By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
Timeline: December 2004
"There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest," Job says of the grave in Job 3:17. But in this life, there is no rest for the weary. In fact, one of the news media's cliché s for turmoil in the world is the word unrest, the clunky antonym for rest. Unrest prevailed in Ukraine in December, as thousands demonstrated in Kiev to protest what they saw as a faulty presidential election in their country, amid allegations that one of the candidates had been poisoned.
Iraq prepared for next month's elections in the midst of more violence, including a massive suicide bomb in Mosul, while Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad. Israelis and Palestinians made new plans to talk about their own decades-old unrest. In the United States, a fan sued the not-so-professional basketball players who attacked him in one of sports' worst-ever brawls, and reports of a superstar's steroid use sullied the home run record he stands ready to break. Other achievements lost their luster in December; literally so in the case of Frank Gehry's recently opened concert hall in Los Angeles. Residents, workers and drivers in the vicinity complained of the glare from the inventive structure's many angles, and the city sent sandblasters to dull its surface. But elsewhere, the work of human hands was a cause for triumph and a bridge across divisions; especially in France, where the world's tallest bridge was officially opened.
Renata Tebaldi, one of the greatest opera stars of the 20th century, died in December at the age of 82. British linguist George Campbell, who could speak and write in 44 languages, died at the age of 92. Paul Edwards was the editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, covering everything from "absolute" to "Zoroastrianism." Rollin D. Hotchkiss was a pioneer of genetic research in the 1940s. Pauline Gore was the wife of a longtime Tennessee senator and the mother of a U.S. vice president. As an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Amway co-founder Jay Van Andel remembered his religious roots. Sidonie Goossens, principal harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1930 through 1980, died in December at age 105.
From The Scotsman:
MILLAU, France — IT STANDS taller than the Eiffel Tower, is longer than the Champs Elysees and is destined to become almost as popular a French landmark. The Millau Viaduct, the world's highest bridge, was inaugurated yesterday by the French president, Jacques Chirac. Designed by the British architect Lord Foster, the slender white structure in the Tarn valley will provide a motorway link between Paris and Spain, easing congestion in the Massif Central area. The highest of the 1.5-mile bridge's seven concrete pillars stands at 1,125ft, 62ft higher than the Eiffel Tower. Mr Chirac hailed it as a "marvel of art and architecture", adding: "[It] is a magnificent example, in the long and great French tradition, of audacious works of art, a tradition begun at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by the great Gustave Eiffel."
From the New York Times:
MAPLEWOOD, N.J.* — There probably isn't an ideal time for a school district to decide to ban all Christmas music from the winter concerts at its schools. But after a month of the Great Christmas Carol Controversy in the South Orange/Maplewood School District, all sides agree on at least one thing: The district picked a particularly dicey time to try. … The issue here is not new. In the early 1990's, after concerns that a high school chorus's concert was essentially a celebration of Christmas, the board adopted a policy … and this year new guidelines were drawn up for its enforcement in student performances. … When the new guidelines were announced on Oct. 29, applying even to instrumental renditions, the controversy was on, fanned by media reports; threatened lawsuits by an Arizona-based religious-right organization, Alliance Defense Fund; and by outrage from at least a part of the local population.
