-top public display.

    Mordecai also happens to be Esther's uncle, so he lets her know about the threat to the Jews and calls for her to courageously speak to the king about it.

Esther does that. She leaves the harem and enters the presence of the king. We are told that this is dangerous and yet she succeeds at enticing him. She invites him to two banquets, along with Haman. And at the second one she reveals that she is a Jew and that Haman has been plotting against the Jews.

The king then orders Haman to be killed on the gallows he built for Mordecai and gives Mordecai Haman's old job. He also allows the Jews to defend themselves on the day appointed for genocide, and the Jews do, killing thousands of their enemies.

And so Mordecai instructs the people to have a celebration, that became the feast of Purim.

Now, that's the quickest of surveys of a rich and wonderful story.


One of my friends, Jane Ward, wrote on Facebook this week:

Daily we are robbed of our peace and our ability to function as people who have families to care for and neighbors to care for and communities to care for. Instead we fear for our gay children, our black children, our Jewish children, all of our children who are learning no good lessons from this spectacle.


Many of you and many of my other friends and clergy colleagues have expressed a growing weariness, a compassion fatigue. The events of last weekend and this week—the white supremacist violence and the President's pitiful even racist reaction to it—has finally overwhelmed many of us. Me included.

This week I experienced so many emotions—horror, anger, disgust, outrage, sadness, disappointment, confusion. How not to be overwhelmed?

We must remember that humour, joy, and celebration are necessary. And they are essential tools of resistance and social justice.

When life is absurd our celebration can be an expression of our freedom and our hope and that we have not yet been defeated.

The Esther story of threatened genocide ends with a party. They turned "sorrow into gladness and mourning into a holiday." We need a holiday.


You can turn this world around

And bring back all of those happy days

Put your troubles down

It's time to celebrate

Let love shine

And we will find

A way to come together

And make things better

We need a holiday

Reno on On the Road

The conservative writer R. R. Reno has an excellent essay on Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which is kinda surprising. An excerpt:

So it was for me the first time I read On the Road more than twenty-five years ago. A bohemian fellow traveler of sorts, I had already been on my own road, hitchhiking many times across America. The book had a paradoxically sobering effect as I read it one day on the front porch of a hostel in France, outside of Chamonix, overlooking a meadow in late spring bloom. When I finished I felt a judgment on my Emersonian fantasies of originality. My small efforts to escape from the safe streets and calm kitchens of middle-class America were, I learned, part of an old story. I was going down an often-walked road with my emblematic backpack and blue jeans and torn T-shirt. I felt like a suburban explorer who suddenly realizes that the nearby forest is not the Amazonian jungle.

Total Eclipse

Re-read the Annie Dillard essay "Total Eclipse" this morning. Worth the read.

Here are the final lines:

One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.

Some Like It Hot

Recently the BBC declared Some Like It Hot the greatest film comedy of all time.  Here's the essay.  An excerpt about how the film plays with identity:

Look again at the beach scene with Joe and Sugar. It was written by two men who were once called Samuel Wilder and Itec Domnici, and acted by a man and a woman who were once called Bernie Schwartz and Norma Jeane Mortenson. Schwartz, who renamed himself Tony Curtis, is playing Joe, who is pretending to be Junior, using the mid-Atlantic vowels of Cary Grant, who was once called Archibald Leach. Mortenson, who renamed herself Marilyn Monroe, is playing Sugar Kowalczyk, who renamed herself Sugar Kane, and who is using lines which Joe used when he was pretending to be Josephine. Not even Twelfth Night or The Importance of Being Earnest had such elaborate fun with its characters’ identities. Names, genders, social standings ... they can all change in Some Like It Hot. It’s the American way.

Afghanistan: 15 years of making progress

From the military humour site Duffelblog a reminder that for 15 years we've been making progress in Afghanistan.  The best paragraph: 

Gen. Nicholson, the current RSM commander, is looking to continue the progress made by his predecessors over the past 15 years. He has big shoes to fill, as at least two presidents and perhaps a dozen commanders have successfully won the war thus far.