I Just Went to the March for Science!

On Saturday I went to the local gathering of the March for Science.  It was a very different vibe from the march that I went to the night of the inauguration.

Let me back up.

Since 45’s inauguration I, like many other people who are not happy with his election, wanted to find some way to help contribute to resisting his power grabs and attempts to hurt people that don’t fit into his category of humanity.  In the intervening months I’ve become more sensitive to following what’s going on with my members of Congress (like many Republicans, they tend to avoid actually addressing the concerns of their moderate and liberal constituents) and trying to pressure them on issues that matter to me.  In the realm of scientific research, I’m not a massive advocate, though I recognize its importance to pretty much the whole of modern society.  Rachael and some other friends of ours are big science nerds, and as soon as they heard about the March for Science they made plans to attend the nearest rally.  Originally we were going to go to the march in Atlanta, but the city’s highways are in the middle of an apoplectic fit, so we figured that wouldn’t be such a smart idea just in terms of dealing with the traffic.  Fortunately, there was a satellite march planned for Athens, so we went to that one instead.

There were a few problems.

The size of the rally was perfectly cromulent, but after everyone had gathered the organizers announced that they had not been able to secure a permit to march because their event coincided with G-Day, the annual spring scrimmage of the University of Georgia football team.  Football is more important than Jesus in the South (and game days bring lots of money for Athens businesses), so I’m guessing the city didn’t want a bunch of nerds marching around downtown killing everyone’s buzz or something.  The organizers suggested that even though we couldn’t legally march, there was nothing stopping the assembled crowd from dispersing and just sort of… wandering around with our signs proudly displayed.  They’d even printed up little index cards with helpful talking points for anyone who wanted to engage football fans on why scientific research is important and the current administration is bad for it.

I get that you do what you can when the city denies you a permit to demonstrate, but this alternate tactic did not strike me as the most potent way to transmit a message.

Another problem that the local rally had was with its speaker line up.  This was clearly an event organized by professors from the university, and they weighted the roster towards people that they figured would have prestige among the local science community.  The problem is that the people speaking were overwhelmingly older, white, and male.  Among the crowd, there were a few people of south and east Asian descent, but virtually no Black or Latinx people.  When part of your messaging is supposed to be about the universal importance of science to everyone’s lives, you should probably think more carefully about how you represent that on your stage.  Athens is a college town, but it also has a major Black community, and when most of the speakers come from the university and the crowd is mostly white, you’re unconsciously sending a message that this is an issue only for educated white people.

Also, most of the speakers were just boring.  They spoke like they were giving a lecture rather than working a crowd.  I heard at least one protester near me say that they needed to get a rabble rouser on the stage to get the crowd more engaged.  The last three speakers (all women, coincidentally) were much better, and it was a good move to save them for last; they seemed to understand with their speeches that they needed to deliver a succinct, easily digestible message that the people could hold on to.

In the end, I’m not sure how successful the local rally ended up being.  It felt like the people who showed up were already passionate about science, but the messaging didn’t do much to invite passersby to engage with what was going on.  In an action that was meant to let people know that science is not an ivory tower pursuit, it felt remarkably like we were all hanging out in an ivory tower.

The reason I have these criticisms is largely because just before our group went downtown to the rally, I was thinking about the weirdness of the evangelical mindset.  I read this article by Molly Worthen (it’s a New York Times piece, so be aware of your free article count) that discusses how evangelicalism’s formulation and adoption of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has fostered an epistemology that asserts the existence of objective truth, but places it in a position where it’s only accessible through supernatural means.  This mindset led to a fear of cultural relativism, where non-Christians, not knowing the truth, assume that values are all relative and various actions are permissible in different contexts (in contrast with the set of rules that God has laid down that must be followed at all times in all situations).  The irony of this line of thinking is that white evangelicals have now succumbed to their own relativism in support of 45.  His moral repugnance is something to overlook because he does things that they like, never mind the fact he undermines everything white evangelical Christianity has purported to stand for.

