Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Book Review: An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland

Title: An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland
Author: H. Paul Jeffers
Publisher: William Morrow (a division of HarperCollins), 2000 (Out of Print)

What do you know about Canadian history?

Okay, that might be a strange way to start a review of a book that is the biography of an American president. But, while reading the book, An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, I couldn't help but think of a conversation about Canadian history I had with a Canadian this past summer. We were talking about how so few Americans have any knowledge of the history of other countries. We could have spoken about how so few Americans have any depth of knowledge about American history, but that's another conversation for another time. I confessed my own ignorance, and asked the gentleman for a suggestion of some good, readable books exploring Canadian history. He suggested the books of Pierre Berton, who is, as he explained, Canada's answer to Stephen Ambrose. I promised to look up Mr. Berton's books as soon as I returned home. And so I did. Unfortunately, our library has a paltry selection of his books, and I wasn't immediately in the mood to canvass Canada's great military triumphs in the War of 1812. So, I've put off my promise until I whittle down some more books on my already lengthy list. But one of the titles of Pierre Berton's books has stuck with me. It was 1967: The Last Good Year, which I found an intriguing title, and one I am likely to request soon from the inter-library loan. While ruminating on that title, I asked Jason what he thought America's "last good year" was. He said, maybe, 1963 -- before LBJ got his grubby hands on the federal reins. I said that, after reading the heartbreaking story of the Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt eras in FDR's Folly by Jim Powell, I was thinking that the "last good year" was 1928. Jason said, "Yeah, I could see that." That's what happens when you get two libertarians with a sound foundation in economics together -- we see doom spelled out in every governmental misstep, in every increase of governmental power. Now, having read H. Paul Jeffers excellent biography of our country's 22nd and 24th president, I am tempted to say that America's last good year was really 1897, when Grover Cleveland left office for the last time. What a man!

I shudder when I hear of a candidate whose lifelong ambition has been to hold political office. Goodness me -- that's the last sort of person we should ever allow into a position of power. Rather, I would have all men be dragged reluctantly into office and serve under duress out of a sense of duty to party, country and Constitution. Such it was for Grover Cleveland -- a man of such unassuming modesty and unimpeachable integrity, that (if you are anything like me) you are left with a longing for even half such a personality to inhabit again the now-sullied walls of the Executive Mansion. I must admit that I have a little bit of a crush on this portly, mustached gentleman of a bygone era who has been in eternal slumber almost 100 years.

So, forget about Canadian history for a moment -- what do you know about Grover Cleveland?

Well, many of us know that he is the only president to have been elected to two non-consecutive terms. Some of us who visited the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian might remember that he is the only president ever to have gotten married in the White House. Some of us with a soft spot for candy might remember that the Baby Ruth bar was purportedly named after his eldest daughter -- while others may simply know that her sister Esther was the first baby ever born in the Executive Mansion. Some of us may also remember having heard, while grimly bearing the Clinton years, that Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out-of-wedlock, which he admitted to readily when confronted with that scandalous tidbit during his first presidential campaign -- thus diffusing any punch that revelation might otherwise have held. Some of us might also remember having heard, while grimly bearing the debacle that was the 2000 election controversy, that Grover Cleveland also lost the presidency when running the first time for a second term by losing the electoral college vote, while winning the popular vote. Far too few Americans have ever heard of his magnificent management of the economic depression of the 1890s, his courage in the face of opposition from without and within his Democratic party, his bold stance against tariffs, his constant defense of the gold standard, his incredible humilty in performing the duties of what he saw as a sacred trust given to him by the people of a country he dearly loved.

I really enjoyed this biography, because it was written by an unusual sort of presidential chronicler. Mr. Jeffers has, based upon the "Also by H. Paul Jeffers" list adjacent to the title page, written books, both fiction and non-fiction, that span a diverse ocean of subjects: from pot-boiler mysteries to true crime; from a history of Santa Claus to a history of Scotland Yard; from Hollywood gossip to an appreciative tome extolling the virtues of cigar smoking. Among his many efforts are at least three books on Theodore Roosevelt. What he brings to the life story of Grover Cleveland, then, is a fiction writer's sense of plot and drama, a non-fiction writer's ability to condense vast research into a readable format, and a presidential historian's eye for placing the events of an administration into the larger context of the American continuum. These attributes culminate in a very satisfying look at an unjustly forgotten Commander-In-Chief.

Grover Cleveland's early life could almost read as a blueprint for typical 19th Century Americana. He was born Stephen Grover Cleveland on March 18, 1837, the fifth child and third boy of Richard, a Presbyterian minister, and Ann Cleveland. He grew up in modest financial circumstances under a strict, yet tender, upbringing that consisted of emphasizing both Christian virtue and old-fashioned American fun. His father's death when Grover was sixteen left him with dashed dreams of college and a new responsibility to help provide for his mother and younger siblings. One of his older brothers found him a position teaching in New York City at the Institution for the Blind. He held that job for a year, before deciding to try his luck in the western city named for his paternal ancestor Moses. On his way to Cleveland, OH, he stopped off to visit his uncle, Lewis F. Allen in Buffalo, NY. His uncle persuaded the young Grover to abandon Ohio and settle in town, where his uncle could use his influence to find him an assitant position in a law firm where he could study to apply to the New York State Bar. At this time, law was not something for which a degree was needed to practice -- many young lads of bright minds, ambitious natures, and meager purses could "read" the law and then apply to the state bar to practice, as did Abraham Lincoln. Grover Cleveland welcomed his uncle's concern and support and did as he suggested. Within five years he had completed his studies and was granted his law license. In the meantime, he had become involved with party politics by working for the election campaign of James Buchanan. Thus far, there is nothing very remarkable about Grover Cleveland's life. It could have been the life story of any young and opportunistic man in a young and opportunity-filled country. And yet, little did he or anyone else know that after Buchanan finished his one term in office, Grover Cleveland would be the nation's next Democratic president.

So, what was it about this man among many men that fomented the makings of a great future president? As cited biographer Allan Nevins wrote in his 1932 work, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, "He had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But, he possessed them in a degree that others did not." (p. 347) And what is most remarkable about Grover Cleveland was not only that he had an abundance of qualities that make an honorable man, he had the integrity not to let those qualities be compromised by power, persuasion, or politics. Many a man starts out with the right ideas and the correct philosophies, but too many times those virtues fall by the wayside when it is politically expedient to overlook them for immediate gain. That is a route that Grover Cleveland is most remarkable in not having taken.

He got his start in politics by accident. As an assistant district attorney in Buffalo, he was essentially acting as the D.A., since the elected district attorney was elderly and infirm. In the 1865 election, he ran for D.A., but lost. He might never have run again for office, had not his financial situation demanded a new vocation. He was the primary provider for his mother and two unmarried sisters. His eldest brother, William, was a poor minister supporting his own family in Southhampton, Long Island. His two other brothers were fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Because of his obligation to his family, Grover Cleveland paid a substitute to fight in his place. Money was very tight, even in his state of happy bachelorhood. While considering his future course, he was approached by the Erie County Democratic Party to run for sheriff. Since this office would mean a financial boon, he agreed to be their candidate. He won the position (in a largely Republican county) by only 303 votes. (p. 33) Since he was not running against Christine Gregoire, he was allowed to keep all those votes and took his new office on January 1, 1871, when he was almost thirty-four years old.

So seriously did he take his responsibility as sheriff, that he did not shirk his duty to perform executions of criminals, though he found the task troubling and distasteful. He served his two-year term then went back to private practice (remember when politicians would do that?). Though known as a sober, careful, deliberate man in his professional life, Grover Cleveland was quite the hombre after hours. He spent much of his spare time in saloons and cafés where the rough-and-tumble local men hailed him as "Big Steve." (p.32) And, though he professed a commitment to bachelorhood, there were women too. One particular lady was well-known to many of the men in Buffalo, and "when Maria [Halpin] gave birth to a son on September 14, 1874, speculation and tremors of trepidation as to the paternity of the child ran rampant through Gorver's circle of friends and associates. But this crisis passed for all but one of them when Maria declared that Grover was the father and that she had named the child Oscar Folsom Cleveland." (p. 38) She probably knew that out of all the (ahem) companions she entertained, Grover Cleveland was the most likely again to do his duty and not refuse to pay the fiddler for the light he tripped fantastic. True to his established character, Grover agreed, reluctantly, to accept the responsibility to provide financially for the child. Interesting to note, but something Mr. Jeffers lets pass without comment, is that Oscar Folsom (the little boy's first and middle names) was Grover Cleveland's friend and law partner and the father of Frances Folsom. More about Frances Folsom later.

Next, Grover Cleveland was nudged into accepting the Democratic candidacy for mayor of Buffalo. He was seen as the only Democrat who could win enough Republican and independent votes in a town still heavily Republican. On October 25, 1881 he addressed the delegation that had unanimously nominated him with his first convention speech. His message he later distilled into the phrase, "Public officials are the trustees of the people," and called for fiscal conservatism and budget scrutiny -- lower taxes with less expenditure. (p. 44) He was elected, and took office in January 1882. He soon lived up to his campaign promises (a moment to allow the collective gasp from today's population to reverberate 'round the room and die out -- okay) and became known as Mayor Veto, since hardly a proposal the City Council sent to him for signing was given that precious scrawl of ink. Hello? George W.? Buffalo loved him, and he loved Buffalo.

He was soon tapped again by the Democratic Party to run for governor of the state of New York. Though he did not want to leave his adopted home town, he acceded for the good of the Party. His honesty and integrity flew before him like a banner. As a cited biographer Robert McElroy wrote: "Had Grover Cleveland been a politician, with the record of a spoilsman behind, his promises would mean little. They might have deceived a few of the simple, disgusted a few of the honest, caused mirth to a few other spoilsmen, and thus fulfilled their intended mission; for Americans had long since learned that, as the devil can quote Scripture, so the most dangerous type of demagogue can sing of ideals in false notes not easily distinguishable from true [the author does not note when Americans unlearned this]. But Mr. Cleveland had already put into practice the ideals which he announced, and Republicans bent on reform rallied to his support with an enthusiasm equal to that of his Democratic followers." (p. 57) His Republican supporters became known as the "Mugwumps," an Algonquin word meaning "chief." At first used derisively, this group became a major factor in helping Grover Cleveland win both the 1882 gubernatorial election, as well as the 1884 presidential race.

