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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/14/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 11, Whole Number 1458
Table of ContentsCorrection/Apology (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper and Gerald S. Williams) Mission Accomplished ... Again (comments by Mark R. Leeper) Worldcons of Diminished Expectations (comments by Mark R. Leeper) The Answer (comments by Mark R. Leeper) 3:10 TO YUMA (film review by Mark R. Leeper) GOLDA'S BALCONY (film review by Mark R. Leeper) Science Fiction Films' Quality and Cost (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek) Anthropocentrism (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek) James Fenimore Cooper and Re-reading Authors (letter of comment by Mike Glyer) Additional Senses (letter of comment by Gerald S. Williams) Hugo Awards, Dogs, Cats, and John Steinbeck (letter of comment by John Purcell) This Week's Reading (RELIGIOUS LITERACY) (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper) El Presidente: Mark Leeper, email@example.com The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to email@example.com To unsubscribe, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction/Apology (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper and Gerald S. Williams):
And once again, I have conflated Gerald Ryan and Jerry Williams. Contrary to what the table of contents and header said, the letter of comment on C. S. Lewis's Catholicism (or lack thereof) in the 09/07/07 issue of the MT VOID was by Jerry Williams.
To quote from another Catholic writer (that of the "Confiteor"), mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. [-ecl]
Jerry Williams adds, "Gee, I'm starting to think that I only get published because of my name. There seems to be some more confusion between me and Gerald S. Ryan. (I must admit, the first time I saw a post from Jerry Ryan, I wondered whether it might have been the one from 'Star Trek' fame.)" [-gsw]
Mission Accomplished ... Again (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Quote seen in a press release: "[Ridley] Scott, who considers BLADE RUNNER his most accomplished movie, was in Venice to promote the Final Cut [version of the film]."
I don't think there is any doubt about it being his most accomplished film. It was "accomplished" for its original release. It was "accomplished" again for the Directors' Cut. The IMDB lists 15 different versions over the 25 years since its release. That means the film is "accomplished" on the average about once every 22 months. How many films are accomplished so frequently? He called this the final cut, but history suggests he will have accomplished it again by July, 2009. [-mrl]
Worldcons of Diminished Expectations (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of my friends--one whom I see almost exclusively at the World Science Fiction Convention (or Worldcon) each year--announced this week that he was not going to the Worldcon any more. He says that it no longer is meeting his needs, and his answer is to go instead to San Diego Comic-con each year. He invited his friends to join him in this change of habit. Well, I am not going to do it. I will probably continue to go to the Worldcon each year. But I have to admit that part of my Worldcon-going habit is just force of habit. The fact is that at one time I derived a great deal of pleasure from going to a Worldcon and a great deal of the pleasure has fled from the experience. And I am asking myself why.
I should point out that this essay could be interpreted as a complaint about how Worldcons are run and an attempt to influence them. That is not the case. I really would like to stay out of fandom politics. And I do not have the ego to suggest that Worldcons change to match my interests. I thinking about why I do not feel a strong sense of loss by missing Worldcon this year and just looking at the trends of Worldcons and examining why my reaction to them is not as positive as it once was.
Certainly part of what is going on is the repetition. One does not expect the 30th potato chip to taste as good as the first one did. There is too much commonality between conventions for me to find each one fresh and new. I have been a steady attendee of Worldcons. Of the last 32 Worldcons I have missed only three. For some reason I feel the Worldcons of the 70s seemed to have more verve. Somehow Worldcons seem more staid and less energetic as there are fewer young and active attendees. I will get to the changing demographic later.
My interest in science fiction is probably as much in film as it is in literature. Worldcons used to have very good film programs. Frequently the first thing I would look up in the film program is what films do they have that I had not heard of before. Also they would have in-depth behind-the-scenes presentations of upcoming films. Worldcon would be the first place I would have heard about many forthcoming films and I will have seen props and production sketches for the before most of the public. I am told there are still such presentations at San Diego Comic-con, but it is hardly worth the studios' efforts to send production people to the Worldcon. A large Worldcon is one with 7000 attendees. San Diego claims to get 150,000 people, at least by their accounting. The similar film presentations would have to have huge audiences. A presentation to an audience that big must be projected on a screen and then it becomes a lot like watching television--live television, but television nonetheless. It is the scale of a San Diego convention that is the most off- putting thing about it. So I would not like the presentations there, but I am not seeing them at all at Worldcon any more. Instead what Worldcons are getting is a reel of trailers, most of which I will soon be seeing in movie theaters. Seeing them early is of some interest, but not a lot.