Anyway, that’s all to say that this is a group that has built up an epistemic bubble that allows them to dismiss objective reality.  Science, as the rest of us like to conceptualize it, is a method of thought that is supposed to help us uncover objective reality about the physical world.  If the purpose of the march was to promote the idea that science is helpful to everyone, then there needed to be some more thought placed in how to deliver that message, particularly to people who fundamentally distrust science because of their epistemology.  At the rally that I attended in Athens, I didn’t see evidence of that kind of thoughtfulness.  Of course, this might all be moot; I’m a cynic when it comes to believing that white evangelicals can be brought out of their bubbles, and the current unpleasantness argues strongly to me that it’s not worth trying to compromise anymore.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/21/17)

I bought Crypt of the NecroDancer and Thomas Was Alone last weekend.  I have not been doing much writing this week.  Therefore, have a small link roundup while I try to gather my wits to write about something more interesting.

Politics

  • “Georgia’s 6th is a Democratic Win” by Jamelle Bouie.  Bouie is one of my go-to sources for political analysis, and it’s really heartening to see that things are trending in a better direction since the November election.  I would have been happier if John Ossoff had won outright, but if we see this sort of performance in other special elections over the next few months, then I think Bouie’s point about this signalling a sea change in the electorate is a solid one.
  • “Georgia’s Progressive Renaissance” by Michelle Goldberg.  Related to the Bouie piece, a look at the grassroots movement that made Ossoff competitive.  I am rarely proud of my home state these days, but this is one of those times.
  • “Still a Factor” by Isaac Chotiner.  Bill O’Reilly’s ouster should have come years ago, but we take our victories where we can get them these days.  Chotiner discusses how the worst parts of O’Reilly have metastasized in the form of 45, who has pretty much the same schtick, but with slightly less self-awareness.

Current Events

Gaming

  • “Final Fantasy VII’s Cast, Revised.”  The artist featured here did some pieces where he redesigned the core cast of Final Fantasy VII as Black people (and in Barret’s case, as an Asian dude).  I quite like it.

Faith

  • “A Match Made In Heaven” by Molly Worthen.  This is partly a review of Frances Fitzgerald’s new book The Evangelicals, which details the history of the white evangelical movement in America.  It’s mostly an exploration of how the core values of white evangelicalism led to adherents’ overwhelming support of 45 (*cough*besidesracism*cough*).

Music

  • “Kendrick Lamar’s Complicated Political Score-Settling” by Spencer Kornhaber.  I’ve only listened to Damn a couple times since it came out last week; hip-hop still isn’t a musical genre I take to easily, but I liked Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered enough to want to sink into his new offering.  All the reviews I’ve seen suggest that there’s a lot here to love once you pick it apart.

Mental Health

  • “Semicolons and Blank Spaces” by Ben Sheppard.  I met Ben years ago when I first moved back to Athens.  He was getting ready to go to some far off northern place to study theology.  We hit it off so we did the Facebook friend thing, and ever since I’ve followed what he’s been up to with interest.  Ben’s a smart guy who has always been really honest about his experiences with depression, and in this essay he puts a lot of things in perspective.

Reading “No Normal (1 of 5)”

So after putting up a Twitter poll to try an experiment in internet democracy, I’ve settled on trying out looking in depth at the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel series.  This review series poses a few challenges that I’ve not had to deal with in the past.  Aside from my series on All-Star Superman, I’ve been drawn towards looking at books aimed at more mature readers; Ms. Marvel is squarely an all ages to teen book.  This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of good material to parse in these pages; it’s one of my favorite series for good reason.  Still, I’m curious to see how the difference in target audience will affect how points of interest bubble up in the course of the narrative.  I’ve grappled with this a little bit in my previous posts looking at the macro features of each arc that I’ve read, so we’ll see how things work out when I’m going issue by issue.  Ms. Marvel is also the first Marvel series that I’ve tried to give the detailed treatment; my experience with Marvel books is that they’re highly entertaining, but they tend to feel kind of breezy in comparison to what I’ve read from DC; I’m sure there’s some skewing here since I’ve never been a big DC fan, and the series I do like that DC published tend to be those landmark titles that everyone in comics appreciates.  My hope is that with Ms. Marvel, which has been penned by G. Willow Wilson since its start (she’s notable for trying to work contemporary issues into her superhero stories) the breeziness won’t overshadow the substance.  Perhaps the biggest challenge I’m anxious about is one of baseline knowledge.  Wilson and the Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat do a lot to make the Muslim and Pakistani-American cultural elements accessible, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t go into this series with more than a little trepidation.  White people tend to be bad at cultural sensitivity, and that’s always going to be a fear of mine regardless of how much practice I put into it.

