Mysteries Of The Bible: What Does The Bible Say About Religion?

Religion is a word that we tend to toss about pretty casually.  We study comparative religion, or may hear others say that they are spiritual but not religious, as if to be religious was a bad thing.  We may even say that we follow some sort of dietary regimen religiously or that we watch some sort of television series religiously, to demonstrate the way that we have disciplined and ordered our lives around eating and entertainment principles.  Some people will claim that Jesus Christ did not come to this earth to start a religion.  And so it goes.  All of these discussions express the way that we use religion today, sometimes in a distinctly non-“religious” fashion.  But more important by far than our own use of the term religion is the way that the Bible uses it.  And how does the Bible speak of religion?

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the word religion only appears four times in the Greek New Testament.  Each time religion is found in an English translation it is taken from the Greek word threskeia, which is a derivative of words meaning fear or trembling and crying aloud, and which is usually defined as involving religious discipline or external religious ceremony.  The four times the Bible uses the term religion are interesting as well.  Acts 26:5 says:  “They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.”  This particular verse is interesting because Paul comments that he shared common religious disciplines with his Pharisaical opponents, specifically to the extent that both of them continued to follow the laws of God in common between genuine Christianity and Judaism.  Paul himself uses the term again in Colossians 2:23:  “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religionfalse humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”  Here we see Paul talking about the disciplines of asceticism as being useless against the pull of flesh, despite their popularity in certain mainstream “Christian” circles as far back as the desert fathers and their later imitators.  James is responsible for the other two references to this term, and they form a contrast with each other in James 1:26-27:  “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.  Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Let us take some time to see what James is referring to, because it does not bear a close religion to what most of us consider when we use the term religion.  Instead, as is rather typical of James’ approach as a whole, when James speaks about religion he speaks about our personal habits as the outgrowth of our beliefs.  True religion is related to practical behaviors that involve living a morally blameless life as well as showing a concern to vulnerable members of society in their trouble.  Likewise, useless religion is related to impracticality in that it does not lead one to control their tongue.  Since biblical religion is based on one’s patterns of behavior, and focuses on the practical effects of our beliefs on the way that we treat other people, religion that makes us feel righteous but does not lead to better conduct is useless.  This is something that we have to ponder and reflect upon, to make sure that we are not wasting time thinking of ourselves as righteous or enlightened sort of people when we do not treat others kindly or with respect.

It should be noted as an aside that there is one additional use of the word religion in contemporary English-language Bibles.  We find it in Acts 25:18-20:  “When the accusers stood up, they brought no accusation against him of such things as I supposed, but had some questions against him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.  And because I was uncertain of such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters.”  The word used for religion here is δεισιδαιμονίας, and it refers to “superstition” rather than religious discipline.  It is noteworthy as well that this word is said by a heathen Roman governor in Felix rather than, as is the case with the biblical word for religion, by godly religious leaders like Paul, Luke, and James.  Frequently those who think of religion in terms of superficial matters are thinking more like heathen Romans than like heroes of biblical faith.  Who should we be modeling our approach to religion on?

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Book Review: Stilwell And The American Experience In China 1911-45

Stilwell And The American Experience In China 1911-45, by Barbara W. Tuchman

Admittedly, this book ends somewhat abruptly, but that is because its subject’s life ended somewhat abruptly.  One moment we are reading about Stilwell’s experience at the end of World War II and his efforts, after he was relieved from his position in China, to participate in the winning of World War II, and then he has metastatic cancer and dies.  Admittedly, I did not know a great deal about “Sour Joe” Stilwell before reading this book, and though my own political worldview is very distinct from that of the author (and not that distinct from the subject, it must be admitted) but this book certainly made me pretty sympathetic to his struggles both in the slow promotion of the peacetime army where his gung-ho attitude and longing for action helped make him a dangerous opponent in war games and in his struggle to get Chaing Kai-Shek to do something, anything, useful in the Chinese front of World War II.  This book is not flattering to CKS at all, and is a pretty fierce look at a China that was unable to defend itself against the Japanese and uninterested in acting, where corruption was rife and where the Americans were simply looked at as the source of creature comforts for corrupt elites.

