Friday, April 23, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's a talented writer, that much is clear. And while my thoughts on the book are somewhat conflicted, the fact that I liked it is not.

Here's the premise: a Baptist missionary "heeds the call" of God and takes his wife and four daughters into the Congo jungle in the early 1960s. The novel recounts, in first person from the point of view of the daughters and wife, the details of their time there, and the changes that Africa undergoes in that time period and up to the turn of the century.

This is a hard book for a white Christian to read, for several reasons. The first is the depiction of Nathan Price, the missionary. He's the model of what a cross-cultural missionary should not be, and probably an accurate portrayal of a too-oft-repeated scenario in past attempts at ministering across cultural boudaries. Nathan carries with him the assumption that the culture he is entering is primitive, backwards, and inherently sinful. He confuses the gospel with his culture, blending the two as he attempts to minister to the people, trampling their values and knowledge in his arrogance. They are to him Heathen, and therefore cannot possess any knowledge that could be valuable. He, as minister of the gospel, is the one who must dispense the knowledge, ridding them of what they thought they knew and replacing it with what he teaches. Rather than attempting to bridge the gap between their knowledge and the truth (because every culture contains within it elements of the truth), he alternately dismisses or abuses their culture by playing off their superstitions one moment ("if you repent, Jesus will send rain") and accusing them of superstition the next ("Jesus didn't promise your child wouldn't die if you went to church").

The second reason I found this book hard is that it is yet another example of Western culture's abuses of an entire continent through colonialism/imperialism. The book is set at the beginning of African independence, when the Congo gained its freedom from Belgium. Apparently overnight, Congo became a free nation after generations of control by a foreign power. Suddenly they were expected to run an infrastructure and maintain government control without any prior experience. To make matters worse, the CIA worked to assassinate the freely-elected leader of the now-independent state, supporting a dictator in his place who oversaw the transformation of Congo into Zaire - violent, poor, and bloody. The meddling of Western power in sovereign governments, not to mention the motivation for doing so (being able to take the resources from these nations without profiting the citizens of the nation), should be heartbreaking to those of us who profit from it, either directly or indirectly.

But I think the thing that made this book the most difficult for me is the absence of Jesus. The name of Jesus is present frequently, at the lips of the good Reverend Price constantly, but Jesus - the King of Kings- doesn't show up once. "Tata Jesus is bangala!" Price tells his African congregants time and again, a phrase which his daughter Adah points out could have two meanings: either "Jesus is precious," or "Jesus is poisonwood (poisonwood being a particularly nasty poisonous tree)." We do not get the precious gospel - we get the poisonwood gospel.

Kingsolver is not a believer, and the redemption she attempts to weave into the ending of her book leaves me wanting more. She seems to end it with the idea that one should simply try to do a little good - the problems of the world are much too vast to be able to solve, so do what good you can: love your children, love your fellow man, and live honorably and generously. And maybe farm.

All good things, which I fully support (especially the farming bit - power to agrarians!). But this isn't enough for the Christian. Africa (and the world) needs the knowledge that all things are being redeemed to the way they were supposed to be, that Jesus is working all things into submission to Himself, that creation was made good, and is now in the process of being made into what it should be. Africa needs Jesus, more desperately than they need anything else. Kingsolver writes from the presumption that Nathan offered the only Jesus available and He wasn't enough - Jesus might work for Nathan but in Africa He doesn't make sense. What Kingsolver misses is that Nathan's Jesus and the real Jesus have very little in common. The real Jesus has exactly the remedy for Africa: salvation, shalom, the righting of wrongs.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Believe Big

I don't think any year would be complete without some post regarding my near-obsession (okay, it's not a near-obsession, it's an obsession) with the Seattle Mariners. And with the season underway and the M's with a winning record, I feel the need to share with all of you the deep, deep love I have for this team and this sport.

It began in '95 and steadily caught fire, rising to a crescendo in the magical 2001 season where the M's just couldn't be beat. I remember being amazed by the underestimated team full of respected names, but not necessarily any established superstars, taking on the entirety of baseball and winning 116 games - something only done by one other team in all of baseball's long history. We'd lost Griffey, the guy who put Seattle on the map, and A-Rod, and Randy Johnson was gone, too. Nobody thought we could do it. It was Ichiro's first year in the MLB, and no one knew what to make of the guy who won not only rookie of the year that year, but also was the American League MVP. We had Bret Boone, who up until that year wasn't really regarded as a top offensive player, but had a sudden breakout year (probably thanks to 'roids, but we didn't know that then). We played solid defense and won by executing on the small things. It was a wonderful year that ended too soon when we lost out in the playoffs.