As New York's governor, he was given the affectionate nomenclature "Grover the Good." And he was good. He had distilled his mayoral message even further to "Public Office Is a Public Trust." He lived that motto with every decision that came to him. He was famous for deliberating excruciatingly over every bill the state legislature sent to him, again vetoing the overwhelming majority of them. He made unusual political allies, such as the young Republican firebrand Theodore Roosevelt, and mind-boggling political enemies, like the Democratic vote machine Tammany Hall. He was a fiercely independent Democrat, and he gave his party hope of recapturing the political predominancy that had eluded them since the Civil War. So, when they again approached him, this time for a go at the presidency, Grover gave in and assented, against his own desires and inclinations.

If you are of the mind that campaigning in the days before the electorate was bombarded with campaign commercials and saturated with soundbites and immersed in incessant media coverage was somehow more genteel and seemly, then you must examine the presidential election of 1884. The Republicans delved into Grover's past, trying to find enough rope there to hang him. They discovered little Oscar Folsom Cleveland, living with adopted parents in western New York, and the next day Buffalo's anti-Cleveland newspaper bore the sensational headline: A TERRIBLE TALE. A DARK CHAPTER IN A PUBLIC MAN'S HISTORY. THE PITIFUL STORY OF MARIA HALPIN AND GOVENOR CLEVELAND'S SON. (p. 106) Grover's campaign managers wrote to him to ask him what the party should say. He replied by telegram: Whatever you do, tell the truth. (p. 108) Thus, Governor Cleveland diffused a potential political bombshell with the public official's most powerful, but least used, weapon: honesty. Still trying to use the illicit affair against him, Republican politicos coined the catchy chant: "Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa?"

Not to be outdone, Democrats invented their own electoral ditty that brought to the forefront Cleveland's opponent James G. Blaine's questionable ethics: "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!" (p. 111) I only wish we had this kind of creativity in today's smear campaigns -- Octobers and Novembers would be a lot more fun!

The Republicans came back with the fact that Grover Cleveland had evaded service in the Civil War by paying a substitute to take his place. This tidbit was as easily deflated as the Halpin accusation, being owned up to by the governor, and being most reasonably explained by his former position as sole provider for his mother and younger sisters. It is hard to hold filial responsibility against a man.

Soon, in the closest election on record (only 24,000 votes separated the two candidates), Cleveland and the Democrats took over the executive branch of the government. The Democrats and Mugwumps had a new ending for the derisive chant of the Republicans: "Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa? Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!" With the job came the headache of appointing myriad political allies to federal positions, with many obscure names with dubious qualifications coming out of the woodwork to demand to be put on the payroll. The enormity of this task can be seen in these numbers: of a federal "government payroll of about 126,000, all but 16,000 got their jobs by appointment by the president." (p. 129) This was the kind of thing that disgusted Cleveland, and he was known to scrutinize all applications with his customary skepticism and reply in no uncertain terms to those absolutely unqualified for the positions they desired. While this did not strew his path with rose petals from party loyalists who were expecting payback, it did win him the respect of the American public.

The bachelor president elected in 1884 did not remain in a state of single blessedness for long. Despite rumors that Cleveland was about to marry Oscar Folsom's (his former law partner) widow, he surprised the wagging tongues by marrying instead her twenty-two-year-old daughter, Frances (or, as Jason calls her, "Hottie Folsom"). The first wedding ever to be held in the White House helped to launch one of the greatest love affairs between the American public and a First Lady. Beautiful Frances was so admired and loved that newspapermen clamored for any information at all about the Clevelands comings and goings. This was in a time so far removed from our own, that access to the president was considered a right of citizenship, and folks wandered into the Executive Mansion almost as casually as we currently wander into a library. In fact, frugal Grover did not even deem it necessary to employ a butler to answer the door of the White House, and he answered the one telephone inside himself. With access so easy, and the new husband made rather uneasy by it, he and Frances took up primary residence at a nearby house that they purchased and only used the Mansion for official functions and workspace.

Grover Cleveland did a bunch of great stuff as president, most of which would not be seen as great nowadays in this entitlement society in which we live. But, for libertarians like me who glory in the government's staying as small and unobtrusive as possible, having a president who does not see himself as an innovator or a visionary, but rather as a strict Constitutional constructionist is so refreshing and grand that you just want to kiss that firm, mustached mouth of his in gratitude. For this was the late 19th Century, when everything started going to hell around the world, but Grover Cleveland held fast and did not let the beacon of liberty flicker and die. Civil War veterans wanted compensation for disabilities not resulting from the War. Cleveland vetoed that bill. He championed lowering or eliminating tariffs in an economy that was very protectionist, saying, "If every other man in the country abandons this issue, I shall stick to it." (p. 205) He would not hear of abandoning the gold standard. He put much thought and eloquence into his arguments, so that even his detractors could not find fault with his conscience. When he vetoed a bill that would authorize $10,000 to Texas farmers who had been hit by drought, he included in his attached reasoning a memorable phrase: "Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people." (p. 194) And he also stated: "Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character." (FDR's Folly by Jim Powell, p. 269)

Running against Benjamin Harrison, a Civil War veteran, in 1888, Cleveland did not soften or change his message. Never one to go into any situation with his finger up to test the wind, Grover stated, "What's the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?" While his message still resonated with the majority of Americans, the Presidential Election of 1888 went down in history as the first in which a candidate (Cleveland) won the popular vote, but lost his office because of the electoral college. Upon leaving the White House in March of 1889, Frances Cleveland bid goodbye to the staff with the words, "We are coming back four years from today." (p. 228)

The next four years were peaceful for the Clevelands, as they settled into domestic tranquility in New York. In this time before presidential pensions, Grover Cleveland took a position as counsel at a distinguished New York law firm, Bangs Stetson, Tracy and MacVeagh. I think that even with a pension, Grover Cleveland would have been an active private citizen. In 1891, they welcomed little Ruth into the family. This kept the Clevelands in the public spotlight, as Ruth generated much interest to Americans who found the young family rather glamorous.

Again pulled into candidacy by his party, Grover Cleveland accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1892. Knowing that a vote for Cleveland "was a declaration for (1) old-fashioned Democratic ideas of the Constitution; (2) economies; (3) merit as the ultimate test for appointment to office; (4) tariff reform; (5) the gold standard," (p. 252) he won in a landslide. His second term was fraught with so many irksome people and events that it took every ounce of Cleveland's stubborn honesty and heartfelt convictions to keep the country on a Constitutional track.

First, there was the Panic of 1893, which turned into a severe depression by 1894. Grover Cleveland held firm, kept the country on the gold standard, and the depression ended by 1897. His "inactivity," which was really Constitutional and intestinal fortitude, drew criticism from annoying populists, socialists, and that silver thorn in the side of sound money, William Jennings Bryan. In the midst of the economic crisis, the American Railway Union led by über-commie Eugene Debs, goaded the workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company into a massive strike. They disrupted all the train lines across the country, concentrating especially on Chicago, that Midwestern artery of American commerce. Jerks. Anyway, Cleveland sent in the military to break up the strike. The strikers attaked the soldiers, and seven of them ended up dead [note to self: do not attack soldiers]. Eugene Debs warned that these actions would lead to another civil war. Grover Cleveland was not impressed by the little fellow. A grand jury indicted Debs and others on seventy-one charges, including obstructing the mails. Debs ended up serving six months and lived to advocate chipping away at the core of American values -- independence, individualism, free markets, limited government intrusion in the economy -- until his demise in 1927. Grover Cleveland weathered the storms, but saw his popularity fall as beautiful America turned into a bunch of whiners bent upon getting other people's money at the point of a gun. No surprise that he chose to honor the precedent of George Washington and not run for a third term.

He lived a retired life for the next twelve years -- not that he retired. He, Frances and the children moved to Princeton, NJ, where Cleveland wrote books and articles and indulged in his favorite recreations of hunting and fishing. Their family eventually increased to include five children, but, sadly, they lost little Ruth when she was twelve-years-old to diptheria. On June 24, 1908, he said with his last earthly breath, "I have tried so hard to do right."

He would have been pleasantly surprised to see the estimations of his legacy in the years close to his death. He had thought that he was anathema to Twentieth Century America, that he was as out of place in the new era as "a fur coat in July," but the obituary notices spoke differently. His subsequent biographers have treated him with mixed assessments. An admiring summary by Robert McElroy is found in Grover Cleveland: The Man and the Statesman (1923): "Living, he dared to disregard party in the service principle. Dying, he named no party as his heir. Dead, no party and no faction can fairly claim a monopoly of the glory with which the advancing years are steadily crowning his memory." (p. 346) But former member of FDR's so-called "brain trust," Rexford Guy Tugwell, did not find Cleveland's integrity quite up to his thinly-veiled socialist point-of-view in his book, Grover Cleveland (1968): "His uncompromising honesty and integrity failed America in a time of crisis [whereas FDR's compromised values failed America in a time of crisis, right Tug-Tug?] ... Democracies must have leaders who are the people's prophets and who act as their mentors. A prophet must see ahead and turn the people's minds to the future [a future of bread lines and Aeroflot, eh Comrade?]. A mentor Cleveland was -- a stern and determined one. A prophet he was not." (p. 349) I like Mr. Jeffers comment on ol' Tuggy's assessment: "A suggestion to Grover that the people of the United States needed a prophet to lead and teach them, and that person was himself, would have left him flabbergasted. He believed that the futures of individuals and nations were grounded in what they did in the present ... The nine-year-old boy who'd written, 'If we expect to be great and good men and be respected and esteemed by our friends we must improve our time when we are young,' grew into a man who trusted that the people knew better where they ought to be in the future than could any man in the White House." (p. 349)

I do not think it is a secret that H. Paul Jeffers has written an admiring biography of this undeservedly obscure Democratic president. I think that this highly entertaining and informative life story of an honest man whose integrity made him a great president should be read by every American who wants to remember the values that used to govern this country.

