Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Missionary and the Snake

The Missionary and the Snake

          James Harner sharpened his seven inch hunting knife. It had been six months since he had arrived at the village of Kapi, approachable by river through the Amazon rainforest, east of the Andes, where he had come to attempt to establish a church among the Kapi people. His attempts were unsuccessful. The native religion resisted, and his presence was resented.
          In fact, his church had only five attendees, Magda being the most devout. She was the black sheep of her tribe, even opposed by her four sisters. Within three days she had already warmed to the gospel, and had since become his second-hand woman. Her enthusiasm alone would be enough to save many of the tribesmen if it weren’t for one thing--the snake.
          Oh the snake, that damnable snake! About fifteen years earlier, a neighboring tribe had made a peace offering to the Kapi people of a thirty foot anaconda. It was carried in by seven strong men. The Kapi prince delighted in this snake, believing it could guide his rule. He was only twelve at the time. He did not live to see thirteen.
          The snake crushed him in his sleep, swallowing him whole. The entire tribe mourned in amazement, until the village priest exclaimed that, as their religion proclaimed, the eater becomes the eaten, for the soul of the eaten atones with the eater: when the sacred anaconda eats a man, that man lives immortally within that god. The prince had now assumed the form of a serpent, to lead his people forever, speaking in a language the priest alone could interpret.
          Since then, many young children, especially the sick and cursed, were offered to the prince to be made likewise immortal. The anaconda had eaten eleven children in addition to the prince.
          James had been trained for this. He knew of tribal superstitions, and he knew that the gospel message was strong enough to defeat any deception. The deficiency was his own. He had not appealed to the people. He was a man of action, not eloquent with his words. He preferred building churches to preaching in them. Yet he had a mission, and he would finish it.
          He would--even if the village was the most stubborn case he had ever heard of. The sacrifice of children had to be stopped. It was precisely this point which made him so unpopular; his emphatic denouncements had cost him the trust and respect of the tribe leaders. The women feared him. The children taunted him.
          He sheathed his knife and put some logs on the fire. Then he walked out from his hut and headed towards the serpent’s lair. It was nearing midnight, and the pit had been left unguarded.
          There wasn't a stir within the pit. He held his torch to look inside, and saw the snake upon its alter, coiled and staring, blinkless, with the solemn regard of cold intelligence behind the torchlight in its eyes.
          James leapt into the pit. Still the snake failed to stir. He approached it boldly, unsheathed his knife, and vee'd his hand to grab its neck.
          It bolted its fangs into his left hand, throwing a coil around his arm. He dropped the torch, and the pit fell dark. He stabbed at the snake and cut a bloody hole into its sickly slick body. At this the snake spasmed, and the knife fell from his hand. The snake threw a second coil around James’s chest.
          And squeezed. James wheezed for breath, falling flat and jerking to kick himself free. The snake would not relent. He rolled over and grabbed blindly for the knife. The snake threw a coil around his legs.
          Finally, he saw from winced eyes the reflection of the dying torch upon the knife’s silver blade. He grabbed the handle, threw his arm skyward, and with the force of fury inspired by the grace of heaven and fortified by the rage of hell, swung the blade into its cold loveless neck.
          The snake spasmed again, but quit its grip. James pressed the blade deeper into the neck, pivoting it around like a paring knife through an apple. His hands sopped with blood. At last the snake’s head fell clear off. The serpent had been crushed.
          James gasped for twenty minutes. At last he stumbled to his feet, cleaned his knife on his shirt, and sheathed the blade. He hefted the snake, coil by coil, and wrapped it over his strong broad shoulders, so its coils twined round his outspread arms. With strength made superhuman by his fight with the beast, he pulled himself from out the pit.
          After dragging the corpse to his hut, he exposed his blade again and crudely cleaned its flesh. For the next two hours he prepared the meat, cooked it up, and ate. What he couldn’t eat, he burned. By morning nothing was left of the snake but scales, bone, and ash.
          The shriek sounded at dawn when the keeper of the snake discovered the blood and severed head. The entire town arose. They sent for the priest.
          The priest immediately accused the missionary, and the village gathered like murder at his door. They shouted for his blood.
          James praised God in his heart as he walked out to face the crowd. Magda pushed through the crowd and meekly stood at his left side. James spit a fragment of snake rib from his mouth, and panning the crowd with the placid detachment of an anthropologist’s camera, exclaimed to the crowd:
          “See, I have devoured your snake, and so now the soul of the serpent is within me, as the prince was within it. To me you must now listen, and not to your priest. No longer can your priest interpret the words of your snake, for I have devoured the soul of your serpent, and I therefore have become your new priest.
          “I have come to teach you the glory of God, made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ his Son. He came to destroy the wicked serpent who bruised his heal, but Jesus crushed its head.
          “Jesus came that your sins might be forgiven, that you would not bow down before false idols and pay homage to false priests. Listen to me, your true priest.
          “Magda will now distribute the bread I have prepared. This bread represents the flesh of Christ, and this drink his blood. Consume it now, as a group together, and become with me as Christ.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tao verses 64, 65, 66