The fervor died a little in the Bavasi years, where season after season we had high hopes which would be dashed time and again when the team collapsed and fell out of contention. The laundry list of bad contracts, or guys who didn't deliver on the expectations, or mismanagement of prospects was almost too long to keep track of: Carlos Silva, Jeff Weaver, Horacio Ramirez, Miguel Batista, Richie Sexson, Carl Everett, Brad Wilkerson, the Bedard-Jones trade, the handling of Brandon Morrow, to name a few. They were dark days for M's fans, ending in 2008's disastrous, 101-loss season that no one really saw coming.

And now the light shines again. 2009 saw a complete turnaround in both management and on-the-flied performance for the M's. We went from a 61-win season to an 85-win season, a massive improvement and a nearly-complete roster changeover built around defense and drive. Smart people were in charge of the Mariners again, and it showed. The club went from being at each other's throats to a cohesive unit that actually liked playing together. They went from a team that was horrible at offense and defense, to a team that was horrible at offense but incredible at defense, with the best center-fielder in the game putting up unreal numbers with his range and ability to read fly balls, and the always-incredible, ageless Ichiro, and the new addition of Jack Wilson at shortstop replacing the unfortunately lazy, unteachable, underperforming Yuniesky Betancourt. Add to that the fabulous defensive workhorse Adrian Beltre, and you've got some skilled guys out there who know how to get guys out and help out the pitchers. And then the Cy Young runner-up performance by Felix Hernandez, and Ichiro ninth-straight 200+ hit-season ... one of those legendary seasons.

But 2010! It looks this truly might be THE year, if not the year before THE year. With an almost entirely new club (the only holdovers from the doomed '08 and the Bavasi years being Jose Lopez, Ichiro, Bedard, and Felix), the Mariners go into this season as the talk of the MLB. With an unmatch off-season that saw the acquisition of Cy Young-winner Cliff Lee for a handful of middling prospects, the signing of Chone Figgins, baserunner extraordinaire, and the signing of Felix to a 5-year extension, along with ridding the books of the overweight, overvocal, overpaid, albatross Carlos Silva, the M's gave everyone something to talk about. Was this really the same club that just a few short years ago traded away an All-Star, gold-glove center fielder for a pitcher who can't stay healthy, or traded a grade-A closer for a starter who got shelled every outing? The absolute transformation from laughingstock to shrewd, savvy wheelers-and-dealers has not just Seattle buzzing, but all of baseball. It's a good time to be an M's fan again.

So here's to you, Seattle Mariners: may this season hold many beer showers and a pennant at the end! Felix, may you win your first of many Cy Youngs, and Ichiro, may you take one more step in taking away Pete Rose's record. Guti, may you win your first of many Gold Gloves.

I am, as ever, a devoted fan.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wendell Berry on Modern Education

I. Educated people are more valuable than other people because education is a value-adding industry.

II. Educated people are better than other people because education improves people and makes them good.

III. The purpose of education is to make people able to earn more and more money.

IV. The place where education is to be used is called "your career."

V. Anything that cannot be weighed, measured, or counted does not exist.

VI. The so-called humanities probably do not exist. But if they do, they are useless. But whether they exist or not or are useful or not, they can sometimes be made to support a career.

VII Literacy does not involve knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.

VIII The sign of exceptionally smart people is that they speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in their "field" or only to themselves. This is very impressive and is known as "professionalism."

IX. The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have.

X. The mark of a good teacher is that he or she spends most of his or her time doing research and writes many books and articles.

XI The mark of a good researcher is the same as that of a good teacher.

XII. A great university has many computers, a lot of government and corporation research contracts, a winning team, and more administrators than teachers.

XIII. Computers make people even better and smarter than they were made by previous thingamabobs Or if some people prove incorrigibly wicked or stupid or both, computers will at least speed them up.

XIV. The main thing is, don't let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don't stay home with them and get in their way. Don't give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don't teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.

