Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ann Hornaday on Noah and On Being a Christian Film Critic

Noah says “Watch This Film!"

I posted something here recently on the Noah movie.   Despite what I said in that post about not going to see the film, I did see it last week, and am currently working on a paper about it for my grad course on secularism.  I’m still not sure what to think of the film, but I was impressed by this review by The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday.

Here’s the executive summary of her review - not sure I agree 100%, but I think it’s fair.

"Like interpreters through the millennia, Aronofsky has taken Noah’s journey sincerely to heart, processed it through his own singular visual and moral imagination and come up with a narrative that feels deeply personal, broadly mythical and cannily commercial all at the same time. That feels just about right for “Noah,” which ultimately invites viewers to form their own meanings, whether they’re about sacrifice and obedience, stewardship and service or the enduring entertainment value of an epic ad­ven­ture that, thousands of years on, still manages to astonish."

I discovered Hornaday via a recent essay she wrote for WaPo about being a Christian film critic.  It’s a thoughtful essay, particularly about what makes a good (and bad) religious film.

Hopefully I’m not biased by learning that Ms. Hornaday is, like me, an Anglican, and that a work day for her might include doing Oscar interviews and then taking home communion to a shut-in parishioner.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

This picture was taken on Saturday, September 11, 2011, near Kandahar, Afghanistan by the German journalist and photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed recently while covering the election in Afghanistan.  The caption for this photo reads “An Afghan boy on a donkey reacts as Canadian soldiers with the 1st RCR Battle Group, The Royal Canadian Regiment, patrol in Salavat, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A retrospective of Anja Niedringhaus’ Afghanistan photographs was recently posted on the Atlantic Magazine website here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Violence Inseparable From Pity: George Packer On The New War Fiction

What’s going on under that hat?

It seems for now that the face of the returning veteran, as far as the media is concerned, is the late Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez,  Yesterday on the Foreign Policy website, Gordon Lubbold noted that the media were connecting the wrong dots about Lopez.  " It remains unclear what caused Lopez to do what he did. But his four-month tour in Iraq - in 2011, clearly not the darkest days there, and at a time when few Americans were even seeing combat - was not enough to draw the conclusion that Lopez' mental illness was combat-related.”   This tragic episode may have more to do with the largely civilian trope of the disgruntled employee’s workplace shooting spree and suicide than it does with a soldier processing the experience of combat.   Since Lopez took his own life, we will never know for sure.

The story about Lopez broke last week just as I was digesting a very fine essay by George Packer in The New Yorker magazine on the emerging literature of war, as told by veterans, in the 21st century.   Readers of this highly intermittent blog will know that this is a subject I’ve been interested in for a while.  I’ve reviewed several books, some by veterans, on their experience of the Iraq war as told through the lens of literature and fiction.  Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, which I reviewed here in September 2012.  

Packer is much better equipped as a critic to comment on this latest generation of war writing than I am.  His essay launches from an important critical touchstone, Paul Fussell’s influential study The Great War and Modern Memory, but notes the many differences between the young soldier writers of the trenches and the ones who came home in the last decade.  Here’s an excerpt.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully meet Fussell’s description of the ironic: they were worse than expected. Both began with hubris and false victories, turned into prolonged stalemates, and finally deserved the bitter name of defeat. The shorthand for Iraq, from “Mission Accomplished” to Falluja, Abu Ghraib, civil war, the surge, U.S. withdrawal, and the ongoing sectarian killing, is a story of exploded illusions. The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.

But Iraq was also different from other American wars. (So far, almost all the new war literature comes from Iraq, perhaps because there weren’t many troops in Afghanistan until 2009, and the minimum lag time between deployment and publication seems to be around five years.) Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness. A tiny number of volunteers went off to fight, often two or three times, in a war and a country that seemed incomprehensible. They returned to heroes’ welcomes and a flickering curiosity. Because hardly anyone back home really wanted to know, the combatant’s status turned into a mark of otherness, a blessing and a curse. The title of David Finkel’s recent book about the struggles of soldiers returned from Iraq, “Thank You for Your Service,” captures all the bad faith of a civilian population that views itself as undeserving, and the equivocal position of celebrated warriors who don’t much feel like saying, “You’re welcome.”