A few more translations of the Tao – we are closing up the gap to 81 verses. After this, I intend to carefully read the writings of Chaung, a rival interpretation, write an essay on my experience of the Tao, offer the manuscript to a Chinese speaking friend, and finally come back, make another draft, write a light commentary, and consider the book done.


The “try and you’ll fail” logic of these verses is troubling, and I don’t think we should translate them into terms that readily make sense to us, but keep them starkly paradoxical.


These verses express wisdom. Again and again the verses are phrases as advice to kings, so we must spiritualize that, being not quite kings ourselves!






That at peace is easy to hold

The not yet is readily prepared for

The brittle is quickly smashed

The vague is with a word dispersed.


Approach your problems before they’re established

Manage them before they’re trouble

A hug-wide tree grows from a sprout

A nine story tower comes from small shovels of dirt

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep.


Try and you’ll fail

Grab and it slips

Thus the holy man

Who doesn’t try

Doesn’t fail

He doesn’t grab

It doesn’t slip.

The people, always chasing their business,

Are ever close to success but inevitably fail.

Be careful all the way to the end

As you were in the beginning

And you won’t ruin your business.

The sage who doesn’t desire desires

Who doesn’t seek rare treasures

He reminds the people what they missed

He helps them find themselves

--Yet without daring to do a single thing!



Those ancients

Skilled at the Tao

They didn’t enlighten the people

Who were too simple for that


The people are difficult to rule

When they know too much

Accordingly, rule the people with cleverness

And you rule to their ruin

Govern naively

And you rule to their fortune

He who knows this balanced pair

Holds the template.

The standard template is a profound power

Profound power goes deep and far

All things regress to their godhood.

Thus the great balance.




The rivers seek the sea

To be kings of a hundred valleys;

Because they lower themselves

They are kings over a hundred valleys.

Wanting to stand above the people

You must lower your speech.

Wanting to lead

You must follow them.

Thus if the stage stands above the people

They don’t feel his weight

He stays first by doing no harm

The world rejoices and praises him endlessly.


Because he doesn’t compete, the world can’t beat him.



Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hitchens biography of Jefferson more like history than biography

Hitchens approaches Jefferson like a canny journalist, lacking an historical strategies or psychological theories 

I’ve been reading through a series of American Biographies, of which Christopher Hitchens’ short biography of Thomas Jefferson was the first. I expected caustic wit as characterized by his book “God is Not Great” in which his journalist’s virtue for a thousand handy examples proved his points with barb and tact, much in the tradition of Mencken, another great wit, whose contempt for human foibles was at least bolstered by constant confrontation with its newsworthy aspects. Well this book wasn’t like that. Pretty much it was just a basic biography of the man, without too much elaboration, even any sort of justification for his subtitle: Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Of course biographical subtitles are supposed to be far flung and in themselves incredible, but I would have liked to see more of an exposition of this claim. Sure, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, with a little help from his friends, but the Constitution was penned by others.

Good skeptic that he is, and a fan of Paine and all his Reason over Faith, Hitchens notes again and again that Jefferson’s rhetoric turns to religious metaphors when he writes in zeal for America – talks of “blessing” and “providence,” “apostates,” etc. I am surprised at Hitchens surprise: it seems long most people, though secular to the bone, if they were raised in and continue to live in a religiously influenced society, would resort to language of faith, just as a man of any faith or belief my shout “Dear God” when he sees an automobile accident, for the language has nothing to do with belief, but with habitual forms of rhetoric.

Hitchens is good at summing up Jefferson’s virtues as a writer and thinker, while noting with pragmatic honesty how often Jefferson’s political maneuvering and his equivocal stance on slavery make his political life troubling to us. Considering the fervor of Jefferson’s belief, face to face with the spirit of compromise implied in all political activity, I would say Jefferson held up very well – and that seems to be Hitchens conclusion as well.

He says, “Jefferson and Paine had this in common in that year of revolution; they had the gift of pithily summarizing what was already understood, and then of moving an already mobilized audience to follow an inexorable logic.”

