When bad news prevails  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , , ,

            Over the past week the news dominating the media has not been good. The precise stories are not the point, since this next week new ones may take their place. Or the old stories—of Ebola and ISIS, of political paralysis and economic greed, of brutality, mistrust and injustice—may have evolved into new versions, as bad as the last one, or worse.
            And if you take the time to dig deeper into the reality of the brokenness, you find it extends far deeper than we know. Consider “Ebolanomics” in The New Yorker (August 25, 2014, p. 21). It’s a reminder that the problem is not merely individual sin or evil but that the brokenness infects all the systems of the world as well.

When pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their R. & D. money, they naturally assess the potential market for a drug candidate. That means that they have an incentive to target diseases that affect wealthier people (above all, people in the developed world), who can afford to pay a lot. They have an incentive to make drugs that many people will take. And they have an incentive to make drugs that people will take regularly for a long time—drugs like statins.
            This system does a reasonable job of getting Westerners the drugs they want (albeit often at high prices). But it also leads to enormous underinvestment in certain kinds of diseases and certain categories of drugs. Diseases that mostly affect poor people in poor countries aren’t a research priority, because it’s unlikely that those markets will ever provide a decent return. So diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, which together kill two million people a year have received less attention from pharmaceutical companies than high cholesterol. Then, there’s what the World Health Organization calls “neglected tropical diseases,” such as Chagas disease and dengue; they affect more than a billion people and kill as many as half a million a year. One study found that of the more than fifteen hundred drugs that came to market between 1975 and 2004 just ten were targeted at these maladies. And when a disease’s victims are both poor and not very numerous that’s a double whammy. On both scores, a drug for Ebola looks like a bad investment: so far, the disease has appeared only in poor countries and has affected a relatively small number of people.

            One must be careful, since only God has the capacity to absorb the full brokenness of the world with descending into despair or cynicism.
            One friend appended to an email, “I have been following the news and ‘this world is not my home.’ ‘Even so come Lord Jesus.’” He is half right.
            My friend’s final phrase is from the end of St John’s stunning Revelation that brings the New Testament to its glorious end. The apostle allows us to see behind the cosmic dual of good and evil to the deeper reality of God’s triumph over the forces of death, darkness and disease that have infested his creation. To assure us that this is not merely the optimism of an exiled visionary, Christ as Lord speaks: “He who testifies to these things says,” St John records, “‘Surely I am coming quickly’” (Revelation 22:20). The king will return, will not delay, will consummate his kingdom, and his reign will be one of justice, world without end. This is the hope of every Christian who prays, as our Lord taught us to say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So, St John adds, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
            My friend’s other quotation is not from scripture but from the hymn, “This World is Not My Home,” by Albert Brumley (1905-1977).

            This world is not my home,
                 I’m just passing through.
            My treasures are laid up somewhere
                 beyond the blue.
            The angels beckon me from
                 Heaven's open door
            And I can’t feel at home in
                 this world anymore.

It’s an understandable yearning, I suppose, but it’s wrong.
            The brokenness of the world is unnatural, true, and so we should feel the brokenness as wrong, as a perversion of what should be and of what was intended. The reason for my sin and brokenness is not “I’m only human,” but “I’m fallen and in need of redemption.” My hope as a Christian is not to escape this world for heaven, but for God’s redemption to be complete, so that a renewed heaven and earth show forth the full glory of which they are capable.
          The news also provides glimmers of that glory, shining through the darkness, as it were. Last week I also read “Termite Soldiers’ Legs Sense Alarms” in Science News (August 23, 2014, p. 16). This is the species of termite that builds tall mounds of red soil that hardens like rock for defense and is constructed with a myriad tunnels to provide cool air for the bustling millions of insects living below the surface.

Africa’s Macrotermes natalensis termite relies on a fighter caste to defend its hardened, meter-high-plus mounds and up to several thousand square meters of underground tunnels. When an aardvark or other predator gouges the insects’ home, termites known as major soldiers pound their heads against the floors. The vibrations from the drumbeats tell other soldiers to speed to the breach.
            These headbanger alarms vibrate through the walls of tunnels at about 130 meters per second. What lets a soldier know which direction to go is the slight delay between when the vibrations hit the soldier’s leg nearest the drumbeat source and when they hit its farthest leg, says Felix Hager of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. A delay of as little as 0.20 milliseconds was enough to orient soldiers.

Even in a broken world, creation reveals a few hints of the wonder of what this world, made to be our home, will be like when the rightful king returns.