Cover of Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #1. (Image credit: Comic Vine. Artwork by Sarah Pichelli & Justin Ponsor)

Anyway.

Other basics for this series go like this: I’m only going as far as I have read myself, and I currently only have the first five volumes of the series (for anyone keeping count, that’s the four arcs of Kamala’s first volume before Marvel’s Secret Wars mandated relaunch and the first arc of the second volume; I tend to get new trades late in the summer around my birthday or around Christmastime, so maybe I’ll get volume 6 before I reach the end of my current collection).  Because this is a series that’s also currently ongoing, it’s entirely possible that I might reach a point where I just want to take a break and look at something different.  No promises and all that, y’know?  Beyond that, I’ll be following my usual titling convention for these posts of listing the issue’s title in the blog post title.  Because Marvel tends to group parts of longer arcs under a single title (and because they often remove credit and title boxes in trades), I’ll use the arc title and the part number indicated by the trade paperback volume to refer to each issue (for example, the first arc is titled “Meta Morphosis” in the floppies, but I’ll be labeling it “No Normal”).

Okay, now that I’ve covered all the stuff that may or may not have needed to be said, let’s get down to the comic itself.

Since it’s the first issue of a new series with a new character, Ms. Marvel #1 has a lot of set up to accomplish in its twenty pages (what’s the deal with newer comics being so much shorter, by the way?).  The superheroics are minimal and imagined here, as we have to do rapid fire introductions of Kamala and all of her supporting cast.  You have the high school friends, Bruno and Nakia; the mean girl and her jock boyfriend, Zoe and Josh; and Kamala’s family including her older brother Aamir and her parents.  Wilson establishes right away that Kamala is not nearly as streetwise as Bruno (who inexplicably is working before school at the Circle Q; how long is his shift?  Was he there all night and now he’s going to class?  Why is he not more tired?) or as wary of microaggressions as Nakia, who wears hijab and presumably is accustomed to getting flak for appearing culturally different.  We also see right away that Kamala is someone who isn’t quite comfortable with the tension between the worlds she inhabits; the very first scene opens with her salivating over a bacon sandwich while reminding herself of her religious dietary restrictions.  It’s a nice juxtaposition of Kamala’s sense of obligation to her family’s culture with her desire to fit in as a typical American teenager.  We’ll see this motif repeated regularly throughout the issue in various ways as the issue’s primary plot revolves around Kamala’s decision to go to a block party without her parents’ permission.

Our hero, everybody. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

In a nice twist on expectations, Bruno and Nakia provide counter intuitive perspectives on Kamala’s dilemma.  Nakia owns her religious convictions, but emphasizes to Kamala that she should only embrace her religious tradition if it’s what she really wants to do.  Bruno, who is white and an outsider to the Muslim culture that Kamala and Nakia share, tends to be the more conservative voice, encouraging Kamala to avoid getting in trouble and cautioning her to stay away from the party.  These character beats are nice because they flesh out Bruno as someone who doesn’t fully understand the culture of his friend, but who wants to be respectful, and they show that Nakia, who reads as particularly devout, isn’t also guilty of having fundamentalist tendencies.

The context of this scene has Kamala being clueless about Zoe’s microaggressions, but I swear her face here says to me, “You are so full of crap.” (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

For this first issue we have in place of a typical villain the characters of Zoe and Josh.  Zoe and Josh are typically WASPy white kids from Kamala’s school who come across not so much evil as incredibly insensitive.  Josh’s role is minor; he gives Kamala a spiked drink as a prank when she shows up at the party, and then gets drunk along with the other jocks.  Zoe’s part in the story is a little more complex.  In the first scene she makes a series of comments that Nakia and Bruno immediately recognize as not friendly (Zoe apparently has a reputation for being passive aggressively mean to other kids).  She’s your typical white person engaging in some low-level Islamophobia with comments about “honor killing” and insinuations that Nakia’s wearing hijab is something she’s being forced to do.  Later at the party, she drops the fake nice act fully and bashes Kamala’s culture to her face when she believes that Kamala’s appearance at the party indicates that Kamala is totally rejecting her family.

