Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Sources of Modern Fantasy Literature

 Those who read this blog primarily for religious social commentary, theology, philosophy, or politics, should try back later.  I need a break.  Writing about other interests than the main themes of this blog help me to keep from cynicism, depression, despair, or misdirected anger.

Although dominated since Tolkien(1892-1973) by Western Medievalist forms, modern fantasy literature draws from a plethora of ancient sources in numerous mythologies.  No source of fantastic elements is off-limits and would-be fantasy authors who don’t want simply to repeat tried and true formulae, might want to explore Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, New Zealand Maori or other indigenous mythologies and tales.  These sources are all under-utilized in modern Fantasy Literature.  Below, however, I list the most common sources for fantasy, in roughly chronological order.

I. The Epic of Gilgamesh.  An epic poem from ancient Sumeria, this is one of the earliest works of fiction.  We don’t know when the first version was written in Sumerian, but the standard Akkadian version was compiled from older legends sometime around 1,300 B.C.E.  It tells of the exploits of a legendary King Gilgamesh, blessed by the gods with supernatural strength but who is bored with ruling his kingdom, and his friend, Enkidu the Wild Man (who is even stronger than Gilgamesh) and their quests and battles with incredible monsters.  The story influenced Homer’s The Odyssey, was outlined in brief in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (“Darmok”), and has even influenced some role-playing video games.  For non-scholars only interested in reading the work for entertainment, the most accessible English translation is N. K.  Sanders, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Epics, 2006) which reprints the prose edition of the Penguin Classics, 1960.  The “Sword and Sorcery” subgenre of fantasy is particularly indebted to the Gilgamesh stories.

II. Ancient India.  Modern Hinduism grew out of a complex of different Indian traditions–and many of those traditions have proved good source material for modern fantasy writing.  India has a long tradition of fantastical stories and characters.  The Japanese “manga” or graphic novel series, RG Veda, for instance, draws directly from the Rig-Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns and stories that represents India’s oldest (Vedic) Scriptures.  The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are also deep sources for fantasy.

III. Classic Greco-Roman Mythology.  The Greek and Roman myths and hero stories may be the  most “plundered” as source material for later fantasy literature.  Some of the most important stories are:  “Theseus  and the Minotaur” (minotaurs and mazes that contain monsters are common in fantasy literature), “Perseus and the Slaying of the Gorgon Medusa” (which also includes what may be the first “sea serpent” story in Western literature), “The Labors of Herakles/Hercules,” “Jason and the Argonauts.”  And, of course, Homer’s great epic poems (c. 800 B.C.E.), The Iliad and The Odyssey.  You can find both in one boxed set edited by Bernard Knox and translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles in a 1999 Penguin Classics edition.

IV. East Asian Legends:  Especially from China and Japan.  The rich mythologies and cultures of Ancient China and Ancient Japan  contain many elements that lend themselves to fantasy writing.  One prominent example is the Chinese dragon:  Western dragons are usually depicted as sly, evil, cruel, and greedy.  Chinese dragons, on the other hand, are considered wise and signs of luck.  In modern fantasy literature, we often see dragons drawn more like the Western image (e.g., flying), but many writers have started to give them more noble characters that are more in line with Asian traditions.  Taoist traditions have, by her own admission, influenced Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels.

Likewise the Taoist belief in Nei Jin (“internal power”) has influenced both real life martial arts and the kind of  Chinese fantasies known as wuxia, where the martial artist can perform superhuman warrior feats:  nearly flying, dodging hundreds of thousands of arrows, etc.  Wuxia is a word made of two Chinese characters, wu (having to do with things military or martial) and xia which refers to both the Chinese version of chivalry and the person (usually a swordsman) who lives by such a code.  Wuxia fantasy is found in Chinese novels, comics, and films, but is known in the West mostly through a series of films beginning with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) based on the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu.  See also Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a hilarious spoof of wuxia films–but fantasy spoofs are still fantasy.  The Chinese sage, as well as the swordsman, has now become recognizable in many modern fantasy works.

From Japanese culture and legends, fantasy has drawn upon the code of Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”) practiced by the Samurai warrior caste, the contrast between Samurai (knights serving masters) and Ronin (“masterless” warriors), the legendary ninja assassins, and strong interest in traditional Japanese weaponry.  Fantasy novels often use Japanese legends for suitable monsters or demons, too.  The popularity of Japanese anime (cartooning) has further popularized these legends and their modern variations.

V. Islamic Middle East.  The most famous source for modern fantasy from the Middle East is, of course, the book known both as 1,001 Nights and as The Arabian Nights, a book that compiled many traditional Arabic legends and folk tales.  (In fact there are layers of stories: Persian tales inspired by Indian mythology and adapted into Arabic by the 10th C. C.E.; Stories recorded in Baghdad in the 10th C., C.E.; and Medieval Egyptian folklore.) This anonymous work first took form in the 10th Century C.E. and reached its final form in the 14th Century, C.E. Western writers have tended to call all Arabic legends “Arabian Nights” stories whether or not they appeared in the 1,001 Nights. There are even a number of tales known in Europe and set in the Middle East called “Arabian Nights” tales, even though there is no known Arabic manuscript.  The collection first began to be a major influence on Western fantasy with the translation into French in the 1704-1717 by Antoine Galland.  Galland’s version includes the stories, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin’s Lamp,” that are not found in any Arabic or Persian manuscript–stories that he claimed he heard from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo.  In 1885, Sir Richard Francis Burton gave the earliest popular English version.  Modern English readers may find the 2008 Penguin Classics edition in 3 volumes to be most accessible.

The influence of these stories on later fantasy is incalculable:  flying carpets, djinn, genii, the characters of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, Scheherazade (and other women using their wiles to survive in very oppressive, and dangerous patriarchal contexts), are all standard features.  So is the use of such literary devices as “the unreliable narrator” and stories within stories. 

Other Middle Eastern/Islamic literature that has influenced later fantasy writing includes the national Persian epic, The Shanameh, and the Persian tale, Amir Arsalan which has directly influenced Japanese writer Yoshiki Tanaka’s Arslan Senki, translated into English as The Heroic Legend of Arslan.

VI. Norse and Icelandic Sagas (and related mythology)  Norse mythology, as reflected in the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda include the Norse/Germanic gods (the Aesir) such as Odin (German Woden), Thor, Loki, etc. and their battle against the forces of chaos embodied in elves, dwarves, frost giants, trolls, and giants.  They have directly, and indirectly, influenced everyone from Shakespeare to William Morris, to J. R. R. Tolkien,  Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson.  The Norse fornaldarsagas (lit., “Stories of Times Past”) told more “historical” legends, but drew upon the Eddas for fantastic elements.  These Norse and Icelandic sagas depict heroes on dangerous quests fighting dragons, barrow-wights, witch-kings, and other forces of evil, from which they must often rescue “fair maidens.”  The quests are also often journeys of self-discovery. 