Best of DigestThe Digest department—like this blog as a whole—exists to prove that not everything on the Web is ephemeral and shallow. Here are some of the best counterexamples linked here over the past year:
- The first two objections to considering Jane Austen as a public theologian are that "she does not seem much interested in things public, and she does not seem much interested in things theological," writes Peter Leithart in his forthcoming book Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, excerpted in the current First Things. But an exploration of one of Austen's least popular novels, Mansfield Park, reveals Austen's efforts to trace "insidious individualism precisely to the marginalization of the Church in the life of England, the failure of clergy to be the makers of English manners, and the consequent intrusion of other forces as the makers of manners," Leithart says. Austen even hit some Augustinian notes while reflecting on memory and self-awareness. Full story While some of his suggested theological themes seem overextended, Leithart has something to reveal about Austen's work even to her avid readers. (2/16)
- What does the soul weigh? The recent film 21 Grams thinks it has the answer. So did the early 20th century doctor Duncan MacDougall, who established the weight of the soul as a scientific "fact" after elaborate but dubious measurements of how much weight human and canine bodies lose at death. Unfortunately, MacDougall's work is marred by "the poor accuracy of his scales, the huge variability in his data, the all-too-few people studied, [and] the tricky skill of pinpointing the exact time of death," says the Melbourne Age. That didn't stop MacDougall from publishing his findings in 1907, the same year Einstein put forth the more reliable E=mc2. While the body does indeed decrease in weight as it decomposes, MacDougall's belief that humans suddenly lose three fourths of an ounce with the departure of their soul does not, says the Age, carry any weight. Full story (2/23)
- The nation's breadbasket is emptying out, says The Week magazine. The Great Plains—one fifth of the country's land mass—are in a state of seemingly irreversible decline. The family farm, that irreplaceable ingredient of Americana, faces a hopeless situation: it can't afford the technology to become more efficient, so it can't sell as much food—but since corporations can do both, food prices (and thus profits) keep falling. And those same corporations get the bulk of government subsidies, further dooming the independent farmer. Younger generations are turning their backs on family farms passed down through generations, and are leaving for cities. Those who remain see a grim situation in which crime and drugs are running rampant. "Crystal meth has hit small-town America the way crack cocaine once hit the cities," says The Week. "Much of the Plains region is already well on the way to becoming a series of ghost towns." The Week doesn't say whether more equitable subsidies are a priority of any lawmakers—or whether they would be enough to reverse the Plains' decline. Full story (2/9)
- "There is a pox upon our public speech," pronounces Don Watson with the kind of bluntness and clarity he says is disappearing. Read a university's Web site blather incoherently about its "quality management … underpinned by a strong commitment to continuous improvement and a whole-of-organisation framework," and you recognize the problem. Watson says "managerial language" is ruining politics, business, education, and the arts, resulting in what the Melbourne Age calls "the death of clarity and irony and funny old things called verbs." Ever since George Orwell's 1946 essay Politics and the English Language (which is scandalously unmentioned here, though Orwell is brought in for a brief bow at the very end), we have been vigilant for jargon in the halls of power. But now, Watson says in his book Death Sentence, everyone is starting to sound like middle management. Full story To his credit, journalist James Button displays the virtuous—and, playfully, some of the contemptible—lingual tendencies under discussion while writing the story. (1/19)
- Lay off the caffeine, we are repeatedly scolded. But what, exactly, is so bad about caffeine? The Chicago Reader Cecil Adams and isn't sure. "Nobody claims caffeine is a health food," he says. "It can cause jitters, insomnia, indigestion, and other temporary side effects when consumed in excess and is almost certainly mildly addictive." But: "Whether it can do more serious harm, though, has yet to be conclusively established." As he shows, this isn't for lack of trying. Full story (2/9)
- "The Netherlands, as any European can tell you, has become a land of giants," says the New Yorker in a piece on the history of height. And quickly: in less than two centuries, the average male has grown seven inches. Other European and Asian populations have grown at least a half-inch per decade in the last half-century, but, strangely, the United States hasn't budged. The importance of height in the study of sociology has, shall we say, grown in stature only recently, the New Yorker says. Now researchers are puzzling over a pituitary riddle: How can the United States be one of the wealthiest nations ever and yet fail, for fifty years now, to grow? The New Yorker article gets muddled at the end, taking a stab at blaming income inequality and fast food (and, odder yet, trying to tie them together). Until then, it makes you wonder why we grow. Full story (4/12)
- The parting of the Red Sea looked especially surreal in the The Ten Commandments, long before the days of decent special effects (can you imagine that scene if the makers of The Perfect Storm got their hands on it?) But Russian mathematician Naum Voltsinger has taken pains to demonstrate that the actual phenomenon of the Red Sea crossing was in fact quite natural—though no less marked by the fingerprints of God. In a report called "Modelling of the hydronamic situation during the Exodus" published by the Russian Academy of Sciences, Voltsinger and colleague Alexi Androsov found that in the Gulf of Suez, "certain tidal conditions combined with a steady wind speed of 30 metres per second could have exposed the hidden reef under the sea for about four hours, allowing hundreds of thousands of frightened Jews to march to safety across the tongue of raised seabed." "This shows that God rules the world through the laws of physics," Voltsinger told The Scotsman last month. "The situation itself is physically explainable, and it happened. … The divine miracle is that the Jews arrived at the water at the moment they did." So was Moses just idly pointing to the phenomenon when he stretched out his staff? Full story (3/8)
