Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Photograph

Lightly edited and reposted from Feb. 23, 2008.

They were boys of common virtue.
Called to duty.
Brothers and sons. Friends and neighbors.
And fathers.

67 years ago today an AP photographer named Joe Rosenthal captured (quite by accident) an image of six Marines raising an American flag. Little did he know that it would become known to history simply as The Photograph -- the most reproduced snapshot ever. To the politicians and folks back home The Photograph symbolized victory on Iwo Jima. In reality, some of the hardest fighting was yet to come, and three of those six Marines never made it off the island alive.

On March 1 Sgt. Mike Strank was killed by friendly fire. Later that same day, Cpl. Harlon Block (the figure on the far right with his back to the camera) was eviscerated by a mortar shell. On March 21 PFC Franklin Sousley was killed by a Japanese sniper. Block's story is particularly poignant. Initially, the soldier in the far right was misidentified as another slain Marine, Hank Hansen, but Harlon's mother immediately recognized her boy in the photograph. Was it the shape of the shoulder? The bend of the knee? Only a mother could tell. In 1947 her belief was vindicated when the Marine Corps finally admitted their mistake.

All these stories and more are told in James Bradley's superb book Flags Of Our Fathers. Bradley's father John was the last surviving member of The Photograph -- dying in 1994. Throughout his life he brushed off any talk of being a hero and his silence made him something of an enigma to his family. The explanation probably lies in the fact that John "Doc" Bradley was a corpsman. He saw the worst of the worst.

For many of the veterans, their memories of combat receded; supplanted by happy peacetime experiences. But there were others for whom the memories did not die, but were somehow contained. And for a few, the memories were howling demons that ruled their nights. Among these last, a disproportionate number, I believe, are corpsmen. It was the corpsmen, after all, who saw the worst of the worst.

A Marine rifleman might see his buddy shot down beside him, and regret the loss for the rest of his life. But in the moment, he kept going. That was his training, his mission. But the corpsman saw only the results. His entire mission on Iwo was to hop from blown face to severed arm, doing what he could under heavy fire to minimize the damage, stanch the flow, ease the agony. The corpsmen remembered. And their memories ruled the night. (p. 346)

After his father's death, James Bradley learned from his mother that Doc wept in his sleep throughout the first four years of their marriage. Whenever John Bradley was asked about being a hero, his reply was invariably that "the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn't come back." On this anniversary of the photo that came to symbolize the American World War Two experience more than any other, it might be appropriate to shed a tear for all the men and women who didn't make it home. For the Marines, Iwo was particularly costly.

The Marines fought in World War II for forty-three months. Yet in one month on Iwo Jima, one third of their total deaths occurred. They left behind the Pacific's largest cemeteries: nearly 6,800 graves in all; mounds with their crosses and stars. Thousands of families would not have the solace of a body to bid farewell: just the abstract information that the Marine had "died in the performance of his duty" and was buried in a plot, aligned in a row with numbers on his grave. Mike lay in Plot 3, Row 5, Grave 694; Harlon in Plot 4, Row 6, Grave 912; Franklin in Plot 8, Row 7, Grave 2189.

When I think of Mike, Harlon, and Franklin there, I think of the message someone had chiseled outside the cemetery:

When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today
(pp. 246-247)

The flag raising was also captured on film by Sergeant Bill Genaust. On March 4 he became another of the heroes who didn't make it off that lava rock hell in the middle of the Pacific. Bradley describes his last day:

Rain and chilly winds buffeted the troops that day. Bill Genaust, who had recorded the replacement flagraising with color film and who had asked Rosenthal, "I'm not in your way, am I, Joe?" walked into a "secured" cave to dry off. The last thing he did was turn on his flashlight. He was thirty-eight and left behind a wife of seventeen years. His body was never recovered. (p. 235)

Here's the footage shot by Genaust.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The slow death of Rural America (Berry)

Wendell Berry wrote in his 1991 essay "Conservation and Local Economy" that the "great, greedy, indifferent national and international economy is killing rural America" and that the "interests of local communities and economies are relentlessly subordinated to the interests of 'business'". This has led to the American people's increasing estrangement from "the native wealth, health, knowledge, and pleasure of their country" and in fact is leading to the destruction of their country -- both the country as polis and the country as the soil, water, and other building blocks of life we depend on to live. Berry presented the community he knows best as a case study.

