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Archive for October, 2011

I read the Bible frequently, both for myself and for the religious writing that I do professionally. But these past few years, I’ve wanted to make sure that I didn’t reach the end of my life and regret I didn’t study the Bible more—as, indeed, Billy Graham regretted in a news magazine article a few years ago. Of course, my studies, modest and informal as they are, wouldn’t been nearly as satisfying if I didn’t share them with others.

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve posted interconnected, personal studies of the Holy Spirit and the Exodus, and then God’s glory. The subject of God’s glory reminded me of Ezekiel 8-10, where the prophet describes the departure of glory from the Jerusalem temple. That, in turn, set me thinking about the biblical exile–more broadly, the conquest of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians in about 722 BC, the conquest of the southern kingdom Judah by the Babylonians in about 586 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at that time, and the long period of exile in Babylon before many Judahites were allowed to return to the Land following the Persian defeat of Babylon. I thought about what a pervasive theme the exile is in the Bible. Similarly to the exodus, the story shapes the Bible both explicitly and implicitly.

The exile happened because (in the prophetic interpretation) God executed judgment against his people for faithlessness. But in spite of the vivid and immediate threats of the writing prophets, the exile does show the extraordinary patience and love of God. After all, over six hundred years separate the death of Moses and the beginning of Joshua’s conquest, with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in about 586 BC. Imagine a history beginning in the mid or late 13th century–St. Thomas Aquinas, the Mongol conquest of Russia, the completion of Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc.—and ending in the present day. So this long history shows how committed God is to “hang in” with people; God, too, forgives seventy times seven.

And …. the subject of the exile make me think more about God’s selection of and love for Israel as God’s own people. One particular word, though—jealousy—raises lots of questions I’d like to explore.

The book of Deuteronomy promises God’s love but also “foreshadows” God’s judgment, thus anticipating the history of the people on the land for the subsequent 600 or so years:

For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. When you have had children and children’s children… act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the Lord will lead you. …From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul (Deut. 4:24-29).

Here is another passage:

When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you… and when you have eaten your fill take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth (Deut. 6:10-15).

And another:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today… (Deut. 7:7-13).

Earlier in the Torah, in the second commandment, God is identified as a “jealous God.” Later, in Exodus 34:14, God’s name is Jealous!

What does it mean for God to be “jealous”? Alan N. Winkler, writing in the Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2001), argues that when jealousy is named as one of God’s qualities, “it is obviously used in a positive sense” and, although an anthropomorphic term for God, it does reflect “the relationship of husband and wife and is frequently associated with Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.” (This and the following references are from that book, p. 388).

Winkler notes that the Hebrew word is qãnã’ and the Greek word is zêlos. In addition to Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24, Winkler points out other passages: Joshua 24:19-22, where Joshua challenges the people to serve God, who is holy and jealous. God’s jealousy is also referred to in Ezekiel 8:3, 1 Kings 14:22, and Psalm 78:58 as a threatening quality.

God’s jealousy and pity are two connected aspects of God’s nature in Joel 2:18, where God displays mercy for the people. Winkler also calls attention to Zechariah 1:14-16, which links God’s jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion, and the divine anger against the goyim, the nations. All the while, “jealousy” is also a human quality, as in Numbers 5: 14-30, Prov. 6:34, Song of Songs 8:6 (“jealousy is cruel as the grave,” RSV).

Winkler also finds the word used in Romans 10:19 (a quotation of Deut. 32:12), Romans 11:11 (where Paul hopes to reach more of his fellow Jews through his ministry), 1 Cor. 10:22 (referring to God’s reaction to Christians attending idol feasts), and 2 Cor. 11:2 (Paul’s possessiveness for the Corinthians, who are listening to the “super apostles” more than him).

Winkler concludes “[T]o arouse the jealousy of God is a very dangerous action on our part. On the other hand, God’s jealousy is based on his love and concern for us.” (p. 389)

I agree, but that’s also what I’m struggling with! In human beings, jealousy is a cruel and obsessive character flaw. At my university, on the bulletin board of the criminal justice department, I noticed the title of an article about abused women: ” ‘He Said If She Left, He’d Kill Her.'” Doesn’t God sound like that in some of the biblical passages? Abusive husbands do love their wives, in a way, but their love is too warped and damaged to be meaningful love. Just because jealousy is a biblical attribute of God, should we automatically assume it is thereby a good quality?

*****

In “The Book of Numbers” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 2, Abingdon Press, 1998), Thomas B. Dozeman writes that God’s jealousy is the theme of the speech Num. 25:10-13. God’s qãnã’, in this context, “conveys qualities of vigilance, intolerance, and absolute devotion.” (p. 199). This speech is preceded by the story of an Israelite man, Zimri, who brought a Midianite woman, Cozbi, into the group of Israelites, against God’s desire that the people not have relationships with foreign peoples. (This is one of “those” Bible stories that isn’t taught to children.) Phinehas killed both Zimri and Cozbi with a single spear thrust, which in turn halted the plague (sent because of God’s wrath at the Israelites) which had already killed 24,000. Interestingly, as Dozeman points out (p. 200), Phinehas and his family are recipients of an “unconditional and permanent” covenant similar to the one made to David.

Dozeman notes that “Jealousy is about divine passion. It stresses that Yahweh is not indifferent to Israel or to their relationships in this world. It conveys strong imagery of intolerance for any allegiance outside of the relationship to God. Commentators tend to water down the violent and suspicious characteristics that accompany a description of God as being jealous. But the content of the stories in Numbers 25 suggest just the opposite. God is fanatical in demanding exclusive allegiance—so fanatical, in fact, that punishment is enacted indiscriminately. The jealousy of God is an important message to preach. God is not casual about our commitments” (p. 201).

But he goes on to say that the Phinehas story shows that God’s desire to limit “punishment to the guilty.” God had been wrathful and wanted to “destroy indiscriminately,” but the intercession of Phinehas (as well as Moses in the preceding section) cut short the divine wrath (p. 201).

This is an “interesting” side to God, to say the least! Is God liable to become irrational, so to speak, and tremendously destructive until someone intervenes to calm him down? (That’s a question I’ll look at in “part 3”). Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” sometimes criticized for its harsh and scary portrayal of God, is nevertheless faithful to some biblical passages! (His text is from Deuteronomy, after all.)

God’s jealousy is depicted in other ways that are disturbing to us. Two of the most horrifying come from Ezekiel. Ezekiel 16 depicts Judah’s relationships with other Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, as well as the people’s idol worship, as harlotries committed by a wife in betrayal of her husband. But the sins of the “wife” Jerusalem ends in her mutilation and murder, so that God can “satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:42). But this violence “returned your deeds upon your head” (vs. 43), that is, the people are culpable for their punishment: the conquest of the land by Babylon. (See, for instance, the failed efforts of Zedekiah to mediate between Egypt and Babylon, against Jeremiah’s advice and also depreciated in the next chapter, Ez. 17.)

Ezekiel 23 is an even more violent and vulgar text, presenting Samaria and Jerusalem as two nymphomaniac women, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah is stripped and killed. Oholibah, lusting for foreign men with huge penises and orgasms (verse 20), is punished for her lust by being stripped and mutilated. Yet again, the punishments are described as being fitting to Judah’s sins: i.e., the kingdom’s political and religious relationships with foreign nations, depicted here as adultery and harlotry, and thus are contrary to a relationship of trust and worship to Yahweh.

My classmate Julie Galambush, in her study of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s wife (Scholar’s Press, 1992), also notes the strangeness that, for all of the language and metaphors of savage judgment against Jerusalem, the idea of the city as God’s wife subsequently falls away in Ezekiel. But this prophet is one of the Bible’s most complex and perplexing writings, ranging from crude parables like these, to strange “performance art,” to the unforgettable parable of hope in chapter 37, apocalyptic images, and deep moral theology which challenges other biblical writings.

