Dec 21, 2015

Top 25 LGBTQ Christian books of 2015 - from Jesus in Love Blog

In my haste to run through a list of best gay fiction of the year in the previous posting (and Tennessee's biography), I should have clarified that I was looking primarily at 'secular' gay fiction, but with an eye wide open for any religious themes that might surface. The most Catholic of my offerings, Tom Spanbauer's Now is the Hour, took a rather dim view of the harmful effects of a traditional Catholic upbringing. Michael Nava's City of Palaces also deals with Christian gay themes in Mexico.

However, Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog has compiled a superb list of the best 25 LGBTQ books of the year, a very rich offering indeed - from theology to art/culture to biography to gay fiction. Check it out here at Jesus in Love. 

As an aspiring YA gay christian novelist myself (working on a crime novel set in Prague with gay teen protagonists) I was especially interested in Mia Kerrick's Inclination, from Kittredge's list. I've just added this book to my 'must read' list!

Here's the blurb from Amazon:

Sixteen-year-old Anthony Duck-Young Del Vecchio is a nice Catholic boy with a very big problem. It’s not the challenge of fitting in as the lone adopted South Korean in a close-knit family of Italian-Americans. Nor is it being the one introverted son in a family jam-packed with gregarious daughters. Anthony’s problem is far more serious—he is the only gay kid in Our Way, his church’s youth group. As a high school junior, Anthony has finally come to accept his sexual orientation, but he struggles to determine if a gay man can live as a faithful Christian. And as he faces his dilemma, there are complications. After confiding his gayness to his intolerant adult youth group leader, he’s asked to find a new organization with which to worship. He’s beaten up in the church parking lot by a fanatical teen. His former best pal bullies him in the locker room. His Catholic friends even stage an intervention to lead him back to the “right path.” Meanwhile, Anthony develops romantic feelings for David Gandy, an emo, out and proud junior at his high school, who seems to have all the answers about how someone can be gay and Christian, too. Will Anthony be able to balance his family, friends and new feelings for David with his changing beliefs about his faith so he can live a satisfying life and not risk his soul in the process?

Dec 13, 2015

Gay Books of the Year

Have been neglecting this blog of late, but not the issues it deals with. At the moment I'm on a reading spree of some of the 'best gay LGBT books of the year" depending on who you listen to.  I hope to review quite a few during the upcoming Christmas break. I've been paying special attention to YA Gay fiction, aimed primarily at teens. Books I've read so far include, John Lahr's masterful biography of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, this year's co- Lambda award winner for biography. I complimented this by reading alongside it Darwin Porter's salacious, outrageous, titillating and scandalous Pink Triangle. I had no idea Paul Newman was bi-sexual, not to mention Clark Gable. Who knew?

Lahr's biography was deeply engrossing and terribly sad, but it raised my appreciation for all Williams did for us gay Americans of any religious sensibility in liberating our flesh from guilt and shame. A bio of the year, really.

At the moment, however, I'm reading a children's 'gay story', Strange Boy, by Paul Magr, which was actually published in 2003 and excited quite a bit of controversy at the time, though it's hard to know why. The book explores the relationship between 10 year old David and his 14 year old neighbor friend, John, with whom he is infatuated. There is a brief boyish physical encounter at the beginning, which is so 'normal' and ordinary that one wonders why there was an outcry to ban this book. I certainly wouldn't call it sexual. Simply boys exploring and doing a bit of very mild experimenting - lasting less than a minute, so why all the fuss? Because the protagonist is so young and therefore the author must be intent on programming and recruiting young children into the 'gay lifestyle,' instead of simply chronicling a perfectly commonplace experience - one which mirrors events in the author's own life, as well as my own. Well worth reading for the bravery of the author in breaching this taboo and exploring the awakening sexuality of a ten year old 'gay boy' who already has a strong inkling of his true orientation.

I also polished off the Philippines National Book Award winner for this year, and the first Filipino crime novel ever written ( could that really be true?), Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H.Batacan.

