My Amazon customer review of Paul Zahl’s new (and extraordinary) book on world religions:
PZ offers some thoughts on Edward Snowden from a religious perspective:
‘Edward Snowden’ by Howard Terpning
Viewing the 1968 movie The Shoes of the Fisherman, which was based on a 1963 novel by Morris West, made me think of Edward Snowden. To my mind, Howard Terpning’s theatrical poster for that movie (above) of a good man dressed in formal whites, brings Snowden’s immortal sacrifice bunt into the world of popular art.
Why would I say this?
Well, the hero of The Shoes of the Fisherman, a Russian-born pope and former political prisoner named Kyril Lakota, is a real Christian! That sounds a little strange to me as I write it, but what the Pope in West’s novel and the movie does is so unexpected and counter-institutional that it could break the moral impasse of the world. (You’ve got to see this movie.)
The Pope suddenly starts to stand in the real shoes of the fisherman — the poor, broken and impetuous first head of the Church. In doing so, Kyril kicks the legs out from under the set table of international politics and self interest that permeates the world. This is what I believe Edward Snowden has done — the wonderful illegal sin he has committed. He has knocked the legs out from under a massive set table.
We talk sometimes about “speaking truth to power”. Religious people will speak of the “principalities and powers of this world”. But rarely does a religious person actually go there. What usually happens is that religion “strains out gnats and swallows camels” (Matthew 23:24). Which is to say, religion, in many forms, gets stuck on tertiary things — personal angers and giant nothings.
In Snowden I see a man who has touched a nerve. A really BIG nerve. I say this because a country like ours would not be straining so hard to get him, using client states to force down a president’s plane and threatening every airport and state — every Middlesex village and farm — before he has even taken a single footstep to freedom, if he had not touched a really big nerve.
What is this nerve? It is Power and Control, the truth about Power and Control.
Edward Snowden has embodied George Orwell’s maxim, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
As a religious man, therefore — Snowden himself has said he is an agnostic –I can’t help putting together this operation of personal sacrifice, truth-telling, and hitting the world’s open secret of Power and Control. When I think of Edward Snowden, I can’t help thinking, of Kyril Lakota, and Howard Terpning’s picture.
Almighty & everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve, pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid and giving unto us that which our prayer dare not presume to ask . . .
You dash about, struggle — all because you want to swim in your own current. But alongside of you, unceasing and near to everyone, there flows the divine and infinite current of love, in one and the same course. When you are thoroughly exhausted in your attempts to do something for yourself, to save yourself, to secure yourself, then drop all your own course, throw yourself into that current; and it will carry you, and you will feel that there are no barriers, that you are at peace forever and free and blessed.
– Leo Tolstoy
The new Pope recently said, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”
The next day a Vatican spokesman felt moved to add that atheists who consciously reject the salvation offered through the Church will still be damned. So atheists will have to enjoy their happy redemption though Christ in Hell.
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found.
For $30 you can download 18 hours of audio recordings of Paul Zahl talking about his wonderful book Grace In Practice. I just downloaded my copy and can’t wait to start listening.
You can buy the download here — Notes From the Underground (River): A Course in Grace In Practice.
Today, prosecutor Juan Martinez finished up his cross-examination of Jodi Arias in her first-degree murder trial. He continued badgering her, asking ambiguous or compound questions that allowed him to jump on her, like a rabid ferret, whichever way she answered.
I’m not sure what his strategy was — the technique was crude and blatantly unfair, but perhaps he was hoping to provoke her into a dramatic display of anger or arrogance. Instead, when he showed her, yet again, photographs of the corpse of Travis Alexander, the man she’s accused of killing, with premeditation, she fell apart weeping.
Then he said, “Were you crying when you were shooting him? Were you crying when you were stabbing him? How about when you cut his throat, were you crying then?”
It was a powerful moment, but will it piss off female members of the jury, arousing sympathy for Arias? There’s no way she will be acquitted, but could female jurors hang the jury — or, more likely, refuse to vote for the death penalty?
We can’t see the jurors in the live feed of the trial — Martinez and his team can. He seems like a very smart guy, and maybe he knew what he was doing.
We shall see.
It may just be the presumption of a fiction writer, but I feel I have a pretty good idea of how and why Jodi Arias happened to kill her sometime lover Travis Alexander on 4 June 2008, for which killing she is now on trial for her life.
My theory differs from the prosecution’s and from Arias’s explanation of the event.
If Arias were just a textbook psychopath, or a pathological narcissist, she wouldn’t be very interesting. She certainly has psychopathic and narcissistic qualities, but she seems more convoluted than that. She has an unrealistic sense of her own cleverness — at one point she planned to conduct her own defense at trial — but this seems to mask an insecurity about herself which is very close to the surface of her consciousness, which is not the case with a classic psychopath.
Her psyche, insofar as it can be read from her writings and from photographic and audio evidence dating from before the killing, seems fragile, unstable. She adopts one of three poses — a shy, serious one for public consumption, a bubbly, Barbie-like one for her courting behavior and an aggressive sexual one for private display to men.
All three personae got Alexander’s attention and led to a relationship. Publicly she followed him into the Mormon church and into one of his dodgy business ventures. She played a ditzy, adoring blonde in their courting rituals. Privately, she indulged his sometimes kinky sexual fantasies enthusiastically, despite the fact that they were both breaking the Mormon “vow of chastity”.
I don’t feel that she had much psychic investment in any of these personae — they were adopted to get what she wanted, which was basically a marriage proposal from Alexander. Alexander was, however, an intensely self-involved boy-man. He accepted Arias’s subservience as his due, enjoyed it but did not take it seriously — although he occasionally pretended to.
