This is just one of these great stories that has to be told. You won't regret reading it. Wish all your pilots were like this guy?
In this second chapter of The Dawkins Delusion? authors Alister and Joanna McGrath deal with two basic themes from Dawkins' The God Delusion. First, they address all of the name-dropping that goes on in Dawkins' writing. If you've read that book you know what I am talking about. Dawkins is fond of drop kicking friends (read: atheist scientists) and foes (read: any religious person, including religious scientists) alike through the goal post of his book's thesis: God doesn't exist. In fact, Dawkins takes his thesis so seriously that he attacks men like Michael Ruse.
McGrath calls Ruse "a distinguished atheist philosopher who has done much to clarify the philosophical roots and consequences of Darwinism, and challenge religious fundamentalism (24)." Ruse is no friend of religion and yet he once dared to suggest, "science and religion might learn from each other (24)." Dawkins lets him have it (see pages 67 and following of The God Delusion)! What the McGrath's conclude from this is right: "Just as religions distinguish the saved from the damned, Dawkins shows the same absolute dichotomous mode of thought. It is either black or white; there are no shades of grey. Poor old Michael Ruse. Having attacked one bunch of fundamentalists, he finds himself ostracized by another (25)." Basically, with a fundamentalist atheist like Dawkins and a fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist you can't win. Not unless you join your views, fully and completely, to theirs.
Think Dawkins' attack on Ruse is an isolated one? Think again. The McGrath's also pick up with interest the bashing Freeman Dyson, a leading physicist, receives on pages 151 and following of The God Delusion. What irked Dawkins about Dyson was that, in Dawkins view, Dyson had faked being a Christian in order to receive a Templeton Prize. Dawkins perceived receiving the prize as selling out science to religion and therefore worthy of mention in keeping with Dawkins' thesis: "real scientists must be atheists (22)." Or take Dawkins' angst with Stephen Jay Gould who also rejects "any brash equation of scientific excellence with an atheist faith (13)." And Dawkins' sure disappointment with Sir Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, who writes in Cosmic Habitat that "some ultimate questions 'lie beyond science' (14)." The list of world-renowned scientists who disagree with Dawkins, who see some merit in religion, goes on and on.
For example, the McGrath's point us to a fascinating critique of scientific writing that has been written by, and here come two more names, Max Bennett and Peter Hacker in Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. In the book they address the "'science explains everything' outlook that Dawkins seems determined to advance (16)." This is a key point that must be articulated to Dawkins and all scientists who find no value in any discipline outside of their own. Here's what science is not meant to do: it is not meant to explain "everything about the world." It is one way to explain "the phenomena within the world (16)." "Law, economics, and sociology can be sited as examples of disciplines which engage with domain specific phenomena, without in any way having to regard themselves as somehow being inferior to or dependent upon the natural sciences...Yet most importantly, there are many questions that, by their very nature, must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method, as this is normally understood (16-17)." This is a question of questions.
Dealing with these names from the study of science (and non-science...Pope John Paul II is even named by Richard Dawkins) is essential if the McGrath's book is going to be informative for the reader's understanding of The God Delusion. I am convinced that one of Dawkins' great gifts, which he employs with force, is to overwhelm non-scientists with names and terms that he doesn't believe we could possibly know or research on our own. If he waxes eloquent with these names we may become impressed to the point of catching his main point - God is a joke - and walking away with science as, ironically, our god. Alister and Joanna do well to highlight the obvious weakness in Dawkins' approach which isolates him from the broader scientific community who are able to distinguish between "'transcendent' questions, which are better left to religion and metaphysics, and questions about the organization and structure of the material universe (16)."