The Volsungasaga and The Nibenlugenlied, in addition to being source material for Wagner’s operas, depict more historical legends, battles over thrones and dynasties, but still include many elements that have influenced modern fantasy.

Related to these source texts is the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf (c. 8oo C.E.) which tells the story of the defeat of two hideous monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s mother,  by the hero Beowulf.  J. R. R. Tolkien, while a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, gave a 1936 lecture, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics” which was the first serious look at the saga for literary purposes.  John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) retold the myth from the monster’s point of view.

Celtic mythology and folklore is another related source for modern fantasy.  Particularly rich is the Welsh tradition since it was collected into one source,  the Mabinogion (c. 1350-1410) , iron age tales which contain, among other things, the roots of the Arthurian legends.  One modern fantasy writer, Evangeline Walton, attempted to retell the Mabinogion in a series of four novels(for the four “branches” of the Mabinogion), The Island of the Mighty (1970); The Children of Llyr (1971); The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and Prince of Anwynn (1974).  In 2002, Overlook Press republished this series under one cover as The Mabinogion Tetralogy.  The Irish Ulster Cycle and Finian Cycle have also been mined repeatedly for modern fantasy. 

But the greatest influence of Celtic mythology has been indirectly through the “Matter of Britain,” the medieval romances we know as the Arthurian legends.  These legendary histories of Britain took on lives of their own, apart from the Welsh mythology of their source–an important step in the history of fantasy.  Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and others told versions of these tales, but they were  most influentially collected and reworked by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte D’Arthur (c. 1470),  making Mallory probably the first fantasy anthologist.  This work is directly the source for many modern retellings of the Arthur stories, especially T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and the 1981 film, Excalibur.  The Victorian retelling by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, which is heavily Christianized, is also influential–including on the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ science fantasy “Space Trilogy.”

In addition to T. H. White, the following modern reworkings of Arthurian legend stand head and shoulders above the rest:  Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Mary Stewart’s “historicised” version told through Merlin (The Crystal Cave, 1970; The Hollow Hills, 1973; The Last Enchantment, 1979; The Wicked Day, 1983; The Prince and the Pilgrim, 1995); and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist re-telling through the eyes of the women (which sees the tales as a struggle between Augustinian Christianity and the older pagan religions of the Great Mother), The Mists of Avalon (which also attempts to recreate pre-Augustinian Celtic Christianity as a form of Christianity which lived more in harmony with the pagans).  I would NOT recommend the “Pendragon Cycle” of Stephen Lawhead in which the Arthurian legends suffer because of Lawhead’s heavy-handed Christian apologetics. (His novels have won evangelical awards, but they just aren’t good as literature.)

Finally, there is the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, which, though not published until the 19th C., collects stories that date back centuries.  J.R.R. Tolkien has said directly that both The Kalevala itself, and the Finnish language he learned in order to read it, were direct influences on his The Silmarillion.  I would think this epic could prove to be a rich source for others as well.

These appear to be the major “taproot texts” or sources of modern fantasy literature.  Some are more heavily used than others.  I noted at the beginning that traditional stories from Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and New Zealand Maoris are all very under-utilized.  So, I think, is pre-Islamic Egyptian mythology.


June 16, 2009 Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction | 20 Comments

Defining Fantasy and Science Fiction

Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction.  Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.).  Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.).  Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval  romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers.  Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction.  (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes seldom become overly graphic.)

What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements.  Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted.  (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.) 

The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy.  The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.).  Other major examples  of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)

In later posts, I will outliine the major sources of modern fantasy, an overview of the history of the genre (especially the pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries), and outline some of the sub-genres within fantasy literature (e.g., “heroic, high, or epic ” fantasy; historical fantasy; alternate timeline fantasies; gothic and horror stories; sword and sorcery tales; “dark” fantasy; contemporary fantasy; humorous fantasy;  urban fantasy.  I may also compose a post outlining a brief history of science fiction and some of its sub-genres.

Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s).  I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.  The story must first work AS literature.  Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)

June 15, 2009 Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction, science-fiction | 6 Comments

Sometimes Faith and Hope are HARD

Sometimes it is very difficult to trust in God’s providential care and in a hopeful  future.  Today was one of those days for me.  It started out hopeful enough.  Early this morning, I learned that the Markey-Waxman bill that fights global warming by a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions (which may help both the federal deficit and the economy as a fringe benefit) made it out of committee to the full House of Representatives.  Wow,  I thought.  If the Senate doesn’t block or water this down, we may get the first real action on climate change in this nation–after decades of doing nothing. (I don’t know whether to be angrier at the Bush administration, which claimed for 6 of its 8 years that global warming was a hoax–relenting only after the PENTAGON classified it as a bigger national security threat than terrorism–or the Clinton administration which KNEW the danger and betrayed its campaign promises by doing nothing because they were afraid of losing support from the business community.) 

But then I realized that, EVEN AT IT’s BEST, the Waxman-Markey bill would only lower carbon emissions 7-10%, lower than what the EU, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and even latecomer Australia are doing.  And, because global warming is happening faster than originally predicted, it is FAR less than what climatologists think we need to stop global climate catastrophes:  About 50% carbon emission reductions by 2030!  Yet, trying to increase the bill to that amount is simply not politically possible–the entire bill would be defeated and we’d be back to doing nothing, again.

So by the time we headed for church, I was pretty pessimistic about the future.  One of my daughters tried to cheer me up–reminding me of the huge strides we are making in some areas of justice–such as gay rights.  I wasn’t very receptive. Let’s see, I thought, “we now have civil marriage equality in 6 states. Only 42 more to go in this nation. At that rate, gays and lesbians will be able to marry just in time for massive global-warming related famines in Africa, losing several island nations to the ocean, hurricanes that make Katrina seem like a gentle breeze, worldwide refugees in the millions, increased “resource wars,” massive global species extinctions, and killer storms across the MidWest.

Fortunately, everything at church today seemed to speak to my condition, to paraphrase Quaker founder George Fox. We sang, “Do not fear to hope.”  The sermon reminded me that God chooses unlikely vessels for change and amazing outcomes.  I needed reminding.

