They are everything you say but so much more… A Review of Wonder Woman

 

I like superhero movies, if for no other reason than the fact that they’re fun to watch with the kids. I have four sons. Trust me, over the years I have seen a lot of superhero movies, although any one of the kids is more conversant with chapter and verse in the DC and Marvel universes than I will ever be. I’m only in it for the special effects and the roller coaster ride. Besides, when I grew up my Mom would not let me read superhero comics. Instead she would purchase, with some reluctance, Classics Illustrated comics. Among the comics she would let me read were The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, Last of the Mohicans, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Huck Finn (I did, after all, live in Hannibal, MO, as a teenager.)

When it came to the honorable hobby of trading comic books, it was nearly impossible to convince a kid to part with his Superman or Spiderman issues. And if they happened to have a copy of Wonder Woman, well let’s just say, echoing Jessica Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” No teenage boy would part with that at any price, except perhaps for the “Action Comics No. 1” issue that introduced Superman in 1938. That one sold a few years ago for over 3 million dollars. Naturally, at the time, I thought the comics prohibition was a form of child abuse, but I do know that Mom had nothing but the best of intentions as she knowingly allowed me to think bad things about her—for my own intellectual good—even if she did lack a little investment foresight.

So I recently ventured out with my second youngest—he’s 23— to see if the latest iteration of Wonder Woman for the big screen could live up to the hype. Let me say unequivocally, “It does.” It’s not a perfect movie, but as superhero flicks go, it is very good. If you like special effects, more or less predictable battle choreography, and most importantly, you don’t anticipate seeing something as profound as your average Scorsese film, you’ll probably enjoy it. But set your expectations at a reasonable level. This is, after all, about a character that is only loosely related to the Greek Pantheon and that originated in a comic book, although that is arguably at least one step above the Transformers series—which were based on toy cars.

As I understand it now, the folks at Classics Illustrated also released a comic book edition of The Iliad. If mom had let me read that I might have developed some vague knowledge of the pedigree of Princess Diana of Themiscyra, or Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the name she uses when she walks among us mere mortals. But even then it would not have been any more vague than film’s treatment of her lineage. As the story goes, Princess Diana is the child of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The question of paternity is a little fuzzy but according to some fictional genograms (Okay, so all of them are fictional.) Diana is also somehow related to Zeus, the king of the Gods, and to Ares, the God of War, though she desires to use her various inherited divine superpowers for good rather than evil.

Diana leaves her paradise after rescuing a World War I fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who inadvertently crashes through the invisible barrier that hides the island pf the Amazons. Learning of the Great War, she is convinced that Ares is behind it all (of course he is) and she is equally convinced that she is the only one who can stop it. She further believes that, except for Ares’ manipulation, humanity would be a generally peaceful and loving lot. “They’re everything you say, but so much more,” she claims. More than lust, greed, violence, etc. While this version of the film will likely reboot the franchise, if not the entire DC universe, just as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did for Batman, it won’t be based on some dark inner angst. Diana Prince, at least so far, is an incurable, almost naive, optimist.

Aside from her intelligence, charm and evident beauty, Diana Prince can move really fast, has truck-tossing strength, and can deflect bullets with her bracelets. Her most powerful weapon, however, is called the “Lasso of Truth.” In addition to being able to force the truth out of anyone who is wrapped up in it, the Lasso of Truth even has its own Wikipedia page, wherein you can discover that the Lasso of Truth, indeed, Wonder Woman herself, was originally conceived by the inventor of the lie detector. Honest. (As a good Oklahoman I am compelled to point out the injustice here: not even Will Rogers’ lasso has its own Wikipedia page, even though it may have had a more significant impact in real history than a fictitious device used to extract truth telling through vasoconstriction.)

As one would expect, the movie reaches its peak when two “gods” fight, mano a mano, over the destiny of the human race. The scene is part special effects battle and part philosophical discussion. This is where Diana presents her impassioned defense of mere mortal humans, while fending off lightning bolts from Ares (David Thewlis) which he hurls along with accusations about humanity’s essentially corrupt nature.

Diana’s sympathies for humanity are as hard won as is her defeat of Ares, since she has just witnessed the self-sacrificing, and heart-breaking, behavior of Steve Trevor who blew up the plane he was flying while it was loaded with the lethal gas that the Germans had intended to unleash on their enemies. Ares is dispatched to end the battle, but that may only be temporary given that the need for a sequel is a nearly absolute value in Hollywood—the contemporary version of Mt. Olympus. Unless Steve Trevor manages to escape the explosion via a parachute that we do not see, he won’t be back, and coming back as Captain James Tiberius Kirk doesn’t count.

But I have to ask a serious question at this point. Who really is the hero here? I do not raise this question to diminish any of the beneficial value of having women in strong roles in film. This Wonder Woman is not the woman pictured on the comic book cover above. Yes, Diana did heroically and single-handedly cross the intentionally-named “No Man’s Land” battlefield to effect a rescue that the men could not. Director Patty Jenkins has said that scene was “the most important scene” in the movie. And yes, Diana has (purportedly) sent Ares packing, thereby eliminating his evil and corrupting influence on the world. She is definitely a hero of the movie.