The second theme, which emerges in this chapter, is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, found in all the major world religions, is also a reality in atheism. Dawkins is a fundamentalist. So, sadly, in my faith in Christ, are found many fundamentalists. One of the debates that Christians get worked into a tizzy over is the debate of faith and science, most often referred to as science VERSUS faith. Folks from the Intelligent Design movement who yell and scream about the impossible possibility that a Christian can be an evolutionary scientist are as unwilling to dialogue with contrary viewpoints as Dawkins is with us. This bugs me. "One of the greatest disservices that Dawkins has done to the natural sciences is to portray them as relentlessly and inexorably atheistic. They are nothing of the sort; yet Dawkins' crusading vigour has led to the growth of this alienating perception in many parts of North American conservative Protestantism (25)." The McGrath's continue, "Yes, there are religious people who are deeply hostile to science. And that number will, if anything, simply increase due to Dawkins' polemical use of science in his epic struggle against religion. Perhaps it's time that the scientific community as a whole protest against the abuse of their ideas in the service of such an atheist fundamentalism (27)."
I want to add to McGrath's call to scientists a similar one for Christians. Perhaps it is time the Christian worldview as a whole protest against the abuse of our faith in the service of such a Christian fundamentalism. Study science. Explore deeply evolution as one theory that may explain phenomena observed within this world. Be both a Christian and an evolutionary scientist if that is your conclusion. Argue for it. Challenge theologians who see evolution and the biblical account of creation as mutually exclusive. But whatever you do, don't make science the enemy. Science itself is not an enemy of God.
We must root out fundamentalism wherever it is found. In the McGrath's chapter they quote from an e-mail sent by Michael Ruse to the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett. Listen to what Ruse warns. Christians and people of other religious convictions, reverse the terms, and please take note. "What we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues - neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas - it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard [Dawkins] claims - more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will (26)." That is a good warning for all of us. Moderates, I trust you take heed!
I love to read and I've been encouraging readers of this blog to love the same. But apparently folks in the U.S. would be a hard sell. They just don't like to read. (Hint: one in four Americans did not read even one book last year. What?! Are these people crazy?)
There is a monastery for sale. Anyone want to buy it for me? I could put some cash towards it, but I am in search of a big investor. Come on, you know you want to help refresh the souls of countless people!
In memoriam is this blogger who died of cancer. I read his blog several times. Imagine his experience? And The Economist had a great obituary this past week. Cardinal Lustiger seems like he was a great gift to Europe. He's one of those people I wish I knew in life.
This is kind of cool, especially if you like to link articles from newspapers but find the on-line edition requires a subscription.
By now you have probably heard of Juicy Couture. It's smuty clothing that become popular with the ladies. Well, I witnessed a weird culture-clash moment at one of their stores this week. (I was walking by and just happened to come upon it. Honestly, I did.) At one of the malls out here a new store was just opening and outside they had stationed a freshly roasted pig (the whole pig), incense candles, and a Buddhist woman was performing some kind of chant in a brief ceremony. All of these European execs are standing there with champagne not having a clue what to do, but the Chinese got it. That's right, folks, a big fat pig blocking the way to this supposedly chic store! I wonder if the pig was juicy?
Last week we began our review of Team of Rivals. Today Goodwin takes us on a spin through the childhoods of Lincoln and his team. She compares and contrasts the young lives of Seward, Chase, Bates, and Lincoln nicely and in her signature way. Focusing mainly on commonalities between all four she writes that the four men:
* Developed intimate friendships with other men. Lincoln's was with a man named Joshua Speed (Seward's was with a young man David Berdan and Chase's with Edwin Stanton). Here's how close they were, "Lincoln and Speed shared the same room for nearly four years, sleeping in the same double bed. Over time, the two young men developed a close relationship, talking nightly of their hopes and prospects, their mutual love of poetry and politics, their anxieties about women. They attended political meetings and forums together, went to dances and parties, relaxed with long rides in the countryside...Emerging from a childhood and young adulthood marked by isolation and loneliness, Lincoln discovered in Joshua Speed a companion with whom he could share his inner life (58)."
Today, we'd be tempted to wonder if Lincoln and Speed had a sexual relationship. Goodwin addresses this quoting historian Donald Yacovone, "The 'preoccupation with elemental sex' reveals more about later centuries than 'about the nineteenth' (58)." Though initmate, there was no same-sex attraction. Male friendships are as important now as they were then. In fact, Lincolnian leadership teaches us that it's vital for leaders to have friends of the same sex - guys or girls who can walk with us, helping us make sense of what's happening on the landscapes of our souls.