The facts have not changed. (Please no comments trying to convince me that global warming is a hoax. I’ve read the many detailed reports of the climatologists. I’m in no mood for attempts to cheer me up by denial and might just delete any such comments. I am certainly in no mood to DEBATE the science behind the climatologists’ warnings.) We are still preparing an INADEQUATE response–one that would have been more suitable for the late ’80s or early ’90s when there was more time. (The longer we put off responding, the more extreme our actions will have to take by the time all the skeptics are convinced–and it will be too late.) It still looks like too little, too late.

But God is still GOD and I cannot believe that God has abandoned this planet–no matter how we humans have messed up our stewardship.  I have no idea how God is working to save this creation, but I know God is working.  Maybe, just maybe, Waxman-Markey, while inadequate in itself, will be the crack that opens the dam of creative political will to do what is necessary to save our world.  Maybe we can add carbon taxes to speed up the work of a cap-and-trade system.  Maybe the Waxman-Markey bill will finally show the world that the U.S. is serious about fighting climate change and helps bring in China and India to a new post-Kyoto treaty at Copenhagen.  I don’t know.

Sometimes faith and hope are hard.  Despair is easier.  But as the hymn says, “Do not fear to hope, though the wicked rage and rise.  Our God sees not as we see, success is not the prize. Do not fear to hope, for though the night seems long, the race shall not be to the swift, the fight not to the strong.”  Amen.  Lord, I believe–Help, Thou, my unbelief.

June 14, 2009 Posted by | ecology, faith, global warming, hope, hymns | 16 Comments

Top 20 Fantasy Novels/Series

I like both Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.   (I mean classic, heroic fantasy, not the ramblings of a political pundit. 🙂 ) So do my family members.  My daughter, Molly (14), found the website, Fantasy 100, listing what it considers the “Top 100 Fantasy Novels Of All Time.”  It’s a good list, but I don’t agree with the rankings.  To rank Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series 4th, but Richard Adams’ Watership Down only 19th seems absurd to me–unless the site is just tracking sales in which case it ought to rename the list, “Most POPULAR Fantasy novels.”

My own, purely subjective, list of the top 20 Fantasy novels/series follows.  Since I consider fantasy to be a separate genre from science fiction (there can be overlap–as in some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories), I am only listing pure fantasy works here.  I might write another post on favorite “hard science” fiction works .I invite readers to list their own favorite works of fantasy. UPDATE: I have slightly rearranged the original rankings after further reflection.

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (a novel in 3 volumes).  Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation is visually stunning and fun, but misses much of the moral depth of the novels.  Although I find Tolkien’s other Middle Earth novels, The Silmarillon, etc., interesting because of the light they shed on him and his world, they lack the narrative power of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
  2. T. H. White, The Once and Future King (adaptation of the Arthurian legend).  Based on Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, this is the great Arthurian novel that was the basis for both the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone and the Broadway musical Camelot. (No, ’60s fans, Camelot was NOT an intentional allegory about the Kennedy administration.  It’s only that, after JFK’s assassination, far too many romantics kept seeing parallels where there weren’t any. )
  3. Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas CovenantDonaldson has a tougher, grimmer, vision than Tolkien, but there may be even more moral depth to his characters and stories. Especially compelling is the character of Thomas Covenant, a novelist who contracts Hansen’s Disease, popularly known as leprosy, an anti-hero who struggles with power and powerlessness, faith and unbelief, and the struggle to be loyal to the people he meets in an alternate universe (the magical Land) while also keeping faith with his view of sanity and reality.  The moral power of beauty and care for life and living things is a deep theme of the books.
  4. Richard Adams, Watership Down.  The concept of rabbits having a mythology and culture is odd, but the story is deeply gripping and helps one see the natural world in ways that illumine our world.
  5. Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in TimeThe sequels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind in the Door aren’t as good, but still worth reading.
  6. Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of EarthseaThe other Earthsea novels don’t match the power of the first, but are still very much worth reading.  LeGuin is a contrast to the deeply Christian outlook of Lewis and Tolkien or even L’Engle and Donaldson who also have Christian influences. LeGuin calls herself an inconsistent Taoist and a consistent NON-Christian and that comes out in her books, but they are great reading–and I am one Christian parent who believes in exposing my children to several rival worldviews.  The other Earthsea novels are The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, The Other Wind.
  7. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter series.  Some will wonder why I haven’t rated the wildly popular series higher.  The stories are great and I’m glad my kids introduced me to them, but they haven’t yet stood the test of time–not even the test of whether I, personally, still like them ten years or so after first reading them.
  8. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series of 5 novels which interweave the Merlin and Arthur legends with “modern” (1960s era) British children.
  9. Walter Wangerin, The Book of the Dun Cow.  Written by a Lutheran minister, this is a great fantasy set in a barnyard where the hero is a cussedly endearing rooster and the dun-colored cow is an angel-figure.
  10. Mercedes Lackey, Last Herald Mage Trilogy (Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price).  I like almost all of Mercedes Lackey’s books, but this is her best work.  In addition to being a fine work of fantasy, with moral reflections on power and responsibility and sacrifice, it is also a great “coming out” tale of a young man discovering that he is gay–and the struggles to accept himself and get his very homophobic family to accept him, too.  When Mercedes Lackey wrote these books in the early ’90s, there was little or nothing like this in fantasy genre.  It was much needed–and at least one young person I know was helped to  avoid suicide.
  11. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, Arthurian legend from a feminist perspective.
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia.  Not all even in quality, but Lewis manages to include the Christian allegorical allusions without being heavyhanded or forgetting that the story must come first.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and A Horse and His Boy are the best in the series.
  13. Philip Pullman, “His Dark Materials” Trilogy, The Golden Compass (U.K. title, The Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass.  Pullman is a self-declared secular humanist and his works have been greatly criticized as “atheism for children” by the likes of James Dobson.  They do present a worldview that is highly critical of religious beliefs, but, again, children should wrestle with all viewpoints–and the books are VERY well written.
  14. Tamora Pierce, Becka Cooper series (Terrier, Bloodhound, and Mastiff (due out 2010).  Like Mercedes Lackey, I think Tamora Pierce is one of the best fantasy writers currently in the biz., but most of her heroines and heroes come from upper-class aristocratic backgrounds.  Becka Cooper, by contrast, is a child of the streets turned “dog,” the nickname of the Provost Marshall’s Guards (primitive police). 
  15. Stephen King, The Dark Tower Series.  There are 7 novels, but the only boxed set so far is for 1-4.  So, the novels in the series are: The Gunslinger;The Drawing of the Three  The Waste Lands ; Wizard and GlassWolves of the CallaSong of Susannah;  The Dark TowerKing is far more famous for his many gothic and horror novels (although some cross over into science fiction), but this great series creates an alternate universe that is almost a cross between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the wild west as imagined by Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns” (mostly starring Clint Eastwood). King pits a gunslinger named Roland against a “man in black” that is nothing like Johnny Cash!  There is also a Dark Tower series of graphic novels.
  16. Patricia A. McKillip, Riddlemaster Trilogy, (The Riddlemaster of Hed; Heir of Sea and Fire; Harpist in the Wind).  Brilliant and far from formulaic, with surprise twists and turns.
  17. Katherine Kurtz, The Chronicles of the Deryni.  I love all  Kurtz’ Deryni books, but especially this first trilogy (Deryni Rising, Deryni  Checkmate, High Deryni).  Kurtz’ world is a fantasy version of Medieval Wales (Gwynedd), complete with a Medieval Catholic Church Militant; Moors (Muslims); a sundered Eastern church;and a persecuted race of magicians known as the “Deryni.”
  18. Jim Butcher’s novels of Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phonebook.  Dresden is a practising wizard who works as a private investigator and a consultant for the Chicago Police Department.  Sci-Fi channel made a half-hearted attempt to turn this into a series  known as “The Dresden Files” but only about 5 episodes ever aired. Update: I’m told that 27 episodes were made, but I don’t think all 27 ever aired on Sci-Fi channel or anywhere else.
  19. Orson Scott Card, The Tales of Alvin Maker series (Seventh Son; Red Prophet; Prentice Alvin; Alvin Journeyman; Heartfire; The Crystal City and the forthcoming Alvin Maker).  Card is more known for his science fiction work (as Stephen King is for horrorand gothic), but these are a great series of stories set in an alternate-reality version of 19th C. America.  Card is a practicing Mormon whose politics is an odd mix:  He is a Democrat because he is convinced the Republican Party in the South still supports racism, but he was an enthusiastic supporter of Bush and the Global War on Terror and strongly opposes same-sex marriage as a “dangerous social experiment.”  He is a strong environmentalist.  His odd mix of progressive and conservative views comes through in his books, but they make excellent stories in their own right. 
  20. Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, beginning with Eragon.  The movie is terrible, but these novels, begun when Paolini was only 15, are amazing and original.  After further reflection and input from friends, I realized that I was ranking this too high because of compensating for Paolini’s age.