But what I miss from the Worldcons of the past is the introduction to already existing films I have not been able to see or perhaps have not even heard of. I had seen a lot of the classics shown on TV. But no TV stations had or would show MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre. It was a little too weird for general audiences I would guess. A convention was where I finally caught up with it in 1977. I don't think I got another chance to see it until the 1990s. Other films like MALEVIL and THE APPLE WAR I have seen nowhere but at a Worldcon. Now if I want to see rare films I do so mostly through home video. The video revolution has allowed me to see some obscure films, but the obscure variety that used to be shown at Worldcons are not on video and are still out of reach. The film programs at Worldcons, if they have them, offer fewer obscure films. And frequently those are on video.
Too many people have been allowed to exploit the convention for political purposes. Many of the panels have been politicized by people with an axe to grind. There is gay fandom, fat fandom, feminist fandom, all wanting to make political points. The whole world is politicized. I go to Worldcons to get away from that. There are fewer panels about the sense of wonder and more of people trying to get some political gain.
Another effect of the changing times is that the star power of the professionals is wearing off. At one time at conventions I was seeing people like Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, Hal Clement, R. A. Lafferty, and L. Sprague DeCamp. Of the old guard there are still a few who are alive and who go to Worldcons. The foremost of these is the mellifluous-voiced Robert Silverberg and seeing him is always a pleasure. But these days the stars seem to be writers I have never read. Perhaps they are good writers, but they are of a modern group of writers who are (for me) not as much fun to read. However good a writer like Charles Stross is, it is hard for me to get excited about seeing him at a convention.
In fact, most of the authors who are currently writing do not seem to have such a strong following proportionally among the younger fans. Their prose is heavier and lacking in "sense of wonder." It appeals more to serious older readers. But fewer young people are going to Worldcons. I think there is also a factor of a generation brought up on video and computer gaming that is more interested in the visual media. For people of my age science fiction was the escape from what we had to read in school. These days science fiction was what kids were forced to read in school when they would have preferred to be playing computer games. Written science fiction just is not the kick for them that it was for us. They want media and computer games.
As the Worldcons have less focus on the media, conventions like San Diego with a membership in the hundreds of thousands and Dragoncon in the tens of thousands can afford to offer a lot of film programming, a lot of television programming, and a lot of gaming programming. It may also have the literature programming of a Worldcon, but if so it is lost in the competing types of programming. Younger fans less enamored of reading may not miss it. It seems these mega-convention events are siphoning off younger Worldcon attendees already in short supply. (Rising membership fees I assume uniformly make all conventions costly.) The result is that Worldcons seem to have an average attendee age that gets older with time.
Not helping the demographic problem is the occasional foreign Worldcon. Foreign Worldcons are just not going to attract young people from the United States. I really like going to see another country for the first time and then at the end of my trip going to a Worldcon, but the truth is that foreign Worldcons are harder on the younger United States fans than it is on the older ones. Foreign Worldcons require and investment of time and money. As security concerns and waiting times for passports increase, more domestic fans will be discouraged.
As I grew older I found I could expend both more time and money on travel. I also had more of a taste in the exotic than many younger people have today. I did not have the time or the money to go to Heidelberg, Toronto, or Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s. I still could not go to Melbourne as late as 1985. I would have liked to go but did not have the funds or the vacation time. Since 1985 I have been able to afford the vacation time and cost for every international Worldcon--certainly more than younger working fans could. I would see the country and then go to the convention. This year's Japan is the one exception because I have already seen Japan and if I go again I will not want to spend several days in a science fiction convention. I do not think whatever is happening at the Worldcon can compete with just going out and seeing the Japanese culture. In any case I think that foreign conventions are a factor in the rising average age of Worldcon attendees.
As I say, I am not advocating any change to the policy associated with Worldcons. I do not want Worldcons tailored to me. I am not suggesting, for example, that we need to or should abolish foreign Worldcons. I am just exploring why I am less satisfied with Worldcons as time goes by. [-mrl]
The Answer (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week Evelyn cited a quote from John Steinbeck in which he mentions the pi-th root of -1. In my comment I asked people to try to figure out what are all the numbers that are pi-th roots of -1. Here is the answer.
exp(iA) = cos(A) + i*sin(A) where A is an angle measure in radians.
If we let A equal any odd integer times pi, the right hand side becomes -1. If o is an odd integer this says
exp(i*o*pi) = cos(o*pi) + i*sin(o*pi) = -1
So exp(i*o) = (-1)^(1/pi).