* Overcame tremendous emotional pain, particularly in grieving the loss of loved ones. Chase once told a friend, "Losing one's only child was 'one of the heaviest calamaties which human experience can know (43)," and when his sister died he reflected, "Death has pursued me incessantly ever since I was twenty-five...Sometimes I feel as if I could give up - as if I must give up. And then after all I rise & press on (43)." Lincoln's life was full of death, but one that took a major toll on him was the sudden passing of his first love Ann Rutledge. Her death shook the president-to-be to his core and nearly made him crazy. (Interestingly, although this chapter reveals that Lincoln read his Bible incessantly, he did not believe in the afterlife. And this grew to haunt him as he mourned the loss of many lives. "To the end of his life, [Lincoln] was haunted by the finality of death and the evanescence of earthly accomplishments .")
Leaders learn how to navigate the storms of loss. Many a great leader has lost loved ones, colleagues, and friends to death and has learned how to journey on without their compatriots. Chase, Bates, and Lincoln all watched their parents die while they were young, but as we will see, all of them pressed on through the storm.
* Showed an aptitude for study. One of Lincoln's close childhood friends reflects, "[He] soared above us. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read & thoroughly read his book whilst we played. Hence he was above us and became our guide and leader (49)." The author continues, "Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past. Relatives and neighbors recalled that he scoured the countryside for books and read every volume 'he could lay his hands on'...Holding Pilgrim's Progress in his hands, 'his eyes sparkled, and that day he could not eat, and that night he could not sleep' (51)."
Lincoln never enjoyed the benefits of a formal education. But "What Lincoln lacked in preparation and guidance, he made up for with his daunting concentration, phenomenal memory, acute reasoning faculties, and interpretive penetration. Though untutored in the sciences and the classics, he was able to read and reread his books until he understood them fully (54)." It's imperative that leaders be readers. Readers are often leaders. And it's especially difficult to be an effective leader if you don't read. Literacy is a gift and we're foolish if we don't take advantage of libraries, bookstores, and the Internet to learn as much as we can in our time here on earth. Lincoln and friends read and that contributed to their greatness.
Certainly these are not the only commonalities between the men, and these aren't the only leadership lessons in "The Longing to Rise", but developing intimate friendships, overcoming emotional pain, and having an aptitude for study all are timeless traits of great leaders. And it's certainly part of Lincolnian leadership.
On Saturday mornings I like to get up very early, 7 o'clock is best, workout, and then get my buns & a good book down to Starbucks for a round of reading before noon. On Saturdays I am always in the mood for a good story. It doesn't have to be fiction, but it usually is. This may come as a surprise to those who know me, because I you know that I read almost 100 percent non-fiction. But Saturdays is the exception. What is it about the morning of the sixth day of the week, while everyone else is barely able to crawl out of bed, that makes reading stories so much fun?
I am not able to read a story every week. Some weeks, like this Saturday, I have an event that precludes me from practicing my ritual, but last week was a great one. For months John Steinbeck's Cannery Row sat on my shelf. My good friend Mike, an avid reader (in fact, no one I know reads more books than Mike), recommended it and I've had every good intention of reading it, but I didn't get started until Saturday. And I was sorry, very sorry, that I had not read it sooner. This truly is an exceptional story.
We cannot review this book the way we review non-fiction at the Swallow's Nest. To do so would be to ruin it. So I'll just tell why I loved Cannery Row.
To begin with, this is a tale about community. More appropriately, an imperfect community, but a community nonetheless. All my life I have wanted to live in one. By this I mean real community. My life well integrated with the lives of others. Sharing every part of life. And I've wanted this to be full of imperfect people, just like me. A scene in which we party and play together, laugh and cry, believe and doubt. Steinbeck's is a community of imperfects. They're down and out, they drink, they drug, there's sex, and all, but still I read in awe of the community of Cannery Row.
