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Jottings 14: Sincerity of the snake-handlers

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — a death at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, and a glance at the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord ]
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There’s something very simple and profound about the sheer faith the snake handlers of the Holiness tradition bring to their worship. It’s not yo my aesthetic taste, and the doctrines espoused are, to my mind, literal-minded and unwise — but the faith, the trust moves me.

Pastor Jamie Coots has now died of snake-bite in the course of woship:

Like the police chief, Jeffrey Sharpe, interviewed above, in my own way and to my own degree I feel saddened by dis death.

**

I find myself feeling a similar fellow-feeling for the worshippers in this church, with it’s quite similar rusticity and simple ways. And what interests me here is that the group worshipping here is one whose theology I have very little sympathy for — the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord or CSA, a Christian Identity paramilitary church whose 200-acre compound was besieged and shut down by the FBI in 1985.

The opening of this video, from the trailer for Silhouette City directed by Michael Wilson, show us the worship of the CSA — and much as I dislike their racism and proneness to murderous violence, I find there’s something affecting in what this clip shows of the simple hearts of the believers. Reading Tabernacle of Hate, the autobiography of Kerry Noble whose quest for Christ brought him in contact with the group before it became infected with racism and hate, who went on to become its second in command and eventually left in disgust at all the hatred, I have the same feeling — of a simple piety led horribly astray.

Here then is the clip — it’s the first 35 seconds I’m inviting you to watch — the movie then turns to present day, more mainstream uses of militant Christian imagery:

**

I don’t want to leave you on the sour note of CSA Christianity — so let me turn back to the Holiness snake-handlers.

For a deeper glimpse into their ways, you could do worse than to watch this documentary:

**

May pastor Jamie Coots rest in peace.

This, on Jamie’s son Cody Coots, from The Christian Post yesterday:

The deadly rattlesnake that delivered the fatal bite to “Snake Salvation” pastor Jamie Coots in Middlesboro, Ky., last Saturday will be back in church to help praise the Lord in another heart-pounding service this Saturday, according to his son, Cody Coots.

Cody, 21, who will be burying his serpent-handling father on Tuesday night, told TMZ that the snake will not be killed. His father’s death, he says, was “God’s way” of taking him home, and his family will embrace the deadly rattlesnake that delivered his death sentence at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro again this Saturday.

Sunday surprise 14: G&S Effect

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — like father, like son — Gilbert & Sullivan, Shakespeare and the video game Mass Effect ]
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Some of our readers will no doubt recognize the “model of a modern Major-General” from Gilbert & Sullivan‘s “Savoy Opera” The Pirates of Penzance. He’s definitively British, and it’s a sign of the strength of the “special relationship” between the US and UK that the G&S operas have now won a place in many American hearts.

For those of you who don’t know your G&S, or do and would like to be reminded, here’s a Joseph Papp presentation of Pirates, with George Rose playing the Major-General, Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, and Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, from NYC’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park [available on DVD]:

And here for your convenience, since the words fly past at quite a lick, are the lyrics —

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;a
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news, (bothered for a rhyme)
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore, (bothered for a rhyme)
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform:c
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,d
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery –
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme)
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.e

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

**

Now for the fun part.

My son David, who had never heard of the “modern Major-General”, was visiting me yesterday, and very proudly played me the ring-tone on his cell-phone.

It turns out he’d taken it from a video game called Mass Effact 2, which is his current favorite — and when I asked, he showed me a video of the game character called Mordin singing it:

Zing! His favorite game has a character who sings a variant on the G&S song! Like father, like son!

Here are the (revised) lyrics:

I am the very model of a scientist Salarian!
I’ve studied species, Turian, Asari, and Batarian.
I’m quite good at genetics (as a subset of biology),
because I am an expert (which I know is a tautology).

My xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian –
I am the very model of a scientist Salarian!

Too cool!

**

So we got to talking about games, and Shakespeare — David has been studying Romeo and Juliet — and it turns out that although David feels Shakespeare is very skillful with words, and brings the human emotions out very directly in his plays, he’s more deeply gripped by Mass Effect 2 than by Romeo and Juliet, because it felt more “natural” to him, at least partly because he could navigate it at his own pace.

So this issue wasn’t that Shakespeare was boring or old, but that some games have developed new ways in which narrative can be enjoyed that can take one deeper into the story.

As an admirer of my friend Bryan Alexander‘s work on new narrative forms in his book, The New Digital Storytelling, this gave me a refreshing new perspective on games: that the pacing and interactivity themselves potentially take the narrative experience to a new level.

David made another observation: that he can learn from the little details of a game as much as he learns from the same game’s major plot points — and he used the Scientist Salarian song as his example. When it’s sung, standing alone in Mass effect 2, it’s a minor incident in the game. And whereas in Romeo and Juliet, each speech is intended, word for Shakespearean word, to create a powerful impact, Mordin’s song in Mass Effect 2 is like many other aspects of the game, there only to build a slow familiarity with a character.

It is not until Mass Effect 3, in fact, that the full impact of Mordin’s song hits home.

