The Worst Christmas Ever

"The Mystic Nativity" by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1500-01

“The Mystic Nativity” by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1500-01

Henry was having a terrible Christmas – possibly the worst Christmas ever.

One might almost say he was experiencing hell on earth, and not just because he was in the midst of producing a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, famous for its fanciful depictions of hell in all its ghoulish glory. He didn’t need Dante to tell him the meaning of suffering and despair. He was all too familiar with both.

Two years earlier, his beloved wife, Frances, accidentally set her dress on fire. He heard her cries from a nearby room and ran to her aid, throwing himself on top of her in an attempt to extinguish the flames. He sustained serious burns in the process, but none so bad as his wife’s. She died the following morning. Henry’s grief was absolute. He stated that he was “inwardly bleeding to death” and resorted to taking drugs in an attempt to dull the pain.

But that was only the beginning of Henry’s troubles. Indeed, his wife’s fate served as an apt metaphor for the world around him, which was in its own way going up in flames. Continue reading

Who is to Blame for the Rise of ISIS?

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

There are a lot of lessons that we can take from the alarming expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Surely it is a parable, but what is the lesson to be learned? Never end a war without leaving a substantial American footprint behind? Never funnel weapons to a rag-tag coalition of revolutionaries whose motivations may well be dubious? Never trust an Arab government to be able to handle things on its own? Never elect a pussy to be president of the United States?

I can think of nothing more fundamentally human than the desire to cast blame when something goes wrong, to reach for the simple explanation to a complex problem, or to ignore the long view in favor of the emotions of the moment. Beyond that, we prefer to direct our focus inward rather than outward; in other words, we are far more adept at analyzing something according to our understanding of the world than we are at comprehending how another person’s understanding might cause them to act. Because we live our lives at an increasingly rapid pace, we fail to appreciate how deeply rooted humanity remains, both from a historical and cultural standpoint. Continue reading

Scotland’s Referendum in Perspective

If I type the word “Scotland”, what pops into your mind? Kilted men playing bagpipes? “They may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!”? A blurry image of something claimed to be the Loch Ness monster? Beautiful hills covered in thistles? A Scottie dog? Epic tales of Rob Roy? A style of golf that involves howling winds, bunkers capable of swallowing a man, and grass that can hide a ball from even the eyes of an eagle? Sean Connery or Andy Murray? The lovable accent for which Scots are famous? Shortbread cookies?

All of these things form part of the public image of Scotland, but if you look up the word “Scotland” on Wikipedia, this is the first sentence you will read (as of this writing): “Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom.”

This is actually a good sentence with which to begin the article, as it addresses some of the primary questions I receive regarding Scotland. “Is Scotland a country?” “Is Scotland part of Britain?” “Are Scottish people British?” “What all makes up the United Kingdom?” Continue reading

The Ukraine Crisis Explained in a Series of Maps

791px-Kyjiv_sofienkathedrale, Wikipedia Elya

The St. Sophia Cathedral complex in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Wikipedia user Elya

Ukraine has been in the news quite a bit lately. What began as a series of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych following his decision not to sign a trade deal with the European Union quickly escalated. Eventually, Yanukovych fled the country (or left orderly, depending on who you ask) and was removed from office by an act of parliament. The parliamentary chairman, Oleksandr Turchynov, became the acting president in charge of an interim government.

Within a few days, we all started hearing the word “Crimea” a lot as this semi-autonomous section of Ukraine became the center of an ever intensifying standoff between the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin, the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, and other foreign countries such as the United States. The rhetoric seems to get more severe by the day, Putin has received permission from his parliament to take military action in Ukraine to protect “Russian interests” (in addition to the apparent Russian military action already taken in Crimea), the Crimean parliament has voted to become part of Russia and put the issue to a public vote, and the Obama administration is struggling to come up with a proper response. Continue reading

What was Missing in the Sochi Opening Ceremony (Other than the Fifth Olympic Ring)

These images show a brief portion of the international broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia.  They were captured and posted online by Twitter user @BuzzFeedUK.

These images show a brief portion of the international broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia. They were captured and posted online by Twitter user @BuzzFeedUK. Their use for commentary purposes qualifies as fair use.

The introduction to the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi may have told us something about how much success women have had in Russian history. Is the United States any better?

The opening ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games began with a recorded video segment in which a Russian girl went through the Cyrillic alphabet and assigned a prominent Russian personality, achievement, or location to each letter. While I admittedly did not understand all of the references, one thing was fairly clear: there was a notable absence of women, unless you count the little girl narrating the piece.

