Category Archives: General

Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind was on television the other day. The film, released in 1960, was adapted from a 1955 play loosely based on the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee school teacher was convicted of violating state law by teaching evolution. But it is not really about science or religion. It’s about the open discussion of ideas, the tension between orthodoxy and independent thought, the fear of change, and the deceiving security of habit and tradition.

The movie stars Spencer Tracy and Frederic March as two old adversaries, once close friends, at odds over the prosecution of a young teacher, played by Dick York, for teaching evolution. Tracy plays Henry Drummond, a character based on Clarence Darrow, the most prominent attorney of his day, and who defended John Scopes in the 1925 case. March plays Matthew Harrison Brady, who is based on William Jennings Bryan, the famed orator and three-time presidential nominee who volunteered his services to the prosecution team in the Scopes trial.

Gene Kelly also stars, as a cynical newspaperman based on H.L. Mencken.

Bertram Cates, the teacher played by York, is arrested in the opening scene as he and his high school science class discuss evolutionary theory.  And seeing it again, I was struck how contemporary the scene was. We  want our children to learn, to be educated, but not if it challenges our ideas about our place or our country or our most dearly held beliefs.

I said Inherit the World was not about evolution, but that is not quite correct. During the movie, we learn that Tracy’s Henry Drummond and March’s Matt Brady were quite similar as young men. Brady remained in the past, entrenched, unwilling to listen to new ideas, sure of his own rightness. When Drummond asks how Brady explains the enigma of Cain’s wife, Brady says he leaves such questions to the agnostics.

Drummond, though, has changed. He has remained open to new ideas, to new discoveries. He asks questions. He listens. He has, to borrow from Darwin, adapted. Brady suffers a final heart attack as he attempts to deliver his final oration, standing in the middle of the courtroom ignored and abandoned as the world moves on, and his ideas die with him.

In the final scene, as Kelly’s newsman sarcastically eulogizes Brady, Drummond comes to his old friend’s defense, and bitterly denouncing the newsman who has been his ally throughout the trial. In his own way he is just as small-minded as Brady, and not nearly as noble.

“You are like a ghost pointing with an open sleeve, and smirking at everything people feel or want or struggle for,” says Drummond.

This is the challenge of life. To be be curious without losing faith. To be skeptical with becoming cynical. To respect the past without becoming enslaved to it.

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Ten hymns

I’m not a particularly dedicated church-goer but I do appreciate church music, and recognize the affect it has had on me personally and on American culture. So one Sunday, after attending the church in which I grew up, I started playing with the idea of compiling a list of my Top 10 hymns.

Well, forget that.

These may not be my Top 10, but there are 10 of them, and they are personal favorites:

I’ll Fly Away (Albert Brumley, 1929): The most-recorded gospel song of all-time. I actually wasn’t very familiar with “I’ll Fly Away” until hearing the Kossoy Sisters’ 1956 recording of it in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Kossoy Sisters version was replaced on the film’s soundtrack album by a new recording by Gillian Welch and Alison Krause. Brumley said he worked out the lyrics to the song while picking cotton on his family’s LeFlore County, Oklahoma, farm.

This Is My Father’s World (Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901: This is one of those hymns that has remained in my consciousness since childhood. Why, I can’t say for sure. There is something about the line “In the rustling grass I hear him pass” that just won’t go away. The lyrics stem from Babcock’s hikes near Lake Ontario in upstate New York.

Simple Gifts (Joseph Brackett 1848): I may not have a top 10, but I do have a top two or three, and this Shaker meditation is one of them: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘Tis the gift to be free/’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.'” Popularized by Aaron Copeland in “Appalachian Spring,” the song — for so it is described by Shaker historians — deftly encapsulates the sect’s philosophy.

A Mighty Fortress (Martin Luther, 1529): Translated into English from the original German more than 70 times, “Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott” may be the most historically significant hymn ever written. Called the “Battle Hymn of the Republic of the Reformation,” it became the anthem of early-day Lutheranism and later for all Protestantism. The hymn also took on nationalist tones for those seeking freedom from the Holy Roman Empire, with Swedish forces singing it before battle during the Thirty Years War.

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (Elisha Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter, 1887): I loved this hymn even before Iris DeMent’s driven, haunting recording for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. This was one the congregation of our little church used to really get into. The hymn was inspired by letters of condolence written by Showalter to two recently widowed young men. Showalter wrote the refrain, Hoffman the verses.