Conjugal and sexual language to describe the relationship of God and Israel—along with the metaphors of God as a furious, vengeful husband punishing his unfaithful wife—isn’t new or limited to these terrible Ezekiel passages. Read several chapters of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century (Ezekiel was 6th century), and you see how Hosea’s experience of marriage to a prostitute informs God’s pronouncements of judgment and mercy upon Israel. Also read Isaiah 3:16-4:1 and you get a similar (and to our sensibilities, misogynistic) image of God’s people as a lewd woman, showing off her “bling,” who will eventually be punished, afflicted and humiliated. (Interestingly, this section is next to God’s condemnation of Israel for neglecting the poor, another sin which evokes God’s furious judgment.)

We see some of this language as well in Jeremiah 2-10, in the prophetic oracles against the people—God’s threats of punishment and exile—in which God’s people are portrayed as an unfaithful wife. Interestingly, Jeremiah himself complains that God has been to him like a predator–a sexual predator at that; “enticing” and “overpowering” connote seduction and rape—forcing him into the humiliation and derision of the prophetic role (20:7- 12). God’s faithful prophet suffers, along with his people, punishment of an angry deity.

But God also struggles with tenderness, as in Hosea 11, although here the language changes from conjugal to parental. Still, God seems horrified at his own wrath and his own need to display wrath.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

Of course, we have many passages in 2 Isaiah. After the divine fury that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people, God is now calm (to echo Ezekiel 16:42 above), and speaks tenderly and comfortingly to the people. Language of conjugal relationship is there, but God also addresses the people as a people and a suffering servant. God promises that the divine glory—-there is that theme again—shall not be removed again.

For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
so that I may not cut you off.
See, I have refined you, but not like silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for why should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:9-11).

*****

The prolific scholar Walter Brueggemann comments (in his Theology of the Old Testament, cited below) that our theological reflection would be easier if passages like Ezekiel 16 and 23 were not in the Bible! But they’re there. What kind of love does this God show? Does John 3:16 have an ominous quality in light of God’s possessive rage? Brueggemann writes: ‘This is no “sweet” love, but a fierce love that demands much both from God and God’s people.’

Brueggemann quotes Deuteronomy 7:7-8a and 10:15, and comments, “This is no casual, formal, or juridical commitment [to Israel]. This is a passion that lives in the ‘loins’ of Yahweh, who will risk everything for Israel and, having risked everything, will expect everything and will be vigilant not to share the beloved with any other. This is no open marriage. The outcome of a passion so intensely initiated has within it the seeds of intolerance, culminating in violence. There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not finish in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope… This is [the God] who goes wholly overboard in passion, to Israel’s great gain and then to Israel’s greatest loss… It is worth nothing that in the Johannine witness in the New Testament, there are those familiar words, ‘God so loved the world…’ So loved! How loved? In what way? To what extent? So loved….to give all…and demand all.”(25) Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 384-385.

This quote is from the section “Yahweh’s Capacity for Violence,” one of the three of Israel’s “countertestimonies” about God’s nature. Brueggemann writes, “In the end, a student of the Old Testament cannot answer for or justify the violence [of God], but must concede that it belongs to the very fabric of this faith” (p. 381).

One is the violence of sovereignty. Any government has to use a certain amount of force, and this is true of the Lord as well. We see it in the pre-exilic prophets and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, as Brueggemann points out (p. 381). He notes that God uses force against other nations: Egypt in Exodus, Assyria (Isaiah 10 and 37), Babylon (Isaiah 47 and Daniel 4), as well as other nations (Amos 1).(p. 381-382)

There is also the violence of the conquest of the land. Brueggeman calls this a countertestimony in distinction to the testimony of God’s goodness and compassion: his example is Ps. 145:9). In the stories of the conquest, God is “good to Israel at the expense of others” (p. 382).

Brueggemann sees a third countertestimony, “Yahweh’s profound irrationality,” which we see in images of God as an “authoritarian husband and Israel as “the easily blamed, readily dismissed, vulnerable wife” (p. 383). See his footnote there. The stories of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel depict “a Yahweh who is out of control with the violent, sexual rage of a husband who assaults his own beloved” (p. 383). We do see the return of tenderness and restoration in the poetry of Second Isaiah. Brueggemann notes “There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not flinch in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope” (p. 384).

As I still thought about this issue, I found another Brueggemann piece, this time in “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 1, Abingdon Press, 1994). There, he notes that God is jealous because God is faithful. An idol, or image, is a way to domesticate and control God, which cannot be done (p. 842). But how we try! Brueggemann notes that we do live in a “world of options” which can and does lead us astray: “In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not Gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant” (p. 843).

The reason for God’s jealousy, is God’s “deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commandments.” But God is jealous because of God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant” (p. 842). Hesed, of course, translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, that which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God.

*****

The theme of God’s jealousy is—to me, at least—distressing because the word (and some of the biblical testimony) depict God as having qualities that we deplore in people. We long for God to be “God and no mortal” (Hos. 11:9). But on the other hand, the word denotes God’s desire to keep his people as his own, and includes the protectiveness and commitment that we show for our own families.  Since the Greek word is zêlos, we can think about meanings of the word “zealous” as pertaining to God: an online dictionary lists several definitions and synonyms, like ardently active, devoted, diligent,  eager, passionate, warm, intense, and fervent.

Two more writings are worth noting as I finish this subject for now. One is a Jew and another from a Christian. At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah this year, I noticed a fascinating article tweeted from Huffington Post, “G-d’s Struggle to Repent” by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-ephraim-buchwald/god-struggles-to-repent_b_980972.html  His thoughts dovetail well with the Hosea 11 passage and others.

“The Talmud, in Brachot 7a, reports two similar stories about prayer. Rabbi Yohanan asks in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He says prayers? He answers: because the verse in Isaiah 56:7 states: ‘I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer.’ It does not say ‘their house of prayer,’ but ‘My house of prayer.’ Hence, we learn that the Holy One Blessed Be He prays.

“The Talmud then asks: What exactly does G-d pray? Rav Zutra the son of Tobia said in the name of Rav: G-d’s prayer is, ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger and that My mercy prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.'”

Rabbi Buchwald gives further Talmudic stories of this type. God “reveals His inner desire that His mercy suppress His anger, even though the anger may be justified. We are told that it is the Almighty’s fervent wish that His mercy prevail over His other attributes, which usually mete out justice on the basis of strict retribution that fits the offense and give His people the benefit of the doubt, rather than accord strict justice.” After discussing traditional interpretations, Rabbi Buchwald says that, in his opinion, “the Talmud here informs us through these intriguing tales, that G-d needs help as well. It is through such anthropomorphic tales that the Talmud and the Aggadot teach us that G-d ‘struggles,’ so to speak, to overcome His anger against those who betray Him and break His trust. It is as if the Immortal truly needs the blessing of the mortal, which, of course, is unfathomable.

“The message, then, is directed to us, to humans of flesh and blood. We mortals must be humbled and inspired by G-d’s behavior. Just as G-d seeks out others to help Him and bless Him, so should we seek out others who may help us and bless us. Just as G-d prays that His quality of mercy should overcome His anger, so too must we pray that our quality of mercy should overcome our anger.

“That the most powerful Being in the world is depicted in the Talmud as needing help, is a message of hope, rather than despair. Just as G-d needs to work on His qualities so that He can overcome His anger, so too must we, mortals, struggle to do the same.”

He goes on to discuss these passages with reference to the High Holy Days, that our human mercy, too, may prevail over our anger and other qualities, and that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life.

The Talmudic passages and Rabbi Buchwald’s comments give us some clues–and some comfort—concerning God’s jealousy when we’re looking specifically at the Tanakh passages! As Brueggemann puts it, we have testimonies and countertestimonies concerning God’s lovingkindness and God’s sometimes irrational jealousy: but thinking of God’s characteristics as not only being toward us but also engaging and including us in fellowship, we can feel positive and hopeful—and, indeed, more loving—toward God who shares with us, through the biblical testimony, God’s desire to show mercy rather than anger.

Then I turned to a book I purchased quite a while ago but currently have on my iPad (and thus I’ll have to locate the following references in the printed book): Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Vintage, 2002). Miles notes how interesting it is that God easily won the battle against Egypt at the exodus, but he seemed to be defeated against his people’s enemies the Assyrians and Babylonians. These defeats were, however, judgments against the people’s sins. And yet his people were eventually conquered by the Romans; did God suffer defeat this time? As Miles put it at the end of the last chapter (before the epilogue), this time God “joined them, suffering in advance all that they would suffer, and creating out of his agony a way for them to rise from the death with him and return to paradise, bringing all nations with them.”