Detective stories (2): achieving justice  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

            I argued in the first installment of this series that one reason we are drawn to detective stories is that we were made to live in an orderly world. When chaos and disorder expands, we yearn for order to be restored, even though it is never perfect or complete in this broken world.
            Detective stories are also about achieving at least a measure of justice, though it too is never perfect or complete in this broken world. A crime has been committed, so the detective enters the sordid, dangerous world of the criminal, hopefully to find evidence that will bring the miscreant to justice. Our desire for justice is so strong that even though the crime may have nothing to do with us personally, if the case is botched and the criminal is freed we feel a sense of not just disappointment but anger—we believe it wrong even if we can’t justify our response with much philosophical vigor. It’s. Just Wrong.
            The yearning for justice is ubiquitous, deeply rooted in our humanity. This reality, James Sire says in Echoes of a Voice, leads biblical scholar N. T. Wright to include it in his list of four “signals of transcendence” that “point to a realm beyond the material world.” Wright’s four signals include “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty.”
            This means that detective stories tap a deep longing of our hearts, and even if only in a fictional world satisfy a yearning that is hardwired in our humanity. The question is less why some of us are drawn to detective stories, but why everyone isn’t.

True Detective
            This gritty, dark, at times shocking series stands out from usual television fare. The entire season involves a single crime, and each episode follows the detectives—in this case over a period of 17 years—as they seek to solve the murder. Because it is a cable (HBO, 8 episodes, 2014) production, there are scenes of sexuality besides rough language that is more standard for R-rated movies than TV programs. And though it used to be common knowledge that television was a wasteland not worth much attention, True Detective proves that TV can be very much the opposite.
            The pace of True Detective is never frantic, though the writers never allow the tension in the plot to falter. The cinematography is beyond good, so that settings and landscape shots not only fit the plot, they are lovingly produced and stunningly portrayed to become an essential part of the story. Woody Harrelson (Detective Marty Hart) and Matthew McConaughey (Detective Rust Cohle) are perfectly cast for their roles. And in a surprising and delightful twist, at least for me, True Detective is both philosophically literate and attentive. Detective fiction, because it explores the yearning of the human heart for justice, has the potential to take ideas and their consequences True Detective, a true philosophical drama written by Nic Pizzolatto, includes all these, but never cheats by depending on them to carry the story, instead using them to add color to the story.
seriously. Cheap detective fiction skips that and centers on something else: the action, quirky details of the character’s life and personality, the tension with supervisors. In fact,
            Best of all, T Bone Burnett was hired to direct the music for the series, and that means the soundtrack is both appropriate and a work of art in its own right. “The depth of character is the breadth of music you get to use,” Burnett says in Mother Jones. “So all I have to do is imagine what they’re listening to, and imagine the stories rattling around in their heads. How do you strengthen that? How do you make that resonate? It’s about having the songs become part of the storytelling.”
            “This show does not avert its gaze,” Burnett says. “It takes a good, hard look at who we are right now, in a very profound way... I live in Los Angeles, and I recently took a drive through the middle of the country, and I was stunned by what I saw. In places that had once had purpose, all that’s left is a pawnshop, next to a gun shop, next door to a motel, next door to a gas station, with a Walmart right outside of town. There are people working three jobs just to get by and having to take methamphetamines to do it. That’s the middle of the country, and that’s a plague that’s spreading outwards. We’re not seeing it, and these are things that you see in the show.”

Source: Echoes of a Voice: We are Not Alone by James W. Sire (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books; 2014) p. 206; “T Bone Burnett on How He Chooses Music For True Detective by Asawin Suebsaeng in Mother Jones (8/3/2014) online.

I hear them all  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

            Last night we went to a concert at an amphitheater at the Minnesota Zoo. Storms had raged through two hours before, and the concert was delayed to give the crew time to squeegee water off the rows of benches. As we stood in line to gain entrance a lion roared in the growing twilight. The Music in the Zoo series is one of our favorite venues, and the music last night by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings as the moon rose over the ponds where swans and geese swim was like a dose of joy in audio form.
            I hear the crying of the hungry
            In the deserts where they’re wandering
            Hear them crying out for Heaven’s own
            Benevolence upon them

            I hear them all
            I hear them all
            I hear them all

            The set list last night included Rawlings performing “I Hear Them All,” a song he co-wrote and that was originally released by the Old Crow Medicine Show on their album, Big Iron World (2006). It fits nicely into the long tradition of folk/country songs that are shaped by the ancient cries of prophets who are unwilling to remain silent in the face of the brokenness of the world.

            I hear the sounds of tearing pages
            And the roar of burnin’ paper
            All the crimes and acquisitions
            Turned to air and ash, and vapor

            I hear them all
            I hear them all
            I hear them all

            I find the song deeply moving, a reminder that to cover my ears to the sound of suffering proves not only the poverty of my own soul but that I have hardened my heart to the call of my Lord. Still, I am glad the song is not true in the narrow literal sense of that term. I could not bear hearing them all.

