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The Promise and its Fulfillment: Stories for Christmas

© By John Arkelian

‘The promise and its fulfillment’:  That phrase is apt shorthand for what Christmas means to the person of faith.  And those words are nicely exemplified in the book in which we found them – “Christmas with Hot Apple Cider” (That’s Life! Communications, 2017).  Edited by N.J. Lindquist, the anthology comprises 67 contributions by 55 Canadian writers.  Most of the book’s selections are mini-memoirs, short accounts of real-life events.  Those non-fiction accounts are interspersed with several fictional short stories and poems and one short play.  Memoir or fiction, prose or verse, they are all variations on the theme of Christmas.  It’s the fifth volume in the ‘Hot Apple Cider’ series, a series of anthologies that aim to uplift their readers with stories of “hope, faith, courage, and love.”  Like the ‘Chicken Soup’ books, they’re good for the soul, rather like a spiritually-charged version of Reader’s Digest magazine’s first-person accounts. Their optimistic, uplifting tone is also reminiscent of “Ideals,” a magazine we haven’t seen in ages (but which still exists), right down to their monotone seasonal illustrations.  They are also kin to the Ottawa Valley childhood stories of former CBC Radio raconteur Mary Cook.

The selections, from writers of varying degrees of experience, range from very serviceable to very good, and the common thread, besides the Christmas theme, is a prevalent tone of warm nostalgia.  There’s a plain, simple, homespun quality to these accounts that’s quite endearing.  And, we’re keen to read more by some of these authors.  Several recount episodes from their childhood as immigrants to Canada.  A postwar Dutch family who encounter the kindness of strangers deserves a book-length treatment.  Another story authentically conjures the point of view of a child who has her first Christmas with her newly adoptive parents in 1948.  The narrative voice in an account of a kitchen mishap is likewise very engaging.  Helping others is a recurring theme, with stories that involve church outreach, an orphanage in West Africa, and a nursing home.  Those afflicted with addiction, imprisonment, or the loss of a loved one discover hope.  An umbrella becomes an impromptu Christmas tree; and a small town mystery set in coastal Nova Scotia makes us want to read the novel-length adventures of the same plucky protagonist.  Out of the mouths of babes, a young child heals an elder’s sorrow.  And a young woman far from home finds comfort in the spontaneous gift of a cheery apple.

There’s down-to-earth wisdom here:  “We can’t do everything, but… we can do something.  We can be the people others know they can count on.”  A poem about the shepherds on the first Christmas has a nice turn of phrase, comparing the ennobling of man through the miracle of God becoming one of us to “a commoner called to court.”  There’s a well-written Christmas ‘ghost’ story; an account of a full-sized Yule tree replaced by an indoor forest of eight small ones; a touching reflection on the absence of self-worth (“nothing on the outside, nothing on the inside”) and its remedy; an evocative poem about the sounds, smells, and tastes of Christmas; and an amusing account of the harder-than-it-looks task of assembling a bicycle on Christmas Eve.  And there’s the peace that comes from rejoicing in the Promise and its Fulfillment.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist

Copyright © 2017 by John Arkelian.

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The Spirituality of Wine:
Embracing Creation with Body and Soul

© By John Arkelian

As non-initiate into the world of wine, we approached Gisela Kreglinger’s new book, “The Spirituality of Wine” (Eerdmans, 2016), with a combination of skepticism and uncertainty.  Would a free-ranging examination of the spiritual utility of an intoxicant be persuasive?  Would it hold the attention of a non-devotee of wine?  The author, who grew up on a family winery in central Germany’s Franconia region, caught our interest with her Christian spiritualist perspective, one that “seeks to integrate faith into all spheres of life, including the material and the everyday.”  Something there strikes a chord:  life abundant includes celebrating the ‘good creation’ of “the generous and loving Creator who delights in bestowing gifts on his children, which make their hearts glad and their souls sing.”  Ascetic strains of Christian theology emphasize the spiritual and the hereafter while neglecting the here and now.  But we are both body and soul, and we are called upon to take joy (and find fellowship) in God’s creation:  “The mark of a decidedly Christian spirituality is not a flight from creation but a faith-filled embrace of it.”

For Kreglinger, wine has had a long and important role in man’s embracing of creation.  She cites Biblical chapter and verse to illustrate the association of natural bounty (including abundant grape vines) with the Promised Land; and she cites Christ’s first miracle – at the wedding feast in Cana, where He turns water into wine – as a key example of wine’s role in Biblical imagery and Christian celebration.  The author sees wine as a sign of God’s blessing, and, through the Eucharist, as a tangible reminder that Christ stepped into ‘the divine winepress,’ shedding his blood for our sake.  Taken in moderation, she says, wine is also a way to gladden the hearts of men through shared fellowship and feasting, as engagingly depicted in the film “Babette’s Feast.”

The book covers a great deal of territory, from the aforementioned theology of spirituality, to the cultural, economic, and religious history of wine, to the close connection between the expansion of Christianity and that of viticulture across Europe (the role on monasteries being pivotal in the latter regard).  There are chapters on the philosophy of winemaking and one on the abuse of alcohol.  Some of that material may be a tad esoteric for the general reader.  It’s not immediately obvious who the intended reader of this book is meant to be: scholar or layman, wine aficionado or curious non-imbiber?

At moments, the author may wax over-lyrically about the benefits of “holy intoxication,” and she tends to reiterate points more often than may be necessary.  Further, the book’s type-size is smaller than it comfortably ought to be.  But, Kreglinger brings conviction, a sure command of her material, and an engaging writing style to what was, for this reader, unfamiliar terrain.  One happy surprise came in the author’s brief preface, in which she alludes to her childhood on the winery:  “I thought about the fields and vineyards, the sun and the rain…  I thought about all the people who worked for us: their lives and sorrows…”  It’s wonderfully evocative stuff that makes us yearn to read a memoir of the author’s childhood years.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist

Copyright © 2017 by John Arkelian.

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Not in God’s Name

© By John Arkelian

“When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps…. Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of Not in God's Name_book cover_AFonlinelife, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love, and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”  The poisonous persistence of man’s inhumanity to man is inextricably rooted in our propensity, eagerness even, to see the world in terms of “Us” and “Them.”  In “Not in God’s Name” (Schocken Books, 2015), Jonathan Sacks examines ‘altruistic evil,’ that is, “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals” which turns “ordinary people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren.”  Hatred motivated by religion may be the most pernicious:  It encourages us to demonize the other and to do monstrous things in the name of the good.

As a Jewish rabbi and scholar, Sacks’ subject is three great monotheistic religions that claim common lineage to Abraham.  It’s an apt canvas to reflect on the psychological and sociological origins of evil – and to propose ‘a theology of the Other,’ which posits that violence done in the name of religion is sacrilege and that we are instead called upon by our Creator to love not just our neighbor but also the stranger:  “It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many respects your neighbor is like yourself.  He or she belongs to the same nation, the same culture, the same economy, the same political dispensation, the same fate of peace or war…. What is difficult is loving the stranger.”

Why are we so prone to fear and hate the stranger?  Man’s loyalties originally attached to his blood kin, to his tribe, then to ever larger units, leading up to the state.  The glue that bound such large number of people together was, historically, often religion.  But, in the 20th century, we introduced modern substitutes – allegiance to a nation, race, or political ideology – secular idols that spawned the wretched, murderous likes of Nazi Germany and Communism.  Today, we try to dampen down the craving for tribalistic identity by embracing either universalism (we are all part of the family of man) or individualism (which seeks to dethrone ‘the group’ entirely).  Neither alternative provides satisfying answers to the questions “Who am I?  Why am I here?  How then shall I live?”  But “radical, politicized religion” offers easy answers to those questions:  hence its return with a vengeance, and its appeal to those who crave “identity and community.”  We live in a time of rapid change; change brings disorientation and a sense of loss and fear that can easily turn into hate.  And “the Internet… can make it contagious.”