This book is a bit more than 500 pages and it is divided into twenty chapters with an amusing appendix that includes haphazard conversations with Stilwell during 1921.  An introduction, forward, and prologue set this book up as a classic in writing about the American relationship with China as well as the crisis of World War II and the way that last-gasp Japanese offenses threatened China’s remote wartime capital.  The first part of the book looks at the foundations of Stilwell as an officer, his early visit to China during the revolution, his time in the Great War in both France and China, his service in the peacetime interwar army and his work as an attaché.  After that the second part of the book looks at his preparation for World War II and willingness to go where he is sent and then his declining relationship with Chinese leadership as well as rivalries with the British (who he despised, and the feeling was often mutual given his anti-imperialist and anti-limey tendencies) as well as other officers like the corrupt Chennault.  Stilwell’s experience trying to urge Chinese troops to invade, including the rebuilding of the Burma Road that made supplies far more plentiful, led him to consider American suport of CKS to be pointless and wasteful, and he died an honored soldier but one who was unsuccessful at prodding China in a way that would have made it possible to stop Communism.

According to this book at least, the American experience with China in the first half of the 20th century can be considered one of cultural misunderstanding and a great deal of frustration.  Although Tuchman tries to put a pretty face on both Chinese Communists as being more effective than the Nationalists, and although Tuchman is at least mildly critical of FDR, the author makes the failure of Stilwell’s efforts in China out to be something like a Greek tragedy of epic misunderstanding and character flaws that make it impossible for there to be a happy ending.  Admittedly, Stilwell was a fighting general who was quite adept when it came to the tactical and strategic aspects of warfare, and he showed these gifts to great success in Northern Burma as well as in the war games before World War II.  Yet he had some clear liabilities as a general when it came to areas of logistics and diplomacy, and it was these aspects that ultimately proved to be his undoing, although it can be argued that even had Stilwell been an easier person to get along with, that would not have resolved the essential disconnect between American and British and Chinese war aims and interests.  It is just that the disagreement would have been conducted in a more polite manner than it was.

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Book Review: The Proud Tower

The Proud Tower:  A Portrait Of The World Before The War:  1890-1914, by Barbara W. Tuchman

The author is wise, I think, in this case, to consider this book to be a portrait rather than a more complete account.  This book is certainly a partial book in multiple senses of the word, because it would not be possible for one single account to give all of the complexity of the world in the period immediately before World War I, and because the author herself definitely has a particular perspective of her own.  From reading this book one can gather that she has a firm belief in the obligations owed by intellectuals to engage in public service in some fashion (although there is certainly some nuance here as well), and that she has a strong degree of opposition to imperialism and bullying of various kinds.  Although I must admit that the author is far more of a leftist than I am, it is to her credit that she comments in ways that certainly drop the esteem that the reader would have about intellectuals and it takes someone of considerable honesty to do that.  The fact that the author is this honest speaks highly of her integrity as a historian.

This large book of almost 500 pages is divided into various chapters which give various snapshots of life in the period just before World War I.  Admittedly, the picture is a bit on the biased side.  There are more pictures of elites (and this includes intellectuals as elites) than of the poor, teeming, huddled masses of various slums and tenements (although there is some of that too).  The attention of the author is focused on Western Europe mostly with a bit about the United States and Russia, but we don’t get a picture of life in the prewar period of, say Japan or China or even Australia.  This is a survey of convenience, one which examines the upper classes of Great Britain and the decisive elections and electoral decisions before World War I there in a couple of chapters, looks at socialists, including the death of Juares, the Dreyfuss scandal, American politics focused on the figure of Joseph Reed, the anarchists, and Strauss’ career as a composer in Germany.  The author has a lot of intriguing things to say about the conflicts of the time in the various nations she discusses and the hopes and fears of various people as to what the future held, and to the ways that vulnerability was seen if not fully understood by the people of that time who were, like the people of every time, focused on what was going on and unaware of what would be decisive.