**

In Mass Effect 3, the character Mordin decides to sacrifice his own life to end the genophage sterility plague which has been aflicting the Krogan, one of the other races in the game. We know he is sad to relinquish his life in this way, because he had earlier expressed a desire to retire to a beach somewhere and “perform tests on sea shells.”

Explaining why he is going to sacrifice his life — and his dreams of retirement — in this way, he says:

My project. My work. My cure. My responsibility.

Sadly — terrified yet proud, then — having made his decision, he sings again the “Scientist Salarian” song:

That, says David, is why I have invested so much time in playing this series of games.

Mordin singing this song in each of two separate scenes doesn’t mean much until we have seen both in sequence. And although the lyrics of the song he’s singing doen’t directly tell us what he’s feeling, experiencing the entire story with him across two games reveals that he is in fact terrified — and reveals it in a disturbingly more intimate way than if he had simply stated it as a fact: it’s his intonation as he sings the song that second time that shows us his terror and his determination.

The second time around, because players have grown to know Mordin through dozens of hours of gameplay, his decision and death scene are truly heart-wrenching.

As I watch that second song for the third time, I see what David means.

Test pilot and astronaut Joe Engle meets the Academician

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — how an exchange of Cold War stories broke the ice for US-Soviet cooperation in space ]
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Joe H Engle, X-15 test pilot and Space Shuttle pilot

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I was talking with a friend, ML, and she told me this story of her cousin, USAF Maj Gen Joe Engle (ret’d), test pilot and astronaut, which I reproduce below from a NASA oral history interview. It is the tale of the exchange between diplomatic enemies which opened up joint US-Soviet NASA-MIR collaboration in space — an extraordinary, exemplary dialog. I believe Zenpundit readers will find it powerful reading.

**

To set the stage..

When Engle was asked to go to Russia to prepare the way for a joint commission between the US and Soviets to explore the possibilities of space cooperation, he remembers saying:

I was about as right-wing military as could be expected and I had spent a good deal of my professional career on the end of a runway sitting alert to go after them. I said, “I think I’m probably the last guy in the world that you want on that or that they want to see come and work with them.”

To which the response was:

“Well … that’s really kind of why I want you there, as a piece of litmus paper. … I figure if you can make it work and if they can work with you, why, then anybody will work.”

So Joe Engle went to Russia in January 1995, and things did not begin smoothly — but I’ll give you the rest of the tale in his words:

I went over with a group of two or three people and we had scheduled visits with the deputy head of Rosaviacosmos, RSA [Russian Space Agency], and RSC [Sergei Pavlovich Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation], Energia. The gentleman who had been identified to be Tom [ie Gen Tom Stafford]’s counterpart on the joint commission, who was Academician [Vladimir F.] Utkin, who is the most respected rocketeer that Russia’s ever had — well, next to Korolev, but most respected living one, an old gentleman, just a big bear of a guy.

We were not doing well at all. Mr. [Boris D.] Ostroumov had essentially thrown us out of RSA and Mr. Semyanov did throw us out of Energia. He didn’t want anything to do with us, didn’t want any independent—they didn’t know what an independent review group was. It wasman entirely foreign concept to the Russians. They were more prone to the stovepipe, of this enterprise has this task to do and you turn the finished product out and it will fit with this finished product, and you don’t talk to each other. Everybody was very, very closed door about it. So they didn’t want the idea of anybody looking over their shoulder, even their own people looking over each other’s shoulder.

It was a difficult concept to sell, and we were just about to say, “This doesn’t look like it’s going to work.” In fact, I had called Tom from over there and he said, “Well, pack it up and come home.” He said, “We’re not going to waste our time on this.”

And I remember telling him, “Well, we got one more guy, the guy you’re supposed to be the co-chair with, and I’ll go see him, because we can’t move the flight up anyway. It costs too much money to move the flight up.”

So we went to Academician Utkin’s, and he was pretty much the same way. I remember going in and being told to go in and sit in his office and wait for him. He walked in, and at that time, they didn’t have phones with pushbuttons. Each line had a separate phone, so he had fourteen phones on his desk, I remember, and a big map, a wall map of the Soviet Union. It was still Soviet Union then to them. Finally he walked in, strutted in, and sat down at his desk and started making some phone calls. We were sitting there, [William] Bill Vantine was with me and there was an interpreter present.

Finally, after about, I think, about twenty minutes, he turned and he said,”So,” through the interpreter, he said, “So, you are going to tell us how to go to space?”

I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, but not wimpy about it, and I said, “No. No, sir. We’re here to join with you and go to space together and see if we can combine our resources.”

He reacted with a couple of things about, “But you want to use our space station? You don’t have a space station. You want to use ours.” Finally, he leaned back in his chair and he said, “Let me tell you. I was the head of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program for the Soviet Union and I designed the SS-19,” which was a superb rocket, booster, and he went to the big map on the wall and he said, “We had — ,” and he started going through the numbers of missiles that they had targeted for New York and Chicago [Illinois], all our major cities. After he’d completed, he walked over and he sat down and he folded his arms and looked at me.