Subject Interest: A
Readability: A
Illustrations: A
Overall Grade: A
Comments: Unfortunately, this book is out of print. It is well worthwhile, though, to borrow it from the library and immerse yourself in an America that still lives in the souls of those of us who treasure freedom. Would that we could find another such honest man to assume our nation's highest office -- his price would be far above rubies.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

My Grown-Up Christmas List ...

*****Our Little Christmas Angel (Sadie at the Church Christmas Show, December 18, 2005)*****

A little bit belated Merry Christmas to all! As we watched Sadie open the pyramid of presents beneath our tree this morning, I was so overwhelmed with how much we have been blessed by family and friends who love us and take the time and effort to choose things simply to delight our daughter. I prayed that the amount of giving we were privileged to do this year brought joy into the homes of children like Sadie -- giving their parents some relief and the children some wonder. My prayer was that some little bit of this agape that has filled our hearts over the years trickled down through these offerings of common metal, and that the great Alchemist will turn them into purest gold -- so that long after the clothes wear out or the toys are outgrown or the food finishes fueling the body, the memory of His provision in a time of need will remain.

Three things I wanted to post really quickly (before even Hawaii has seen the clock turn past another Christmas Day):

From The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, Chapter XIII:

He looked around again and could hardly believe his eyes. There was the blue sky overhead, and grassy country spreading as far as he could see in every direction, and his new friends all around him, laughing.
"It seems then," said Tirian, smiling himself, "that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places."
"Yes," said the Lord Digory. "Its inside is bigger than its outside."
"Yes," said Queen Lucy. "In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world." It was the first time she had spoken, and from the thrill in her voice Tirian now knew why. She was drinking everything in more deeply than the others. She had been too happy to speak.

From "Grown-Up Christmas List," by David Foster and Linda Thompson Jenner, from Amy Grant's Home For Christmas:

As children we believed the grandest sight to see
Was something lovely wrapped beneath our tree
Well heaven surely knows that packages and bows
Can never heal a hurting human soul

No more lives torn apart
And wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end
This is my grown-up Christmas list

From "Now in Flesh Appearing," by Carolyn Arends, from her album Christmas: An Irrational Season:

We celebrate the baby King and everything He came to bring
Every time we give goodwill to men
So on December twenty-five or in the middle of July
Every time we do what pleases Him
Then it's Christmas...Merry Christmas...This is Christmas
Now in flesh appearing, yeah.

Merry, merry, merry Christmas -- tonight and every night! Peace to you.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Compulsion is Not Compassion

I'm tired of so many people's equating tax-funded welfare and social programs with the sort of compassion that Jesus espoused. If Jesus had wanted to set up giant, faceless government programs dedicated to alleviating human suffering in the most disconnected, non-accountable way possible, then He could have easily taken over the governments of men 2000 years ago and set up a socialist paradise. In fact, that sort of thing was one of the temptations of the Devil. Jesus did not have to walk the earth, from town to town, touching the untouchable, loving the unlovable, helping the hopeless, but He did. And He called the hearts of the seeking the world over to follow His example and reach out in person to the hurting. Nowadays, too much "giving" is antiseptically applied at the tax office. It is not giving if it is forced. It is not virtuous if it is extracted at the point of a gun (when you talk about government force, that is always what it comes down to) and distributed at the hands of a bureaucracy. It is not compassionate if it involves compulsion.

So, I really do not understand the point of the protesters in Washington, D.C. a few days ago. The so-called "religious left" was out en masse (about 200 people) to object to planned federal budget cuts to welfare programs, student loans, etc. First of all: religious left and religious right. Huh? So, either Jesus wants lives enslaved by taxation and ended by abortion, or Jesus wants freedoms abridged in the name of "national security" and lives ended by war. Stop trying to make Him conform to your political persuasions! He is neither a Democrat, nor is He a Republican. He is Lord of Life and Redeemer of Man -- just deal with it! I hate it when sinful man puts on the cloak of righteousness and attempts to divine the will of God outside of what has been revealed in the Word and bend Him toward political ends. So, anyway, a bunch of lefties spouting their weenie whines in the name of the Most High gathered outside a House office building and complained about government goodies going the way of the Dodo. Oh, if only it were so!

Government should not be in the business of alleviating individual human suffering. Hello, commies! That's your job in the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples! Do your job, and shut up. Want poor kids to go to college? Set up your own grants and scholarships! Want the unfortunate to be fed, clothed, visited in prison? I think that Jesus has made it very clear who will be held accountable for those things on the Day of Judgement. Want affordable housing? Goodness gracious -- build some dorms onto your houses of worship to help out congregants in times of need! And, yes, when people need help, let them know who is truly good -- your Father in heaven who leads your heart to show His love.

If you offer a man bread and do not share with him the gospel of the Bread of Life, then you have done nothing worthwhile. One of the truly reprehensible things about the Church's avoiding its social responsibilites and sloughing them off on government is that the only element that can truly improve people's lives is left out of the help given. What people need most is Christian compassion, then material help. Sometimes a listening ear, a hand upon a shoulder, an eye gazing with sympathy into another, a good conversation is more needed than a crust of bread or a cup of water. The government just cannot do that. The poor, the most needy, become statistics, numbers on a soulless dole, but I can assure you that Jesus knows their every name, and counts their every tear of frustration and hopelessness. We faithful should rejoice in welfare cuts and encourage the government to do less and less, then take cheerfully upon ourselves the yoke of compassion that is our birthright as believers.

I think too, that the great crime of the welfare state is that it has eliminated the bond between givers and recipients. Now, social workers sit in judgement of the needy, glorify in implementing collectivist reforms on individual lives, and distribute with great condescension money that is not their own. This disconnect is so harmful, because gratitude is important. If there were no gratitude, a recognition of a gift given in grace and not deserved, then there would be no salvation. Can you imagine if the government set up an Office of Salvation, wherein every soul was guaranteed admission to the Kingdom as a right? There would be no bond between the Giver and the recipients, and that salvation would mean nothing. Nothing. And that is why government "charity" (not really charity, because the government has nothing of its own to give) means nothing in real terms. The bigger the government's role in alleviating suffering has gotten, the worse the effect for those on whom this largesse falls.

So, what is the way for those who try to live by the gospel of love to respond to the very real problem of human suffering in poverty? Well, for a Christian, the best way is always to look to the Lord. When He walked among men, He walked. He put Himself out there, in the midst of disease, disfigurement, heartbreak, hunger, depression and despair. He touched as many as He could, literally touching them. He sent forth those in His name to do the same. He did not glamorize poverty nor degrade those who were poor. Poverty and riches were alike to Him -- all bound in the chains of sin. He did not give anyone money, but He encouraged those who loved Him to give what they had. He gave Himself, and in doing that He gave hope and joy. He did not want poverty or riches to stand in the way of any man's following Him. His very presence caused those filled with greed to become generous. His only encounter with government, as far as I see, was when the government put Him to death.

One of the speakers at the protest tried to paraphrase Christ's admonishment to bolster his position. This is quoted from memory of what I heard on the radio, and I believe it to be accurate. "Someday this nation will stand in judgement of the Lord and He will say: I was hungry and you took away my food stamps. I was thirsty and you took away my Pell grants ..." Uh-huh. Well, nations are judged on earth, but I've always believed that individuals will stand before the Judgement Seat. And when we do, how many Christians who turned their responsibility toward their fellow man over to Uncle Sam will hear: I was hungry, and you clamored for food stamps, but denied me the Bread of Life. I was thirsty, and you bitched about trace minerals in the water, but did not give me Living Water. I was in prison, and you gave me television and a workout room, but let me stay bound by sin. We must do all these things: we must feed the hungry; we must quench the thirsty; we must heal the wounded and sick; we must treat humanely the prisoner and give him hope and mercy; we must clothe the naked; and, above all, we must live by the law of love. Could the Church even look upon His back nowadays, let alone see the glory of His face? Goodness knows, I need to do more to escape His remonstration, but I will never deny that it is my responsibility and mine alone to make a difference for Christ in this world. You will never see me trying to weasel my own accountability onto the government of men.

Ask and ye shall receive, knock and the door shall be opened. The moment is now. The privilege is ours. We have an example in Him that cannot be dismissed. He will not force you to follow Him, but if you do, you will feed His lambs and tend His sheep. And in His freedom and grace -- not at the point of a gun -- you will find true compassion. The joy of giving cannot be learned under compulsion nor hidden away in an IRS form. May we give because we have been given much.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

It's Beginning to Sound A Lot Like Christmas ...

I am a self-proclaimed Christmas nut! I love everything about the season -- the secular traditions, the universal goodwill, the weather, the gathering of friends and family, and, most of all, the celebration of the Blessed Birth -- God's greatest gift. I will confess that I pulled out the Christmas albums the day after Halloween (and felt like a martyr for having waited so long!). And now, with Thanksgiving but a memory, even the biggest crank must admit that the Christmas season has officially begun. So, I'm going to post a little about some of my favorite Christmas albums -- because I can! It's durned near impossible to stay in too much of a funk when hearing songs of good cheer. Here are a few that make my season a little merrier:

The Best of the Best:
Christmas:An Irrational Season by Carolyn Arends, 2004

2004 was a stellar year to be a Carolyn Arends fan. Not only did we get an all-new-material regular album, Under the Gaze, we also got the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated Christmas release, Christmas: An Irrational Season. Sometimes, when you wait a long time for something and it finally comes, your expectations have overwhelmed the possibilities of the awaited thing, and bitter disappointment ensues. Well, I am happy to report that this album bucks that trend. As the Wiggles might say, Christmas: An Irrational Season is a "beauty, mate!"

For the past ten years, Carolyn's church has asked her to write a song for their Christmas service. As Carolyn wryly notes, this sounded like a great idea the first couple of years. But if Carolyn's tongue-in-cheek observation speaks of a weariness of culling the ancient story for new inspiration, you would never know it by listening to the original songs she includes on this album. The album's unusual title was taken from a Madeleine L'Engle poem, "After Anunciation," and both the prelude and postlude tracks echo its beautiful refrain: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. Carolyn's sotto voice suits so well this poem turned lyric, and Spencer Capier comes in with a haunting violin solo of "What Child is This." And the mood is set for a truly unique Christmas experience.

