Tuesday, March 31, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Five

Holy Mary, Mother of God!

This past weekend, the following comment was left by Zoo under a post over three years old about my visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid and my surprise at images of the Virgin Mary squirting her breast milk in people's faces:

Zoo said...
Hi Bill, this is an area that interests me greatly as I am writing a PhD dissertation concerning breastmilk as a cultural artifact. However I cannot get the crisis link to work? Brings me to a home page, but does not provide an article? I would love to cite some of this, but obviously need proper reference details to do so...

Thanks to all for the wonderful discussion.

The Bill she is referring to is my friend Bill Sebring and the crisis link she mentions is, sadly, inactive. This is one of those posts that had a lot of great comments, but I think it's worth reposting Bill's, especially as the source seems to have vanished in the virtual air.

bill said...
John, all,

Unfamiliar with this, but stole some text from Crisis (!) which I reproduce here (and includes a St. Bernard reference):

Contemporary with the Madonna of Humility, comparisons between the humble mother's flowing breast and her redeeming Son's bleeding heart yielded a startling type of composition known as !the Double Intercession. Mary and Jesus stand on either side of God the Father, Mary baring her breast, Christ touching His wounded side. Mother and Son beg mercy for human supplicants, the dying, the plague-ridden, or the world at the Last Judgment. In some examples, we see Christ's blood and Mary's milk poured out to relieve the souls in purgatory. The Madonna even squirts out milk to extinguish purgatorial fires in a painting by Filoseti dell'Amatrice (1508).

Before they were suppressed by the decorous reforms of Trent, these images supported an astonishing range of piety. The medieval craving for physical contact with the divine took satisfaction in reports of lactation miracles.

While St. Bernard of Clairvaux knelt in prayer, a statue of Maria Lactans came to life and bestowed three drops of milk on his lips. St. Gertrude the Great nursed the Baby Jesus and Blessed Angela of Foligno nursed at Christ's side. Lidwina of! Schiedam saw Mary and her attendant virgins fill the sky with floods of their milk. In legend, suckling the Virgin or living saints brought healing and blessings.

Religious allegories celebrated lactation. Mary was the maiden in the garden who gave suck to the unicorn-Christ, the innocent victim hunted by men. Ecclesia, Sophia, Caritas, and sundry Virtues were shown as nursing mothers.

Popular devotions centered on relics, pilgrimages, and patronages that would assist breastfeeding women. Because Mary's body had been taken to heaven, her prime relic was her milk. From early Christian times people scraped chalky white deposits from the Milk Chapel in Bethlehem, a cave where Mary was believed to have spilled some of her milk. Mixed with water, these samples became the countless relics of the Madonna's milk that are still widely preserved in Europe.

Even Charlemagne had a specimen mounted in a jeweled talisman. France alone boast!ed at least 46 milk shrines, but the most famous in the West was Walsingham, England, established in the twelfth century. Pilgrims reached it via a road called the "Milky Way."

For critics, this was rather too much of a good thing. A century before the Reformation, St. Bernardine of Siena quipped that Mary must have given more milk than a hundred cows.

Although Trent caused some dubious relics to be discarded, it failed to shake Hispanic interest in the nursing Virgin. Maria Lactans images remained popular, including such curious ones as a colonial painting of Our Lady of Belem from 18th-century Bolivia, in which drops of the Madonna's milk turn into blood-red rosary beads.

The Spanish cult of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery) was brought to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1603. A small chapel built in 1918 still stands on the original shrine's site. Thank!s to the popularity of that title, Mary has become the informal patroness of the nonsectarian La Leche League for nursing mothers.

Active milk-shrines still exist in France, at Crèe-lait in Nantes and Bon Lait in Persac. Bretons seeking ample breast milk process around a huge, decorated mound of butter each summer at Notre Dame-du-Crann.

As I said, I was unable to find the original article, but while doing a google search, I did stumble on the webpage Mary Lactans: Mary As A Nursing Mother from which the below images are taken. Given the fact that I was raised Catholic in America, the abundance of such images is surprising, to say the least. Less surprising is that most of the images come from the 16th Century and before.

Monday, March 30, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Four

It always amazes me when I hit the home stretch in posting every day for Lent. When I first begin, I think "Oh God, I only have two or three ideas to write about." Then, in what seems like no time at all, I'm up to Day Twenty and I think "Okay, half-way there, but what am I going to write about for the remaining almost three weeks?" Suddenly I'm up to Thirty and I think "wait, I didn't write about half the things I was planning to." Oh well.

A collection of some odds and ends:

1. Today's Malaprop Overheard In The Elevator At Work
"When things go good, they're leaping like fish in a barrel to take credit for it."

2. Oh, Good. Oh, Darn.
After writing here about the cultural interest in the occult that culminated in the success of The Exorcist, I was interested to see this article in the current Believer: A Devil-Obsessed Conglomeration of Christian Misfits: How The Exorcist, by most accounts the scariest movie ever made, has become completely unscary. I don't agree, but was curious to hear the author's contrary opinion. Unfortunately, the essay isn't very good. Snarky, lacking in insight or context beyond the author's experience and family, it can be boiled down to "I don't believe in the devil; therefore The Exorcist is not scary." Funny, I know a number of non-believers who get seriously freaked out by The Exorcist. Whether you believe or not, I think the movie is such a well-crafted example of horror cinema that I'd be very curious to read a good essay on why someone feels it has become completely unscary. This isn't that essay.

3. Final Installment of 1871 New York Times Article About The Execution of John Hanlon, Child-Killer
Hanlon's Last Days
There being no intention to take advantage of the writ of error in the case, and the appeal made by Hanlon's spiritual advisers for a respite not being pressed after the Governor's first refusal to listen ti it, the condemned man could do nothing but prepare for death in his miserable way. He frequently expressed a readiness to meet his fate, and his demeanor was so collected as to warrant the belief that he would behave at the last moment with the same firmness that he exhibited during and at the termination of the trial.