So, here are my fantasy favorites.  What are yours?  I would love to see someone try to write a major fantasy novel from a pacifist perspective–preferably from a perspective of Christian  nonviolence, but Gandhian, Buddhist, or other pacifist perspective would also be fascinating.  There also needs to be far more multi-culturalism.  Even the European Middle Ages of the “real world” wasn’t as lilly white as portrayed in too many Medieval fantasies.

June 13, 2009 Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction | 22 Comments

Cap & Trade Could Greatly Reduce Deficit

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has analyzed the Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” and found that it will not only fight the catastrophic climate change of global warming, but that it will NOT add to the deficit.  In fact, it will raise revenue that could greatly reduce the federal deficit.

That’s information that should published far and wide, so that Waxman-Markey gets Senate support and passes.  A way to save the planet, help rebuild the economy, AND reduce the federal deficit–that’s something that needs widespread support!

UPDATE:  Contrast this with the energy proposal of the House Republicans:  Give away billions of more taxpayer dollars to the oil, coal and nuclear industries and draft a bill that explicity refuses to recognize the impact of global warming–even on endangered species (in defiance of Supreme Court rulings–during the Bush era– that the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions as a pollutant).  The Bush-era Pentagon classified both global warming AND U.S. dependence on fossil fuels as national security threats, but the Republicans still won’t do anything useful to meet the threat.  The biggest threat to our nation right now? House Republicans and the desire of Democrats to be “bi-partisan” instead of just ignoring them and doing the right thing even if it gets ZERO Republican votes.

June 9, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 13 Comments

My Personal “Canon Within the Canon”

I think it was the German Lutheran New Testament scholar (Neutestamentler) Ernst Kaesemann who coined the term “canon within the canon.”  For him, it was a normative concept referring to biblical books which not only functioned with more authority in the Church, but SHOULD have more authority than other biblical books.  Being Lutheran, I think Kaesemann’s “canon within the canon” centered around Romans and Galatians, Mark, Luke, and John (Matthew would have been seen as “too Jewish”) and definitely relegated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to lower status.  I am not sure what functioned as his canon within the canon in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.

Many have objected to Kaesemann’s phrase:  not just those inerrantists for whom every word of scripture is on the same level of authority (“flat Bible” types), but those for whom the early Church’s canonical choices are seen as guided by the Holy Spirit.  But no matter how we view “canon within the canon” as a normative concept, I think it undeniable that it is an apt term for the way different parts of Scripture function for different individuals and groups.  I think it safe to say that NO ONE, not even those who have repeatedly read the Bible from cover to cover (I come from a tradition where it is common to do this annually), are even equally familiar with all parts of Scripture.  If you are from a Christian family, go to your parents’ family Bible and see the places where it falls open naturally.  It doesn’t take long to figure out which parts of  Scripture are a pastor’s favorite. (One advantage of lectionary preaching is that it helps to prevent preachers from falling into the habit of “preaching their hobby horses.”  Lectio continua, the practice of preaching through biblical books from beginning to end, also works against this.  When I still had regular responsibility for preaching the Word, I would use the Common Lectionary–without telling my small Baptist congregation that this is what I was doing!–from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, and then preach lectio continua through 2-3 books during “ordinary time,” i.e., Trinity Sunday until Advent again.)

My friend and former teacher, David Kling, has an excellent book, The Bible in History:  How the Texts Have Shaped the Times , which shows how particular texts have shaped different denominations and traditions in the Church through the centuries.  I reviewed that wonderful book here.  One of the many strengths of Richard B. Hays’ excellent work on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, is the section where he examines the actual use of Scripture by several theologians and Christian ethicists, including from which texts they actually quote.  A similar section, using different scholars, is found in Jeffrey Siker’s Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth Century Portraits.

So, we see that each of us has a functioning canon that is smaller than the Church’s canon–whether one uses the Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant canons.   It is, no doubt, helpful to try to expand one’s functioning canon. But we should be honest about which books are the “hermeneutical center” for our personal take on faith and discipleship.

Here is mine.  Because of the Anabaptist shape of my faith, I begin with the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  I really dislike Billy Graham’s advice to new Christians to start with the Gospel of John.  The Fourth Gospel is very deep and subtle theology cloaked in deceptively simple Greek which translates into deceptively simple English. Although I disagree with those who think that John has a docetic Christology (this is where we get the very word “incarnation!”), or is anti-semitic, I think that Christians who have not first learned to the reading skills and vision of the Synoptics are not ready for John–and can misread it in very dangerous ways.