This deserves a full-on review, but briefly I will say it was a superb, procedural crime novel with an original pair of protagonist-detectives, two Jesuit priests who are trained as forensic anthropologists. In other words, they are experts at examining evidence at crime scenes and in autopsy rooms. The victims are all thirteen year old boys, horribly mutilated, snatched at dump sites where they had been scavenging (most of them), then dropped back at the dump after their tormenter had finished with them. The Catholic Church's appalling cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal - right there in the Philippines - is given expert treatment, with a scathing characterization of the Cardinal at the heart of the scandal. But this is a peripheral side story, so to speak, since (spoiler alert) the author has chosen to make her perpetrator a layman with no association whatsoever with the Church. Is she making a point here? Don't know and can't say in this rushed review. But I found it puzzling that - with the exception of one line spoken briefly by one of the priest detectives (It's enough to make one question one's faith), the author never explores the issue of 'theodicy,' to use a clumsy word. It is implicit, however, in the storytelling, since the author's greatest strength lies in her depiction of the anguish of the families searching desperately for their missing children or - in the case of the parents of the murderer - trying to come to terms with the horrifying fact that they had raised a psychopath. The most poignant example, in my opinion (spoiler), the mother whose son was still born, the nurse telling her " you can hold it for a minute', before she takes the corpse away, the desperate attempts of the mother to warm the child next to her breast and the miracle of the boy's first breath! The next six years are hard ones, as the boy struggles with many physical handicaps. Then at the age of six, he achieves some kind of breakthrough, leaves all of his ill health behind and enters into a glowing, normal, healthy boyhood - only to be snatched away at the age of 13, horribly tortured and mutilated, then dumped onto a pile of garbage. We hear him crying to himself in terror and anguish and he realizes he is the next victim, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no." Nothing is more devastating to the life of faith than the torture of a child.  No theologizing here from the author, simply the stark, bare facts - inserted into a novel that has a Catholic setting. That is enough to raise the most disturbing moral and theological questions. How could 'God' permit this? Well done, but I'm not sure what the point was of having two Jesuits as detectives if they are not going to engage in some degree of reflection on the religious dimensions of the situation. Their faith enters into it not a whit. 

Also went through three of the Lambda Awards shortlisted best teen gay novels, all of them (I'm happy to say) sunny and bright and optimistic, with loving parents, tolerant friends, frisky, precocious gay protagonists coming to terms with their sexuality, and dealing with intolerance in a context of warm family and friends support. They are in no particular order, You, Me, Him, Adam Silvera's More Happy Than Not, and Will Walton's  Anything Could Happen. Hope to comment on them later, but I was deeply touched at the way the authors assure us that happy, healthy, supportive families of gay kids do exist. We need such books, just as - or even more than - we need the stories that describe the suffering of gay kids trapped in unloving, bigoted, intolerant families. 

And also, Lambda's award for best gay crime novel of the year, Blackmail My Love, by Katie Gilmartin, set in pre Stonewall San Francisco (my hometown) that conveys so brilliantly the visceral experience of living fearfully in the closet, in fear of associating publicly with like minded gay or lesbian friends, always looking over one's shoulder, vulnerable to blackmail. Funny in parts, sad in most, with a colorful cast of eccentric characters, most of whose 'eccentricity' is in reaction to and in compensation for the stifling walls of their social confinement. A great read.

Finally, the gay teen novel of the year for me wasn't even published this year, but in 2008, Tom Spanbauer's Now is the Hour.  Spanbauer's I loved You More was actually this year's Lambda Award winner for best teen gay fiction, but a kind friend gave me a copy of Now is the Hour, so I set to it.

Now is the Hour is a true coming of age story, a true bildungsroman, about a young gay teen boy growing up on an Idaho farm in the 1970's, very close to my own youth, in a dysfunction, rigidly Catholic family, with all of the guilt and shame baggage such an upbringing implies. I wish I could do it justice here in this rush review, but bedtime calls with seven hours of teaching tomorrow. This was a profound work, a profound examination of the enormous damage caused by religious repression and the hollowness at the core of such religious belief. At times I feared the book was veering towards caricature, with the mother on her knees praying the rosary and reciting litanies and driving her son at breakneck speed into town and confession. But the author captured so perfectly the 'sense of the times', particularly the sense of a Catholic family adhering to all of the Catholic rules and prejudices. And in the midst of this stifling atmosphere, Spanbauer has created such a winning central character, Rigby John Klusener, who goes through so much, in such detail, through so many adolescent trials, breaking through so many barriers, making so many discoveries, and experiencing so much heartbreak along the way, particularly the shock of how cruelly adults who should be caring for the young can in fact betray them with all of the 'best intentions' in the world, self-righteously convinced they are morally correct. A great Indian love story at it's heart and a breathtaking sense of liberation at its end. Probably my 'gay book' of the year, even if the year was 2008.

Books on the 'to read' list include:

Richard Blanco's Lambda award winning bio (co winner with Tennessee), The Prince of Los Cocuyos, all about growing up gay and Cuban in Miami.

Bitter Eden, by South African author, Tatamkhulu Afrika, a novel based on the author's own experiences in the North African campaign of World War II, a poignant, heartbreaking love story set in a POW camp after the seige of Tobruk. A Lambda best gay fiction shortlisted book.

City of Palaces by Michael Nava, also shortlisted for Lambda's best gay fiction award. An epic Mexican family saga set during revolutionary times and a love story between a committed atheist and his devout Catholic wife, as they struggle to raise their gay son during the times of collapsing order.

Also on my list, Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter, shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, yet to be announced. The story of a tormented British gay man, who leaves his wife and son behind in England to flee as a colonist to Canada in the wake of scandal in London.