For the most part, I found this book very enjoyable to read.  Although the author and I have different political worldviews, I found very intriguing the author’s insights about socialism and the belief of leftist intellectuals to presume to speak on behalf of the common man despite not being (generally) of the common people themselves.  The author’s insight into the various divisions of leftist intellectual circles and her general interest in political and diplomatic history serves here well here.  Whatever her own political beliefs, she had a clear passion for public service and an honesty that allowed her to tell others what her sources told her and not what she would have preferred to say.  The fact that the story is a compelling narrative that includes discussions about the quorum rules of the House of Representatives as well as the effects of imprisonment in French Guiana on an innocent if not necessarily sympathetic man as well as the stories of the creativity of Strauss and some of his less compelling music as World War I approached makes this book a worthwhile and quirky one.

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Book Review: The Guns Of August

The Guns Of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman

Given that this book is such a well-recognized classic of the history of the first month of World War I, it is hard to say anything new about it, and so I must content myself with saying things that are true about it.  Even for readers who are likely to have read a great deal of history about World War I, this book manages the difficult and impressive feat of filling the early days of World War I with suspense, where even though one knows about the four years of mostly indecisive trench warfare and the way that the war was a disaster for many of its participants, the book makes one feel as if one is reading the reports of the advances and on the edge of one’s seat wondering what will happen.  Keeping up that level of suspense is an impressive achievement for a book about a very familiar war, but a great deal of that suspense comes from the author’s command of detail and her interest in the personal struggles of the various leaders of the armies and nations involved at the beginning of World War I, dealing with the repercussions as to how they got involved in the war to begin with.

After a foreword, preface, author’s notes, and various notes about the illustrations and maps in this book, the author’s account of World War I begins with the funeral of Edward VII, one of those moments that is all the more poignant when one looks at the disastrous twentieth century that was soon to erupt upon the world (1).  After that the author spends four chapters talking about various war plans, including the right hook planned by the Germans that required the violation of Belgium’s borders, which Prussia had sworn by covenant to protect (2), the French efforts to recover their pride and dignity and honor in the shadow of Sedan (3), the secret commitments going on between England and France unknown by the ordinary people in England (4), and the fears and hopes of the Russian steamroller that would fall upon East Prussia and Galicia at the outbreak of war (5).  After this the author examines the outbreak of war first in Berlin (6), and then in Paris and London (7) dealing with the ultimatum in Brussels (8), and the mistaken belief among many that soldiers would be home before the leaves fell (9).  Finally, the author gives us a riveting account of the first month of the war in the first French advance (10), the German invasion of Belgium (11), the initial movement of the BEF to the continent (12), the German advance despite fierce Belgian resistance (13), the debacle for the French at the battle of the frontiers that gave Germany control of much of France and Belgium’s industrial areas (14), the fears in Germany about the coming of the Russians (15), the battle of Tannenberg (16), German atrocities in Louvain and elsewhere (17), the question of the blockade and the importance of the United States to the calculations of the Allies and Central Powers (18), the slow and grudging retreat of the French, English, and Belgians (19), the arrival of the front at Paris (20), Von Kluck’s turn that saved Paris and that presented the Allies with a chance to attack the German flank (21), and the Battle of the Marne that repulsed the Germans from the outskirts of Paris (22), followed by an afterword.

