It took the slimmest of Supreme Court margins to afford states the right to stop the practice of seizing the skull of a partially-born infant and either crushing or puncturing it. I used to think that people just didn't know, but when even The New York Times accurately describes the procedure, it's safe to say that people who don't know about this practice are willfully ignorant, and they probably prefer to keep it that way.
It's not clear that the latest ruling will reduce the rate of infanticide, despite the gnashing of teeth among pro-abortion spokesmen and corresponding celebration by anti-abortion spokesmen. Deprived of the relative convenience of murdering the infant outside the womb, abortionists will return to severing its limbs and head inside the womb.
Does the language offend? Shall I refer to that creature with eyelashes and grasping fingers and the capacity to feel the sun on his face, were he wanted, as a fetus? Shall I call the act of hacking him apart late-term intact dilation and extraction? I'm not one of those who indulges in the fantasy that every abortion-rights advocate is profoundly evil, but there is something distinctly wicked about this mangling of language, all in an effort to disguise precisely what goes on when a woman who believes she has no more options puts her feet in the stirrups.
I remember in The Silence of the Lambs, how the author has one of his characters inform us that the psychopathic killer needs to refer to his victim as it rather than you. Even the cold-blooded often need to dehumanize their victims before they can take to slaughtering them. Haven't we done the same, every one of us who indulges in the fiction that calling a baby by the Latin word for "young one" somehow makes it a bundle of tissue rather than a human being?
I believe there are noble and well-intentioned people on both sides of this war over abortion rights. Regardless of one's position, the very least we can do is be honest about what is taking place, not just on that bloody table, but in the lives of these women who have been driven to end a life. Pro-abortion advocates too often clinicalize and dehumanize the child to be murdered, and anti-abortion protestors too often dehumanize the woman who consents to the killing. Perhaps a little plainer talk, a little more honest talk, might do us all some good.
In that regard, I'm afraid, the Supreme Court decision may ultimately prove counter-productive. At least when blood was spilling directly from tiny skulls to linoleum floors, the crime was in plain sight. Now we have forced it back into the darkness of the womb, where the millions of us who are uncomfortable with abortion, but who also haven't the stomach for doing much about it, can rest easier at night. There will be no fewer killings, but at least we'll no longer have to hear the splatter.
Guess what's at the top of the list when you Google teenage stupidity? That's right, Sand in the Gears is your number-one source for information on the dumbification of American teens. And if I may say so (and I may, this being my website and all), I am an expert on this phenomenon, having been a stupid teenager myself.
In keeping with my self-appointed and self-righteous mission, I bring you the latest Kaiser Family Foundation report on media consumption by children, wherein you will see, among other things, that more than half of American children ages 8-18 have televisions in their bedrooms. More alarming, while the average child watches four hours and fifteen minutes worth of television and movies per day, he reads books 23 minutes a day. In other words, the average American child spends 1200 percent more time on the idiot box than on books.
The wife and I had a date last night, and took the opportunity to see "Amazing Grace." It is a lovely movie, and in the spirit of supporting good work about things that matter, I urge you to see it, if you haven't already, assuming it's still playing somewhere in your city. The bad news is that it was soundly thumped at the box office by the likes of "Norbit," with predictable reviews from the usual chorus whose objections can be summed up in the sentence: It doesn't have enough self-actualizing blacks/skepticism of religion/moral ambiguity. The good news is that it was made at all. Albert Finney's performance alone, as an aging and repentant John Newton, is worth multiples of the price of admission.
It was a scene we've witnessed before, from the safety of our living rooms and offices: a school building that has become a slaughterhouse, and scores of police officers arrayed outside, waiting for . . . something, for orders perhaps, or for the specially trained tactical units, or perhaps just for the shooting to stop, because while they wear badges they also have wives and mortgages and children of their own. Whatever their reasons, they hesitated, even the cluster of officers captured on a student's videocamera, the ones who made a half-hearted attempt to enter the building, waited while one shot, then another, then a string of shots rang out, and between them the screaming from inside the classrooms.
I've never been shot at, and so I don't know the fear. But I've never put on a badge and sworn an oath to protect the defenseless, either. I only know that had my children been inside, I would want the men and women with guns and badges to come through the doors, or windows if they have to, and cut down the man with the gun.
I remember a murder in my hometown, a man who walked out onto his front lawn with a rifle, and started shooting his neighbors and passersby. A girl from my school was hit, and she lay in a ditch in front of her house, bleeding and crying. The man went back into his house when the police arrived, and so they encamped behind their cruisers for hours. That girl lay there, bleeding and crying out, and eventually she died.