The burden of the short biography, which is part of a series meant to introduce a wider literature of biographers for immanent men, is on putting in parallel Jefferson’s intellectual life to his political life, and both in parallel with the development of the early United States. The much gossiped but ultimately irrelevant business of his affair with Sally Hemmings he passes over out of necessity, but no personal interest, and the other affairs of the Jefferson, with women actually married (a truer scandal if anything) are given more notice and no intention of apology or explanation: that’s a politician! Who cares?

The book is not at all psychologically deep, but to its credit, it never intended to be. There is no discussion of the mind of Jefferson, what created it, and how it both came out of, and yet transcended, the intellectual climate of revolutionary America. As a journalist, Hitchens sticks to the facts, and doesn’t seem to have any developed pet theories of his own. I would have preferred he did.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tao translations by Daniel

The Tao Te Ching (verses 59 – 63), as translated by Daniel June



In ruling humanity and serving heaven

Nothing beats moderation.

Truly! Moderation gives quick self-correction

Quick self-correction grants a heavy harvest of power.

A heavy harvest of power overcomes all.

Overcoming all means knowing no limits.

Knowing no limits, one can thereby rule humanity.

Ruling over the state, its Mother can long abide.

Deep roots, sturdy stem, immortality

A lasting insight into the Way.



Govern  a big state as you would fry small fish.

Govern the world with the Way

And the tricky imps will forfeit power.

Not only will they lose their power

But the power they do have can’t harm the people.

Not only will their power not harm the people

The sage is also spared.

Truly neither is hurt.

Thus, their virtue united intensifies both.



The great state flows down like a river

Towards the union of heaven and earth.

The female through stillness

Constantly overcomes the male.

By holding still, lowers the big state.

The great state bows to the small.

That great state than overcomes the small.

The small under the great wins the great.

Thus the lower can win.

Others who are low also win.

The big state wants nothing more than to care for the small.

The small state want nothing more than to serve something great.

In this way both get what they want.

The greater rightly yields.



The Tao stores all things like a granary.

They are the treasures of the virtuos,

Safe from the bad.

Eloquence can hence do her business.

Good deeds can hence make a man.

If the others are bad, why discard what we’ve got?

The king has three ministers

To give him jade and royal horses.

Preferable would it be to give them the Tao.

The Ancients indeed honor the Tao.

Don’t they say those who seek it are freed from sin?

They thus become the world’s prize.



Act in relaxation,

Work without working,

Taste with indulging.

Magnify the small,

Increase the few.

Requite injury with kindness.

Prepare for difficulty when it is still easy

Take care of great matters when they are  yet small

The world’s troubles being small enough.

The greatest enterprise starts tiny.

Thus the sage doesn’t attempt greatness

And thereby accomplishes it.

To promise rashly lacks conviction

Taking problems too lightly leads to problems.

The sage accepts the difficult for what it is.

Thus he escapes difficulty.



Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Each Friend gets some my truth" a poem

Each friend gets some my truth


Each my friends gets some my truth

Wife, your portion’s best

But things I cannot say to you

Brother takes and understands

Or that best friend

Or that dear soul

My soul a hundred outlets

A dozen of them gold

And each new friends allows to say

What otherwise I can’t

But Oh the old friends – longest’s best!

How deeply deep you settle in

My heart is lined with thrones of silk

Like Olympians you sit

Who then accepts the full my truth?

Who takes down every drop?

Who overhears each thing I say?

That one closest dearest all

– ever blessed Ama!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lisa Lampanelli and Hate Speech

Is obscene racist humor by defintion hateful?

My wife and I went to see Lisa Lampanelli in Kalamazoo Michigan last Friday night (Oct 7th). We’ve long been fans, so I knew what I was getting myself into. For those of you who are not familiar with Lisa’s act, she is called “the Queen of Mean,” and her act is characterized by the most outrageous of racial and ethnic slurs; profanity abounds, don’t watch it with your grandma. But is it hate speech?

Not at all. From what I can tell, Lisa is not a hateful person. The act who opened for her, a guy from the Howard’s Stern Show, and a man who well characterized that show, was also obscene and irreverent, but for me it was a big different. He seemed actually hateful.  When he made a crack against Puerto Ricans, the crowd murmured instead of laughed, at which point he said “you didn’t like that joke? Do you have any idea who is coming on the stage next!” But there is a difference between the two acts, a tone that makes one funny and one uncomfortable. The sense I get from the Howard Stern show and Howard Stern himself, is that these people seem to have a lot of resentment, bitterness, and hate, and the aggression in their speech verges on hate speech.