In the epilogue, Miles makes an interesting comment that since Jesus is God Incarnate, “all of God’s earlier words were Jesus’ words as well and may–indeed, must–be taken into account as evidence about his character.” But this implies a “transformation of the divine character” which happens by the time of the Incarnation. “God’s power was such that, in his prime, he annihilated in minutes the mightiest army in the world. More than once, he compared himself to a great marauding beast. Why does he become a defenseless peasant who, when the authorities sentence him to death, offers no resistance and ends his life as a convicted criminal?” God is a jealous God and uses divine power to hold his people accountable and to punish them. Now, Miles notes that “God the Son is not at all the kind of man one would expect God the Father to become.”

“The Lord of All the Earth, to use the grandest of all his Old Testament titles, arranges to have himself put to death as the King of the Jews not to destroy hope as he destroys himself but only to replace a vain hope [a military victory against the people’s oppressors, or a mighty salvation similar to the exodus] with one that can still be realized…Defeated by Rome, God thus accomplishes what he tried and failed to accomplish when defeated by Babylonia: He turns the defeat into a triumph, the humiliation into an exaltation….God, shattered, can descend to death; and when he rises to eternal life, he can lift his human creatures up with him.”

I’m not aware that the Ezekiel 16 and 23 texts have ever been connected to Jesus; his sufferings are more easily connected to the Suffering Servant poems of Second Isaiah, after all. But if those Ezekiel parables are the most awful passages about God’s jealousy, they nevertheless remind of the mutilation, public shame, and public death of Jesus (though without the crude sexuality of those parables). The Incarnation is not the end of God’s jealousy, and in fact is the supreme sign of his overwhelming love—God’s desire to be our God. In Jesus God heaped his own anger at faithlessness—and opens for us the promise that God forgives and forgets all our sins as we trust in God’s goodness.

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I first heard of the contemporary artist Shepard Fairey on a program on the Ovation network. His socially-engaged art, first manifested in his street art (especially his Andre the Giant sticker), has been collected in gallery shows and books like E Pluribus Venom, Mayday, and Obey: Supply and Demand. He became known, as well, because of his “Hope” poster widely published during the 2008 presidential campaign. A few weeks ago, while taking a writing break at “my” Barnes and Noble cafe, I noticed a book which Fairey and Jennifer Gross edited, Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change (Abrams Image, 2009).

The book collects a variety of paintings, collages, computer-generated art, prints, and other works from and inspired by Obama’s campaign. One by Ron English, “Blue Abraham Obama,” in which the famous 1863 Alexander Gardiner photo of Lincoln, wherein he looks directly into the camera, is rendered with Obama’s features. Another Lincolnesque painting is Scott Siedman’s “The Man from Illinois,” in which Norman Rockwell’s painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter” (depicting young Lincoln walking, reading a book, and saying an axe) is remade with Obama in the role (holding a hoe instead of an axe). There are several prints concerning America’s lack of universal health care; a very forceful print in which a 1950s-era water fountain marked “Colored” is pouring rainbow colors; numerous renderings of the promises “hope” and “change,” and art connecting Obama to Dr. King and Gandhi.

Not all the art is painting, collage, and print. There is a dress, designed by Lisa Anne Auerbach, with the slogans “Chosen People Choose Obama” and “My Jewish Grandma is Voting for Obama” woven into the fabric. Sculptures and furniture are also artworks responding to Obama’s campaign. I highly recommend this book if you appreciate examples of socially-involved contemporary art (which makes me wonder if politically conservative people are also producing artworks today: I just don’t know).

Exploring this book, I thought, not unkindly, “What happened to all that hope and change?” (or, as former Gov. Palin put it, unkindly, that “hopey, changey stuff”). Then, serendipity! As I sorted files from recent projects) I found a 2010 Time magazine that I’d saved in a pile of research from last year. Peter Beinart’s article, “Why Washington’s Tied Up in Knots,” gave me some answers to my question (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1966451,00.html). I enjoy pieces like this which help me make historical connections.

Beinart argues that the two major political parties were, until the mid-1900s, diverse with outlooks and vying interests. One force that caused a change for both parties was the support of civil rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, and “a more dovish foreign policy” among liberal Northern Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s. The Republican party grew more conservative in response, as conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans and Northern liberal Republicans became Democrats. As this process continued, Beinart writes, “Washington politics became less a game of Rubik’s Cube and more a game of shirts vs. skins.”

He notes that after Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush left office, “congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to stymie government — and use government failure to win elections. And with that realization, vicious-circle politics started to become an art form.” By the 1990s, “a new breed of aggressive Republicans — men like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott — hit on a strategy for discrediting Clinton: discredit government. Rhetorically, they derided Washington as ineffective and conflict-ridden, and through their actions they guaranteed it.” These congressmen used the filibuster, previously a rare devise, to force the failure of legislation. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans discredited moderate Republicans as traitors to the party. “The Gingrich Republicans” used the “vicious circle” because it worked—and in particular, it worked because (1) Americans dislike political fighting, and (2) American voters tend to blame the party in charge. “By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton’s health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it’s easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you’re the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win.”

To return (in my mind) to the outcome so far of Obama’s “hope and change”: Beinart further notes that this vicious-circle politics have become even more pronounced during the Obama administration than during the Clinton administration. Democrats who were thrilled at the Obama victory (as well as the Democratic majority in Congress) neglected to appreciate the resultant hardening of the Republican minority–and their unwillingness to cooperate and compromise. “In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation, even more than during the Clinton years. GOP leader Mitch McConnell led a filibuster of a deficit-reduction commission that he himself had demanded. The Obama White House spent months trying to lure the Finance Committee’s ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, into supporting a deal on health care reform and gave his staff a major role in crafting the bill. But GOP officials back home began threatening to run a primary challenger against the Iowa Senator. By late summer, Grassley wasn’t just inching away from reform; he was implying that Obamacare would euthanize Grandma.” Beinart further notes that Republicans have, during Obama’s term, not only helped to thwart his goals but to foster the “rising disgust with government not just to cripple health care reform but also to derail other Obama initiatives.”

He continues that there is no guarantee that Democrats might not use these tactics, although the Republicans currently use them better. And the tactics don’t always work: for instance, when the government is “handing out goodies.” But when the government wants people to make sacrifices, this is the point where people are called upon the trust their government: “It’s when the pain is temporary but the benefits are long-term that people most need to believe that government is something other than stupid and selfish. Which is exactly what they don’t believe today.”

In a more recent issue, I found an article even more relevant to the Shepard Fairey book: Anthony Romano, “Wanted: A New Messiah,” Newsweek, Oct. 10 & 17, 2011. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/02/the-search-for-bold-leadership.html)

He writes that “America is desperate for a messiah. Christie Fever would seem a little more remarkable, for instance, if conservatives hadn’t already contracted Bachmania, Donalditis, and Restless Perry Syndrome, then cast aside each of their would-be saviors as soon as he or she showed the slightest earthly imperfection. Meanwhile, on the left, and in the center, the very voters who fueled President Obama’s landslide 2008 victory are now awarding him the lowest job-approval ratings of his career. Christie summed up popular sentiment in his speech. ‘If you’re looking for leadership in America,’ he said, ‘you’re not going to find it in the Oval Office.’ Never mind that the administration just assassinated yet another Al Qaeda kingpin, Anwar al-Awlaki, out-Bushing Bush and further discrediting the old canard that Democrats can’t protect America. The belief that there’s someone better out there—someone who can lead us not into recession, but deliver us from unemployment—now extends to both sides of the aisle.”