Then comes the book of James, the Acts of the Apostles, and, from Paul’s letters: Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians.  I confess to not much liking the Pastoral Epistles, even though I believe conservatives interpret them wrong.  I like the journey shape to life and faith encouraged by Hebrews, but I am uncomfortable with the Philo/Hellenistic form of Judaism in its background and imagery.

No one first exposed to the Book of Revelation by horrid dispensationalist TV preachers, as I was, will ever be fully comfortable with it.  I have learned to see Revelation very differently, as a handbook of nonviolence for a persecuted church (see here and here), but it will never be my favorite.  I must confess that I almost entirely neglect 2 Thessalonians, and the “catholic” epistles ( I and II Peter, I, II, and III John, Jude).

From the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament, I confess to a special lifelong love affair with the prophets.  As best we can tell from the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus himself especially loved the prophets, especially Isaiah, my favorite.  I also deeply love Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Joel.  Daniel is listed with the prophetic books in Christian canons, but with the Writings in the Jewish canon which I think is better since it is not prophetic, but apocalyptic literature.  I must confess to largely neglecting Daniel.

From the Torah or Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), I love Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, although I struggle with the triumphalist war theology that at least one voice in Deuteronomy pushes.  Like most Christians, I neglect Leviticus and Numbers, except for the Jubilee theme of Leviticus 25.

From the “historical books” or “former prophets,” I like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings., and Nehemiah.  I am learning to see things of value in Joshua and Judges, but they are so very bloody that they are a trial to read.  I have to struggle to keep from being put to sleep by the boring way that 1 & 2 Chronicles are narrated.  From “the Writings,” I love Ruth, Esther, Job, the Psalms, Song of Songs, and Lamentations.  I really dislike the class bias of much of the Proverbs and the depressing tone of Ecclesiastes and hate the purity/taboo rigidity promoted by Ezra (though this is also in Nehemiah).

That’s my rag-tag “canon within the canon.” It is larger than it once was and I am seeking to enlarge it, though I will never lose the Synoptic Gospels and the Prophets as my hermeneutical center. 

What’s yours and why?

June 7, 2009 Posted by | authority, Bible, Biblical exegesis | 10 Comments

New Democrats to Govern Nova Scotia?

Although I cannot follow as closely as in my home country, I do try to follow politics elsewhere, especially in other democracies, and especially in nations where at least part of the culture has British roots–because then I find it easier to grasp the political culture than otherwise.  So, remembering that there will be regional elections to the NORTH in neighboring Canada, I glanced at some Canadian headlines, recently.  Folks, HISTORY is about to be made.

Background:  Although Canada is a parliamentary democracy, rather than a congressional/presidential one, it has been dominated by two parties for literally centuries:  the Conservatives (in some Provinces, known as the Progressive Conservatives) are very similar to the Conservative Party of the U.K. (and, like them, are nicknamed the Tories) and pretty much like the Republican Party of the U.S.A. before its recent breakdown of all sanity–except that Canadian Tories don’t try to fight national health insurance, deny evolution, global warming, etc.  The Liberal Party is, much like UK’s “New” Labour, like the U.S. Democratic Party–some of them stand for something and the others just like getting elected.  Of the other parties, the Bloc Quebecois is a separatist party and so never has much sway except in Quebec.  The Green Party gets no more than 3% of the vote.

But the New Democratic Party (started by liberal Baptist minister, Tommy Douglass, voted the “Greatest Canadian” by a contest sponsored by the CBC–who succeeded in getting universal healthcare in Canada) is kind of the social democratic party of Canada.   Its strength has always been in the Western Provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, British Columbia). Leaving out Quebec, none of the original democratic provinces that went to make up Canada in the 1867 Confederation (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Ontario) have ever had a government formed by a party other than the big 2.  Until Now.  On Tues., Nova Scotia is poised to have a new government formed by a New Democratic majority.

Wow! If they govern well, the NDP could gain in other Provinces and maybe soon form the federal government–either as a majority or in a minority coalition with the Liberals and the Greens.  Canada does NOT like its current Conservative government and its Bush wannabe PM, Stephen Harper, but the Liberals haven’t generated much excitement either. 

I’m excited.  A more progressive Canada could push us here in the States.  From the days of the Underground Railroad through the era of the Vietnam War, we have always needed Canada as our conscience. (This hasn’t always worked. Although Canada abolished slavery without a war by being part of the  British empire in the 19th C., unacknowledged racism continues to plague it–especially regarding First Nations folk and Asians, but also with black Canadians.  Also, Canada, like the U.S., rounded up all its Japanese citizens during WWII.  But, our neighbors to the north have OFTEN been our conscience.) Canada’s full acceptance of same-sex marriage is inspiring the current struggle here, for instance.  And Canada’s refusal to be bullied into aiding and abetting our illegal war in Iraq, kept those of us in the states hopeful we could, eventually change things. (When the UK and Australia went along, thankfully not New Zealand, it gave cover to Bush’s claim to be speaking for a kind of “Western consensus.” since many U.S. Americans could care less about the opinions of France or Germany. It was harder to ignore Canada, thank God.)

So, here’s to the future of Nova Scotia, the New Democratic Party, a progressive Canada–and MUCH influence with the U.S.  Hooray!

P.S.  I don’t expect the NDP to be perfect.  I am also celebrating the breaking of the deadlock between two parties and look forward to the day when that happens here, too.

P.P. S. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is swinging to the Right and Labour seems about to lose power in the UK!  Why is it that when Americans elect Republicans and swing to the Right, Britain and Europe swing to the Left, but vice versa after a Democratic win in the U.S.?  Can’t we ever be in sync? I’m really worried about the Torries and the far-right British National Party on the rise as Labour and the Liberal Democrats self-destruct.  This could be a return to Thatcherism with an ultra-nationalist, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, and anti-European twist! That’s scary as hell!

P.P.P.S.:  On the good news front, a pro-Western coalition just defeated Hezbollah and won a clear majority in Lebanon’s elections.  And Ahmadinejad may be in trouble in Iran, if two parties don’t split the moderate-to-liberal opposition.  I think Ahmadinejad will fail to get 50% and force a run-off, which may coalesce the opposition around whichever of the moderates is stronger!  Will this kind of moderation be met with a swing away from the far right in Israel?  Will it be met by moderation and maturity in Hamas (because Mahmoud Abbas has no real power) so that some real progress can be made? I really hope so.

June 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Just for Fun: People Who Will Never Be President of the U.S.