But what is it that Diana really sees in humanity? Perhaps it is exactly the potential for self-sacrifice that Steve Trevor exhibited. Is that a characteristic of human beings or merely a potentiality? For all the superpowers, lusts, sexual misadventures, jealousies, murders, etc., recorded in mythological literature, self-sacrifice was rare among the card-carrying members of the Greek Pantheon.

It is often suggested that the traits and powers of the mythological gods are merely human traits and powers writ large. For all the sturm and drang of those myths, in fact, for all the flash of this wonderful iteration of Wonder Woman, it is possible to miss that the greatest power exhibited in the movie just might be the power of love as demonstrated by Steve Trevor’s sacrifice. Perhaps his act is only possible because he, and not the gods of Mt. Olympus, was created in the image of one who chose a cross as his moment of greatest self-revelation.

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Skeuomorphism. Why We Are Never Surprised When Wile E. Coyote Loses.

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(This was originally published in 2013 on my other blog, but since it was the only post, I decided to consolidate. I keep telling myself I need to write more, but hey, I’m slow—and that’s all I have to say about that.)

Apparently one of Chuck Jones’ cardinal rules for Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons was, “The audience’s sympathy must always be with the Coyote.” They were largely successful on that count. The guy couldn’t catch a break, much less a running bird. Just an everyman trying to feed himself in a dangerous and unforgiving environment, Coyote always managed to screw up his elaborate schemes to capture and make a meal out of the Roadrunner. With all due respect to PETA, we all know the Roadrunner would have deserved it. But Coyote was always at the mercy of his own ineptitude and the faulty product design of the notorious, ACME Corporation. He was also easily fooled by skeuomorphs. Admit it. You know you’ve yelled at your TV screen a few times, “Don’t do it, Coyote! Don’t do it!”

Skeuomorphism might be the longest word in the average graphic designer’s vocabulary—at least it probably is in mine. And since it has become the common enemy of some who think-about-graphic-design-for-a-living, much of the rest of the design community assumes it must be a bad thing. Apparently the mere existence of skeuomorphism causes indigestion among a certain class of design purists who, like the disciples of Walter Gropius, and Adolf Loos before him, believe they have found the Holy Grail of Design and are now equipped to usher in a Utopian age where all pretense, dishonesty and bourgeois ornamentation can be stripped away to reveal Capital-T-Truth. Well, at least this year’s Capital-T-Truth.

According to Wiktionary, a skeuomorph is defined as “a design feature copied from a similar feature in another object, even when not functionally necessary.” Wiktionary also tells us that use of the word traces back at least as far as 1889, which should serve as a reminder to the design-hipsters cum baristas that they aren’t really on the cutting edge of either art or language evolution. (If you want to jump right in to the deep end and really impress the latte crowd, try this debate over the fundamental meaning of the term. As for me, I am using the term to mean what it has become in the vernacular: Apple looks kitschy.)

So when your screen background looks like a piece of “fine Corinthian leather,” or your Google earth icon has beveled edges, or your iBooks interface looks like a wooden bookshelf, that is skeuomorphism. The horror.

When Apple first popularized a graphic user interface back during the Stone Age, they were attempting to put a face, or perhaps better, a skin on a technology that few people understood. Steve Jobs and crew were creating the “computer for the rest of us” by using visual metaphors that we all recognized in order to enable us to use this new technological marvel. No longer did we need to know the rudiments of programming language or even “C-prompts” on a green screen in order to navigate around the Matrix. Instead we got familiar-looking file folder icons and document icons that emulated dog-eared pieces of paper, a now politically incorrect bomb with a lit fuse, and the ever-dreadful dead Mac icon with the upside down smile and x’s for eyes. We navigated—the term itself is a verbal skeuomorph—through the computer by pointing and clicking at items and buttons on the screen. Pointing, of course, was a violation of the rules of etiquette but we were all familiar with it. The buttons weren’t really buttons, they just looked like it. And clicking, especially with the magical transformation that occurred once you did it, gave the user a sense of power. Admittedly it was power in an alien world, but does it get any better than that? For those of us who were familiar with rubber cement, wax, X-acto knives, t-squares, rubylith, type books, proportion wheels, galleys and the stimulating smell of printer’s ink, getting to use a Macintosh was like being handed the keys to the Space Shuttle. Once they added color and higher resolution, we were no longer merely orbiting the earth. It was infinity and beyond.