Romano reminds us that FDR and Reagan served during economic crises, but their leadership style (according to the research of Yale’s Stephen Skowronek,” is “reconstructive”: in Romano’s words, “both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values.” This is a “resilient model” for a president “because it serves as a one-size-fits-all justification for everything the White House does. FDR had high hopes for his central New Deal agency, the National Recovery Administration; to him, it was ‘a supreme effort to stabilize for all time the many factors which make the prosperity of the nation.’ Two years after the NRA was created, however, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. While this setback may have deterred a nonreconstructive president, Roosevelt simply cited it as further evidence of the old regime’s intransigence and again started ‘promising to reconstruct the very terms on which American government operated,’ as Skowronek puts it. By 1936—after forcing Congress into the summer session that produced Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Banking Act, among other reforms—he had. He won reelection with 523 electoral votes. ”

Romano notes that although Reagan’s approval rating was very low in the early 1980s, when unemployment was over 10%, he stuck to his script of less regulation, lower taxes, and other policies a way to return (in Reagan’s words) to “the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers.” Romano writes: “Eventually, the Fed rejuvenated the economy by manipulating the money supply and lowering interest rates. But Reagan got the credit because he kept harping on his reconstructive storyline (tax cuts = growth), which provided the public with a more intuitive explanation. In 1984 he carried every state but Minnesota.”

Unfortunately, he writes, “Obama ran as a reconstructive leader, but he has governed as something else entirely. It’absurd to say, as Christie did in California, that the president has been ‘a bystander in the Oval Office,’ or to claim, paradoxically, that he’s a socialist bent on ‘transforming’ America into France part deux. As Obama’s advisers often remind us, he has accomplished a lot of unradical things as president (preventing another Great Depression, passing private-health-insurance reform, saving Detroit).” But Obama has tended (in Romano’s words, “to look for policy proposals, like the stimulus or health-care reform, that respectfully weave opposing viewpoints into some sort of pragmatic whole. As president, Obama has assumed the role of the bipartisan realist—the leader who prides himself on seeing the world as it is, with all its political limitations, and doing the best he can within those constraints.”

Unfortunately, Obama has also needed to communicate a reconstructive vision which (as it did for FDR and Reagan) “gave meaning to their victories, kept them buoyant during dry spells, and defined the opposition before the opposition could define them. The approach also assured voters that Reagan and Roosevelt shared their deep dissatisfaction with the way things were.” To me, the fact that the Tea Party emerged and forcefully voiced a Reaganesque vision during debates about bailouts and health care reform is an example of the opposition doing the defining, rather than vice versa.

This past week, another article by Beinart caught my eye: “Occupy Protests’ Seismic Effect” (The Daily Beast – Mon, Oct 17, 2011, http://news.yahoo.com/occupy-protests-seismic-effect-062600703.html) He writes about the demonstrations “against unregulated capitalism” that had just taken place in 900 cities. He addresses the topic of the hopefulness exhibited in the Obama campaign, and shows how it is taking a slightly different direction.

He writes: “In a great many countries, especially in the West, the political grass is dry. Huge numbers of young people are unemployed, governments are launching harsh and unpopular austerity programs, and the financial elites responsible for the global economic meltdown have almost entirely escaped justice. Millions of articulate, educated, tech-savvy people are enraged and desperate. And they have time on their hands.” This movement is quite fertile, he notes, and something like this hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. He notes that those movements did not push American politics to the left because, among several reason, “many ordinary Americans were starting to chafe against taxes and regulations that had been growing since the New Deal. Although few realized it until Ronald Reagan’s election, the relationship between government and the economy in the late 1960s and 1970s was actually more conducive to right-wing than left-wing change.”

Although the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s was a precursor to what we’re seeing now, that movement had more to do with “globalization’s impact in the developing world” while the current movement is, according to Beinart, primarily focused on what unregulated capitalism has done to their own societies [i.e., America and Europe]—societies where there is much greater anger and pain than there was 15 years ago. Therein lies the movement’s greater potential to create political change.”

But—to return to my interest in the Shepard Fairey book—Beinart argues that a more recent and more important precursor is Obama’s 2008 election! He traces the beginnings of the “netroots” activism in Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and the beginning of sites like DailyKos and MoveOn. “But,” Beinart writes, “in retrospect, the netroots movement’s focus on candidates as a vehicle for change left it unprepared for the aftermath of Obama’s election, when Obama failed to articulate a story about why the financial meltdown had occurred—and why America’s regulatory system and welfare state needed to be rebuilt—that could compete with the Tea Party’s narrative of a government grown so large that it was stifling both economic growth and personal liberty.”

He continues: “What we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park actually represents an improvement over the Obama campaign. That campaign was largely about faith in one man. The Occupy Wall Street movement, by contrast, represents a direct reckoning with the most powerful forces in American life, forces that are not voted in and out of office every two or four years. And it represents a belief that young Americans must force that reckoning by themselves. No politician will do it for them. Those instincts are exactly right, and we’ve never needed them more.”

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Every once in a while I like to take notes from news articles and columns, to help me think through ideas and topics. The Bible calls us to care for the needy and so perhaps I can do “my little bit” for voicing concern for those in society who are struggling—as I also seek to do “my little bit” in other ways.  (I do realize that many of the articles I enjoy come from the Huffington Post, although I’m also focusing on GOP positions, which interest me as one who taught aspects of the party’s history in undergrad classes.)

“God so loved the world,” as the Gospel teaches, but what’s happening in that beloved world at the moment? Big economic issues and the accompanying politics are “what’s happening,” among other things. Steve Thorngate, writing for The Christian Century, laments that there wasn’t serious policy debate in the debt-ceiling negotiations of this past summer. The president wanted to “get to yes,” while the GOP leaders are keen on preventing Obama’s reelection, while Reps. Boehner and Cantor want control of the House republicans. This is, as Thorngate writes, all about “zero-sum electoral politics.” He criticizes the way the mainstream media (for instance, an article in Time that week) conflates policy talks with the trope that leaders should “just compromise.” In reality, there are no liberal extremists parallel to GOP hardliners who refused to budge on raising the debt ceiling and letting Bush-era tax cuts expire for the sake of increased federal revenue. Democrats have already compromised concerning cuts to what the Time article called“cherished entitlement programs like Medicare”, but GOPs will meanwhile (in Thorngate’s words) “feign disappointment when agreeing to cut tax expenditures.” (http://christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-07/compromise-compromise)

Coming from the conservative perspective, David Frum, a CNN columnist and former assistant to President Bush, complains that “[o]nly about one-third of Republicans agree that cutting government spending should be the country’s top priority. Only about one-quarter of Republicans insist the budget be balanced without any tax increases. Yet that one-third and one-quarter have come to dominate my party. That one-third and that one-quarter forced a debt standoff that could have ended in default and a second Great Recession.” Frum offers several ideas. One is to borrow money at less thant 3% interest in order to help people get out of unemployment, because “Unemployment is a more urgent problem than debt.”

He makes other points. Second: “the deficit is a symptom of America’s economic problems, not a cause,” because government spending increased and revenue declines when the economy weekends. Third: “The time to cut is after the economy recovers.” Fourth: “The place to cut is health care, not assistance to the unemployed and poor”; the US, he says, “provide less assistance to the unemployed and the poor than almost any other democracy” and yet health care is more expensive here and with “worse results.” Fifth: he argues that federal income could be increased not by raising tax rates but by, for instance, higher taxes on energy to encourage conservation or eliminating certain deductions (like state and local taxes) from taxable income. Sixth: he argues that the “frenzy of rage and contempt” among Republicans toward Obama “satisfies the emotions of the Republican base” but are undercutting their own good judgment via pinning all the responsibility for our economic problems on Obama. Finally, he worries that some GOP leaders are going to ruin our economic system in order to prove that the system is in trouble. (http://www.cnn.com/2001/OPINION/08/01/frum.debt.republicans/index.html).

Speaking of Obama-hating, I’m honestly not aware that liberalism has ever produced such a cottage industry of angry media; liberal-hating authors fill an entire shelf at my nearby Barnes and Noble, which to me is creepy. One thing that urks me badly is when my churchgoing Christian friends start to sound hate-ful and snarky like some of these authors and broadcasters; aren’t we called to kindness, patience, and compassion, even as we teach and debate?  I personally have found only one book (there may be others) that aims to persuade in a more irenic manner: Patrick M. Garry, Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged. New York: Encounter Books, 2010.