Sacks’ book covers a great deal of territory, exploring topics like “dualism” (a pathological conviction that “we” are good and “they” are bad), scapegoating, and ‘mimetic desire,’ which is “wanting what someone else has because they have it.”  And the theme of sibling rivalry looms large, with lengthy digressions into Old Testament accounts (Isaac & Ishmael, Jacob & Esau, Rachel & Leah, Joseph and his brothers, Cain & Abel) which seem to depict one sibling displacing another, but which actually have a profoundly deeper meaning:  That we are to seek God not only in the faces of our neighbors (those who are like us) but also in the faces of strangers (those who are different from us).  In this cause, Sacks says that the Jews have an advantage:  They have ‘memory and history’ to remind them, “that we were once on the other side of the equation.  We were once strangers: the oppressed, the victims…. In the midst of freedom we have to remind ourselves of what it feels like to be a slave.”  The best path to seeing God (and ourselves) in the face of the purported Other is to have been the Other – enslaved, despised, and oppressed – ourselves:  “for only one who knows what it feels like to be a victim can experience the change of heart… that prevents him from being a victimizer.”  On this point, Sacks ignores the elephant in the room, with nary a mention of the State of Israel’s protracted armed occupation of Palestinians against their will:  Despite their terrible suffering in the Holocaust, Jews are nevertheless themselves capable of oppressing the Other.  And, so, the fires of mutual antagonism are fueled.

Sacks tackles these big subjects from a scholarly, occasionally somewhat esoteric, approach; but, even in the midst of his close theological interpretation of Biblical stories, he never loses our rapt attention:  This is a deeply fascinating look at a subject that’s (sadly) in the news daily.  Sacks’ message is one which all people of faith should embrace:  “Civilizations are judged not by power but by their concern for the powerless; not by wealth but by how they treat the poor; not when they seek to become invulnerable but when they care for the vulnerable.”  And we must never forget that “we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is.  We each [neighbor and stranger alike] have our own blessing.”

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian.

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The Moral Imperative of Revolt

© By John Arkelian

“I do not fight fascists because I will win.  I fight fascists because they are fascists.”  Jean-Paul Sartre coined that sentiment, and Chris Hedges embraces it in his new book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt” (Knopf Canada, 2015).  The Pulitzer Prize winning author is known for his clarion calls about a society in deep trouble.  He persuasively argues that the West has fallen victim to what John Ralston Saul called “a corporate coup Wages of Rebellion cover_100 dpi_April 2016d’etat in slow motion.”  Covering everything from the surveillance state, the harsh suppression of dissidents, the flagrant subversion of the most fundamental human rights, our penchant for violence, and the insidious rise of neo-feudalism, Hedges’ book is a damning indictment of a society on the precipice – of totalitarianism and eventual collapse.  At the heart of our troubles is the grip of capitalism as a “cultic religion” predicated on relentless consumption.  Its ultimate goal is to serve the interests of an oligarchic elite, at the expense of everyone else.  Our economy sheds jobs and stalls wages in a headlong rush to the bottom; and we reward financial speculation in lieu of useful production: “They make nothing.  They only manipulate money.”  There are clear signs that the environment, the global eco-system upon which we all depend for life is in trouble:  We’re in the midst of first mass extinction in 66 million years.   Our infrastructure is crumbling and we are unable to cope with environmental disasters:  Events like Hurricane Sandy leave people with wrecked homes and shattered lives, as we “increasingly sacrifice the weak, the poor, and the destitute.”

Fairness, and, indeed, respect for constitutional first principles, have become flimsy illusions: “The pervasive security and surveillance state, which makes us the most watched, spied and eavesdropped upon, monitored, photographed, and controlled population in human history, is being employed against all who rebel.”  Indeed, the state imposes draconian punishments against whistleblowers and anyone who challenges the state.  Hedges says it’s nothing short of a war “against liberty, the freedom of the press, and democracy itself…  The state can order the assassination of US citizens.  It has abolished habeas corpus.  It uses secret evidence to imprison dissidents… It employs the Espionage Act to criminalize those who expose abuses of power.”

Meanwhile corporate concentration makes a mockery of a well-informed electorate.  In the US, the airwaves are controlled by about six corporations.  And thoughtful, critical debate is hard to find.  In its place, “Today charlatans and hucksters hold forth on the airwaves [the 2015-16 presidential primaries season has yielded a dire harvest of political hucksters and charlatans as candidates for the highest office in the land!], and intellectuals are ridiculed.  Force and militarism, with their hyper-masculine ethic are celebrated… Culture and literacy… are replaced with noisy diversions, elaborate public spectacles, and empty clichés.”  The underclass is criminalized and imprisoned.  And fairness seems conspicuous by its absence:  “Some 8,000 nonviolent Occupy protesters were arrested across the nation.  [But] not banker or investor went to jail for causing the 2008 financial meltdown.  The disparity in justice mirrored the disparity in incomes and the disparity in power.”

Hedges’ book carves a broad swath through diverse socio-political, cultural, and moral topics.  There are brief case studies of the courageous few who have dared to defy authority – ranging from Edward Snowden’s alarming revelations about massive, unconstitutional intrusion by the state into the private communications of their citizens (all of their citizens), to a US Army pilot who stood between remaining Vietnamese civilians and those intent on killing them during the 1960 My Lai massacre, to the Zapatistas, the resistance movement in southern Mexico who used ‘poetry, art, and humor’ in their cause, to an attorney in the US, who is arguably a prisoner of conscience, who used her imprisonment to draw back the curtain on the harshness and arbitrariness of a privatized penal system, to whistleblowers like Assange and Manning.  There is an interesting reflection on Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby Dick as an allegory for America, embodying a society’s ‘doomed voyage’ in its single-minded quest for wealth and domination over nature.  There’s a nod to that great advocate for liberty, Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary era political philosopher who exclaimed that, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from    oppression.”  There is a cautionary note about the malign transformation of the internet from a supposed (and over-vaunted) “great emancipator” of the common man to a sinister “facilitator of totalitarianism” and tool of the powers that be.

Hedges makes a strong case that our society is in dire jeopardy, that the good of the many has been ignored for the benefit of the very few.  While he sometimes sees through a doctrinaire, ideological lens, too broadly generalizing (he lumps the NRA, Tea Party, Republicans, and right-wing militias together under the allegedly shared fear of “crazed black hordes,” and he cavalierly describes the country’s episodic violence as “as American as cherry pie”), his underlying contention is a powerful one:  We are in trouble, we are in danger of losing what remains of our liberty, and our incremental path to totalitarianism is a form of “radical evil” that the moral person must oppose by a non-violent uprising:  “The person with moral courage defies the crowd, stands up as a solitary individual… and is disobedient to authority, even at the risk of his or her life, for a higher principle.  And with moral courage comes persecution.”

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian.

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Why Islam Needs a Reformation

© By John Arkelian

The religion known as Islam was founded almost fourteen centuries ago by a man who said that God’s message for mankind was Heretic cover_August 2015revealed to him.  He set down those tenets in the Qur’an.  The religious and political expansion of Islam began in Muhammad’s lifetime and accelerated after his death in 632 AD.  Today, there are 7.3 billion people in the world, about 1.6 billion of whom are Muslims.  The trouble is that the faith they follow has never left the 7th century – not one iota of it.  And that’s a problem – not only for Muslims, but also for the rest of us.  A new book argues that the root cause of Islamic extremism today is the doctrine of that religion itself.

The list of violent groups who commit acts of wanton murder in the name of Islam has grown long in recent years:  There’s al-Qaeda and its various affiliates; ‘Islamic State,’ also known as ISIS and ISIL (in Syria and Iraq); the Taliban (in both Afghanistan and Pakistan); Boko Haram (in Nigeria); and Al-Shabaab (in Somalia), to name just the most noxious and infamous examples.  Their impact vastly exceeds their numbers.  But they have proven maddeningly hard to suppress.  The vast majority of adherents of Islam never commit acts of violence or terror.  Western leaders are quick to acknowledge that fact.  But author Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes that the trouble with Islam extends far beyond its minority of violent extremists.  In her compelling and persuasive new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2015), Hirsi Ali argues that Islam is long overdue for fundamental reform of its core precepts – archaic values and beliefs that work as much to the detriment of the religion’s own adherents as to everyone else.  “For years, we have spent trillions on waging wars against ‘terror’ and ‘extremism’…  [But,] we in the West have not bothered to develop an effective counternarrative [to terror and extremism] because from the outset we have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam.  We persist in focusing on the violence and not on the ideas that give rise to it.”

