True Grit

We saw True Grit over the weekend, the Coen brothers’ rendition of the  novel by Charles Portis, which had also been made into a movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar.  I’m a fan of the novel and both movies, including this one.

The John Wayne movie is an iconic Western, and I like icons.  This one is darker and, well, grittier, and I like that too.  The Coen version is especially good in bringing to the forefront the novel’s language.  The 19th century was a time of greater formality than our own, with an attention to codes of good manners and the use of a more flowery language than we usually do today, in our hyper-casual culture.  That was also the era of black and white morality, when the Bible was on everyone’s lips.  And yet, at the same time, on the American frontier,  the era was also wild, violent, barbaric, and squalid.  The Coen brothers capture both of those co-existing dimensions perfectly, and it’s a sight to see.

The performances by Jeff Bridges as the drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as the formidable 14-year old Mattie Ross out to avenge her father’s murder are as good and as memorable as anything you will find in the movies.  I also loved the movie’s score, based on 19th century American hymns (e.g.,  “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”).

I urge you to read what Stanley Fish has to say about this movie in his blog post via Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’ – NYTimes.com..  The postmodernist literary critic, who now seems to be going beyond postmodernism in a good way, got his start, like me, as a literary scholar specializing in applying Reformation theology to 17th century literature.  He says this about the movie:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Fish takes a key line from the movie:  “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” He then offers what I would call a Calvinist interpretation of the film.

A Lutheran interpretation might take the grace bit a little differently, agreeing that everyone is a sinner but showing God’s hand in the vocations being carried out in the story.

At any rate, True Grit is  great fun, and it will also stay with you.

If you’ve seen it, weigh in.

Parent one & parent two

U. S. passport applications will no longer ask for “mother” and “father.”  Instead, they will ask for “parent one” and “parent two.”  From the Washington Post:

Goodbye, Mom and Dad. Hello, Parent One and Parent Two.

The State Department has decided to make U.S. passport application forms “gender neutral” by removing references to mother and father, officials said, in favor of language that describes one’s parentage somewhat less tenderly.

The change is “in recognition of different types of families,” according to a statement issued just before Christmas that drew widespread attention Friday after a Fox News report.

The announcement of the change was buried at the end of a Dec. 22 news release, titled “Consular Report of Birth Abroad Certificate Improvements,” that highlighted unrelated security changes.

The new policy is a win for gay rights groups, a vocal and financially generous Democratic voting bloc that has pushed for the change since Barack Obama began his presidential transition in late 2008. The decision follows last month’s vote to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which gay leaders consider one of their biggest victories in years.

via Parentage goes ‘gender neutral’ on passport form.

First of all, every human being does, in fact, have a female mother and a male father, whether they are married to each other or not.  Since citizenship is established by the place of biological birth, surely “father” and “mother” is relevant on a passport.  But beyond that, what do we learn from this “victory” about the agenda of gay rights groups?

UPDATE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ordered that “mother” and “father” be retained along with the new wording. The forms will call for “mother or parent 1″ and “father or parent 2.”

Organic chemicals on Mars

That Viking lander that did experiments 30 years ago on Martian soil found organic chemicals after all:

More than 30 years after NASA’s Viking landers found no evidence for organic materials on Mars, scientists say a new experiment on Mars-like soil shows Viking did, in fact, hit pay dirt.

The new study was prompted by the August 2008 discovery of powerful oxygen-busting compounds known as perchlorates at the landing site of another Mars probe called Phoenix.

Scientists repeated a key Viking experiment using perchlorate-enhanced soil from Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is considered one of the driest and most Mars-like places on Earth, and found telltale fingerprints of combusted organics — the same chemicals Viking scientists dismissed as contaminants from Earth.

“Contrary to 30 years of perceived wisdom, Viking did detect organic materials on Mars,” planetary scientist Christopher McKay, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told Discovery News. “It’s like a 30-year-old cold case suddenly solved with new facts.”

“If the Viking team had said ‘Well, maybe there’s perchlorate in the soil,’ everybody would have said they’re crazy — why would there be perchlorates in the soil? It was only by having it pushed on us by Phoenix where we had no alternative but to conclude that there was perchlorate in the soil … Once you realize it’s there, then everything makes sense,” McKay added.

The Viking team’s verdict that Mars lacked organics was the lynchpin argument against another Viking experiment that looked for signs of microbial life. In the experiment, a bit of nutrient-laced water was added to a sample of Martian soil.

The air above the soil was then monitored for signs that the nutrients had been metabolized. The instrument detected tracer gases the first time the experiment was done, but subsequent runs did not. The results were considered inconclusive and remain contested.

New evidence for organics on Mars does not mean Viking found life, cautions McKay.

“Finding organics is not evidence of life or evidence of past life. It’s just evidence for organics,” he said.

But if NASA had realized there were organics on Mars, there might not have been a 20-year hiatus in sending landers for follow-up studies, said Rafael Navarro-González, with the Institute of Nuclear Science at the National Autonomous University in Mexico.