So the pi-th roots of -1 are precisely those numbers you get when you take exp(i) and put it to a power that is any odd integer.
The only person who sent in the correct answer was David Shallcross. [-mrl]
3:10 TO YUMA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A very short Elmore Leonard story, much broadened to make a classic western with Glenn Ford, is expanded again to make a bigger and more powerful version. A needy farmer agrees to put a notorious bandit on a train to prison. But he is going to have to really earn his pay. Christian Bale plays the farmer and Russell Crowe the rather complex stage bandit. This film combines action and character, adding in realism that the previous version did not have. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
In March 1953 Elmore Leonard published in "Dime Western Magazine" a short western story, "Three-Ten to Yuma". Four years later it was the inspiration for Delmer Davies's very loose adaptation, which expanded the story and found considerably more dramatic potential. 3:10 TO YUMA has become a minor classic of the Western film, remembered better than most, but not with the reverence that a HIGH NOON receives. Now half a century later James Mangold has taken the film version and transformed it again into a much bigger, brasher, and more violent Western, but now the characters and the action compete with each other to dominate the film.
Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a sod-busting farmer whose farm is just about ready to give out. If he cannot get together money soon he will lose his farm to the bank. He is fighting pressure to remove him. Meanwhile notorious stage robber and killer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) meets Evans just long enough to steal some horses from Evans. When the law captures Wade, somebody is needed to take Wade across country to get to the nearest train depot and put him on the train for Yuma prison. Evans agrees to take the job in return for a very badly needed $200. The problem is that Wade's gang is deadly and is just as set on making sure that Wade is not on that train. Wade seems to take a friendly interest in Evans's family, but what does the killer really have in mind?
That is the plot, but it could be the plot of a much more trivial horse opera. What sets this story apart is the enigmatic character of Wade. He is cold-blooded on one hand, but he also seems to be in some ways amiable and idealistic. People who are determined to hate him soon find their resolve against him weakening. He seems a pleasant man. Is he sincere or is this the hypnotic guile of a snake. He seems to have flashes of real decency and flashes of ugly violence. The film centers on this ambiguity. Evans will have to decide if he can trust his prisoner or not. His life may hang on the decision.
In the 1957 version Van Heflin played Dan Evans and Glenn Ford played the enigmatic Ben Wade. Both are good actors, but by comparison to this version both seem a little too clean and smooth. Neither really seemed grizzled by being on the frontier. This film has a much greater feel of realism. It also has more action and violence, though it does not get in the way of the character questions. It is hard to take a film that is well-remembered and improve on it in a remake. But Mangold's realistic style and fleshing out of the plot arguably make this a fuller telling of a story that develops from version to version. Both versions are suspenseful, but this one is enthralling all the way through. On the other hand the script borrows a lot from other classic Westerns, notably HIGH NOON.
Christian Bale is playing a sort of lackluster character, at least at the beginning. Even his son does not respect him. Later without changing style he becomes more magnetic. Russell Crowe has to be an enigma throughout though later in the film it is easier to judge what he is thinking.
There are some minor problems with the film. The film takes place in Arizona but was shot in New Mexico. That should be a good match, but the film does not feel like we are seeing Arizona. Much of the early part of the film takes place in the town of Bisbee, Arizona. The town looks flat. The real Bisbee is located in a canyon. Dan Evans had his leg shot off in the Civil War. He walks with a limp but still seems to be a very good runner. That seems inconsistent.
It is nice to see that there are still good Westerns being made every year or so. It is a genre that it would be a pity to lose. The genre gets a (medical) shot in the arm with 3:10 TO YUMA, which I rate +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0381849/fullcredits
GOLDA'S BALCONY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Valerie Harper plays Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel in a one-actor play by William Gibson. Golda Meir in retirement reminisces about her life, the history of Israel, and the most important decision she ever had to make. The film is powerful and well-acted even if there are stylistic glitches in the presentation. Jeremy Kagan directs. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
[Note: This is not the science fiction author William Gibson.]
Films that have been willing to look at the Middle East conflicts from Israel's perspective have been increasingly rare over the years. But if anyone in Israeli history can be said to be remembered fondly by the world it is the Russian-born, American- raised, Golda Meir. She was the Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974, back when female world leaders were an extreme rarity. With her outwardly grandmotherly appearance she led Israel through some of its greatest crises. William Gibson, who wrote the plays "Two for the Seesaw" and "The Miracle Worker", each a classic of the American stage, also wrote "Golda's Balcony", a one-actor play that looks into the heart of the likable, angry, and occasionally fierce woman who was Golda Meir. The film is directed by Jeremy Kagan who previously directed HEROES, THE BIG FIX, and THE CHOSEN.