Well, me, for one.  But this is a list of people who WANT to be President and think they have a chance of becoming President who will never be President.  (Of course, once upon a time, I would have said that no 2nd rate Hollywood actor and no pretend cowboy from Texas would become POTUS, so my track record might not be too good.)  Let’s make it a sort of game.  You can either add your own list, argue for the viability of one or more people on my list, or both.  I am going to include people from several different political parties.

  • Ralph Nader.  Pack it in, Ralph.  You were an excellent consumer advocate.  You make a decent progressive pundit (with a few reservations), but not even the Green Party will have you now.  You helped Al Gore to lose (if he did) the 2000 election.  That was the last time you were relevant. Give it up.
  • Al Gore.  Fortunately, Gore knows that 2000 was his last hurrah.  Even though he became a far more interesting and progressive person (who could hold young folks attention) AFTER 2000, he wisely refused calls to run in ’04 and ’08–not wanting to make the race(s) about the past.
  • John Kerry (D-MA).  I THINK Kerry is in the same boat as Gore. He knows he’s reached the apex of his career.  Now that Obama passed him over for Sec. of State (to his surprise, I think), Kerry seems to have his sights on Sen. Majority Leader. I think he’d make an EXCELLENT improvement over the boring and weak Harry Reid.  He could possibly run for Gov. of MA after retiring from the Senate—but he’s never going to be president.
  • Newt Gingrich (R-GA).  I DON’T think Newt knows he will never be president.  The former Speaker was disgraced and had to resign in the ’90s for trying to impeach Clinton for adultery while himself having (another) affair. Newt NEVER had more than a 30% national approval rating.  You can’t even win a nomination with that, never mind a general election campaign.  And Newt hasn’t held ANY elected office since 1997.  By 2012, there will be voters who weren’t even BORN the last time Newt was in office.  People under 30 in 2012 will be going, “WHO?” And, IF, by some miracle, the Republicans go crazy and actually nominate Newt, Obama might repeat Reagan in ’04 and win 49 states out of 50! Seriously, Newt, get off my TV and go back to being a poli-sci prof–aren’t your students missing you?
  • Joe Biden.  I heard a rumor that the Vice President wasn’t ruling out running for Pres. in 2016.  Please say it ain’t so, Joe.  You are 66, now.  Ronald Reagan, the oldest person ever elected POTUS, was 68 when elected.  Your campaign got nowhere this time out–although your foreign policy work did attract Obama to you as VP.  But you tend to ramble when you speak, you are a lousy debater, and you make WAY too many unscripted gaffes.  I think you’re a good guy and you added some key ingredients to Obama’s campaign. I think you are proving to be a balance, now.  But, unless, God forbid, something happens to Pres. Obama, you will never be president.  In fact, I hope you consider retiring at the end of 2012 and let the President pick a young and strong, savvy woman as his running mate for 2012.  If not, 2016 will be another wide open Democratic primary.
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Unlike Joe Biden, I think Hillary knew her only shot was in ’08–unless McCain won, in which case, she would have been back in ’12.  She seems to be on her way to becoming a far more effective and wise Secretary of State than I expected–better than she was as a Senator from NY.  I think I LIKE Hillary now better than I have ever done.  She MIGHT be a viable candidate in ’16, but she’ll be 68 then and our society is still sexist enough to prefer younger women, sadly. (I don’t think Margaret Thatcher could have ever become a president.  She became UK’s PM because, in a parliamentary system one votes for the party instead of the person.  The PM leads the ruling party. )  But, I might be underestimating the nation’s views by 2016.  It’s possible that in the next several years, Sec. Clinton does something extraordinary–like negotiate a 2 state peace in Israel-Palestine, or a nuclear free subcontinent for India and Pakistan.  If she gets a major portion of credit from an Obama foreign policy that is viewed as successful, she could, just possibly be a viable 2016 candidate.  But I think the odds are against it.
  • Mitt Romney (R-MI/MA/Wherever). It is possible that Romney is the 2012 Republican nominee.  If so, I expect Obama to wipe the floor with him.  He’d have a better chance in 2016.  But I think ’08 was Romney’s best chance.
  • Tim Pawlenty (R-MN).  Pawlenty is conservative enough for the GOP base, but reasonable enough for national independents and he’s likeable.  He would have made a MUCH better VP choice for McCain than Palin did.  So, why am I saying that he won’t be president?  Frankly, he has Norm Coleman to thank.  Coleman’s refusal to do the honorable thing (like Al Gore did) and give up his attempts to deny that he lost the MN senate race, put Pawlenty in a vise-lock:  He has been seen as encouraging Coleman’s obstructionism.  This plays well with the national GOP base, but not with MN voters.  That’s why he”s not running for a 3rd term.  I think he’ll run for the GOP presidential nomination in ’12, but I think that he will be slammed by the party insiders, the base, and MN voters–and most of this is Coleman’s fault.  It’s also going to hurt him that several of his attempts to balance the MN budget WITHOUT approval of the MN legislature are probably going to be overturned by the courts as unconstitutional–people will see that as a warning that he could be another president with an unhealthy view of executive power.
  • Sarah Palin (R-AK).  IF she was willing to sit out 2012, study up and become a policy wonk, she could have a great chance in 2016.  After all, charisma, charm, and the ability to rally crowds cannot be taught–but actual knowledge of the issues can.  But Sarah is not that patient.  She’s never stopped campaigning–which has caused her once sky-high approval rating in AK to plummet. She might not survive reelection if either she draws a strong primary challenger or the Dems can field a decent opponent.  Why? Because she has neglected GOVERNING Alaska and the populace there knows it and hates it.  And because she has refused to drop off the radar, govern well, and study up, she remains a cartoon figure on the national stage.  If she is the Republican nominee in 2012, Obama will win reelection even if the economy still stinks.
  • Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). I campaigned for him in ’04 because I thought he could push the Democratic platform to the left.  But Dennis should never have tried again in ’08–it almost cost him his seat in Congress.  America may become as progressive as Kucinich (We aren’t there, yet), but he is the wrong messenger for that mesage. 
  • Bill Frist (R-TN), Pat Roberts(R-KS), Rick Santorum(R-PA), and George Allen (R-VA).  These were all very powerful GOP Senators just a few years back.  Now, Roberts is the only one left in the Senate.  All used to be seen as strong possibilities for future Republican presidents–but they missed their opportunities.  The country changed faster than they expected.  Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), a medical doctor, never recovered from the humiliation of misdiagnosing Terri Schiavo on TV–claiming that she wasn’t brain dead and trying to override the courts and her husband’s desire to “pull the plug” and quit dragging out her death.  When the postmortem revealed that Ms. Schiavo’s brain was largely LIQUID, Frist’s claim to see (via TV) evidence of her continued life and consciousness looked silly–and he was revealed as either a complete ideologue or someone who would say anything to score political points.  Sen. George Allen’s racism was revealed late in his senate reelection race on national TV–leading to the narrow victory of Jim Webb (D-VA) and the march to turn VA purple! Sen. Rick Santorum was seen by PA voters as just as much an ideologue as Frist.  Roberts has retained his senate seat, but he will never be president.  The country is nowhere near conservative enough for that, now.  It barely was in ’04–when George W. Bush narrowly won “re”-election.  That was the only year that any of these men could have won–and Bush was their party’s nominee, and they knew better than to run a primary against a sitting president.
  • Michael Steele(R-Republican National Committee). It’s amazing he keeps his job.
  • Howard Dean(D-VT), former Gov. of VT, former presidential hopeful, and former Democratic National Committee chair.  His one chance was ‘o4, but he knows it.  He WILL continue to play important roles in U.S. politics.
  • Liz Cheney, daughter of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Dick Cheney.  She’s been on TV 22 times in the last month, but no one from the Bush admin. (what was her office, again?) and no one from the Cheney family is going to win.  Yes, Jeb Bush, that also rules out you–and it probably rules out Condaleeza Rice, although if she lays low for about 8 years, she has a SLIGHT shot, depending on what else is revealed about her involvement with torture, etc. in the meantime. (I was very worried that McCain would choose her for VP. That ticket would have been much harder to beat. Rice was one of the very few people to come out of the Bush admin. with even PART of her reputation intact.  But McCain would not choose any pro-choice running mate, and the country has moved since last Nov.  But, trust me, international readers, if McCain had chosen Condi, the race would have been MUCH closer even after the economy tanked–especially with Obama choosing Biden. Unlike Palin, Rice would have beaten Biden in televised debate and SNL would have made far more fun of Biden.)
  • Mike Huckabee (R-AR).  Yes, his Fox News gig is keeping in view. Yes, the GOP base love him.  And he’s a good speaker with a great sense of humor (usually–I exempt the stupid joke at the NRA last year).  But ’08 was his real chance and he blew it.  I don’t think he’ll even get nominated in ’12, but if he does, Obama will cream him as bad as Newt or Sarah.
  • Tom Tancredo(R-CO).  He thinks he will.  He still can’t see why his campaign didn’t get off the ground in ’08. But let’s do the math:  The fastest growing ethnic group in the nation is Latino/Hispanic at 15% and growing quickly.  Tancredo thinks ALL of them are “illegal aliens.”  Latinos voted for Obama by 67%.  Had he been running against Tancredo, it they would have voted for him about 90%!  Had Tancredo been on the GOP ticket, even the Cuban-Americans (the most conservative, most Republican section of U.S. Latinos) would have voted for Obama by more than 80%!  Sorry. No “only us Gringos are worthy” strategy is ever going to win the White House again.