Boystown 6: From the Ashes, by Marshal Thornton, this year's Lambda award winner for best gay teen crime novel.

Finally, I've saved what may be in some ways the most interesting book of all, Torsten Hojer's just published anthology of gay fiction, with an intro by Stephen Fry, Speak My Language and Other Stories.  A rich compendium of gay fiction from across borders and cultures and age gaps that gives us a quick review of many of the above listed authors, a tour of contemporary gay experience unlike any other. I've already started it, and have gone through four of the stories, all of them terrific.

The richness on offer here is humbling and inspiring, testifying to the fact that 'gay fiction' is more than alive and healthy. It is thriving, vibrant, optimistic in the fact of intolerance and shouting to the rooftops the joy of being gifted as gay.

Sep 25, 2015

Rest in Peace Father John McNeil

One of the very great patron saints of the gay rights movement in the Catholic Church and the  US passed away on September 22. I can't begin to express how much I owe to him and how deeply his death has moved me. I feel somewhat the way I felt with the news of Thomas Merton's death so many years ago - that there was no longer anyone left that one could ask for advice about anything. And how fortuitous that Father McNeil passed away on the same day Pope Francis arrived in the US. He was thereby spared the painful sight of the Pope dismissing gay marriage in the name of 'religious liberty', damning women with faint praise and slighting the sufferings and courage of all sex abuse victims.

Gratitude to Kittredge Cherry of the wonderful Jesus in Love Blog for alerting us to this event.

From Kittredge's blog:

I light a memorial candle for Father John J. McNeill, pioneering gay priest, psychotherapist, author, theologian and Jesuit scholar who inspired countless LGBTQ people of faith and their allies. He died Tuesday night, Sept. 22, in a hospice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his partner of 49 years, Charles Chiarelli, at his bedside. He was 90.

Be sure to read the full posting at Jesus in Love. 

Here is a link to the wonderful Owls Nest Book Store that hosts all of John McNeil's many groundbreaking books. 

Aug 31, 2015

Back from Summer Camp

Just returned from eight intense non stop weeks of summer camp with Czech kids. Exhausted beyond words, but I wouldn't have missed a moment of it. Thankfully, the world and it's woes were far, far away from us.

Now it's back to reality.

Here are some of my adorable kids walking through the forest in a happy mood.

Jun 26, 2015

Jun 6, 2015

Ruminations on Ireland, Oscar and Jahar

Been neglecting this blog of late, since I'm running two other blogs at the same time, but that doesn't mean I haven't kept a keen eye on all things gay and LGBT, including the historic vote in Ireland, which was so uplifting - whether you agree or not that human rights issues should be decided by vote. A close gay friend, history teacher of mine, does not agree. What if Uganda were to hold such a referendum? I see his point, but even he conceded that Ireland had just done something truly remarkable. 

Part of the historic significance of this vote was its (intended, I'm sure) slap in the face of the homophobic Catholic Church, signifying that it no longer holds a vice-like grip over the moral consciences of Irish people. Most people can see through the ruse, with the Catholic Church coming down so hard on gay people and their civic rights as a psychological defense mechanism in light of their public shame over the sex abuse crisis. "Please don't think we're gay, please don't think we're gay, see how much we 'hate' gay people?" This begs the question as to whether the abuse crisis is primarily a 'homosexual' crisis at all. The question is how it is perceived by the outside world, and since it is so perceived, Church officials who'se self-identity is caught up with the institutional church feel the compulsive need to compensate for this shame as a way of avoiding having to face up to their own crimes of abuse and cover-up. Hence, the moral self-righteous attack on gay people (couched in the gentlest language of love and pity for such inherently disordered souls). But I see I'm ranting here, must get off the soapbox. 

My other blogs:

Crime Scene Reviews, my review site for crime novels and related book reviews.

Prague Noir, personal reflections on criminal issues, crime scene investigations, anomalies in the crime scene world.

In particular, I've been posting links related to the Boston Marathon Bombing trial, just concluded, and the fate of its young defendant, Jahar (Dzhokhar) Tsarnaev. I have a personal connection to this case, which I'd rather not explain (a close friend in Boston during these events), but I see close parallels with the infamous Slansky show trial here in Prague in 1952 and the even more infamous political trial of Alfred Drefyus in France.

But I digress...back to Ireland. In honor of the historic vote, I decided to revisit some books in my library. First the two marvelous plays written about Oscar and his trial...

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman. First published and staged off Broadway in 1998, a revolutionary play for its times and a production which I saw in New York. Uses trial records and Oscar's own words and commentary from public figures and books of the time. Presents him in all his brilliance, courage and vulnerability.

The Judas Kiss by David Hare. Who would have thought that David Hare, known as a political, socialist playwright, could compose a play with such a poetic flourish. Chronicles the disastrous love affair between Oscar and Alfred Lord Douglas, and brings Oscar Wilde alive as no other fictional, dramatic work I know.