I wonder how do you re-create such a culture and I worry that there is no way. My circumstances have driven me away from this fleshly, authentic kind of existence. My education has meant I no longer source my neighbor for help when I'm perplexed. I go to my bookshelf, the Internet, or the television. My wealth has meant I no longer source my neighbor for bread and wine and sugar. I get my own, carry it home from the mega-store, slam and lock my door. I've no need to borrow from you. And my will has somehow convinced me I can navigate life all on my own. Even when the wind blows and the storm rips water o'er the boat, I remain locked at the helm - this is my ship! It's not like this on Cannery Row. And so what is it about drunks and druggies, the homeless and homely, the addicted and agitated, that gifts them the wonder of one another?
My favorite characters and the most compelling scenes tell you not so much why I liked the story as much as they tell you something about me. There's the flag-pole skater and Richard's burning question replied. And Henri who didn't want to finish his boat for fear of the water. I could cry. How many boats I'm still building because my fear keeps me from finishing! And Mack, who finds his true self and courageously identifies the reality, "It don't do not good thing to say I'm sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain't no new thing. It's always like this...maybe this will teach me. Maybe I'll remember this. But, hell, I won't remember nothin'. I won't learn nothin'." That's me. And Frankie. He stole for Doc. Why? Because "I love you." That's me too. I feel compelled to steal for that one I love. Oh if he knew how deep my affection.
And then there's Doc. He summarizes the whole scene so well and says just what I think I want to say:
"Look at them. They are the true philosophers. I think that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else."
"It has always seemed strange to me. The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."
Yes, that is it. This is what makes the lives of Cannery Row so rich and compelling. They are the true philosophers and sincere practitioners. They know. We've never known. It's likely only brokenness can teach us how to know like they do. There's a lot of wisdom there, on Cannery Row.
[Extra Notes: chapters 24, 26, and 31 and the vignettes they tell make the book! What gifts Steinbeck gives us by including them. You can read more about Steinbeck the man here. I have already bought Of Mice and Men. East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath will make for good Saturday reading as well. I am excited.]
Last week we started our analysis of Alister and Joanna McGrath's response to Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. Today we look into chapter 1, Deluded About God? Off the top there is at least one thing, probably more, that Dawkins, the McGrath's and I agree on and that is this: humans must be critical thinkers. More specifically, Christians must think and think well. As McGrath writes of Dawkins' view, "That makes it all the more important, we are told, to subject faith to critical, rigorous examination. Delusions need to be exposed - and then removed (1)." The McGraths and I agree. Wherever there are delusions lurking in the dark corners of Christian thought and practice we must rout them out. And there are a growing number of Christian thinkers that are doing exactly that (see the blogs or websites of Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, and Gregory Boyd [Greg's blog is here] to name a few). "Dawkins is correct - unquestionably correct - when he demands that we should not base our lives on delusions (2)."
But what Dawkins fails to understand time and again is that many Christians, not to mention people of other faiths, are critical thinkers who commonly disavow what the quacks and extremists of our religions teach. I am happy to disassociate myself from a number of the supposed "Christians" that send letters to Dr. Dawkins, some of which he records in the book. I believe he receives these scathing rebukes and I think they are not only inappropriate, they are very un-Christian. But Dawkins seems to have a hard time imagining I am much different. "One of the most characteristic features of Dawkins' anti-religious polemic is his presentation of the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the centre, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion, and probably care for it even less. But it's not acceptable. And it's certainly not scientific (5)."
At some point, if the author of The God Delusion wants to write on religion with integrity, then he needs to apply discipline to the study of religion. Again I agree with the McGraths, "Ancedote is substituted for evidence; selective Internet-trawling for quotes displaces rigorous and comprehensive engagement with primary sources. In this book, Dawkins throws the conventions of academic scholarship to the winds; he wants to write a work of propaganda, and consequently treats the accurate rendition of religion as an inconvenient impediment to his chief agenda, which is the intellectual and cultural destruction of religion (6)." And perhaps this is all the more shocking since in the field of science Professor Dawkins has dealt with integrity. In reading him elsewhere one comes to expect it, but there is little integrity in The God Delusion. How unfortunate, not only for Dawkins reputation, but for atheists everywhere.
