Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hmmm...That Does Sound a Bit Like a Buckley Book

Review of Nathan Harden’s “Sex and God at Yale”

In the conclusion of Nathan Harden’s “Sex and God at Yale”, he warns that the things that happen at Yale will echo in schools throughout the country. I’m afraid the warning comes a bit late. Yale had its first “Sex Week” in 2002. I went to San Diego State University in the early 1980’s. At that time, pornographic films such as “Deep Throat” were screened on campus. We had a Playboy centerfold autographing magazines in the campus bookstore. (SDSU was ranked at that time by Playboy in their list of top ten party schools.)

SDSU may not have the academic legacy of Yale (when I was there, if you were in class at high tide, you were a scholar.) We may not have had any United States Presidents as alumni as Yale does (though we do have as alums the actors who played Apollo Creed, Myra Breckinridge and Mrs. C on “Happy Days”.) But we were arguably a head of the Ivy League in the crass exploitation of sexuality.

Still, Harden’s descriptions of Yale’s Sex Week are disturbing. Because Yale has professed in century’s past a higher standard, and continues to be the training ground for many of the nation’s leaders. The concerns Harden raises in the book about moral relativity, academic standards and the shabby treatment of women at this august institution have serious implications.
But the book probably must first be appreciated as a memoir. Harden’s dream of going to Yale began when he was 11 years old. His homeschool background made his acceptance unlikely and he was turned down two times before he was finally accepted. His love for the history of the school and its unique academic advantages shine through. His admiration for the tradition of “For God, For Country, and For Yale” is what makes his disgust for the school’s denigration more all the more heartbreaking.
Two of Harden’s powerful arguments against the culture that lead to ‘Sex Week’ are appeals against commercialism and sexism on campus.

Many of the events during Sex Week at sponsored by pornographers and other parts of the sex industry. Pornographers that portray the worst kinds of verbal and physical violence toward women play a large part in the events of the 11 day week. Harden argues that the university would never allow say, McDonald’s, to be the sponsors of Nutrition Week at Yale, but what takes place is much worse.

Harden also argues that though the school administration and culture would claim to value women’s rights, the values promulgated during Sex Week are quite the opposite. Harden argues that the fear of being considered judgmental in the area of sexuality has serious consequences. He writes “you can’t believe in moral relativism and the equality of women. You have to choose one or the other.”

Harden notes that there are some positive events at Sex Week, such as a seminar on the destructive nature of sex trafficking. But such events are much more poorly attended than lectures by porn stars and pick-up artists.
Harden also argues that the elitism on campus extends to the belief that such “smart people should be immune to moral accountability.”

Yale was originally founded to train Christian preachers and missionaries (‘For God’.) It went on train many of the world’s academic, commercial and governmental leaders (‘For Country’.) But now the school’s primary concern seems t be self-preservation. It would be a shame if the vast financial, historical and academic resources were wasted on teaching students to, say, touch themselves (a skill that Harden notes most people, if ultra-sound pictures are to be believed, learn in the womb.)

Yale is free to follow the course it chooses. But it might be wise to follow the wisdom of the Scripture it once cherished but now spurns, the apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1023, "’I have the right to do anything’, you say--but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything’--but not everything is constructive.” Surely, the resources of Yale could be spent things much more beneficial and constructive than Sex Week.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

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Monday, April 15, 2013


You might notice as the film No begins that the colors are faded, the images aren’t very crisp and the whole thing kind of looks like a Youtube clip of an MTV video they recorded back in the eighties. And then you’ll begin to observe that this is a good thing. The tattered cinematography allows the director, Pablo Larrain, to weave news footage, telenovela clips, commercials and music videos from a quarter of a century ago seamlessly into his political drama of the 1988 referendum on the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, drawing the viewer back to that time and place.

This Chilean made, Spanish language film tells a fascinating story that makes reading the subtitles well worth the effort. In 1988. Pinochet was feeling the pressure from other nations (particularly the United States), to put himself in the hands of the electorate after years of military dictatorship. The vote will be a simple one. “Yes” means Pinochet will be in power another eight years and “No” means he must leave office.

The “No” campaign has little hope of success. They are given 15 minutes of television air time each day for twenty days. The “Yes” campaign also has 15 minutes a day (along with the other 23 and a half hours a day, along with glowing press and radio coverage guaranteed by the dictatorship).

