Friday, May 17, 2013

Good, Bad, and Other

Bad news:  It was originally reported that Disney would back down, and replace "Famewhore Barbie" Merida with "Cute Tomboy" Merida in their official lineup.  But they won't.

Good news:  in their endless flogging of the dead horse that is Benghazi, the Republicans released some pretty damning emails from inside the Executive Branch.  Fun fact, though:  they wrote the emails themselves.  Or, at any rate, re-wrote them to make them seem less like routine inter-agency bickering and more like The Worst Scandal Ever.  The good part, though, is that the Obama Administration called their bluff and released the actual, thoroughly uninteresting, emails.

In other news:  Sorry we haven't been blogging much lately.  We're busy packing (pray for us now and in the hour of our move), writing our Pentecost sermon (not good yet), writing a screenplay (don't ask), re-learning how the WordPress software works (pretty damn well), and generally doing other stuff.

We'll be back soon.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Home of the Cowardly

The House of Mouse is emphatically not the Home of the Brave this week.  It is, instead, chickening out on one of its best and most thoughtful character designs, in a way that is almost guaranteed to harm its fan base and annoy their parents.

Pictured up top are two versions of Merida, the heroine of Disney's medieval adventure cartoon Brave. On the right is Merida as she appeared in the movie itself; on the left is her revised "official" look, as Disney announced it in advance of what their press release called her "coronation" -- official recognition as the 11th of the fabulously overmarketed Disney Princesses.

This, in other words, is the version that will appear on cups and t-shirts and lunchboxes, if little girls still carry lunchboxes.  It is the one you will see at Disneyland and in advertisements and in a million other places.

Notice that New Merida's hair is less frizzy.  Her dress is more heavily decorated.  Her expression seems a bit more knowing.  And, critically, her waist is smaller and her little adolescent breasts are proportionally bigger.  (Although this picture excludes her bow and arrow, they are still part of the official look -- thank heaven.)

Slate gives Disney credit for "democratizing" its recent princesses, at least up to a point.  To be a Disney princess, you don't need to be born in a castle; you can be poor and black (like Tiana); a crossdressing warrior (like Mulan).  But, as Slate goes on to observe:

... two restrictions remain. You have to be young. You have to have a very particular body type and long, perfect hair. The edits to Merida reflect those priorities. Her famous hair, which took six Pixar employees—a mix of artists and engineers—three years to design, has been smoothed out, made less kinky, less frizzy, and less alive. Her waist has been slimmed down, emphasizing her breasts, but at the expense of Merida's solid frame, which is a real shame given the way Brave celebrated Merida's pleasure in her body's capacities.

We hope we need not point out how unfair this makeover is to girls whose bodies (and wardrobes) don't conform to the type, which is itself just a shade less barbarically unrealistic that Barbie's.  We have already signed a petition at Change.org, and encourage readers to do likewise.

Must. Have. This.

We at the Egg make little secret of our intense snobbery or, as it otherwise known, our Francophilia.

While we aren't the sort of horrible people who try to use their lame high school French to order at a French restaurant in Manhattan, we're only a few small steps up the ladder from this.  We like our cheese runny and our snails buttery.  Against all logic and even our own better judgment, we prefer Madame Bovary to Middlemarch.  We have actually bought and sort-of-almost read books by Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. We used to own a cassette tape of Colette reading her own works, and about half our Tintin books are in French.  Sometimes, when the moon is full and we are all alone with the doors locked and the shades drawn, we crank of the Victrola and sing along to Edith Piaf.

We are monsters.

So needless to say, we are pleased about the news that websites originating in Brittany (oh, pardon us, Bretagne) may now adopt the ".bzh" domain name.  This is no doubt useful if, for instance, you happen to sell apple brandy online.

But what really jazzes us is that Parisian websites may now adopt the ".paris" domain name.  This has immediately become de rigeur for the fashion and fragrance industries as well as, we assure you, snobby Francophiles the world over.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Joyous Light

One of our little projects is to put together YouTube playlists of music for the Daily Office.  We've stumbled over a few interesting pieces, and although this one by the David Crowder Band isn't quite as ... meditative as the music we would choose for our own Vespers, it is worth a listen.