The town of Port Royal, Kentucky, has a population of about one hundred people. The town came into existence as a trading center, serving the farms in a few square miles of hilly country on the west side of the Kentucky River. It has never been much bigger than it is now. But whereas now it is held together by habit or convenience, once it was held together by a complex local economy. In my mother's childhood, in the years before World War I, there were sixteen business and professional enterprises in the town, all serving the town and surrounding farms. By the time of my own childhood, in the years before World War II, the number had been reduced to twelve, but the town and its tributary landscape were still alive as a community and as an economy. Now, counting the post office, the town has five enterprises, one of which does not serve the local community. There is now no market for farm produce in the town or within forty miles. We no longer have a garage or repair shop of any kind. We have had no doctor for forty years and no school for thirty. Now, as a local economy and therefore as a community, Port Royal is dying.

Now the residents of Port Royal have to drive 10, 20, 30 miles to get medical care or the materials and equipment needed to maintain a farm or garden. One could make an argument that the same economic forces that are killing Port Royal have brought countervailing benefits. For instance, the modern medicine available from the specialists in the city 20 miles away is better than that provided by the local general practitioner back in the day. But is it inevitable that the advances of modern consumer society mean the slow death of communities like Port Royal? Can we have life-saving drugs and the local drugstore?

Berry wants us to question the inevitability of the death of small communities and local economies. It's so easy to passively accept the Walmartization of America as the natural outcome of a free-market economy. Will the gods of commerce not rest until every last one of us is purchasing our food from brightly-lit, temperature-controlled steel buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots and congested roads? I can't and won't claim a "holier than thou" attitude. I admit my wife and I are pretty darn happy that we have a shiny new Walmart only five minutes by automobile from our house. It's so, well, convenient. And we're all about convenience.

The picture Berry paints is bleak, but he reminds us of the duty we owe to ourselves and our descendants to be hopeful and to look "for the authentic underpinnings of hope." He sees these in the resilient health of nature and the "sufficient examples of competent and loving human stewardship of the earth." On top of that is the persistent human desire to "be healthy in a healthy world" despite our propensity to go along with ideas and practices that undermine healing. Fundamentally, Berry calls us to a self-conscious examination of the ways we live, in whatever community God has us, as the first step to positive change.

We face a choice that is starkly simple: we must change or be changed. If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse. We cannot blunder our way into health by the same sad and foolish hopes by which we have blundered into disease. We must see that the standardless aims of industrial communism and industrial capitalism equally have failed. The aims of productivity, profitability, efficiency, limitless growth, limitless wealth, limitless power, limitless mechanization and automation can enrich and empower the few (for a while), but they will sooner or later ruin us all. The gross national product and the corporate bottom line are utterly meaningless as measures of the prosperity or health of a country.

All quotes from Chapter One of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Resisting the sale with Wendell Berry

At last I'm reading Wendell Berry for myself, beginning with his collection of essays from the early 90s: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Why did it take me so long?! Berry is dynamite! He constructs sentences that make we want to stand up and cheer. He's often described as an agrarian, but that doesn't do justice to the breadth of his concerns. This collection is worth getting just for the sarcasm-laden Preface "The Joy of Sales Resistance". I was hooked from the opening line: "This is a book about sales resistance." He goes on:

We live in a time when technologies and ideas (often the same thing) are adopted in response not to need but to advertising, salesmanship, and fashion.

Reflect on that for a moment and see if you don't agree. With Berry as a guide I hope to take incremental steps in nudging myself and my family toward the joy of resisting the sale -- the sale of products we don't really need, and more, the sale of capitalized Ideas and Ideologies that come out looking like trite nonsense in the face of Berry's scrutiny. Like. . .

Preservation of Human Resources. Despite world-record advances in automation, robotification, and other "labor-saving" technologies, it is assumed that almost every human being may, at least in the Future, turn out to be useful for something, just like the members of other endangered species. Sometimes, after all, the Economy still requires a "human component." At such times, human resources are called "human components" and are highly esteemed in that capacity as long as their usefulness lasts. Therefore, don't quit taking care of human resources yet. See that the schools are run as ideal orphanages or, as ideal jails. Provide preschool and pre-preschool. Also postschool. Keep the children in institutions and away from home as much as possible—remember that their parents wanted children only because other people have them, and are much too busy to raise them. Only the government cares.


The Free Market. The free market sees to it that everything ends up in the right place—that is, it makes sure that only the worthy get rich. All millionaires and billionaires have worked hard for their money, and they deserve the rewards of their work. They need all the help they can get from the government and the universities. Having money stimulates the rich to further economic activity that ultimately benefits the rest of us. Needing money stimulates the rest of us to further economic activity that ultimately benefits the rich. The cardinal principle of the free market is unrestrained competition, which is a kind of tournament that will decide which is the world's champion corporation. Ultimately, thanks to this principle, there will be only one corporation, which will be wonderfully simplifying. After that, we will rest in peace.