Packer mentions a number of other writers that I wasn’t aware of until now, so for that reason alone his article is wroth reading.  As a chaplain, I am grateful to Packer for telling me about Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s book of short stories, particularly “A Prayer In The Furnace” which tells of a chaplain trying, and largely failing, to preach to a group of Marines.  "The story can end only in irony: the chaplain alludes to Christ’s Passion, and Rodriguez spits in the grass. Some of the men will remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does."

The story of Ivan Lopez may have nothing to do with PTSD, but the way his story is being reported may say more about our trying to understand this handful of veterans in misunderstood wars, the disempowered 1% who served, than it ever will with him.  As one of Klay’s characters puts it after returning home from Iraq and meeting a girl who misunderstands him, “I don’t have PTSD, but I guess her thinking that I did is part of the weird pedestal vets are on now."

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Theology: Ross Douthat On Adam Gopnik and Atheism

Russell Crowe as Noah channelling Mel Gibson’s Braveheart

Before we get to today’s theologian, Ross Douthat, I’ve learned recently that Darren Aronfsky is making a film about Noah’s Ark, starring Rusell Crowe as Noah.   I can think of half a dozen reasons why a Hollywood studio might have agreed to bankroll such a film:

1)  Russell Crowe for star power, not to mention Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins. '

2) Russell Crowe on a boat in a storm  - echoes of Master and Commander.

3) Lots of animals.   Who doesn’t like lots of animals?

4) Apocalyptic weather.  Who isn’t worried about killer storms and aberrant weather these days?

5) The apocalypse.   Because there aren’t enough end of the world movies out there.

6) A handful of people surviving the weather apocalypse on a giant boat - because it worked so well for Roland Emmerich in 2012.

These six reasons, I would suggest, might all combine to be a satisfactory explanation of why a studio would spend a lot of cash on a story from Genesis - not a bible story, per se, so much as a mash-up of apocalyptic images that scratch the same filmgoing itch as the new Godzilla remake.  So, I’m not convinced that there is any grand “religious motive” behind the making of this Noah film, despite Lawrence Krauss lamenting several days ago that Hollywood is hostile to atheism.  

Mr. Krauss is a collaborator with Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as “the world’s most famous atheist”.  Krauss complains that while Hollywood is making films about Noah, Jesus, and a little boy who sees heaven after a near death experience, not to mention Matthew McConaughey thanking God at the Oscars, the studios have passed on the documentary Krauss produced about him and Dawkins travelling the world talking about atheism.   By preferring stories that are “facile at best and demeaning at worst”, while not backing him and Dawkins, Hollywood thus “reinforces a pervasive cultural tilt against unbelief and further embeds religious myths in the popular consciousness”.  

There is something rather naively charming about a man who earnestly takes on the task of disabusing the popular consciousness of the “myths” of religion, and yet is puzzled to find that atheists are not universally loved, and are often “the least trusted of all listed categories aside from rapists”.   I am genuinely sorry for Mr. Krauss’ distress, though I suspect that someone who hangs around with Richard Dawkins probably has a fairly robust ego and is coping well enough.  

More curious, I think, is his wanting to argue things both ways.  On the one hand, he says, the numbers of the non-religious are growing “in the United States and the rest of the developed world”.   Here we hear echoes of what sociologists and religious studies scholars call the secularization thesis, the claim that as societies become more modern, technological, and sophisticated, the numbers of those who persist in the primitive, magical thinking of religion will diminish.   Bit, on the other hand, Krauss argues that Hollywood, that legendary den of liberal, worldly leftists, is reinforcing the cultural tilt in favour of religion and thus drowning him and Dawkins out.  Well, either history is on the side of atheism, or it isn’t.  Please make up your mind.

The essayist Adam Gopnik wrote a more thoughtful piece recently on atheism where he seemed to be celebrating the secular victory.  Untroubled by Krauss’ fears of the machinations of Hollywood, Gopnik sunnily writes that science and materialism have won a decisive victory over faith, leaving those he calls the Super-Naturalists, those who still want their account of the world to include the transcendent, to be falling back into less and less convincing generalities.   Gopnik writes:

“And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world.  They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.  What works wins.  We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature.  We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain.  A God can still be made in the face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers."

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat offers two worthwhile responses to Gopnik’s essay, and I recommend them if you have the time    In the first, he writes that we are in a moment when history seems to be on atheism’s side.  The current prestige of evolutionary biology, the general economic prosperity of western life which seems to have made philosophy almost irrelevant, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which “almost seems laboratory-designed to give the idea of atheism-as-Progress a new lease on life”, and deeply unfashionable conservative Christian teachings on sexuality, all combine to make secularism seem like a safe bet.