Finally, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, a most recent biography, which complements the rather 'safe' bio by Richard Ellmann by actually exploring Wilde's developing sexuality. Using new sources recently discovered. I'm half way through this and it's riveting. This is the same book as the cover at beginning of post, which apparently the publisher felt was too lurid for some tastes, hence this more stolid look. Personally, I much prefer the first one.

have to run, so don't have time to comment further, except to say all three of these works are well worth reading and give a deeper appreciation for our first self consciously 'gay' figure in Western, Anglo Saxon culture. Oscar, I'm sure, is dancing in the heavens above over Ireland's historic vote for equality. It's been a long time coming, Oscar, but thank you.

May 16, 2015

Genuine Humanity in Boston

On the way to the little village of Lisnice, the Land of Oz

This is what decency and common humanity look like - in this insightful, compassionate look at Boston 'Bomber' Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Heather is a defense attorney's daughter and she is already preparing a follow up posting on the grounds for an appeal.

Yesterday, I Saw the Boston Marathon Bomber

April 23, 2015 § 14 Comments
I stood mere feet from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
I don’t mean the fateful day of the 2013 Boston Marathon; I had the good luck to be outside the city on that day. Or any time previously, although we apparently traveled in similar circles: he lived in Cambridge; I worked there and lived nearby for awhile. I had a friend at UMass Dartmouth, where he was going to college. I teach at the community college his brother attended, the college he probably would have gone to after flunking out of UMass Dartmouth, if circumstances had been different. I often think of the times I may have passed him on the street in Central Square over the years, just another mop-headed teen I never looked too closely at.
I saw him yesterday, in person, in the courtroom.
Read the full article here at her blog Helter Skelter in a Summer Swelter

May 9, 2015

The Confused Citizen's Guide to the Boston Marathon Bombings

Just posted this at my new blog, Prague Noir: Ruminations of a Crime Novelist. 

In response to requests from friends and students (and with hope in my heart and a prayer for justice), I've compiled this short summary of the competing narratives surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing of April 13, 2015. The subject is grim, but through such terrible ordeals we are given a glimpse of human nature at it's best, not only its worst.
Links to detailed resources (which avoid the more extreme theories) will follow, so for simplicity's sake I must skip many details and I can't corroborate every assertion I make. Interested readers can follow up. I'm not interested in making an argument, simply providing another prism through which the events of those days can be viewed - since the MSM and the defense team of the present trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have failed to do so. Yes, his defense lawyer said 'he did it,' more about that calculated, expedient gamble later.
The basics: two bombs exploded near the finish line of the marathon, killing four and wounding some 260 others, including those who reported minor injuries such as hearing loss as late as two weeks later.
Within several hours of the bombings, police officials announced that they had CCTV footage from the department store across the street from the 2nd bombing site of an individual laying down a black duffel bag or holdall bag near the metal barricades and then leaving the scene (an hour before principal suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, arrived on the scene). They assured the public they were following this lead vigorously, and they asked the public for any information about individuals dragging large black bags on that day. This bag can be seen in numerous photos taken from across the street.
Read the full posting here at Prague Noir
Martin Richards, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon Bombings

Apr 25, 2015

Gay News of the Week

Gay News of the Week - some cheering and uplifting, some not so much.

First, a charming and inspiring incident from a Las Vegas high school:

Jacob Lescenski, a Las Vegas, Nevada high school student, is straight. His best friend, Anthony Martinez, is gay.
As you can see from the photo above and this tweet, Jacob asked his buddy Anthony to the prom, because, why not?

“He’s a real man,” Anthony said of Jacob in a post, “given that he has the guts to fulfill my gay student council dream of always helping out planning dances, and never getting asked. I couldn’t ask for a better person in my life.”
In a follow up piece, NewNowNext chatted with the two friends.
“I decided on going to prom alone because my original date idea didn’t work out so well,” explained Jacob. “Then one night I saw Anthony, who is my best friend, Tweeting about wanting a date. I then thought about how amazing of a guy he is and that he deserved a date. So, I came up with the poster idea, asked my friend Mia to make it and asked him that next day. No one knew about it except for me, my friend Jamie, and Mia (who made the poster). Therefore it was a giant surprise to everyone, especially Anthony!
“I just always wanted a date,” says Anthony, “but I knew being gay, and knowing I’m too busy for guys, no gay guy would ask me to a dance, let alone prom. So like any teen I complained about it on Twitter. On April 21 I was down at lunch selling prom tickets and I went upstairs to go to class and saw this giant poster and assumed it was for another person… until I read ‘You’re hella gay.'”

Read the whole story here at The New Civil Rights Movement. 

Next on the list, an event that is both negative and positive, but I prefer to 'accentuate the positive'.