Those first Mac icons, largely designed by Susan Kare, were pretty primitive though brilliant for their time, in a way like the guano drawings on the Magura Caves. You do the best you can with what you have. The original Mac had a bit depth of 1, in other words, black or… wait for it… white. As bit-depth/resolution improved it was to be expected that the detail on those original icons would evolve—and clearly they did. So we wound up with beveled edges, sophisticated shadows and color schemes, backgrounds that look like paper, or wood, or marble, or galaxies or whatever in the real world a designer might imagine, all used with the best of intentions. Looking like an actual notepad can be an immediate way to communicate to the user what a virtual notepad is and how to use it. Early iPhone and iPad icons became celebrations of dimensionality bordering on trompe-l’oeil, as did the interfaces within the applications they represented.

Trompe l’oeil is a recognized and celebrated category of art, unlike skeuomorphism, although both are darn near unpronounceable. You can find some astonishing examples here. If you’ve been to Las Vegas and seen the ceilings in the Venetian Hotel or in the Via Bellagio, you’ve seen trompe-l’oeil. Frankly, you could make an argument that the entire Las Vegas strip is a monument to the ersatz—trompe l’oeil and skeuomorphism unabashedly presented as reality. For a more familiar example, but still from a desert in Nevada, think of Wile E. Coyote painting a tunnel on the side of a canyon wall to fool the Roadrunner. When Roadrunner turns the corner and runs into the newly created tunnel, Wile E. tries to follow, with the expected result. He crashes into the canyon painted stone and gets “flattened” against the wall. Despite what ol’ Wile E. may have thought, even the kids watching the cartoon knew it wasn’t a real tunnel. Kids, of course, are smarter than coyotes (and adults for that matter, most of whom think that Las Vegas is a real place.)

Kids are also smarter than many philosophers of design. At least my kids are. They absorb visual metaphors like breathing. They never, ever had to answer the angst-ridden question of “Mac or PC?” They don’t care. If it has a screen they can operate it, and they know without thinking about it that their fingers are not going to slip off a virtually beveled edge. So they are not fooled by skeuomorphic details. Neither are they offended by them. I never had to utter the words, “Son, you know that leather background isn’t real, don’t you?” Had I done so I would have gotten the same look of consternation when I asked my then six-year-old if he realized the magic in Harry Potter movies wasn’t real. “Seriously? Dad? It’s just a movie.”

Apple’s work on interface design ushered in a golden age of ornamentation, perhaps even arresting the Modernist trend to the point where, in 2005, Eye Magazine could declare “The Decriminalisation of Ornament,” (a direct reference to Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” which argued “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.” ) But now, after years of increasingly realistic looking, but fake, bevels, shadows, colors and textures among iPhone visual elements, designers, especially user interface (UI) designers, have scraped themselves off the wall of the virtual canyon and decided they are once again allergic to ornamentation. But these days it is more fashionable to use (or perhaps, misuse) the term “skeuomorphism.”

This issue turns out to be a pretty ancient problem. The guano painter in the Magura cave didn’t have an alphabet and knew nothing of taxidermy that would have enabled the hanging of a stuffed animal as a trophy on the wall. Instead, he or she drew a picture, with sufficient detail to communicate, but no more. You could even argue that those drawings were the very essence of flatness so desired by modern UX design purists. 15000 years later (though still 17,000 years before Jonathan Ive was even born), the artists of the Lascaux cave paintings added color, dimension, perspective and ornamental detail to the mix. I’m guessing the Lascaux paintings were called skeuomorphic by the art critics of the Paleolithic Era. But I doubt the artist or anyone else for that matter, Wile E. Coyote-style, confused the pictures on the wall with actual animals.

Tom Wolfe, in his brilliant skewering of modern art and architecture, From Our House to Bauhaus, reports an exercise by Josef Albers, an early Bauhaus instructor, that clearly explains the purist attitude toward skeuomorphism:

“Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would find Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedra and the airplane and say: “These were meant to be made of stone or metal—not newspaper.” Then he would pick up the photographer’s absentminded tent and say: “But this!—this makes use of the soul of paper. …This!—is a work of art in paper”

At the risk of appearing ambivalent, let may say simply, “BS!” If we were to follow his logic—beyond where even Albers seemed to go—we might reach the conclusion that one ought not make anything out of something else, since the original materials are best suited to be just that, the original materials. Wood is best used for trees, not newspapers or cornices; sand is better suited to remain as sand rather than turned into crystal goblets or the glass facades of Bauhaus Big Box Architecture. In fact, by following Albers’ logic we might eventually do away with all forms of not merely ornamentation, but representational art and even color, as some Bauhaus influenced trend-setters wanted to do. Although the leading edge of smartphone interface design today looks like Ellsworth Kelly color explorations, you just know someone is going to eventually argue for all black and white. Seen the Drudge Report lately?