In his second essay, Douthat chides Gopnik for his broad caricature of serious religious belief.  The argument, as Gopnik develops it, is that the God of popular belief, “the God of miracles and commandments, signs and wonders, heaven and hell”, is simply impossible to believe in any more, and so serious intellectuals who still feel the urge to believe, fall back on the vague and mysterious.  Here’s Gopnik describing one such account:

As the explanations get more desperately minute, the apologies get ever vaster. David Bentley Hart’s recent “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss” (Yale) doesn’t even attempt to make God the unmoved mover, the Big Banger who got the party started; instead, it roots the proof of his existence in the existence of the universe itself. Since you can explain the universe only by means of some other bit of the universe, why is there a universe (or many of them)? The answer to this unanswerable question is God. He stands outside everything, “the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract,” the ultimate ground of being. This notion, maximalist in conception, is minimalist in effect. Something that much bigger than Phil is so remote from Phil’s problems that he might as well not be there for Phil at all. This God is obviously not the God who makes rules about frying bacon or puts harps in the hands of angels. A God who communicates with no one and causes nothing seems a surprisingly trivial acquisition for cosmology—the dinner guest legendary for his wit who spends the meal mumbling with his mouth full.

Douthat’s response is so good, and so rich, that it is worth quoting in full.


"Okay, but hang on a minute. Is this what Hart actually believes about God — that he “communicates with no one and causes nothing,” that he has no interest in bacon or seraphs or any other created thing? Well, no, actually Hart is a (capital-O) Orthodox theologian with (small-o) orthodox beliefs about not-insignificant matters like the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, among other cases where Christians believe that God has very directly communicated with his creatures, and intervened directly in the time and space that he sustains. Hart’s view of God, in other words, is maximalist in its conception and expansive in its potential implications, which include most of the things (angels, miracles, etc.) that Gopnik has already insisted that the modern “we” must pre-emptively dismiss.


And the same would go for an awful lot of the “ayes” whom Gopnik implies have replaced the old-time religion with a more abstract, post-personal God. Of course there are believers whose conception of divinity is functionally deistic, liberal religious intellectuals for whom apophatic faith substitutes for revelation rather than enriching it, and probably Gopnik’s social circle includes more examples of this type than it does of Hart’s more traditional sort. But make a list of prominent Christian scholars and philosophers and theologians (to say nothing of apologists and popularizers … artists and novelists … or, God help us, journalists), and you’ll find that plenty of the names — from Charles Taylor to Alvin Plantinga, Alasdair McIntyre to N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams to Joseph Ratzinger — do actually believe in all that Nicene Creed business, believe that the God of philosophy can still care about Phil and Ross and Adam, and share Hart’s view that religion can be intellectually rigorous without making prayer empty and miracles impossible.


Now it would be fine for Gopnik to straightforwardly scoff — in the style of Jerry Coyne, name-dropped in his essay as “my own favorite atheist blogger” — at these thinkers and the tradition they represent. (Or traditions, more aptly, given the confessional divides and philosophical variations involved.) But it’s entirely ridiculous to present the attempted synthesis of reason and revelation as some sort of contemporary theological retreat toward divine impotence, and to suggest that arguments like the one advanced in “The Experience of God” represent a last-ditch, faintly-pathetic response to the steady advance of atheism and naturalism. In fact, the case Hart is making is not even remotely new: His book is explicitly a defense of classical theism, meaning a view of God’s nature and relationship to creation that was developed in eras and civilizations when the Voltaires and Nietzsches and Dawkinses weren’t even in the wings yet, let alone on the intellectual stage.


If Hart’s God is a vast irrelevancy or a senile dinner guest, in other words, then so is the God of Aquinas and Augustine and Anselm (and, as Hart would be quick to point out, the God of various Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and pre-Christian philosophers as well). If his argument is an implicit surrender to secularism, then the real surrender happened ages back. But it seems passing strange to suggest that the greatest thinkers of the age of faith were actually just engaged in a pre-emptive retreat from an atheism that hadn’t even taken shape. Did the “long, withdrawing roar” really begin — and more than that, end — with the Summa Theologica? It’s an argument, I suppose: The Angelic doctor as John Shelby Spong. But it can’t really be the one Gopnik intends to make.