The “No” campaign is composed of all political parties opposed to the President: Communists, Social Democrats, Libertarians, etc. Most have little hope of actually winning the election. But they hope to use the air time to expose the wrong doings of the government. They envision a daily barrage of the names and faces of the people wrongly imprisoned, killed or “disappeared” by the government.

But along comes a director of television commercials who wants to run a very different campaign. Rene (a fictionalized version of a real ad man played by Gael Garcia Bernal) wants to sell democracy using the same jingles, happy images and garish colors he uses to sell soda and microwave ovens. Many are appalled that these important issues would be trivialized in such a way, but Rene has one advantage that others in the campaign lack: he believes he can win.

The film follows Rene’s work to use all that he has learned in advertising (humor, imagery, marketing, etc) to bring down a dictator. Along the way, he is threatened with the loss of his job, his home and the safety of his family. But he persists.

Now if you want to avoid spoilers, please don’t look in any South American history books before you see the film. The central conflict in the film reminded me of one that many organizations face, that even the Church faces: should we ever compromise the things we hold dear to make our beliefs and values more palatable to the world? Especially, can we ever use humor to discuss such important issues as sin and salvation?

Watching the film, I thought about G. K. Chesterton’s response to critics who reprimanded him for making jokes about serious topics: "The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular" and "[The critic] thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else."

Jesus certainly changed His presentations between the disciples and the masses; from deep teaching to entertaining stories (Matthew 13: 10 – 17.)

This world desperately needs to overthrow the Dictatorship of the Prince of Darkness (Ephesians 12:6), and the church should use art, wit, laughter, every tool at our disposal to see that he loses the vote.

(No is rated R for language and violence.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Review of “Between Man and Beast” by Monte Reel (2013 - Doubleday)

A number of years ago, I was talking with Gary Richmond (zookeeper, pastor, author, great guy) about where one would go if one could go any place, anywhere in history. Gary said he would want to be one of the first European explorers to search Africa for the legendary gorilla.

Monte Reel takes us on that adventure with a most unlikely explorer, Paul Du Chaillu. Du Chaillu’s story is a true Horatio Alger tale of a man who started with nothing, but found in Africa intellectual treasure that would him bring fame and wealth, leading a long life that ended in poverty (rather like Alger himself.)

Du Chaillu’s clouded parentage him afforded him little advantage in his young life, except a familiarity with Africa. It was in the 19th century truly seen as the Dark Continent, feared for its savage people and creatures, impenetrable geography and plentiful diseases. But Du Chaillu explored the land, being one of the first white men to encounter cannibals and pygmies (whom he called ‘ongobongos’) and most famously gorillas.

The gorilla became a focal point of two of most debated topics of the time, evolution and race (which continue on as subjects of contention.) There were some early believers in evolution that argued the black man was closer to the gorilla than the white man. As the Civil War approached in the United States, blacks were often compared to gorillas (as was Abraham Lincoln.)

There are heart rending accounts of the slave trade, which Du Chaillu eventually takes on in this life as a quite personal cause. We see how Du Chaillu grows as a scientist along with the science of the time. When Du Chaillu begins his career, zoologists are one in the same with hunters. How else was one to bring back samples of fauna? (Even John Audubon shot many more birds than he painted early in his career.)

Du Chaillu’s story spans three continents (Europe and North America as well as Africa), and brings in an amazing cast of historical characters. As one would expect, Charles Darwin plays a role, as do African explorers such as David Livingston and Richard Burton. But we also have appearances from the world of politics (William Gladstone and Edwin Stanton), show business (P.T. Barnum and King Kong) and literature (J.M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

But the cameo I found most interesting in the book was the preacher Charles Spurgeon who sees in Du Chaillu a model of God’s light entering darkness. The account of the explorer’s appearance in the preacher’s mammoth sanctuary is comical and touching. (Spurgeon charged for the event, as he did for Sunday services, but the money went to a Temperance organization; even though Du Chaillu credited alcohol for sustaining his health in the jungle.)

Reel’s book satisfies as a story of adventure and biography, but also provides insight about class and culture, science and sociology. I’m glad to have a chance to have met Paul Du Chaillu, even though many gorillas wouldn’t share the sentiment.