The majority of this first chapter is used to give us a general overview of Dawkins' arguments against God. Ironically, we agree with the professor when he dismisses the "God of the gaps" theory. "Dawkins' criticism of those who 'worship the gaps', despite its overstatements, is clearly appropriate and valid. So we must thank him for helping us to kill off this outdated false turn in the history of Christian apologetics (11)." (I am not going to take time here to explore the theory of the God of the gaps. To learn more about what the theory is click here. Remember, many Christians now reject this theory, Alister McGrath being one.) But when Dawkins leans heavily on the improbability for God's existence, the McGraths fight back, primarily through commonly agreed upon philosophical arguments, but also scientifically and theologically.
For example, in The God Delusion its author pokes at Thomas Aquinas' "Five Ways" incorrectly labeling them as "proofs" for God's existence. (See pages 77-79 of The God Delusion to read about Dawkins critique of Aquinas.) But as is pointed out in this chapter, to view Aquinas' points this way is antiquated. These should not be seen by Christians or anyone else as proving God, rather they simply show the "inner consistency of belief in God (7)." It seems to me this is a place where both Dawkins and Christian apologists both need some work. Both sides of the debate, atheists and Christians, need to carefully define what we are debating about. That will go a long way to make sure we actually know what we're talking about before we start talking! Just what did Aquinas mean? Was he right? If yes or if no, then how does that change the frame of our present debate?
Finally, there is one nagging irritation that I encountered reading Dawkins' book and it turns out this same itch also harassed the McGrath's. It is Dawkins insistence on saying that all Christian parents do is indoctrinate our children. That is an argument which in many cases is simply not true (ask the average pastor who prays often that parents in their congregations would do a much better, more consistent job of teaching their kids how to live like Jesus) and in other cases an argument that whips itself back around to bite atheists just as hard. Do you mean to tell me that Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish parents indoctrinate their children more than atheist parents do their offspring? I doubt it very much. As the McGrath's say, "I very much fear that secularists would merely force their own dogmas down the throats of the same gullible children (4)." We will come back to this mega-problem in The God Delusion later, but that's all for today, folks!
A bridge collapsed in China this week, killing 34. How much you want to bet this wouldn't have been that big of a news item if 35W hadn't fallen in Minnesota? Because it happened in the States, now it is possible for U.S. media to cover it when it happens elsewhere. Everytime Americans express awe that I could travel in China without feeling that I am in awful danger, I remember that bridges fall in the States too. Are U.S. residents really that much safer staying at home?
Here's a question of interest for the week: would you buy a home in which a murder took place? Former pro wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son and then killed himself, has an estate that is being fought over by other surviving family members. Fox reported this week the home where the murders took place will likely be sold. It will be a "bargain" for whoever buys the mansion. Would you buy it?
Two men died this week. Both had an impact on my childhood in front of the television. Merv Griffin was a giant and even though I never watched one of his talkshows (of course, I have seen Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, both of which he created) I remember a classic Seinfeld episode in which Kramer finds the old Merv Griffin set in a dumpster. He halls the sign, backdrop, tables, and chairs back to his apartment and pretends to be Merv, hosting the show from there. Hilarious. Watch it here. When Merv died this week I immediately thought of that episode (and how close Merv was with Ronald Reagan).
The other guy is Phil Rizzuto. He was a famous baseball player and announcer for the New York Yankees. Again, this was not a guy I watched playing baseball on television, but I can remember a little commercial that he did out of New York. It would pop up watching cartoons or other programs in the afternoons. It began, "This is Phil Rizzuto of the Money Store." Thick New York accent. I can also remember watching Red Sox-Yankee games and Phil being referred to in the booth by his nickname, "Scooter." I thought back on those days when I heard he died.
What was I thinking when I agreed to pay money at the theatre to watch The Simpsons movie? It was quite possibly one of the worst movies I have ever seen. No plot, poor animation, and nothing more than one long television episode. The most appropriate thing for me to do would have been to walk out, but I was so annoyed with myself for paying the bucks that I decided a walk out would be admission of my stupidity. If you're planning to see this "film", turn back. It's not too late. Even if you already bought the tickets. Keep 'em in your drawer as a protest. Ugh.
