Monday, January 26, 2009

BOOKS: His Dark Materials

I read the second and third books of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy back to back, so I don't think I can really comment separately on The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I realy enjoyed the first book, The Golden Compass, finding it very creative and an exciting adventure. Finishing the trilogy, I realize that I didn't know the half of his creativity. The adventure kept on moving, keeping me gripped to the end, but the ideas he explores are bold and provocative. What happens when we die? Do we have souls? Does God exist, and is He good? I'd heard that these books were considered heretical by some, by I didn't realize the extent of it. From the point of view of organized Christianity, these books are profoundly heretical, far more so than the Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, even more than Satanic Verses is heretical for Muslims. The organized church in his book is a corrupt puritanical and power-hungry organization, with names like the Magisterium, the Consistory Court, and the Oblation Board making it a thinly veiled analogy of the Catholic Church. (The fictional church is based in Geneva, so it has Swiss Guards. Just how thin can the veil be?) His account of God, angels, and creation is revealed in the second and third books, and it is shocking. But what is most heretical is that he describes a world in which good and evil exist and people can be moral without needing a creator or an afterlife. Heaven is where we build it. All of this theology (or is it anti-theology?) is not dry philosophical prose, but is integrally woven into a fascinating fantasy of parallel worlds, intriguing characters, and a great battle between good and evil (though it's not always clear who is on which side until the end). One of the parallel worlds encountered is a very creative imagining of an alternate evolution. This trilogy is written as a fantasy for a youth audience, but like the latter Harry Potter books, deals with some dark themes that require a bit of maturity to appreciate. Unlike Harry Potter, where each of those books ended in a safe place, each of these books before the last one ends with things looking rather bleak. (In Hollywood's version of The Golden Compass, they had to twist the order of events to end on a more upbeat note.) But in the end, they really make you think about goodness and truth and self-sacrifice, and the meaning of life. I thoroughly enjoyed these books, but they are not for the theologically faint of heart.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Strict Textualism, So Help Me God

As has been widely reported, Chief Justice John Roberts messed up the words when adminstering the oath of office to Barack Obama at the presidential inauguration on Tuesday. The Chief Justice prompted Obama to say "execute the office of President to the United States faithfully" instead of "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States". For the sort of the folks who wished at all costs to disbelieve that Obama is in fact the President of the United States, this trivial technicality gave them a slender straw to clutch in denying that he is really the President. The oath is very explicitly specified in the US Constitution, in Article II, Section 1, where it states:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Knowing that he would be dogged by this if left uncorrected (after all, look at how the tinfoil brigade refuse to let go the idea that Obama isn't a natural born citizen of the US), Obama and Roberts met on Thursday afternoon for a do-over. This time, the oath was said slowly, carefully, and correctly. The official announcements were careful not to acknowledge any claim that Tuesday's oath was insufficient, instead saying that the second oath was taken for "an abundance of caution". In at least two prior cases, with William H. Taft and with Herbert Hoover, the wording of the oath deviated in similarly insignificant ways from the constitutional text, and it was not deemed necessary to readminister it. However, I can respect the decision of Obama and Roberts do a retake, out of diligent respect for the strict text of the Constitution.

Now it seems that some feathers were ruffled because Obama did not have his left hand on a Bible for the do-over oath. Newsflash for those folks: the do-over was about hewing to the Constitution, which specifies the precise words for the oath, but does not say anything about having one's hand on any particular book. (It should be noted that Teddy Roosevelt did not swear his oath on a Bible, and John Quincy Adams swore on a book of law.) Anyone concerned with strict adherence to the Constitution should not be worried about the absence of a Bible. Instead, they ought to be concerned with the extra-Constitutional "so help me God" at the end of the oath. Now to be clear, I have no objection to the President adding that phrase unprompted after completing the oath. What I do object to is the Chief Justice deposing the President, "so help you God?", as if it were part of the constitutionally mandated oath. In Tuesday's oath, I found Roberts' tone at that point particularly creepy. He posed the question with such stern vehemence that it was clear there was a right and a wrong answer. I'm not sure how Roberts, supposedly a strict textualist, rationalizes his deposition of "so help you God", which is not only beyond his explicit brief in Article II, Section 1, but in apparent conflict with Article VI:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I watched this morning teary-eyed as Barack Obama took the oath of office, feeling a surge of pride in my country, that despite seemingly deep political and cultural rifts, we can rally together as a nation to witness a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Recent events in other parts of the world underscore just how precious and fragile that is. This is easily the most anticipated and celebrated inauguration of my lifetime.