The author identifies five key problems with Islamic beliefs – problems that prevent its believers from fully joining the modern world and that provide a persistent source of ‘justification’ for those intent on murderous violence:  (1) Muhammad’s “semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an,” (2) the religion’s preoccupation with life after death to the abject neglect of life in the here and now, (3) promoting allegiance to sharia, the harsh ‘laws’ setting out transgressions and punishments that evolved in immoderate centuries past, (4) the exhortation in Islam to its adherents to enforce its practices by intruding into private lives to ‘command right and forbid wrong,’ and (5) the call to wage so-called ‘holy war,’ or jihad.  Hirsi Ali says that the earliest development of Islam can be divided into two phases – both during its founder’s lifetime:  When he and his small number of followers were based in the town of Mecca, they practiced peaceful persuasion as a way to increase their numbers.  But their subsequent relocation to the town of Medina saw the onset of a harsher creed and much more aggressive methods. ‘Convert or die’ became the new lexicon (with an exception for Jews and Christians, who by virtue of their monotheism were grudgingly permitted to retain their own faiths, albeit at the cost of second-class citizenship and extorted payment of a punitive tax).  Hirsi Ali argues that most of what continues to ail and distort Islam – in the form of intolerance, xenophobia, misogyny, fundamentalist extremism, and hotheaded belligerence – sprang from this later, bellicose phase in its early development and spread.  And, she argues, until those medieval missteps are course-corrected, they will continue to be a well-spring for fanaticism – and for the intolerable oppression of Muslims themselves by their co-religionists.

In examining what’s wrong with Islam, Hirsi Ali deals as much with details as principles:  For ‘the devil,’ as the expression goes, is often in the details.  For instance, one of sharia’s not so quaint provisions stipulates that to prove the crime of rape, either the rapist must confess or four male witnesses must come forward; after all, “the Qur’an says that a woman’s testimony is worth only half of a man’s” in court.  As the author observes, “There is no more obvious incompatibility between Islam and modernity than the subordinate role assigned to women in sharia law.”  Then there’s the perverse glorifying of death that renders all life cheap and impedes the healthy human impetus for personal and societal progress.  Some views (like the vision of heaven as a place to be carnally rewarded with a bevy of virgins) are absurdly unsophisticated; others smack of the tribalism, militarism, and brutality of a lamentably more primitive era.  Perpetrators of so-called ‘honor violence,’ for example, often aren’t stigmatized (let alone punished) by their co-religionists, because of the obscene belief ‘that the perpetrator is in the right.’  “In many parts of the Islamic world, any behavior deemed immodest is reason enough to kill a daughter or female relative.  And immodesty is extremely broadly defined:  it could include singing, looking out a window, or speaking to a man who is not a relative.  Marrying for love, in defiance of one’s parents, is also a frequent justification.”

Hirsi Ali’s personal trajectory is a fascinating one, leading from early devoutness as a youth in her native Somalia to an outright rejection of Islam, with stops along the way as a refugee fleeing an unwanted arranged marriage and eventual election to the Dutch Parliament.  For most Westerners, her measured analysis and insights are eminently sensible and compelling.  But can a self-described “apostate” (or defector from her faith) be a persuasive voice for reform for the majority of Muslims, with whom she has irrevocably parted company?  It seems unlikely, alas.  But in an appendix to her book, Hirsi Ali gives us reason to hope that substantive reform might ultimately find a foothold and belatedly take root, by describing the admirable efforts of existing dissidents in the West and in predominantly Muslim parts of the world:  “The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”  A book such as this might have been repetitive and monotonous:  But it is decidedly neither.  Rather, it is very well written – and highly recommended.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author, journalist, and former diplomat

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.

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“The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times”

© Reviewed by John Arkelian

In a poem by the English poet Ted Hughes, a hawk contemplates its physical form:  “It took the whole of Creation to produce my foot, my each feather; now I hold Creation in my foot.”  Is Creation itself marred when our body becomes infirm or lame?  For the one so The Man Who Learned to Walk cover_August 2015afflicted, it must surely seem so.  We regard ourselves as the union of mind, body, and spirit.  When each of those distinct aspects of our being is healthy and functioning properly, it is easy to take them for granted, none more so than our bodies, the physical selves with which we interact with the material world around us.  So much of our ordinary physical activity is unconscious:  Most of the time, we breathe, we swallow, and we walk with nary a conscious thought about what we are doing.  But what if it were otherwise?  When the living mechanism that is our body becomes dysfunctional, it can change the complexion of our lives, shattering the self-confident ease with which we undertake the daily minutiae of living, and, maybe, in the process, reshape the pattern of our self-identity.  If every step is a painful ordeal, if we struggle to traverse space, conscious all the while of how that struggle sets us apart from our fellows, then we may assimilate our disability into our deepest self-perception.  So it is for the Canadian journalist Peter Kavanagh, who documents his lifelong struggle with physical disability in the new book, “The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times” (Knopf Canada, 2015).

Kavanagh was born in 1953, a year that that saw the last major epidemic of polio in North America, before the discovery of the vaccine that put an end to such outbreaks.  The dread disease left Kavanagh with one leg shorter and much weaker than the other, severely impeding his ability to walk.  What followed was a never-ending carousel of braces, clunky orthopedic shoes, walkers, crutches, canes, doctors, physiotherapy – and surgeries.  One early, highly experimental, surgery temporarily rewired the circulatory system in his afflicted leg and foot in the hope that that might help it catch up with the normal limb.  Years later, the advent of a serious hip problem undid all the limb lenghtening done in the earlier go-round.  From childhood, Kavanagh came to know hospital stays, and hospital routines, better than any child should.  And, when he was only 12, he was obliged to spend a year in a full-body cast.  Were those long periods of enforced isolation – from friends, from family, from a normal life – instrumental in making the boy into the man he became?  Separated from others, he found solace in books, and in the life of the mind.  Kavanagh sees a direct through-line from an oft-isolated childhood, given over to introspection and reading, to his chosen career as a journalist.

The surprising thing about Kavanagh’s memoir is that it does not become tedious.  He touches upon the impact his malady had upon his family (did the stress of it precipitate a sudden and drastic decline in his mother’s health?), and he mentions his family’s recurring moves across the country (with his father’s employment) and the dislocation of resettling time and again in a new place.  But there is almost nothing here about the author’s professional life and not much about his role as a husband and father.  Born Catholic, the subject of religious faith hardly comes up, though he does muse about the logical conundrum posed by faith healing:  If such healing does not happen, does that imply that the supplicant’s faith was not strong enough?  Or merely that one needs to pray harder?  He tries Buddhist meditation on for size at one point – anything to take his mind off the pain that became a lifelong companion.  Indeed, Kavanagh’s life revolves around pain and on his “gait,” or his manner of walking – and that is the subject of his book.  It is plain-spoken, with meditations on whether learning to walk is an innate skill or a learned behavior, and on whether the gait makes the man.  So much of his self-image is tied up with his struggles to walk and his consciousness that his walking is often awkward, belabored, and above all, different from yours and mine.  (Simple sneakers represent an enticing dream for Kavanagh!)  All of this could easily have become a tedious, repetitive, and one-note tale of maladies endured.  But Kavanagh’s unmaudlin, matter-of-fact account keeps us interested in his battle of wills with his malady from beginning to (hopeful) end:  “After learning to walk many miles in my own shoes three times, I am now finally understanding who I am.”

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.

Editor’s Note:  Peter Kavanagh died on September 7, 2016.

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Now I Have Become a Foreigner The Persecution of Christians

© By John Arkelian

“I am local.  I was born here.  I studied here.  But now I have become a foreigner.”  (A Catholic priest in India)

Two recent books explore the persecution of Christians that is endemic in the world today.  Of the two, “The Global War on Christians” by John L. Allen Jr. (Image, 2013) supplements its chronicle of oppression with more analysis.  We learn, for instance, that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.  It is estimated that there have been 70 million Christian martyrs since the time of Christ.  Fully half of them (45 million) were killed in the 20th century, most falling victim to the twin evils of Nazism and Communism:  “More Christians were killed because of their faith in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined.”  Allen identifies the war on Christians as “a massive, worldwide pattern of violence and oppression directed against a specific group of people.”  There are myriad of reasons why Christians are singled out for discrimination or outright persecution.  For instance, the faith’s vigorous growth (often in its Pentecostal forms) in some places is perceived to threaten “the traditionally dominant position of other religious groups or the state.”  Further, its adherents are often outspoken advocates for human rights and democracy, which makes them threats to authoritarian regimes.  And, the increasingly strong connections between nationalism and religion in places like India means that Christians can be perceived as a threat to ‘national identity.’  But what constitutes discrimination toward (or outright persecution of) Christians because they are Christians?  Allen argues that, “It’s not enough to consider what was in the mind of the person pulling the trigger – we also have to ponder what was in the heart of the person getting shot.”  So, when a Catholic priest was murdered by the Mafia for challenging its hold on his community, “The motives of his assassins may not have had anything to do with Christianity, but [their victim’s] certainly did.”