The setting of the film is simply what the title says. Golda Meir is in retirement, secretly near to death, remembering her life, the short history of the state of Israel, and the most terrifying days of her life during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Her mind flits from one to the other telling all three stories.
Meir is deeply troubled at the course her life has taken and specifically with the irony the desire to improve the world had given her power, but the responsibility of that power is the defense of her country and that self-defense ultimately leads to killing. She likens it to a pot of soup--a positive thing, but at the bottom of the pot there is blood. Note that in the rules of Kosher the presence of even the tiniest drop of blood makes the whole pot of soup inedible. Just a little evil destroys all the good. Meir sees her dilemma as being what inevitably happens when idealism becomes power. It destroyed her personal life and forced her to order killing.
In the stage play Meir tells her stories dramatically recounting and taking all the parts. For example, in an exchange with David Ben-Gurion, Meir will say what she said and then gives an impression of Ben-Gurion responding. The film takes this a step further by compositing images. So we can see two or three (or more) Valerie Harpers on screen at the same time. One may be Valerie Harper doing Golda Meir; one may be Valerie Harper doing Golda Meir doing David Ben-Gurion. She has a different stature and voice, but occasionally it becomes momentarily difficult to tell who is speaking. To add to the visual confusion the background is generally newsreel footage of the incidents she is discussing. Sometimes the background is visually altered into stepped gray-scales. Kagan probably realized that something needed to be done to make the background interesting, but his choices were less than ideal.
Still, Harper's versatility shines through in her playing dozens of characters from a little boy in Russia, to her husband, to world leaders, and to a Holocaust survivor who herself had to make a terrible choice. It is an amazing feat for her to wear the Golda Meir makeup and still make herself look and sound like Henry Kissinger. This is a performance full of such little wonders.
GOLDA'S BALCONY is a powerful and moving portrait of the life and crises of Golda Meir. It is a film that deserves to be experienced and remembered. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0860418/
A side note here: Jeremy Kagan, who directed GOLDA'S BALCONY, is also the director of THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN. This is my personal choice for one of the finest and most under-appreciated family films ever made. The story is of a young teenage girl who is forced to travel from Chicago to Washington State on her own with very little money during the height of the Great Depression. THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN and GOLDA'S BALCONY are two films that deserve to be seen and remembered. [-mrl]
Science Fiction Films' Quality and Cost (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek):
In response to John Purcell's comments on science fiction films in the 08/31/07 issue of the MT VOID, Andre Kuzniarek writes, "I consider PRIMER the best pure SF film ever made, and I believe it must also be just about the lowest budget SF film as well. I wouldn't compare something like IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, but even if, Roger Corman's movies still probably cost more than what was spent on making PRIMER..." [-ak]
Anthropocentrism (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek):
In response to Mark's comments on anthropocentrism in the 08/31/07 issue of the MT VOID, Andre Kuzniarek writes:
I think I mentioned this to you before, but a recent book comes back to the idea of defending the anthropocentric view (sort of), to try and instill a certain sense of "destiny" or pseudo sacredness to the sciences that might substitute for the awe factor people seem to get from their religions:
THE VIEW FROM THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE: DISCOVERING OUR EXTRAORDINARY PLACE IN THE COSMOS by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams (ISBN: 1-594-48914-9)
One of the points made reiterates yours about the unlikelihood of there being anything sentient in universe that would be observing it, but other points explain how the scale moving outward in space reflects the range of scale moving inward to the quantum level, such that our scale is darn near close to the middle of things. And the positioning of earth and the solar system in the galaxy as well as the galaxy itself are all somewhat in the middle of the possible ranges that can support such structures, and our appearance on Earth is about in the middle of its lifetime, etc... [-ak]
I guess it raises the question, "If we were intelligent life but on the scale of 10^(-10) in size, would we be less observant outward and understand more the subatomic and the quantum? Would we always be positioned logarithmically halfway between the largest things we can observe and the smallest? Would we not still be in the middle of things?" [-mrl]
James Fenimore Cooper and Re-reading Authors (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):
In response to Mark's comments in the 08/17/07 issue of the MT VOID on James Fenimore Cooper's writing (regarding disguising oneself as a bear), Mike Glyer writes:
I just remembered that one of the early Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brien involves Aubrey's escape into Spain while disguised as a dancing bear.
