May 21, 2010

Modern parables

It's one thing to follow the breadcrumb trail out of pure curiosity. It's another to look for The Meaning of Life. Gratuitous capitalization, I know, is a way to mask sincerity with apparent cuteness, the sort of post-modern affected emotional distance perfected by David Letterman. But the meaning of life, to drop the capitalized pose, is after all a trail worth following.

I've always been more attuned to spiritual friends than to religious institutions. More than 20 years ago, friend Jim Shanley gave me a copy of a book called Joshua, subtitled A Parable for Today. It's by Joseph F. Girzone, who is not identified as a Catholic priest on the cover itself although I am told he is one.

A modern parable it is, a modern telling of the return of Christ. No burning bushes nor thunder and lightning, but simply a quiet, humble man who appears in a smallish town and... I'll leave you to read it yourself if you like. Just to say that the author's plainspoken style and the lack of sturm und drang grabbed me more and better than any amount of fist-shaking or Bible-thumping.

Fast-forward to the recent present. I had never forgotten the powerful impression this book made, but somehow never got around to re-reading it. Some time in the past five years, after what I think of as my intellectual rebirth, I finally read it again and was delighted to see it had lost none of its appeal. Just last week I got from the library two other books by Girzone, and plan to read them as soon as I finish a couple of other things.

A couple of years ago, another long-time friend, Charleen Crean, lent me a short but wonderful book that turned out to be another modern parable. In it, a successful man of business receives a mysterious invitation to dinner. Even though he suspects a trick played by friends, he pursues it only to find himself seated at a nice restaurant opposite Jesus Christ, dressed in a business suit and very much a modern man of the world. I want to re-read this as well and will have to get with Charleen to remember the title. I seem to recall that like Girzone, this author also wrote sequels, so I should be busy for a while.

But wait, there's more! (The return of cuteness, as the sincerity gets to be a bit much after a while.) A third friend, Brian Douglas, has introduced me to a world of ideas about the ways we worship together, and what has been happening to traditional churches. In our conversation he mentioned a book called Kicking Habits, and I asked to borrow it. Unlike my usual pattern of plowing through books helter-skelter, I'm reading this one a page or two at a time and really absorbing what is there.

Author Thomas Bandy holds a post with UCC Canada and was formerly a Methodist clergy in Illinois. He compares the way traditional churches are bogged down in committees, endless talk and constant meetings to the way addicts persist in destructive behavior even while they know it's not working. This book is letting me take what I've learned about the relationship of recovery meetings to the groups that coalesce around them, and see an analogy with religions and congregations.

I'm not sure where this branching of the breadcrumb trail will lead, but recently I found myself attending Sunday worship for the first time in several years. It was serendipitious, meeting a new friend and being open to his no-strings offer to tell me about his church. Thanks to him I met Pastor Renwick Bell, who seems to be a person I was ready to meet at this point in my life. Your imagination may lead you to picture him one way or the other, but you might be very surprised at the reality. Suffice to say that he and his congregation appear to be right for me right now.

I have an opportunity to use my music in ministry, not as a paid professional (which I did for many years as an organist and choir director) but as an individual. This is consistent with what I'm reading in Kicking Habits and with the spirit of the modern parables. I'll never get preachy, and I may not mention this topic again, but I'm glad to find that my spiritual life is growing alongside my renewed intellect.

Bonus breadcrumb: The Mitford books by Jan Karon. Episcopal priest Father Tim finds love and fulfillment in the small town of Mitford, unsurprisingly a lot like Karon's beloved hometown of Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Charleen introduced me to them on a visit to her home, surprised I had not even heard of them. I've read all of them two or three times and recommend them readily. She writes entertainingly, her characters are true to life, it's wholesome but never preachy. These are the kind of books that would make appropriate gifts for anyone from a hardboiled prison inmate to your white-haired granny. By coincidence, my friend Charleen's husband John is an Episcopal priest remarkably similar to Father Tim. John, you can expect an email alerting you to this post and to my renewed interest in spirituality, so look out!

May 11, 2010

Perception management

The Whole Truth, by David Baldacci, 2008 (read 2010)

Nicholas Creel is a great villain. The flyleaf quotes him saying to his chief hatchet-man, "Dick, I need a war." As CEO of the world's biggest defense contractor, Creel isn't satisfied with the billions of dollars he's amassed. He sees his power slipping thanks to the collapse of the cold war, and the rise of terrorists, those pesky guys who distract superpowers from acquiring billion-dollar bombers with your basic SAMs and machine guns.