For its part, Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack” by Rupert Shortt (Eerdmans, 2012) is mostly expository, recounting a long litany of persecution.  And what a long and shameful litany it is!  All too often, persecution follows three phases: first comes disinformation, which robs prospective victims of their good reputation; that’s followed by discrimination, which relegates them to second-class status; and then comes outright persecution, be it by the state, paramilitaries, mobs, or simply those from inimical groups.  A great many of the places where Christians suffer discrimination and/or persecution are countries with Muslim majorities.  But societies with Hindu and Buddhist majorities are by no means above singling-out Christians for maltreatment, too.  And Communist tyrannies, like those in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos take second place to none in the sheer brutality of the oppression they visit upon Christians.  Much of this is emblematic of mankind’s age-old proclivity for marginalizing and oppressing minorities.  Sometimes religious minorities get conflated with ethnic differences or they are seen being in the way of a state’s attempt to impose a uniform ‘national identity’ upon its citizens.  More uniquely, Communist dictatorships aspire to “political sacralization,” brazenly claiming for the state alone the attributes normally reserved for the sacred.  And Christianity, with its longstanding association with justice, freedom, and human rights, is perceived as a potential source of dissidence by regimes which brook no dissent.  We need to recognize the oppression under which our fellow Christians suffer in so many places in today’s world and to find meaningful ways to support their just plea:  “Please let the world know we want freedom.  Freedom, just freedom.  Freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to praise God, freedom to work, freedom to learn, freedom to write.  Just freedom.”

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.

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America Alone – The End of the World as We Know It

© Reviewed by Tina Ivany

Its title alone draws you in, and then Mark Steyn’s book delivers its message with utmost clarity.  America Alone – The End of the World as We Know It” (Regnery Publishing), is a wake-up call to the West.  The book, first published in 2006, became a New York Times bestseller.  The paperback version was updated and reprinted in 2008, but its message is still pertinent, even after the death of Osama bin Laden, as fundamentalist Islam continues to assert itself into Western culture and civilization.

Steyn is a Canadian-born journalist and political commentator; he lives in New Hampshire, but, like a lot of journalists, he is a citizen of the world.  Observation comes naturally to him, but more than that, he is able to assimilate and break down facts to their most basic and deliver them in his own inimitable and witty style.  He presents new ways of looking at endemic problems and gives us plenty to think about.  While another writer might get bogged down in a sea of facts and statistics, Steyn is never boring.  His writing style is crisp and tinged with irony.  He has a delicious appreciation for the absurd, and dealing with the Islamic world, the absurdities stack up quickly – especially a story about mass hysteria breaking out in Khartoum over vanishing penises.  Despite the uproar in the Muslim world about Danish cartoons and other perceived slights, the laughter soon morphs into horror at the prospect of modern technology in the grip of people who still harbour primitive beliefs mired in autocratic ideology.

Steyn makes a compelling case for getting back to our own fundamental roots.  Perhaps, he muses, America’s fundamentalist Christians – the very people we tend to mock – have got it right.  Our complacency, our need to be liked or seen as moderate, appears to be stronger than our sense of outrage, so politicians talk on while Islam gets on with blowing things up.  It’s hard, he says, to have any meaningful discussion with people who fail to recognize you as human.  The earth’s axis, Steyn warns, has shifted from Western dominance.  Slowly, and with great purpose, the East, specifically Islam, has taken over.  They have a plan, whereas we have none and seem comfortable with letting them do it.  Past generations of young people got up off the couch and marched in the streets to protest all manner of things – from wars to racial injustice to campus safety – while today’s youth get all fired up about the environment; but as Steyn points out, there is little to be gained by saving the planet if there aren’t enough people to fill it.

It seems that birth control and improving our own sense of self-worth have worked too well.  We’re too busy establishing and satisfying our own worthiness to take time out to create our own families.  And as families become less important, so, too, do family values.  When we care more about the choice of picking our own TV channels, but do nothing about creeping radicalism, we are indeed in trouble.  When we know more about the lives of celebrities than we do about the people we elect to govern us, we need to wake up.  No longer can we afford to delay having babies in favour of self-pursuit or depend on the people who raised us to provide us with not only a nest well into our twenties but a nest-egg as well.  We take too long to be educated and too long to mature.  It is time, Steyn says, for our infantilized society to ‘grow the hell up.’

Steyn credits the breakdown of church and state as a major cause of our own demise.  We have stopped going to church and we’re slowly turning into a secular society, while those who worship Islam continue to draw new converts.  While Muslims cling to ancient laws and unearth others, such as Sharia law, that are simply archaic, we have abandoned traditional values in favour of self-fulfillment.  While we may appear happy on the surface, we are worshipping at the feet of a false prophet who delivers only momentary pleasure.  What we are left with is an increasingly infantilized society with a soft underbelly.  In our quest for pleasure, we have forgotten a fundamental reason of why we exist: to go forth and multiply.  As Steyn reports, 30% of German women are childless.  If you include university graduates, that number rises to 40%.  If, as he cautions, there are fewer people, it takes more dollars to keep things running.  But where are those dollars going to come from, especially when the most obvious ways to fix the problem are continually rejected by populations who are comfortable with the status quo – working fewer hours, producing less, and paying less tax as a result.  The result is a prescription for disaster and the European Union has no idea how to fix it, nor the will to try.

He narrows the scope on things we have long suspected – that the European Union is an utter failure.  According to Steyn, the last country you’d want to lead you is Germany, a nation of people who have abandoned their strong work ethic in favour of being looked after by Big Nanny State.  Even the British, who refused to adopt the euro that has brought weak economies to the brink of collapse, are nonetheless affected by the same problems that stymie all EU countries, which doesn’t bode well for America.

If, for instance, America decides to go all European and follow Britain’s example of banning things that offend Muslim sensibilities, such as prohibiting the British flag from its prisons because it displays the St. George cross that was used by the Crusaders, then – memo to Houston – we do indeed have a problem.  No wonder Steyn’s book urges us to take a stand against creeping multiculturalism that has become another excuse for apologists.  We know we’re in trouble, he warns, when our first instinct after September 11, 2001 was a rush to the mosque to show that we don’t hate Muslims.  The lesson here?  We must stop being apologists for our own beliefs and the rights we have fought for and earned through our own ingenuity.  Nor will we push back or conquer the intrusion by a single act.  If America and its way of life were to be overrun by another culture and disappear, it would not be by one single cataclysmic event, but by small imperceptible degrees – death by a thousand cuts, rather than the swift severance of the guillotine.  The Islamists have studied our weaknesses.  They know us very well and are not adverse to taking advantage of our technology and using it against us.  We may be stronger militarily, but we are fighting a battle on a different front.  And while we focus on terrorist plots – the symptom – what we should really be fighting is the root cause – ideology.  We must, Steyn urges, follow their lead:  Do as they do and exploit their weaknesses.

Steyn still has faith in America’s ability to stand alone.  The last thing it needs is to follow the lead of the European Union which he feels is going to hell in a hand-basket.  But the solution will not be found through burgeoning government policy but by the ingenuity of private citizens.  Bring back the pioneering spirit is his clarion call.  And that includes getting our priorities straight.  How is it, he wonders, that you need a retinal-scan ID to rent a movie, but venting your feelings after the next terrorist bombing is going too far?  You might not agree with Steyn, but one thing is clear:  Looking at the current events being played out around the world and America’s tepid response to them, Steyn’s observations would appear most prescient.

Tina Ivany is a Toronto area writer and an ongoing contributor to Artsforum Magazine.

Copyright © 2014 by Tina Ivany.