And the fact that he can read “The Experience of God” and come away with the idea that its author is just trying to save some gruel-thin version of theism from science’s inexorable advance is itself a vindication of that book’s underlying premise, which is that the modern mind has shrunk its conceptions of God to caricatures, and reduced the complexity of religious history and debate to just three categories: Dug-in fundamentalists, perpetually-retreating modernists and nonbelievers, with no room for any other form of faith. (And no room, especially to recognize that it’s fundamentalism’s science-envy, not traditional theology’s apophatic side, that’s the real modern innovation.)


Thus Gopnik, while trying to be fair-minded to those believers who have genuinely “considered the alternatives,” concludes that they simply must belong, albeit perhaps unawares, to some version of the second camp — to a form of faith effectively straightjacketed by naturalism, perpetually retreating from the God of the Bible, and defining divinity too far up to matter or too far down to count.


But this is not at all what Hart is doing … any more than it’s what most of the people populating the Society of Christian Philosophers are doing … any more than it’s what Jacques Maritain or Elizabeth Anscombe or Hans Urs Von Balthasar or Edith Stein or Karl Barth were doing, or John Henry Newman or Blaise Pascal or John Calvin or really any famous figure that you want to pick, going back across the centuries of atheism’s challenge to Christianity and further back still, until you get all the way back to Aquinas and the medievals … who obviously weren’t doing it either. And Gopnik’s failure to grasp that fairly elementary point — that the possible conceptions of God are not exhausted by the lightning-hurling sky-god and the mostly-irrelevant chairman of the board — suggests, not for the time, how little they know of religion who mostly secularism know."

I have to say that I’m as uninterested in seeing Krauss’ film of him and Dawkins as I am of seeing Aronfsky’s film about Noah.   Neither are likely to convince me one way or another as to the health of secularism vis a vis religion in the marketplace of culture.  A more interesting question, I think, is what drives people like Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright, Ross Douthat, and even myself to walk in the footsteps of Aquinas and Augustine, knowing that we are on the far side of a great materialist and scientific revolution from the thinkers of the early church, and still feeling that there is profit and meaning to be found in the work of serious theology.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

The ship at the end of that line is HMCS Protecteur, one of the Royal Canadian Navy’s two fleet support ships, being towed to Pearl Harbour by the USS Chosin after she was disabled last Thursday by a fire in her engine room.  It’s been a minor epic since then, with at least one failed tow line and difficult weather and seas.  Fortunately there were no serious injuries in the fire.

Protecteur is a venerable 44 years old, and was coming to the end of her service life when the fire occurred.  The Ottawa Citizen reports today that the RCN is now weighing the pros and cons of repairing her.

In other Navy news, my friend, Padre Rob Parker, recently returned home with his shipmates after a long tour as ship’s chaplain on HMCS Toronto.  Rob wrote a nice piece for a newsletter I edit on celebrating the Eucharist while at sea, and I shall post that here soon.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation


John Boyko.  Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation.  Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-307-36144-8

The title of this book, in its first part, is a tad grandiose, and in the second part, rather inflated in the sense that popular histories today seem required to have titles such as “How The Irish Saved Civilization” or “How the Germans Saved Sausage”.    However, for a popular history, it’s a very good account of how Canada’s path to becoming a modern nation state, practically if not ceremonially independent of Great Britain, led through the years of the American Civil War.

When I was active in American Civil War reenacting, I was with an Ontario-based group, and when we staged events or “living histories” on our side of the US border, we would always tell slightly mystified spectators that a great many Canadians served in the Civil War.  Roughly forthy thousand did, most in the Northern army, though perhaps 1 in 50 found their way to Confederate service.   The stories of some of these Canadians are told here as points of reference in a larger story.  They include soldiers and medical workers, including one woman, a New Brunswick farm girl, Sarah Edmonds, who managed to be both, serving in disguise as a man before becoming an undisguised women nurse later in the war.

What I didn’t really know was how porous the Canadian border was during the war and in the years leading up to it.  Fugitive slaves and their pursuers often crossed the border, and in the case of one fugitive, John Anderson, were pursued even into Canada’s courts.  Anderson’s case, which was about whether Canada as a British colony was obliged to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law (Anderson’s abolitionist supports thought not, while conservative lawmakers felt that Anderson, who had killed a white man in his flight, should be returned as a murderer).  Anderson’s case eventually made it to the British cabinet in London, and did much to provoke impatience with what was perceived as British interference in Canadian courts.  Anderson was freed on a technicality and was put on the touring circuit by abolitionist groups, but by then the war had started and the issue of fugitive slaves was moot.