Is there a tradition of such stories the two are drawing on, or did they just use the same idea? [-mg]
[Mark responds, "I can't say I know of any tradition. I guess I just think it is a weak plot point. I can't imagine it ever working in the real world. Certainly not if the escapee has to move around and be seen by someone not too far away. Don't try this at home kiddees." -mrl]
I didn't find it objectionable when O'Brien used it, but good writing always helps. If Mark Twain was alive he wouldn't have picked on "Patrick O'Brien's Literary Offenses." [-mg]
[Mark replies, "I don't know whether I am sure that is true, but we will never know." -mrl]
One last thought--there's really no need for you to deconstruct Bradbury as a great writer. Certainly a beloved and popular sf writer, and the first to be accepted by American school teachers as worthy of having his stories used in their classrooms, which was remarkable. Yet even at that time, knowledgeable sf readers pointed to other writers' work as the best in the field.
Frankly, I am nearly always disappointed when I reread stories I loved as a teenager and haven't looked at since. Last week I read the unedited version of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. The only part that made me glad was the introduction, which explained how Virginia Heinlein found a way to get paid for this book a second time! [-mg]
[Mark says, "I would say for me the disappointment occurs only occasionally. Perhaps I am still a teenager at heart. I have to say it never did much for me. It is too much about Jubal Harshaw and not enough about Valentine Michael Smith. But that is just my take. -mrl]
[Evelyn adds, "I see now that both Bradbury [THE ILLUSTRATED MAN] and Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND are on the summer reading lists for high schools near us. How times have changed!" -ecl]
Additional Senses (letter of comment by Gerald S. Williams):
In response to Mark's comments on additional senses in the 09/07/07 issue of the MT VOID, Jerry Williams wrote, "The fab 5 senses get all of the press, but I think there are others that are even more commonly shared (such as kinesthetics and balance)." [-gsw]
Mark replies, "I think these get lumped into "feeling" which covers a multitude of lesser senses." [-mrl]
Hugo Awards, Dogs, Cats, and John Steinbeck (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to the 09/07/07 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes, "Well, Mark, once again the Hugo Awards have been presented, and it didn't take long for the grumphing and grousing to start. I admit to being a part of it, but only because there were a couple folks in the fan categories whom I felt should not been included due to eligibility requirements. We can leave this debate out of MT VOID, naturally, but it is always interesting to note how personally some folks take these voting results. No matter what, congratulations to all the winners! Now the question is, do I want to read any of the fiction nominees and/or winners? So far I haven't read a single one of these for this year or any from the last fifteen years. Oh, well." [-jp]
Mark replies, "I have to say I don't generally try to read the Hugo nominees. I prefer classic SF, and I have to admit even that is a smaller proportion of my reading these days. When sense of wonder fell out of science fiction it simply moved to science non-fiction books. Or you can even find it in short articles on the Internet, like the one about Oscar." [-mrl]
John continues, "Having a large number of pets running around our house definitely gives us an opinion about Oscar, the death- smelling cat. We are convinced that cats--dogs, too--can definitely sense whether a human is a 'good' or 'bad' person; the desire to be petted and treated nicely is strong in both animals, but cats assuredly have more attitude than dogs. If you have any doubt about this, I refer you to an e-mail that's floated around the ether for the past five years or so, 'Excerpts from a Dog's and Cat's Diaries'." [-jp]
Mark notes, "Readers can find this at http://www.ukcardmakers.co.uk/forum/showthread.php?t=228. It is harder to bribe a cat. I think that it has recently been discovered that cats do not taste sweet. That is one sense they are missing. Food must taste very differently to them. (Actually, I guess if you want to make a cat taste sweet, you can add honey to the BBQ sauce. Ouch, I didn't really make that joke.)" [-mrl]
John goes on, "As for our cats and dogs, the cats are very good at 'knowing' their human cohabitants, avoiding us when they sense tension in the air, wanting to be loved or played with, or simply getting in our faces when the food dish is empty, a la Garfield. So Valerie and I weren't really surprised to read about Oscar. You mention that dogs have a better sense of smell is verifiably true, but dogs don't acknowledge the smell of imminent death because 'maybe dogs have more tact or may easily go into denial.' If this was our house and you were talking about our dogs, we would have to add the phrase, 'Or maybe they're just too stupid.' Timmy, Fossey, and Pulcinella start barking uncontrollably when a squirrel farts two counties over, but a complete stranger can walk into our house right past the three of them sleeping away, piled upon the couch, with not even a nose whisker twitch of acknowledgment. What a bunch! Thank Ghu we have Waldo, our outdoor cat, guarding the house against intruders. He's one tough kitty. This sign should be posted on the front door: 'Don't piss off the cat.' It is not nice to cross Waldo. Ooh... A Steinbeck book review! I have always liked Steinbeck's novels, and I have heard of this journal before but never read it. This sounds quite worthwhile to track down. Half-Price Bookstore, here I come! I really love that store. For Christmas all I want is a $50 gift card from there and turn me loose in there for an afternoon. That is my idea of the ultimate Christmas or birthday gift. Thanks for the issue, and keep them coming." [-jp]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
While I agree with the basic premise of RELIGIOUS LITERACY: WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW--AND DOESN'T by Stephen Prothero (ISBN-13 978-0-06-084670-1, ISBN-10 0-06-084670-4), I have several complaints about his claims.