- If you write or create art, you may not want to read Joan Acocella's piece in the current New Yorker on the history of writer's block. "Writers have probably suffered over their work ever since they first started signing it, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that creative inhibition became an actual issue in literature," Acocella says. This is because writers had long regarded their work as "rational, purposeful activity which they controlled." It was the English Romantics who came to see poetry as "the product of 'some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind.'" Inevitably, writer's block is now considered a mental health issue. "Blocked writers are now being treated with antidepressants such as Prozac, though some report that the drugs tend to eliminate their desire to write together with their regret over not doing so." No word on how long it took Acocella to write this piece. Article (6/14)
- "Disgust is both powerful and pervasive in our lives, yet of all the emotions that make us human, it is surely the most neglected, and the least understood," wrote B&C editor John Wilson earlier this month in the Boston Globe's Ideas section. Recently, though, scholars' contributions have advanced a philosophy of disgust, or "disgustology," even if their questions are more useful than their answers. Bioethicist Leon Kass contends that "repugnance is the emotional expression of a deep wisdom"—a moral sensor alerting us to violations of order and goodness. Another study suggests disgust is "an evolutionary response to the threat of disease." Philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees disgust as an awareness of our animal nature, which we seek to deny by distancing ourselves from others, and from which we seek relief in (she says) fantastic notions of an all-powerful deity. As John points out, one concept she neglects is self-disgust, which, despite the self-esteem cheerleading of pop psychology, he says can be "congruent with reality" and "an indispensable engine of reform." Story (5/17)
- Being a medieval monk not only enlivened the soul, it filled the stomach, a researcher at London's Institute of Archaeology told the International Medieval Congress last week. Philippa Patrick studied 300 skeletons of British monks and found evidence of arthritis and skeletal hyperostosis, strongly suggesting rampant obesity among monks. "They were taking in about 6,000 calories a day," Patrick told the London Guardian. "Their meals were full of saturated fats. They were five times more likely to suffer from obesity than their secular contemporaries." So much for St. Benedict's warning that "there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as overeating." Don't miss Philippa's breakdown of monks' daily menu at the end of the article. (7/19)
- Don't tell the Swiss, but one of their most beloved national stories is shot through with holes—unlike the alleged apple on William Tell's son's head. "Many historians doubt that Tell ever shot an apple off his son's head in 1307 or sparked the Swiss struggle for independence," says the current Smithsonian. "In fact, many doubt that William Tell ever existed. Instead, Tell's oft-told tale is a product of mangled chronologies, borrowed folk tales, and ample helpings of wishful thinking. But that hasn't kept him from becoming a beloved symbol of Switzerland's national character." Preview and PDF (8/23)
- for all their "doctrinal absolutes," there's one commandment Christians don't have any compunction about breaking, says Martin Marty in his Sightings newsletter. It's the fourth one, about keeping the Sabbath. "It's simply breaking God's law to be open on Sundays," says independent Christian bookseller John Cully. But the Family Christian Bookstore chain disagrees, having recently opened its 326 stores on Sundays. FCB calls it a "ministry decision"; being closed could deprive someone of salvation (and, of course, deprive FCB of profit). FCB is unlikely to suffer a major consumer boycott; Marty cites a poll that says 80 percent of FCB customers already shop on Sunday. But if FCB shoppers are looking for guidance on their Sabbath habits, they'll have to look elsewhere. One reporter searched some FCB stores for books specifically on Sabbath-keeping, and didn't find a single one. So you'll have to go online to order Marva Dawn's excellent book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly. Marty's entry (12/6)
- Is it true, asks a letter writer to the Chicago Reader's answer man, Cecil Adams, that the diamond trade is a scam, and is this an excuse not to buy one for one's wife? At the risk of endorsing one husband's cheapness, Adams says there is indeed reason to see a conspiracy lurking behind the world diamond market, even without tackling the question of worker exploitation. Affirming the view of journalist Edward Jay Epstein in his 1982 book The Rise and Fall of Diamonds, Adams says, "Prices are kept high by a cynical cartel that preys on vanity and stupidity," he writes. De Beers in South Africa stifles its supply to keep demand sky-high, and manipulated the 1930s-era media to resurrect the custom of buying engagement rings. As a result, the diamond market soared from $23 million in 1939 to $2.1 billion in 1979. The only thing that can stop it, perhaps, are new artificially produced but high-quality diamonds, such as those made by chemical vapor deposition—a vast improvement on cubic zirconium knockoffs. Column (9/13)
- Best of Digest 2003
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.