Speaking of Kamala’s family, the Khans are portrayed here as delightfully content.  Kamala’s mother and father are relatively conservative but in the way that parents who care about their children tend to be.  Kamala’s father chides her brother Aamir for using his devotion to Islam as an excuse to avoid getting a job (Aamir shoots back that at least he’s not doing anything usurious like working in a bank; it’s a wonderful exchange that underscores the family’s affection for one another despite their disagreements).  Kamala is the young, geeky child whose hobbies no one else in her family fully relates to, but they all take her quirks in stride.  Honestly, the Khans are one of the absolute best parts of Ms. Marvel, and that dynamic is present from the very beginning.

Other fun bits that pop up in this issue include the minor character of Chatty Bob, who only appears in one panel and doesn’t say much; Kamala’s stuffed, winged sloth that appears in her room and during her hallucination after being exposed to the Terrigen mist; and Kamala’s fascination with wedge heels (there’s a delightful panel where Kamala eyes a girl’s shoes from across the park at the party).  Much of this stuff is attributable to Adrian Alphona’s artwork, which does a lot of the heavy lifting on characterization.  He’s almost virtuosic in the way he packs panels full of little background details to tell you stuff about the characters and the world they inhabit.

Kamala experiences her first party. It is both amazing and disgusting. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

Alphona Background Coolness (ABCs)

  • Easy Greasy BLT
  • Hot Sammiches
  • Vusa & BlasterCard
  • “Cashiers are not interested in your stories”
  • Coco Bread
  • Kid pulling “Ooh La La” magazine off the newsrack
  • Badgerade
  • “You Read 4 Words You Buy!”
  • Coffee Son!
  • Smushees
  • Die Fire Die
  • Sizes: This That
  • Coffee Soda
  • Cold As Ice Drinks
  • Birdy Nom Noms
  • Asian River Water
  • Roundhouse Cola
  • Bruce Lee Wataaa
  • Dylan’s Hot Fiya
  • Orphan Farms O.J.
  • “Business Hours: All of Them”
  • Books an Ting, Ting an Books
  • Jersey Akhbar
  • GM’Os cereal
  • “Eat Now!  Radoslav’s Chicken Salan”
  • “Shock!  Cricket Doping Scandal”
  • Brand X Tea
  • “Tax on Color Orange Approved”
  • “Sportz Scandal”
  • “Cricket: Toads Lose Again! Team Blames Fans”
  • World’s Grooviest Dad
  • The overhead view of the party complete with dancing frog, guy on fire, person being chased by an axe murderer
  • “Give a Hoot!  Recycle!”
  • “Missing Child: 555-Blah”

Lenten Reflections: Week 6

Following my post from last week, my friend James sent me a pdf of Augustine’s Confessions.  I’ve never read the Confessions, but in light of my observation from last week that one of the things I’m beginning to find comforting is the idea that faith is practiced in dialogue with generations of thinkers trying to suss out what they think God is like.  Augustine is pretty foundational to Western Christianity, so his Confessions seems like a good place to start.

The first thing that immediately springs to mind in starting the Confessions is that Augustine seems to have an immense love of paradox.  The first four chapters of Book I are entirely standalone, dense paragraphs where Augustine is waxing philosophical about the nature of God.  The third chapter goes on at length about the paradox of God’s omnipresence, leading Augustine to meditate on whether this means that God is located within Creation or outside it, and if the whole of God can be simultaneously contained in everything or if individual parts of God exist in individual things.  There’s also an interesting bit where he ponders if the size of the object impacts how much of God exists within it (does a blade of grass objectively have less God than a person?).  This whole exercise is weird and discursive and feels like it’s somehow diminishing the quality of God; I don’t think most people are accustomed to thinking about a person in terms of amounts that fill different sized vessels.  That I still think of God in personal terms and find it odd that here at the beginning of the work Augustine is playing with ideas that de-personify God strikes me as… weird.  Maybe this is just a bit of strangeness that will be easier to grok when I get further into the text; it seems that wanting to think of God in personal rather than quantifiable terms would be a foundational part of a faith that’s predicated on believing that God incarnated as a person.