There are at least a few qualities that make this book particularly exciting.  As might be expected, many of these come in small details.  The author, for example, is a bit character in her own history as a witness of the dramatic escape of a couple of German ships to the Ottoman Empire, which helped lead to the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers thanks in large part to English indifference or hostility and lack of interest in pursuing diplomacy.  In general, a lot of the author’s pointed comments deal with the question of diplomacy, and why in particular the Germans were so bad at it.  This seems to be a running theme throughout many of the books by the author I have read so far, where the author’s interest in diplomatic history provides insights into the behavior of nations and the people who run them, and demonstrate the blind spots that exist in nations that neglect the importance of good diplomacy.  Given that the author herself comes from a family of diplomats and court Jews, this insight likely comes from such experience, but it certainly gives her a particular excellence as a diplomatic historian.

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Questions Raise The Stakes

Over the past few months, as a result of working on a project with a coworker and friend, I have managed to read a lot about the subject of creativity, innovation, curiosity, and related subjects.  One thing that tends to come up over and over again is that these questions are viewed as being very high stakes matters that strike at the core of what it means to be human.  For example, evolutionists will seek to examine the origins of creativity and how it is that human beings are the only creatures that are curious, that come to the world with questions, looking for answers, wondering how and why things exist and what it means to be ourselves or something or someone else.  A great many writers dealing with these subjects have very little good to say about religion, thinking of it as something that squashes curiosity, despite the fact that the scientific method came about as a way for religious people to better understand God’s creation.

It is this which gives us a clue as to why the stakes are so high when it comes to creativity and curiosity and related matters.  They strike at the core of what it means to be human and what legacy we inherit from our Creator.  Normally we tend to think that we are the ones with the questions.  We ask God why we suffer when we have various trials in our lives, or we pepper Him with questions about the nature of evil.  Children come to us with a barrage of questions seeking to better understand the world and to recognize whether it is safe to bring their questions to use, whether we will take those questions both kindly and seriously.  When we meet new people, we may be full of questions about what they do and where they come from and other matters that strike our interest.  When we are looking for work or going out on dates, there are a lot of questions as people wish to see if we are a good fit for a business or romantic relationship.  And so on it goes, we live our lives and if we have a curiosity in others, we will ask questions as a way of showing that there are stakes, that answers and the truth mean something.

But God comes at us with questions as well.  In Genesis 3:8-13 we see God hit Adam and Eve with a series of questions after they have eaten of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil:  “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”  So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”  Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”  And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”  The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  Here we see God asking questions, with a variety of intents, and rather than owning up to their rebellion against God, they try to dodge the questions and shift the blame elsewhere.  We see this same response when God asks Cain about his attitude after God had rejected his offering in Genesis 4:6-7:  “So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.””  And again we see it when God asks Cain about Abel later in Genesis 4:9-10:  “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”  He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”  And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.””  Here God as well has questions that indicate a desire for confession, and Cain simply cannot give the right answers to these questions or recognize the high stakes of what is meant.  In the case of both Adam & Eve and Cain, the failure to handle God’s questions led to exile.

Not all of the recipients of God’s questions have fared so badly though.  Job was hit with a barrage of questions by God in Job 38:1-7, for example:  ““Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell Me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements?  Surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?  To what were its foundations fastened?  Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  Nor does that end the questions that God has for Job, if you read the next few chapters of the book.  Quite unlike Adam & Eve and Cain, Job’s answers to God that demonstrate his humility and his acceptance of the authority of God as creator and Lord of the Universe demonstrate his decent and honorable character and lead him to be justified in the eyes of God.  God is big enough for our questions, but he has questions for us too, and though we may relish dishing out difficult questions, we may not relish receiving them back quite as much as we want to ask them.

Nor is this habit of asking pointed questions limited to the Hebrew scriptures.  When Jesus walked the earth, He was quite willing to ask questions of others that were difficult to answer.  For example, let us see how Christ framed a testy interaction with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:15-22:  “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money.”  So they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”  They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”  And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.”  Here we see that Jesus recognized the hypocritical nature of the Pharisees’ initial flattery to him as they sought to lead Him into a trap, and then asked them to point out whose image was on the money before delivering a response that pointed out the obligations of tax paying (especially in currency with Caesar’s own image) as well as obeying God’s laws and giving God His due.