The first of the original offerings follows the prelude. "Come and See" (Christmas 2003) is a spirited song that conveys the excitement of shepherds who have been heralded by angels and are now abuzz -- passing the glorious news onto friends and family as they make their way to the stable: Have you heard, have you heard/All the rumors are true/Spread the word, spread the word/This is such good news/The dream is not a dream anymore/Nothing is the same as before/Come and see, come and see/He is lying in the straw/He's a new baby boy who's the hope of us all/Come and hear, come and hear/It's a sound both sweet and strange/It's the great love of God in the cry of babe/It's the great love of God in the cry of a babe.

Next in line is another original, "Do Not Be Afraid" (Christmas 1995). While reminding the listener of the exhortation every angel who appears to man begins with -- Do not be afraid! -- Carolyn ties that idea into our modern celebration of the Incarnation: Half believing, half afraid/We celebrate the story/Our lives seem about a world away/From angels and their glory/Open our eyes to see what Mary saw somehow/Open our hearts to hear those angels even now/They're singing: Do not be afraid/Oh do not be afraid/Love has found its way to you/So do not be afraid.

Next comes the first cover of a classic on the album, "Angels We Have Heard on High." This rollicking rendition is the best I've ever heard of this song -- lots of jamming drums and guitars. It's always fun when Carolyn jumps into rock star mode and goes crazy. Sweet.

The next track is another cover, this time of a more modern song, "Christmas Must Be Tonight," by Robbie Robertson. This is probably my least favorite track on the album. Carolyn's smooth soft voice seems suited to this subdued, folksy carol, but I find the lyrics particularly unlikable. First of all, I have very little patience with songs that pretend that Jesus was born in the winter. Yes, I know that we celebrate His birth in the winter (or the summer in Australia and other lands south of the Equator), but most Biblical scholars agree that the Birth most likely occured in the spring. I love Christmas carols that have a wintry theme, so long as they do not intimate that the actual Event was in winter. But that is a small quarrel. My great disagreement is with the complete want of sense that the lyrics make when put together in the song. Individual lines may be good, but they are very disjointed when put next to each other. What do you think? Saw it with my own eyes/Written up in the sky/But why a lowly herdsman such as I/But then it came to pass/He was born at last/Right below the star that shines on high/How a little baby boy/Could bring the people so much joy/Son of a carpenter/Mary carried the light/This must be Christmas, must be tonight. Yeah.

The next song on the list, "Is Bethlehem Too Far Away" (Christmas 2002), brings us back to the superior song-writing of Carolyn Arends. A lovely, quiet song, asking whether we can Find our way to the baby King/Can we worship Him now in the hay/And can we believe He can change everything/Or is Bethlehem too far away?

The next track is one of my very favorites, and proof, if proof were needed, that Carolyn has not worn out the theme of Christmas when it comes to songwriting. "Now in Flesh Appearing" (Christmas 2004) never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Fast forward the Christmas Story 2000 years, and you find the stories of those who do not find Bethlehem far away at all. We learn of Joshua, who volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission, sharing soup and conversation with some strangers/And all his friends just can't believe/How he spends his Christmas Eve/He says it brings him closer to the manger. Next, we learn of Lisa who is a missionary abroad, working with orphans, hugging all those kids/Teaching them what Christmas is/And though her family misses her they know/That this is Christmas/A hand upon a shoulder/Christmas/...a little peace on earth/This is Christmas/The sweet love of Jesus/Now in flesh appearing, yeah. This is, I believe I can state with confidence, the only Christmas song in the world to include a rhyming line with "Kazakhstan." My favorite lines from the song: We celebrate the Baby King/And everything He came to bring/Every time we give goodwill to men/So on December 25/Or in the middle of July/Any time we do what pleases Him/Then it's Christmas/Merry Christmas/This is Christmas/Now in flesh appearing ... Amen.

Another tear-jerker follows on the heels of the above. "My First Christmas" (Christmas 2000) is the story of a woman's life, and all of the first Christmases she experiences. She is a baby in 1923, whose parents snap a photo and write on the back, "This is my first Christmas." Next she is a young woman who experiences a holy transformation on Christmas Eve in 1944, her first Christmas as a believer. Lastly, this "November past," she slips into the next world, and though The great-grandchildren miss her so/But if she could she would let them know/This is my first Christmas ... I first heard this song a couple years after I had lost my mother (in November) and this ministered to my hurting heart. I like to think of my mother's 1998 Christmas: First time to hear the angels sing/Glory, hallelujah to the Risen King/And a holy night is what this is/For this is [her] first Christmas.

Next up is that soulful perennial, "Go Tell It On the Mountain." You have not heard anything until you've heard a bunch of white Canadians getting funky on an African-American classic. It works, because they are having a lot of fun, and they are working it. Aw yeah!

The next track is one dear to my heart. Too often, Joseph's role in the Christmas story is diminished. Take, for instance, the modern classic "Breath of Heaven: Mary's Song" written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. It is a beautiful song, but it has one annoying line: In a world as cold as stone/Must I walk this path alone? Well, Mary was not alone, the Lord gave her a wonderful husband, a faithful man whose obedience is as important as Mary's in the Story, for if she had not had Joseph to stand by her and protect her, she would have been an outcast indeed. Carolyn's song, "The Lord's Servant" (Christmas 2001), gives the often-overlooked Joseph's part of the story due consideration. We must not forget that he too was the Lord's servant. And, with the way she has, Carolyn draws out the Story's relevance for today: It's been 2000 years/And yet you play a part/The Messiah still comes/If there's room in your heart/And if you are willing/Then our God is able/He sent His salvation/Down to a stable/So love can be born/And peace can be yours/If you'll be the Lord's servant/Oh will you be the Lord's servant?

The next song is a cover of a classic Christmas hymn. "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus," written by Charles Wesley and Rowland H. Prichard, is given the most simple of arrangements by Carolyn, which emphasizes the gorgeous structure of language in the lyrics, the perfect balance of the melody, and Carolyn's own gentle voice. Israel's strength and consolation/Hope of all the earth Thou art/Dear desire of every nation/Joy of ev'ry longing heart. Pure lovliness -- you would want this sung as a solo at midnight service on Christmas Eve.

The last full-length song on the album is also an original Arends tune. "A Christmas Blessing" (Christmas 1999) is Carolyn's benediction to her listeners across the miles and the years. May the One who has come guide you and keep you/May you seek His face as all wise men still do/And may Bethlehem's road rise up to meet you/'Til you find Him and see that God is with you/May you find Him and see that God is with you. Words to ring throughout the Christmas season and in your heart the whole year through.

The delicate yet rich strains that echo out of the strings of Spencer Capier's violin begin the last track in a reprise of "What Child is This," and Carolyn repeats the lines with which she began this amazing album: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. What a journey this recording takes you on! My no-holds-barred, absolute favorite Christmas album -- there is nothing else like it in all the CD bins at any music store anywhere.

A Christmas Story by Point of Grace, 1999
I will not subject the reader to another Christmas album review as lengthy as the one I've dedicated to Carolyn Arends' seasonal offering. She gets so much space because her work is profound enough to warrant it. But, there are many other albums that I love at this time of year that, while not nearly as unique in artistic expression as Mrs. Arends', are a heck of a lot of fun. One such is Point of Grace's first Christmas album, A Christmas Story, which was released in 1999. This was my favorite album until, well, until 2004 (see above).

Point of Grace, if you do not know, is a Christian Pop group that sings songs with tight, soaring four-part harmonies. That alone makes their work worth listening to. They also pick some great songs to record, such as "The Great Divide," "Life, Love and Other Mysteries," "The Wonder of It All," etc. The original members of the group -- who worked on this album -- are Terry Jones, Denise Jones, Shelley Breen, and Heather Payne.

There are some nice newly penned songs on this album. "When Love Came Down" is a joyous way to begin the story. "One King" and "Not That Far From Bethlehem" are thoughtful expressions of the enduring miracle of the Birth. "Light of the World," which features the vocals of Michael Tait, is rather banal lyrically, but the vocals are lovely and the refrain is catchy. Moving on to such classics as "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "The Carol of the Bells/What Child Is This" medley, the ladies use their pipes to great effect. They also include a few rarely recorded gems, "How Great Our Joy" and "Coventry Carol." I do not appreciate their rendition of "O Holy Night," which is normally one of my favorite carols. They could have done it so beautifully, considering their vocal abilities, but instead they overlap the lyrics in a very distracting way that makes the exceptional message difficult to understand. Ah, what might have been... I also do not like the sappy new song, "Emmanuel, God With Us" which is so saccharine that I wince to think of its being paired in a medley with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," which is incredibly powerful.

Especially delightful on this album are the secular songs they recorded. The medley of "Let It Snow/Sleigh Ride" is alternately sultry and spirited. There is a kick ass version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" that will surely leave a smile on the face of any listener. It is very retro, Andrews sisters sounding, and it is just alive with fluffy fun. "Jingle Bell Rock" is also well-done, probably the best rendition I've heard of this song (although, it is still not one of my favorite Christmas-time tunes).

Overall, this album will get you into the Christmas spirit, whether you want to be or not.

A Christmas Album by Amy Grant, 1983
Itty-bitty little picture of the album cover. Great big Grant-y goodness.

Amy Grant's first Christmas album is still my favorite of her seasonal offerings. Jason likes Home for Christmas the best, but, for me, A Christmas Album, set the standard for all modern Christmas releases. Few have attained this mark, let alone surpassed it. Sure, there's hokiness of interpretation and cheesy synthesized music to be found here, but this is vintage Amy Grant -- young Amy Grant who still has that purity of voice and vision that projects a life untouched by trouble or worry and filled with wonder. She sounds even younger than her twenty-two years on this album, and this youthfulness is infectious. I cannot help but feel more like a kid when I listen to it, and as I grow older, alas, with each passing year, that quality is more and more appreciated.

The opening track is a duet with (now) ex-husband Gary Chapman on a song that they co-wrote, "Tennessee Christmas." Once you are able to get over the pain of hearing it in light of their 1999 divorce, it remains a delightful modern classic. Amy Grant's "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is my favorite version of the song -- her voice just soars and the music knows enough not to interfere with the ringing notes of her velvet pipes.