There is a lot of talk about taxing the wealthy these days, especially with regard to retaining earlier tax cuts and the need for national debt reduction. I worry that some of the rhetoric give a one-sided picture. In my own little world, I know well-to-do people who are extremely generous, concerned about social issues, and hopeful to improve the common good, and I know of large companies that contribute notably to beneficial efforts. In current discussions of taxes and federal revenue, Charles Hugh Smith, writing at businessinsider.com, notes that we tend to lump the wealthy together. That’s mistaken, he notes: many wealthy people (Steve Jobs is his example) “created value” and benefited millions of people, while other wealthy people (those connected with Countryside and Enron) deserve condemnation.

Smith clarifies some of the issues. Smith cautions that “the debate over tax rates is pointless, because as long as the super-wealthy own the levers of Federal governance and regulation, then they will buy exclusions, loopholes, rebates, subsidies etc. which relieve them of whatever official tax rates have been passed for public consumption/propaganda purposes.” He cites the sociologist G. William Domhoff who distinguishes “the net worth held by households in ‘marketable assets’ such as homes and vehicles and ‘financial wealth.’ Homes and other tangible assets are, in Domhoff’s words, ‘not as readily converted into cash and are more valuable to their owners for use purposes than they are for resale.’ Meanwhile, “[f]inancial wealth such as stocks, bonds and other securities are liquid and therefore easily converted to cash,” and Domhoff calls these “non-home wealth.” Smith cites 2007 statistics that “the bottom 80% of American households held a mere 7% of these financial assets, while the top 1% held 42.7%, the top 5% holds 72% and the top 10% held fully 83%.” I direct people to this interesting article for Smith’s several graphs and analysis. His conclusion:

Beneath the happy surface of Federal transfers and spending funded by debt, earned incomes for the bottom 95% are falling and wealth is accumulating in the top 1%. (Emphasis in text.) The Federal Reserve’s project of goosing stocks and bonds has greatly enriched the holders of those assets, while doing essentially nothing for the bottom 90% except increasing their government’s debt load.
“It’s painfully obvious that the Federal government and the Fed are the handmaidens of the politically powerful Financial Elites. Why spend your own money on bribes, bread and circuses when you can arrange for the Central State to borrow the money? Why, indeed. ‘Austerity’ is of course a modest reduction in the amount of money borrowed and spread around to keep the masses safely passive, but a few trillion trimmed here and there over a decade won’t change the Great Game.” (http://www.businessinsider.com/made-in-usa-wealth-inequality-2001-7)

Taxes, by their very nature, do impede economic growth by taking money from businesses and consumers. The author of Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan, notes that when government is “doing the things that it is theoretically supposed to be, government spending must be financed by levying taxes, and taxes exert a cost on the economy.” In his opinion “supply-side economics” is a “chimera” because “we cannot cut taxes and have more money to spend on government programs.” Basically if we pay more taxes, we get more government services, and if we pay fewer taxes, the government will have “fewer resources to fight wars, balance the budget, catch terrorists, educate children,” and other traditional government functions. So how do we have strong services and security from our government while also doing things that encourage economic growth?[1] (I wish I knew!)

Another notion in the news is “class warfare.” Two articles I found are worth reading, one is “Classlessness in America: the uses and abuses of an enduring myth,” in The Economist, discusses the reality of class in the wake of Rep. Paul Ryan’s remark about ‘class warfare.” (http://www.economist.com/node/21530100/) Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott’s “Class Warfare?” which argues that although a “millionaire’s tax” does not solve all problems, but that it is a significant way to raise revenue, but President Obama “hasn’t made out [the] moral case to the American people,” and that his critics are wrong to argue that it is not a serious possible solution to our economic struggles. “More and more citizens believe–and rightly so–that we aren’t all in this together, and that there isn’t a level playing field…. Intergenerational income mobility is lower in the United States than in many European countries…The rich get richer, and so do their children, while the great majority struggles. It is the winner-take-all economy, not taxation, that is the moral problem threatening our democracy.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-ackerman/class-warfare_3_b_982888.html)

Yet another article, by Joshua Holland for Alternet, is “The real ‘class war’ in America: Six narratives wealthy elites are using to destroy the nation’s poor.” All his points are worth reading. One of the false narratives he lists is “unemployment benefits have created a ‘nation of slackers.'” He quotes the hard words of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), “The 80 million Americans that are of working age but are simply not in the workforce need to be put to work. We can’t have a nation of slackers… We’ve gotta get this country back to work and get those people out of the slacker rolls and onto the employed rolls.” But Holland points out that America has one of the “stingiest unemployment benefits” among developed countries, and that unemployment benefits are not discouraging people from finding work—because “[t]here are no jobs!” We have nearly 7 million fewer jobs than in 2007, and to that you can add many millions more people who are working part-time and would like a full-time job, so “you get 25.4 million workers vying for 3.2 million full-time job openings. King, comments Holland, takes an assertion that there are millions of people not in the work force, and derives from that the conclusion that they’re all “slackers.” Similarly, Holland argues that food stamps do, indeed, help people and in fact discourage starvation for many people! But the stigma attached to SNAP, perpetuated by critics who equate nutritional assistance with perpetuating instead of helping to curb poverty, causes some people to not seek this assistance despite eligibility. (http://news.salon.com/2011/09/27/wealthy_class_warfare)

In a couple of other “news round-ups” (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2009/10/christian-love-part-1.html and http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2010/03/not-funny-but-interesting-part-2.html), I thought about the need for conservatives to create a compelling vision for the common good rather than being a “party of No.” Recently, Vice President Joe Biden noted “You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because [he’s] gay. That’s not reflective of who we are. This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.” As the article author noted, too, the “histrionics of a small minority of the GOP debate crowd … continues to present a lasting problem for a Republican Party struggling to come off as inclusive.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/27/biden-on-gop-debate-boo-gay-soldier_n_983263.html)

Unfortunately, the possibility of a positive, inclusive political vision emerging on the national scene seems hopeless right now in the wake of numerous political changes that have arisen over the past fifteen or so years, as discussed in another article, “Why Congress is So Dysfunctional” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/02/congress-dysfunction-long_n_991010.html)

A few weeks ago, an article from Religion News Service indicated that conservative Christian leaders were praiing Governor Rick Perry and his presidential candidacy. Former Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., of Liberty University, and other evangelical leaders supported Perry’s style, policies, and faith. Falwell even admired Perry’s “guts” for suggesting Texas might secede from the Union. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/22/rick-perry-praised-by-evangelicals_n_976674.html)

Still another article author, Karl Giberson, explains some of the background to this (to me lamentable) position of these evangelical leaders. “Widespread rejection of human-induced climate change by evangelical Christians, of the sort we have seen recently from Rich Perry and others, is a bit of a puzzler. There is no obvious reason why evangelical faith commitments should motivate the faithful to reject climate science.” But he comments that “one of the strategies employed most effectively by evangelicals in their crusade against evolution, which does pose real, although soluble, biblical and theological problems, has been to undermine the entire scientific enterprise. If science is a deeply flawed, ideologically driven, philosophically suspect enterprise, then why should anyone care if almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution [and by extension, climate change]?” And the anti-science polemic by, for instance, the Discovery Institute, characterizes science as a kind of left-wing ideology which one can reject. This is very sad, as is the way some evangelical Christians will, nevertheless, become attracted to “faith-friendly” but “indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can ‘pray away the gay’), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/evangelicals-and-science_b_975821.html)

Another article, “Rick Perry and Republican Magical Thinking” by Lincoln Mitchell, points out that Perry does “project an image of strength and independence” as well as “a record and some relevant experience while also legitimately presenting himself as a political outsider.” The “magical thinking” part is a fuzziness of some Republicans’ thinking “that cutting taxes can magically solve all economic woes,” as well as the contention “that global warming is a conspiracy by liberal scientists.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lincoln-mitchell/rick-perry-chris-christie_b_983140.html)

Yet another article, by Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group, criticizes Gov. Perry for his combination of belief in God with his determination to cut government programs for the poor. This is interesting not only from a political position but it also speaks to the role of church and government in fostering the social common good. Gov. Perry, like many conservatives, believe the church can care for society’s need better than government programs. Sapp notes that progressives tend to lose this “Church can do it better” argument, which in turn supports the conservative argument that government isn’t supposed to solve all problems. Sapp argues, “What we should be saying is that it doesn’t matter whether the Church could do a better job caring for the poor or not because the Christ isn’t doing it. We wouldn’t need Section 8 housing if we had enough Habitat homes. We wouldn’t need food stamps or school lunches if we had enough soup kitchens. The way to ensure better care for the poor than government can provide is not to hobble government programs but for the Church to make these programs unnecessary.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-sapp/rick-perry-tithing_b_975723.html)

The more I’ve thought about this particular issue, the more I think it’s not a simple either-or. I think that the Tea Party, with its anti-taxation and small-government rhetoric, has raised this issue afresh. But there can be possibilities of government working along side of faith-communities for the common good, and of persons of faith working as citizens and civic leaders in order to serve the common good through government.