Much more interesting to us, though, are the lyrics.  They are by John Keble, slightly mangled for this version.

Here is Keble's version from Hymnary.org:


1 Hail gladdening Light, of his pure glory poured
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of Holies, Jesus Christ, our Lord.


2 Now we are come to the sun's hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.
3 Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefil├ęd tongue,
Son of our God, Giver of life, alone;
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, we own.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Mysterious Rising Feet


The Ascension, by Albrecht Duerer
Today is, of course, the Ascension of Our Lord.  Don't forget to extinguish your paschal candles!

There are a number of ways to illustrate the Ascension.  Most do not satisfy us, much as the story itself does not satisfy us.  As a lifelong reader of superhero comics, Father A. shies away from the image of Jesus flying superman-style into the clouds.  It was, we do not doubt, a compelling image for the ancients.  But to us, now, it seems ... well, comic-booky.  Fine for an imaginary Kryptonian, but not really mysterious enough for God.   Infra dig, as the prep school kids say.

In the church we attended as a child, there was an exceptionally ill-advised Ascension, hung against the west wall.  Jesus, in a very full robe, stands in the pinkish clouds, surrounded by the little disembodied heads of infants, each with wings sprouting from their necks.  Cherubim, of course.  But creepy little guillotined cherubim.  The painting was known among the faithful as "Severed Heads."

From a breviary
What we like better is the tradition of depicting the Lord's feet, rising up out of the frame, while the Apostles gaze upward in surprise.

It's a sight gag, at one level.  There;'s no denying that it's funny, if only because it is so unique.  We chuckle every time we see it.

But at another level, it is a way of making the image less absurd; we do not have to imagine Jesus gradually disappearing from view like a rocket, or surrounded by poofy pastel clouds and angels bearing Counter-Reformation drapery.

At the deepest level, a "feet-only" Ascension helps us to focus our attention upon the wounds of the Crucified, and upon the astonished expressions of the Apostles.  (In fact, the great oversight of Dali's version is that the Apostles are left out.)

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

My Head Is Not Square

When Martin Bucer, busy reforming England, was asked why he did not wear the square cap conventional among the clergy, predecessor to the modern biretta, he answered "Because [my] head is not square."

In fact, that cap was the subject of much contention in the long sweep of Anglican history.  George Smith Tyack, in his amusing little Historic Dress of the Clergy, quotes a Papist teasing an Anglican bisop by saying, "Do not some among [your clergy] wear square caps, some round caps, some button caps, some only hats[?]"  Queen Elizabeth demanded that priests wear the square cap, and a long list of bishops issued strict orders on the subject, precisely because some among the clergy refused -- consistently and for generations -- to conform.  Tyack adds:
[I]n fact, an absurd amount of trouble seems to have been taken to enforce the use, and an unaccountable amount of heat shown in opposition to it, when we consider the general carelessness with which points of ritual of far greater moment were abandoned, or  allowed to lapse into disuse.
Just so.

The cap, we suspect, was a marker of identity, a badge used to show that one's position on other matters (episcopacy, royalty, whatever) conformed to or varied from the official position.  Perhaps the variations, circular or button or "only hat," served to mark out minute personal variations.  Very likely, for some people, it was also a matter of which was cheapest.

This is pretty close to the way clerical shirts are used today; when the pastor of the neighboring parish shows up wearing a shirt in that shade of purple, he may not be lying when he tells you that he got it at a great discount, but we all know that he is also telling you what he thinks of bishops and their funny hats.  (Unless, of course, she is making a point about purple as the color of either gay rights or womanist theology.)  The guy who arrives in the denim shirt is trying to send a message of Sixties-style hipness or even solidarity with the working class, even though he paid an extra ten bucks for the privilege.

But Tyack's real point is the one that matters:  who really cares about hats, when your liturgy is a shambles, and when churchgoers walking in the door have no idea what new abuse or aberration to expect this week?  In Anglicanism, that meant, to start with, the spoliation of the churches, as their stone altars were ripped out and replaced with wooden tables, their silks sold to Spain, their frescoes whitewashed.  Then came the west-facing position, the endless moving-about of the communion table, the gradual replacement of historic vestments with quasi-academic ones.  More deeply still, the rise of Mattins to a place of liturgical supremacy, and the corresponding removal of the Eucharist from its centrality.  Not to mention a century or two without any hymns.  And then, as each of these abuses was gradually undone, the undoing came to be seen as an innovation, a marker of some new and threatening identity.