Of course, when I say all this I’m overlooking the fact that the translation I’m reading makes exclusive use of the familiar “thou” when Augustine addresses God.  Yes, it’s a translation, and no, I don’t know enough about Latin to make a judgment about if Augustine is intentionally using a more familiar form of address.  This feature of the text could either be an artifact from the translation being published in 1955 by a scholar who appears to have a relatively conservative view of Christianity if the introduction is anything to go on, or it could be a reflection of the Western Christian tradition I’m grappling with; either way, it does indicate a rhetorical stance where Augustine, even as he knows these thoughts were going to be published, treats God as something of a conversational partner.  This sort of posture isn’t one with which I’m totally comfortable; I grok the concept of prayer as direct address to God, but writing my thoughts towards God down for others to read is a different sort of animal.  Like I wrote last time, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of the faithful sussing out the nature of God among themselves rather than the direct conversation model that I recognize as being from evangelicalism.  It’s probably worth recognizing for myself that that tradition has much deeper roots.

Augustine’s decision to write his text as a direct address to God likely ties in tightly with his decision to title the writings his Confessions.  Confession to God of sin is a major part of Christian practice, and since much of the Confessions are ostensibly about Augustine’s own journey to conversion and realization of his own sins, the format makes sense.  I’ve been pondering the significance of confession in a more modern sense, and one idea I’m playing around with is the concept of confession as understanding of self.  To be able to identify one’s own faults is not precisely an easy task, especially if one’s faults have inflicted a lot of harm on other people.  No one likes to feel like they’re in the wrong, and the act of confession forces them to confront that reality.  In terms of good Christian practice, I’m trying to understand confession as a parallel for the act of self examination.  The assurance that God is supposed to offer as a person of infinite love and acceptance helps ease the difficulty of confronting our flaws and trying to pursue a better example.

One last note before I wrap this post up: in the seventh chapter of Book I, Augustine goes off on this discourse about how even though he doesn’t remember being a baby, he’s totally sure that babies are full of sin, seeing as they cry when they want something, regardless of whether what they want is good for them or not.  He’s sure of this because he’s observed babies being jealous of each other.  This sequence is amazing because he assumes that the motivations of infants are more complex than just wanting the things they need to survive, and that the fact that they cry means they are being manipulative little sinners.  In what I’m sure will be the first of many such moments, I have to disagree with him completely just based on a rudimentary understanding of childhood development, but also because seriously, he’s saying that babies are sinners who deserve to go to hell.  One of the fathers of the Western church, folks.

I Guess I Should Discuss 13 Reasons Why

I had a Spring Break!  It was good!

Over my Spring Break, I had a lot of time to watch television, so I did.  Besides One Punch Man, I also watched the second part of The Get Down (it’s like five solid hours of musical!) and the teen drama 13 Reasons Why.  I was skeptical of enjoying 13 Reasons Why when I first saw it advertised on Netflix since it’s unapologetically a show about teenagers being teenagers.  My day job revolves around interacting with teens, so you would think that I’d take a pass on something that purported to be about the people that I work with.

What convinced me to give 13 Reasons Why a chance was a comment I saw on Twitter saying that the show seemed to have borrowed heavily from the aesthetic of Life is Strange.  I loved Life is Strange so much when I first played it a couple years ago (and I’ve been replaying it gradually in these waning months of the school year), so I took this comparison to be good enough to give the show a chance.  In the end I found that there are some stylistic similarities between the two stories insofar as they are both about teenagers dealing with the messed up things that teenagers do to one another and they both rely heavily on a curated soundtrack to communicate moods and feelings the characters are experiencing throughout the respective stories.  It’s mostly a superficial aesthetic similarity that’s in vogue as a way of signalling to audiences, “This is about teenage feels and stuff!”  That isn’t meant to be derogatory though; I dig the aesthetic mightily, particularly in the case of Life is Strange‘s Pacific Northwest flavor.