XV. A good school is a big school.

XVI. Disarm the children before you let them in.

--From "The Joy of Sales Resistance"

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Hunger Games

There is something about young adult fiction and the way in which it is generally written that often grips me far more than anything the "adult" world offers. I don't know exactly what it is - could be that my imagination is arrested as a fifteen-year-old kid who still wishes that magic and spaceships and dystopian societies begging to be overthrown by unlikely heroes were real. I could theorize that young adult fiction simplifies things into clear choices between good and evil, but I think in the book I'll be talking about here, there's anything but that going on. So that's not it. It could also be that they're often about a character who becomes more than they were - they learn what it means to be a man or a woman and learn to make hard choices in the face of impossible odds. I think that's a large part of why I like young adult fiction. Whether it's Harry Potter or Ender's Game (not technically "young adult" in the sense that that's not its target audience, but nonetheless fits all other distinctions of the genre) or The Hunger Games, the characters are facing life-altering, impossible situations and coming through them stronger, less naive, and more aware of themselves and the complexities of their world.

So enough of that. The Hunger Games. By Suzanne Collins. Good. Book.

I read this in a manner of hours. Couldn't put it down, really. The premise is that a young girl, fifteen or sixteen if my memory serves me correctly, by the name of Katniss Everdeen, lives in the post-apocalyptic Panem, the remnants of North America, nowed ruled by the ruthless Capitol who keeps the rest of the country, divided into 12 (previously 13) districts, completely subservient. The Capitol, as penance for old "treason" committed by the districts (instigated by the now-destroyed 13th district, which was wiped out for their role in the rebellion), requires each district to send two "tributes," a boy and a girl, to the Capitol every year for the Hunger Games - which is basically a free-for-all slaughterfest broadcast on TV in which the last man standing wins. As you might guess, Katniss becomes one of these tributes, and the book focuses on her struggle to survive the Hunger Games and deal with the idea that in order to win, she has to kill or be killed.

But all the coming-of-age storyline I'd like to put aside for now, and talk about the brilliant way in which Collins draws the world she creates in the story. It's really an allegory - though the allegory is secondary to the plot and characters. Capitol represents, I think, a version of today's developed nations. It's a resource-sucking monster at the center of Panem, it citizens growing fat on the resources thay glean from the subservient districts in their sway. In Capitol, every citizen can have their every whim granted. Surgical procedures keep people looking young and healthy, food comes at the touch of a button, even hygiene is automated so that one can select fragrances and lotions added to one's shower to keep one smelling fresh and looking young.

And - they think nothing of spending the lives of those who make their way of life possible for some cheap entertainment.

I can't help but consider the correlations between Capitol and our own nation. The relatively recent ascendancy of reality television is in some ways a smaller-scale version of the Hunger Games, using the lives of ordinary people, affecting change for better or worse through the way the producers choose to depict them. Shows like the Bachelor, American Idol (which I incidentally love despite perhaps my better judgment), Survivor, etc., all take "ordinary" people and exploit them in some way. They take hours and hours of footage, then edit to shape each person into a stereotype - hero, villain, clown, seductress, country bumpkin, or whatever fits the profile in order to entertain. The people are fictionalized so that the audience assumes this is how they truly are, and this, I'm sure, affects all of them to some extent in their real lives. I suppose one could argue that these people knowingly enter into agreements with the television shows they appear upon, and do reap benefits from these appearances, but at what cost?

Secondly, the correlation between Capitol as fattening itself on the fruits of the labor of others and the destruction of the resources of the other districts also seems to point its finger at the way in which developed nations like the US, and now, developing nations like India and China, build themselves up on the backs of the labor and resources of those less economically equipped and powerful. There's something powerful about the way literature is able to draw those comparisons in a way that makes the concepts clear to us. As Collins causes us to follow Katniss from her hardscrabble life in District 12, where she must hunt daily for food or the family goes hungry, to her adventure to the Capitol, where she need only hit a button and get as much as she wants, we are able to see how our lives as rich Americans must seem to those in third world countries and conditions.

But like I mentioned, these are mere undercurrents to the can't-take-a-breath pace of the story, which followed Katniss through wrestling with having to kill, even a boy from her own hometown who one time saved her life through an unsought kindness, in order to preserve her own life. The emotional intensity of the story and the growth of the characters truly makes this a great read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and seeing what conclusion these characters reach. The book in some way reminds me of another of my favorite books, Ender's Game, in that both feature high-stakes games with life-altering consequences. This book is an example of what I hope to be able to write someday.