I do confess to a certain sympathy with the anti-skeuomorphic crowd. (Then again, I tend to root for Wile E. Coyote, too.) I have a visceral disdain for wood-grained laminate countertops and printed faux-wood wall paneling. It seems to me that if you want your countertops to look like wood, you ought to use wood—especially since a chef friend of mine once told me that real wood has chemistry that helps kill the bacteria on its surface. But even at that, I wouldn’t turn down a meal served on a Formica counter. Heretically, I find the iPhone’s icon-oriented interface to be more clutter than order, even as executed in iOS7, and although I am an unrepentant Apple fanboy, all those flat squares in Windows Phone 8 are clean, simple and attractive. How effective they are as navigational tools, I have no idea. And I also know that they are “buttons,” regardless of how preciously flat they appear.

For Gropius and his followers in the Bauhaus this intense desire to eschew ornamentation was about politics. The assumption was that ornamentation was expensive and therefore, only members of the bourgeoisie could afford it. The search for “flatness” became a political, as well as artistic, movement. Roger Scruton describes the modernists and their agenda this way: “They were social and political activists who wished to squeeze the disorderly human material that constitutes a city into a socialist straitjacket.”  So it is not surprising that, in an era when the cultural desire for socialism is in ascendance, we might return to a fear of bourgeois ornamentation.

Such simplification is tempting, and when presented as the manifestation of (faux-) humanizing ideals, eliminating ornamentation takes on a certain (equally faux-) nobility. But just because a group of design philosophers want to protect the masses, whom they presume must be fooled by the painting of a tunnel on a canyon wall, doesn’t mean we have to fall for that sort of reverse-elitism.

René Magritte, made the point back in 1928, with the inscription on his painting “The Treachery of Images.” “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe.) We know. We also know that on-screen buttons are not really beveled, the clicking sounds are not mechanical, the calendar doesn’t have a real leather border, the picture of our kids on the lock screen is not really our kids, the cars and trucks in Transformers didn’t really transform, and Skeuby Doo isn’t a real dog. Unless the day comes when we can jack ourselves directly into the Matrix, I imagine that human beings will always prefer a little visual metaphor— maybe even a little kitsch—with our computer interfaces.

God’s Good Order: The Cycle Will Be Broken, Bye and Bye.

Will

(Originally published in the Edge of Faith‘s premiere issue, February 2017)

The path to reconciliation must begin with the act of confession.—Soon-Chan Rah1

In the summer of 1960 I was eight years old and lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most summers I would spend a month or more at my grandparents’ house in Wilmar, a small, south Arkansas town in Drew County known as “The Home of Tall Pines and Pink Tomatoes.” The soil was red and sandy, and we were near enough to the Louisiana border to have Spanish Moss lend its distinctive grayish-green mystery as it lurked, hanging from the branches of large, live oak trees. The humidity was always on the edge of bursting into rain; the water was so soft you could never quite dry off or feel clean after a bath. I can still taste the faint combination of salt and pine sap in the air.

Each day I woke to the sound of  multiple roosters crowing. I got out of bed to help my grandmother and great-grandmother feed the chickens; collect the eggs; dust the house; make biscuits, cakes and pies; and look forward to having a Pepsi-and-vanilla-ice-cream-float every day at 10:00 am and again at 3:00 pm. They called it a Tea Party. Sometimes I would roam the gravel pits and the pine woods with my cousins, playing cowboys and Indians or re-enacting famous battles from the Civil War, especially those few battles that the Confederate Rebels actually won. At night I slept in the same lumpy bed in the same room that my father and his two brothers grew up in. I read Tom Swift novels and Hardy Boys mysteries by flashlight under the covers.

Around 5:00 pm every day I would climb in the old Ford pickup truck and ride with my grandfather a couple of miles to the farm so we could feed the cattle. I always took my treasured pocket knife. Cutting the twine on bales of hay stored in the loft and tossing it down to the cattle feeders made me feel like a real ranch-hand, maybe even a real cowboy. Once in a while I would accompany him to the “bank” he owned, although I never felt like a real banker. The word “bank” is in quotes because it wasn’t a real bank. The technical name was “exchange and trust,”  a forerunner of the modern savings and loan. He couldn’t loan money, but he could keep it for people in his cavernous, walk-in safe. I guess he was pretty good at double-entry bookkeeping.

Nonetheless, he was known as the town’s banker, and the water commissioner, and the school superintendent, and I think he was even mayor for a time. Everyone called him Mr. Dick. When he died they found a little pocket ledger with a list of initials and dollar amounts next to them. The best guess is that he did loan money—his own. A stern father to his sons, he must have been generous to a fault with everyone else.

The town was built alongside a single highway that ran east and west. Railroad tracks ran parallel to the highway about fifty yards to the south. They had a Methodist, Baptist and a Presbyterian Church and my grandfather attended all three. They had the “bank,” two general/feed stores, a gas station, a school, a flour mill with a couple of grain silos, a sawmill with endless mountains of pine wood chips, and a United States Post Office.
My grandfather’s brother was postmaster. In a town of 500 people our family was about as privileged as you could get.