The synthesized sound of "Preiset dem König" leaves something to be desired -- it is a joyous instrumental, yet it is done without instruments.

The artificial music is apropos, though, for Michael W. Smith's rousing "Emmanuel." Amy Grant contains grit in that honeyed voice, and she lets it loose in a rock-n-roll growl that somehow works as a Christmas anthem. Another miracle of the season! As the final digitized notes of "Emmanuel" fade into the background, the pounding notes of "Little Town," Chris Eaton's updated arrangement of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," come to the forefront, the lyrics of which Amy belts forth with boisterous joy.

More in the vein of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is the next track, "Christmas Hymn," another original song, co-written by Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. From that lovely and serene offering, we are next introduced to another new song -- this one is a rollicking heck of a good time. "Love Has Come" just builds and builds until the end has this guy in the background screaming. And that may not sound like an attractive Christmas carol, but, again, these crazy kids make it work. Love has come for the world to know/Like the wise men knew such a long time ago/And I believe that angels sing, that hope has begun/When the God of glory, who is full of mercy, sent His Son. The youthful exuberance here just cries out for screams of joy. In the end, literally.

"Sleigh Ride" is a sweet interpretation of the ultimate frolicking winter fun ditty. I love Amy Grant's little whistles and yelling out to friends to, "Come on, you guys!" She then segues into a much more subdued expression of good cheer with that Mel Torme classic, "The Christmas Song." Any long-time Amy Grant fan is certain to list the next track on the album as one of their all-time favorite Christmas songs, old or new. "Heirlooms" is sung so very well, Amy's voice is alive with emotion and conviction: Time never changes the memory, the moment His love first pierced through me/Telling all that I come from and all that I live for and all that I'm going to be/My precious Savior is more than an heirloom to me. That's powerful stuff. The final track is "Angels We Have Heard on High," and I believe it is the only track on this album recorded with the full orchestra production that has come to define the later Amy Grant Christmas albums and concerts. It is very nice. I love this album.

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald, 2002
Ella Fitzgerald has the happiest voice in the world. And, when she wishes you a "swinging Christmas," well, buddy, you're gonna swing. Lady Ella has a way of interpreting a song that just bubbles over with optimism and benevolence. Even in a wistfully poignant song, which I have heard sad renditions of, such as "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," Ella lets you in on a little secret. She may sing of being doubtful of being her object of affection's choice of New Year's companion, but there is a wink behind it all that let's the listener know that she had no doubt at all that she will prevail. When she asks for her baby back in the aptly-named, "Good Morning Blues," she sings with confidence that Santa will honor her "real good cause."

This is a great "decorating the tree" album -- the songs are almost uniformly jazzy in that signature Ella style that makes her so beloved. This is Sadie's favorite Christmas album, because it is the one that has the most songs about Santa Claus, snow, reindeer, snowmen, and all the other kid-adored components of this "hap-happiest season of all." Even last year, when she was only 20 months old, Sadie used to yell out "town" at the appropriate moment in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Jason has confiscated this album for commuting entertainment. This is just a fun, fun, fun seasonal offering that gives nothing more profound than good cheer.

When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick Jr., 1993
Harry Connick, Jr.'s (HCJ) first Christmas album is the album that his predecessor Frank Sinatra should have made, but never did. Frank Sinatra never released a Christmas album worthy of his legendary status, so HCJ had to come along and make it happen. Plus, HCJ brings his own inimitable New Orleans style to some of the more soulful songs, and that makes this album such an eclectic treat.

"When My Heart Finds Christmas" is an original song, penned by HCJ, that one could easily imagine Sinatra's voice slipping into like a glove. It is lovely, but a little bland. Far better is the next original, "(It Must Have Been Ol') Santa Claus," which is a jazzy story of a young boy's Christmas Eve adventure with Santa himself. A "Happy ho! ho! ho!" indeed.

HCJ also does fine arrangements of such classics as "Sleigh Ride," "Let It Snow," "Ave Maria," "O Holy Night," and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Probably, the best original song on the album is "I Pray on Christmas," which is lyrically simple, but is alive with passion and goodwill. The entire package is wonderful, and my advice is this: If you are a Frank Sinatra fan who is looking for a good Sinatra Christmas album, there aren't any. Instead, buy this HCJ album and enjoy! And if you simply like good Christmas music, you cannot go wrong with this one.

Honorable Mentions:

Joy: A Holiday Collection by Jewel, 1999
If like me, when you saw Jewel's Joy
Your first response was to mutter, "Oy!"
I beg you please to rethink your stance
And give Miss J a second chance

For though most of her music leaves me cold
With annoying songs that soon grow old
This album's filled with Christmas spirit
Which you'll admit too, once you hear it

I love the way she sings "Silent Night"
And even her original songs seem right
There's surprising conviction in her voice
That makes this a favorite listening choice

Her arrangements are simple, her voice is pure
You ask: "Are you serious?" I reply: "I am sure."
And here is one last point to ponder
She includes that rare gem, "I Wonder as I Wander"

So, give it a listen, give it a try!
Borrow from the library, if you don't want to buy.
And as she trills, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"
Raise a glass and let the joyous season ring!

Home for Christmas by Amy Grant, 1992
Everyone on earth loves this Christmas album, so who am I to disparage it? It has become one of the great standards over the past thirteen years, and it really is a lovely collection. The orchestration is rich and lush and a delight to the ears. Jason claims that this is one of the albums that immediately gets him into the Christmas spirit.

Amy chooses to begin the album on a gentle rendition of one of my least favorite Christmas songs, the wretched "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But the album improves from there with a gorgeous version of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The debut of "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" is found here. I think Vince Gill once recorded that song, which is difficult to imagine, considering the lyrics: I have traveled many moonless nights/Cold and weary with a babe inside/And I wonder what I've done/Holy Father You have come/And chosen me now to carry Your Son. Some men must be very in touch with their yang. Or is it their yin? Whichever is the girlie side.

Other notable songs from this album include "Grown Up Christmas List," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "The Night Before Christmas."

Winter Wonderland by Point of Grace, 2005
New for Christmas 2005! This is a beautiful new collection of standards with a few originals by the revised Point of Grace (Terry Jones left the group and was replaced by Leigh Cappillino). The girls always sound good together, and their harmonies add dimension to often recorded carols. They echo many of Amy Grant's most well-known versions, with similar arrangements on "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Breath of Heaven," and "Little Town." One of the highlights is Heather's amazing vocals on "All is Well." This is very pleasant, and I am sure it will be a favorite for years to come.

WOW! If you've actually made it to the end of this rambling Kostelanstrosity*, you either really like Christmas music, or you are my dad who is bound by honor to read everything I write and compliment me beyond merit. Either way -- you rock! Have a beautiful Christmas filled with music and joy and blessed, memory-making family times. Peace!

* A Kostelanetz-ism that has gone above and beyond coma-inducing boredom and reached the point of monstrosity. Ah, Amigo, you've taught me well.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

I'm totally into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas trilogy this year. I found this excellent interview with Paul O'Neill at Christianity Today, and thought I'd pass it along.

I especially like this quote from O'Neill:
I've been asked if I think Christmas is hypocritical in that people treat others so badly for the other 364 days of the year. But the problem is not Christmas. The problem lies in how we treat people the remainder of the year. There's just something inspiring about Christmas. For one day a year, people just seem to "get it."

This is among the most unique Christmas music I have found. And "Wizard in Winter" which is on the third album, The Lost Christmas Eve, is the song to which the lights on that super-cool Christmas Lights House that's traveling all over the Internet are synchronized.

I've written out a Kostelanetz-ly* long review of some of my favorite Christmas music, which I'll probably post pretty soon (I need to think of a few more superlatives to describe Ella Fitzgerald's voice).

Merry, merry, merry Christmas!

*Kostelanetz is an all-purpose word that can be used as a noun, adjective, adverb, verb, etc. It is named in (dubious) honor of Richard Kostelanetz who is a frequent writer of tediously boring, self-aggrandizing, belly-button-gazing, conceited essays in the otherwise excellent libertarian periodical, Liberty. As you may have already figured out, it is used to describe writing about an author that would only be of interest to the author (and maybe the author's mother). A typical Kostelanetz article will describe his library, or complain about how his alma mater, Brown University, fails to recognize him among its distinguished alumni, or reflect once again about living in NYC on 9/11 (the first two times were plenty for me). Oy vey! This is an understood conversational colloquialism between me and my dad, but I am hoping, Kostelanetz-like, to introduce it to wider circulation. Use it well, use it often, use it proudly -- I'll be listening for it in all pop culture media. Peace!

Friday, December 09, 2005

When The Camel Gets All the Straws At Once, The Back Still Breaks

It seems like everywhere you turn there is a new (sort of) controversy in the popular culture spectrum: the increasingly ubiquitous substitution for a hearty Merry Christmas with the vague banality of Happy Holidays. Every media venue seems to have devoted air time or print space to what some social conservatives are calling the War on Christmas. John Gibson has even written a book of that title. It is true that with an increasing American religious pluralism on one hand, and a fanatical secular devotion to an ideal of blandly inoffensive "diversity" sapping the color and vitality from the American palette on the other, references to Christmas in popular culture during this "most wonderful time of the year" are becoming more and more rare.

Many retailers have encouraged their employees to wish customers a "Happy Holiday Season" instead of "Merry Christmas" for years, and some are now requiring the replacement phrase. When I was in retail, I automatically said "Happy Holidays," and it never struck me as odd. And, I must admit, that I have never really cared whether or not I was wished a happy Generic Holiday, Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanzaa -- whatever, just so long as people are nice and not surly (and how easy is that to find in this crazy retail season?). So, my feathers have remained rather smooth and my seasonal spirit implacable. I tend to wish all passers-by and casual encounters a "Merry Christmas" now, and trust that they'll take it in the kindly intentioned spirit in which it was offered.