Last night, after his sister had left him, he read prayers until 2 o'clock this morning, when he retired and slept soundly until 5 o'clock, when he arose apparently very much refreshed from a long fast of seventeen days, during which time noting has crossed his lips except a trifle of bread and water. This morning he manifested the utmost composure, and joined earnestly with the clergymen in the devotional exercises connected with the preliminary ceremony to the hanging. At the scaffold, while the noose was being adjusted by the Sheriff, and the white cap placed over his head, Hanlon fervently ejaculated,* "Jesus forgive me. Holy Mary intercede for me<" and continued repeated the same until the drop fell. Father Barry, at the time the drop fell, was kneeling on the steps leading thereto, fervently praying. In order to prevent the prisoners in the cells witnessing the hanging, pieces of leather were placed over the holes.

Scenes Outside The Prison
What was a matter quite unusual during executions at the prison, a very large crowd of curious people assembled in the street before the front of the forbidding-looking structure. There was not one but knew he could by no means obtain a view of the tragic scene, for the stratagems resorted to in the past, when the execution took place in the prison yard, in climbing trees that stood back of the rear wall, and in clambering on to high roofs on the street opposite, from which just the top of the scaffold could be seen, were all rendered futile by the change of the customary location of the instrument of death from the yard to the northern corridor. The Mayor ordered a large detail of Police to the scene to prevent any disturbance of the peace. Lieut. Smith, of the Seventeenth District, was in command, and had out his entire force of fifty men, in addition to details from other districts, making the aggregate force seventy. This great number was far from being actually needed, but was in compliance with a formality which custom had established.

*Really unfortunate choice of words, given the context.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Three

More About My Namesake The Child Killer

Continued from yesterday, the article from the February 2nd 1871 edition of The New York Times.

The imperfect evidence then gleaned pointed so strongly toward him that he was arrested and held for a hearing, but from want of sufficient testimony it was found necessary to discharge him. With unusual effrontery the suspected man stood his ground and continued his business as if nothing had happened. This unusual course, which but few guilty men would have had the nerve to carry out, diverted suspicion from him almost entirely, save in the minds of the few officers of the law who were engaged in working up the case. Had he had but sufficient self-control to have kept him from acts similar to that which ended in the murder, he would probably never have been discovered. As it was, the imperfection of the evidence made him feel in a short time perfect secure, and he was less guarded in his actions. He even boated that though he had been arrested, the crime could not be proved upon him.

So he continued his criminal course, until he brought up in prison, to which he had been sentenced for a term of five years for attempting to commit an outrage on a girl of ten years old. He called himself then Charles E. Harris, but his assumed name did not hide him from those who had all along suspected him of the child-murder. After he had been in prison a short time an alderman, who had taken much interest in the case identified him, and then together with the officers and with the consent of the authorities, a plan was inaugurated, with the consent of the authorities, to convict the man out of his own mouth. A fellow-prisoner, convicted of a crime of somewhat lighter hue, was confined with the suspected man, in the hope that the story of the murderer would be unfolded in private to the companion. The sequel proves that the temptations of boon companionship and he horrors of the heavy secret were too much for the guilty one. The story must be told to somebody, and told it was.

The fellow-prisoner is taken into confidence for the sake of lightening the weight which the inhuman man is unable alone to carry. Bust so hardened is the criminal that the story, when once begun, is told boastingly as if it was the greatest of exploits. The story thus told is confided by the fellow-prisoner to the authorities in the hope of a pardon being granted to the informer. But the story in this form is of no practical use. It comes directly from a criminal and through a criminal. But it is important, inasmuch as it gives the clue to work upon, and the direction in which to work to complete the chain. Then the detectives go to work in earnest. Every item of the confession is thoroughly sifted and inquired into, and outside evidence is found and produced (then an easy matter) to corroborate every part.

When the chain is a complete whole the Grand Jury is notified and a true bill is found against John Hanlon, the barber, who is brought from prison and re-tried. Then it is that the damning story comes out in all its horrid particulars. The lustful man with evil intent disguises himself, thus preventing effectually his identification afterward. He seeks some one on whom to gratify his passion. He walks the streets on a quiet Sunday evening and finds the little child, whom he entices or compels to go with him. He hills her, unintentionally perhaps, in the accomplishment of his designs, but unintentional killing under such circumstances is murder in the first degree.

Having killed her, he puts her into the cellar of his house and coolly goes to bed as if nothing had happened. He makes several unsuccessful attempts to get rid of the body. He keeps the dreadful thing in his possession for the whole of one day and two nights, all the time pursuing his business as usual, while the neighbors are everywhere hunting the lost child. At last he succeeds in getting rid of it. In the early morning of the third day he deposits it in a slimy pool in an open lot, hoping, like Eugene Aram, that the waters will cover it. The waters do not cover it. Almost immediately it is found, and the search for the criminal commences. He stands it al and even continues in his evil courses. He is arrested and put in prison for a minor offense. Here he convicts himself f the greater. He takes his trial, and a fair one it is....

to be continued

Saturday, March 28, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Two

Another John Hanlon, Hanged Man

The following is from the February 2nd 1871 New York Times. My friend Colette discovered it by doing a google search for my name and "hanged man." Happily, this blog comes up first. The below article is third, and then some links to John Hanlon, New Zealand hippie folksinger.

Execution of a Murderer

John Hanlon Hanged Yesterday in Philadelphia - The Legal Number of Witnesses Only Present.

Philadelphia, Penn., Feb. 1. -- Preparations for the execution of John Hanlon were completed yuesterday. The gallows had been erected within the corridor of the prison building in anticipation of bad weather, and also to secure entire privacy, which could not be the case in the prison yard, as some buildings in the neighbordd overlook the inclosure, and many previous executions have been witnessed from roofs and tree-tops. Hanlon bid his wife and relatives farewell yesterday, expressing himself ready to die, and had no expectations of a respite. After the religious ceremonies, Father Barry said that Hanlon had nothing to make public, but wished to return thanks to the officers of the prison and the inspectors and keepers. Hanlon then stepped to the front of the platform, and in a firm and distinct voice said:

"To those who have ever injured me or have ever done me any wrong, I forgive them and ask God to forgive them; and all whom I have injured in any way whatever, or against whom I have had any ill feeling, I ask their forgiveness and God to forgive me."

The execution took place at 11:18 this morning. The law limiting the number of witnesses was strictly enforced by Sheriff Leeds. His body has been given to his relatives for interment.