Not that I mind hate speech. I think we should be allowed to say what we like about abstractions, about groups, or ideas. There are libel laws for good reasons, but we ought to be be able to speak whatever else we want. What oppression it is for any group to tell me who I can and cannot hate. Nevertheless, to listen to a genuine racist rant – I don’t mean somebody who feels uncomfortable around whites or blacks, and I don’t mean any of the everyday racial tensions we all feel, but I mean somebody who identifies himself and his values in hating another group of people (homosexuals, blacks, Jews, Muslims, etc) – such a rant just isn’t funny. I think to “get’ the joke, you have to feel the same way about the group. It is hard to laugh when your sworn enemy makes a joke. Even if he kids with you to release the tension, it doesn’t work, you hate him all the more. In the same way, you can’t really hate somebody who makes you laugh. There is a union of souls (to use such language) when any two people laugh together. It’s not that I think the kkk, or Nazis, or certain groups of Christians are evil, I really don’t think any man is evil, but they do have bad habits, and that’s a start, but they also have a certain attitude that makes it hard for others to be sympathetic with. They have the right to their hate speech but it puts my nerves on edge.

So why is it funny (to me at least) when Lisa Lampanelli “pretty much says the same things as the racists”? Well she might literally say a joke a klan member would say, but the tone is fully different. In a way, Lisa takes the weapon of the haters away. The haters can say “look, other whites feel the same way we do about the blacks, otherwise you wouldn’t laugh at our jokes. We all know they are criminals, stupid, useless, etc., but only us klan members are brave enough to say what we are all thinking.” The service Lampanelli provides (to look at social discourse philosophically) is to take that weapon away, to say “well yeah, social stereotypes CAN be funny. But that doesn’t mean we have to hate each other. Why don’t we laugh at each other and NOT hate? After all, whites, Christians, men, women are all equally ridiculous when put in irreverent light.

Humor itself could be viewed as a play of dignity. It seems that the central WHAT of a joke is some pretense that is deflated. The butts of jokes are usually those who have some prestige, some vanity, some arrogance, or at least seem to have the upper-hand. A highschool bully mocking a retarded fellow student to the point of tears isn’t funny at all, it’s disgusting. I think the Bible was expressing good common sense when it said how disgraceful it was to put tripping stones in front of a blind man.

For this reason, the most interesting part of the show was the theme of it. Lisa pretty much “talked shop” the whole show. Yes, she picked on the audience, using some strong staple jokes (she picked on an old guy, a gay couple, and a “mixed” black man and his asian girlfriend), and added some  material new to me. And I will mention that I was in the sixth row and very nervous she would point me out and ask what I do for a living (“cake-designer” lends itself quite well to gay jokes, etc) – and for a man who used to skip class and take a zero rather than deliver a group presentation, I was quite relieved when the show ended, though I did enjoy it. Anyway, she talked a lot about her other shows, and some of the audiences she has had, and the “roasts” she has done for comedy central (where some celebrity is team mocked). She explained why she didn’t Roast Charlie Sheen. She said he was insane in a literal sense, and had drug addictions. I think she was saying the man’s life is tragic, or at least pathetic, and so, really, it’s not funny at all, kinda like picking on the retarded kid who can’t defend himself and just wants to fit in and have friends. I don’t know if this is a fair assessment of Sheen (I haven’t followed the news circus around him), but it tells me something interesting about Lampanelli.

I have mixed feelings really. In a sense, a roast of Sheen almost dignifies him, saying, in effect, yeah we all know he’s a little off, but even he can laugh at itm so its okay. That she wouldn’t participate seems to me to take away from his dignity, that he is too low to mock. So I’m conflicted. Is she a nice person for not picking on an easy target, or is she a mean person for looking at the man as below any respect? I wonder this because I’ve had my own mental health issues, I sympathize with others who struggle with it. I know Carlos Mencia would do shows even for an audience with retarded people in it, and with a sense of precaution, do his routine where he made fun of the way they talked. Hmm. I’m undecided how to evaluate this.

She also didn’t mock the WestBoro Baptist protesters, and I think its because she excludes them, she despises them. I also despise them, though sadly I don’t think their theology is fully antichristian. What I would like to see is a group of protesters follow them around, protest their protests, say the most undignified and cruel things about them, to their face, with picket signs.

My wife’s response is that I think too much. What the hell! Why not just sit back, laugh, go home, and not think of it anymore? I guess that’s how I am, I analyze everything. But I do recommend you checking out her act if you want to witness a virtuoso of insults. She delights in the cleverness of her insults, not because she hates (though she is fucking irritable), but because she likes being clever. I respect that. It’s better than using humor as a weapon to hate people. Outright mockery – perhaps the only real political critique the average man witnesses, and ditto the only religious critique – becomes, for me at least, unfunny when directed against individuals struggling to find a dignified place in the world.

Take care, Caretakers!

Daniel Christopher June