Now, just for fun, a few people who might be president of the U.S. one day:


Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA).  Like many governors of both parties, Patrick is struggling for reelection because of the economy–and if he fails to get reelected, that may be as high as he goes.  But, if he gets reelected and is successful, he could be a future POTUS.  Of course, Obama may nominate him for the Supreme Court in the future, too.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.  She was a very popular Gov. of Arizona and if she resigns Homeland Security in ’12 to run for the U.S. Senate against Jon Kyl (R-AZ), she will probably make it.  And she could run for Pres. in ’16 or ’20.

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ.  I expect this young man to become Gov. of NJ one day and then maybe the second African-American POTUS.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).  Senators don’t often become presidents, but she might retire from the senate in a few years and run for MN Gov.  She is young and dynamic and progressive and she’s getting huge kudos from folks because she has had to function as MN’s sole senator while Norm Coleman drags out his loss for months.

Christine Gregoire (D-WA).  She will have to improve her state’s economy and she might need to be a vice presidential nominee first for greater exposure, but she has real potential.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).  He is hugely respected and if he won a senate seat or governor’s race, he would have far more exposure.  With the growing power of the Latino/a vote, Grijalva (whom I wanted Obama to pick over Salazar as Secretary of the Interior) could be a real powerhouse. He gets rave reviews from environmentalists and young people, too, and his base is in the increasingly Democratic Southwest.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA).  Same story, but is younger.  Also, she has a great American story as the child of poor immigrants who worked her way through university and law school as an electrician (still pays her dues as a member of the electrician’s union) and became a labor lawyer before running for Congress.  And CA is a BIG state as a starting point if she had a statewide office like governor from which to run.

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary.  I don’t think it’s all that likely, but these things sometimes do run in families–and she certainly learned how to campaign.  For the same reason, no one should rule out completely, either Mahlia or Sasha Obama, though children of presidents tend to become private persons more often than not. 


Charlie Crist (R-FL).  Now that he is resigning FL’s governorship to run for the U.S. Senate, it won’t happen in ’12, but he could make a credible run in ’16.  Americans almost never let one party keep the White House for more than 8 years, 12 tops.  (The last time it went longer than 12 in one party was the FDR-Truman years!) And I think the Republicans may be ready to nominate a moderate to moderate-conservative in  ’16.

Bobby Jindal (R-LA). His national TV debut as the rebuttal speaker to Obama’s non “State of the Union” speech this January was so bad it has killed any chance he had for ’12.  But  Jindal is much smarter than that dumb speech showed and he is popular–or as much as most governors are in this economy.  If he bides his time until ’16, he could be the conservative favorite for the GOP.

Meghan McCain (R-AZ).  Okay, she was an art history major! She would have to go back to school–maybe not officially, but in terms of learning far more about economics, foreign policy, etc.  But Meghan is a powerful speaker and writer and is brave enough to stand up to the GOP far right.  She knows that Republicans have to shake off the anti-gay fringe, especially, and she knows that they can’t keep pushing “abstinence only” education as an answer to teen pregnancy.  If she started right now and ran for smaller offices, she could be a future governor, senator, or president–with a MUCH better campaign staff than her father had.  I don’t know if she wants that life, and the current base of the GOP hate her.  But if the Republican machine was SMART, they’d be trying to woo her for offices that would give her responsibility and on the job training and keep her in the public eye.  She’s one of the few nationally known Republicans that the public actually LIKES right now.

Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT).  She is one of the most popular governors in the nation, thrives as a fairly conservative governor in a very liberal state.  She can tout her veto of a recent bill repealing the death penalty (which I think she should have signed) to show conservative bona fides to the base.  She probably isn’t yet well enough known, but if nominated as VP by Charlie Crist or Bobby Jindal, she could one day be president.