The Crime.
The murder of the child, May Mohrmann, for which Hanlon was hanged, was committed on a Sunday evening, nearly two and a half years aago. At the time no one but the guilty man knew that the foul deed had been done. The mother of the child and the neighbors knew that she was missing, and supposed that she was lost and would soon be found again. It was not until the Tuesday morning following that the city was startled by the news that the dead body of the little girl, who was only about six years old, though large for her age -- not old enough, at all events, to incur the serious displeasure of any human being -- had been found in a pool of water in an open let near her former residence in the upper part of the city. The appearance of the body made it very evident that she had been most horribly murdered under circumstances of the most fiendish atrocity....

For some time after the discovery no clue could be found to the murderer, though public opinion, especially in the immediate neighborhood, was at a high state of excitement. Suspicion pointed to the man John Hanlon, who kept a barber-shop on Fifth street, a few doors from Diamond.

To be continued, though I'd just like to point out that I wish newspapers were still written like this.

Friday, March 27, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty One

St. John Evangelista by Albrecht Durer

First he has a vision and eats a book, then he's cooked alive in a pot.

We really are lucky to live in a time when Durer's incredible engravings and Shakespeare's plays are available for free on the internet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty

One of the things that I remember from my childhood in the early 1970s was the resurgence of the occult and interest in weird belief systems, a side effect of the youth movement. Everything was open for experimentation: economic systems, living arrangements, politics, and gender roles, so why not religion? Being raised Catholic, anything occult was seen as threatening. I imagined it all as Satan in disguise, like the wolf in grandma's clothing in Little Red Riding Hood, lying in wait to trick the unsuspecting, or even worse, the non-traditional.

It probably reached cultural critical mass with the release of The Exorcist in 1973, but one of the reasons that movie was so successful (lines around the block in major cities almost from the first day it opened) was that the public had been prepared by several years of living through a rich, creepy time when Ouija boards were sold in toy stores, Dark Shadows was a popular soap opera, and witchcraft manuals could be found among the paperbacks in drugstores. Despite the current popularity of book series about vampires and wizards, the difference between now and then is that now, relatively few people believe in an occult system (despite the New Age and old superstitions). Back then, people really believed. Or so it seemed to my eight year old mind.

Believed enough to join cults, and it wasn't all peace and free love. A book from that time, Mindfuckers: The Rise of Acid Fascism, gathers together articles about cults from Rolling Stone magazine. The Manson Family is the most (in)famous group covered, but there are also articles about the Lyman Family and The Process Church of The Final Judgment. The book's subtitle makes plain that drugs were a major factor once people discovered just how useful drugs, particularly hallucinogens, were in controlling others.

In my hometown, I remember there was a group called The Forever Family, and I was warned that, if anyone from The Forever Family tried to make contact with me, get away from them. I don't know if they truly were any kind of threat or if they were just silly hippies. Watching a documentary about the 1960s recently, I was struck by the fact that, what we think of as the 60s - the social upheaval, the protests, groovy outfits and nightlife - was an urban phenomena. City life. In small-town and rural America, any deviance from the norm was feared and suppressed. There's a reason why Easy Rider ends the way it does. A group calling itself "The Forever Family" in Wilkes-Barre at that time was a threat, in not to way of life, then at least to peace of mind.

When I first began working at WaldenBooks after college, my manager said the smartest thing she ever did was expand the occult section. This was in the early 1980s, and while Wilkes-Barre often seemed about seven or eight years behind the times, the popularity of occult books had more to do with such beliefs becoming private and personal, individual superstitions rather than part of the culture at large. The time for large-scale experimentation in religion had passed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Nine


Yes, I planned to post something different today, something about apocalypse psychology, catastrophizing on a grand scale, but then I had a very busy day at work and went out for drinks afterwards with my friend Jackie at this nice wine bar on the East Side (Sophie's on 50th Street - you should really try it) and we go into a long conversation about people we work with and even some people we don't work with anymore (because you can get laid off but that doesn't mean you're going to escape our gossipy tongues) and then our friend Kevin joined us and we got into a BIG argument about capitalism which apparently Jackie and I lost because I've checked and the capitalist system is still in place.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Eight

Moments of Happiness

They're almost always unexpected and go by too quickly. You don't realize them until they've passed, but everyone has those moments that, in retrospect, they realize they experienced true happiness. I'm quite lucky in that I've experienced many such moments, but here's one that comes to me:

Driving from Wilkes-Barre, PA to Baltimore, MD with my sister Ann and my niece Lowery. We had a cassette of Jesus Christ, Superstar playing on the car stereo, and Ann and I sang along with the entire album while on the road. Ann can sing, I can not.

I smile involuntarily every time I think about it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Seven

My Favorite Religious Rituals
In no particular order

1. Passover Seder
I particularly like the idea of using food to symbolize historical, cultural and spiritual events. The fact that some of the food is not meant to be enjoyed but to remind the eater of suffering is sadly lost on people like me who like bitter herbs and bland flat bread. The only Seders I've attended were those at my friend Steve Gutin's, where the question "Why is tonight not like any other night?" was inevitably answered with "Because tonight Aunt Esther is going to lose her place if anyone strays so much as one word from the evening's prepared materials." Other nights, she was just generally confused. I miss those nights.

2. Getting Ashes on Ash Wednesday
Don't know why, but getting dirt smeared on my forehead, being marked for the day, appeals to me. This past Ash Wednesday I had so much smeared on my forehead it looked like I was getting ready for a minstrel show.

3. Blessing of the Throats on St. Blaise Day
St. Blaise is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, a group of saints who protect against illnesses and everyday difficulties. Blaise is the saint who protects against throat ailments and infections. On the Sunday closest to February 3rd, the Blessing of the Throats is offered after mass: the priest holds across your throat two unlit candles that have been tied at the bottom and mutters a short prayer. Afterwards you'll probably overhear someone say that they had a sore throat but now are starting to feel better. It's such a strange ritual, which is probably part of its appeal.

4. Saying "God Bless You" After Someone Sneezes
It's just polite.

Yes, I realize this is a fairly short list of rituals.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Six

Powerful Fresh Breath / Powerful Message

Another gift from my friend Kris - a pack of Testamints Gum. Each pack has 12 pieces (one for each apostle), although Kris admitted that this pack was a little light because her husband took some.