There was also the Star Café, one of my grandfather’s less than successful entrepreneurial ventures, which may have been a less than transparent attempt to get my great-grandmother out of the house and keep her busy. A little mother-in-law drama was about all the drama they had. Except for the night when the flour mill burned down there wasn’t a lot of excitement. Idyllic.

500 people. As near as I can tell, about 300 of them were black. Sixty percent. You can do the math. You already know where the black people lived—south of the railroad tracks in little shacks and pre-fabricated houses. Some of the white folks had pre-fab homes as well, and some lived on the other side of the tracks, but they also tended to have acreage around their houses where they could grow tomatoes to sell to the grocery chains and the Campbell Soup folks in the county seat, and pine trees they could harvest every 15 or 20 years for big money. That kind of real estate was rare for black residents, if it existed at all.

One very slow moving afternoon I was hanging out with a couple of the local kids when one of them suggested we play “Chuck Rocks at the N–––––s.” Yes, this was Arkansas, 1960. He used the word.

We gathered our ammunition—small, round, gravel rocks from the driveway. Hiding behind the two-story mother-in-law house in the back of my grandparent’s home, we would quickly sneak out and launch a volley across the railroad tracks onto the roof of the small, pink, pre-fab house on the other side. Quickly retreating to our hiding place we would peek around the corner to check the results. The first couple of times, nothing happened. The rocks all fell short or on the roof and it seemed that nobody noticed.

So we did it again. After a couple of volleys a Very Large Black Man came out on the stoop and looked around. Seeing nothing he went back in. Still, the fact that we had elicited that reaction was success to us. Congratulating ourselves on a mission accomplished we wandered off to other adventures.

The thrill of doing something we knew to be completely wrong was more enticing than eight-year-old boys could stand. Even more thrilling was the fact that we seemed to have gotten away with it. So naturally we did it again. And again. For several days
in a row we played our new game, waiting for the increasingly puzzled (we thought), Very Large Black Man to come out on the stoop, look around and go back inside.
Then we would quit. We never considered what would happen if we broke a window. The possibility that someone might get hurt didn’t enter our minds.

Of course, nobody was fooled. The people in the house figured out what was going on almost immediately. The deep tragedy is that it took several days for them to do something about it. Mr. Dick was known to be “good to the black folks,” but to directly challenge him regarding the behavior of his grandson and two other white kids was a violation of the deeply embedded but unwritten protocols of the existing social order. When white people of the time thought about it—something they seldom did—they merely understood those protocols as the way the world is supposed to be. God’s Good Order. Today we call it systemic racism and that is not too harsh a label.

One afternoon, sitting in the breezeway, likely enjoying a round of Pepsi floats, we saw the Very Large Black Man walking across the railroad tracks into my grandparents back yard, seeming to grow Larger with every step. The game was over. We were busted. Before he reached the back door to ask if he could speak with Mr. Dick, my two co-conspirators made a quick exit out the front door. Hiding, I watched from a distance as the two men talked though I could not hear what they were saying. I didn’t really need to know; even an eight-year-old has a conscience. I braced myself for the consequences.

Aside from a stern lecture from my grandfather, repeated in a slightly gentler fashion by my grandmother, and then repeated again a couple of weeks later when my parents showed up to take me back home to Little Rock, there were no real consequences beyond  being “grounded” for a few days. I have searched my memory to see if, at the very least, they made me go apologize to the Very Large Black Man and his family, but I don’t think so.

Later that year, in December, about a week away from my ninth birthday, my mother, my younger sister, and I were getting gasoline at a little filling station on the southeast side of downtown Little Rock. Southeast Little Rock was “colored,” as they called it in those days, perhaps even intending politeness. The morning was overcast but the haze was beginning to break up. We were only three years removed from the day when nine frightened but courageous black students attempted to integrate Central High School just a few blocks away. The “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be called, faced an angry mob barring their entrance. They also faced the Arkansas National Guard, which had been called out by Governor Orval Faubus, to “keep the peace.” The Guard was clearly there to support the mob and bar the door to the schoolhouse. The nine black students were turned away. Two weeks later they were admitted, but only after President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and sent 1,200 paratroopers to the campus to escort them up the steps of the school. Paratroopers sounds a little theatrical. I’m pretty sure they showed up in Jeeps and trucks. Either way, Eisenhower made his point.

Sheltered in the growing suburbs of northwest Little Rock—read: white flight—the only knowledge I had of the standoff was overhearing my father on the phone telling my out-of-state uncle that we didn’t really know anything more about it than he did. We got our news from the paper and the Huntley-Brinkley Report just like everyone else in America.

Aside from housekeepers, gardeners and the occasional “lawn-jockey” statue—yes, it was that kind of neighborhood—African-Americans did not exist in my world. The whole environment was a study in Jim Crow reality. Even the more liberal members of the community believed separate-but-equal was an honorable, even Christian, position—reflective of divine intentionality. This filling station was run, and likely owned, by a white man. Black neighborhood. White-owned business. God’s Good Order.