Last year, while working on a research project about faith and citizenship (purchasableright now! http://congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDcurriculum.htm), I found an interesting book Doing Justice in Our Cities by Warren R. Copeland, professor of Religion and Director of Urban Studies at Wittenberg University, and also a several-term mayor and civic leader in Springfield, Ohio. He notes that, after he and his wife became the legal guardians of a teenaged girl, people remarked, “You are such good Christian people to take this girl into your home.” But he wonders why people don’t say they’re “good Christian people” because they participate in the public life of their community! “Being legal guardians for a teenager is not significantly less complicated than being a good citizen,” but he wonders “why is the direct relationship of a legal guardian so often seen as more of an act of faith than the principled participation in a community’s public life?” He adds that “Those who have served on the board of a voluntary association know that that can be just as difficult as government,” since voluntary associations, like local government, “shape our communities and understandings of the issues we face” in public life.[2]

Similarly Copeland wonders if people avoid public service because (to use his example) building a house for Habitat for Humanity is somehow more clearly a “good cause” than dealing with local and federal laws about, for instance, housing. During one year of his elected service, Copeland voted to support construction of over 200 housing units for medium- and low-income families via a federal tax credit program. In addition, his city’s public housing authority supports nearly 2000 housing units. In twenty years, he notes, Springfield’s local Habitat chapter constructed forty homes.[3] “Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. However, we are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through volunteerism.” He also uses the examples of public schools. He notes that people make personal decisions about their children’s education, sometimes by moving to new communities or removing children from public schools, but “[g]enerally this only makes things worse for the vast majority of our children and makes the overall education system less just” Individual and volunteer errors cannot address all the problems of school quality, funding, and so on.[4]

“Both [government and voluntary groups] are essential to a democratic society.” This is, to him, a matter of faith. “I believe that the fundamental values of real freedom and real diversity are essential to the experience of full humanity in our human communities. I believe that the ethical principles of respect for the integrity of other human beings, recognition of the just claims of our neighbors, and concern for the common good deserve our commitment.”[5]

Words to ponder—and to end this little “news round-up”!

*****

Notes:

1. Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 94, 97.

2. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

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In August, we finally traded our 2004 Toyota Sienna van for a 2010 Toyota Matrix hatchback.  The Sienna ran very well but was looking worse for wear.  It had a minor dent; someone had backed into it.  A  year ago, I was stopped at the yield sign of an exit ramp in Pennsylvania, waiting for traffic to pass, and a fellow (also watching the traffic, and  distracted because he was late picking up his kid) bumped into me from behind.  He was only going 15 or 20 but it was enough to crumple a bit of the rear fender.

We didn’t need a van anymore, now that my daughter is in college.  But the van was so handy when she was in high school!  We could haul her skis in winter, band stuff in most seasons, and cart her and her friends around to various functions.   What a suburban life!   The van was also  useful in moving her stuff to college and then back for summer break.

At the risk of getting that doggone song from “Rent” stuck in my head–“Seasons of Love” and its famous opening, “525,600 minutes”—I wondered how much time I spent in the van.   A half-hour every day  is a reasonable minimum estimate, given our distance from various things like  jobs, church, and shopping.  That estimate gives me 53 total days, over a seven year period, spent driving the van.  But I also drove a few times to visit my mother in Illinois–a 20-hour round trip–on trips to visit Ms. Daughter in college–a 6-hour round trip, and then after we moved it was a 28-hour round trip—and various other excursions.  So, perhaps three full months, possibly four out of a seven year period was spent driving the van.  In contrast: in seven years, I also spent about 2-1/3 years asleep.  Fortunately,  none of those times were spent in the van (other than quick naps while parked)!

These thoughts can be read in conjunction with an earlier blog post on northeastern Ohio: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2010/10/northeast-ohio.html  Although we owned the van for two years in Missouri, I’ll probably always think of it as our Ohio car, a faithful and low-maintenance vehicle that kept us safe and on time through many routines and adventures.

******

(Here’s a blog post from August  2009, nearly an identical description of our 2011 weekend trip this past August. A major difference: I drove the new Matrix rather than the Sienna.)  Last weekend Emily and I drove to her college where she’ll start her sophomore year. Last year we lived three hours away, but we’re now fourteen hours away. My wife has helped Emily move before, but this weekend she had to work, so Emily and I made the drive in two days, a large  portion on Interstate 70.

The trip had some added costs. On  two past occasions, my snoring disturbed Emily, in spite of the noise from the motel air conditioning and a little sound-machine that has pre-recorded, soothing sounds. So I reserved two separate motel rooms for us. Better that, than risk both of us becoming sleepy on the road–and angry in the middle of the night.

We had a safe drive, except for a few “dumb asses” who followed too closely, prevented safe merging, etc. I’m  sure there were more dumb asses than a few. Cell phones added tremendously to our peace of mind. I remember when my parents helped me move to Connecticut in the 70s. Mom and I in one car both wanted to stop for the night, but honking  and blinking headlights couldn’t get Dad’s attention in the other car. Emily and I could just ring each other and know where to stop for a meal or gas.

The I-70 trip is quite familiar to me, thanks to years-ago trips between Connecticut (where I did my masters  degree) and my parents’ home in southern Illinois. I noticed a few places from those student days. East of Columbus, a non-chain motel where I’d spent a night nearly thirty years ago still operated. At another exit, I saw a chain motel where I’d spent a night during another trip home, and had shopped barefoot at the nearby Kroger store.

Both Emily’s car and my van were full of her belongings. She reminded me that guys have so much fewer things to move than girls. I was the exception to that rule, because I always had to lug my favorite books and LPs to school. We were pleased that her dorm room has a huge closet.

Emily lives on the fourth floor of her building. Arriving early on moving day, we commandeered two reserved spaces that were convenient. Do any schools have handy and adequate parking? We worked four hours to get stuff to her room. We and the other families had to go down one first-floor hallway, turn right down another hallway, take the elevator (with doors that you open and close by hand) to the third floor, and then  walk down another hallway and carry stuff up to the fourth floor. She stopped carrying and started sorting, while I did the rest of the lugging.

Chatting with other parents was fun. One mother and I talked about the absurd $50 fee that the college had charged last year for dorm-room clean-up. The mother said she’d mopped and dusted her daughter’s room but the college still claimed it was dirty. I recall that my college levied similar, foolish little fees for various reasons; I imagine most schools do.

Emily has a terrific room with a nice view. After we got her stuff into the room, we went off and had lunch, then we went to Wal-Mart for additional supplies. We’d accidentally left a slice of cheesecake (in a plastic container) inside her old refrigerator, and there it had ripened for over three months while the fridge was stored. I’d hoped that a couple days in the van with a bowl of baking soda might kill the smell, but no such luck. So she and I found a new 1.7 cu. ft. model at a good price. I worried about the parents who, I noticed, were trying to lug 4 cu. ft. models up those stairs.

We took a tour of some new facilities at her college and felt great about her program. At the end of the day, she and I went to supper at Denny’s, and then returned to her school. We both were sore and tired. We exchanged big hugs and good feelings about a positive year. I went back to the motel room to shower, rest and sleep before  making my solo two-day trip home.

No moral or grand point to this story. Just another small adventure in our family, like similar adventures happening in many families around the country here in late summertime.