We don't mean to pick on Anglicans.  Other churches have their own variations on this history -- not just other Protestants, but Roman Catholics as well.  Each wave of liturgical "reform" exists, principally, to fix the things broken by the last wave.  This guarantees that it will never end, and that nobody will ever be happy.

Just the other day, we heard tell of a Lutheran church in which the "service of the word" consisted, in its entirety, of a brief reading from The Message, followed by whatever the hell the pastor felt like.  What is most remarkable is that he person who told us the story says, rightly or wrongly, that the pastor leading the service claimed for all this the authority of one of our own teachers, a liturgical scholar of the first rank -- and, incidentally, a man who would not put up with this sort of shambolic, presider-centered, tradition-busting worship.  In the same way, we imagine, Karlstadt claimed Luther's authority for his own bad ideas, and the Puritans routinely claimed God's.

We say all this to be clear about something important.  We at the Egg spend a lot of our time exploring liturgical minutiae -- birettas and maniples and how to use the Athanasian Creed.  Some guys build ships in bottles, others work on their car, we excavate obscure traditions.  But lest there be any confusion, let us say clearly that we don't care much about any of these things.  They are square caps.

What we do care about is that churches not worship badly or foolishly, chasing after fads, serving meals of junk food to people who come looking for spiritual nourishment.  Give us the Word and the Sacrament, in forms that can be recognized and trusted, and we don't care about your hat.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Abstinence Aids Sex-Trafficking

The soi-disant Evangelicals in the US and Britain have fastened onto human trafficking as the new form of slavery, and are engaged in a major effort to publicize it and ultimately defeat it.  This is a noble thing, and we support them.

At the same time, it must be noted that these same Evangelicals are the principal advocates of "abstinence only" as a model of sex education.  So we hope they will think hard about the possibility that this model may inadvertently make it harder for sexual slaves to seek their own freedom.

Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at 14, raped, and held captive for nine months.  Since her rescue, she has grown to adulthood, formed a foundation to educate children about sexual crimes. Speaking recently at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, she talked about why it was so hard for her to escape:

[Smart explained that] she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.
"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.' And that's how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value," Smart said. "Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value."

Let's not overreach.  For one thing, Smart was not raised in an Evangelical Christian household, but in a Mormon one.  For another, she was kidnapped, rather than than "trafficked" in the commercial sense.  And, critically, we are aware of no evidence at all that the women trafficked for sexual purposes are more likely than any others to come from religious families.

Still, "abstinence only" educational efforts are only one of the many ways that societies worldwide have historically used sexual shame to exercise control over their members, and especially over women.  Take away the shame, and how many enslaved prostitutes might not feel free to break their chains?

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Who watches the watchmen, asks the satirist Juvenal.  In respect of which comes today's lovely little fable:

The United States Air Force has an unfortunate track record with scandalous sexual behavior.  A 2003 investigation at the Air Force academy, 70% of the women who had graduated the previous year reported that they had been subjected to sexual harassment, and 12% reported that they had been victims of rape or attempted rape.  Recently, two generals (including a female ex-astronaut) have made the controversial decision to reverse judgments against officers convicted by a military court of misconduct.  More recently still, a series of 18 military trials connected to Joint Base San Antonio- Lackland has revealed a vast network of sexual abuse, including rape, and resulted in the conviction of a dozen instructors and the high-profile discipline of 5 commanding officers.

Fortunately, they have put somebody in charge of policing this sort of misconduct:  Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, chief of the Sexual Assualt Prevention and Response Program.  The program's website includes stern messages from the brass, talking about respect, core values, personal responsibility and moral courage.  Secretary Donley says, "Sexual assault is a crime and is categorically unacceptable."  General Welsh reminds his people that "You know what right looks like," and adds that, the way he sees it, "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem."

The Pentagon estimates that sexual misconduct in the military is on the rise -- up 35% since 2010,

Early last Sunday morning, Col. Kusinski was arrested for sexual battery.