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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream:
An interview with author Julia Rath on sleep apnea and self-help

© By John Arkelian

“To sleep, perchance to dream,” indeed.  What could be more precious, and more mourned for in its absence, than the restorative power of a good night’s sleep?  Sleep apnea robs those afflicted of that vital balm.  One of those so-afflicted, Chicago-based sociologist and author Julia Rath, resolved to meet her affliction head-on. Her findings appear in “Conquering Your Own Sleep Apnea: The All-Natural Way” (2013), a self-help book intended for the general reader. Apnea first encroached on the author’s life in 2000 during an out of town stay at a hotel.  She had trouble falling asleep, sleeping, and catching her breath. She shrugged off those symptoms, but they recurred and persisted when she got back home.  Some days were worse than others; but the new problem showed no signs of going away.  Rath consulted her doctor, but she was told that she was too young, too female, and insufficiently overweight to be a victim of apnea.  Her doctor didn’t take her condition seriously; but there was no doubt that it was impeding her day-to-day life.  She was losing hours of the day and finding no help from the medical establishment. With a background as a researcher in social science – specifically, health sciences in the policy arena, including clinical studies – Rath concluded that it was time to take matters into her own hands.

Rath discovered that the current ‘gold standard’ in apnea treatment is the “Continuing Positive Airway Pressure” (or CPAP) machine.  But, the apparatus in question is big, noisy, and uncomfortable – and not in the least appealing for a light sleeper.  Dental devices designed to counter obstructive sleep apnea, by adjusting the tongue and jaw, were likewise unappealing.  For their part, prescription drugs intended for insomnia are sometimes misprescribed for the wholly separate condition of apnea.  Rath resolved, “Let me figure this out for myself.”  And the place to start was in “counting my apneas” and describing how they felt. What she discerned was a highly mutable pattern with many variables.  Taking her cue from Lao Tzu’s admonition (“When you see the disease, first turn to the diet.”), Rath asked herself if a food allergy might be triggering the apnea. So, she tried an “elimination diet” (on the vegan and vegetarian models). It was a novel approach for apnea.   To Rath’s knowledge, no one had tried it before, though it has been tried for asthma and for some rashes and allergies.  Trial and error identified the culprits.  The problem was the additives, preservatives, and genetic modifications, rather than the food itself. But that realization didn’t make things simpler.   It’s “too pat” to adopt an all-organic diet, says Rath.  In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates when and how the term “organic” can be used.  Some foods are “all organic;” some reach the 95% mark (being made with some organic ingredients); and others are only “partially organic” (if they contain 70% or more of organic content).  And, of course, it is impossible to know what you’re getting in a restaurant.   A single meal can bring on apnea symptoms.

How long before apnea symptoms go away?  It depends on the type of apnea.  “Obstructive apnea,” with its choking feeling and diminished ability to catch one’s breath, typically lasts for 24 hours.  But “central sleep apnea” (which has not yet made it into the medical literature), in which your brain tells you not to breathe, lasts a lot longer.  Rath calls it “apnea from the inside out.”

Rath exhorts apnea sufferers to “take ownership of your own disease,” adding that, “Doctors aren’t out there to cure you [because they are inadequately informed about apnea].  You have to know what’s wrong with you first.”  The CPAP machine handles apnea symptoms, but it’s not a cure.  By contrast, Rath says, “When I follow this diet, I don’t have the disease.”  The all-natural measures she advocates are geared to benefit the patient, not pharmaceutical companies.  Two-thirds of Rath’s book deals with food and diet; the balance is devoted to environmental factors (like aerosol spray cans, smog, paint cans, mold, and molting pets) – factors which typically produce “near apnea,” but which can also be a contributing factor for true sleep apnea.  Rath says her book is intended for the lay-person and the general public, though, she adds wistfully, the nature of its subject-matter made a degree of ‘denseness’ unavoidable.  It’s not a workbook; though it does include some exercises to ascertain if you actually have sleep apnea, as well as an elimination diet.  “You’ll have to be proactive,” says Rath.  Sensitivities caused by food additives are highly individualized. The same factor may cause sleep apnea in one person, and asthma in another.  The possible connection between allergies and sleep apnea is still a work in progress, Rath says.  She suggests that there may be a link but notes that it has not yet been established in the medical literature.  And Rath reminds the reader that she’s not trying to generalize her own case to everyone else:  “Everyone’s going to have a different set of triggers.”

What prompted Rath to self-publish her groundbreaking study on sleep apnea?   No one in the medical establishment seemed willing to take an allergy-based approach seriously – and it’s hard to publish a book on a medical topic without a forward by a medical practitioner.  In the meantime, though, the field has moved closer to what Rath first suggested intuitively – for example, sleep apnea being a factor in other dire illnesses leading to premature death.  Rath’s initial objective was simply to find a solution for her own problem.  Then, she observed patterns that were worth sharing with others, in anticipation of hoped-for clinical studies.   When sleep apnea rudely interrupted her slumbers, Rath found the medical profession baffled by the condition. “I couldn’t live this way,” says Rath.  And so began her self-initiated clinical case study of one.  It took dogged determination to see that study through to its successful conclusion.  But persistence paid off, when Rath realized that one final allergic reaction (to the genetically-modified versions of soybean and canola oils) was the missing piece of the complex food additive puzzle that fueled her apnea.  It’s a personal story of proactively seeking relief from a miserable affliction – a story that Rath hopes will serve as an instructive road map and an inspiration for others.

Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.

“Conquering Your Own Sleep Apnea: The All-Natural Way” by Julia W. Rath, Ph.D
ISBN 978-1-62137-316-2; 2013; trade paperback; 582 pages (including index).
$24.95 (U.S.), $25.65 (Canada); or $9.99 on Kindle (in U.S. and Canada)
Available at virtualbookworm.com; or through Amazon (both .com and .ca); at Barnes & Noble in the U.S. and at Chapters/Indigo in Canada; or by special order at the independent bookstore of your choice

For more information, visit http://conquerapnea.com/

Editor’s note: As many of our readers will know, the title of the foregoing interview, “To sleep, perchance to dream,” comes from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (1601).

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The Alchemist

© Reviewed by Margo Shearman-Howard

The Alchemist (HarperCollins, 1998), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, has been for years an international best seller (it was first published in 1988), and once you start reading you will understand why.  Deceptively simple in tone, the story explores deep truths about our lives with compassion and charm.  It is a fable, telling the tale of Santiago, a shepherd boy, as he journeys from Andalusia to Tangier to the pyramids of Egypt in pursuit of a great treasure he has seen in a dream.

But as with all fables, the story works on multiple levels, and Santiago’s journey is also a spiritual one.  He is helped along the way by other seekers, and after many adventures, he at last finds the Alchemist, a man of great wisdom said to be two hundred years old.  From the Alchemist, Santiago learns that the real treasure is within, but to find it, one must overcome the fear of failure:  “People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them. . . . [But] no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”  (p. 130, paperback)

With Santiago, we learn that the courage to follow our dreams is the magic that turns the dross of ordinary experience into the gold of transcendence, the miracle that transforms the mundane into meaning and joy.  If you believe (or suspect) that true wisdom in life can be found only by listening to your heart, you will find this small volume both encouraging and inspiring.

Margo Shearman-Howard, who is one-quarter Canadian, writes and edits from South Bend, Indiana.

© 2014 by Margo Shearman-Howard.

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Moral Heroes on the Road to Christian Virtue

© By John Arkelian

In a world of moral relativism, we are duped into thinking that one thing is as good as another, and that moral choices are more apt to be swathed in shades of grey than in stark black and white.  Is it surprising, then, that worldly self-interest so often stands paramount in the calculations of individuals and states alike?  Indeed, in the wake of 9/11, we have embraced such noxious practices as torture and assassination as routine instruments of state policy, never stopping to consider if using the methods of the enemy might pose a far greater threat to our most cherished values than does our enemy itself.  What is it that we value most in life?  Is it the lowest common denominator of material comfort and physical security?  Or, are we really prepared, as people of the Cross, to assume our role as pilgrims, or “resident aliens in a fallen world,” as Louis Markos puts it in his fascinating book On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue in Tolkien and Lewis (Moody, 2012)?

Sometimes, the most obvious things are also the most readily overlooked.  And, what could be more evident than the importance of storytelling in teaching us moral truths?  In stories, we share a journey with moral exemplars whose examples teach us which paths lead to good and which to evil.  Whether it takes the form of a parable, or that of a novel or motion picture, storytelling is fundamental to how we learn about moral choices.  Perhaps that explains part of the undying popularity of the fantastical fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Those British academics, both of them practicing Christians, created worlds that entrance countless readers.