But now -- ah, the straws were laid in an immediate pile and the camel's back was broken at once! I simply cannot believe the flyer passed out at my church when I participated in the annual Christmas "Adopt an Officer" campaign. Every year, our church partners with the police station across the street, which provides us with a list of all their officers. Members of the church are then encouraged to "adopt" an officer by choosing a name on the list, purchasing a Christmas card, personalizing it with our appreciation for their service to our community, and then enclosing a $10 donation to purchase a Starbucks gift card for the officer. It has always been a really nice way to say "thank you" at the end of the year to a group of people too often under-appreciated. BUT, this year, the wording on the flyer of instructions stressed that we were to buy a HOLIDAY card, and the sample personalization that was given instructed the wishing of a "happy Holiday season." Aaargh! It's hit the church! I do not know if this mandate came from the police station or from the church staff, but either way it strikes me as incredibly silly and disingenuous. We are a CHURCH, for crying out loud! We celebrate Christmas (and some Hanukkah too), because it is the time of year we set aside to remember and honor the Incarnation. We're not a bunch of secularists who just like to decorate trees and romanticize about Santa Claus (though some of us do that too, in addition). We believe this time of year is holy because it is when we celebrate the Christ child -- the obedience of Mary and Joseph, the wonder of the shepherds, the rip-roaring joy of the heavens.

Here's what I did: I bought a Christmas card, as I've always done before. I wrote a personalized greeting wishing the officer a "Merry Christmas." I enclosed my $10 donation. I put the card in the box at church. If they kick this back to me because I didn't follow the rules, well then so be it. If a person will not accept a gift because the giver wishes a "Merry Christmas," then that is their loss. I give this time of year for the same reason I give all year long -- because so much has been given to me by my Creator that I overflow with gratitude. Any time I give to any cause, it is always with a prayer for the recipient to be blessed by it -- always with some sort of acknowledgement that this gift comes not from me but from the Giver of all good things. I just cannot believe that someone would not take a Christmas wish in the spirit of goodwill in which it was offered. If I were offered a gift by a Muslim and he wished me a Happy Ramadan, well, I would simply assume that that person was expressing a sincere wish to honor God the best way I've ever found -- by showing love to his fellow man. If a Wiccan gave me a present in the name of the goddess for winter solstice, well, that would not offend me in the least. "To each his own won't lead you home,"* but it is a good policy for taking people at face value. Sure, I think that the above religions are incorrect, but I can respect that their adherents are sincere enough, and most people mean well anyway. Even (and this will startle secularists the most) CHRISTIANS.

So, Merry Christmas to all!

*An Amigo-esque asterisk: That's a quote from a Jennifer Knapp song.

The Big Crunch

There are some physicists that believe that the universe, instead of expanding infinitely, will someday have that expansion be overtaken by gravity, causing a massive contraction -- a reversal of the Big Bang, playfully called the Big Crunch.

It seems to me that there is a Big Crunch occurring in my neck of the blogosphere lately. Billy D. of In Deo Veritas (I won't link to it, since it may be deleted by this time) has called it quits. Andrea from Andrea Fea is threatening the same. Flicka Spumoni, whose blog bears her incomparable name, has decided not to post until summer. Rebecca from doxology has been on winter break. Serena's husband Rick is toying with a departure too. Has the expansion of the blog phenomenon reached its apogee? Has the gravity of people's reality, their non-cyber lives, taken over, causing this rapid, massive contraction? Or are these departing friends more like shooting stars -- having burned their brightest and leaving naught of their memory but a blazing trail of glory?

Since I believe that the Big Bang was the Word of God spoken in Creation, and the Big Crunch will be the new heaven and the new earth -- the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 -- the expanding of the universe is, to me, more akin to Isabel Paterson's "energy circuit" than a physical concern. I fully hold to her idea that creativity once expressed and knowledge once gained is never lost; it is added to this long current of human energy that has been present since the beginning of time. So, in that sense, the ideas and expressions of these worthy bloggers will not be lost -- no matter if the "Delete this Blog?" button is hit and the URL vanishes from sight. They will live on in the hearts and minds of those who have read and loved their thoughts, and those thoughts will in some way be converted and adapted by their readers, and the curcuit will benefit and be re-charged from their currents. All of this energy will someday be gathered back to the original spark of energy -- the Lord Himself.

To those who have left: Godspeed -- you will be missed and never forgotten. To those who are thinking of leaving: Please pray before doing something rash -- we respect your decision, whatever it may be. To those on break: Rest well -- we await your return. To those still active: Upward and onward!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Imagine There Were Never Any Beatles (It's Easy If You Try)

Today is the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. That would have made me six when he was killed. I have no memory of this event. I have a distinct memory of the Americans held hostage in Iran in 1980 -- asking my parents why they couldn't just go home to their families -- not understanding, but being very frightened by, my first exposure to evil. I even have a distinct memory of being in preschool right after New Year's Day in 1980 (I remember thinking wistfully about how the 1970's were gone, and also realizing at the same time that when I sat cross-legged in a skirt, my underwear would show). So, it is not that big news stories did not yet register in my young mind -- it must have been the fact that my parents were not Beatles fans. God bless my folks for going against the grain -- counter-counter-culture. I'd bet that a lot of people around my age do have memories of the day John Lennon was killed -- most of my schoolmates knew all the words to all the songs by the Fab Four, having been weaned on those mop-topped Liverpoolians. I'm still hazy about which songs were theirs and which belonged to the countless imitators that swarmed across the pond during the British Invasion of the 1960's. And I have still never learned to like Beatles songs. In fact, I find most of them very annoying.

So, I'm sad that John Lennon was murdered, especially since he left some small children behind. That must have been tough for them and also for his wife. But this big to-do over the loss of his genius leaves me cold. I know that his music touched many people, but I cannot join in this communal outpouring of remembrance and grief. I cannot regret the music that never was, since I do not care for the music that actually was.

(I never got Elvis either. Hunka-hunka-burning-yuck!)

P.S. If you are a big Beatles fan (or even Elvis fan), and you would like to set me straight as to why I am so wrong in dismissing these musical legends, feel free! I'm always open to considering the opinions of people I respect. For instance, I've heard that the Beatles were incredibly innovative from a purely musical standpoint. Is this true? Examples? I'm much more of a lyrics person myself, so if I find lyrics inane, it is hard for me to get past that.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Blue December

I've been a little blue lately, and I would like to ask for your prayers. I'm usually so happy-go-lucky and buoyant, that I think my recent funky funk has Jason worried. But, everyone gets a little down now and then, and though my low periods are few and far between, they still occur.

My life is usually loaded with benefits (Psalm 68:19) -- blessings so bountiful and undeserved that I marvel at my Creator's love. So, it always strikes me as particularly ungrateful whenever my rose-colored glasses tinge purple. I know that I am held in Arms of Love and I will never, ever be forsaken, but the human condition is still so hard sometimes. Jason seems to think that faith should trump any hardship, but I remember that my Lord still sweated blood in Gethsemane -- and if He who knows the beginning and the end and all things between could still find and connect to the human heart that knows fear, worry, and desperation, then why should I not be allowed moments in the valley? These journeys to the vales just allow me to be lifted higher onto the mountain (and anything is better than a life lived on the plateau).

Any prayers you can spare are coveted and appreciated. This is shaping up to be a bummer of a Christmas season. I usually just love Christmas so much -- but this year we will be a lonely group of three, because neither Jason's parents nor mine are able to come and visit. Sadie keeps asking if her grandparents will come (both sets came last year!), and it is heartbreaking to say, "No." And this time of year always has the memory of losing my mom lurking beneath the surface, so I'm more emotional about a dearth of family-time than I might otherwise have been. My mother spent her last Christmas (1997) in Hawaii -- the next year she was dead. In the anger phase of my grief, I was so mad that she robbed me of that last Christmas. I'm tired of fractured holidays. Especially as my dad gets older, I worry about the passing of time, and I want to savor and treasure every memory with him -- so my frustration at our separation becomes palpable at this memory-laden time of year.

That's probably this biggest reason for this indigo haze, but, of course, there are a bunch of little irksome things that would be laughed off if I weren't so bummed out about Christmas. Hmmm ... it feels good to write it out -- I feel my sense of humor returning as I type. That stupid Judy Garland song from Meet Me in St. Louis is echoing, unwelcomed, through my head (there's a lot of space in there!): Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/From now on our troubles will be out of sight/ ... /Some day soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Hang a shining star upon the highest bough/And have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Sung in Garland's mournful, trembling voice -- yeeeach! Then that crazy little girl goes out and whacks all those snowmen's heads off -- definitely the high point in that treacly celluloid yawn-fest (sorry, vermonster). Sweet!

Hey! I have a lot more friends this year than last -- all my dear blogging buddies, for whom I feel such love and respect. And that is something to lift my shattered spirits forthwith and swell my heart with incredible gratitude. Peace of Christ to all, and a very merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Ah, The Bliss of Not Keeping Kosher!

One of my favorite logic jokes:

Which is better -- eternal happiness or a ham sandwich?

A ham sandwich, of course. Why?

Well, nothing is better than eternal happiness, and a ham sandwich is certainly better than nothing ... so, a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

I stole this fair and square from Raymond Smullyan's book. What is the Name of this Book: The Riddle of Dracula and Other Logical Puzzles. This is an incredilby fun book that will certainly test and hone your logical construction skills. It's been out of print for probably a billion years, but you may want to check it out of the library. And, Dad, if you're reading this, yes this is the book I purloined from your library about 20 years ago! And, yes, it does seem so wrong to talk about things I'd done 20 years ago -- sheesh! -- when did I get this old?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

About Posting ...

It is so nice to read things like Andrea's asking me to post more often -- would she believe that I have about four different posts I am working on? But, I might not post for a little while, because I have four books I'm in the middle of right now. One of them is The Singing Season by Isabel Paterson, which I got from the inter-library loan and can only have for three weeks with NO renewal. I'm desperate to read this book, so almost every moment not dedicated to momming and wifing will be spent in stolen moments wandering through 14th Century Spain and the adventures and trials and romance that befall the two lovers, Isabella and Roderigo. I'm also reading Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle, which is so amazing and breathtaking -- I'm just entranced (it's so hard to put it aside, even for The Singing Season). I'm almost done with An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jeffers, which has only served to make me more depressed than usual about the political weasels we're stuck with nowadays in the USA. I've also started Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey, which is excellent too, but has the lowest priority (since I own it, but have the others from the library). So, I'm so busy reading, it is hard to find time to put the thought and effort into writing that I find necessary. I'm still reading everyone else's blogs (more reading!) and commenting when I can.