The Pope finally met with the French government's candidate for ambassador to the Vatican, Laurent Stefanini,  and told him politely to his face that he was not acceptable because (horrors) he might get married to another man while serving in the Vatican. The Pope apparently expressed his disapproval of France's same sex marriage law and resented being forced to accept a gay man as ambassador. Why do I present this as a positive thing? Because the Franch government is not backing down. They are, in the words of one commentator, 'forcing the Pope to own his bias'. Awkward!

I have to say, however, I loved this comment from -

Bernard Kouchner, France’s former foreign minister, has been more outspoken.
“The Vatican seems badly placed to refuse homosexuals,” Kouchner told RTL Radio this week, adding, “but apart from that, I adore Pope Francis.”
Read the whole story here at Crux Now.

The last story is from my very own alma mater, Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, California. The 5 nuns in the school walked out of their classrooms last Friday in protest against a day of silence designed to call attention to the plight of bullied gay teens. The nuns said a gay group 'with an agenda' was on campus handing out fliers calling for the teaching of 'gay issues' to grammar school children and this made the sisters uncomfortable.

It's a very disturbing story on the surface, because the sisters walked out of their classes leaving their students unattended and because students were hurt at such an action on a day designed to support gay teens and their friends. This  has occasioned a fair amount of outrage and criticism, yet it also has its silver lining for revealing that the Marin Catholic High School community is divided over the issue of gay rights, but not evenly so. The majority are on the side of LGBT people and simple fairness and justice, while the admin - sympathetic and seeking to accommodate diversity - strains to walk the narrow razors edge between official Catholic teaching and simple ethical decency. It's a hard walk to make without tripping.

I posted this comment at the  San Francisco Chronicle article

I'm an alumni of Marin Catholic, but despite having received a superb education here many years ago, at this point in history - sadly - I would not send any of my children to a Catholic institution. Undoubtedly there are sincere, good Catholic educators among the staff, but the challenge of having to toe the 'official' Catholic line on issues such as this only results in ethical compromise and tortuous casuistry. Needless to say, the position of most pew Catholics regarding LGBT people and their relationships and rights is fundamentally at odds with the hierarchy that sets the official position. "God forbid" we should be perceived as promoting in even the slightest way the 'homosexual agenda', even through a day of silence designed to call attention to the plight of bullied teens, a plight that would be so much less severe without the explicit agenda of a sinfully homophobic church. My first lesson in the painful requirement of standing up against injustice meted out by corrupt institutions, even the most revered, came from my civics and religion teacher at Marin Cathoic, Father Bernard Cummins.

Despite the bad press, even this kind of event presages changes in the future. The Church's official bias against gay people is being exposed for all the world to see and religious like the nuns are running for cover in panic. I pity the poor Catholic administrators trying to hold all of these tensions in balance, but it was clear from comments by the Principal and Vice Principal that neither of them felt the nuns' behavior was 'constructive'. Indeed.

Apr 19, 2015

The Franciscan (Pope Francis): A Book Review

Partly because of my theological background, I was asked by the publishers to provide an honest review of The Franciscan, a religious suspense thriller by WR. Park. Written some fourteen years ago, the plot revolves around a fictional Pope Francis (from the Franciscan order) who attempts to introduce revolutionary reforms into the Catholic Church and who faces numerous death threats and assassination attempts as a result. Of course, the coincidence of naming his protagonist Pope Francis some ten years before the present Pope Francis' election is striking and noteworthy, especially since the present Pope, an amiable and charismatic man on the surface, raised many expectations of genuine reform at the beginning of his tenure. Sadly, those expectations have failed to be realized by now, as Francis has sought the support of billionaire oligarchs (particularly those circling round Jeb Bush for the upcoming US presidential race), continues to oppose any meaningful discussion of lifting the ban on birth control, continues to firmly oppose any discussion of women being admitted to priestly orders, continues to oppose any meaningful inclusion of gay people into the church or to prohibit the Church's attacks on civil liberties for LGBT persons, and most importantly continues to protect his bishops from any meaningful accountability for the sex abuse scandal, even to the extent of appointing a notorious priest/pedophile protector, Juan Barros, as Bishop of Osnoro Chile.  Any hopes of good Pope Francis introducing genuine reforms into the Catholic church have been pretty much shattered by now. But that is another story.

WR. Park's book was written with the best of intentions and a kind of boyish enthusiasm and naivete, and I respect his intentions and found many of his proposals for reforms and the effective means of carrying them out to be quite refreshing and original. Unfortunately, he has incorporated his ideas into the format of a suspense thriller and as a thriller it doesn't really succeed. We know right from the beginning pages who the villain is (a dastardly, evil conservative Cardinal), his motives and several of his assassination plots. The only suspense in the novel is whether the villain will succeed in his attempts to do the Pope in, and I'm afraid that's not really very suspenseful at all. I found the numerous sub plots revolving around this theme to be amateurish and unconvincing and quite tedious to read. This part of the plot rushes at breakneck speed in an attempt to mimic an action thriller, but it doesn't convince. However, what tickled me no end was the sight of prelates and cardinals engaged in feats of 'daring-do' and even engaging in fisticuffs with one another. Even the Pope storms into a room and slaps his opponent in the face and breaks his jaw! That got a guffaw out of me. It was a very refreshing, iconoclastic picture of Catholic prelates at variance with the controlled gravitas so many of them exhibit. But the suspense thriller? Not suspenseful at all, I'm sorry to say.