What lessons can we learn from this as it regards questions?  We may find the questions and curiosity of children to be annoying, and we may dislike dealing with people who ask us too many questions.  Curiosity demonstrates a desire to understand, and we may not appreciate it when others seek to understand us or wish, however unconsciously, to expose the extent of our ignorance.  As someone who is widely thought to be intelligent, I have tended to be asked a lot of questions.  Whether I am being asked questions by small children about why I am not married nor have any children of my own yet or about the origin of the term restaurant [1], or whether I am peppered with surprise questions from the lectern about some random biblical or ancient history trivia, questions are something that other people have for me.  I have plenty of questions for others as well.  How we deal with these questions tells us a lot about ourselves.  Do we view questions as a threat to our position or as an impertinence, or do we view them as an opportunity to think and ponder about things that may never have come to our attention before?  We had better be used to handling questions well, as we can expect plenty of opportunities to receive them throughout life and in God’s judgment as well.  Let us be prepared.

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Book Review: Portland Speedway

Portland Speedway (Images Of Sports), by Jeff Zurschmeide

In reading this book I was filled with a sense that I wish I would have known this building better.  Now torn down with the remnants of a small clay track that is still visible, this is a building that I would have appreciated for a variety of reasons.  For one, the building was a glorious short track that was once part of the racing circuit, being a regular part of the Winston West tour, the Nascar-affiliated truck series, and even the World of Outlaws series, whose pulling out made the track no longer financially viable to keep up.  But even so, the track was used for local street racing, drag car racing, and even go kart racing, and with all of those uses I would have found reason to appreciate this racetrack had I been around when it was still running.  There is racing in my blood, after all, and if I had known that such tracks needed support from casual fans of racing like me and that it would be more fun to see such races in person than on television, then I would have definitely made the opportunity available to see it, but alas, there is no such chance now.

This book is divided into five chapters that take up a bit more than 100 pages, right along the usual length of this series (and its related Images of America series).  The book begins with the usual acknowledgments and introduction before discussing the origins of Portland Speedway in the period from 1936 to 1945 (1).  After that the book shows the postwar boom that led to the track starting the careers of numerous racers and others who went on to greater fame in Nascar and Indy Racing League (2).  The book then covers the period from 1960 to 1980 where the track was still a well-regarded regional track that featured popular racing on the short track (3), and the period where the building was still an institution that supported a vibrant racing community (4).  During these decades a variety of owners were able to make some money (if not a lot) in running the track.  Finally, the book discusses the end of an era, when attempts at making the track part of the World of Outlaws series failed and the track was destroyed as no longer being financially viable to its final owner, who did not find enough profit in weekend local races and go karts to make a go of it.

At its peak, Portland Speedway had racers like Dale Earnhardt and Billy Allison, among others, racing for wins and a chance at the biggest races, had a slick track that promised (and delivered) a lot of action, and had race girls who looked very happy to kiss and hug successful racers.  It featured a variety of stock car and drag racing classes, including a fair amount of racing with classes where street cars could be used, and where even a moonlighting Oregonian reporter was able to do well.  Yet none of that history allowed the racetrack to survive when people stopped coming and when racing leagues looked for longer tracks with those boring ovals instead of the excitement of the short track.  And once the speedway no longer was paying off for its owner, the immediate thought was to tear it all down, where it remains today a barren spot in North Portland where nothing has replaced the Speedway as a locus of high-quality racecar driving in the Portland area.  Even attempts to rebuild elsewhere have been, so far at least, unsuccessful given the uncertainty of being a spot on a racing circuit or of having enough racing fans to support a track.