Each pack come with a quote from scripture on the back - mine is John 14:6 (Jesus answered "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.")

Kris said "You'd be amazed what you can find in Texas." True, however, a quick internet search revealed that the company that makes Testamints is actually based in Hackettstown, NJ.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Five

A Gift From My Friend Kris

"You still collect stuff like this, right?" asked my friend Kris.

A Last Supper lunchbox? Oh, yes indeedy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Four

Prayer Circle in Louisville Airport

I wasn't quick enough with my camera, but this is the aftermath of a prayer circle I saw in the middle of the Louisville airport. I guess some people are really scared of flying.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

40 days of Lent: day Twenty Three

Began writing this in airport bar, bit got into conversation with Tommy, a building comtractor whose wife was taking a flight from elsewhere in the airport.
It was one of those pleasant converations that makes me feel less alone. In the course of talking, I was able to make eference to a friend from high school's wedding, current misadventures pf a girl I work with, and something my sister once said.
I have to get on a plane, which I never like, but I feel less alone. And buzzed. I feel buzzed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty-Two

Setting Sail Tomorrow

I'll be traveling to Louisville, KY tomorrow to visit some friends for a long weekend. I'll try to updated The Hanged Man each day, utilizing my snazzy new iPhone to do so. But given that I just got the phone yesterday and haven't really had time to learn how to use it, I can't promise anything. If I can't post while on the road, I will make up the missing days when I return.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

40 Days Of Lent: Day Twenty One

Lousy Irishman

I hate St. Patty's Day.

I like Irish culture and I'm proud of (some might say smug about) my Irish ancestry. But I dislike the kitsch aspects of St. Patty's Day and the fact that it is another holiday (along with New Year's Eve and Halloween) in which people feel it is their duty to get as drunk as possible. There's nothing like seeing a pack of drunken New York City cops, in uniform and with guns.

Even as a child I don't recall liking the holiday. I was not a fan of anything that dictated how you should dress, so being expected to wear some green on a certain day was a hassle. Similarly, I recall when my grade school, Mackin Elementary, decided to have "Color Day" which meant that the students were supposed to wear the school's colors - green and gold - to show their school spirit. The day before, on the bus, I overheard Steven White and another kid talking about how they were going to deliberately not wear any green or gold for "Color Day," an idea that struck me, at the time, as one of the most shocking but obvious things I had ever heard. Of course you don't wear certain colors just because everyone else is going to.

The next morning, when I told my mother I refused to wear any clothes that had green or gold in them, she yelled "One kid only wants green and gold clothes and doesn't have any!* The other one only has green and gold and won't wear them. You kids are making me crazy!" Why I had a wardrobe favoring those two colors remains a mystery to this day.

At school, it didn't take long to discover that I was one of maybe three kids not dressed in school colors. Even Steven White and the other rebel had conformed. I was treated like a combination of leper and pedophile the entire day, even by my teachers, who made a pointed out to the class that someone was not dressed in school colors. If I remember correctly, a couple of them were flabbergasted that I would do this on purpose.

Even though I don't like St. Patty's Day, I was happy to see that the water in the fountain outside the White House was dyed green today at Michelle Obama's request. Oh, Michelle, how I love you.

*my sister Ann

Monday, March 16, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty

The Seven Deadly Sins and The Punishments in Hell Awaiting Those Who Commit Them
according to Le Grant Calendrier des Bergiers, published in 1496

Anger: Dismembered alive

Envy: Immersed in frozen water

Greed: Boiled in oil

Gluttony: Force fed toads, rats and snakes

Lust: Smothered in fire and brimstone

Pride: Broken on a wheel

Sloth: Thrown into a snake pit

Sunday, March 15, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Nineteen

In the comments to yesterday's post, Iva asked:
...here is my question: is intelligent design completely incompatible with evolution? Is it not possible that there is a supreme intelligence behind the whole process of evolution?
I realize my Judeo-Christian roots are very evident, but I am asking the question in all sincerity. Are these ideas completely incompatible?

Yes, I would say intelligent design is incompatible with evolution. Remember that "intelligent design" is a specific theory that argues that because we can't find the connections between some odd disjunctions in evolution, it proves that existence must be the work of a designer. Evolution sees life on Earth as a continuum, one species arising from the changes in another over a period of millions of years. Intelligent design argues that a designer created some species spontaneously.

Your second question is different from your first: is it possible that the process of evolution is one of God's creations? This is similar to Deism, the Age of Enlightenment philosophy that stated that God created the universe, gave it laws by which to run, and now leaves His creation alone and doesn't interact with it. However, clues to God's existence can be found by studying the natural world, all of which brings us back to Darwin on the Galapagos Islands.

Darwin's wife was a believing Christian, and reportedly concerned that her husband's work would destroy religious faith. Darwin, in turn, was very sensitive to his wife's beliefs and discussed his theories with her extensively before publishing. Their's was literally a marriage of religion and science.

Since the publication of The Origin of the Species, people have had to reconcile their religious beliefs with Darwin's theories. Don't forget there was a scene in the NOVA special which showed two of the teachers who brought the suit against the school board with their church group. They talked about how offended they were to be called atheists simply because they believed in science.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would also have been offended. He was a Jesuit priest who was also a paleontologist and he sought to reconcile the two. He believed that evolution has a goal (a design, if you will), which is for humans to use their ability to think as a way to grow spiritually and move towards higher consciousness, ultimately towards God. de Chardin did not see religious faith and evolution as incompatible, but as intertwined processes taking us to the same end.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Eighteen

Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

I just finished watching the NOVA program Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (entire program is available, in ten minute segments, here). The documentary is about the trial that resulted when members of the Dover, PA school board tried to have Intelligent Design included in science classes. Oh, Pennsylvania, my home state, you never disappoint.

Granted, I am a little biased, but what amazes me is the disingenuousness of those on the pro-intelligent design side. Even when all they propose is a small disclaimer to be read before teaching evolution ("this is not the only theory about life on Earth..."), they act as if they have no agenda and what they're doing is actually for the benefit of the students. Not surprising that two of them committed perjury during the trial.