The best parts of the book, in my opinion, were the brief forays into past history, displaying many highly fallible (and quite monstrous) decisions made by these supposedly 'infallible' Popes. Park does a good job summarizing them, so that reading them provides the most effective wallop when dismantling the myth of papal infallibility. Also, his proposals for reform of the Church are intelligent and thoughtful and the means by which they might be carried out, especially the democratizing of the church's governing structures, are refreshingly original and breathtaking. This is indeed how it should be done, I thought,  if there were a Pope with the courage to undertake it. Some of the proposals were naive, particularly regarding the speed with which they were announced and carried out (the Pope simply announces from the balcony of St. Peter's that he is not infallible), but I found this aspect acceptable in a work of fiction, unlike the sorry lack of suspense in the thriller dimension of the novel. The proposals for democratizing the church's governing structures - really interesting, thoughtful, and provocative. Park shows a commendable balance between respect for the sacredness and need for the "Petrine office" and the pressing need to 'put the Pope in his place," because of the false idolization of the papacy. All well and good.Book Publicity Services WR PARK
In the end, however, this is still a man's novel with a bunch of men running around saving the world and the church, and a charismatic male hero at the helm, good Pope Francis. Park is highly selective in the reforms he wishes to focus upon, mainly papal infallibility, Vatican finances, church governance. Sexual issues are pretty much ignored, particularly the sex abuse scandal which gets nary a mention, birth control, LGBT people in the Church, and women's ordination and sharing in governance. There is one mention at the beginning that women should be accepted for priestly ordination, and then it is pretty much forgotten. Even worse,  there is no single outstanding woman leader/fictional character helping the pope and all of his male accomplices in saving the church. It's all men engaged in acts of spying, espionage, plotting, saving the world. The only significant female character in the whole book is a vicious female assassin towards the end. Ouch! I thought. Not a good way to go about fictionalizing the issue of reform of the Catholic Church - by mirroring the Church's  own male misogyny and distrust of women and gays.

Gays? One reference to 'homosexuals,' spoken by our evil cardinal when slandering Pope Francis behind his back by suggesting he and his co-friars engaged in disgusting, immoral 'homosexual orgies' when they were together in a remote Franciscan monastery. That's it? That's the only mention of the issue of gay people in the Church and the clergy? Of course, we all know that when gay people gather together, they turn into 'homosexuals' engaged in "disgusting orgies". What else are they to do?

Coupled with this are a number of references to the robust heterosexual lustiness of a number of the hero cardinals and prelates assisting the pope, including one triumphant bello  from a sexy femme fatale about an aging Cardinal. " He's straight," she announces with evident glee after succeeding in arousing him. Gee, really? How weird. I let the first one slide and the second, but after the third reference to an elderly prelate getting turned on by a sexy female, I thought - Hmmm, seems to be a bit of defensiveness here about the image of male clericals. 'We need to counteract the gay image that has so tarnished the church,' the author seems to be saying.  Not a good way to deal with the issue of gay people in the clergy, whom reliable estimates put at 20 to 25%. The systematic attack by the church on the civil rights of gay people in civil society is one of the most egregious practices now underway in the Catholic Church, completely at variance with the gospel message of Jesus the Nazarene,  and any book dealing with reform must face it head on and honestly. This is a defensive reaction on the part of a profoundly homophobic church. "Please don't think we're gay, see how much we hate gay people." This Park does not do, quite the contrary. Coupled with the absence of any significant, empowered female character, and the inclusion of a vicious female assassin, one can only conclude that the author himself has some serious 'issues' of his own to deal with regarding women and gays. Best to clear those up before engaging in a work of fiction.

In the end, I was rather disappointed with the book, after starting with high expectations. I appreciated the author's sincere suggestions about reforms, as far as they went, I chuckled at the image of elderly cardinals running about engaging in feats of daring do, I thought some of his suggestions about practical means of effecting reforms to be breathtakingly original. But the tone of misogyny regarding women and gays was quite disturbing. However, I would have been willing to overlook these faults (somewhat) if the darn suspense thriller part of the book, had been, well....suspenseful. Unfortunately, I wasn't gripped by the story nor particularly worried for the characters. Suspense and tension seemed to be missing, and that is a serious flaw in a 'suspense thriller.' Park is proposing this book as part of a three part series. Let us hope that in subsequent volumes, he conceals the villain's identity until the very end. And please - throw in some truly empowered women leaders and a decent gay character or two.