Silent Night (Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, 1818): Composed in rural Austria by a young priest and a schoolmaster, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” has been translated from the original German into some 140 languages. Famously, German, French and English troops joined in singing it during the Christmas truce of 1914. Simple, direct, the perfect Christmas hymn.

His Eye is on the Sparrow (Civilla D. Martin and Charles H. Martin, 1905): A hymn of solace for the oppressed and downtrodden and often associated with the Civil Rights movement, the lyrics were inspired by an infirm white couple named Doolittle who, in the words of Civilla Martin, remained optimistic and happy despite their troubles. Asked how they maintained their spirits, Mrs. Doolittle replied: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

In the Sweet By and By (Joseph P. Webster and S. Fillmore Bennett, 1868): Written in 30 minutes in an Elkhorn, Wisconsin, pharmacy by a manic depressive (Webster) and his friend (Bennett). One of those hymns that invites the congregation to really let go.

Amazing Grace (John Newton 1779): Written by a slave trader-turned-clergyman to accompany a sermon, “Amazing Grace” appeared first in England but found popularity in the United States during the Second Great Awakening. Originally, the hymn was probably recited or read without music, and for its first five decades was set to numerous tunes until a Baptist song leader named William “Singing Billy” Walker matched it with a traditional melody called “New Britain” in 1835. Cherokees sang a version of “Amazing Grace” translated into their language by Samuel Worcester on the Trail of Tears.

How Great Thou Art (Carl Gustav Boberg, 1885): We didn’t have many records in my house when I was growing up, but we had one of George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” The song is so associated with Shea that he almost ruined it for everybody else — which hasn’t prevent it from being record more than 1,700 times. Based on a Swedish hymn written in 1885 and paraphrased into English from a Russian translation by British missionary Stuart K. Hine, the song was virtually unknown in the United States until sung by Shea at a 1957 Billy Graham Crusade in Madison Square Garden.

 

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Why Christmas still matters

We all know that Christmas is not really Christmas. It is not Jesus’ birthday. In all likelihood, the date evolved from a combination of pagan festivals and Christian traditions centered on the winter solstice. Epiphany, which predates Christmas and is observed on Jan. 6, commemorates what might be thought of as Christianity’s spiritual birth. The origins of many of our Christmas traditions, including the exchanging of gifts, predate Christ.

One can only wonder what Jesus would think of a holiday in his honor whose most recognizable figure is a fat man in a red suit.

And that’s an improvement. In centuries past, Christmas was known more as a time of drunken revelry than religious contemplation. England’s seventeenth-century Puritan rulers outlawed the holiday, and it wasn’t generally celebrated in Boston until the 1850s. Even now, some Christians consider Christmas a blasphemy.

Today it sometimes seems as if Christmas’ primary purpose is sustaining the American economy. The annual tragic-comedy known as Black Friday — and its sanitized sequel, Cyber Monday — leaves one trying to envision the magi camping out in a Wal-Mart parking lot all night in order to get a good deal on gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas has acquired a lot of baggage. It is used to sell luxury automobiles, milk chocolate snowmen and Victoria Secret lingerie. In honor of Christ’s birthday we eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep watching NBA tripleheaders on new 65-inch curved screen TVs.

And yet, with all the commercialization and crass exploitation, Christmas still matters. It matters because it reminds us that life is about more than ourselves. Christmas shopping serves its own strange greater purpose in our materialistic socieity: It makes us think about someone besides ourselves, even if it’s only to choose between the festive Dr. Seuss tie and a box of handkerchiefs for the office gift exchange.

Because that is the fundamental message of Christmas and the man it purports to celebrate. Life is not all about you. It is not about what you get, it is what you give. Stop and listen, in a checkout line or pew or middle of the night, and hear the whispers of a world — a universe and all that is, seen and unseen — that is bigger than any one of us, or even all of us.

And if that takes a sale on “Frozen” karaoke machines, so be it.

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15 random thoughts about Ferguson

I wasn’t in the grand jury room. But, like everyone else, that hasn’t prevented me from having opinion, theories and observations.