Dick, the hatchet-man, sounds like a spin doctor. But Baldacci explains that perception management guys like Dick, PMs for short, are way way beyond spin doctoring. They manufacture a version of truth, a nice way of saying utter fiction, and pump it into our culture so efficiently that practically overnight, we all accept it as real. Creepy stuff, fer shure.

Dick does his stuff, of course, and thanks to Internet viral marketing, the world meets Konstantin, a Russian who tells us by an amateurish video that if we are seeing this, he is dead. His family is dead. They were all killed by the Russians. The video spreads like wildfire, of course, and everybody buys in.

Everyone, that is, except for a couple of pesky journalists and a tough guy named Shaw. No first name, just Shaw. I like pesky, by the way, and it seems to fit nicely a character slot useful to Baldacci and a whole bunch of action writers. If it weren't for the peskies, where would these plots be?

Speaking of which, I like Baldacci just fine. No illusions as to literary merit, any more than with writers like Tom Clancy or W.E.B. Griffin, but I don't think that is the aim here. The idea is to write something readable and entertaining, and sometimes to slip in a cautionary message like Watch Out for Perception Management, and Baldacci succeeds admirably.

Anyway, Shaw and the hard-to-kill and most attractive female journalist manage somehow to save the day, and it's all good.

But learning that PM is out there did in fact get me thinking.

Mere days after I finished the book, I happened to hear the Bob Edwards Show on XMPR, where faithful readers may recall I began this renewed life of the mind a few years back. The date was May 4, 2010, the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. (If you don't know what that is because you are too young, or from another country, or for any reason, it's worth looking up.) I had what is probably a typical impression of the events of that time, but also typically without benefit of some interesting facts, facts I learned from the radio show.

How about this for a fact? The National Guard, which shot the college protesters on May 4, 1970 in Ohio, has yet to reveal what they have learned about what happened that day. The absence of a class of facts becomes a fact itself, and the typical impressions carried by people like me persist without correction, like an unchecked illness.

Or how about this, heard from the lips of a man about my age who was one of those present at the time, and interviewed on the radio show? The earliest reports, that protestors had killed a soldier, stemmed from a single story in the local paper, hurriedly phoned in by someone who simply got it wrong. That story spread like wildfire (still the operative word, none better) and even though the truth became known in just a few hours, even that was too late. Perceptions of people like me (all right, simpletons, if you insist, but careful how you sling those stones around that glass house, mister) that maybe the protestors brought some of it on themselves, although they certainly never deserved to die, what a tragedy - turn out to spring from a journalistic accident.

A spin doctor couldn't have done it better. And who knows exactly how accidental that news mistake was. It's the kind of stuff conspiracy theorists live for.

Meanwhile if Baldacci is to be believed, and I'm enough of a conspiracy nut not to think otherwise, perception managers are out there doing this sort of thing all the time, on purpose. Now that's creepy.

Bonus breadcrumb: State of Fear by Michael Crichton, 2004.

Global warming has been sort of like abortion. Once you decide where you stand, you are more likely to shape your own perceptions to fit your views than to change your views. Crichton took a lot of heat for this book, which is set smack dab in the middle of the global warming brouhaha. I just reviewed the Wikipedia page. It quotes from The Wall Street Journal review calling it a novelization of a speech Crichton gave in San Francisco in 2003 in which he condemed environmentalism as a religion. The following review from Entertainment Weekly is closer to the mark, in my opinion, quoted below.

"Part of the fun is that, for the first 400 pages or so, Crichton wants you to think of him as a right-wing nut. Don't be fooled. He's not just deflating global-warming environmentalists. When he finally gets around to explaining what he means by "state of fear," it's in another character-sputtered rant on "the way modern society works — by the constant creation of fear" by politicians, lawyers, and the media. Michael Moore, who made the same point in Bowling for Columbine, could've written the passage. State of Fear is one of Crichton's best because it's as hard to pigeonhole as greenhouse gas but certainly heats up the room."

Sounds like perception management to me. Black is White, Slavery is Freedom, it's a Brave New World of Newspeak and 1984 is way behind us.