This made me wonder, “Are there no Russian women who could have been included in this list?” Perhaps Russian history has not been very open to female advancement over the years.  The main Russian females who leap to my mind are Catherine the Great (who was actually German), Anna Karenina (who was fictional), and a bunch of athletes. Were I an expert on ballet, I could undoubtedly find some female names there, but the point still stands that most of the prominent Russians throughout history have been men. Women have not been absent, but they seemingly did not merit inclusion by the team organizing the opening ceremony. Continue reading

The JFK Assassination: Where Are They Now?

Jacqueline Kennedy leads her children out from her husband's funeral on November 25, 1963, followed by other members of the Kennedy family.  White House photo by Abbie Rowe

Jacqueline Kennedy leads her children out from her husband’s funeral on November 25, 1963, followed by other members of the Kennedy family. White House photo by Abbie Rowe

 

As you have probably heard, today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, TX.  There has been no shortage of material commemorating the event, perhaps most notably the film “Killing Kennedy” which appeared on the National Geographic Channel and was based on the book by Bill O’Reilly (and Martin Dugard, who likely is responsible for more than 50% of the end product, but inevitably gets 5% of the credit).  I watched the program, and it made me wonder, whatever happened to some of those people?

Obviously, we all know what happened to President Kennedy. (The clue is in the title.) Lee Harvey Oswald also failed to make it out of that week alive, thanks to Jack Ruby.  The rest of the characters in this story went on living their lives, some fading into anonymity and others becoming high-ranking officials.  Here now is a review of what happened to a few of the people caught up in the JFK assassination. Continue reading

“12 Years a Slave”: Thoughts on America’s Darkest Chapter

An examination of some of the issues raised by director Steve McQueen’s newest film, including its historical, cultural, and spiritual implications.

I did not go to see 12 Years a Slave intending to write about it, but as much for myself as for others, I feel a need to do so now.  What I saw was not an ordinary film.  I knew before I went in that it would prompt a great deal of philosophical pondering, but perhaps even this expectation has proved to be too small.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northrup according to his 1853 autobiography.  A free black man living in New York state, he was deceived and abducted into slavery while on a trip to Washington, D.C.  For the next twelve years, he witnessed the horrors of slavery on multiple plantations in Louisiana, until finally a chance encounter allowed him to press his legal case and earn back his freedom.  It’s the kind of amazing true story that screenwriters would normally dream about, but the darkness of the subject matter is likely part of the reason that no filmmaker has attempted the feat until now. Continue reading

A Day to Honor our Veterans

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The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Guest blogger Shelley Watkins talks about how her life experiences have shaped her views of the U.S. military and her appreciation of our veterans.

Two days ago, I found myself making an unplanned stop at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.  It was a beautiful fall day, colorful leaves swirling midst the verdigris soldiers, frozen mid-step as they walked across the field of battle. There was an unexpected flash of burnt sienna as an anxious fox scurried through the statues, desperate for sanctuary and finally disappearing under a bush. Does he really have a den in this crowded place, the only being allowed to walk among the statues? Continue reading

Are Women Better off Catholic?

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City with St. Peter's Basilica in the background. Photo by Greg O'Beirne via Wikipedia/GFDL Creative Commons

St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. Photo by Greg O’Beirne via Wikipedia/GFDL Creative Commons

Is Catholicism better then Evangelicalism when it comes to females?

The very title of this piece may be confusing for some.  Is the Roman Catholic Church better for women than evangelical Protestantism?  Some may argue that Catholicism is by nature highly patriarchal and even sexist.  Women are not allowed to be priests, not allowed to use birth control, etc.  The Catholic Church is run by a bunch of men who believe that marrying a woman would simply be too distracting from their duties.  They do not allow women to play a role in selecting the Pope, voting on important doctrinal issues, or administering the sacraments.

To all this I respond, “How is that really any different from evangelicalism?”  We too typically prevent women from becoming members of the clergy or serving on the deacon and elder boards that make important church decisions.  While we do not condemn all forms of birth control, we do start to ask questions when people don’t seem to want to get married, have children, or participate in idyllic family life.  Generally, the role of women in basic church governance, teaching, and administration is no greater in evangelicalism than in Catholicism. Continue reading

Let’s Give Neville Chamberlain a Break

Arthur-Neville-Chamberlain, US National Archive

Photo of British PM Neville Chamberlain from the US National Archive

In the year of our Lord 1938,

A man named Neville caught a bad break.

He sought to bring us peace for our time,

But as it turned out, he was blind –

Blind to evil that grew by the day,

To the Führer who feared not to betray.

We remember him for all he failed to be,

For his optimism and naïvety.

The peace he brought was none too long.

The gathering storm was just too strong.

He sought a madman to appease,

And avoid war by saying “please”.

No courage did this man possess,

Of duty and honor he knew less;

For no war would have come to be,

Dear reader, were it not for he! Continue reading