First, while I agree Americans are not as religiously literate as they should be, I question the statistics he quotes. I find it hard to believe, for example, that ten percent of Americans think that Joan of Arc is Noah's wife; I think it more likely that ten percent of the responders thought they would have a joke at the surveyor's expense. And if less than half of Americans can name even one of the four gospels, how does that sync up with the claim that 75% to 85% of Americans claim to be Christian?
I also think that Prothero's coverage is spotty. He talks about some of the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but does not mention the calendar differences (which result in Easter and Christmas falling on different days for the two groups). Nor does he say that the Islamic calendar is a strictly lunar calendar, so that the holidays cycle through all the seasons. He does not even mention Wicca or Jews for Jesus.
Prothero spends a lot of time on different versions of the Ten Commandments, but none on the differences in the Lord's Prayer, which is at least as important when it comes to the notion of a non-sectarian prayer.
He defines polytheism as "Belief in multiple gods. Hinduism is typically described as polytheistic, though many Hindus insist that behind the myriad manifestations of divinity is one Absolute Reality.". Why doesn't he add, "Sort of like the Trinity"? :-) (Admittedly, in his definition of the Trinity, he does say that "some outsiders see at least a hint of polytheism in this belief.")
Of fundamentalism, he says, "Some scholars have tried to apply this term to other modes of religiously inspired antimodernism... But fundamentalism proper is a Protestant impulse that bears only superficial similarities to such movements." Well, maybe in his opinion, but his definition does not require that.
Second, while I agree that Americans should be better educated in world religions, I think Prothero underestimates the difficulty of finding someone to teach an unbiased course in world religions at the high school level. His examples of where this has been successful are all from multi-ethnic urban areas; he does not explain where in a small town where every belongs to the same church, or possibly two or three different Christian churches, one will find someone who can teach his proposed course effectively.
And lastly, when asked where the time for this course on world religions will come from, Prothero quotes Warren Nord as saying, "Why require the study of trigonometry or calculus, which the great majority of students will never use or need, and ignore religion, a matter of profound and universal significance?" Well, overlooking the question of why mathematics is always what people propose cutting back, this will only provide time for students in a college-preparatory program. I suspect that a lot of students are already not taking trigonometry or calculus, so unless Prothero thinks religion is of importance only to the college-bound, he needs to come up with something else.
One of Prothero's targets is Karen Armstrong, and in particular, her book THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, of which he says, "To the Buddha, Confucius, and other founders of these faiths, Armstrong writes, 'what matters was not what you believed but how you behaved. ... 'For them, religion *was* the Golden Rule.' What we have here is yet another effort to turn religion into a water boy for morality." I suppose he would have said the same of Hillel, who was asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one leg and said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it." And Prothero even cites this story in his dictionary of religious literacy.
And of course, many religions emphasize orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, for example, the ancient Roman religion, or (arguably) Orthodox Judaism.
(Coincidentally, at the same time I had checked out RELIGIOUS LITERACY, I had also checked out THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION. I did not get very far in it though--either Armstrong's writing has gotten more dense since her book THE HISTORY OF GOD, or I have. What I did read seemed to indicate that she believes that the very early Aryans lived in a very idyllic society, at one with nature and all that. I am not sure I believe that.
Here's the religious literacy test Prothero gives his religion classes at the beginning of the term. Add up your points and double the result to get a 100-point-based score. The answer will appear next week.
Oh, and happy New Year! [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It's just life... wake up and smell the thorns. -- "Meet Joe Black"Go to my home page