My thought has always been that you should be able to teach intelligent design in schools, just not during science class because it is not a science. In fact, it is anti-science. As one lady states in the program "The fundamental problem with intelligent design is that you can't use it to explain the natural world. It's essentially a negative argument. It says, "Evolution doesn't work, therefore the designer did it. Evolution doesn't work, therefore we win by default....You can't build a science on a negative argument." It makes as much sense to teach during science as it would to teach it in math or gym class. So teach it when you teach Greek or Roman myths (do they still teach Greek and Roman mythology in schools?) Intelligent design has more in common with literature than it does with science.

This point was made better, and with more wit than I can manage, during the trial:

WITOLD "VIC" WALCZAK: So supernatural causation is not considered part of science?

KENNETH R. MILLER: Yeah. I hesitate to beg the patience of the Court with this, but being a Boston Red Sox fan, I can't resist it. One might say, for example, that the reason the Boston Red Sox were able to come back from three games down against the New York Yankees was because God was tired of George Steinbrenner and wanted to see the Red Sox win. In my part of the country, you'd be surprised how many people think that's a perfectly reasonable explanation for what happened last year. And you know what? It could be true, but it certainly wouldn't be science. It's not scientific, and it's certainly not something we can test.

One more comment: it took the judge a month to come up with his verdict?

Friday, March 13, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Seventeen

I was thinking about writing about the recent death of someone I met once, a friend of a friend, when I realized that this seems to be a recurring motif on this blog. I've already already written similar posts here and here and I never intended this to turn into John Hanlon's Rollicking Review of Death; if so, I would have named it that.

But there is an interest, not necessarily morbid and certainly not as intense as it was when I was a teenager, in death. Don't know if the source of my interest is something individual or part of my heritage. As I said to a friend today, "What's another word for an Irish family reunion? 'Funeral.'"

It's not far from there to think that after I die, my words, these words, on this blog, will be floating around somewhere. Anything on the internet is there forever and I like the notion that the thoughts of those long gone will still be accessible. Yes, it has been that way for anyone who left any kind of record, but the convenience of the internet means that parts of anyone's conscious will be preserved so that future generations can share it. In his novel Ubik, Philip K. Dick imagines a future in which the deceased are cryogenically frozen, and for a period of time until their brains completely decay, can be communicated with. Seems like a nice premonition of the internet.

So...Greetings to those from the future! Sorry about all the pollution we made and the fact that we ate all the shrimp - they were just too delicious.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Sixteen

The Coming Evangelical Collapse
An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise.
By Michael Spencer

from the March 10, 2009 edition of Christian Science Monitor

Let me just editorialize here and say "1. You brought it on yourselves, and 2. So long and don't let the church doors hit on you on the butt on the way out."

Oneida, Ky. - We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

Why is this going to happen?

1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap ofbelieving in a cause more than a faith.

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.

5. The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to "do good" is rapidly approaching. We will soon see that the good Evangelicals want to do will be viewed as bad by so many, and much of that work will not be done. Look for ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.

6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.

7. The money will dry up.

What will be left?

•Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success – resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.

•Two of the beneficiaries will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue, with more efforts aimed at the "conversion" of Evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

•A small band will work hard to rescue the movement from its demise through theological renewal. This is an attractive, innovative, and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing, and leadership development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches.

•The emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision.

•Aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches will begin to disappear.

•Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Can this community withstand heresy, relativism, and confusion? To do so, it must make a priority of biblical authority, responsible leadership, and a reemergence of orthodoxy.

•Evangelicalism needs a "rescue mission" from the world Christian community. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. Will they come? Will they be able to bring to our culture a more vital form of Christianity?

•Expect a fragmented response to the culture war. Some Evangelicals will work to create their own countercultures, rather than try to change the culture at large. Some will continue to see conservatism and Christianity through one lens and will engage the culture war much as before – a status quo the media will be all too happy to perpetuate. A significant number, however, may give up political engagement for a discipleship of deeper impact.

Is all of this a bad thing?

Evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral. But what about what remains?

Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become largely irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshal resources, training, and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches.

Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership. We must change the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate ones.

The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal-influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if reformation can reach those churches and if it is joined with the calling, training, and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Holy Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing.

Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to "evangelize" Protestantism in the name of unity.

Will the coming collapse get Evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about the loss of substance and power? Probably not. The purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church's problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time.

Will it shake lose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? Evidence from similar periods is not encouraging. American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success.

The loss of their political clout may impel many Evangelicals to reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a "godly society." That doesn't mean they'll focus solely on saving souls, but the increasing concern will be how to keep secularism out of church, not stop it altogether. The integrity of the church as a countercultural movement with a message of "empire subversion" will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement.

Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, "Christianity loves a crumbling empire."

We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century.

We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.

I'm not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential?

• Michael Spencer is a writer and communicator living and working in a Christian community in Kentucky. He describes himself as "a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality." This essay is adapted from a series on his blog, InternetMonk.com.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Fifteen

Our Wonderful Bodies!

The above images come from a schoolroom biology presentation on rollers that hangs next to my computer. I have no idea what parts of the body are supposed to be depicted, but it looks like biological functions as drawn by Bosch. I bought it a few years ago from a second hand store on Houston Street. I had seen it, loved it, but then proceeded to some art galleries in Soho and Chelsea. When I realized that nothing in the galleries was as fascinating as this biological presentation, I worried that I had missed my chance and couldn't get back to the shop fast enough.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Fourteen

In Today's Moron News, This Just In...

NY man claims NJ psychic defrauded him of $250,000
Mon Mar 9, 9:06 pm ET

MORRISTOWN, N.J. – A New York man is suing a New Jersey psychic, claiming she defrauded him of nearly $250,000 he paid her to craft a golden statue that was supposed to ward off negativity. Charles Silveira, 38, of Seaford, Long Island, claims he never received the statue.

On Monday, he filed suit in New Jersey Superior Court in Morristown seeking to recover the money from 32-year-old Ava Miller of Mendham. Silveira also wants Miller removed from a $700,000 home he bought for her last year.

The lawsuit claims that Silveira met Miller online in 2007, and that he made several large cash payments to her over a period of several months.

A telephone listed for Miller's Mendham address rang unanswered Monday night. Reached earlier Monday by the Daily Record of Morristown, she declined comment.

