Sunday, May 10, 2009

Booth and Booth

This morning we went to the first worship service the Salvation Army held at the newly opened Kroc Center in Coeur d'Alene. If I were to describe the service, I would say it was more on the formal side, but not much different from how I remember things growing up in a Southern Baptist church, although the Salvation Army belongs more to the Wesleyan-holiness wing of evangelicaldom, which is an outlook that most Southern Baptists are not comfortable with. Of course, in the Salvation Army, they do wear the uniforms, which is part of the quasi-military organizational legacy handed down from General Booth. Since it was a special dedicatory service, they had the S.A. brass band come out from the Seattle Temple. Believe me: the band was exceptionally good and definitely loud. Bands are very good for outdoor evangelism—or what we aged Jesus Freaks would call "street evangelism"—because without fail, brass bands attract attention. Beside the band that was here on a visit, they did have their home worship team which employed the more common keyboard and guitar instrumentation. They were equally as good.

Since it was a special dedicatory service, one of the leading officers came up from Los Angeles to preach a sermon based on the start of the St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, during which he happened to mention, by way of illustration, the paperwork rigamarole he had to go through with collecting his Social Security. After the service, I managed to bump into this preacher afterwards, telling him that I hoped in the future I would have my papers in order as well when the bureaucrats ask for them. He was an affable fellow, and I asked him if he knew about Vachel Lindsay's famous poem, which is the one entitled General Booth Enters Into Heaven. This was the poem that describes Booth marching into heaven, playing a big bass drum and leading behind him the souls that he during his ministry had led to Christ. Now the preacher, whose name unfortunately I don't remember, said that, yes indeed, he knew it and that he had studied it in school.

In other news, I am reading through Thomas Merton's autobiography "The Seven Story Mountain," which I had picked up at a book sale at the local library. Though I am only 25% through the book, I have found Merton to be a very good writer. At the time he wrote his book, he was already a Trappist monk, and his evaluation of his youth is quite honest although sometimes a little over-critical of himself. But his writing is very engaging and serious, but when he does show his humor, it's usually of a subtle and ironic kind, rather than being overtly exuberant. In section V, of chapter 3, he had this to say about his youthful cockiness back in the early 1930s:
For it had become evident to me that I was a great rebel. I fancied that I had suddenly risen above all the errors and stupidities and mistakes of modern society—there are enough of them to rise above, I admit—and that I had taken my place in the ranks of those who held up their heads and squared their shoulders and marched into the future. In the modern world, people are always holding up their heads and marching into the future, although they haven't the slightest idea what they think the "future" is or could possibly mean. The only future we seem to walk into, in actual fact, is full of bigger and more terrible wars, wars well calculated to knock those upraised heads off those squared shoulders.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that adolescents start out thinking that they know everything and have everything figured out. The irony behind Merton's words is tied to the reader's realization that he is describing his youth prior to the onslaught of World War II, which would come not too many years later, and in which many men marched and died.

Nowadays, many people think the future is going to be like what they see in Star Trek: ever-progressive, sexually über-liberated, completely godless (except for some kind of Moral Therapeutic Deism, possibly administered pharmaceutically), and boldly going into whatever, forever and ever, ad secula seculorum. I think Jacques Attali believes the same thing, basically, but with added sturm und drang on the way there, as we stumble into our final global hyperdemocracy.

Nevertheless, I recollect reading a critical biography about Merton some time ago. Although I must say that I admire Merton's writing style, at least in this book, I can't say that I entirely admire him as a xtian mystic. Because after reading that biography, there was much about him that struck me as being overly "professional" or too self-consciously "studied" about his mysticism. As I recall, one psychologist remarked, in so many words, that Merton was the kind of person who would set himself up in the middle of Times Square in a booth with the word "MONK" emblazoned on top of it, in big flashing neon letters. To say that might have been a little unfair. But then again, maybe the biography I had read was too critical.