The series poster exemplifies the show’s chief problem: centering a guy in place of the girl that the show is ostensibly about. (Image credit: IMDb)

But I’m trying to discuss 13 Reasons Why, so let’s get into that.  For anyone who hasn’t heard of or seen the show, 13 Reasons Why is a series about a group of high school students who are dealing with the fallout of a classmate’s suicide.  The girl who commits suicide, Hannah Baker, records a set of tapes addressed to the people who gave her thirteen reasons to kill herself, and she has a friend, Tony, arrange for all of the people on the tapes to listen to them.  It’s meant as a way of making the recipients of the tapes, who are all guilty of bullying Hannah in some fashion, understand their own culpability in her death.  In actuality, it leads to a lot of chaotic fallout that might have been avoidable with a more measured approach to seeking justice for Hannah.  While I’d argue that Hannah is the true protagonist of the series, the character whose perspective we follow is Clay Jensen, a boy who was friends with and had a romantic interest in Hannah.  Inasmuch as this is Hannah’s story about how she was driven to suicide, it’s also Clay’s story about how he learns to believe the women he knows when they tell him something is wrong.

There are plenty of points for criticizing 13 Reasons Why for centering a white boy in a story that’s so heavily invested in exploring the effects of bullying and sexual assault in a high school setting.  I think the end effect could have been much stronger if instead of following Clay’s epiphany in the wake of Hannah’s death, we had instead focused on the character of Jessica, a Black-white biracial girl who has many similar experiences to Hannah but who responds in a markedly different way.  Unfortunately, this was not the decision that the author of the original novel or the creators of the show made, so we have to live with what’s given us.  For what it’s worth, when you account for the problematic elements inherent in a male-centered story about how girls are treated, 13 Reasons Why does about as much right in being sensitive to the issues it’s addressing as it possibly can.  Given that the book’s author, Jay Asher, is a white guy, it’s fair to recognize that his own experience likely limits his ability to tell an effective story about someone with a significantly different background.  The fact that the town where the story takes place is apparently a diversity utopia with a multitude of skin colors and sexual orientations but no significantly divergent cultural identities (except for Justin, all of the kids read as upper middle class, and beyond Tony’s occasional Spanish and nods to his family’s Catholicism, everyone appears highly assimilated into white suburban culture) gives testament to this limitation.

Setting aside the intersectional criticisms, one aspect of this show that I found particularly fascinating was the depiction of the high school.  The adults who are in charge of Liberty High strike me as some really incompetent educators (what guidance counselor hears a kid complain about being pantsed in the hallway and dismisses it because he had to deal with gun violence at his previous school?); as a high school teacher who works with high school teachers, I can attest to the fact that we’re generally not a clueless lot that have no clue what’s going on with our students.  Everyone who works in education is generally paranoid about missing signals that any given student needs help, so we try to be as attentive as possible.  It’s a regular conversation with students not to joke about suicidal ideation or bullying because that stuff is serious business.  These jokers on 13 Reasons Why are an embarrassment to the profession.

Having said all of that, I can offer this in the way of recommendation for 13 Reasons Why: if you’re a white guy who has an interest in learning some feminism 101 concepts, you could do worse than watching this series and paying attention to how Clay develops over the course of the show.  By its end, he at least has learned a lot about how he could have been better support for Hannah.  With everyone else, I’m not so sure.

Reading “Superman In Excelsis”

Lex Luthor has an epiphany. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, inks and colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

About a quarter of the last issue of All-Star Superman is dedicated to a sequence where Superman, having just died on the floor of the Daily Planet, experiences the Kryptonian afterlife.  It’s a sort of blank slate, what-if parallel version of events where Krypton didn’t explode and Kal-El never went to Earth.  Superman speaks with his father, Jor-El, and we get the delightfully handwavy explanation that Kryptonian physiology evolved to absorb and store the solar radiation of stars, and Superman is now in the midst of an extreme mutation that’s converting his entire body into “solar radio-consciousness.”  It’s a fancy way of saying that, surprise, Superman is not in fact dying; he’s just turning into a being of pure energy.  The major tension of the plot gets resolved here; we have our assurance that even though this story is ending, Superman’s going to be fine.  All is well; time to beat Lex Luthor.