Arias developed a tremendous sense of shame and rage over this, and a kind of bewilderment at the fact that all her ingenious stratagems were useless. Beyond shame and rage I think there was something more profound — a sense of existential nullity. Alexander made her feel, ultimately, like nothing.
She broke up with him, watched him start to become involved with another woman (Mimi Hall, above) who seems to have had more self-possession, less need to defer to his ego and sexual demands, and Arias moved away from the town where she and Alexander were living.
She tried to put it all behind her — but she couldn’t. She heard that Alexander was taking his new flame to Cancun, and she snapped. Ironically, the new flame she envied had no serious interest in Alexander — the Cancun trip was strictly chaperoned and would not have involved physical intimacy. But to Arias the new flame was hot, kept her personal dignity intact, and was still about to end up with the prize that belonged by right to Arias — Travis Alexander — a prize she had given up so much of her self to attain.
Arias stole a gun from her grandparents home where she was living in California (this is a fact in dispute, but I think it’s probably correct) and drove to Alexander’s home in Arizona. I believe she was going to give him one last chance — try to win him back or kill him, so no one else could claim her prize.
In Arizona, Arias submitted to Alexander’s sexual demands, did her best to reclaim him, and failed. Alexander had been working out to look his best in Cancun and, in his relentless narcissism, wanted Arias to photograph his newly sculpted body. She suggested that the photographs be taken in his shower.
She snapped a series of photographs of him, probably becoming more and more furious, grabbed a gun or a knife (the order of the attacks is also in dispute) and inflicted several fatal wounds to him, in a blind fury. At this point, she didn’t just want him dead, she wanted him obliterated, she wanted his new body ruined — she wanted to turn him into meat.
Partly this was payback for the unflattering nude photographs he had taken of her earlier in the afternoon, pictures that are, with one exception, dehumanizing and shaming. She had shaved her crotch for him and braided her hair, because he liked to fantasize about sex with little girls. Earlier she had gotten a boob job to be more voluptuous. He still saw her as meat. Now he was meat.
In some twisted way she had reclaimed her existential substance — which he had stolen from her. If she now has to pay for this act with her life, I suspect she will still consider it a good enough bargain. She was already dead when she committed the act — dead without dignity. Now she can meet what will probably seem to her a nobler kind of end.
Psychologically, Arias is a very sick woman. Mythologically, however, she has a kind of emblematic stature. She is an American Medea.
In some ways the photographs taken on the day of Alexander’s death sum everything up. These two people were twenty-somethings who photographed themselves and each other obsessively. Arias had dreams of becoming a professional photographer. She had submitted to the nude photographs reluctantly — one final instance of deferring to Alexander’s sexual fantasies.
He had wanted the results of his recent work-outs documented in photographs. He got Arias to photograph the booty that she assumed would become the property of Mimi Hall. After she killed him, Arias accidentally — apparently by stepping on the upside down camera which had fallen to the floor — snapped pictures of herself dragging Alexander’s corpse across the bathroom tiles.
She deleted all these photographs before she left Alexander’s home but they were still there, in unallocated sectors on the camera’s memory stick, not yet overwritten, and the police were able to recover them. They were time-stamped and date-stamped. They cracked the case.
There was DNA evidence of Arias’s presence at the scene, but she had spent a lot of time at Alexander’s home and this evidence might have been successfully disputed by the defense. There was no disputing the photographs. That memory stick, like a recording angel, told most of the story and placed Arias at the scene precisely when the killing took place.
This is the last photograph Arias took of Alexander while he was alive, after which she stabbed and shot him in various locations around the bathroom and its adjoining hallway, presumably as he staggered around trying to get away from her:
This is the photograph she took inadvertently when she was dragging his corpse back to the shower:
Less than two minutes had elapsed between the two images. What happened in those two minutes is ultimately unrecoverable, all but unthinkable, and should be left undisturbed on God’s memory stick..
The Jodi Arias trial can be read as the great, sad, banal epic of our time. It involves a lot of sensational material — the sex lives of Mormon youth, the unbelievably savage killing of a young man by his sometime lover, an attractive and intelligent young woman — but what’s riveting is the context brought forth in the trial evidence and testimony. This context delivers a portrait of people making a massive digital record of their lives, lives that seem less and less substantial, more and more bewildered and aimless, the more we learn about them.
It’s profound — public theater on a par with the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings and the O. J. Simpson trail but involving ordinary middle-class people leading ordinary middle-class lives, which are revealed as utterly devastating in their existential emptiness and hopelessness.
It’s all in the details, though, in the vast accumulation of details — snippets of the sensational revelations give no idea of what this trial has to tell us. Not even the greatest of novelists, with the possible exception of Tolstoy, could convey it with the same authority, insight and impact.
There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you will never get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.
– Robert Jordan, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Click on the image to enlarge.
If you’ve reached the age of sixty, you’ve lived long enough. You’ve lived twenty years longer than John Lennon, two years longer than George Harrison. If you’re sixty, you need to start thinking about how you’re going to take your leave of this world — something George Harrison started thinking about long before he died at fifty-eight.
At sixty, you’ve tasted joys in this world beyond imagining — making love, doing good work of one sort or another, for at least a few moments, seeing awesome wonders, like the Grand Canyon or The Empire State Building or Willie Mays playing center field. It’s more than you ever deserved — so start thinking about checking out with some grace and gratitude.
Click on the image to enlarge.