That's a taste of Wendell Berry, self-described "Kentuckian-American" farmer and poet. Even as I find my family being pressed into the mold of contemporary paradigms that impoverish spirits and destroy communities, I can read Berry and be inspired by an alternative vision of the good life.

Quotes from Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (pp. xi, xv-xvii)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Goodness and Mercy

Goodness and mercy are of the essence of God. They are foundational to his character as revealed to us thru the witness of scripture, and the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ: "the exact imprint of his [God's] nature" (Heb. 1:3). The Psalmist artfully personifies, and makes personal, God's goodness and mercy in the closing of Psalm 23.

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

Here David expresses a confident belief (surely!) that he's hemmed in by goodness and mercy. Douglas MacMillan illustrates this with a story he once heard told by a Scottish Highland preacher. I love this!

I remember listening to an old Highland shepherd, an elder, preaching on this verse. He was only an old shepherd, not a fancy theologian, but he was wonderful. He said, 'What do I think of when I think of goodness and mercy? I think of the fellows taking the sheep home, walking down the road there with their sticks. The sheep are coming behind them, and behind the sheep are the two dogs, and one is called Goodness and the other is called Mercy.' He said, 'You watch them; sheep being what they are, when the shepherd's back is turned, they'll try and sneak off the road. You see a sheep on one side, and off it goes trying to get back to the pasture and the mountains. Without even the shepherd whistling, what happens? Goodness runs out and circles the sheep and turns it back into the flock and into the path of God. Then, a little further along the road,' he said, 'another one will do the same, or two or three will do it, and there you will see Mercy running out and turning the sheep back too. Ah!', he said, 'they are two lovely dogs, Goodness and Mercy.' I think if I was still shepherding, and I still had two dogs, I would call one Goodness and I would call the other Mercy, because it's a very true picture. . . . We deserve nothing but His wrath, and yet daily His goodness and His mercy are following us. David says that they follow us 'all the days of our lives'.

Where would we be if not for divine goodness and mercy?

Quote from The Lord Our Shepherd (pp. 82-3)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gambling and social justice

Russell Moore arguing that legalized gambling (casino and otherwise) isn't primarily a moral issue. . .

But gambling isn’t merely a “values” issue. Neither is it primarily a “moral” issue, at least not in terms of what we typically classify as “moral values” issues. Gambling isn’t primarily a question of personal vice. If it were, we could simply ask our people to avoid the lottery tickets and horse-tracks, but leave it legal. Gambling is a social justice issue that defines how it is that we love our neighbors and uphold the common good.

Gambling is a form of economic predation. Gambling grinds the faces of the poor into the ground. It benefits multinational corporations while oppressing the lower classes with illusory promises of wealth, and with (typically) low-wage, transitory jobs that simultaneously destroy every other economic engine of a local community.

In the end, the casinos will leave. And they’ll leave behind a burned-over district with no thriving agricultural, manufacturing, or tourism economies. In the meantime, they leave behind the wreckage of “check-to-cash” loan sharks, pawn shops, prostitution, and 1-2-3 divorce courts.

Conservative Christians can’t talk about gambling, if we don’t see the bigger picture.

Moore goes on to write that the best way for Christians to undercut the appeal of gambling is to faithfully and compassionately preach the gospel to those vulnerable to the allure of the slots. Read the whole thing!

On a related note I'm not surprised to see that the billionaire bankrolling Newt Gingrich's campaign is a casino magnate. How telling that he's prepared to spend millions to stop Rick Santorum because he doesn't like the Pennsylvanian's social conservatism. I wonder how those South Carolina voters that gave Gingrich his big moment in the sun feel about that? Say what you will about Santorum, he's a principled conservative in the traditional sense of that oft-corrupted word. I'd love to see him debate the President on some of the major social issues that divide our country right down the middle, issues of more lasting significance than budgets and taxes (though budgets and taxes can effect those issues).

As Ross Douthat wrote recently:

From election to election, politics is mostly about jobs and the economy and the state of the public purse — which is as it should be. But the arguments that we remember longest, that define what it means to be democratic and American, are often the debates over human life and human rights, public morals and religious freedom – culture war debates, that is, in all their many forms.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

1984 or Brave New World? (Postman on Orwell & Huxley)

This is a quote worth pondering. It's from Neil Postman's 1985 polemic against television Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business (Introduction, pp. vii-viii).