★ ★ ★ for good intentions

Apr 12, 2015

The Fifth Gospel - a Vatican thriller

Book review of The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

This was an intelligent, erudite thriller that held me in suspense for the first 80% of the book. However, I was quite disappointed with the left turn it took towards the end and the final denouement. I will try to avoid major spoilers in this short review - at least until the final paragraphs.

As a religious thriller, I thought it was professionally done and succeeded in engaging my sympathies with the characters, especially the narrator, a Greek Catholic priest and his six year old son. Because both are threatened by the turn of events, the narrative was really quite moving and genuinely suspenseful. And using a Greek Catholic priest who is able to marry as the central narrator also offered a window into reform of the moribund Catholic system, without having to belabor the point. A very clever move, because the overall tone of the book is reverential (too much so) towards the hierarchical male system of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There is also reverential awe displayed towards the 'saintly' John Paul II and respect for his closest theological advisor (and future pope) Cardinal Ratzinger. So any Catholics of a conservative bent would be reassured, while more progressive readers would be appeased by the use of a married priest. Very interesting interplay.

The interplay between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds was also fascinating for anyone interested in arcane religious lore. Beyond this, however, the early parts of the book formed a superb crash course in biblical exegesis and the 'critical-historical method' of reading the gospels. I went through all of this during five years of theological graduate studies. This short summary was really brilliantly done, engaging, interesting, and to the point as far as the plot was concerned.

More importantly, the author shows himself conversant with the latest scientific discoveries regarding the controversial relic, The Shroud of Turin. It is true that a seminal article was published in 2004 in the world's leading peer reviewed scientific journal. Thermochimica Acta by chemist Ray Rogers of Los Alamos Laboratories that seriously called into question the 1985 carbon dating of the shroud. As of this point in history, no respected scientist accepts the 1985 carbon dating as reliable. So the author of the Fifth Gospel knows his stuff and this makes for a compelling and exciting read.

My problem with the book (spoiler alert) comes towards the end in the uses the author makes of his biblical exegesis to 'prove a point' about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Having led us in one direction about the Shroud's authenticity, he then makes an abrupt turn in the opposite direction - without having sufficiently come to terms with or explained the implications of the discrediting of the carbon dating. He uses a simplistic 'critical historical' approach to John's gospel to prove his point, namely that the discrepancies between John's gospel and the other three 'synoptic' gospels rests with John's penchant for symbolization over factual accuracy. He implies that details found in john's gospel about the final passion of Jesus which are not found in the synoptics must therefore be imaginative inventions added for symbolic theological reasons - namely the wound in the side and the discovery of burial 'cloths' in the tomb rather than a single cloth. Unfortunately, this is an extreme oversimplification that robs his conclusion of any reliability.

Now he is writing a work of fiction, not a scientific treatise, so he is free to arrange, edit, invent and imagine as he pleases for fictional purposes - but within certain limits. He mentions, for example, that John's gospel says herbs and spices were used in preparing Jesus' body for burial, but evidence of such spices were not found during the scientific examination of the shroud. Therefore - wala - we see how John invents and adds. By implication, therefore, because John alone of the four gospels mentions the wound in Jesus' side, the Shroud of Turin, which includes a side wound, must be inauthentic or a 'fake,' based solely on John's imaginative invention. However, he fails to inform his readers that there is spectacular forensic evidence on the shroud that supports John's gospel and completely contradicts his own thesis. (I leave it to the interested reader to research what this might be, but forensic scientists have confirmed that the evidence is not apparent to the naked eye, but only detectable under microscopic examination under ultraviolet light. Therefore, in no way could it have been 'faked' by a medieval forger.). There is also equally spectacular forensic evidence coming from another source about the possibility of multiple cloths in the tomb (The Sindona in Spain, bloodstains of which form a perfect match when superimposed on the Shroud of Turin). Taken together, these two pieces of 'evidence' support the alternative theory that the author of the Gospel of John had access to a stream of authentic tradition, including eyewitness reports of the final hours of Jesus, which was not accessible to the synoptic gospel authors. Too complex a subject to go into detail here.