It seems that, in a Virginia parking lot, he drunkenly fondled a stranger's breasts and buttocks.  In addition to committing a crime, abdicating personal responsibility, and violating his force's core values, he let women in the Air Force know just what sort of respect and moral courage they could expect from his program.

The Air Force says that Kusisnski has been relieved of duty.  The police are unable to say how he got the cuts (or are they scratches?) that appear on his face in the booking photos.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Guns Vs. Cars

Firearms and automobiles are, obviously enough, different varieties of device.  One is made to kill, the other to transport.  It is important to keep this teleological distinction clear in our minds, because the discussion that follows may tend to muddy it up a bit.

A few weeks ago, we mentioned stumbling across some writing by a gun enthusiast which misrepresented official data concerning the number of deaths caused by firearms each year.  We've found another example here, unsurprisingly, at Breitbart.com.  A guy named Awr Hawkins writes that

According to the federal government, the number of people killed in automobile-related deaths annually is approximately three times higher than the number of people killed by all gun-related deaths combined -- handgun, shotgun, and rifle.
Yet there is, to my knowledge, no concerted effort to ban automobiles. 

Wow.  Zinger, right? We first came across this claim not in Hawkins' original piece, but in an online exchange with somebody who had clearly read this, or read something like it.  Our interlocutor -- let's call him Skippy -- argued that "America pays too much attention to gun deaths, when drunk drivers kill so many more people."

It's a strange argument, when you think about it, like saying that we worry about Al Qaeda when cigarettes are so deadly.  But set that aside for a moment.  The real question is whether cars really do kill three times as many people as guns.

They don't.

Legit numbers can be had from three sources:  the FBI, the CDC, and the Century Council.   They vary from year to year, although the general outlines remain consistent.  And here is what, for example, 2010 looked like:
Firearms deaths:              31,672 (10.3/100,000)
Motor vehicle traffic deaths: 33,687 (10.9/100,000)
Basically, guns and cars kill the same number of Americans most years, although cars are indeed a little bit ahead.  So where does Hawkins get his "three times the number"?  Easy:  he's talking about homicides, which represent a quarter to a third of all gun deaths.  But, conveniently enough, DUI deaths represent about a third of all motor vehicle deaths.  Voila, 2010 again:
Firearms homicides:  8,874
DUI deaths:         10,228
So it is absolutely true that cars kill more people than guns, and DUI accidents kill more people than gun murders.  But the numbers are fairly close, meaning that these are comparable threats to public safety.

Now, when we pushed him on the numbers, Skippy claimed that "most of these gun deaths are suicide," which is another half-truth.  Guns are used for suicide more often than they are used for homicide -- in 2010, there were 19,392 firearms suicides in the US.  That's colossal and terrifying, and deserves all the attention we can give it.  But, obviously, the numbers we have compared above don't include suicide.  Year in and year out, over the last few years, guns and cars have killed almost the same number of people, as have gun murders and DUI crashes.

But there is one enormous difference.  Since 1980, the number of drunk-driving deaths has dropped by 52%.  The  number of gun murders has dropped by about 10%, depending on the year.

When Skippy said that "we don't pay enough attention to drunk driving," he may have been forgetting that, for the past thirty years, Americans have put enormous energy into the campaign against drunk driving.  Think about the hundreds of PSAs and billboards you have seen -- the wine glasses smashing into each other, the reminder that "friends don't let friends," and so forth.  Add to that the lectures in school, and the stern warnings required by most states as part of the licensing process.  Add to that the random stops instituted by some jurisdictions, at least on holidays.  Add to that the invention of the breathalyzer.

On top of all that, of course, is the fact that automobiles are regulated in a way that guns are not.  Both cars and drivers are examined and licensed.  Changes of ownership are carefully tracked.  These are things that the gun lobby is reluctant even to let legislators consider.  Safety belts and airbags are required by law, where mandatory trigger locks remain deeply controversial and the idea that every handgun owner should also be required to posses a biometric gun safe will no doubt be dismissed as "Nanny- State Thinking."

The weak link in the chain seems to be judges, who are still reluctant to take a drunk driver's license away permanently.  Nonetheless, 52% is a big drop.