My idiosyncratic thoughts and highlights:

Rick Warren's invocation.
I listened openly, and I found it gracious and hitting the right notes for the occasion.
"Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.
When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.
And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.
Help us to share, to serve and to seek the common good of all.
May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet."
I can say "amen" to all of that.
It felt a bit overly religious for an ecumenical occasion to recite the Lord's Prayer. (And I couldn't help but notice that Warren "trespasses". I was surprised to learn last year at a wedding of friends that some people forgive "debts" rather than "trespasses". The debt crowd get by with a heap fewer syllables, leaving us trespassers behind in a unison recitation.)

Air and Simple Gifts.
What a beautiful piece, and how appropriate on so many levels. Composed by American composer John Williams, incorporating the famous Shaker hymn and harkening to another great American composer Aaron Copland. (I read later that a Copland piece was meant to be performed at Eisenhower's inauguration, but was dropped because some thought Copland was too liberal and might be a communist sympathizer. So much the better to correct that mistake and honor him today.) I love that our inauguration features a classical quartet. And what great symbolism in the composition of that quartet: a Jewish Israeli-American, a French-born Chinese-American, a black man from Chicago, and a woman from Venezuela, all coming together to make great music. What a great foreshadowing of a theme of Obama's speech.

The Oath.
"I, Barack Hussein Obama, …" No apologies or hiding his middle name. Hussein loud and clear. As it should be.

The Chief Justice is nervous. He's rushing, getting the words in the wrong order (as Ann Althouse cracked, so much for the CJ being a strict textualist), and they're tripping over each other. It reminded me of Charles and Diana's wedding, where she was nervous and got his middle names muddled. (Funny, I later read Andrew Sullivan had the same thought.)

The Speech.

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the Presidential oath." Hate to cavil, but while Obama is the 44th president, he's only the 43rd person to hold the office, as Grover Cleveland counted twice with Benjamin Harrison in between.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." This man promises to rise above the partisan ratrace. That's why I voted for him.

"... in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things" Another quibble, but this seems a gratuitous reference, as his point doesn't really fit with the context of the famous passage from Corinthians.

I'm loving the uplifting appeals to our great history combined with the challenge to live up to our promise.

"We will restore science to its rightful place…" Can I get an "amen"? Amen!

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.
Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.
And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.
But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

Brilliant stuff. He's articulating a philosophy that recognizes both the promises and the pitfalls of government and of the market, moving beyond and above stale debates and false dichotomies of "pro-big-government" vs "pro-market".

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Amen!

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." My God, did he include "nonbelievers"? Yes he did! He could easily have left that out. But this man says what is right, without regard to whether it's popular or easy. I love that about him.

"We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." … To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." This strikes just the right notes of letting the world know we know the difference between reasonable Muslims and Islamist nutjobs, and we won't take crap from the latter.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Robert Mugabe, we're looking at you.

"Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship." It's not "change versus traditional values", it's "change AND traditional values". His call to responsibility and service is inspiring.

His close was brilliant, recalling Washington at Valley Forge, acknowledging hard times ahead, while giving us inspiration to meet the challenge, calling us to our better selves.

I am full of hope for the four years ahead.