Monday, March 09, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirteen

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

So because I was a young man in the late 1980s who liked comics and thought he was smart, I went to see Watchmen this past weekend. For those who don’t know, Watchmen is based on a groundbreaking 12 issue comic book series that takes as its central thesis that if superheroes existed in the real world, they wouldn’t be able to effect any significant positive change because, being human, they would have emotional, psychological, sexual and political problems just like everyone else.

The movie isn’t the disaster that some film adaptations are, but its best moments come directly from the comic. The film has a ponderousness, a heaviness of tone, that the comic did not have. There is no pleasure in watching the movie, or rather, the only pleasure comes when it recalls favorite parts of the comic. But despite material that ranged from melancholy to nihilistic, reading the comic was always a pleasure. Much of this comes from the cleverness of writer Alan Moore’s words, but mostly this pleasure comes from watching how words interact, support, subvert or contradict the images with which they share a panel. Watchmen was, to use a word that would become a cliche a decade after its publication, "interactive" in a way unlike any other comic or media of its time. Loaded with repeating images and words, the reader had to make connections between scenes or bits of dialogue, like solving a puzzle. The driving plot was a murder mystery, and the reader’s gathering of clues and noticing things echoed what the characters were doing. Based on lurid pulps and pushing comic book stereotypes to the point of no return, it was fun: that’s why I loaned my issues and gave copies of the book to so many people. The movie, whatever its merits, is not a fun experience.

I’ve become more interested lately in how the human brain works, how it processes different kinds of information. What parts of the brain does music stimulate? Why do you feel different after two hours of reading as opposed to two hours of watching television? Does representational work make us think differently than abstract? I was once discussing this in a bar with a neurologist (really!) and he said that the popular “right brain/left brain” model was an oversimplification and inaccurate. So while I’d like to avoid being dualistic, there does seem to be a fundamental divide between how we “read” words versus images. This would make comics an important form to study, but most comics aren’t as conscious as Watchmen of the dance between words and pictures. As mentioned before, they vary between harmony, opposition, ironic comment, and surprising coincidence. You draw meaning from the words and pictures: sometimes in synthesis, but not always. It was, if not new, then at least a subtly different, way of thinking.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Twelve

It's my favorite scene from Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, a movie that, surprisingly, I liked, perhaps because I saw it in terms of the traditional passion play rather than anything contemporary. My favorite scene exists as its own little mystery. Jesus the carpenter shows His mother His new innovation. The Son of God has created the first kitchen dining set: a table and long legged chairs so that you no longer have to sit or kneel on the ground to eat. Mary slowly, cautiously sits in one of the chairs, as if it is going to collapse beneath her. Soon she is excited about Jesus' new idea, which eventually gets forgotten in the course of later events. On the way to His death, Christ is mocked as "The King of the Jews" not "Inventor of Really Tall Chairs."

It's a funny scene in and of itself and one of the few moments of levity in the film. I'm not entirely sure what it it trying to say, except perhaps that Jesus of Nazareth would have changed the world even if he hadn't be divine? Was saving humanity's lower backs as well as their souls part of His mission? A nice kitchen set is a gift from God? Or that perhaps certain ideas get lost in the sweep of historical events and because the world is not ready for them, only to re-emerge when the people are ready? But this last interpretation is close to Gnostic teaching. Is Gibson parodying Gnostic ideas, saying that forgotten or lost knowledge is no more significant than a comfy place to park your *ss?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Eleven

01:44 SPY: The Funny Years
Edited by Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter, George Kalogerakis

My first book report this year fits in with the Days of Lent, given that those who worked at SPY magazine seemed motivated by the Deadly Sins of Pride and Envy.

I can remember searching for the first issue of Spy after reading an Associated Press article about a sharp new satiric magazine. It sounded like everything I was looking for. Unfortunately, I was looking in the wrong place: Wilkes-Barre, PA, to be exact, where I was living at the time. We might have gotten Associated Press articles, sure, but sophisticated “New York Monthlies?” No way.

As related in the combination memoir/anthology SPY: The Funny Years, I wasn’t alone on either count. People who lived in New York had trouble finding early issues, and there were others across the nation who were excited about a monthly satire magazine. The first issue I saw was April 1988, The “Nice” Issue. I picked it up at a stopover in Chicago while taking the train across the country and was quickly initiated. Things that hadn’t mattered to me (like cover boy Donald Trump) now did, once I learned of their inherent odiousness through SPY’s clever, nasty articles. The nastiness became more apparent (actually, inescapable) later, but what initially impressed me was how much fun the magazine was to read. The crazy charts, the articles in tiny print that ran alongside the margins, columns that gave the inside scoop about The New York Times or professional critics. There seemed to be so much in that issue, yet I didn’t feel sated after I had read, and re-read, everything it contained. Just the opposite, in fact.

And so it seemed with the issues that followed. Looking at the covers reproduced on The Funny Years’ endpapers, I can remember where I was when I first saw the 1988-89 issues. June ‘88, with Graham Chapman as a “coaster:” I flipped through it at Cody’s Books in Berkeley before buying. March ’89, with a smug Chevy Chase representing the Irony Epidemic: couldn’t wait for my break, kept flipping through the issue while at work. I didn’t have much money when I lived in California – I was on the macaroni and cheese diet most of the time – but I always bought SPY magazine. I can remember at the time thinking that, as good as the magazine was, it wasn’t quite “there” yet. It was a good magazine (very good, I suppose) but not great. The issues were getting better and better but it hadn’t peaked, which I looked forward to with anticipation.

That peak never really came. Looking back, you can choose a run of issues and say that it was the magazine at its best, but examine those issues and a sense of repetition, a formula, becomes apparent and annoying. I think this was one of the magazine’s fatal flaws. Magazines have a house style and a consistent tone, true, but SPY, after fairly quickly finding its voice, didn’t do anything but repeat, but with diminishing returns. Just as every young man eventually has an epiphany and realizes that every issue of Mad magazine is basically the same, so it was with SPY. The other fatal flaw was not just the repetition but also the tone itself. Being mean can be cathartic and liberating, for a while, but consistent meanness becomes tiresome, and as a tool for satire, ineffective because it eliminates point of view. If everything is corrupt, why should anyone care about the special loathsomeness of Donald Trump?