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Book Review: Oregon City

Oregon City (Images Of America), by Jim Tompkins

Oregon City is a small city where I have spent considerably more time than its small size and contemporary obscurity would tend to demand.  Yet there is a sense of missed opportunity when it comes to Oregon City.  With a location chosen because it was as far upstream along the Willamette River that one could go before reaching the fall line, the location of Oregon City had long been a popular spot for fishing and trade long before Euro-American settlement.  Not surprisingly, it was a British factor, one Dr. John McLoughlin, who first saw the potential of the place for the British fur trading industry, and it was his presence that helped lead to a group of people from Salem to swipe the capital from Oregon City in the territorial days, and the greater size allowable to expand in Portland, to the north of Oregon City, that kept Oregon City small to this day despite the fact that a great many Oregon firsts happened there.  Even Oregon City’s attempts at education ended up benefiting other areas when Oregon City University was moved to McMinnville and became Linfield College.  Such has been a frequent aspect of life in Oregon City, to nurture institutions that end up growing elsewhere.

This book of a bit more than 100 pages is divided into 7 chapters that look at different aspects of Oregon City’s existence since it was incorporated in 1845 as the oldest American city west of the Rockies.  After acknowledgements and an introduction the book begins with a discussion of Dr. McLoughlin’s land claim (1).  After this there is a look at some of the business and industry like paper mills and lumber mills that has flourished throughout Oregon City’s history at the falls (2) as well as a discussion of the various ships that were involved in Willamette River navigation at the area (3).  There is a discussion of railroads, trolleys, and streetcars (4) as well as the way that Oregon City has long served as a land transportation hub (5).  Finally, the book concludes with some discussion of various entertainment and recreation options that took place in Oregon City, including a long-running chautauqua as well as early precursor to a theme park (6) as well as some historical photographs taken from the Clackamas County Cultural Center.  For all of the ways in which Oregon City has struggled to keep up many of its historical elements, at least a few remain to be appreciated by contemporary residents and visitors.

Among the more curious aspects of Oregon City’s history is that the city contains one of three vertical streets in the world, which is something worth appreciating even if it is something that many people are not familiar with.  The book is full of a lot of gorgeous photos and some hints at some very poignant stories, including a woman who was not content on being a wife and mother and spent her time with preachers trying to be an accomplished writer.  The book shows a great deal of interest in showing the business and cultural and educational institutions that were once connected to Oregon City, although one cannot help but note that many of these are long gone and that even the business of the city has moved from the riverside to the bluff area of the city, and Oregon City’s expansion beyond its core is not something that the book chooses to emphasize.  It is also of great interest that Oregon City was once surrounded by suburbs called West Oregon City and North Oregon City, but which have been more creatively named as West Linn and Gladstone, respectively.  I wonder if Canby was once South Oregon City but that is perhaps too much to hope for.

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Book Review: Theatres Of Portland

Theatres Of Portland (Images Of America), by Gary Lacher and Steve Stone

There is a feeling of considerable melancholy in looking at some of these images of the past.  And there is a certain degree of mixed feelings about its contents as well, not because the content is poor by any means, but because the sad state of so many of the theaters of the past in Portland at present prompts thoughts about the vanity and futility of our plans, about the way that our desire to maintain or recapture glamour is often hindered by the cost of the task, and the way that contemporary theaters tend not not be as enjoyable as buildings as the ones discussed here, but which are useful because they show a lot of films, at least one of which someone would likely want to watch.  And the fancy downtown theaters or the scuzzy and small second-run local neighborhood theaters both have had a hard time competing with the suburban multiplexes, with rather predictable if lamentable results.  There truly was a golden age of film where there were attractive young ladies dressed at least somewhat provocatively to promote films, but that golden age of films has long gone, and with it most of the theaters discussed here.