I remember saying, “Well, sir, I know that you did exactly what you thought was the right thing to do for your country.” I said, “At the same time that you were doing that, I was sitting in a [Boeing] F-100 [Super Sabre] in Aviano, Italy, with a nuclear bomb strapped under the belly,” and I walked up and I pointed at Aviano, Italy, and I said, “I had one target, one bomb and one target only, but I felt I was doing the same thing for my country that you were.” I said, “My target was this airfield right here,” and it was back in Hungary; it was not in Russia, but it was in the Soviet Union. I said, “That was my target.” And it’s amazing, the intelligence that the Russians had on us at the time.

He said, “Yes, I know.” And he said, “You would not have made it.”

I said, “Well, I think I would have made it.” I said, “My route was to fly up this –” We had memorized our routes so that we didn’t have to look at maps, so I followed the track up the river valleys and I said, “You had antiaircraft here and you had radar here, so my route was to go around these hills and on in.”

And he started to scowl and he said, “You would not have made it back.”

I said, “No, I would have run out of fuel before I got back, but I was going to bail out in Austria. I felt if I could get to Austria, why, I would make it back.”

And he sat there and he just scowled at me for a while, finally pushed his chair back and he got up and — he was a big guy — and he started to walk around his desk toward me, and I figured that — he wasn’t smiling at all, and I thought he was going to cold-cock me, so I figured I’d stand up and take it like a man. [Laughs]

I stood up and hadn’t really got my breath from standing up and he just grabbed me and gave me one of those big Russian bear hugs and he said, “It’s better this way, isn’t it?” [Laughs]

I recall just before he said that, when I finished I said, “This was what I was doing, but I really think that we have the opportunity to take off our gloves and do something together for the whole world.” And that’s when he didn’t smile, but he walked around and he said, “It’s better this way.”

So he set the commission up. A month later, when Tom went over, it was all set up and ready to go, and it’s been working for over — well, it’ll be ten years coming up next year. And even Academician Utkin said, “We’ll try this, but these things don’t ever last more than a year or two.” [Laughs]

**

For more on the contrasting philosophies of the US and Soviets with regard to their fighter aircraft and space programs, and what it took to reach accomodation, read on from the tail end of page 16.

Gestures

Monday, December 9th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — I got caught in a cascade of images, swept away — and then, Mao ]
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This gesture seems to me to have the quality of a caress…

in which case a caress in Kyiv is not so different from piano music in that same city…

or, as it might be, cello music in Sarajevo…

or for that matter, simply standing motionless in Tienanmen Square…

or planting flowers in Washington, DC…

Caresses, music, stillness, flowers… there’s a kinship there.

**

But then again, maybe these gestures are too idealistic for the realist’s “real world” — and to quote Chairman Mao in refutation of that last image:

Every Communist must grasp the truth, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

**

I keep coming back to that first image — stunning!

The thing about it — to my eye — the humanity is clearly visible on both sides…

Mandela – countless silken ties of love and thought

Friday, December 6th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly written as news came from the hospital that his condition had turned critical, updated and posted now that his death has been announced ]
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Already I am feeling the presentiment of grief, and so much of what I feel stems from this picture:

**

Nelson Mandela is dear to me not so much as the great first President of the new South Africa, nor as the statesman he doubtless was, but the man who loved my own mentor, Trevor Huddleston, so much.

So it is not global with me, it is personal, and as news of his health reaches the critical mark and his family gathers in deep concern, I sense my own potential for grief rolling in over the near hills.

Robert Frost, in his great poem A Silken Tent, speaks of “silken ties of love and thought” that bind us one to another, indeed to “every thing on earth the compass round” — in my case it is his love of Trevor that binds me to the man — and the little detail in Mandela’s autobiography where he recalls Trevor addressing a group of South African police who were approaching to arrest him, saying:

No, you must arrest me instead, my dears.

It’s that “my dears” that I can hear so easily in Trevor’s voice, and that Mandela was so brilliant to catch, recall and tell…

Less personally it is the Isitwalandwe, the signal honor these two men shared, for each was “one who wears the plumes of the rare bird”.

**

I respect also the insurgent Mandela, who emerged from his long imprisonment with calm and clarity — Mandela the meditator if you will. This passage from a letter he wrote in jail in 1975 moves me, as Merton moves me:

Incidentally, you may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundations of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.

Here, I believe, is the secret which gave us this man.

**

And because it is so very beautiful, I offer you also Frost’s poem:

The Silken Tent
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She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

**

Update:

Mandela’s death has been announced, and I feel as though I knew it already, back in those days at the end of June when he was hospitalized, when every day and each breath might have been his last. I feel little grief now, I wish him peace — but more than that, I feel gratitude. Nelson Mandela showed us, through foul weather and fair, what a human with integrity is, and what such a single human, in the companionship of others, can do.

So many of us must be feeling this gratitude today. Mandela has gone from among the living, to exert his influence now — his person, his strength, his story — in the ever-opening realm of inspiration and human possibility.


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