Monday, May 04, 2009


Book Review
Title: A Brief History of the Future
Author: Jacques Attali

The blurb states that Attali is
…an economist, historian, cultural critic, and one of the world's most respected political thinkers. He cofounded and served as the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He is the president of Pla.Net Finance, an international non-profit organization assisting microfinance institutions all over the world. He lives in Paris.
I am sure that Attali is a genial fellow and probably very smart at running non-profit corporations, but it was a risky venture for him to write what is basically another futurist book, because I fear it will end up being an unintended source for future snickering and thus damaging to his savoir faire. For futurist prognostications have had dismal track records, and things seldom come out the way futurists envision. Look around you. Do you see any domed cities on the Moon, or people zipping around town in levitating cars? Rather, black swans can pop up in the sky, and God often has very clever ways of throwing monkey wrenches into the gears of what people mistakenly discern as historical inevitability.

The only one who really knows the future is the LORD. He is capable of being surprising. And He's not telling us everything, but only those pieces that are important for us to know. You can be certain of one thing: the rulers and governments of this world are doomed to pass away. The only kingdom that will last is Christ's.

Nevertheless, Attali's book was still an interesting read, and if anything it could be a good source book for getting inspiration in writing dark and dystopian science fiction. Some of the things that he envisioned coming down the pipe sounded downright hellish to me. For example, speaking of the hypernomads:
The couple will no longer be their principal base for life and sexuality. They will prefer to choose, in full transparency, polygamous or polyandrous loves. Men and women, all collectors, more interested in the hunt than the prey, accumulating and exhibiting their trophies, constantly on the move in search of distraction, many of them will be the offspring of mobile families without a geographic or cultural base. They will be loyal only to themselves, and will interest themselves more in their conquests, their wine cellars, their self-monitors, their art collections, and the planning of their erotic lives than in the future of their progeny — to whom they will no longer bequeath either money or power.
Indeed, some of what's in the Attali's book sounds like a roundabout manner of reciting what St. Paul already said in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Then again, Attali might be describing some people he knows. Of course, I am not insinuating that Attali thinks that the stuff he writes about is what by right ought to happen. But in places he does sound like "if you think it's weird now, just get a load of what's coming."

The books is also full of various buzzwords and neologisms. I don't know what Attali wrote in French, but the English translation by Jeremy Leggatt gets an ample sprinkling of the prefix "hyper-", a little more than I like seeing. Although there are some interesting concepts here and there in Attali's book, which in another context would have been worth exploring, however several sections of the book were actually tiresome and dull, and I ended up skimming over those portions that seemed needlessly repetitive. Perhaps in French it read much better, and this might have been a defect of the translation. Nevertheless, there is one place where Attali gets it wrong and ridiculously so:
Protestant churches will be in the vanguard of these struggles, especially the evangelicals. Originating in several southern U.S. states — the Bible Belt — they muster seventy million American citizens, who include several hundred thousand propagandizing ministers. Evangelism already rules over certain departments of many American universities, where it censors teaching of the sciences and other religions.
Hey. Wait a minute. People like Michael Spencer and Jon Meacham just got through explaining that evangelical xtians are doomed to wither away here in America — more or less to an inconsequential and frightened minority huddling in a dank catacomb somewhere, never to show their faces in the public square again. But yet, somehow or another, they're in control of the departments of "many American universities." That would be astonishing news if it wasn't so hilarious. So watch out, you progressive secularists! The Christianists are mustering 70 million people to march on Washington to impose the theocracy that you so earnestly dread. Our infiltrators in key departments in the universities are even now subverting the young impressionable minds of your children, bending them to our atavistic fundie ways. Of course, I'm being tongue-in-cheek when I say this. But my guess is that Attali hasn't been in this country for any extended length of time, and his exaggerated notions about powerful evangelicals probably come from reading too many old articles from Time or Newsweek magazines, probably dating back to the Bush Era or even earlier.

Well, Henry Kissenger called the book "Brilliant and provocative." I guess that's reason enough to recommend it.