“We might have had continuing missions,” Navarro-González told Discovery News.

NASA plans to launch a follow-up mission to look for organics on Mars in November.

via Viking Found Organics on Mars, Experiment Confirms : Discovery News.

But do we know of “organics” apart from organisms?  Do organic chemicals exist in nature apart from life?  Maybe so.  Perhaps some of you can enlighten us.  But this seems pretty important in the quest to find extraterrestrial life.

Signs and Portents?

Good thing we don’t believe in signs and portents like the ancients did.  First, on the winter solstice, when light is supposed to start its victory over darkness, the moon goes out.  Then on New Year’s Day, 4000 dead birds drop out of the sky in Arkansas.  Dead birds have also been raining out of the sky in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Sweden. Arkansas was also the site of 100,000 or so fish mysteriously going belly-up.   Mysterious fish kills have also turned up in New Zealand and Brasil. These cannot be good omens for the new year.  Not that we believe in omens.   I’d be curious, though, how the ancient augurers (some of them Christian) would interpret these portents.

I myself failed to stay up to see the New Year in, something I have nearly always done before. I also forgot to eat black-eyed peas, considered in Oklahoma to be essential for good luck in the new year. Nor did I eat pickled herring, which Wisconsinites require. I’m getting nervous.

Have you noted any other weird happenings or possible portents (if we believed in such superstition, which we don’t) ? 

The Harold Camping folks, some of whom monitor this blog, are still saying that the rapture will happen on May 21.  Put that date on your calendar!

In Beebe, Ark., 4,000 Dead Blackbirds Drop From the Sky – NYTimes.com.

Atheists’ diversity problem

Atheists are worried because nearly all atheists are white  and most of them are men:

Last year, Jules helped launch a local initiative to address what atheists regard as an international problem for their movement: a lack of racial and gender diversity.

From the smallest local meetings to the largest conferences, the vast majority of speakers and attendees are almost always white men. Leading figures of the atheist movement — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett — are all white men.

But making atheism more diverse is proving to be no easy task.

Surveys suggest most atheists are white men. A recent survey of 4,000 members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation found that 95 percent were white, and men comprised a majority.

Among U.S. nonbelievers, 72 percent are white and 60 percent are men, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey; the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Hispanics make up 11 percent, and African-Americans just 8 percent, of “unaffiliated” Americans.

“Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that,” said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. “We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place.” . . .

Efforts to cultivate diversity in atheism seem to be gaining some traction among African-Americans, Goddard said, but not as much among Asians or Latinos. “I’ve seen no real success in outreach, no efforts really being made to the Latino community,” Goddard said.

via Atheists’ Diversity Woes Have No Black-and-White Answers – News.

The assumption is that racial minorities fear “coming out” as atheists; that is, that they are really atheists but are just afraid to say so.  That assumption is pretty condescending, indeed, racist in itself.   Maybe the racial minorities aren’t atheists because they actually believe in God!

Why do you think that women, blacks, and (especially) Asians and Latinos are less likely to be atheists?

HT:James Kushiner

Big trouble in Iraq & Pakistan

Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq who killed who knows how many American troops, has come back–from Iran–and his party is part of the new coalition government:

Anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia contributed to the bloodiest days of the Iraq war, made a surprise return to Iraq on Wednesday, ending nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran and raising new questions about U.S. influence here.

Sadr’s remarkable trajectory brought him home just as his political faction attains significant power, allied in Iraq’s new national unity government with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who just a few years ago moved to crush Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

It was Sadr’s recent decision to support Maliki for a second term, in a deal brokered by Iran, that ended eight months of political deadlock and allowed Maliki, also a Shiite, to cobble together his new government two weeks ago.

In another sign of Iran’s significant influence in Iraq, just as U.S. troops prepare to leave the country by the end of the year, Iran’s new foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, met in Baghdad on Wednesday with Maliki and more than a dozen other government officials.

The Sadrist faction controls at least eight of about three dozen ministries in Maliki’s new cabinet and has vowed to become a full participant in the political process. But the return of Sadr leaves open the question of whether he will seek to reassert his influence solely through political means, or will instead revert to violence.

via Anti-U.S. cleric back in Iraq after long exile.

Whether he uses violence or politics, we see the specter of a pro-Iranian strongman back in power.  Can anyone doubt that al-Sadr will eventually become the nation’s leader?

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, as you may have heard already, the governor of the province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his body-guard.  Why?  He came out against Pakistan’s law requiring the death penalty for “blasphemy”; that is, speaking ill of Mohammed or Islam.  A Christian woman is facing execution for allegedly criticizing the prophet, and Taseer wanted her spared.  The case has become a catalyst for conservative Muslims in opposing the more secular establishment and its increasingly shaky government.  If the jihadists take power, not only will the Christian die, the Taliban in Afghanistan will have a powerful ally.  With nuclear weapons.

via Salman Taseer’s Assassination Points to Pakistani Extremists’ mounting power


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