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving!! So much for which to be thankful -- my cup runneth over.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. -- James 1:17

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Dad and the Things He Loves

Father of the Year (1980?)
I tried to blackmail my dad for $2000, but he wouldn't bite, so up this picture goes on my blog. Seriously, it's just too good to keep hidden from the world. Jason calls this photo: Your Dad and All the Things That He Loves. Yep, that's me (6 or 7 years old) in the background. While my dad doesn't smoke cigarettes any more, he is still a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, still enjoys a brewsky, and still loves his little girl. Groove, if you will, on the cabin decor done up in late-Hippie. Bet Dad would love to have that belly back!
The photo's caption was suggested by my dad, but I used it only partly tongue-in-cheek. You see, my dad really deserves to be "Father of the Year" every year. No daughter could ask for a better dad. He was always there for me, my biggest supporter, my number one fan. He filled me with confidence, with curiosity, with courage. I would not be the woman - the wife and mother - that I am today without his loving influence throughout my life. God saw that I needed just such a dad and, in His infinite goodness, provided. My dad is not (yet) a Christian, but he is the kind of father who made it easy for me to accept, when I learned of Jesus' Abba, that such a Heavenly Father was true and good.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Your Girl Friday

Well, I kept re-taking and re-taking this silly test, trying in vain to get the result that my inner Classic Dame is Carole Lombard. The problem with this particular test is that so many of the answers would work for me, depending on my current mood. I re-took it for the last time this morning, being as honest as possible instead of anticipating Carole-esque answers, deciding that whatever I got was my true match. Behold, your humble blogger houses within the comely form and outrageous attitude of:
Rosalind Russell

You scored 21% grit, 52% wit, 28% flair, and 11% class!

You are one wise-cracking lady, always quick with a clever remark and easily able to keep up with the quips and puns that come along with the nutty situations you find yourself in. You're usually able to talk your way out of any jam, and even if you can't, you at least make it more interesting with your biting wit. You can match the smartest guy around line for line, and you've got an open mind that allows you to get what you want, even if you don't recognize it at first. Your leading men include Cary Grant and Clark Gable, men who can keep up with you.

Find out which classic leading lady you most resemble by taking the Classic Dames Test.

Find out what kind of classic leading man you'd make by taking the Classic Leading Man Test.

Don't you love this ridiculous hat?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Some Not-So Random Thoughts

One thing that I really admire and envy about the blogs I read is how you folks are able to scan the plethora of news for juicy and infuriating tidbits and then distill the information in a concise manner with added pithy commentary.

In the spirit of your collective (yet highly individualistic) coolness, I'm going to offer a few quick thoughts for (hopefully) easier digestion than my usual prattling essays:

Andrea Yates gets a new trial. I'm sure that post-partum depression is real, but it is still no excuse to murder your children (or anybody else's children). I also do not believe in psychologically treating murderers -- seems like a smoke screen and another way for society to blur the lines between right and wrong. Nor do I believe (in most cases) in the death penalty. I do think that every murderer should be locked up without any possibility of parole for the rest of his or her life. If Psycho Yates were really a "victim" of post-partum depression, then she should have no need for a stay in the looney bin -- i.e. if her hormones made her do it, then those should (four and a half years after her unspeakable crime) be calmed down by now. Do not give her any meds to cloud her memory -- simply lock her away with a clear mind for the rest of her life to contemplate the young lives she brutally took. Have you ever read a re-telling of the way she ruthlessly drowned them? Her oldest child, Noah, having seen his younger siblings drowned, tried to run from her, and then she collared him and forced him face down in the bathtub -- filled with the other children's feces and vomit. And yet he still struggled to come up for air and said, "I'm sorry Mommy," before she forced his head down again. Can you imagine the terror that encompassed that poor little boy's last moments on earth? Can you imagine calling a cold-blooded killer such as she merely a "caring mother suffering from post-partum depression"? And I am really sick of people out there blaming Mr. Yates as much or even more for his children's murders as Psycho Yates. Since when is a poor guy's going to work everyday to support his wife and children with shelter, food, and clothing such a condemnable act? Only in some sort of warped, alternate, man-hating reality where men can do nothing right -- ever. If women are such amazing, brilliant, strong, rational, independent creatures, then why do so many feminists immediately blame the closest man around when a woman does something unbelievably evil? Funny how women love to be victims when it suits them.

I heard a March of Dimes commercial this morning on the radio. Their new fight is against premature birth -- preventing it, helping premature babies, finding out why premature birth is on the rise. My husband commented that "[the babies] probably just want to get out before they are aborted." Many true words are spoken in jest.

Well, in my state, Washington, the elections last night proved disappointing. The state legislature had rammed through a 9 1/2¢ per gallon gas tax earlier this year (soon after the illegitimately elected governor, Christine "We'll Keep Re-Counting the Ballots Until I Win" Gregoire, began her reign). Normally, in WA, all tax increases need to be put the people for a vote, except when there is an "state of emergency." This is how we got Safeco "The $500 Million Ballpark for a Team That Has Never Made it to The World Series" Field after the voters rejected publicly funding it -- twice. The enlightened legislators decided that the prospect of the Mariner's leaving Seattle was a "state of emergency," and*presto* funding was secured. Queen C promised no tax increases (which, for a Dem, is like promising not to breathe) during her campaign against (decent, wonderful, pro-life businessman) Dino Rossi. Luckily for her, she discovered an "state of emergency" regarding transportation soon after she stole the office. Whoo-hoo! Stick it to the commuters! The 9 1/2¢ was to "fund transportation projects." Ah, the political bliss of nebulous promises. The thing is that Western Washington really does have a "state of emergency" regarding transportation. This area has outgrown its infrastructure in a big way. Driving anywhere is an exercise in temple-pulsating frustration. But no one in the state government was willing to specify how much of the increase was to fund which projects. They threw out a bunch of ideas, but did not analyze them in relation to alleviating congestion and cutting commuting times. There was, and I know this will shock you, absolutely no spending accountability. So, a bunch of taxpayers (many from outside the traffic-clogged counties of King, Pierce and Snohomish, who would be paying for Western Washington's transportation projects while not receiving any benefit from them) put forth an initiative to repeal the gas tax -- Initiative 912. This ruffled the feathers of a few big turkeys in Olympia, and they started a massive anti-912 campaign based in many lies and false promises (a.k.a. lies) about how we need new and expanded roads (we do!) and how if 912 passed we would only have more and worse of the same. So, they scared enough people within the populous counties that the whole state got screwed over by 912's being defeated last night. 912 was never about not funding transportation -- anyone who drives a car (even someone who only drives one day a week such as I) knows that we need to create, repair, and widen roads. 912 was about holding bureaucrats responsible for the money they appropriate and spend. Now, the politicos have their 9 1/2¢ validated, and there is still no accountability for how the money will be spent and on what projects. Knowing the proclivities of the commies up here, I figure that most will be spent on public transportation boondoggles (see: Seattle Monorail Project -- that monster having received a final stake in the heart last night in a rare moment of Seattle sanity -- still $150 million in the hole with the car tab tax for funding outliving the ill-conceived project for a few more years -- haven't these people ever seen The Simpsons? "What's that word?" "Monorail!"). Also, Ron Sims of CAO fame was re-elected as King County Executive. I'm beginning to hate this state, despite its excellent weather. Well, it's good to know that we're out of here soon.

Intelligent Design. Our local ABC affiliate, KOMO, is running a special tonight at 11 PM on intelligent design. I can only imagine their take on the controversy. Even before I was a Christian, I always thought that the theory of random evolution was pretty silly. It just didn't fit with the order of the universe around me, or answer the hows of complex biological structures like eyes, the liver, the human brain. When would evolving into a human not be beneficial to an ape? Why aren't cats smarter after all these years? Of course, maybe it is pretty smart after all to find some sucker species to let you live in their homes where you can sleep all day on a down comforter and be fed and petted. Maybe cats have achieved the highest level of evolution! I still accept parts of evolutionary theory, but I mostly hold to creationism. Intelligent design seems to be a middle theory. What do you all think? I've often thought that The Bible, while true, is in many ways a "Reader's Digest" version of historical truth -- i.e. it's "everything we need to know at this point." I've always liked its description as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. To echo the ending of John's Gospel account, would the true, complete history of earthly time be revealed by God, the world itself would not hold books enough to record it.

The first year is always the hardest -- at least that is what I am thinking. We are trying to extricate ourselves this year from the Christmas Present Merry-Go-Round on which we've been spinning with family and friends for years. Basically, the exchange of presents within our intimate circle has become a ridiculous cycle of "Look! I Got You a Gift!" banality and undue stress. This year, we have really felt that the Lord has placed in our hearts the knowledge that it is time to say, "enough is enough." So, we're bowing out with as much grace as possible. We'll only be giving gifts to the munchkins we know (the only ones who really get pure, unmitigated pleasure from Christmas presents anyhow) and charities this year. It's been very awkward to try to broach this subject, but everyone's seemed rather relieved thus far. I bet most of them have been feeling the same way for years too. These people know that we love them 365 days a year -- and, hopefully, we are showing that love more than one day a year anyway. We really just want to concentrate on the non- and not-so-commercial aspects of Christmas -- the celebration of Advent, the beautiful decorations, the music, the tree, the church services, the Christmas pageant, the Christmas cards, the joy of family traditions, the sharing of His love and the material blessings He has given with the less fortunate (which seems to me the way that Jesus would most want us to celebrate His arrival) -- rather than the dilemma of finding gifts for people who already have so much.

Anyway, those are some things that have been on my heart and mind this morning. Talk to y'all later -- or, as they say in The Prisoner, "Be seeing you."

Thursday, November 03, 2005


In a makeshift laboratory in the depths of a bunker, a scientist carefully mixes powders and liquids in a large beaker. An immaculately dressed woman nearing middle-age sits tensely by his side. She anxiously inquires, "How long will the effect be?" The scientist answers, "About four hours."