Monday, January 12, 2009

FILM: The Reader

I found The Reader an intriguing film, at times ponderous, but ultimately very thought-provoking. Through layered metaphors hung on the story of a young German man and an older woman whose lives are fatalistically intertwined, the film raises questions of how people can commit unthinkable acts, of trying to uncover the truth of long-past crimes, of how the guilt of complicity can cast a pall over a lifetime, of how a generation can reconcile itself to the irreconcilable. Needless to say, this is not an uplifting feel-good movie. But neither is it like any other Holocaust-themed film, because this film doesn't deal with the Holocaust itself, but with the shadow of the Holocaust on later German generations. There are no neat answers offered. Scenes of a war crimes tribunal cast doubt on the complete justice of the proceedings. A Holocaust survivor seems to have profited excessively from her memoir. And a man's life seems ruined by guilt for turning away when he could have countered an injustice. But the path through this moral wreckage is lit by fascinatingly enigmatic human characters. Kate Winslet is brilliant as the brusque and moody Hannah, while David Kross is outstanding as the young innocent Michael, and Ralph Fiennes brings just the right air of insularity and regret to the older Michael. The script and direction shone in some parts and got a bit ponderous in others. The early segment of the story was a wonderfully realized coming-of-age story, perfectly capturing the excitement and confusion of a teen's first love (while showing a delicious dose of beautiful skin). In the middle segment, a couple of courtroom scenes had memorable visuals -- Michael's sudden realization about Hannah, and Hannah's co-defendants smelling weakness and turning on her like a pack of wolves. But other parts seemed a bit flawed. The timeline seemed more jumbled than it needed to be (the viewer really needs to pay attention to keep the datelines straight). And a minor character, a law professor, was a bit surreal, and almost Yoda-like in his apparently wise but mostly impenetrable lines. The film, like the professor, seems full of meaning but it's hard to make out what exactly it's trying to say. Then there are the moral issues that the film doesn't intend to raise but may occur to its viewers, like whether we should have much sympathy for a Nazi prison guard and child molestor. But some movies are disturbing and good, and I think this was one of them.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Korean BBQ Taco Truck Food Rave

Yet another "only in LA" experience... this evening in Silver Lake, we stumbled upon some crazy Korean BBQ taco truck food rave that pops up in various parts of town. We were walking in Silver Lake after dinner at Alegria to get some gelato at Pazzo (mascarpone orange swirl this evening!), when we saw this taco truck with a huge crowd swarming around it. Then I saw the whiteboard specials -- tomatillo sesame French toast with goat cheese, kimchi quesadilla -- and knew this was no ordinary taco truck. It smelled good, but we were too full to eat dinner again. We talked to some folks, and they said this Kogi has a following, and you just catch their location from Twitter. Their "standard menu" features tacos with Korean BBQ contents (short ribs, spicy chicken or pork). The sidewalk was packed full of people chowing down. It's a food rave!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

FILM: Valkyrie

Valkyrie is a thrilling portrayal of an attempt by some well-placed decent-minded Germans to assassinate Hitler during World War II. (The script is based reasonably closely on actual historical events and people.) Of course there is no suspense in the plot's ultimate failure, but it is amazing to see how it came about and how close it came to succeeding. Once the film got going, I was on the edge of my seat to the climax, and despite the advantage of historical hindsight, I still found myself silently urging the conspirators on. Tom Cruise does a fine job as the heroic Colonel von Stauffenberg, who ends up leading the plot when more senior men are less decisive. His role is mostly courageous man of action, which Cruise is seasoned at, but he also performs well in moments of restrained emotion, like saying goodbye to his wife, and trying to contact her in the end. The action-and-suspense experience of director Bryan Singer (of X-Men and Superman Returns fame) translates nicely into this historical thriller where the only superpowers are courage and integrity. His eye for the human elements compliments Christopher McQuarrie's script, which brings out the differing modes of engagement of the various conspirators, from Bill Nighy's risk-averse general to Eddie Izzard's reluctant collaborator, and Tom Wilkinson's masterfully playing both sides. This inspirational historical footnote is well worth seeing, a true profile in courage.