Does this matter in a work of fiction? Well, I think it does when the early treatment/instruction about the historical/critical method of reading the gospels has been so responsibly and seriously done. This raises expectations of trust in the reader - that the author, while fictionalizing the investigations surrounding the shroud, is also being responsible in his treatment of the subject and will not lead the reader astray. Not leading the reader astray does not mean espousing one position or another about the shroud's authenticity. It means warning the reader IF one is carefully selecting and editing/ excluding evidence to suit a fictional point of view. He includes what supports his thesis, he excludes what does not. Anyone familiar with the present state of Shroud research will feel quite deflated by this subterfuge. The ending feels dishonest to me, partly because I can't quite figure out his fictional purposes, and partly because it doesn't square with current research. There is even a bit of a snide, condescending comment aimed at viewers of the shroud exhibition (in the novel) thinking, "Ah yes, we always knew (the Shroud was authentic), when in fact they have all been fooled. But he hasn't presented a plausible argument, fictional or otherwise, as to how they have been fooled. If you want to suggest a bit of iconoclasm, that we shouldn't take such sacred relics so seriously, but focus instead on the substance of the gospels and you fictionalize that approach by questioning the Shroud's authenticity, well and good. But the author's approach seems so 'scientific' when in fact it is highly selective and, to this reader at least, more than a little dishonest. I felt quite let down at the end. What was the point of all that effort? 

Apr 11, 2015

Boston Marathon Bombing Verdict/Revised

In a state of mourning today over the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty verdict in the Boston Marathon Bombing trial - though the verdict was certainly expected and no surprise. I've followed this case meticulously in exact detail from the first day (the only way to make sense of it). Living as I am in the Czech Republic, the site of one of the most notorious, infamous Soviet show trials of the 50's (the Rudolf Slansky Trial), it is disheartening in the extreme to witness something so similar in one's own country. During the Slansky trial, the teenage son of one of the defendants wrote an open letter to the government calling for the execution of his father for his heinous 'crimes against the state'. After the Slansky trial victims were cleared of all charges in 1963 and exonerated and rehabilitated in 1968, the young man committed suicide. Will such a moment ever come for us and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?
73% of Americans polled are calling for his execution, 24% for life imprisonment without possibility of parole, 2% for neither, and 1% "don't know". I am firmly with the 2%. At this point in American history, it is a good place to be. If you question the verdict in any way or suggest the possibility of a 'set-up' or black ops conspiracy, you are immediately branded a 'truther' and 'conspiracy theorist'. But I will not belabor the point here. 
The prosecution has just released the full set of evidence exhibited on line. 
Not a single backpack has been admitted into evidence. Those of us who have followed the case closely over these past three years know why. Those who are interested can do their own research. 

For those who wish a more objective, alternative news source for the Boston Bombings, the one of the best sights on line is here: WhoWhatWhy.Org. Cautious, responsible, muted, but critical. 

Tom Fontaine also has a website devoted to the case, packed with vital information. I might have wished he had showed more restraint in its design and colors, because the lurid appearance only sensationalizes the issue and plays into the hands of "Conspiracy Theory Debunkers."

However, the most extensive database of critical articles from investigative journalists is here at The Boston Marathon Bombings: What Happened? Five minutes on this site should convince an objective reader that these are sober, responsible, critical people, not crazies, tin hat conspiracy theorists, frothers or trolls. There is so much psychological denial in American culture which makes it so difficult for alternative positions to get a hearing. 

Here is an example: From their most recent opinion piece on the verdict:

Opinion Tsarnaev:  The Fallacy of Justice in a Death Penalty Trial

by O.L.Coach  April 10, 2015

For all intents and purposes, the trial on the evidence is over. The next phase will be focused on saving the life of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But before anyone moves to suggest Judy Clark and the Defense team should be hung in effigy for "losing" this case, I recommend we step back and take a moment to give some consideration to why they might have taken the path they are on.  Granted, this is fraught with peril, as I am seeing through a glass darkly, but let us at least consider other explanations that move beyond what we are reading in the media.

Mar 30, 2015

Gay Passion of Christ Envisioned and Attacked

Kittredge Cherry, author of the wonderful Jesus in Love Blog, has just recently published an article at Huffington Post about her remarkable book, The Passion of Christ, A Gay Vision, with paintings done by the extraordinary artist, Doug Blanchard. There is no more fitting source for inspiration during this Holy Week than the images and texts of this truly unique work, re-envisioning Jesus as a gay man, persecuted and despised. 

The article itself has received over 4,000 likes (correction, it's now gone up to nearly 8,000 likes in less than 24 hours), which is gratifying. Unfortunately, the 1800 comments to the article are filled with such un Christian vitriol, bigotry and hate that it is probably harmful to the soul to read too many of them. However, Kittredge is asking for support from any friends of her work. So if you have a free moment, please drop by Huffington Post and add a supportive comment of your own. 

For those readers not familiar with the book, here is it's website:

Kittredge Cherry's Facebook Page - with her latest commentary below:

Jesus acted up when he saw something wrong. Nothing made him angrier than religious hypocrisy. He turned over the tables where unholy profits were made. Churches can raise big money by claiming that some other group is an unholy threat: lepers, immigrants, queers. They call LGBT love an abomination, but such fundraising tactics are the real abomination! 

A modern-day Christ figure disrupts business and distracts church-goers on Day 2 of Holy Week reflections on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” at the Jesus in Love Blog.