As a society, we have put a lot of pressure on the drunk driving problem, and we have seen remarkable results.  Now it is time to put the same sort of pressure on the problem of gun violence.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Dark Triad Speaks Out

Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, has a compelling chapter on the so-called "Dark Triad," consisting of clinical narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths.  These are people so constructed that, although they may have "cognitive empathy" -- a great sense of how somebody else ticks -- lack the sort of emotional empathy that results in compassion.   They can be dangerous and destructive people, but they can also be brilliant debaters and even inspiring leaders.

Attorney, professor and author M.E. Thomas is, by her own confession, "a diagnosed sociopath."*  Indeed, she has begun carving out a little niche as the nation's public sociopath, creating a blog devoted to the subject, writing a book and most recently an article in Psychology Today (May/June 2013; not online yet).

Thomas is all about mythbusting.  As she says, often, she's not a criminal.  Not because she is restrained from crime by any feelings of guilt or compassion, but because she understands that a safe, well-ordered world is one in which she can prosper.  The same is true of most sociopaths, who may constitute up to 4% of the population.  (On the other hand, they make of 20% of the prison population, and "are probably responsible for about half of all serious crimes," according to her PT article.)

She says, several times, that loves her family.  This seems natural enough, although it is difficult to imagine what "love" means to somebody whose life is lived without empathy, as a constant exercise in manipulation.  (Indeed, she tells a repulsive, Mean Girls-esque story of a man who was romantically interested in her, and how she used his interest to create havoc for another woman who was interested in him -- not for any particular reason, but because it amused her.  It is unnerving to think that somebody like that might be married, or have children.)

Most interesting to us, though, are Thomas's reflections upon her work and, yes, her faith.

Under the heading "Why Trial Law is a Sociopath's Fantasy," she writes:
My sociopathic traits make me a particularly excellent trial lawyer.  I'm cool under pressure. I feel no guilt or compunction, which is handy in such a dirty business.  Misdemeanour prosecutors almost always have to walk into a trial with cases they've never worked on before.  All you can do is bluff and hope that you'll be able to scramble through it.  The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear.  Besides, the nature of the crime is of no moral concern to me; I am interested only in winning the legal game.
It it hardly surprising that some successful lawyers are dirty and amoral.  What does fascinate us is not only that Thomas has religious commitments, but that she is a Sunday School teacher:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a sociopath's dream.  Mormons believe that everyone has the potential to be godlike -- I believe this includes me.  Every being is capable of salvation; my actions are what matters, not my ruthless thoughts, not my nefarious motivations.  Everyone is a sinner, and I never felt that I was outside ths norm.
She then goes on to describe scamming and stealing from her classmates at Brigham Young University ( who were "even more trusting than the average Mormon"), and concludes:
But I am functionally a good person -- I bought a house for my closest friend, I gave my brother $10,000, and I am considered a helpful professor.  I love my family and friends.  Yet I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are.
Her story raises any number of theological questions, not least about differences between Mormonism and Christianity, the nature of "goodness," and the existence of natural law.  Beyond that, it is fascinating for its sheer strangeness.  Here we have the rare chance to glimpse into the mind of a person whose mind works very, very differently from most of ours -- and to be shaken by the sheer funhouse-mirror vision of an alternative humanity.  We wonder whether a sociopath could enjoy such an experience.

_______________________________________________
*"Sociopath" is no longer a clinical diagnosis; it has disappeared into the category of "antisocial personality disorder."




Heavy Metal Trinity

Our own use of the Athanasian Creed this year will be restricted to private recitation at Matins.  However, if some of you are looking for adventurous ways to use it in public worship, the Internet has a few suggestions.

Here's John Stainer's musical setting via Google Books.  (Stainer lived from 1840-1901 and was, among other things, organist at Magdalen College and St. Paul's Cathedral).

Apparently, there is also a setting attributed (with some doubt) to the great Thomas Tallis, of a which a PDF can be downloaded here.

Here it is in sign language on Vimeo.

Here are some adorable cherubs reciting it in a gym (excerpt only):



 And here is the king of them all, one that really sums up our own thinking on the matter, a recitation in Latin over a heavy metal soundtrack: