Category Archives: Culture

Myth, reality and Jay Parini’s life of Jesus

Jesus-FinalCover-Hi-ResOn a long drive over the holidays, I listened to the podcast of “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook’s recent interview with the poet and author Jay Parini. The subject was Parini’s new book, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” (Icons).

I was fascinated. Here was someone who described himself as a believer — an Episcopalian, the denomination of my youth, no less — who spoke of Jesus and Christianity in terms of myth and metaphor rather than as some sort of rigid, literal reality. I wanted to see how he brought the seeming contradictions of belief and mythology together.

Unfortunately, the book itself does not quite live up to the promise of Parini’s conversation with Ashbrook, mainly because he tries to have it too many ways — starting with what it means to be a believer. “In its Greek and Latin roots,” he writes, “the word ‘believe’ simply means ‘giving one’s deepest self to’ something.” And he quotes St. Anselm: “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.” To my way of thinking, that is putting the metaphorical cart before the metaphorical horse.

My principal unease with Parini, though, is that he writes about “remythologizing” Jesus without quite doing so. On the one hand, he suggests that the miracles Jesus performed and his resurrection are not meant to be taken literally. On the other, he does not rule out the possibility that they actually did happen. Parini doesn’t seem to think it matters all that much whether Jesus came back from the dead metaphorically or materially. Yet to me that’s the most important question.

I say that in full awareness of my own intellectual limitations. Like most people who were educated in a Western context, my thinking tends to be binary. My attitude toward religion is that it’s either literally true or it isn’t; and since it almost certainly isn’t, then it’s something I needn’t trouble myself with. Mind you, I have no patience for Christopher Hitchens-style atheism, and I’m intrigued enough by the whole notion of spirituality to attend a Unitarian Universalist church. But belief to me is a state of mind, based on provable facts, and not something I would give my “deepest self” to in the absence of such facts.

Still, there is much to recommend in Parini’s short biography. Parini is a warm and humane guide to the life of Jesus and the early roots of Christianity. He is especially valuable in explaining Jesus “the religious genius” who synthesized Jewish, Greek and Eastern ideas, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Parini’s learned exploration of Jesus’ moral and spiritual teachings transcends the reality-versus-metaphor divide.

If you’re looking for answers, then “Jesus” is not for you. There are none, and Parini doesn’t pretend otherwise. But if you’re interested in a different way of thinking about Christianity, then Parini’s brief guide is a good place to start.

We have a pope

time-person-of-the-year-cover-pope-francis

Well, of course it was marketing. That’s my response to the complaints that burst forth on Wednesday when we learned that Pope Francis had been chosen as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” rather than NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

But I think Time made the right call journalistically, too. The Snowden revelations have had an enormous effect on the way we think about government secrecy. But Francis is a larger, more forward-looking choice. His early papacy has been fascinating, even if his pronouncements on matters such as abortion and homosexuality have been more about atmospherics than substance.

As a non-Catholic and non-Christian, I find myself wanting to know more about Francis — and where he intends to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. For all his progressive-sounding rhetoric (my favorite: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”), it’s his recently announced initiative on the church’s child-rape crisis that will determine the fate of his papacy — and perhaps of the institution that he heads.

We hold these truths to be self-evident

Joseph Warren dying at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Painting by John Trumbull.

Joseph Warren dying at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Painting by John Trumbull.

One of my favorite Fourth of July traditions is reading the Declaration of Independence in The Boston Globe. It’s moved from print to the iPad, but the words ring just as clearly today as they did 237 years ago. (Believe it or not, the Declaration is behind the Globe’s paywall, but you can also read it here and in many other places.)

Every year I get something new out of it. I’m almost done with the audio version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill,” which — among many other things — documents the extent to which Boston’s Patriots put their faith in King George III while directing their wrath at his ministers.

Much changed between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the gathering in Philadelphia a year later. The Declaration includes a long bill of particulars against the king, preceded by this:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

My reading of Philbrick is that the political bonds between Britain and the Colonies had essentially been severed long before Samuel Adams began agitating — but the emotional bonds, as embodied by the king, took a lot longer to break.

Happy Fourth!

Another way of thinking about the cost of free

Here’s more grist for the comment war that broke out over my Nieman Journalism Lab piece on photographer Gage Skidmore’s practice of giving away his pictures of Republican politicians, and thus theoretically harming paid photojournalists.

The New York Times reports on singer Amanda Palmer’s invitation to local musicians to join her on stage during her latest tour. The compensation: “joy and beer.” The Times blog post, by Daniel Wakin, continues:

Some musicians are enraged, flooding her Web site with angry comments saying that she should pay her backup band. At least one musicians union, Local 76-493 in Seattle, has been sending out Twitter messages denouncing the move and calling for people to post the comments.

Clearly there are some differences between the two situations, but what Palmer is doing raises a few of the same issues.

On the one hand, at a time when free is becoming an expectation in some parts of the economy, aren’t people like Skidmore and Palmer undermining folks who are trying to make a living as photographers, musicians, whatever?

On the other hand, why shouldn’t a creator have the right to give away his work if that’s what he wants to do? Why shouldn’t one musician be able ask others if they’d like to join her on stage without being denounced as a rapacious exploiter?

Reverend Al brings his soul-music gospel to Portsmouth

Al Green in Memphis earlier this year.

Al Green got a lot done in a little more than an hour Tuesday night. The legendary soul singer, backed by a crackling band, performed some of his greatest hits at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, N.H.

Sixty-six years old and clearly not in the same shape he was back when he was posing shirtless for album covers, the Reverend had to pace himself. But his voice was strong, even when he soared into the upper register — a danger zone for many older singers. And throughout the concert he handed out roses to the ladies, a tradition that I’m pretty sure has been part of his act since the 1970s.

Green sang old hits such as “Take Me to the River,” “Tired of Being Alone” and — one of my personal favorites — “Love and Happiness.” He delivered a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and closed with “Let’s Stay Together,” perhaps his biggest hit. There was no encore, despite several minutes of clapping and stomping.

Mrs. Media Nation and I came away feeling honored to have had a chance to see one of the greats of 1960s and ’70s music — a performer of the stature of Otis Redding or James Brown. We’re lucky to still have Al Green with us.

No review from the Portsmouth Herald yet, but the paper interviewed Green last week. The Washington Post reviewed one of his shows a few days ago, and it sounds like basically the same concert.

Boston’s Jesse Dee opened. I have to confess I hadn’t heard of him, but he and his five-piece band delivered a soulful set of their own.

Photo (cc) by Mark Runyon/ConcertTour.org and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Bruce Springsteen and the ghosts we live with

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Spain earlier this year.

The emotional heart of Bruce Springsteen’s three-and-a-half-hour show at Fenway Park last night came about an hour in. As the E Street Band played the opening chords to “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen told the crowd that he’d written it about his “adopted hometown” (Asbury Park, N.J.), but that it had evolved into a song about “living with ghosts.”

At that point, he asked that a light be shone on the right-field foul pole. No one had to be told what that was about, and we all responded with warm, sustained applause.

Trying to describe what happened next cannot possibly do justice to the moment. “My City of Ruins” is a pure gospel song. It’s by far the best Springsteen has written in the latter part of his career, and one of the very few that would hold up to his classic work of the 1970s and early ’80s. In the middle, he took a long break in order to recognize his bandmates. Then he called out — repeatedly — “Are we missing anybody?” The moment carried all the more power because Springsteen did not mention Clarence Clemons or Danny Federici (or Johnny Pesky, for that matter) by name. And he acknowledged that everyone in Fenway Park was missing someone. (David Remnick describes a similar moment in his recent New Yorker profile of Springsteen.)

It was chilling, moving, spiritual, inspirational — possibly the single most intense moment I’ve ever experienced at a concert. And I write that as someone who has a track record with Springsteen.

I’d brought my 21-year-old son and a lot of baggage with me to Fenway Park. I consider myself close to an original Springsteen fan, having been turned on to his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” by Jon Landau’s famous review in the Real Paper. I’d seen him in 1974, ’75, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’92, but not since. And I’ve thought his albums in recent years were hit-or-miss — mostly miss, marred by simplistic lyrics and hack production.

In truth, I also didn’t like the fact that Springsteen concerts had become places to be seen by swells who vaguely remember liking “Born in the U.S.A.,” though that’s hardly Springsteen’s fault. (This, though, is definitely David Brooks’ fault.)

Despite all that, our night ended up ranking with those earlier concerts. Springsteen skillfully mixed songs from his new album, “Wrecking Ball,” with a generous helping of his classics. Even the new stuff sounded a lot better than it does on the album, partly because the cheesy production was blown away, partly because Springsteen’s obvious enthusiasm for the new material overcame the weak spots. Besides, “We Take Care of Our Own” is pretty good.

Another high point was a masterful performance of “Thunder Road,” maybe the best song Springsteen has ever written. He seemed to be choked up at the end; I know I was. It’s hard to describe what that song meant to me when I was 19, waiting to escape from my own “town full of losers.” It means something totally different now, as most of those in the crowd were old enough and wise enough to know that there is no escape.

Finally, I have to mention “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which used to end with an embrace and a kiss with Clarence Clemons. I was a little uneasy with all the attention and cheering focused on Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons, who’s taken over the sax parts. And I was worried that Bruce would overdo it with Jake — maybe not kiss him, but bring him out for a star turn. I shouldn’t have. At “the Big Man joined the band,” everything stopped, and a slideshow of scenes from Clarence Clemons’ life was projected on the video screens. Then the song concluded. Perfect.

There was so much else that to keep writing would be to devolve into list-making. “The E Street Shuffle,” an old favorite. A phenomenal cover of the old John Lee Hooker song “Boom Boom.” Rave-up, full-band versions of “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99,” a couple of truly dangerous songs from his album “Nebraska.” Closing with “Dirty Water” and “Twist & Shout” (and fireworks!), complete with a James Brown-style collapse and revival on the stage. (Here’s the full set list.)

My only complaint was the venue. This was my first Fenway Park show, and it was less than an ideal place to see a concert. We were in the grandstands behind home plate. The net was never lifted. The band members, in center field, were barely specks. The video and sound were adequate, but no more than that.

Still, the show itself was nearly as thrilling as the first time I saw Springsteen in the old Music Hall, the night that Muhammad Ali would shock the world by beating George Foreman — announced on stage after midnight, just after Springsteen had finished his final encore. Back then, Springsteen was a skinny, bearded 25-year-old who came out and opened, audaciously, by singing “Incident on 57th Street” almost a cappella, accompanied only by a young woman on a violin. “Born to Run” was still in front of him. So were the covers of Time and Newsweek and all the fame and hype that have marked and occasionally marred his long career.

Last night he was 62, with the energy and stamina of a much younger man, still singing and playing and performing like his life, and ours, depended on it. Maybe it did.

Photo (cc) by Juan Ramon Rodriguez Sosa and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Richard Ford’s taut, brilliant anti-mystery

Normally I don’t get much of a chance to read fiction. Even a book that’s not about the media is a luxury.

Earlier this summer, though, I read Richard Ford’s latest novel, “Canada,” and recommend it highly. I had read and admired two of his earlier works — “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize. So when the New York Times Book Review gave “Canada” a rave (by Andre Dubus III, no less), I decided to dive in.

“Canada” is divided into two parts — before and after, if you will. The first part is as brilliant and perfect a piece of writing as I’ve read in a long time. Ford plays with and blows apart the notion of suspense with his first two sentences:

First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

All of part one is given over to Ford’s telling us a little bit more, then a little more, then a little more. Everything is foreshadowed. There are no surprises. And it is brilliant.

Part two, in which the murders take place, is just slightly uneven, at least in comparison to the taut, seamless quality of part one. But without part two, Ford wouldn’t have had a story. And at its best, it is very good indeed.

Sasha Baron Cohen’s smugly unfunny humor

I detested “Borat,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s best-known movie, for making vicious fun of good people who’d done nothing more than try to be polite. So I can only imagine how bad “The Dictator” must be if, as A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, it doesn’t even reach that low standard.

I absolutely love this line from Scott:

Unlike his precursors Brüno, Borat and Ali G, Admiral General Aladeen is not meant to fool anyone into thinking that he is real, so viewers are denied the full measure of smugness that is Mr. Baron Cohen’s special gift to bestow.

When I was in Almaty, Kazakhstan, three years ago, our cab driver couldn’t wait to tell us how much he liked “Borat.” “But it’s not really Kazakhstan!” he quickly added.

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.