What follows from this setup is a sequence where Superman systematically outsmarts Luthor while also driving home the point that Luthor’s obsession with him is just an excuse for not doing more to try to help the world.  We learn that Superman had suspected Luthor’s plan from the moment he noticed one of his robot assistants was malfunctioning, and he has planned everything to play out the way it does in this issue.  With Luthor tripping on his own super serum, Superman can’t match him in direct physical combat, so instead Superman goes through a cat-and-mouse game with Luthor, using a gravity gun to force Luthor to work extra hard and burn through his dose of serum much faster than expected.  In the end, Luthor has an epiphany about the interconnectedness of the universe just before his powers run out and Superman knocks him out.

Unfortunately for Superman, there’s no time to enjoy his victory since the fight with Solaris, the Tyrant Sun, in the previous issue has damaged Earth’s sun; Superman only has seconds to get to the sun and repair it before his body completely transforms into energy, so he kisses Lois goodbye and then flies off to save the day one last time.

The issue’s denouement is a short series of scenes showing how Metropolis has adapted in the year following Superman’s departure (Lois refuses to believe he’s dead, and continues to steadfastly wait for his return); Superman, now made of pure energy, happily working the mechanisms he’s installed in the sun’s heart to keep it going; and Leo Quintum unveiling to his assistant Agatha a project to replicate Superman now that they have his complete genetic code.

It’s an incredibly breezy final issue, all things considered, and it ends on a really triumphant note, which is really where you want a series designed to represent the core of Superman to go.  Everything is hopeful, and we have multiple hints that Earth will be fine going forward.  Even Superman, who has been laboring since the beginning under the assumption that he was going to die, is in a position to live happily doing what he loves.  There’s even a slight suggestion that Superman has now become immortal, and will continue on far into the future; way back in issue #6, the leader of the Superman Squad from far in the future is a golden Superman who very lightly suggests that he is the same as the original Superman.  Superman’s final panel where he’s operating the sun shows him in a form that’s very similar to that earlier appearance.

In the end, I’m not sure that All-Star Superman holds up quite so well for me in comparison to when I first read it.  It hails from the decompression era of comics, and even though Morrison and Quitely do their best to make each issue feel really compact in comparison to contemporary work, the series overall feels much more sparse than other comics that I like; I suspect part of this sense comes from alternating between Watchmen and this comic, since Watchmen, in addition to being from an era when comics storytelling was stylistically much denser, is also a paragon of dense narrative and symbolic structure in its own right.  Beyond simple fluffiness of the content, All-Star Superman also suffers from some all too common problems with representation in comics; Lois is an irritatingly flat character except for in that one issue where she gets really paranoid, and the cast as a whole is overwhelmingly white.  Individual moments are still great, but the work overall feels diminished when you consider it as a whole.

Superman invictus. Also, Lex had the wrong epiphany. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, inks and colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

Lenten Reflections: Week 5

This week I read the book of Ruth. It’s a short book–only four chapters.  By publication time I may read something else, and if that happens then I’ll probably have other things to discuss here, but in the mean time I can say a few things about what I read and move on to another topic that has been on my mind a little bit.