Markos’ book, which is a sheer delight for devotees of Middle-earth and Narnia, examines how those stories are infused with examples and explication of the classical virtues (justice, self-control, wisdom, and courage) and the Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love).  Replete with moral choices (like the mercy that spares the life of the treacherous and dangerous Gollum), those stories offer moral heroes, that is, characters who choose to live rightly and whose perseverance is rewarded with what Tolkien dubbed the “eucatastrophe,” or the consolation of the happy ending that awaits all believers.  What a welcome contrast to the moral nihilism that pervades so much contemporary entertainment, like the cruel and violent worlds of “Game of Thrones” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

John Arkelian is an author and journalist based near Toronto.

Copyright © 2013 by John Arkelian.

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Midnight in Peking:
How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China

© Reviewed by Margo Shearman-Howard

Readers of detective stories know that fact can often be stranger than fiction, and this real-life murder mystery is no exception.  The discovery in 1937 of the mutilated body of an English schoolgirl in the diplomatic quarter of old Peking sets off a chain of events and evasions expertly traced and intriguingly described by journalist and business analyst Paul French in Midnight in Peking:  How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Penguin, 2011).  The atmosphere is tense:  the Japanese are slowly encircling the city, and invasion is feared imminent.  Most foreigners have evacuated; those few remaining are a special breed, seasoned China hands confident of their ability to weather any storm.  The Peking police are reluctant to get involved, as conditions in the city are deteriorating and one dead foreigner is the least of their worries.  The list of possible suspects is long, from desperate refugees flooding the city, to Russian gangsters, to the fearsome fox spirits — the souls of the unquiet dead.

Official investigative efforts soon petered out.  The victim’s father, E. T. C. Werner, a scholar and former diplomat, hired private detectives and doggedly pursued every lead, to no avail.  A complex character, Werner had come to China in the 1880s as an interpreter for the British Foreign Office; he moved up the ranks and into a variety of postings around China.  His young English wife died under circumstances that were never fully explained, leaving Werner to raise their daughter, Pamela, alone.  Pamela grew up in Peking with great freedom, traveling the city on her own, but no one imagined that she could come to any harm within the safe confines of the Legation Quarter.

French is an engaging narrator and guide.  As a Westerner living in China, he is well qualified to interpret the language, customs, and history bearing on the case, and he sets the scene like a novelist:  the reader senses the city in a very direct way.  Descriptions of the large cast of characters are compelling and memorable.  Further, his research is excellent:  in the course of his work French discovered Werner’s letters to the Foreign Office concerning the case, left in an uncatalogued file in the National Archive at Kew, and these letters detail important leads that officials declined, for various reasons, to follow up.  Using the evidence he uncovers, French devotes a long final chapter to reconstructing events leading up to the murder as he has reason to believe they likely occurred.  It’s both an homage to Pamela and an effort to see justice done, however belatedly, for her murder was never solved.  The book’s one fault is the lack of an index.

Margo Shearman-Howard, who is one-quarter Canadian, writes and edits from South Bend, Indiana.

© 2012 by Margo Shearman-Howard.

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In the Mind’s Eye

© Reviewed by John Arkelian

The protagonist of Barbara Ponomareff’s novella, In the Mind’s Eye (Quattro Books, 2011) wears “a silent armour-plating of the soul.”  Deprived of her parents while she was a child, Caitlin Winstrum has grown into a

Barbara Ponomareff (photo by Constantin V. Ponomareff).

self-contained, emotionally-reserved young woman.  She is a careful observer of herself and others — an attribute which may suit her chosen career as a psychologist.  In 1919, the year in which the story takes place, women in that profession are few and far between.  (Ponomareff seems to know that world well, given her own professional background as a psychotherapist.)  Caitlin’s life revolves around her work with veterans of the just-ended First World War, young men suffering from shell-shock (or what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder).  One enigmatic patient in particular, Philip, who seems to be afflicted with schitzophrenia, attracts Caitlin’s particular interest.  Perhaps she sees in him a kindred spirit who is hiding wounded vulnerability behind a mask of indifference.

Detachment looms large in the book thematically.  There is Caitlin’s detachment from her own emotions (disturbed only slightly by an impromptu liaison with another veteran) and from her cold and geographically distance fiancé.  Although the story unfolds from Caitlin’s point of view, Ponomareff writes in the third person rather than the first.  That stylistic choice echoes the detachment these characters present to the world; but it also keeps us remote from the feelings they must possess.  For instance, we’re told that Caitlin “felt a surge of love and affection” when she visits her fiancé, Daniel, in Boston; but what is communicated to us are analytical words — after the fact and at a safe distance (when Caitlin is on a train back to Toronto) — rather than the feeling itself:  The visceral rush of actual emotion is not expressed to the reader.  But, that may be very deliberate, for Ponomareff’s character is, as likely as not, retroactively imputing a feeling to herself that she may very well not have genuinely possessed.

It makes for an intriguing psychological puzzle, though, truth be told, the tone is decidedly more cerebral than emotional throughout the novella.  There is a minimum of dialogue, since the book is structured as an inner monologue (at one remove, courtesy of the third person style employed by the author).  Ponomareff is a polished, sophisticated writer.  Apt details evoke life in Toronto in 1919.  And there are some very evocative descriptive passages, as when Caitlin takes in the grey November scenery from her train window while “the vistaless, leaden pewter of the lake accompanied her” on her journey.  A metaphorical allusion gives subtle insight into the protagonist when she relates feeling like Cinderella “home from the ball, the prince out of reach and both glass slippers still firmly in her possession” (emphasis mine).

On the other hand, there are passages that tantalize and call out for more development.  One of those comes when Caitlin off-handedly opines that a patient’s suicide “seemed less demented than sane.”  Why does she think so?  Likewise, what does Caitlin mean when she observes that, “the flow of words, the torrent of reason” comes between her and her fiancé?  More satisfying (and revealing), perhaps, is the observation, a few lines earlier, that Caitlin “liked the way his capable hands handled things, efficient and sure of themselves, not likely to break anything” (emphasis mine).

The enigmatic infuses In the Mind’s Eye, embodied even in the ambiguity implicit in its title.  But, despite the deliberate distance at which we’re kept from these characters’ rawest emotions, we are left intrigued — and wanting their story to go on.

© 2012 by John Arkelian.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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The Deadly Fruit of Illusion

© By John Arkelian

In law, there is a principle known as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” which holds that if a taproot is nourished by poisonous soil, the fruit it produces, too, will be tainted.  It is for that reason, for example, that evidence obtained by police through unlawful means is normally deemed to be inadmissible at trial.  But what if our entire society is built upon a set of deadly, poisonous illusions – an elaborate, yet unsustainable, house of cards that impels our compliance just as it propels us toward catastrophe?  That is precisely the premise of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and seminary graduate Chris Hedges’ compelling new book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009).  The result is a brilliant, not-to-be-missed critique of “a society in precipitous decline;” its clarion call encompasses everything from our popular culture to our political culture.

Remarkably, 80% of households in our society never buy or read a book over the course of a year; instead, the average household has a television turned on for nearly seven hours a day.  And what are we watching during all those hours?  Far too many of us are entertained by the likes of Jerry Springer, professional wrestling, and so-called ‘reality-TV.’  The rest of us are left with the gossip, trivia, and pseudo-self-help proffered by television’s Oprah Winfreys, or by the endless pandering to empty spectacle that masquerades for news nowadays:  “Scandalous affairs, hurricanes, untimely deaths, and train wrecks” are far more interesting to most of us than the complicated realities of armed conflict, social injustice, increasing inequalities, and systemic corruption.  But, spectacle and our celebrity culture are taking a ruinous toll on both our society and our psyches.  So-called reality television shamelessly celebrates the notion of “cruelty with impunity,” pitting ruthless contestants against each other in contests of real or imagined talent, strength, beauty, or guile, and preaching that those who win are best, while those who do not deserve their ignominious fates.  Meanwhile, shows like “Big Brother” glamorize the very sort of intrusive surveillance that is insidiously undermining our basic freedoms in the trumped-up name of security.