*****

We’ve grown to love the small community where Emily attends college.  Repeat trips have yielded new aspects of the town.  I was driving around town on a rainy morning, waiting for Emily to finish her day’s classes, when I was startled to see a historical marker on a side street, honoring Arthur St. Clair.  He was the governor of the old Northwest Territory, a significant figure in early American history, and namesake of St. Clair County, Illinois near St. Louis.  He was buried here because he had retired here to his daughter’s farm.  In spite of the rain, I visited his grave in a park not far from the downtown.

Interesting businesses, a stately but defunct department store, and a massive county courthouse comprise the downtown.  Not only that, but the Lincoln Highway passed through the town.  The street, once renamed U.S. 30 but now is PA 130, is a straight path through the town, with the newer, bypass U.S. 30 making a wide curve to the south.

I spotted a neat old sign on the side of a furniture store.  In spite of an electric sign that covered part of an earlier, painted sign, the latter was still readable; the store had been “Greensburg’s Largest!” The position of the electric sign made me wonder if the painted sign had one owner’s name, and then perhaps the business changed hands and the electric sign was installed with a new owner’s name covering that portion of the painted sign. The electric sign has since been removed and the whole painted name can be read: Weber’s Furniture.

Recently, an afternoon show called “Show Me St. Louis” featured a report about “ghost signs.” Those are the fading painted signs on the side of brick buildings, identifying the business or advertising a product. Such signs were often painted atop earlier signs and as time wears away the paint, the two or three signs overlap. The reporter found several examples of ghost signs around St. Louis, including a barely-visible ad for a bread company along with a drawing of a baseball player holding a loaf of bread. On the side of another building, the reporter found two signs, one atop the other, for different brands of beer. The more recent ad was barely readable but, of course, was more readable than the earlier sign underneath. Some of the featured signs–variously for shoe stores, blacksmiths, and other businesses and products–were from the early 20th century.

The story made me look at this picture above more closely. This sign is in St. Elmo, Illinois, in my home county. I took the photo ten years ago; it
hangs in our house as a pleasant small-town scene. The ad for Mail Pouch tobacco is still very readable, and I’d noticed that the tobacco ad covered a previous sign, which I can’t decipher. But on closer inspection, I realized a third, earlier sign can be discerned beneath that previous sign (e.g., the faint “GO” or “60” right above the “UC” of “pouch”). What were the two older advertisements?
Here’s a picture of the side of a dry cleaner in our hometown. Taken by one of my classmates, this picture appears on the “Vandalia Memories” page of Facebook. I’ve seen this ghost sign all my life and I don’t ever remember it being readable. Nevertheless most of the word “shoes” is still clear. Ghost signs always make you wish that you could peak back into history so you could see the original message.

Elsewhere in my hometown is a Mail Pouch ad on the back of a building on Fifth Street, and also an ad for Brunswick Tires on the side of the old Craycroft building, once an auto dealership, on the south side of the railroad tracks on Fifth Street. One of my very earliest memories was a building of some sort on Sixth Street, also on the south side of the tracks. A billboard was attached to the north side of the building over a painted ad for Coca Cola; even though I was quite young, I noticed the distinctive cursive C that had not been covered by the sign.

I should look to see if anyone has published a book about ghost signs. I do have favorite books about advertisements that appear on barns: David B. Jenkins, Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Free Spirit Press, 1996) and William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns: Vanishing American Landmarks (MBI Publishing, 2004). Old signs like all of these are pleasant reminders of times past and are, literally, vanishing Americana.
******

This is a kind of CD review, more  about me than the music, I guess, but strongly commending of the 30-CD “Sacred Music” set from the Harmonia Mundi label, with a good price  for the amount of music covering the earliest church music to the 20th century. (See http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=309387)

Having purchased the set a year or  two ago, I had listened to some of the selections but not nearly all. At the end of August, my daughter and I moved her stuff back to her college several hundred miles away. But what should I listen to as we traveled? I feel very sad at the end of our nice summers; certain kinds of music, which elicit nostalgic feelings, would make me feel worse. “Sacred Music” was a good choice: lots of music for a long drive, and helpful to put me (always a worrier) in a less  anxious, more trustful spiritual mood for the upcoming academic year.

Sorting through the discs, I skipped some of the early chants and Gregorian chants, though I liked; the polyphonic Renaissance music by de Machaut, Desprez, and Janequin. I also skipped some familiar pieces—Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Mozart’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Brahms’ Requiem—in favor of ones new to me. I most definitely skipped the requiems by Faure and Durufle, not because I don’t love them but because Emily’s choir performed them and, in my nostalgic mood, I was afraid of feeling even more sad and nostalgic about time’s passage. I didn’t listen to  Bernstein’s Mass, although I want to eventually. I loved the 1970s original, conducted by Bernstein himself, and the most recent version conducted by Marin Alsip. This version is directed by Kent Nagano, with Jerry Hadley as the celebrant. I did listen to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, although I was familiar with it from an LP set conducted by Kurt Masur. But I hadn’t heard it for a long time; this version is conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.

Looking through the CDs now, to refresh my memory about the trip, I realize I never got to Scarlatti’s oratorio Cain, directed by Rene Jacobs, and some polyphonic masses by Byrd and Palestrina, which would be wonderful.

As the miles rolled along, I listened to interesting lamentations and tenebrae by Massaino, de Lassus, Charpentier, Couperin, and the 20th century Ernst Krenek; baroque vespers by Monteverdi (his Vespro della Peata Vergine) and Rovetta’s Vespro Solennelle; Orthodox church music, including a vespers by Rachmaninoff; Reformed music by Tallis, Purcell, Schütz, Bruhns, and Bach; French motets by Dumon, Lully, Delalande, and Charpentier; and motets and psalms by Mendelssohn and Bruckner.  The “Sacred Music” set includes Stabat Mater by Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Boccherini, and Rossini. I usually like Rossini but this piece was jarringly operatic compared to the others; his Petite Messe Solemnelle would’ve been another good choice.

Mendelssohn’s symphonies already remind me of I-70 in Maryland, because I purchased some LPs of all five during a happy road trip in the 1980s. So Mendelssohn’s Paulus, also directed by Herreweghe, was a wonderful discovery appropriately made on the same highway–possibly my favorite discovery among this whole set.

Thirty CDs hardly brush surface of this kind of music. J.S. Bach’s music alone requires dozens more discs.  After enjoying a majority the selections, I was still in the mood for religious music. I had Gounod’s Requiem on my iPod but not yet listened to it; a reviewer in Gramophone magazine had called it a beautiful piece on its own and alongside Faure’s and Durufle’s. The reviewer was certainly correct. I also listened to Dvorak’s Requiem, which is longer than Brahms’ (George Bernard Shaw  famously complained about the latter), but with a lovely “Agnus Dei.” I didn’t  have time on the trip to re-play some of Bach’s cantatas on my iPod, or to play lots of other classical CDs…. A 1200-mile round trip barely gets you through the possibilities of wonderful music!

Eventually I want to figure out (based on my very limited knowledge of musicology) Messiaen’s religious organ music, which fills 6 CDs. Transubstantiation depicted musically?  That’s one of the pieces in his Livre du Saint-Sacrement!

*****

My daughter is in college 600 miles away in Pennsylvania. These past few years, I’ve made summertime road trips to help her move to or from the dorms. It’s a pleasant drive along Interstate 70, but of course interstates DARE you to be interested in the scenery, especially in Midwestern states. During one trip across Indiana, as my wife drove, I took two photos of the most interesting views I could find (yawn).

I took this highway during student days, when I was in school in Connecticut, and I-70 between Pennsylvania and Illinois comprised a large part of the drive for winter and summer breaks. The I-70 trip is more fun now, because it’s part of my daughter’s life rather than part of my insecure younger self’s literal and figurative journeys.

I’ve written about this trip twice before on this blog, once regarding Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”  (https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/bernsteins-mass/) and the other regarding “A Leisurely Drive” and the succession of small towns just off the interstate in east-central Illinois (https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/a-set-of-favorite-roads/). This past summer, I realized that I’d not be driving these roads much longer, since my daughter is soon to graduate. So I made sure I revisited particular sights by leaving I-70 for the older and parallel route, U.S. 40. I always appreciate seeing the National Road milestones and bridges in Ohio, as well as the numerous examples of 20th century highway businesses–motels, filing stations, garages, neon signs, and the like–along the old road in Indiana and Illinois.