The memoir section of The Funny Years is obviously for fans of the magazine*. Its insights run along the lines of “we had fun – you shoulda been there!” The editors and writers come across as clever and sensible people who, you know, sat at their desks and worked. More interesting is how the magazine was always a shoestring operation given that each issue “seemed” rich in that 1980s kinda way. It’s disappointing that so little from the actual magazine is reprinted. Pages are reprinted in their entirety to give a sense of the interplay of graphics and text that was a hallmark of the magazine, but unfortunately, at a smaller than original size, which makes reading more of an effort. Even though I have all my old issues, I was disappointed that most of what’s reprinted are fragments rather than entire articles. There are pieces that justify the magazine’s reputation: I was amazed at how good the “Great Expectations” essay written by Kurt Andersen was. The quality of the writing, dense yet paced to zip along, is rarely found in magazines anymore. An article about “Yuppie Porn” (making and marketing mundane items like knives and telephones as luxury goods) makes the distinction: “…pornography – the objectification of bodies…[whereas] yuppie pornography – the objectification of objects.” You can substitute “materialism” for “yuppie pornography” but I think the idea of “objectification of objects” is just about perfect.

*Are there still fans of the magazine? I picked up my copy of this book for $2.99 at the bargain table at Borders. I can't imagine paying the list prices of $39.95.

Friday, March 06, 2009

40 Days Of Lent: Day Ten

There's an older man in our office lobby who recently had a stroke. He's surrounded by some younger businessmen respectfully gathered around him while he sits in a comfortable chair and talks. He speaks clearly though slowly, but because he takes his time, you can follow the pattern of his thoughts as he begins a sentence, veers off to make a dirty pun, which reminds him of something from his youth in Brooklyn, which he then relates to the ongoing current stock market panic. It's not much different from how other minds work, but because the stroke has slowed his thoughts to a speed at which he can express them and he's not being interrupted by those listening to him, I'm able to watch a slowed-down model of how consciousness works.

I don't want it to end, especially since he what he says is as interesting as how he says it, but his meeting is starting so now he must take baby steps into our conference room and close the door.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

40 Days Of Lent: Day Nine

The Dr. Seuss Bible

I was going to write about LSD today, but then I read on my friend Carol's blog that Monday was Dr. Seuss' 105th birthday. So, in sort of honor of Dr. Seuss, one of my favorite bit of parody: The Dr. Seuss Bible by The Kids In The Hall.

One day God said
"This is what I will do
I'll send down my Son
I'll send him to you
To clear up this humpity
Bumpity hulabaloo

"His name will be Christ
And he'll never wear shoes
And his pals will all call Him
the King of the Jews!"

He didn't come in a plane
He didn't come in a jeep
He didn't come in the pouch
Of a high jumping voveep

He rode on the back of a black sasatoo
Which is the blackiest creature
You ever could view

He rode to Jerusalem
Home of the grumpity Jews
Where false prophets are worshiped
Some even in two's

There was Murrary Von Mer
And Genghis Vo Vooze
The one you could worship
By taking a snooze

Christ spoke from a mound
Which is a pile of ground
And people gathered around
Without making a sound
And thus he spake

"Sin in socks
Socks full of sin
How do we quiet this
Jehoviadin din?

"Do unto others as
They do unto you"
That includes you,
Young Timothy Foo

One pharisee said to another he knew
"What do we do with this upitty jew?"
"We can wash him in wine
And make him all clean
And into Sam Zittle's
Crucifixion Machine"

Twirl the gawhril
And relase the gavlease
And in go the nails
As fast as you please!

And it is said that He
Said as he bled:

"Forgive them Father
For they know not what they do

"For they walk through this life
In toe crampity shoes."

Do you?


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

40 Days Of Lent: Day Eight

Bad Deeds

Below is an article from today's New York Times about debt collectors manipulating the next of kin to pay their deceased family member's debts. Legally, you are not responsible for the debts of a deceased loved one; hence, the heinous manipulation. Originally, I was going to include my mortified reactions, but then I found that all I was doing was typing "Oh my God" and "there's got to be a special circle in Hell" and "AAAAAAAAAAgh!" over and over.


You’re Dead? That Won’t Stop the Debt Collector

MINNEAPOLIS — The banks need another bailout and countless homeowners cannot handle their mortgage payments, but one group is paying its bills: the dead.

Dozens of specially trained agents work on the third floor of DCM Services here, calling up the dear departed’s next of kin and kindly asking if they want to settle the balance on a credit card or bank loan, or perhaps make that final utility bill or cellphone payment.

The people on the other end of the line often have no legal obligation to assume the debt of a spouse, sibling or parent. But they take responsibility for it anyway.

“I am out of work now, to be honest with you, and money is very tight for us,” one man declared on a recent phone call after he was apprised of his late mother-in-law’s $280 credit card bill. He promised to pay $15 a month.

Dead people are the newest frontier in debt collecting, and one of the healthiest parts of the industry. Those who dun the living say that people are so scared and so broke it is difficult to get them to cough up even token payments.

Collecting from the dead, however, is expanding. Improved database technology is making it easier to discover when estates are opened in the country’s 3,000 probate courts, giving collectors an opportunity to file timely claims. But if there is no formal estate and thus nothing to file against, the human touch comes into play.

New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls “empathic active listening,” which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend. The new employees learn to use such anger-deflecting phrases as “If I hear you correctly, you’d like...”

“You get to be the person who cares,” the training manager, Autumn Boomgaarden, told a class of four new hires.

For some relatives, paying is pragmatic. The law varies from state to state, but generally survivors are not required to pay a dead relative’s bills from their own assets. In theory, however, collection agencies could go after any property inherited from the deceased.

But sentiment also plays a large role, the agencies say. Some relatives are loyal to the credit card or bank in question. Some feel a strong sense of morality, that all debts should be paid. Most of all, people feel they are honoring the wishes of their loved ones.

“In times of illness and death, the hierarchy of debts is adjusted,” said Michael Ginsberg of Kaulkin Ginsberg, a consulting company to the debt collection industry. “We do our best to make sure our doctor is paid, because we might need him again. And we want the dead to rest easy, knowing their obligations are taken care of.”

Finally, of course, some of those who pay a dead relative’s debts are unaware they may have no legal obligation.

Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs deceased collections, says that if family members ask, “we definitely tell them” they have no legal obligation to pay. “But is it disclosed upfront — ‘Mr. Smith, you definitely don’t owe the money’? It’s not that blunt.”

DCM Services, which began in 1999 as a law firm, recently acquired clients in banking, automobile finance, retailing, telecommunications and health care; DCM says its contracts preclude it from naming them.

The companies “want to protect their brand,” said DCM’s chief executive, Steven Farsht. Despite the delicacy of such collections, he says his 180-employee firm is providing a service to the economy. “The financial services industry is under a tremendous amount of pressure, and every dollar we collect improves their profitability,” he said.

To listen to even a small sample of DCM’s calls — executives played tapes of 10 of them for a reporter, electronically edited to remove all names — is to reveal the wages of misery, right down to the penny.

A man has left credit card debt of $26,693.77, the legacy of a battle with cancer. A widow says her husband “had no money. He pretty much just had debt.” Asked about an outstanding account of $1,084.86, a woman says the deceased had no property beyond “some tools in the garage” and an 18-year-old Dodge.

Not everyone has the temperament to make such calls. About half of DCM’s hires do not make it past the first 90 days. For those who survive, many tools help them deal with stress: yoga classes and foosball tables, a rotating assortment of free snacks as well as full-scale lunches twice a month. A masseuse comes in regularly to work on their heads and necks.

Brenda Edwards, one of DCM’s top collectors, spoke with a woman in New Jersey about her mother’s $544.96 credit card bill.

“She had no will, no finances, nothing,” the daughter said. “Nothing went to probate.” The $200 in the checking account was used for funeral expenses. But the woman also said the family “filed a form with the county,” indicating that perhaps there was a legal estate after all.

“Is anyone in the family in a position to pay this?” Ms. Edwards asked, adding: “I’m not telling you it needs to be paid at all.”

The woman reached a decision. “I will talk to my brothers and sisters and we will pay this,” she said.

Ms. Edwards has a girlish voice that sounds younger than her 29 years. “If you plant a seed and leave on a good note, they’ll call back and pay it,” she said.

DCM started a Web site called MyWayForward.com to provide the bereaved with information, tools and, some day, products. “We will never sell death. But it’s O.K. to provide things that could be helpful to the survivor,” Mr. Farsht said. Death will be the end of one customer relationship but the beginning of another.

Some survivors are surprised, and a few are shocked, that they are hearing from a collector.

Eric Frenchman, an online consultant, said a DCM agent inquired about his late father’s $50 Discover card balance before the bill was even due. Since Mr. Frenchman had been planning to pay it anyway, he emerged from the experience vowing never to get a Discover card himself.

The major deceased-debt firms say such experiences are rare. Adam Cohen, chief executive of Phillips & Cohen Associates of Westampton, N.J., said his team of 300 collectors “are all trained in the five stages of grief.”

If a relative is more focused on denial or anger instead of, say, bargaining, the collector offers to transfer him to the human resources company Ceridian LifeWorks, where “master’s level grief counselors” are standing by. After a week, the relative is contacted again.

DCM executives say some of the survivors not only gladly pay but write appreciative notes. They offered up a stack, with the names deleted, as proof.

One widow wrote that a collector “was so nice to me, even when I could only pay $5 a month a few times.” Saying that money was “so tight” after her husband died, she added: “It was very hard for me, and to get a job at my age. Thank you.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Seven

Good Deeds

I'm stuck late at work tonight, helping to straighten out my boss' vacation plans, which begin, appropriately enough, on Friday the 13th of this month. I'm thinking about karma, Islam's good deeds, Christian charity, and, of course, being a martyr.

Monday, March 02, 2009

40 Days Of Lent: Day Six

Indulgences Are Back!

Until June 29th of this year, the Vatican is offering indulgences in honor of the 2000th birthday of St. Paul (as opposed to how the Church normally honors St. Paul by having an ambivalent attitude towards women). Unlike the previous indulgences that so upset dreary fussbudget Martin Luther*, you do not have to pay. You simply have to, with sincere heart,

1. make a full confession to a priest (much easier than it was in the days of the Inquisition)

2. pray for the intentions of the pontiff

3. make a pilgrimage to a site dedicated to St. Paul

and you will have some of your time in Purgatory forgiven.

Not a bad deal at all.

*currently residing in Hell.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Five

The Milky Way
Directed by Luis Bunuel

For a number of years, Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel's film The Milky Way was one of his unknown films. People knew Un Chien Andalou, made with Salvador Dali at the beginning of their careers, The Discreet Charm of The Bougeousis, made towards the end and nominated for an Oscar, and sporadic films in between, but there was a whole category of his films that were talked about but seldom seen. These films were considered either lost classics or failures; The Milky Way being one of the latter. All I could knew was that it was about people on a religious pilgrammage and it wasn't as good as the Bunuel films that followed.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the first time that I saw The Milky Way that I loved it. I suppose critics at the time were disappointed that it was a straight-forward depiction of religious argument rather than a mocking of the middle-class. It's a film in which everyone talks about Catholic doctrine the way people in the real world discuss celebrities or sports or the news. It's like the movie was made for me: I find the history of heresy and religious arguments endlessly fascinating. The dialogue consists of much of what goes on inside my head all the time, like the voiceovers of another favorite film of mine The Thin Red Line. For me, the key scene is one in which workers at an expensive restaurant are getting ready for that evening's customers but discuss Christian theology as they do.

Bunuel's characters discuss religion the same way Godard's go on endlessly about politics. Reminding the viewer of the number of passionate arguments in the history of religion and of the many now heretical ideas cast out in the name of forming a universal faith, we see how religion has never been a fixed thing, but subject to the arguments of man.

In addition to being an interesting history of heresy, The Milky Way can also be seen as the autobiographical musings of an old surrealist. "Do you want to know why I'm so fascinated with how the unexpected and the supernatural intrude on our mundane lives? Well, I was brought up to believe in a malleable logic that could explained supernatural events." Bunuel's deadpan film style doesn't hold religious arguments up for ridicule: there's something sad, rather than satiric, about characters earnestly arguing about things that can never be proven. The best example of this is the scene where two 18th century noblemen have a duel because they disagree about the notion of free will. Seems funny, but people really did die over such arguments.