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.