            I hear the tender words from Zion
            I hear Noah’s water fall
            Hear the gentle Lamb of Judah
            Sleeping at the feet of Buddha

            And the prophets from Elijah
            To the old Paiute Wovoka
            Take their places at the table
            When they’re called

            I hear them all
            I hear them all
            I hear them all

            Both grace and wrath are evoked by the injustice that has made humankind act like a cancer upon the earth, and the memory of the sound of rushing water in the days of Noah is a hint of what is to come. It is not wise to be complacent, and a world in which it is imagined that justice will never
finally prevail is a world that seems to me to be unworthy of the sufferers that inhabit it. And how appropriate for our postmodern world: the gentle Lamb of Judah and Buddha, not standing as equals but one at the other’s feet. The instinct (if not belief) of hierarchy is correct, though my reading of reality as a Christian would reverse the order.
            I left the Zoo last night so glad I had been there. It began raining again as we drove home. Rawlings’ fine guitar work, Welch’s sensitive vocals, the lovely harmonies, and lyrics that made me think and imagine and wonder.

            I cannot hear them all, and that is a good thing. I am glad to serve One who can and does. But I do want to hear. May it be so.

Detective stories (1): restoring order  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

            “What the detective story is about,” author P. D. James says, “is not murder but the restoration of order.” Something has gone astray in the world of the story—perhaps horribly astray—and only when things have been put right do we have some sense of resolution, and until that resolution we feel on edge.
            We were made to exist in an orderly universe. The opening pages of Scripture, the story of Genesis 1, is many things, one of which is a narrative of creation, differentiation, and providential ordering that reflects the goodness of God. Four words—“Did God actually say…”—disrupted that gracious orderliness and disorder shattered what had been made good. Now we yearn for order, prefer it, and instinctively know that disorder can blossom into a chaos that can be deadly. In such a world, when a detective solves the crime a bit of order is restored in a corner of our badly fragmented world. Even a fictional account can refresh our hope that against all odds order just might be able to be restored.
            The best detective stories tell the truth about existence, evil, and justice. They are not limited to law and order, but show that mercy must also be present if the order that is restored is to allow human flourishing. It is this full-orbed realism that makes the 19th century story of Les Misérables contemporary, even in a pluralistic, secular society like our own.

Foyle’s War
            Starring Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, this BBC series is a superb production in every way. Kitchen is not well known as an actor, but he plays Foyle with a quiet, powerful dignity that makes the viewer care about him and about the victims of the crimes he investigates. Foyle’s War also stars Samantha “Sam” Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks) as Foyle’s driver, and Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) as Foyle’s assistant.
            World War II has begun, and to his disappointment, the British government believes Foyle to be of greater value working as a detective in Hastings, a small town on the southern coast of England than serving in the war effort. Crime continues, of course, even in wartime, and so in each episode Foyle is called upon to investigate some foul deed.
            The historical accuracy—in dialogue, sets, events, costuming, etc.—is impeccable, and watching Foyle’s War is a fascinating education in what life was like in the British Isles during World War II. The writers do not cheat, like many detective writers do, but allow us to see all the clues as Foyle uncovers them. When he reveals the culprit at the end we realize we knew all we needed to know to come to the correct conclusion but unlike Foyle were not observing the details of the case with enough care. Perhaps most admirable of all, Foyle is consistently depicted as a man of integrity and honesty. It is difficult, in a drama, to depict good and moral characters without having them seem bland and boring. In Foyle’s War, the crime provides the color and the detective, rather than being made interesting by having weird quirks, inner struggles, or special effects, is allowed to be a man of few words and deep character.
            We have watched some of the episodes multiple times, purely for the enjoyment of seeing them. At the end we are always satisfied, not simply because a measure of order has been restored, but because we feel edified, having watched a virtuous character bring law, justice, and mercy into his corner of a broken world.
            [Each episode of Foyle’s War, 2002-2013, created by Anthony Horowitz, runs 90-100 minutes and is available on Netflix and DVD.]

Kidnap and Ransom
            Produced for British TV, Kidnap and Ransom follows the efforts of professional negotiator Dominic King (played brilliantly by Trevor Eve) as he seeks the release of hostages held by international terrorists and paramilitary gangs. King’s goal is not justice—to maintain his ability to negotiate with the bad guys he permits no police involvement—but to restore the victim to their life and family, hopefully unharmed.
            The locations are exotic, the trajectory of each story is plausible, and the fact that the crime is ongoing as King intercedes for the kidnapped increases the tension. King is shown to be a man of integrity and great courage, whose commitment to his calling costs him greatly, fracturing his relationship with his wife and daughter.
            Kidnap and Ransom is not always easy to watch. Each kidnapping, fraught with danger and shock, is filmed in enough detail to draw us into the fright that is overwhelming for the victim. Often the negotiations take time, sometimes lots of time, and as they drag on the victim languishes is some vile cell. This too is depicted realistically, and reveals the awful emotional and spiritual toll that must be involved.
            International kidnapping has become a tool of war in our world, a way to raise funds, gain notice in the media, and impress recruits. It is a wicked practice and one that should cause us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth even as it is in heaven. Kidnap and Ransom has helped me see the news behind the headlines with greater clarity and compassion.

            [Each episode of Kidnap and Ransom, 2011-2012, runs 45 minutes. There are two series of 3 episodes each and is available on Netflix and DVD.]