While many Canadians disliked slavery, they were ambivalent or even hostile to the US government that was opposed to the southern slave state.  Canadians remembered American invasions of Canada in 1776 and 1812, and attributed the rebellions of 1837 to US agitation and republican sentiments, which were seen as hostile to good government and order.   Lincoln’s secretary of state, the “cigar chomping” William Seward, “an unapologetic supported or Manifest Destiny”, had made no secret that he wanted to see Canada become part of the United States.   Canadians distrusted him, and for good reason.   Britain’s sympathies were with the south, even though the Empire was neutral, and Canadians knew that if Britain entered the war on behalf of the Confederacy, it would be a bad day for Canada.    The Canadian border had not been strengthened since the War of 1812 ended.  Impressive defences, like Kingston’s Fort Henry, were not yet in existence.  Only 4300 British redcoats were scattered between what is today Ontario (Canada West), Quebec (Canada East), and Nova Scotia, and they were often prone to desertion to the US.  Canada’s militia was poorly trained and equipped.   

From the Canadian election of 1861, which largely focused on fears of American republicanism, is part of Boyko’s story of how, through the Civil War years, Canada realized that it needed to come together politically in the face of a perceived American threat.  Quite often that threat seemed very real.   In November 1861, a US warship stopped a British ship, the Trent, and forcibly arrested two Confederate diplomats on their way to England.   The Trent affair, as it was known, came within days of bringing the US and Britain to war.  Viscount Monck, Britain’s governor general in Canada, along with Canadian leaders like John A. MacDonald, realized how open Canada would be to a US invasion.   MacDonald added another 7500 men to the 38,556 armed and trained militia, while Monck asked for more troops from Britain.  Around Christmas, 11,000 British soldiers, some eleven infantry battalions, arrived in Canadian ports like Halifax.  The only problem was that, in the dead of winter, with no railroad between Atlantic Canada and Canada East and West, these troops would only have been able to defend Nova Scotia had war broken out.  Some were moved by sleigh, which could not have been pleasant.  The situation was so absurd that the British command staff arrived in January 5, 1862, and then, unable to move up the frozen St. Lawrence, went in disguise via mail ship to Boston, and bought rail tickets for Montreal.  Fortunately for them and for Canada, Lincoln had already decided that one war at a time was enough.

For the rest of the war, the border remained porous.   Confederate spies crossed freely, and hatched elaborate plots to sabotage Northern cities and free POWs for northern camps.  American recruiters, some no more than press gangs, came north to recruit or even kidnap Canadians to meet recruiting quotas and profit from the bounty system.   Some Canadians sympathetic to the south tried to arrange for weapons and even ships to be procured, which did not improve relations with Seward.  Tempers flared when the US threatened to send troops into Canada to arrest Confederate agents.  Confederates came north to exile at the war’s end.  With the peace, many militant Irish Americans turned their sights on Canada, while in the bitter tone following Lincoln’s death, many in the US Congress took a harsh line to Canada, which was seen as being soft on Confederate terrorism.   US President Johnson reeled the Fenians back in after their abortive invasion in 1866, but he needed Irish American political support and it was unclear if he would stop the Fenians a second time, particularly given resentment about the status of Fenian captives in Canadian courts.   At the same time, Britain was getting tired of costly demands from Canada for troops and defences.   In 1866, Benjamin Disraeli, one of the Little England party which was not keen on Empire, argued in cabinet that “If the colonists can’t, as a general rule, defend themselves against the Fenians, they can do nothing … what is the use of these colonial dead weights which we do not govern."

All of these threats and pressures were behind moves led by John A. MacDonald and his allies for Confederation, which brought disparate British colonies together in a political union.    Until that union existed, Boyko argues, “MacDonald understood that Canada was still more an idea than a fact”.  That union, the British North America Act, signed by Queen Victoria on March 29, 1867, became fact the same day that President Johnson signed the treaty buying Alaska from Russia.  That purchase, and fears of annexation in the west, drove British Columbia to want in to Canada, made it possible for MacDonald to borrow 300,000 pounds from England to buy Rupert’s Land (everything from the Great Lakes west to the Rockies and north to the Arctic) from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and led to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the creation of Canada.   While the Grant Administration was no friend of Canada, it signed the Washington treaty of 1871, effectively ending any claims on Canada and Britain for its support of the Confederacy and essentially recognizing Canada’s right to exist.