1. Michael Brown apparently was no candidate for citizen of the year.

2. Darren Wilson apparently is no candidate for police officer of the year.

3. I heard a lot about how big Michael Brown was. I didn’t know Darren Wilson is also a big man — 6-4, 210 pounds.

4. Did these two know each other? From Wilson’s statements, I get the impression they did.

5. If Michael Brown was such a scary guy, why did Wilson let himself get put in a position where Brown could overpower him, or almost overpower him? This seems like a training issue to me, but I’m not in law enforcement and I wasn’t there. This part of Wilson’s story just seems odd to me.

6. Why do you have to shoot someone who’s a distance away and is unarmed. Even if Michael Brown was about to bull rush Darren Wilson, which I understand is what Wilson says he believed, he has pepper spray to bring him down. We had a somewhat similar situation in Tulsa in which police shot and killed a wounded man who was obviously in mental distress and not much of a threat to anyone. The man in the Tulsa case happened to be white, so race did not become an issue, but it seemed it might have been an unnecessary use of deadly force. Again, I’m not a cop and I wasn’t there, but I can’t help wondering.

7. Some people just like to tear up stuff.

8. People get mad for a reason. Usually, it’s a good idea to figure out why they’re mad, even if you think they’re wrong.

9. Not everything is about race.

10. When it is, white folks want to believe it isn’t.

11. The law makes it very difficult to indict a law officer — or anyone else — for homicide in situations involving confrontation.

12. The prosecutor in this case did everything he could to make sure this case did not break the pattern.

13. Guns ought to be a last resort; seems like maybe they’re not anymore.

14. Some people live to stir things up, and not in a good way.

15. Anybody hear about this guy shooting up downtown Austin?

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They’re not doctors, but sometimes they play them on tv

The caller wanted to know what makes members of Congress think they’re so smart. Those use of us in the news biz are used to this question, except we’re  usually asked why we think WE are so smart.

But this caller was talking about members of Congress who want to ban travel from places in West Africa where Ebola is a problem, even though the people who are paid to know such things say that would be a bad idea.

Why, the caller asked, would someone with no background in medicine or science think they know about germs and stuff than actual scientists and doctors?

Ah, I answered, you don’t seem to realize that getting yourself elected to Congress automatically makes you smarter than anyone on the planet, including the president of the United States, all the Ph.D.’s lined end-to-end, and the Dalai Lama, all mind-melded together.

Ha, ha, the caller said. This is no joking matter.

I did not bother telling him I wasn’t entirely joking. As far as I can tell, a person summoned to appear before a congressional hearing on the subject of Ebola or anything else is rarely there to explain things. They are there either to be told how wrong they are — especially if they happen to be associated in any way with the opposite party — or as props for whatever dog and pony show is being trotted across the stage.

The caller was not exactly a neutral observer. He had pretty much decided this particular member of Congress was a dummkopf long before cable news, bloggers,  and then the rest of of us news types turned one fatal case of Ebola into so many spinoffs of The Walking Dead. But he had a point — namely, that some people seem to be going to extreme and maybe dangerous lengths to exaggerate the situation for the sake of some votes on Nov. 4.

Ebola is absolutely a serious and scary disease. Especially if you’re in West Africa, where it’s actually an epidemic. And it could be here, too, if we’re unusually careless — which seems to be what happened with the one fatal case here in the U.S. In that instance, a Dallas hospital was able to accurately diagnose the patient as uninsured, but not as infected with a painful, deadly disease that the entire planet is afraid of catching.

So yes, Ebola is dangerous and not to be taken lightly. But an American is more likely to be struck by lightning in the next year than killed by Ebola. They are certainly more likely to die of stroke, heart attack, cancer, AIDS, suicide, the common flu or even bee stings. They are more likely to be hit by a drunk driver or die of a drug overdose or from falling out of a window.

The fact of the matter is, in nearly 50 years the most deadly outbreak of an infectious disease other than HIV/AIDS — admittedly, a very big exception — was a round of whooping cough that killed 9,400 Californians in 2010. Nothing else has been close.

Americans have a hard time keeping things in perspective, and we news types don’t help, especially when everything depends on ratings points and page views. Politicians understand this, and sometimes try to exploit it.

But I must admit I heard a surprising response to the current situation from one of our esteemed members this week. Someone asked him about Ebola. He wasn’t that worried, the congressman said. There’s always been something, from legionnaires’ disease to SARS to the new strains of TB, and the Centers for Disease Control has had a very good record controlling them. The congressman said he would trust them on this, too.

Imagine that.

 

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