The men with badges that day were rightly denounced as cowards. Only the people who were in Blacksburg yesterday, or at Columbine nearly eight years ago to the day, can accurately judge the actions and inactions of the men and women wearing badges. The rest of us can only know that sometimes men and boys pick up guns, and they start butchering people, and there is no one on this earth who can protect us once the killing starts. This is why each of us who is a parent hugged his children more fiercely yesterday, after we heard. You either have hope in the world to come, or you have no hope at all, but either way you hold your children close and pray that the wolves attack somewhere else.
Now the counselors and journalists and talk show hosts will descend on Blacksburg, bringing with them a secondary wave of psychological damage disguised as "healing" and "talking things out," but which will really be about serving our need to see it, to witness it in safety, perhaps because we are thankful, in an ugly, selfish way most of us have, that it happened to them and not to us, or to our children.
Today there are parents waking up and remembering that their child is dead. There are children waking up and remembering that their parent is dead. Sleep always offers some hope that the world will be different when we awake, but it isn't, is it? I wonder if this is the hopelessness that drove that boy to become a monster. I wonder if his parents will ever smile again.
Judy Miller, a reporter who covered the Columbine killings, had a graceful essay on NPR this morning. In it she mentioned the strangeness of seeing snowflakes swirl about the campus as the killing took place, and how it was similarly snowing in Columbine the day two other boys became monsters. It made me wonder if God was crying, and if the coldness of the world we have made has frozen even his tears.
Well, I let a week of things that pay the bills get in the way of writing my fourth and final installment on this topic, and I think I've lost my steam. Or maybe there's just nothing left to say, other than that good writing flows from good reading, both at the level of the individual, and at the level of society. We are inundated with unimaginative books because too many of us have become unimaginative readers. I came across this from Ortega y Gasett, which captures the notion:
"So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don't find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do then is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time."
I wish I could tell you where the Gasett quote comes from it's quoted without source by Robert Bly in his Leaping Poetry. I searched for it on the Internet, and found the quote several other places, but nobody else bothered to source it either. For all I know, it might actually be something profound from Beyonce's autobiography, which has been wrongly attributed to Gasett. On the other hand, had it come from Beyonce, I'm sure it would have been referenced in more places on the Internet. That's precisely the point, of course; we have habituated our palates to bubblegum.
Rather than bad writing producing bad reading, then, one might be justified in arguing that bad reading yields bad writing, both by creating a market for shlock and by stultifying the minds of successive generations of writers. Horace Gregory, in his introduction to William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain put it this way:
"It is sometimes futile to reply that the unintelligent, the insensible, the undiscerning, the unimaginative (if they are writers) are incapable of sincerity in what they write; their relationship to what they say is already compromised before they start; at best they are merely writing with half a voice and half an ear and their beliefs rest upon such shallow ground that they are meaningless almost before we discover what they are."
But perhaps all this handwringing over the quality of Christian bookstore offerings is misguided. Perhaps good writers who happen to be Christians simply don't need a CBA to sell their work. Leif Enger's book, for example, was a New York Times bestseller. Maybe this debate is completely backwards; instead of asking why Christian publishers don't produce more high-quality work, we ought to ask why Christians choose to buy their fiction from such limited venues.
And the very fact that one can ask that question, that one can walk into a Borders and find Peace Like a River, may well be the CBA's biggest accomplishment. Perhaps we can credit the CBA, and the dreadful Left Behind series, for making it okay to talk about Jesus in a book. It would be ironic and somehow delightful, I think, if the CBA's greatest contribution to Christian fiction proves to be that it opened the door for self-consciously secular publishing houses to realize that there's gold in them thar hillbillies.
At the same time, someone like W. Dale Cramer not high literature, by any means, but a thoughtful, entertaining writer probably wouldn't be published by a mainstream press. His fine books exist because of the CBA. No matter that you have to wade through shelf after shelf of bodice stretcher and thin literary recreations of Christy to find Cramer, the fact is that you can find him, if you're willing to look, and this is thanks to a Christian publishing house, Bethany (not coincidentally, one of Bethany's publishers has a blog, Faith in Fiction that focuses on the theme I've tried to tackle in these essays). A defense of all these poor CBA offerings, as a publisher from another Christian publishing house noted in his comment on one of my previous essays, is that it subsidizes the good writing. With that in mind, it's probably fair to say that Christian publishing houses on balance do more good than harm, in the world of fiction. And they would do far more good if we readers could wean ourselves from the bubblegum.
And with that in mind, I promised in an earlier post to give you some ideas on good reading. Fortunately (or providentially, for my Presbyterian and Lutheran friends), the very fine faith-oriented literary journal, Image, has assembled both a study guide and an editor's list of the top 100 books from the past century. If you care at all about the intersection of good writing and faith, you should subscribe to Image, and I'm not just saying that because they're publishing one of my short stories later this year.
Remember, by reading better, we all encourage better writing. So consider your sampling from these lists a small but important part of the effort to change the world, and not just a high-brow attempt to avoid housework.