Carly Fiorina (R-CA), former CEO of  Hewlett-Packard and wannabe future Governor of CA.  The question is WHEN she would be viable.  She ran H-P into deep problems and then bailed out with a golden parachute. Widely trumpeted as a possible running mate for McCain in ’08, she’d have destroyed any chance he had at CO (which he lost anyway), where Fiorina’s idiocy cost thousands of jobs while she got richer.  If she won Gov. in CA in ’10 (I hope not but the Dems running are pretty lame–even though AHNOLD has made CA remember why it no longer likes Republicans)  and was successful in salvaging the messed up economy–a big if, considering what she did to H-P–she might be a good GOP candidate in ’16 or ’20.  Not beforehand–and not losing in CA and then going to run for Pres.

Gov. Linda Lingle (R-HI).  A popular governor of a normally liberal state, Lingle would be an excellent recruit for the GOP.  She’s a free trader and for low taxes.  She doesn’t like gun control and thinks gambling is a mythical economic cure (and here I agree with her).  She’s the first woman governor of HI, the first Jewish governor of HI, the first to go from a mayor’s office to the governor’s mansion, and the first GOP governor since the year I was born (1962).  She also took a huge state deficit and turned it into a surplus.  Unfortunately, I think Gov. Lingle would have to wait until the GOP stops embracing the far right.  She’s currently too moderate to get the nomination:  pro-choice on abortion; against the death penalty; divorced twice and no children; wants addicts to get drug treatment and reserve jail for dealers.  These views would help her in a general election, but are currently too moderate for the GOP base.  Lingle will need to wait until at least 2016 to set her eyes on the presidency.

Any others? 


June 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Islamic Fundamentalism: Self-Reflection for Both Muslims and Christians?

Since nearly the entire world is parsing the strengths and weaknesses of Pres. Obama’s speech in Cairo, I’ll pass on that for now.  But Obama brought up some history that OUGHT to lead to (painful?) introspection on the part of both Muslims and Christians.  Many Americans are blissfully unaware of it (because our knowledge of history is notoriously TINY), but the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning.  The rebirth of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was largely sparked by ISLAMIC philosophers, scientists and poets.

The 7th and 6th Centuries C.E. are known to historians as the Islamic Golden Age.  They made many advances in science, engineering (including the arch and the flying buttress), mathematics (we now use Arabic numerals, the zero was invented in Arabic civilization, and Muslim mathematicians invented algebra), medicine, and astronomy.  Christians in Europe adopted these discoveries (sometimes building on them) when Arabic troops invaded Europe and again when Europeans invaded the Middle East (Holy Land) during the Crusades.  The scientific revolution of the 17th C. would not have been possible without the advances of the Renaissance that paved the way–and those depended on very forward looking Muslim scholars.

Muslim-majority nations throughout the Middle East had universities, some offering graduate and postgraduate degrees, before European nations started them (usually under the influence of the Christian Church).  They had a higher rate of literacy and were educating women as equals or near equals long before the Christian West.

Many of the Western advances in philosophy and theology also owe their roots to Medieval Islam.  The great flowering of Catholic theology came from St. Thomas Aquinas’ interactions with Aristotelian philosophy. (Originally, this was considered controversial and some called Thomas a heretic. Plato was the approved philosopher and Aristotle was suspect.) But Aristotle’s writings had been lost in Europe.  They were saved in Arabic lands, both before and after the rise of Islam.  The Islamic philosopher Averroes (the Latin version of Ibn Rushd) was not the only Islamic Aristotelian, but because he wrote much of his material in Latin (not just in Arabic), Thomas could interact with it.  Thomas also used translations of Aristotle into Latin.  (Thomas was also influenced by Jewish philosophers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Islamic contributions to the arts (especially architecture and calligraphy), poetry, music, and drama were also many and dramatic.  Because of their ban on alcohol, and their kashrut food restrictions, they worked to create new culinary delights–including coffee, without which I would not be civilized.  Women as well as men contributed to the flourishing of Islamic societies.

But all this came crashing down about the 17th C.  Today, almost all Muslim-majority nations are poorer, less-educated, and extremely conservative.  The rise of rabid Islamic fundamentalism has increased this trend, with incredible oppression of women, minorities, and religious dissent.  Obama’s brief recitation of some of this history, along with his critique of the current state of many Muslim-majority nations, should be the cause of deep, even painful, reflection by Muslims–not by the extremists, but by the progressives, centrists, and non-extremist conservatives. 

But I think this should also serve as a cautionary tale for Christians.  I KNOW that ultra-right Christian fundamentalists hate being compared to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is much in common.  And the rise and threatened domination of fundamentalism among Christians has brought with it a terrible hatred for the equality of women, for religious liberty and diversity, and a fear of science and the arts.  Too much of Christianity today is not open and does not welcome debate, dissent, or education.  And, both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists foster violence and terrorism in pursuit of totalitarian theocracies. 

Now the “new angry athiests” would conclude that faith and religion are themselves toxic.  I do not.  But fundamentalist forms are and the problems that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to Muslim-majority nations should be troubling both for contemporary Muslims (who need to throw off fundamentalism and reclaim their progressive past) and Christians (who need to defeat the fundamentalist forces among us).

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, faith, fundamentalists, Islam, progressive faith, Reformation, Religious Social Criticism | 14 Comments

No Salvation for “Terminator” Film Series

A friend took me to the new Terminator: Salvation today.  I went because it was free for me and to spend time with a friend I hadn’t hung out with in awhile.  But I have to say, my review is bad.  Despite my disdain for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (lack of) acting skills, I really liked the first two “Terminator” movies, Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day.  Both used an old theme (going back at least to the gothic novel Frankenstein) of technology gone amuck–which could also be read as fear of globalization, of like out of control, less human.  Both first two films featured a very strong female lead (Linda Hamilton) and in the second film, she has no love interest and rescues the men.  The second film is also more openly anti-war and deals with the theme of a machine designed to kill learning the value of human life (Can humans learn it in time?).

All this disappears in the third Terminator.  The female Terminator is nearly voiceless and simply an excuse (as he later said in an interview) for Schwarzenegger to violently attack a woman with impunity. (“When else can you put a woman’s head in the toilet and get away with it?” Nice guy, the Governator.) The third Terminator was just an excuse to blow things up on film.

This is even more the case in the latest edition.  There is no real plot.  No strong characters, female or male.  Just lots of killer machines and explosions.

No wonder James Cameron quit as director after the second film.  Sigh.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | arts, science-fiction | Comments Off on No Salvation for “Terminator” Film Series