This particular book of a bit more than 100 pages is divided into five chapters.  After acknowledgments and an introduction, the first chapters (which takes up about half of the entire contents of the book) looks at the various film palaces that were located in downtown Portland during the early half of the 20th century (1).  There is a sense of unease knowing that the experience and the glory of this particular golden age of film will not last, but there are a great many beautiful black and white photographs of theaters and patrons and staff to be found.  After that the book turns its attention to the downscale nature of these theaters as time went on and going to the movies became a less formal occasion (2).  The third chapter examines smaller theaters that got lost in the neighborhoods, some of which remain active but many of which have been repurposed by new owners (3).  Finally, the book closes with a look at some of the surviving theaters which remain in use (4), although not always in their original guise as movie theaters, as well as some of the final scenes of theaters which have been demolished because crowds of filmgoers went somewhere else (5).

This book is a reminder of a few things that builders and developers should pay attention to.  For one, just because one builds a glorious building or even a group of buildings does not mean that these buildings are going to last.  The survival even of expensive and massive film palaces, no less than smaller neighborhood theaters with only a single screen or a few screens, depends on the choice of people to go to a particular place at a particular time to watch movies in the company of others.  Judging from the way that some of these theaters tried to hold on as grindhouses or through showing blaxploitation films, and by the way at least one film hangs on barely by weekend showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, owners of theaters will go to great lengths to try to survive, not that it always ends up working out well for them.  In recent decades, of course, the importance of technology and certain conveniences and the general architectural blandness of metroplexes has made it difficult for film palaces or small theaters to compete unless they go to second-run bargain price showings or repurpose in a way that still encourages class and formality among patrons, and neither of those is a sure path to survival.

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A Tale Of Two Feet

When I was a child growing up in rural Central Florida, one of the many ways that the neighborhood kids kept ourselves amused was to imagine ourselves as members of the X-Men.  For some reason, I ended up being Professor Charles Xavier, the titular head of the X-Men, the bright mind limited to a wheelchair with a crippled body who relied on the more physically active X-Men to put his strategies to protect mutants as well as humanity into action.  While some adaptations of the X-Men have tried to frame Professor X as being more fit, there has always been something poignant to me with the thought of Professor X as having this sort of cosmic wisdom and understanding but extremely limited mobility.  As a child I had no particular mobility difficulties–I ran around pretty readily and was a speedy kid who was good at hide and seek and football and probably took my mobility a bit for granted.  By the time I was a teenager I had a broken knee that never quite healed to allow me to run all that quickly, and various injuries and, after the age of 25, recurrent gout attacks and other more exotic foot ailments (like cellulitis) made it clear that mobility was going to be a serious problem.  The idea of being an intelligent person whose movement is limited is no longer something that requires any act of imaginative empathy, but simply a recognition of the way things are, at least on an intermittent basis at present.

***

Epic quests are something that is not too uncommon when it comes to my dealings with my foot problems.  There are various reasons for this, I think.  As I noted before in a post on this subject [1], things that should be straightforward are not always straightforward.  When you have very specific health issues, you are dependent on a very specific logistics chain.  If you are prescribed, say, indomethecin for gout (a fairly standard generic NSAID that will only set one back about $8.00 a bottle the last time I purchased it), you might think that this would not be a hard drug to find.  But I have been in situations where multiple pharmacies just happened to be out of this drug and unable to receive supplies for it for a period of several days.  When you have stabbing pain in your big toe (or other places), this is not an acceptable answer, nor do you want to be driving around all over time trying to find the right medicine.  The same issue can be seen when it comes to doctors who specialize in foot problems, as it turns out there are not very many of these.  Given that I am a patient who specializes in foot problems, as I have at least three different ones afflicting me at present, this is not good.  To put the matter in perspective, I have as many foot problems as there are in-network doctors who specialize in gout and related problems in the entire Portland area.  It just so happens that all of them were happy to find new patients, so I managed to make the nearest one of them my primary care physician (since he will probably be getting a fair bit of work from me).