John Boyko is a college administrator rather than a professional academic historian, but he knows his subject well, writes well, and tells an exciting and coherent story, making this an excellent example of the popular history.   It may not be of great interest to non-Canadians, except as a minor footnote to the American Civil War, but it tells an important part of the story of how Canada came to be, which Canadians often, unfortunately, think of as being rather dull.  The interlacing of this larger account by following figures such as Sarah Edmonds, while not essential to the plot, reminds us that there were real people, moved by great events, who wanted to be a part of someone else’s war.  In that respect, they anticipate the journeys, if not always the motives, of later Canadians, like those who went to Spain in the 1930s, to Vietnam in the 1960s, and even to the various fields of jihad today.



Monday, February 24, 2014

Seen On The Afternoon Run

Yesterday was one of the few days in February where I felt not only able but even compelled to run outside.    A sunny day with a temperature at 0C was delightful.   My route took me through Victoria Park, a gem of sanctuary just west of downtown Kitchener.   I was originally going to cross this  footbridge to take a picture of the snow-covered bandstand, but then I looked up and this little Victorian fancy caught my eye.

Here’s a close up.

It turns out that the bridge is something of an architectural rarity, not only as one of the oldest metal bridges in Canada, but as the only known example of a cantilever structure being used on a small scale.  Bridge connoisseurs, apparently, think this bridge is kind of a big deal.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Jacqueline Whitt On US Military Chaplains Two Years After DADT

A scholar I wasn’t aware of today but am now tracking is Jacqueline E. Whit, a professor of strategy at the US Air War College and published University of North Carolina Press author, who has written a book on US chaplains in Vietnam that I very much want to read.

Recently she was a guest on the UNCP blog, offering some thoughts on how US military chaplains have adapted to the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a Clinton-era compromise which tried to protect closeted LGBT service men and women while barring openly gay people from serving.  Under DADT, service men and women could only be investigated if there was “credible information” as to their being LGBT, as this training manual from the period illustrates.


In her post, Whitt notes that prior to the repeal of DADT, there was concern among while there was considerable concern that some military chaplains would be forced to conduct services, such as same-sex marriages, that their consciences and denominations were opposed to, or that they would be unable tp make formerly protected religious statements about the sinfulness of homosexuality.   In fact, as Whitt notes,while “there have been some reports of conservative chaplains finding new regulations challenging, it seems that the rule of law, professionalism, and military order have won the day”.  Chaplains who do not wish to participate in same-sex marriages for reasons of conscience, or whose churches forbid them from doing so, are not obliged to do so.  Whitt writes:

Consistent with military regulations and guidelines before the law’s repeal, military chaplains are not required to perform services that are contrary to the dictates or conscience of their religious affiliations, but they must commit to helping service members who seek such services or support find someone who can. Chaplains have often referred to this commitment to “cooperation without compromise” as a foundational piece of their professional identity.

Even so, there have been a variety of responses to the changing environment within the DOD with regard to human sexuality and the role of military chaplains.

As one might expect, religious groups—such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church—with strong and clear doctrinal stances on the question of homosexuality and marriage have issued strict guidelines that their chaplains not participate in services involving same-sex couples or appear to endorse gay unions in any way. Then, there are a large number of chaplains and endorsing agencies—even among those with an evangelical bent—that have taken a more moderate stance on the issues, allowing for more flexibility and local judgment on the part of military chaplains. For example, Lutheran chaplains affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are found on both sides of the issue, as are Episcopal chaplains who may bless same-sex unions but may not perform marriages. Then, on the other side of the spectrum politically and theologically, liberal denominations are acting to endorse more military chaplains and provide broader support to military members than they have since the Vietnam War. The Unitarian Universalist church and the United Church of Christ have publicly recognized that changing attitudes and policies within the DOD have opened up new opportunities for their churches.

Of course, there are still gray areas and tensions and particulars that must be worked out—marriage retreats and counseling are one topic of special concern—but this is to be expected in a pluralistic environment where a broad range of religious practices and beliefs are included in the conversation. Because the conversations will invariably touch on issues of First Amendment protections and freedoms, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, and the issue of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and/or sexual orientation, the conversations are likely to be impassioned, complex, and messy. But they must happen, and they should involve religious leaders and organizations, as well as military leaders and special interest groups.