When it comes to war, popular culture most often offers up the illusion of war as “a ticket to glory, honor, and manhood,” an illusion that collides with horrible realities for those unlucky enough to come face to face with the real thing.  Elsewhere, we are force-fed the lie that each of us may rise up from the undifferentiated masses to take our very own place in the sun.  In the process, we come to believe that “real life, our own life, is… next to the life of celebrities…inadequate.”  Is it any wonder, then, that we hang on every word of the “plastic surgeons, fitness gurus, diet doctors, therapists, life coaches, interior designers, [and] fashion consultants” who seek to seduce us with the illusion that our very own ‘extreme make-over’ is just around the corner?  Television “speaks in a language of familiar, comforting clichés… It creates a false sense of intimacy with our elite – celebrity actors, newspeople, politicians, business tycoons, and sports stars;” while, in reality, the corporate state that orchestrates that media mirage feels not a whit of intimacy, loyalty, or responsibility for us.  On the contrary, it pursues profit without remorse and without regard to democracy or the common good, hurling us toward the precipice with breakneck speed in its monomaniacal quest for riches.

One of the manifold ways our society degrades, demeans, desensitizes, and devalues human beings is through pornography.  It has become ubiquitous on the internet, flaunting even the most basic conceptions of human decency as it strives to excite ever-more jaded consumers with images of once-unimaginable degradation.  (Hedges’ explicit discussion of modern-day pornography is not for the squeamish!)  Meanwhile, our Ivy League post-secondary schools unabashedly make it their chief business to condition students for “success.”  These days, that means learning “to placate and please authority, never to challenge it.”  It means glorifying undisciplined self-interest.  It means accumulating money and power, without heed to conscience or social values:  “An education that challenges assumptions and teaches students to be self-critical… has been sacrificed in a Faustian bargain.”  At the same time, “positive psychology,” that fashionable methodology of ensuring compliance (and consumerism), is ready-made for isolating and trivializing dissidents.

For Hedges, our future is grim.  He sees American democracy (and where goes America, so follows Canada) in greater peril than it has ever been.  Widespread unemployment, wanton deindustrialization, declining real incomes, the alarming erosion of basic civil liberties in the spurious name of security, costly (and probably futile) foreign wars, wildly unsustainable levels of public and private debt, the conversion of North American economies from useful production to wasteful consumption, and a cutthroat variant of capitalism that remains unrepentant and grossly unregulated even in the aftermath of the financial calamity it has so recently brought down upon all our heads, all these indicators point to a society heading for a precipitous fall.  When that happens, the siren call of a homegrown totalitarianism that’s dressed-up in patriotism may be irresistible for the beleaguered, disillusioned masses.

“Individualism is touted as [our] core value… Yet most of us meekly submit… to the tyranny of the corporate state” and to the false comfort of our empty illusions.  It’s time to forego those illusions – about the world of limitless prosperity that awaits us at the beneficent hands of an unfettered free market and globalization; about the dangers of mindless hedonism and the concomitant trivializing of public discourse; about the pervasive encroachments – here, there, and everywhere – of empty flash for real substance; and about the imminent unsustainability of the fossil fuels we burn with abandon, the environment we’re recklessly pushing to the breaking-point, and the profligate borrowing that pretends that we will never have to pay the piper.  Illusions like those are leading us over the precipice.  If we are to avert a self-inflicted calamity, we need to abandon illusions for painful reality, pushing unregulated corporatism aside in favor of democracy – “a democracy based not on personal gain but on self-sacrifice” – and the common good.  For “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29).

Copyright © 2010 by John Arkelian.

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Beset Thy Neighbor:  The Golden Rules of Being Rude

© By John Arkelian

When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote (in 1944) that there was no need for fire, brimstone, stake, and gridiron, insofar as  “Hell is other people” [“L’enfer, c’est les autres”], he anticipated the dawning of the age of bad behavior by several decades.  Rudeness, often of the most shamelessly flagrant variety, is endemic nowadays, as ubiquitous as the air, and just as apt to leave us gagging.  The words “I’m sorry” have become even more endangered than their close kin, “Thank you,” replaced, alas, by a distressing proclivity, even among the very young, to proffer an indignant “Eff-off!” over every real or imagined slight.

Too many of us occupy virtual bubbles in public spaces, regaling captive audiences, in places like commuter trains and supermarket queues, with both inanities and the most intimate details of our private lives as we converse in decidedly unhushed tones on our ever-present cell-phones.  Meanwhile, customer service is as dead as the proverbial doornail, conveyed to its not-so-peaceful final rest by automated switchboards, the cash-bots that have stealthily replaced bank tellers, off-shore help-desks manned by minions whose first language is not our own, as well as a legion of PINs, a brigade of bafflegab (‘synergy,’ incentivize,’ or ‘paradigm,’ anyone?), and the continuous corporate claptrap that masquerades as public relations.  Is it any wonder that the mantra of our age has become, “Talk to the hand, coz the face ain’t listening?”

For ours is an age of “social autism, in which people just can’t see the value of imagining their impact on others, and in which responsibility is always conveniently laid at other people’s doors.”  That’s the view of the bestselling British columnist Lynne Truss in her mordantly funny little book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (Gotham Books, 2006).  Never has righteous indignation been offered in such droll terms:  Truss is matchmaker for an unlikely union of the rude and the riotously funny, as she notes the way “many nice, youngish liberal people are beginning secretly to admire the [draconian] chewing gum penalties of Singapore… or [when] faced with a teenaged boy skateboarding in Marks & Spencer’s, feel a righteous urge to stick out a foot and send him somersaulting into a rack of sensible shoes.”

The author’s pet peeves are ones many of us will grasp to our bosoms in grateful recognition:  “I can’t stand people talking in the cinema.  I can’t stand other people’s cigarette smoke… I am scared and angry when I hear the approach of young men drunkenly shouting.  I can’t stand children skateboarding on pavements, or cyclists jumping lights and performing speed slaloms between pedestrians, and I am offended by T-shirts with ugly Eff-off messages on them.”  But, just try pointing the error of their ways out to the authors of such affronts to public sensibilities.  If your unsolicited admonition fails to provoke a violent response, it’s certain at least to earn you a hearty “Eff-off!”  Why do manners matter?  Why, because of their moral dimension, of course.  “Manners are based on the ideal of empathy, of imagining the impact of one’s own actions on others.”  If we all remembered to show that rudimentary consideration for others, what a wonderful world it would be.

Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.

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The Utopian Delusion

©  By John Arkelian

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
(An old proverb.)

Religion poisons everything, or, at least that’s the contention of a new crop of proselytizing atheists (writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris), who have condemned not just organized religion but also the very idea of belief in God.  But what if those atheists are really just the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise?  That’s precisely the thesis of an intriguing and ingenious new book by long-time foreign correspondent Chris Hedges.  His wittily titled I Don’t Believe in Atheists (Free Press, 2008) makes a persuasive case that atheists and fundamentalists are more similar – and more dangerous – than either camp would care to admit.  Both tend to be intolerant and chauvinistic.  Both dream of a perfect society and of a perfectible human being.  Both claim a monopoly on the truth and both are impatient with opposing views.  Both tend to disregard human fallibility; and both neglect nuance and understanding in favor of a blind certainty born of ignorance and dogma.

For Hedges, a central fallacy at the heart of atheism and fundamentalism alike is the myth of inexorable human progress, the notion that mankind is steadily advancing morally and ethically.  For atheists, blind faith in reason, science, and technology is the holy grail that propels our moral advancement.  But glowing reports of our supposed progress fly in the face of frequent reminders that the irrational (and often darkly destructive) side of the human psyche is as active as ever it was.  That flaw in our nature – call it sin, if you will – is hardly something we are outgrowing.  The wretched litany of oppression, hatred, and violence that has characterized human history – and still does – puts the very notion of inexorable “progress” to the lie.

For Hedges, utopians – be they secular or religious – have an even worse habit:  Once they espy a glorious tomorrow, they use its tantalizing proximity to justify every sort of cruel savagery in the name of reaching their ever-elusive earthly paradise.  Such utopians “see only one truth: their truth.  Human beings must become like them, think like them, and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society.”  Hedges contends that that is the greatest danger posed by the delusion of utopia – the certainty among true believers that they see the promised land ahead and their willingness to use any and all measures to attain it.  No one is immune from that tendency – least of all those who eschew humility and self-questioning for the false sense of security that comes from embracing shallow, self-justifying certitudes:  “This world is escapist.  We are bombarded, thousands of times a day, with the emotional simplicity and terrible beauty of lies.  And we believe them.  We believe them because they make us feel, at least for a moment, better and empowered.”