Prepare to laugh & laugh hard. This list from Marko had me in hysterics.
You know you’re an EXTREME Redneck When…..
1. You let your 14-year-old daughter smoke at the dinner table in front of her kids.
2. The Blue Book value of your truck goes up and down depending on how much gas is in it.
3. You’ve been married three times and still have the same in-laws.
4. You think a woman who is “out of your league” bowls on a different night.
5. You wonder how service stations keep their rest-rooms so clean.
6. Someone in your family died right after saying, “Hey, guys, watch this.”
7. You think Dom Perignon is a Mafia leader.
8. Your wife’s hairdo was once ruined by a ceiling fan.
9. Your junior prom offered day care.
10. You think the last words of the “Star-Spangled Banner” are “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
11. You lit a match in the bathroom and your house exploded right off its wheels.
12. The Halloween pumpkin on your porch has more teeth than your spouse.!
13. You have to go outside to get something from the fridge.
14. One of your kids was born on a pool table.
15. You need one more hole punched in your card to get a freebie at the House of Tattoos.
16. You can’t get married to your sweetheart because there’s a law against it.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of the greatest researchers and writers of history, and Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest president America has ever had. Put the two together and you get Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. This is Goodwin's masterpiece on the life, and more significantly, the unique leadership style of America's 16th president. In honor of the upcoming 2008 U.S. presidential election and in light of increased discussion about the role of public leadership, I'd like to launch a review of Lincoln's life via Goodwin's comprehensive work. This is going to take us at least 26 weeks, so it's Lincoln in the long stretch.
The main reason I am fascinated by Lincoln and enjoyed this volume is because Lincoln did something brave that we find unique in leadership: he welcomed his rivals into his team. He embraced those with opposing views and, instead of brushing them aside when he gained power, he turned around and empowered them. As a leader, I find this to be a fascinating approach. In the Introduction Goodwin makes her case for viewing Lincoln through the lens of his rivals saying, "By widening the lens to include Lincoln's colleagues and their families, my story benefited from a treasure trove of primary sources that have not generally been used in Lincoln biographies (xviii)." So by reading this book we also get to read about those colleagues that interacted with this historic leader.
There are other tidbits in the Introduction (e.g. the author rejects the commonly held assumption that Lincoln suffered from chronic depression), but it's in the opening chapter that Goodwin writes compellingly of the characters that shape this historic tour de force. She uses the first installment of part one to build us up to the May 18, 1860 vote for the Republican nominee to be president by giving us a brisk but intimate look at Lincoln and his rival's moods and activities on that morning. William Henry Seward, Salmon Chase, and Judge Edward Bates are captured with various emotions as they awaited word from Chicago on who would get the nomination.
What we learn of Lincoln is that he is less convinced than the others of his chances at the Convention. In fact, we sense that a shock awaits Seward in particular, because we know the end of the story. We also pick-up that Lincoln is a master storyteller and an ardent anti-slavery advocate. These aspects of the president will be developed in the remainder of the book. But Goodwin concludes this opening stanza this way: "There was little to lead one to suppose that Abraham Lincoln, nervously rambling the streets of Springfield that May morning, who scarcely had a national reputation, certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative experience whatsoever, would become the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth century (27)."
Lincoln, the unassuming underdog...I like him already.
Tucked into the end of a story about the Mattel toy company's recall at CNN this morning were these words: "The manager of the Chinese toy factory that was producing the tainted products recalled August 2 hanged himself in one of the factory's warehouses over the weekend, Chinese government officials said." How sad. The most tragic development in this whole mess gets a line at the end of the story. The site did add, "According to the government-run China Daily newspaper, police suspect Zhang Shuhong committed suicide because of the decision by the 'General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine to ban his toy export business last week after 967,000 of the toys it had made were recalled.' A friend of Zhang's was reportedly the supplier of the paint, the newspaper quoted the employee as saying."