Ultimately, the issues will need to be resolved primarily through the clarification of military regulations that govern chaplains’ responsibilities and through the work of commanders to create and sustain a positive climate in which all military service members can live and work.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

More Weird And Scary

On the heels of yesterday’s post on the strangeness of the Cold War, here’s an image from today’s Foreign Policy website that is replete with weirdness and scariness.



This image, from a July 2013 parade, shows North Korean special forces troops wearing chest packs with garish radiation symbols.  This may just be Nork posturing - the packs could just be dummies stuffed with old newspaper, as one commentator has suggested.  Or they may be man-carried dirty bombs, a resurfacing of old Cold War research on radiological warfare.   If I was one of these guys, and I was actually wearing a dirty bomb on my chest, I’m not sure I’d be grinning and waving inanely.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Cold War Was Weird And Scary


Last week I learned via an academic History List about a book documenting  Project Dribble, underground nuclear tests in the US state of Mississippi in the early 1960s.  Apparently the US government's Atomic Energy Commission was concerned that it would not be able to detect secret underground tests by other countries, and so wanted to study the seismic footprint of such a detonation.  Mississippi was trying attract high-tech and nuclear industry, and so volunteered for the test, which occurred in underground salt domes in the southern part of the state, in Lamar County, near the town of Hattiesburg.

 Local family stabilizes their chimney in anticipation of the underground test.   According to the state historical society, they had good cause to be worried, as there was some property damage. Note what appear to be polio braces on that poor little guy.

This story had me curious, because my wife’s family moved to Hattiesburg when she was young, and I asked her if she remembered anything of the tests.  I had this notion that the testing might have been kept secret, but as the above picture indicates, it was public knowledge. My wife Kay remembers how her grade school class followed the preparations for the test, and on the day their teacher had them place glasses of water on their desks to see if seismic shock would be visible in the water.   The vibration could clearly be seen.

That vibration was caused by a 5.3 kiloton device, roughly a third of the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.  Today it’s impossible to imagine what the civic and political shock would be from residents told that an underground nuclear test would happen near their homes (apparently the people of Mississippi weren’t too pleased about it either, but were told it was for national security and weren’t given a choice), let alone imagine a local government trying to attract jobs and money by volunteering for such a program (actually, come to think of it, it’s depressingly easy to imagine).  For my wife, it was part of her childhood, like the duck and cover drills she vaguely remembers teachers explaining to her (hard to imagine that today … oh, wait a minute, school lockdown drills … but I digress, never mind).

Yes, the Cold War was a strange, scary place, but after reading this piece by Eric Schlosser,I’m beginning to think it was stranger and scarier than our darkest comedy made it seem.   Just a little over fifty years after the release of Kubrick’s satiric film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb,   Schlosser compares the film to history and finds it was disturbingly prescient.  Here are three examples of how life imitated art.

Nuclear launch authority delegated to the point where potentially psychotic generals could issue launch codes themselves?  Yes, under the Eisenhower administration.   The bit in Schlosser’s piece about German pilots sitting in planes with US nuclear weapons only hours from Moscow, only 20 years after the Soviet conquest of half of Germany (one US scientist who learned of this said it made him “wet his pants”), is an example of loose the command and control was early on.

Nuclear weapons with “FailSafe” devices to prevent unauthorized launches?   Yes, under the Kennedy administration and thereafter, though elements of the US military resisted the idea, and all Minuteman missiles, perhaps apocryphally, had fail safes, called “Permissive Action Links" that were “00000000”.  The idea of a failsafe code to abort or destruct a nuclear weapon which goes horrifically wrong showed up recently in the hilariously bad film “Olympus Has Fallen”, proving that the Cold War nuclear paranoia film is not entirely dead.

A Russian “Doomsday device” that will cause retaliatory destruction if the world if the USSR is attacked?  Remember, the one that at the end of the film where Dr. Stangelove says “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”?   Yes, in the 1980s, the Soviets built a system called Dead Hand, designed to launch nuclear weapons automatically if nuclear detonations were detected on Soviet soil and the leadership could not be reached.   The USA did not learn about Dead Head until after the Cold War.

As Schossler writes, “In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.   

“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system.  “Why should you build such a thing?”  Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark."

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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