***

Ideally, I would have spent my day in the following way, going to work for a bit to finish the commission processing and then heading over to Colton to celebrate Father’s Day with some friends/family.  Alas, the only way that was going to happen is if someone drove me there and that did not happen.  Although, strangely enough, I was able to convince my roommate/landlord to drive me (in my own car, no less) to work, where I completed the work I needed to do and also bring the laptop home so I could work from home until my feet improve to the point where I can drive again.  And instead of having a fantastic dinner where I would have wished, I had a fantastic dinner at home, so it was not at all a waste even if it was not the way I would have managed it had I been free to act on my own preferences.  Sometimes we do not end up having the adventures we would prefer, but we have ones that give us food for thought and reflection, something that is not so hard to manage when you are not moving around a lot and have an active mind but little space to operate in.  In many ways, is this not the general fate of humanity, whether we realize it or not, to have cosmic and eternal longings and a very limited reach and grasp?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/05/10/the-quest-for-indomethacin/

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Book Review: The American Prison: From The Beginning: A Pictorial History

The American Prison:  From The Beginning:  A Pictorial History, published by the American Correctional Association

This is both a strange and a compelling pictorial history of American imprisonment, strange because it is rare for a profession to throw themselves under the bus the way that this book does and compelling because it demonstrates a great deal about the long span of American imprisonment, a subject of considerable personal interest.  The authors do a good job at showing the tensions and even contradictions inherent in American imprisonment, showing the nearly constant increase in imprisonment in both absolute numbers and by rate through American history (with very limited periods of decline on both measures) while also showing the way that high-minded ideals in terms of managing prisons often were trumped by logistical and financial concerns on the part of thrifty public agencies looking to spend less money than they otherwise would on prisons, and certainly less than it would take to have high staffing levels and a safe and comfortable time for prisoners.  There was even a surprising degree of humor in this book that I did not expect, as prisons are not the sort of matter that one expects to lead to levity and amusement on the part of a writer.

This book of slightly more than 250 pages is divided into eight large chapters and an epilogue that are mostly made up of pictures with thoughtful text as well.  The book begins, after a preface and introduction, with a discussion of the European influence on American prisons, especially that of the English influence (1).  After that we look at prisons and punishment in the colonial world, including a great deal of whippings as well as the panopticon plan (2).  Next we look at the competition between two rival American systems of imprisonment, the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems that mandated silence and a penitential attitude as well as having a silent public that did not disapprove of the harsh conditions and strong sense of discipline, and a brief look at imprisonment in the Civil War (3).  After this comes a look at the reformatory era and various professionalization efforts as well as progressive-minded but ineffectual principles of imprisonment that were thought to be more humane than punitive methods of imprisonment (4).  After this we look at imprisonment through World War I (including prison farms) (5), imprisonment through World War II, including co-correctional and juvenile facilities (6), and the decline in formality and the rise of riots and disturbances in the period between 1950 and 1970 (7), when liberal attitudes of relaxing vigilance were discredited.  Finally, the book concludes with a look at prison overcrowding in the 1970’s and 1980’s (8) as well as an epilogue that looks to the future and what sort of changes the authors want in the decades ahead.

As someone who has read a fairly large body of literature about prisons and imprisonments, it is striking to me that prison guards and their professional organizations are so self-hating.  It would appear as if corrections guards, many of whom are probably decent people from the rural parts of the United States, are poorly served by the psychologists and whiny activists who claim to represent them and who often have bad ideas about how to deal with the problem of criminality in the United States.  Similar to the problem of education in the United States and the failed war on poverty, efforts at dealing with criminality in the United States have been largely unsuccessful.  The criminal class has not gained moral fervor or changed their ways, efforts at education and job training have proven too expensive, and prison construction has been necessary just to try to keep up, much less overcome, the persistent problem of overcrowding.  Sadly, a great many people (including the authors of this and many other books) have simply too many agendas to deal with the data in a forthright and honest fashion, trying to explain away their failures by blaming (white) society.

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