First, Ruth.  This book provides a short account of how a foreign woman became integrated into the genealogy of King David.  Ruth was a Moabite, and she married one of the sons of Naomi and her husband (all the men do have names, but they die at the start of the story and they’re not really that important other than for establishing the Ruth feels a familial bond with Naomi despite being an in-law; it’s sort of like the starting scenario on Bunheads but without the dancing and terrible pacing).  Naomi is an Israelite, and when her sons and husband die, she decides to move back home instead of living as an alien widow in another country.  She releases her daughters-in-law from their obligation to her, and one of them chooses to go back to her own family; Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, putting herself in the position of the alien widow living in another country.  When they return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, Naomi instructs Ruth to glean wheat behind the workers of her relative Boaz, presumably because he’s kin and she knows that he won’t have his workers chase Ruth away or beat her for taking part of their harvest.  One thing leads to another, Ruth has a sexual encounter with Boaz, and Boaz goes before the elders of the town to get another cousin of Naomi’s to give up his right to marry Ruth and carry on her first husband’s line.  Ruth marries Boaz, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is a simple, straightforward story that provides a glimpse of compassion carried out in a social system that could be less than compassionate.  Even before Boaz decides to pursue marrying Ruth he’s depicted as a kind person who gives her and Naomi grain to make bread for themselves rather than letting them glean.  He recognizes that there is an order to things, and someone who’s more closely related to Naomi has right of first refusal to take Ruth as a wife, so he acts in the socially preferred way all the while clearly having a desire to marry Ruth himself, presumably because he has fallen in love with her.  Still, if you subtract the element of romantic love, what we see from Boaz is someone who recognizes when people whom he has limited obligation to are in need and goes beyond what would be mandated to do what is right.  That’s admirable stuff, especially when you remember the context is that Naomi is a widow who has been away from home for a couple decades at least, and Ruth is a foreign woman with no prospects at all.  Boaz gets nothing out of his generosity here (I mean, besides the fact that he clearly finds Ruth attractive), but he understands the right thing to do and does it.

So I like the book of Ruth; it’s short, simple, and straightforward in its message.

The other thing that I’ve been thinking about in the last few days is on the personal nature of God.  In expressing my frustration with the practice of reading the Bible daily last week, someone reached out to me to offer their thoughts on the whole quiet time concept.  One thing they pointed out was that they felt like it was meant to be part of an ongoing conversation between a person and God.  Many of the texts of the Bible purport to reveal the character of God, which is a perfectly valid purpose for any religious text.  What the comment got me thinking about though was about the whole aspect of evangelical Christianity that emphasizes the idea of the “personal relationship” with God and Jesus.  I don’t know if this is a phenomenon that’s peculiar to white evangelicalism.  I can see where it comes from; if you assume that the Bible is divinely inspired, and your definition of divine inspiration is built on the idea that God dictated each word and phrase to the authors of all the Bible’s texts, then it is reasonable to suggest that the Bible acts as a conduit for direct conversation with God.

I totally get that.

The problem is this: what if you don’t understand inspiration in that way?  God is very much a subject of the texts of the Bible, and I think it’s a collection of writing that’s valuable for understanding the traditions that gave rise to early Christianity.  In the sense that the Bible is about God, I think it’s divinely inspired.  You have generations of writers presenting ever refining iterations on what they believe the character of God must be.  I’m just not the kind of Christian who believes that the Bible is a book from God anymore.  The fact that I prefer to describe it as a set of texts rather than as a unified document with a unified, divine author is testament to that.

So with this shift in hermeneutic, I find myself trying to figure out what my new angle is supposed to be.  The model that I’ve actually been drawn back to repeatedly is the one presented in Judaism.  In addition to the Torah, which is treated as scripture, the Jewish tradition also has the Talmud, which is the collected commentary from rabbis about the Torah.  Part of religious engagement in Judaism requires reading Talmud, which (at the risk of probably being overly reductive) is a formalized method of grappling with the theological perspectives of others and learning to position yourself within that ongoing conversation.  Rachael pointed out to me recently that one of the major advantages of this model is that it trains adherents to become comfortable with existing within a tradition with lots of disagreement among fellow practitioners.  The ahistorical, God-wrote-every-book-themselves approach to reading the Bible pushes Christians towards a more isolationist attitude, I think (this is a pitfall of the non-magisterial approach of Protestantism in general).

So when I recalibrate my understanding of what I’m doing when I read the Bible, I think that I need to take into account the reality of conversation within my faith tradition.  If I’m going to continue with quiet times, I think the next logical step for me may be looking for texts outside the Bible to meditate on different aspects of God.  Being reminded that the faith is a communal project that’s been in progress for millennia is a really comforting idea, and one I’d like to pursue more.