Mom (we called her Nana) pulled up next to the gas pump. The car was a 1955 Pontiac Star Chief, a chrome appointed behemoth with enough presence to herald my father’s arrival into middle management, yet not so garish as to outshine the Rocket 88 Oldsmobile driven by his boss. Status was a finely tuned machine in those days.

Nana and I climbed out of the car while my sister sat in the back seat fascinated with her Chatty Cathy talking doll. Even today Chatty Cathy is described on Wikipedia as a “fanciful depiction of a human being…a five-year-old Caucasian girl…blonde hair in a short bobbed style and blue eyes.” [Italics added.] It was not until 1962 that Mattel discovered there were people of other colors. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was not until 1962 that Mattel discovered that there were markets made up of people of other colors ready to part with their hard-earned money. I wonder that rarity does not explain why collectible Chatty Cathy dolls on eBay tend to be perceived as more valuable if they have the “ghostly white” color found on some models from 1964 bearing a “Patented in Canada” marking.

Nana went inside the station and waited to pay while I watched the attendant fill the tank. This was long before the days of self-service at the “convenience” store. Fascinated with the mechanics of fueling the car and secretly enjoying the mysterious fumes of the gasoline, I watched the friendly, grease-covered, Andy Griffith look-alike perform his liturgy. While the gasoline pumped and I tasted the air, he lifted the hood, pulled out the dipstick, wiped off the end, reinserted it into the pipe, pulled it out again, and inspected the now, oil-covered tip. With a knowing nod of the head and a wink in my general direction, he returned the dipstick for a second time to its proper place in the natural order of auto-mechanical physics and lowered the hood. Then he topped off the air-pressure in the tires and cleaned the windshield.

What happened next was completely outside the realm of the natural order for a nine-year-old white kid from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1960. A boy from the neighborhood, about my age, walked up to me and tried to strike up a conversation. It seems it was his birthday. He was nine years old, very proud of that fact, and he asked me if I knew anyone else who was nine years old. I backed away from him in silence trying to avert my eyes, just wishing he would go away. Something about being the same age as this kid was disturbing. I was not usually that shy, but I didn’t respond to his questions.

He was black. The only black people I knew about (aside from the aforementioned service class) were the people from the other side of the tracks in my grandparents’ south Arkansas town. My recent, narrow escape from justice was fresh on my mind. What I did know of black people I knew only from a distance. I had heard stories—stories in which men regularly referred to dark-skinned human beings by using the “N-word” and otherwise genteel women referred to them using the condescendingly polite but equally profane term, “Nigra.” “Don’t let them fool you,” I was told, “they are not the same as us. They’re okay as long as they stay in their own place, on their own side of the tracks, but you definitely don’t want one marrying your sister.”

He persisted. Like a black Chatty Cathy doll that could pull its own string, he continued to pepper me with questions, which I continued not to answer. “What’s your name? How old are you? I’m nine years old. Do you know anyone who is nine years old? Is that your sister in the car? How old is she? Is she nine years old.”

I was pretty certain that the only appropriate response for a child of my “station” was to ignore him. So I did. Nervously and completely unsure of what he might do. You just never know.

Nana watched the whole encounter from the station window.

My mother was raised in east Texas. The word “hardscrabble” was invented to describe her Depression-era childhood. In her poverty she always felt “less than.” She spoke often of the rare treat of going to see a motion-picture with her father. Admission was nine cents. She would pray that her dad did not need to keep the extra penny so she could buy a Tootsie Roll. I was always reminded of that story when I took my sons to see the latest superhero movie and I had to spend over $20 for two drinks and a popcorn. While some poverty is real, some is just a first-world problem.

The outsider mindset solidified when she was fourteen. Her parents divorced and she had to quit school to help support the family. Ironically she took a job in a movie theater. At the time, divorce carried an unredeemable social stigma, not merely for the divorced couple, but also for their children. There were no mommy blogs or support groups for single mothers or classes to help the newly-divorced find their way back to normalcy. Normalcy was for other people. To be touched by divorce in those days was to be diminished as a human being, to be not quite a whole person. She could genuinely empathize with someone who, by popular opinion, political compromise and Constitutional provision, was considered to be only 3/5th of a human person—at least until the chicanery of the 13th Amendment. Besides, she was, or so she believed, part Native American, another aggrieved group. That turns out to be mostly true, but not Cherokee as she hoped. A test of my DNA reveals that she was descended from Mexican ancestry and from Cree Indians—darker-skinned Canadians.

As I backed away from the frightening specter of a smiling, friendly, nine-year old black child, Nana walked up behind me. Bumping into her I suddenly felt trapped. With the Pontiac Star Chief on one side and the gasoline pump on the other, she had cut off my only avenue of escape. Putting her hand firmly on my shoulder, she asked, “Are you going to answer his question?”