Atheist utopians distort science to support their beliefs in ways that mirror the ways fundamentalists manipulate religion to support theirs.  For one thing, they superimpose the theory of evolution, which is only about biology, onto matters that are far beyond its purview:  “It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics, or the behavior of nations,” despite all the efforts of Social Darwinists to have us believe otherwise.  The trouble with extending the scope of evolution that way is that it inevitably opens the door to insidious ideas about “superior” races or cultures; or, through contorted logic about “survival of the fittest,” it is rolled out to justify the exploitation of one nation, culture, or race by another.  Nor is science capable of measuring everything:  “[The] mysteries of existence, our moments of transcendence, the moral life, love, and our search for meaning and our mortality” lie outside its writ; as do the destructive promptings of the human psyche.  When harnessed to scientific innovation, the latter impulses are as apt to spawn eugenics, weapons of mass destruction, and efficient systems of genocide as they are to yield more benign offspring.

Hedges may start by challenging the dogmatism of atheists, but he is just as tough on religious folks, branding as “myth” things many of us may hold near and dear.  His book is really a reflection on Man and a critique on our persistent foibles.  He pulls no punches when it comes to his native United States, decrying it as a “corporate state that seeks not the common good but maximum profit;” denouncing its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “wars of aggression [waged] to compensate for our collective humiliation” after 9/11; and concluding that America (and, though he does not say so, the rest of the West) “is rotting from the inside out.”  He is pessimistic about the future, predicting environmental catastrophe and unending conflict over resources in ways that sound a tad dogmatic.  But Hedges is dead-on when he says that our hope lies not in utopians, but “in those who are broken, those who… speak to our common humanity. . . [and] to our humility.”  It is those men and women who embrace the words of the American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr:  “We must fight their falsehood with our truth, but we must also fight the falsehood in our truth.”

Copyright © 2008 by John Arkelian.

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“The Magic of Recluce”

© By Katie Arbour

Originally, I went to the library to pick up the “Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan.  (Our school library doesn’t have fantasy fiction.  Go figure.)   I didn’t remember which book in the series book I left off on.  I’m pretty sure it was number four or five.   So I was going to start with four; when I realized some snake already had it out.  Not only four and five, but one and two; so I couldn’t even start over.  I was definitely in a reading mood, so I just looked over the whole section and  “The Magic of Recluse” by E.L. Modesitt, Jr. is what I found.  Robert Jordan wrote a review on the back cover, so I figured it must be good.  What I found out is that it is nothing in comparison to Jordan’s own “Wheel of Time. “

The novel starts off with a detailed description of how boring everything is for Lerris, the “bored” youth (he’s right there on the cover with the goofy hat on a mountain pony).  Boring, boring, boring. The author actually uses the word fifty times on each page.  Apparently, the people who read it before me were as fed up with the word “boring” as I was, because they crossed out every “boring” word with blue ink.  (There’s no respect for library books, it seems.)  Regardless, the author could have used some less “boring” synonyms.  I mean, what’s wrong with “mundane,” or “repetitive,” or “dull and listless?”

After you get over the “boring-ness” of the first half, the novel takes a turn for the better.  Modesitt’s “chaos/order world” definitely piques the interest, “order-masters” being the artists and artisans of the world.  Lerris, the protagonist, uses order to find his place in the world, after being ejected from his home town of Recluce (which is, ironically, a place uninterested in the chaos/order battles in the rest of the world).  Lerris tries his hand at wood-crafting, using his order-skills to “feel” the grain and quality of the wood.  This notion is actually pretty neat from an artistic point of view.  Order here represents good, and masters use it to create; while chaos represents evil and is used to destroy and deceive.  Essentially it is a novel of good versus evil as well as a coming-of-age tale.

Mom:  “What are you reading?”
Me:  “The Magic of Recluce.”
Mom:  “Ugh, I hate fantasy.”
Me:  “….”
Mom:  “I like murder mysteries, you know… stuff I can actually relate to, stuff that’s actually happening.”
Me: “That’s boring.  Why would you want to read about stuff that happens everyday?  It’s the same as watching the news… ”
Mom:  “…Whatever.”

And of course, there’s magic.  What fantasy novel would be complete without it?  This is pretty cool magic:  Lerris learns how to make himself invisible by rearranging the order of the light.  Cool, huh?  Order-masters can use order to reinforce the elements of a living thing (that is, make it healthy).  Both order and chaos masters can be healers:  chaos masters can heal certain diseases that order masters cannot by destroying the disease causing agents like viruses and bacteria.  The names in this book are pretty cool, too.

All in all, it’s not the “Wheel of Time,” not even close.  There aren’t as many books in this series; I think there may be three or four.  Despite the limited vocabulary of the author, I’ll probably read the other books.  I like the idea of chaos-order.  I wonder which domain I’d find myself under if I could possess the skill to become a master at all.

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“Into the Wild”

© By Katie Arbour

“Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes.  Ultimate freedom.  An extremist.  An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road.  So now, after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure.  The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.  No longer to be poisoned by civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.” (Alexander Supertramp, May 1992)

I just read “Into the Wild” by John Krakauer, who is also the bestselling author of “Into Thin Air” which documents the tragedy and heroism surrounding the Everest disaster of 1996.  The copy that I read ironically came all the way from Alaska – an excellent ebay purchase from one Becki Harvey of Alaska Books Gift & Thrift in Anchorage.

In 2007, the film version of this story was released, starring Emile Hirsch.  To my surprise, the novel and film are very similar.  I was pleased to discover that the film followed most of the recorded (or interpreted) events surrounding Christopher McCandless’ life and journey.  The film left me asking questions about Chris’ motives and mental state – questions to which I found partial answers in the novel.  It is impossible, however, to ever really know what was running through Chris’ mind prior to and during his Alaska adventure.

John Kraukauer spoke to every person who came into contact with Chris between 1990 and 1992.  This helped to provide more insight into the type of person Chris actually was, while tracing his way across the country.  From what I can gather, Chris was a great kid – touching lives of people during his travels.  And it wasn’t the rich and famous Chris chose to interact with; instead, he confided in the lower, poorer, and quieter sides of society – the very people who are often overlooked by the rest of us.  Chris’ childhood friends told the author that he used to spend Friday nights giving out hamburgers to homeless people, instead of partying with the ‘cool kids’ at school.  Chris was definitely a unique individual.

The hardest part of this novel is deciding on which side to place yourself.  Both Kraukauer’s article for Outside Magazine and his novel received mixed feedback.  Bushwhacking Alaskans called Chris “unprepared and foolish” for undertaking such a huge adventure in the unforgiving Alaskan backcountry.  They jested at his apparent mistake of misidentifying a caribou as a moose.  Other readers applaud Chris’ adventures, appreciating his bravery, generosity, and willingness to self-diagnose his vices and find himself a home-made cure.

Personally, I find myself somewhere in the middle.   Although an escapade in Alaska isn’t really a prescription for my own psychosis,  I appreciate his situation.   I don’t agree with all of Chris’ views on conformist society, although his disregard for governmental rules is sometimes quite humorous.  (He drove around for years with an expired license.)

The fact that Chris was only a few hours walk from help during his Alaska adventure is quite sad.  If he had been better prepared and if he had carried a map, he might not have lost his life.  It wasn’t actually a mistake in plant identification that killed him; but rather an ingestion of a certain type of mold growing on the roots and leaves he collected.

In the closing chapters of the book, Kraukauer describes his own  personal adventures in Alaska.  I suppose it’s there to explain why he’s drawn to the McCandless boy or even to justify Chris’ obsession with Alaska.  But there are two whole chapters devoted to Kraukauer’s adventures, and this was two chapters too many.  I’ll read you story later, Kraukauer; right now tell me more about McCandless.  Kraukauer’s novel could have been more effective without such a large personal digression; although I agree that some parallel needed to be drawn between the author and the subject.

If you want to see “the Magic Bus” on Google-Earth, here are the co-ordinates: +63 degrees North, 52′ 6.23″, -149 degrees 46′ 9.49′.

Katie Arbour is an art student.

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