When I’m on a road trip I enjoy kicking my sandals off in the car and sometimes don’t put them back on, if I think no one will mind.  I remember seeing a picture of Jackie Kennedy shopping in her bare feet and thought that was a great idea; she’s a style icon, after all!  Recently I found a website about how to cheer up when you’re blue, and among bits of advice, the website encouraged “taking humor risks.” “When you are stuck in your own thoughts, do something just a little wild to get out of it. And do the same thing to help a friend who needs a good laugh.” (http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/2009/03/Cheer-Up-and-Laugh-Out-Loud.aspx?awid=5551460903877276033-1820) Since I’m nearly always blue on long trips—homesick, or feeling the emotional transition of taking my daughter back to school—going barefoot is a good “humor risk,” something foolish that cheers me up—and might even give someone else a chuckle!

Stopping in Richmond, Indiana, I checked into the motel, rested a while, and then returned to my car barefooted for an evening’s Starbucks and a leisurely drive through town. I noticed an independent custard stand operated down the road, so I joined the crowd—at least two and maybe three large family groups—who also had an evening sweet tooth. Flip-flops predominated and I was the only non-conformist.  The concrete felt warm beneath my feet, while the asphalt at my car still felt hot from the day’s sun.

Continuing the next morning across Indiana, I traveled quite a bit on old 40, except in the Indianapolis area where I just wanted to get through the city quickly. The old road was upgraded in Indiana to a four-lane highway following the Second World War, making the route nearly as speedy (if it weren’t for small towns and intersections) as the interstate. Thomas Schlereth’s enjoyable book, U.S. 40: A Roadscape of the American Experience (Indiana University Press, 1985) provides a lot of history about and analysis of the road as it crosses Indiana.

Driving west from Indy on a warm morning, I noticed this early bridge near Plainsville. I love to find abandoned highway bridges, and this one is significant as it dates from the early automobile era of the National Road, part of the National Old Trails Highway system in the 1910s and 20s.  The bridge crosses a stream just a few hundred feet north of the modern highway, and sections of original pavement lay on both sides of the bridge.

Quite a few miles west of Plainsville, near Cloverdale, I passed by the Walker Motel. This wonderful motor court and its fading, blue and yellow sign resides in a shady, inviting space, several miles from a major community. As a green place along the road, the motel looked so inviting, surely a welcome place for many people during their vacations and other travels.

In that general vicinity, I passed through the intersection of 40 and U.S. 231. I recalled the many road trips I used to make on I-64 across southern Indiana en route to my parents’ house. Dale, Indiana, along U.S. 231, was a frequent “pit stop,” and I also liked to visit the Lincoln Boyhood historic site south of that small community. I recalled needing a “humor risk” the day I visited the Lincoln family cabin, years ago, on a rainy day. Wearing sandals (kicked off in the car), old jeans, cotton shirt and rain hoodie, I wondered if the park folks would mind if I toured the site barefooted. So I hiked up the short walk and greeted the period-costumed guide who gave me a good tour of the cabin and farm as we chatted about Lincoln and his family.  Next I took the path to Nancy Lincoln’s grave, which unfortunately was very gravely. My “humor risk” was a genuine risk of injury!

Just over the Indiana border, one notices stretches of sections of old pavement beside the modern highway, and even a rare stretch of brick roadbed. As I wrote in my “Leisurely Drive” piece, and as with the Plainfield bridge, I think of these as “shards” of the earliest automobile highways, in this case, part of that transcontinental National Old Trails Highway which was superseded by the U.S. highway system in 1926. I’d love to peak back into history and see these cracked, 1910s roadbeds when they were new and innovative highways for “newfangled” cars.

Downtown Marshall, Illinois, not far from the Indiana border, has interesting business architecture; George R. Stewart’s classic book US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America (Houghton Mifflin, 1953) featured a photo of a pretty downtown block. I took this photo last year.  In Stewart’s photo, there is one more building on the left (no longer there), the middle building (now plain brick) was painted, and the building on the right had a cornice at the very top which read “1889 Graebenheimer Building.” Unfortunately I never found the Marshall antique stores open, though I visited on a different weekday than last year.

Driving west, one can either take the modern pathway of U.S. 40 or take a still-older alignment of 40 between Martinsburg and Casey.  According to A Guide to the National Road (ed. by Karl Raitz: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), this original and still usable stretch of the original alignment is unique in Illinois, where most of the longer stretches were replaced when the highway was realigned and upgraded in the 1940s.

Casey is a more comparatively substantial town in this area (pop. 3000). Its downtown has some shops and several empty storefronts, typical of small towns along the road, and along with patronizing those open businesses, one can appreciate the local heritage revealed in the commercial architecture. I took pictures of the downtown, including a photo of a “neat” old sign for a former grocery and Pepsi, and purchased a “country” print at a store.

Driving several miles west, I arrived in Greenup, a town named for a pioneer surveyor who also helped found my hometown (and is buried there). As quiet as Marshall’s downtown, Greenup’s business district is interesting and unusual because of the balconies along the street.  Shopping barefoot is another “humor risk,” more common when I was younger, although I’ve seen folks padding among stores in some of the resort hotels at which we’ve stayed.  There is a pleasing and mischievous incongruity between browsing shops and carrying with you the day’s fun purchases, and having no shoes on.  I walked around Greenup’s downtown, taking photos of the interesting commercial exteriors, and also checked out some gift stores I’d missed during a previous visit. One store owner said she was slowly getting back to work following major surgery.

About twenty miles west, Effingham, Illinois, is a very familiar community. Although only 15,000 population, it was nevertheless twice the size of my hometown and sometimes my folks traveled the half-hour to shop and visit the excellent office-supply store. I always liked things about the downtown, the now dated façade on a one-time clothing store, the slight turn that the main downtown street makes. (Wonderfully, another clothing store still operates downtown; you don’t see so many of those anymore in small towns!) Stepping from my car to take pictures, I was amused when someone drove by, paused on the street, and wondered if I was scouting locations for new businesses!

I like “ghost signs,” painted advertisements on the side of buildings which have faded, as I wrote above.  Sometimes ads were painted atop old ones, and now the old ads show through the later ones.  That’s definitely the case on this building that I photographed the previous day, in Cambridge, Ohio. The other photo is a building in Altamont, Illinois, a town I’d not visited for a long time but did so recently. Padding among the downtown shops for quite a while (and purchasing a sign from an antique mall with a John Wayne saying I liked, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway”), I found this ghost sign (below), just off the business district.  What an impressive advertisment that must’ve been in its day.

Finally arriving in my home county of Fayette, I stopped at the small town of St. Elmo, IL, probably named for a popular postbellum novel and once a very lively town during the local 1930s oil boom. I enjoy seeing an old motel on the south side of highway 40 which has never, in my recollection, been anything but a storage building.  How marvelous, though, that the place remains as a “shard” from an earlier era of highway travel!  Across the highway is the still operating Waldorf Motel. I don’t know when the Waldorf started (shown here in an old postcard) but I don’t remember it not being there; in the 1960s, my parents and I passed through St. Elmo on the way to Effingham on Saturday drives.

In downtown St. Elmo itself, a long building houses an antique mall, the newspaper office, and other businesses.  On the side of a long building that now houses several businesses, but which was once a hotel, one finds the Mail Pouch “ghost sign.” I should’ve gotten a photo of the old movie theatre across the street, which hasn’t been open in a long time but is an example of theatre architecture and signage, similar to the also-closed Liberty Theatre in my hometown, Vandalia.

I’ve been interested in 20th century American culture (highways, railroads, and small town life) for a long time, long before I read Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe. But his book provided fresh inspiration for me to regain my earlier hobby of photographing interesting small town architecture. My daughter graduates from college soon. There is much about these past few years which I’ll miss—that’s a blog post for the near future—and I’ll miss these leisurely drives on old 40. Who knows what if any future opportunities will bring me that way again?

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