The woman and the scientist take the mixture into another room in the bunker where six children (ranging in age from about four to thirteen) are sitting and reading a bedtime story together. They look up to greet their mother and the man whom she introduces as a doctor coming to bring them some medicine to guard against the dampness of the underground shelter. "But Mutti, it is not damp in here," the youngest little girl interjects. "Quiet now," the mother replies, "Who will take a sip of the medicine first?" The youngest volunteers. The glass is passed from child to child, each one dutifully taking his or her share, until it reaches the eldest girl, Helga. Helga has been watching with growing horror, and refuses to take the medicine. What does she fear? Her mother insists and holds her daughter's head still while the man forces the concoction down her throat. Helga breaks free and collapses sobbing onto her bed. The mother and the scientist leave the room.

What Helga can only guess at the viewer already knows. We have already watched the mother, Magda Goebbels, agonizing over the thought killing her children. She resolves to end their lives, because she does not want them to grow up in a world without National Socialism, without the German Reich, and, mostly, without der Führer. She and her husband, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, have decided to stay with Adolph Hitler during his last few days as Berlin falls to the Russians and Hitler himself falls to the madness and delusions of his own megalomania. They will die with the man to whom they have pledged their devotion and service, and they will take their children with them. Various Nazi officials, including Hitler, try to convince her to spare the children, but she sees no future worth living as the Third Reich falls. At this point, the viewer hopes, knowing that the effect of the "medicine" will only last four hours, that Magda Goebbels has had a change of heart and will only drug her children into a deep sleep while the last vestiges of Hitler's reign crumble.

Jason and I finished watching the excellent German-language movie Downfall last night. It was an experience that will not soon leave me. I went to bed thinking about what I'd seen, and I woke up this morning with scenes from the movie still seared into my consciousness. Never before had I seen a portrayal of that personification of evil, Adolph Hitler, that made him anything more profound than a cartoonish example of madness. Never before had I seen on film a representation of the psychological hold Hitler had on so many of the German people, especially his closest advisors and companions. Nazis are so often presented in American (and other countries') films as nameless, faceless arms of automation -- performing their senseless horror with mechanical precision and without passion. How many "Heil Hitlers" and boot-clickings can they fit on screen before getting back to the real characters in the World WAR II drama at hand? This movie brought to vivid, heart-wrenching life some of the key players in the last hours of Adolph Hitler, and, while it was not attempting the impossible feat of making Hitler and his close associates sympathetic, it succeeded brilliantly in making them human -- fatally flawed, intensely disturbed, incurably insane humans.

The movie is told through the eyes of Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge, a young Bavarian woman who goes to work for Hitler in 1942. The action quickly fast forwards to April 1945 and the unstoppable Russian forces closing in on Berlin. Even as Hitler tries every strategy to rally the German forces to overcome the Russian advance, he prepares his suicide. Key characters in his regime pass in and out of the bunker throughout the movie. One of the areas in which the movie excels is the constant tension created by observing the reactions of those closest to Hitler, as the world for which they have fought disintegrates about them. Who will stay to the end? Who will abandon Berlin? Who will be loyal? Who will betray? Who will fight for the Reich in the bombed-out streets? Who will accept the inevitability of surrender to the Russians? The script is so well crafted, that Nazi officials from sixty years ago become known to the viewer in distinguishable vignettes. Although it is a foreign language film (and I speak some German, but not enough to watch without subtitles) and the actors are all unknown to U.S. audiences (and wearing, essentially, the same uniform), I had no trouble following the actions and motives of the different characters as they chose their fates.

The actor who played Hitler, Bruno Ganz, was amazing. He brought to the role such an ability to round out the personality of a man that everybody knows of, but whose own mistress (later wife) Eva Braun, admitted that nobody knows. You could believe him -- that's my highest praise. You could believe that he loved his dog, was kind to his secretary, was complimentary to his subordinates, was absolutely without mercy toward his perceived enemies, was unconcerned about the suffering of German civilians, and was able to sentence over six million Jews to death. His odd mixture of courtly civility, unbalanced irrationalism, and blood-thirsty self-righteousness simply blended into an incredible psychological specimen -- the mind of a genius and a lunatic.

The actress who played Eva Braun, Juliane Köhler, created a needed foil to Ganz's Hitler. You would have to be more than a little off-kilter to fall in love with such a madman, and her portrayal of the most infamous mistress in history was pitch perfect. Her laughter echoed off the bunker walls while she cranked up the Victrola and led a madcap dancing party as bombs shook the foundation of the earth. She smoked, dranked, and ate meat (all things that Hitler abhorred); she had giggling girl-chats with the lady secretaries and expressed a light-hearted point of view so far removed from the darkness of the souls surrounding Hitler; and she loved der Führer with unquestioning devotion. When she begs her (newly-married) husband to spare the life of her brother-in-law who abandoned his post and was to be shot as a traitor, and Hitler caresses her face while explaining that there is no mercy for those who betray him, and she sits back and looks at him with a mixture of resignation and complete reverance and says, "You are the Führer" -- that is a great cinematic moment.

Alexandra Maria Lara plays the secretary, Traudl Junge, who witnessed this culmination (much of the movie was based upon her autobiography). She also did an excellent job. Frau Junge was only twenty-two and non-political when she went to Berlin to work for the most powerful man in Germany -- a man she always described as "the best boss I ever had." In the last days, as the Reich was unravelling and the bunker walls were becoming more and more like a prison than a refuge, we see her growing horror at witnessing Hitler's hate-filled invectives and merciless attitude toward the sufferring German civilians. Ms. Lara plays the role with the right balance of naïve surprise and detached world-weariness. For a short while in the film, she and another secretary gladly accept cyanide tablets from Hitler so that they too can die with the Reich.

Some of the greatest revelations of this film are the scenes portraying the German civilians outside the bunker in war-ravaged Berlin. It is hard to find an American movie about World War II that shows the incredible sufferring of the ordinary men and women who lived in the bombed out cities of Germany, and the Berlin street scenes in Downfall are particularly poignant -- maybe in part because it is such a novelty to reflect on this aspect of the War. One thing that the movie shows very well is that many ordinary civilians had as much to fear from the Nazis as from the invading Russian forces. In one brief but powerful scene, civilians are scurrying across the streets in a bombing lull. All of a sudden -- BOOM! -- a bomb hits the ground and the people instinctively dive flat on their bellies. The smoke clears and the people get up again and continue on their ways, except some mothers who huddle over their bloodied children. That low moan of complete despair escapes one mother's lips as she cradles her dead son and cries, "Hans . . . Hans . . ." In another scene, war-weary civilians are hanged from street lamps by remnant Nazi troops for daring to seek mercy from the Russians.

Hitler's suicide is shown as the methodical act of self-will -- not so much out of desperation, certainly not of depression, but an act of pride. He will not allow himself to go into hiding. He will not allow himself to be captured. He will not even allow the Russians to get a hold of his corpse, so he orders it burned upon his death. Eva Braun, not more than thirty-six hours Frau Hitler, applies one last coat of red lipstick and resolutely joins in death the man she made her god in life. Behind a solid bunker door, they each break a thin, glass capsule filled with cyanide between their teeth, and Hitler puts a bullet through his temple simultaneously. Their bodies are taken out to a ditch outside the bunker, doused with gasoline, and set aflame. As Hitler exits in this manner, the German people are still starving and common soldiers are still dying. The juxtaposition of his suicide to a desperate people suddenly abandoned is a skillful way for the filmmakers to comment subtly that this was no noble act, but one of extreme cowardice.

Frau Junge decides to make her escape. The viewer gets the impression that she has seen enough self-destruction and murder to turn her away from the idealistic decision to die with the Führer. She decides that she would rather take her chances on the streets of Berlin, filled with the advancing Russian forces, than spend one more minute in the poisonous atmosphere of the bunker. It was interesting to learn (from the documentary included on the DVD we rented) that Frau Junge's husband has been one of Hitler's personal servants, but he had volunteered to go fight on the front lines because, as he told his young wife, "The longer I stay here, the less I can call my mind my own. I echo everything the Führer says. I go to sleep thinking about the Führer; I wake up thinking about the Führer. Better to go to the front lines and possibly lose my life than stay here and lose my soul." He soon lost his life in battle. Knowing this, though, I wondered if his young widow remembered his words as the regime crumbled, and decided she would rather not lose her life or her soul. Her escape from Berlin is one of the uplifting moments in this profoundly disturbing and dark film.

And what of the young Goebbelses? What of those six precious children who were left in the bunker? What of those Kinder -- the truly innocent pawns in this game of death?

Back in the bunker, Magda Goebbels enters her childrens' room. They are sleeping a deep, drugged sleep. Resolutely she goes to the first child. Her face is set like a mask -- absolutely no emotion. She pries open her daughter's mouth and places a cyanide capsule between her teeth. Then Frau Goebbels pushes the child's jaw up to crush the capsule and release the poison -- a small spasm and then the small girl's head lolls to the side, lifeless. This act is repeated another five times, until all of the children are dead -- robbed of their young lives by a mother blinded by her fanatical devotion to a cult of death and destruction. Magda Goebbels pulls the blankets up over each of their heads. She leaves the room and closes the door. She sinks to the floor -- not in a faint, but in mental and physical exhaustion. Her husband stands a few yards away and stares at her in mute sympathy. In a minute, she arises and says nothing but sits at a table and calms herself with a game of solitaire.

Soon, Frau and Herr Goebbels go outside the bunker to the courtyard. He shoots her and then himself. They too are burned in the ditch -- the minister of Nazi propaganda becoming the final ironic statement of absolute devotion -- offering not only himself, but his wife and children as sacrifices upon the altar of a demonic political philosophy.

This movie is very difficult to watch, especially the scenes with the children. It is hard to believe that these events happened only sixty years ago. More than anything, I was left feeling so grateful that I worship the Lord of Life and not the government of men. It is so scary to see what happens when people put their faith in governments and not in the Creator -- whether that government is Naziism, Stalinism, or any other system made by sinful man. I would recommend this film with the only reservations being the violence on screen and the emotional drain. It is an important movie and a worthy addition to the cinematic examinations of the horror of World War II.