Review: H. L. Mencken on Religion, Edited by S. T. Joshi Print E-mail

mencken2(Free Inquiry February/March 2004 Volume 24, Number 2)

The Passion According to Henry

The pith and purity of his prejudices, the grit and grace of his language, the dazzle and buck of his outrage: Does it really matter what H. L. Mencken attacked? Politics, literature, culture? We read him now as we have always read him, to see how and how hard he hits whatever he targets. When it comes to religion, Mencken’s view of Christian science is not much different from his view of, say, evangelicalism. "Sewers of superstition," he calls them all—practice and practitioner. For Mencken, those who think the divine intercedes in or rules human affairs are boobs whose "sin" is not belief but the piety with which their belief is lacquered.

S. T. Joshi’s anthology, H. L. Mencken on Religion, brings together 70 like-biled excoriations from Mencken’s most fertile period—as editor of the Smart Set, 1914 to 1923, and the American Mercury, till 1933. Most of the essays here fall within a 12-year frame, squarely on the Coolidge and Hoover years. In 1925, Mencken reached fever pitch in a series of editorialized dispatches (the former effacing the latter) while covering the Scopes trial. A quarter of this collection concerns that trial with Mencken flaying small-minded Dayton, Tennessee, and the "Fundamentalist Pope," William Jennings Bryan.

Review: Visions of Utopia by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp, and Martin Marty Print E-mail

utopia(American Book Review November/December 2003 Volume 25, Number 1)

Searching for Nowhere

Embedded in utopian thinking are so many ironies that one might conclude, after enumerating them, that the idea of a paradise was devised to house its impossibilities, not to resolve them. A utopia is, as commonly thought, neither something perfect in its momentariness (the seventh game of the World Series, tied in the ninth inning) nor something supposedly once perfect (life in small-town America). While eu-topos refers to "good place," ou-topos, or utopia, refers to "no place." How can a place be no place? It’s in the nature of the mind to form paradoxes, make literary constructs, smoke the artistic hookah. Our wiring tells us to imagine that which we can’t have. For two reasons: to change or accept our lot. In the latter case, utopian thinking is a Bodhisattva-like calling, helping us to accept what is, not what isn’t. What is, is unalterable, and, perhaps, is what should be.

Review: Train by Pete Dexter Print E-mail

dexter-train(San Diego Union-Tribune October 5, 2003)

The Fatalist

In Pete Dexter's multiracial Los Angeles, the time is 1953, and the city is quickly being encircled with housing developments and leisure venues to serve the new tracts. Inexorable sunshine and aquaducted water have birthed a spate of golf courses, opportunity mills for game and graft. Small-time syndicates are everywhere—boxing rings, extortion schemes and colluding white cops who will stage a murder if a black man's "inherent criminality" can be fingered.

The wayward center of Dexter's sixth novel (Paris Trout won the National Book Award in 1988) is an 18-year-old black man—real name Lionel, nickname Train. Train's turf is Brookline, a Brentwood country club, where he caddies and occasionally works on the greens. He stays at his mom's place under the vengeful eye of her boyfriend, keeps every feeling to himself and plays a torrid round of golf. But since he's black, he can only practice his stroke in the half-light of early morning or late evening, when the course is closed.

Review: Adaptation, a Film by Spike Jonze Print E-mail

adaptation_ver3(The Redwood Coast Review Spring 2003)

Get Me Rewrite!

Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation has as its main theme the writer’s struggle to create work of integrity and originality in a world ruled by the corporate demands of sameness and success. This struggle manifests itself in the quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman who, on the heels of his previous kooky success, Being John Malkovich, is hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a book about the fascination a few people (Orlean included) have with this plant. Producers want Kaufman’s weirdness but they also want a hit, at least, enough of their investment returned to finance the next venture. A hit, in Kaufman’s over-reactive mind, is the most obviously awful story he could write—a fast-paced thriller with young male-female leads who learn redemptive lessons about love in a violence-obsessed and paranoid world—apparently, what most Americans want and what producers produce. So Kaufman’s drama becomes one of trying not to write such a film. But he ends up writing it anyway in the guise of writing a movie about the actual peril of not writing the particular movie he is writing.

Review: The Martyrs of Columbine by Justin Watson Print E-mail

martyrs_of_columbine(Written February 2003)

Ever since that lunch-hour horror on April 21, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered 13 people, then killed themselves, at Columbine High School, there’s been controversy—not so much about the culture of violence that spawned the attack but the "new faith" that has risen in its wake. At issue in Watson’s short book is the "martyred" girls, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott, the two of the thirteen who were Christians. Their brethren, mostly evangelicals, maintain that the pair, separately, replied when asked by the gunmen whether they believed in God—both, supposedly, said yes, and then were shot, supposedly, for believing. Justin Watson’s fact-obsessed book about their martyrdom presents near-conclusive evidence that these statements were not true and that the evangelicals, among them Darnell Scott, the father of Rachel, have propagated the untruth ceaselessly. Taking this story to frightened young people in school assemblies, they insist that Christianity be put back into public schools and that violence in America is the result of godlessness or, better, Christlessness.

Review: The Art of Donal Hord Print E-mail

donal_hord(Written June 1999)

Romancing the Stone and the Wood

It is one of the more curious inclinations of artists: Why is it that some choose media to work in which is antithetical to their natures? Take Donal Hord. San Diego’s most famous sculptor was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy and brought by his mother to semi-arid Southern California to recuperate. Here he survived, studying sculpture with Anna Valentien, but lived a subdued life, unable to go to school, his heart forever weakened. With the aid of Homer Dana, Hord’s lifelong assistant, the sculptor chose to contend with nature’s hardest materials—rosewood, diorite, the hardest form of granite and obsidian, or volcanic glass. Hord won, and easily it seems, creating human figures, at times, delicate and fanciful, at other times, massive and obdurate. How curious indeed that his frailty as a man lives on unechoed in his vigor as an artist.

Review: Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace by James J. O'Donnell Print E-mail

foreedge(Georgia Review Spring 1999 Volume 53, Number 1)

It is tempting to think as scholar James O’Donnell has that the glacial shift from hand-copying manuscripts to the printing press must prefigure the present era’s change from book to computer. In this view St. Jerome, the Latin monk who translated, copied and preserved Christian texts, is a man for all seasons. Almost single-handedly, he disseminated Christianity to the Mediterranean world by mastering the technology of the word. In our age online scholars and libraries may be doing likewise by bringing the whole of our culture to every Internet browser on earth.

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