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distraction." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Who was the greater prophet? Orwell or Huxley? Postman saw Huxley as the more prophetic as he surveyed the state of Western society in the mid-80s! (imagine if he lived long enough to see the rise of social media) -- a society where a voracious appetite for entertainment collided with an unprecedented explosion of information. I don't know if Postman invented the term "infotainment" but he described it better than anyone.

Fast forward to 2012 and the predictions of Huxley (and Postman) looks even more on point. It's been a few decades since we've gone from a predominantly word-based society to one based predominantly on images. To take one minor example: compare the average mass-market periodical from the 19th or early-20th century with what you find in the waiting room of your doctor's office -- glossy fare comprised of image after image, advertisement after advertisement, perfect for mindlessly flipping through to ward off the boredom.

It's not that people have stopped reading books, but increasingly they are merely entertainment filler to pass the time while getting from Point A to Point B. The practical effect described by Huxley may be the same though. I'm someone who values images as much as the next guy. I love cinema! But if that wasn't counterbalanced by a love and appetite for the written word I'd be much the poorer spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

More importantly, as someone who loves Christ's church, I have to wonder: how much has she given in to the privileging of images over words? Images can be a powerful tool to convey truths about God and his world, but God has chosen to reveal himself to us primarily through words, and the incarnate Word, Jesus. Plus the Bible takes a dim view of images as they relate to God, and worship that pleases him (see the Second Commandment, etc). Images can point us to the gospel, but we still need words to convey it's content. Hopefully we haven't lost the ability to proclaim it and receive it. May it never be said of the church -- as Huxley feared for society at large -- that truth is being "drowned in a sea of irrelevance!"

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Like. Tears. In rain.

If this was one of those "what's been going on in my life lately" kind of blogs I'd have a lot to write. Instead, a perfect storm of challenging assignments and circumstances in my home/work/church life has lately afforded me little time to indulge my hobbies, one of which is this blog.

Watching movies is one of the ways I stay sane, so your correspondent did find time recently to revisit old favorite Blade Runner. I was again reminded what a satisfyingly unsatisfying film it is. The enigma at its heart is one that (probably) can't be solved, but keeps you coming back to try. For my money Blade Runner has one of the most memorable ending monologues in cinema history. It's voiced by Rutger Hauer playing genetically engineered "replicant" Roy Batty. Reportedly Hauer improvised the now legendary lines. His unconventional delivery and pacing, director of photography Jordan Cronenweth's visuals, and Vangelis' beautiful score all contribute to the genius of this scene, one that moves me every time I watch it.

Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)

For a fuller appreciation of Blade Runner check out this 2008 piece from my friend William Andreassen.

Friday, February 3, 2012


"I shared in the image of God, but did not keep it safe; the Lord shares in my flesh, so as to save the image and to make the flesh immortal".

- Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 38)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I shall not want

There are only two negatives in the Twenty-Third Psalm. "I shall not want" and "I will fear no evil". Yet, we're prone to doing just those things the Psalmist says he won't do -- living in fear, and wanting what we don't have. If we are the Lord's sheep we have all we need to live confident contented lives.

What exactly does it mean to "not want"? Certainly part of the meaning is that we'll lack for nothing, but it's more than that. It's easy to miss the plain meaning of the word "want". Here's more from Douglas MacMillan's exposition of Psalm 23 . . .

. . . this word means more than mere lack: it means just what the word 'want' originally meant. It means that I will not be discontented with my lot; I will not be hungering and craving after things that God has forbidden me, because I will find my all, my fulness, in the One who is my Shepherd. My knowledge that I shall suffer no lack will give me contentment . . . . One of the things which is fundamental to the whole business and profession of a shepherd is this: enough passion to see that his sheep will have all that they need, and enough sense to see that they will not get what will harm or destroy them. That is the kind of shepherd, and that is the kind of satisfaction, that the Christian believer finds in Christ. 'I shall not want.'

MacMillan suggests that when we find contentment and satisfaction in Christ lacking -- when we find ourselves wanting -- it's because our eyes have been drawn away from the promises of God's Word. He encourages the reader to "use your Scripture, allow God to fortress and garrison your heart with the great strength of His promises and of His logical grace."

Another way to stay close to our shepherd is to stay close to his flock. Christian fellowship and regular attention to the ordinary means of grace (the reading and preaching of the word, prayer, and the sacraments) are the things that keep us anchored to our hope in Christ (Heb. 6:19).

Quotes from J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord Our Shepherd (pp. 50-1)

Phil Connors' Groundhog Day prediction

Here's a classic clip to get you in the mood for Groundhog Day. And happy birthday to my mother-in-law who was born in Punxsutawney, PA. No kidding!

Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis, 1993)