But even this was cold, a factual presentation on the possible state of this man's thinking as his business went terribly bad. To me, it's not the recall of toys that make this story important; it's the recall of a man's life. And this raises the question: how could a man be destroyed by bad news, granted terrifyingly bad news, about his work? Of course, it doesn't take a rocket scientist or a toy maker to know why. I am not asking about the obvious. His reputation would be destroyed, he would likely lose everything he owned, and may well have spent the rest of his days facing litigation and fighting off shame in a culture that values "face" over life sometimes.
But there is another factor at play here. It is likely that for Zhang Shuhong his work formed his identity. If we'd met him six months ago at a party he may well have given his name and immediately followed that with his occupation. "My name is Zhang Shuhong and I make toys for Mattel." Zhang is not alone in this. Today's Wednesday, the middle day of the work week, and so millions of people trudge off to their jobs this morning and, truth be told, find that the office holds little distinction from their living room. In Hong Kong, and according to my wife Zhang is from this city, few have created the necessary boundary line between work and family, work and play, and most importantly work and identity. To lose one's job here and face unemployment can literally be the end of the world.
Boundary is the key word, isn't it? Developing a borderline between work and a person's identity is time well spent. My work is what I do to make a living and to contribute my gifts for the good of society (hopefully), but my identity is much more than what I do for a living. So I am free to say, "I'm Mark and I give leadership to a group of companies in my work, but I love to read, to engage with God, spend time relaxing with my wife, I like to run, and I'm obsessed with American football." That gives someone meeting me for the first time a much clearer picture of my total identity. And for those who know me well, they can challenge me: "you're spending too much time at work. Come out with us. Have a drink. Relax."
Look back at the CNN story. See how even the reporter filing the story falls prey to the rule of work in our lives. The first 95% of the article is spent focused on the business and political ramifications of the recall, and concerns mainly facts ("1 million Doggie Daycare sets; 680,000 Barbie and Tanner play sets; 345,000 Batman and One Piece magnetic action figures; and 253,000 'Sarge' die-cast miniature toy vehicles...Some 7.3 million sets were sold at toy stores, and 2.4 million of those were recalled in November, the company said."), and of course, what happened to the stock price ("Shares of Mattel, based in El Segundo, California, were down 3.5 percent Tuesday morning, but had recovered to a loss of 2.1 percent by mid-afternoon.") Gee, I bet Zhang's family takes comfort that the stock pulled off its intraday butt there in the end!
Work first. Business ramifications take the headline. (OK, we want every parent to mail these tainted toys back, I know. And I know that if legal paints were being used in the first place this would not have happened. I am all for protecting our kids.) The end of a man's life. Tack that on at the end. Most toys come with a warning label. Here's mine for us. WARNING: Making your job your identity is hazardous to your life.
Decalogue I: “I am The Lord thy God. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me”
It has been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. If so, Kieslowski demonstrates it here by making the viewer wildly attentive to the eyes of his characters. In doing so we are drawn as the filmmaker lays bare the soul of a Polish family caught halfway between science and reason on one end of life and God on the other. Kieslowski is careful not to set the two up as complete opposites. He has one of his characters tell the other, “Your Dad’s way of life may seem more reasonable, but it doesn’t rule out God.” But in the end it is a father’s conviction that nothing can rule life like scientific discovery and the reason that accompanies it and an aunt’s belief that God rules, albeit it in love, but that He rules nonetheless, which forms the basis for the storyline and brings into focus the very words of God, “I am The Lord thy God. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.”
This is a story about a boy, Pavel, his father, and his aunt. It’s hard to imagine someone watching this film and not falling in love with Pavel. He is curious, smart, inquisitive, fun loving, and adventurous. He also asks important questions about life, death, and the afterlife. Pavel gives his family, and we his theatrical family, hope. Despite the dark, depressing Polish winter, and numerous hints to the oppressive political regime then in power, a young boy emerges as a light in the darkness. But he emerges only for a little while until his untimely death on the ice.
Throughout the short story Pavel enjoys a genuine friendship with his Dad. (Where Pavel’s mother is and why she is no longer a part of his life we are not told and we are left to guess.) His father’s mastery of computers and wonder at the inner workings of technology spill over into Pavel’s curious mind and together they learn to make life work through the brains of the computer. They even develop a formula on the computer for assessing what kind of temperature is required to freeze the ice on the lake so Pavel can use his early Christmas present, ice skates, as soon as it is safe. In the end it’s a miscalculation about precisely how frozen the ice is that results in Pavel’s death to the shock and horror of his Dad.