Belief-O-Matic is hosting an online quiz called "Belief-O-Matic". Answer 20 questions about your views on God, salvation, the afterlife, etc., and they'll tell you which religions are most congenial to your beliefs. Here were my results:
1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (94%)
3. Liberal Quakers (81%)
4. Nontheist (81%)
5. Theravada Buddhism (79%)
6. Neo-Pagan (75%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (73%)
8. Taoism (67%)
9. Reform Judaism (64%)
10. New Age (63%)
11. Mahayana Buddhism (50%)
12. Scientology (49%)
13. New Thought (47%)
14. Orthodox Quaker (46%)
15. Baha'i Faith (44%)
16. Sikhism (43%)
17. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (40%)
18. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (33%)
19. Jainism (30%)
20. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (26%)
21. Islam (24%)
22. Orthodox Judaism (24%)
23. Seventh Day Adventist (22%)
24. Eastern Orthodox (15%)
25. Roman Catholic (15%)
26. Hinduism (14%)
27. Jehovah's Witness (0%)
Well, I guess I'm not surprised to find that I'm a 100% secular humanist. I'm 64% Reform Jew, but only 22% Adventist. Ironically, I'm exactly equal parts Orthodox Jew and Muslim (24%). 0% Jehovah's Witness was not surprising, but 49% Scientologist?? Yikes!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

FILM: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film that makes you think about life and the passage of time, about age, and about opportunities taken and missed. Having read the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story on which this film was based, I nominate it for Best Adaptation. Writer Eric Roth has taken a creative short story and fleshed it out into something much more profound, a poignant life/love story offering philosophical insights. Where Fitzgerald executed the thought experiment of what it would be like to live a life backwards, Roth added thoughtful dimensions, such as what a character would be like who had been raised among old people. The film succeeds on multiple levels. The story reminded me of Titanic, all in a good way: the fateful romance, the epic sweep, the poignant carpe diem affirmation of life in the face of loss, the framing story of a woman looking back on her life at the end. Brad Pitt is remarkable in a role than spans seven decades, projecting youth from an old body and maturity from a young one, all with the quiet equanimity of someone who was both literally and figuratively "born old". And he manages to make it all look natural despite what must be a ton of make-up. (This will be a shoe-in for Best Make-Up Oscar.) Likewise Cate Blanchett, who spans many decades herself in this film with feisty grace. The epic sweep of the story is lushly filmed, beautifully depicting New Orleans, New York, Paris, Murmansk, and the WWII Pacific theatre, through various decades, evocatively capturing each period. The fatalistic symbolism borders on preciousness in just one or two moments of the film (the hummingbirds and the kaleidoscope of coincidence with the taxi in Paris), but in other parts (the English channel swimmer, the preacher's death, the lightning strikes) the Forrest Gump serendipity was perfectly charming. I can't think of a more appropriate film to have seen on New Year's Day, as we look back on the year past and forward to the year to come.

FILM: Frost/Nixon

When we saw Milk, I thought that Sean Penn had the best actor Oscar locked up. But last weekend, we saw Frost/Nixon, and now I'm thinking Sean Penn should be worried. Frank Langella did a fantastic job of embodying Richard Nixon, in what must have been an ultimate actor's challenge, bringing a well-known and widely-charicatured historical figure to life on screen without merely doing an impression. Nixon had such signature characteristics -- the sweaty face, the five o'clock shadow, the distinctive speech patterns -- that you couldn't not do them, and yet doing them could so easily veer into charicature. But Langella is flawless, completely natural. And Michael Sheen gives an equally strong performance, perfectly personifying the talk-show personality David Frost. Sheen gives Frost such a buoyant lightness that I almost had the feeling his feet weren't touching the ground, and yet he also conveyed a sense of hidden depth in moments when Frost was as keen as any sharply-focused entrepeneur with a vision, but hiding it behind a sunny face. The drama of the film comes not from Nixon's confessions (we all know what's coming there), but in how such a highly improbable confrontation came to occur. The film by no means vindicates Nixon, but it does make him human and understandable if not sympathetic. The cross-purposes of what Frost (and his team) were hoping to accomplish and what Nixon was hoping to accomplish makes for good psychological drama, brought to an unexpected and illuminating juncture when a drunk Nixon calls Frost the night before their fateful interview. Director Ron Howard has done an admirable job bring this stage drama to film in a skillfully visual way, and for bringing out the best in his two fine stars. This film is definitely in the hunt for some Oscar gold.