I couldn’t get words out of my mouth. I stammered and stuttered in pretty much the same way I had when a few years earlier I had a face-to-face encounter with a garden snake on my grandmother’s front porch. Once my grandmother decrypted my message she took a well-sharpened hoe from the shed out back and summarily dispatched the poor snake.

But my mother was not carrying a garden hoe and this black kid, whatever my misgivings, was no snake. Nana was not coming to my rescue, at least not in the way I hoped. Instead, she struck up a surprisingly genial conversation with this dark, mysterious, and intimidating (at least to me) stranger, this pre-adolescent representative of a tribe that the author of my family genealogy (circa 1952, Blue Mountain, Mississippi) described as the “people of Ham.”  It must be true; it’s in a professionaly printed, hardback book with gold foil embossing on the cover and coated stock on the interior. Although, to be honest, the foil has pretty much worn off now.

That genealogy miraculously manages to trace our family origins all the way back to one of Noah’s sons. Impressive, given the fact that the riches of Internet research did not exist in 1952, much less Ancestry.com. Yet he was sufficiently persuaded of our roots to write, “When Japheth stepped out of the Ark and his father delivered that prophecy [Cursed be Canaan…God shall enlarge Japheth…and Canaan will be his servant… Genesis 9:24-29], there rose a kind of Gulf stream of history carrying the promise of the gospel, numerical enlargement and superiority over the people of Ham. These latter are the Egyptians, Ethiopians, colored races, etc.”

Don’t be overly troubled by that “superiority over the…colored races, etc.” thing. According to the author, himself a well-educated Presbyterian pastor, at least one prominent member of our lineage “led family worship in his home” and “had a sense of responsibility that extended to his family and slaves alike.”  So I guess that makes it all okay, right? God’s Good Order.

Of course, as a nine-year-old I knew nothing of family history and it was not until many years later that my mother discovered a copy of the will of the first member of my lineage to settle in America in a dusty county courthouse in South Carolina. It is dated February 2, 1837. In the inventory of his property (pictured above) you will find:

1 Negro man, Lewis$1,000.00

Beck & 2 Children$1,506.00

Rose$   475.00

Right there, categorically, yet almost casually listed among the farm implements, the household items, the cows and horses and chickens, the jugs of cider and vinegar, and the lard, are five people. Five human beings. And those dollar values? That is what they sold for at auction. Their original valuation was less than $1100.00 all together. When the folks in the HR department talk about the importance of investing in “human capital” it sends a shiver down my spine.

What I did know at the age of nine was entitlement. Not consciously, it was merely something I inherited from my ancestors and absorbed from the culture of the 1950s in these United States of America, the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” and the southern state of Arkansas, the “Land of Opportunity” for some folks—those fortunate enough to suffer from a modest level of melanin deficiency. Somehow, without even realizing it I had fallen prey, as had much of white America, to the “curse of Ham” myth. There is no truth to, and certainly no Biblical support for, the idea that dark-skinned human beings are that way due to a so-called “curse of Ham.” Yet, thanks to a lot of bad teaching and the endorsement of the once nearly ubiquitous Scofield Bible, this false belief dominated much of American theology of the past two centuries and even persists in a few places today. As Dr. Tony Evans puts it, “Myths don’t need facts, they just need supporters.”2

I didn’t need facts. I didn’t even need conscious awareness of my inherited prejudice.
I just knew there was something unusual about my mother talking with this boy.

Nana smiled at him and offered that I was almost nine years old. Vigorously prompting me at the elbow, she told me to shake his hand, which I did very cautiously. It was no fist bump or interlocking thumbs, “bring-it-in,” kind of “bro-hug.” Instead it was typical of what two nine-year-old boys almost always do—a weak, tentative grip, shy and uncertain. What my father would have called “a limp fish.” It ended as quickly as it began.

But as our hands touched I discovered something I had not known before. Black skin feels like white skin. It’s the same thing. Who knew? Epiphany! Somehow that was comforting to me and although I still couldn’t quite hold up my end of the conversation, I did stammer something about my birthday as we got in the car to leave.

My new-found, black best friend looked at me with warranted suspicion and probably wondered why I had been so distant. We waved at each other as the car pulled out of the gas station and I felt different—somehow forgiven even for the egregious sin of rock-chucking the previous summer. My nearly nine-year-old self knew intuitively that my mother had just given me a gift—a gift that I must pass on to my own children and they in turn, to their children—a legacy of infinitely more value than that cloth-covered family geneaology with the faded gold foil. I felt like I had entered a new world—one in which God’s Truly Good Order was being restored.