But this is not the whole story. His caregiver aunt, who offers him a different outlook on life, also influences the young boy. This is a worldview that puts God at the center of life and allows Pavel the freedom to explore his questions about life and death and the afterlife both openly and freely. While Pavel’s Dad tells him, “There is no soul,” his aunt shows him a picture of Pope John Paul II and asks him, “Do you think he understands the meaning of life?” When Pavel responds by asking, “who is God?” she gives him a big hug and tells him, “God is very simple, if you have faith.” And it is here that she appropriately reminds him, “Your Dad’s way of life may seem more reasonable, but it doesn’t rule out God.” In other words, there is a place for reason and science, but do not allow it to rule over you or take the place of your God.
Ultimately this is not a film about the boy, but rather his Dad. And perhaps the father is representative of Kieslowski himself. Life is not as simple as it seems. And life is not as rational as it may first appear. We have our calculations made, but then the unexplainable happens. Is the ice frozen enough? Pavel’s father concludes that it is after a late night walk past the church, ignoring a prayer vigil, to personally test the ice. Even though his trusty computer tells him it will be just fine he has decided to verify his findings, passing over God in favor of verifiable proof for an expected outcome. But reason is of little use when the next day Pavel’s body is pulled from the frigid waters. Then, the camera follows this same tormented man back into the church where he kneels at the altar, and pushing back the frame in anger at God, causes a candle to melt the eyes of a Madonna painting that hung nearby. Again, Kieslowski goes for the eye of Mary and we see the candle wax gives the impression she is crying.
This seems to be representative of Kieslowski’s view of God. God is always distant but in love with his creation and saddened by what happens to us. This isn’t the only time we’ve seen this since one of the biggest unanswered questions about the film is: who is represented by an anonymous man that sits by the fire at the lake and makes several appearances in the film? Kieslowski never said, but my instinct tells me it is God himself. More significantly it is the filmmaker’s view of God. The man watches, the man searches and seeks, fire protects this man (this could also be a motif for the Holy Spirit of God, a warning and a comfort), and the man demonstrates sadness by crying, and even makes eye contact with Pavel’s Dad as he tests the ice. In other words, God is present with us, seeks to draw us to Him through His eyes, and He wants to be solely present with no one and nothing else before Him. This is a lovingly passionate yearning that results in this command. But there is still a perceived distance that we must wrestle with.
Perhaps the most chilling moment in the piece is when Pavel actually dies. We don’t see his body fighting for life in the water. Instead, Kieslowski shows the father at work in his home amidst his books when he suddenly looks down and sees that a bottle of ink has spilled, run under his papers, and soaked through like water breaking through ice! At that moment we know what’s happened and, at some level, so does Pavel’s father. His son is dead. The ink soaking the paper has foretold the impossible. Reason has lost its way. Faith in God is now the only possible comfort.
I think it would be easy for any viewer to leave Kieslowski and this first Commandment wondering, “Did God kill Pavel to teach Pavel’s Dad a lesson?” While answering “yes” to this may seem like a logical conclusion – God can’t stand not being number one so much that He turns viciously jealous and kills off even a young boy to justify His command – I reject this both theologically and in what I understand to be Kieslowski’s point. First, the boy is not the object of the father’s idolatry. Reason and science is. Second, the tears of the mysterious man and the Madonna demonstrate how heartbroken God is at the death of Pavel and the suffering that ensues for his father and aunt. God didn’t kill Pavel.
This film speaks most deeply to me about the reality of God’s first Commandment. At the end of my life I will truly have no other god before me. Just like Pavel, and the bereaving parent, I will then come to terms with my idolatry. All of the things and people and miscellaneous gods I worshipped will be destroyed and all that will be left is God, the One and Only, and me. I often wonder, “how do people who don’t know God face that moment?” It’s time I stopped wondering about others and faced the question squarely for myself.