 

 

1 Soon-Chan Rah, (2009) p. 71, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press

2 Evans, Tony (2015-09-24). Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We are Stronger Together Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

The Arc of the Covenant

Part of a photo series, A Cautionary Tale, by the author which can be found here: http://bit.ly/2wEEHd2

Stories, at least classical stories, tend to follow what people who study stories call a narrative arc. If you took a high school literature class—and stayed awake for enough of it—you may remember the term “dramatic structure.” From the time of Aristotle, a story studier himself, the form was considered to be a beginning, a middle and an end. So maybe you didn’t have to be as smart as Aristotle to figure that out, but nonetheless, he got the ball rolling on the idea of literary analysis.
The version of Aristotle’s idea that your high school teacher taught you is likely the one conceived in the 19th century by a German novelist named Gustav Freytag. Now Gus had his problems. His most famous work was a novel called Debit and Credit which extolled the virtues of the German people (so far, so good) in contrast to Jews and Poles. Oy! But his literary theory—thankfully less anti-Semitic—caught on. It went something like this:
1. Exposition. This section presents the stuff you need to know for the rest of the story to make sense. The setting, the main characters, a little about the back story, etc.
2. Rising Action. This is where a series of unfortunate (or fortunate) events cause conflict, build tension, and lead inexorably toward part three, the climax.
3. Climax. This is the main point of the story. The lead character, the protagonist, steps up, becomes the hero, or maybe just fixes the problem. Sometimes it goes the other way, the lead character fails. That version is called a tragedy. Sometimes the protagonist defeats the antagonist, but the antagonist doesn’t fully realize it yet, which sets up the rest of the story.
4. Falling Action. In this part of the story the protagonist continues to struggle against the antagonist, which may be a person or maybe just an idea. The final outcome may still be in doubt, but the battle continues with varying degress of intensity.
5. Dénouement. You can call it a resolution or a revelation (my favorite). I just always like the sound of the word “dénouement.’ In this part of the story, conflicts are resolved, things either go back to normal in which everyone lives happily ever after or they move on to a new normal, with just enough tension to suggest there is more to the story with hints of a possible sequel.
That’s a pretty simplisitic understanding of a narrative arc, and probably more dependent of modern movie economics, than Gus Freytag. But it is a pretty common way stories unfold.
Even before Aristotle, there were stories. In fact, long before Aristotle, stories were the primary way that historical knowledge was passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Bible, even before it was written down, was that kind of collection of stories. Each of those stories has its own narrative arc, a lot like your high school teacher would have described. (At least if you went to high school back when it was still acceptable to talk about the Bible in class, which kind of raises the question of why, exactly, can we still discuss the notorious anti-semite, Freytag’s theory, but we can barely mention the Bible in a school.)

For the most part the Bible is a collection of stories that go something like this:
Part 1
God does something wonderful for his people. Something like: Creating an entire universe for them to live in;
Putting them in an exquisitely beautiful garden with an even more exquisitely beautiful partner;
Delivering them out of slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea; Providing food for them in the wilderness that they didn’t have to grow; Outfitting them with shoes that didn’t wear out in 40 years;
Leading them into a land of milk and honey, which always sounded kind of sticky to me and very likely to attract bees. But if you lived in the ancient near east it probably sounded like the Promised Land to you.
Part 2
They faithfully follow him until they get rebellious or tired or just plain stoopid.
Part 3
God lets them have their way even though he knows things are not going to end well.
Part 4
Bad stuff happens.
Part 5
He calls them back and, often reluctantly, they call on God again.
Part 6
He forgives them, rescues them and takes them back.
Part 7
Finally God sends his own son to die for them, making it possible for them to receive eternal life and a brand new heart, one that loves God and desires to do his will—not out of duty or fear but for the sheer joy of participating in the life of the all good and all beautiful creator and sustainer of the universe.

Repeat parts 1 through 6 as often as necessary until you get it through your skull (and your heart) that God really, really, really loves you—so get over your bad self.

Literally, get over your bad self. That’s where part 7 comes in. It is his major work in you and it is a work in progress. Philippians 1:6 says, “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

To sum that up, here’s the way the story goes: God is good. He does good stuff. We don’t believe it. We rebel. We fail. He calls us back. We repent. He restores. And he is ushering in a kingdom where that restoration is permanent.

That’s my story. And it is probably yours.

I have had opportunity after opportunity to see first hand how God works all things together for good, for those that love him (however imperfectly) and are called according to his purposes. He has taken the gifts he has given me and placed me in situations where he wanted me to use them. Those situations have seldom looked like what I might have expected or planned, but that is just a reminder to me that this story is ultimately not about me, it’s about him.

I look at all the ways I wandered and I don’t really know why God allows that. But to be honest, I’m almost glad he did. It probably has something to do with what Paul talked about in Ephesians 2: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life.”

That may be my favorite verse in the Bible. (It’s pretty hard to pick just one.) I always like to remember that the word “workmanship” in that passage is the Greek word “poiema.” It literally means we are God’s poetry. It makes me think about the book John refers to in Revelation 13:28 and again in 21:27 as “the Lamb’s book of life.” Traditionally, we have tended to think of it as a ledger. Enough credit (good works, right?) in one column and you get to stay in heaven. Too much sin in the other column and you drop through a hole into a lake of fire.

But what if it is a book of poetry?