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Archive for the 'Book of the Week' Category

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Emanuel Levy on the Politics of Gay Films

Gay Directors, Gay Films?

“All five filmmakers have spoken against reductionism—namely, the reduction of gay artists (and gay screen characters) to sexuality as the single, or most prominent, aspect that defines their personalities.”—Emanuel Levy

In the following excerpt from the conclusion of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Emanuel Levy examines the political aspects of the directors’ work and their influences:

All five filmmakers have spoken against reductionism—namely, the reduction of gay artists (and gay screen characters) to sexuality as the single, or most prominent, aspect that defines their personalities. They have also refused to reproduce dominant stereotypes of homo­sexuals, such as the Sissy, the Suicidal Youth, the Gay Psychopath, the Seductive Androgyne, and the Bisexual. Instead, they have tried to present “more real” or “realistic” gay men and lesbians. They real­ize, as Anneke Smelik has suggested, that for straight viewers, using old, negative stereotypes confirms prejudice and that for gay specta­tors, their use might encourage fear, self-hatred, and anger. On the other hand, these directors also realize that presenting only positive images is not the solution and that images of gays and lesbians can­not be seen as simply “true” or “false.” Gay Directors, Gay Films? has focused on the social contexts and the conditions under which vari­ous entertainment institutions have created, maintained, and per­petuated ideological and cinematic stereotypes that gay directors have set out to challenge and abolish.

Aiming to establish connections between gays and other marginal­ized minorities, Haynes destabilizes the division between dominant and subordinate individuals by disturbing the usual space allotted to “others” in society’s broader structure. Like Almodóvar, he avoids any form of labeling because labeling permits those in power to feel secure and to perpetuate the status quo by drawing boundaries that separate those who have from those who have not. Moreover, to label is to judge, and to judge is to limit the range of possibilities of his characters and the range of interpretations of his viewers. No char­acter in his films can be adequately understood or fully contained through sexual labeling; in most cases, socioeconomic status is more important as a defining criterion. He empowers his disenfranchised individuals in fantasy worlds, which they create apart from their oppressors. In Poison, nothing that the jail’s wardens do can prevent the prisoners from engaging in imaginative sexual intercourse (a plot device that served as a climax in Martin Sherman’s Holocaust drama, Bent). In Velvet Goldmine, Arthur rehearses in his imagination the bold declaration of his sexuality to his parents.

(more…)

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Emanuel Levy on John Waters, Camp, and Pink Flamingos

John Waters, Divine

“From the start, Waters politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. He employed gay camp as a counter-cultural means, as an oppositional standpoint and active force.”—Emanuel Levy

The following is an excerpt from Emanuel Levy’s chapter on John Waters from his new book: Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters. In it, Levy explores Waters’s notion of camp and his cult classic Pink Flamingos Also, at the bottom of the post is a recent photo of Levy and Waters!

The brand of camp that prevails in Waters’s output is what the scholar Barbara Klinger has called mass camp. Media products qualify for camp enjoyment because they exhibit exaggerated exotica in their historical outdatedness. Mass camp depends on a thorough knowledge of pop culture and a familiarity with the conventions of established genres (e.g., Mae West comedies, Busby Berkeley musicals). Mass camp sensibility does not necessarily result in a coherent rereading of a film—it’s more of a hit-or-miss sensibility. The viewers’ interaction with a particular text always bears some effects, but the effects may be temporary—that is, discernible only in the short run. Thematic and visual pleasures come in a sporadic manner as viewers dip in and out of a particular text, selecting specific moments: witty dialogue, quotable lines, lavish musical numbers, and physical appearances and costumes.

Gay camp usually relies on (or imitates) the hyperbole of movies and pop culture through overstated décor, fashion, and cross-dressing. In verbal terms, it’s reflected in quotations, mimicry, lip-synching, gender inversion, put-downs, and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners because it enables them to demonstrate their insider status, their very cultural existence, and often their superiority over straight outsiders, who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie or TV show.

From the start, Waters politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. He employed gay camp as a counter-cultural means, as an oppositional standpoint and active force. For him, camp attacks acceptable values, normal physical appearances, and conventional modes of behavior. It could be either a mild or a
radical rejection of essential tenets of traditional aesthetics. Waters’s brand of camp thrives on exaggeration, theatricality, and travesty, as is evident in the glorification of the characters in his texts and the particular actors who play them. The elements of his aesthetics are deemed cheap, sleazy, vulgar, and crude because the plots of his features transgress the bourgeois sense of decency and morality. Instead, they loudly extol bizarre and grotesque sexuality that’s considered appalling by standards of middle-class taste.

(more…)

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Emanuel Levy on Todd Haynes’s “Carol”

In the following essay, Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, discusses Carol, Todd Haynes forthcoming film:

Carol, Todd Haynes’s sixth feature, is his most fully realized film to date. Now this is a bold statement to make about a director who has only made thematically and artistically interesting films, even if they didn’t always find appreciative audiences. The movie adds a striking panel to a small (only six features in twenty-five years) but distinguished oeuvre.

A logical follow-up to his former movies, Carol may also signal a new point of departure. For starters, Haynes didn’t originate this project, which has been around for a decade. At one point, John Crowly was to direct with Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska. For another, it is the first film in which he wasn’t involved as writer or co-writer (he had collaborated with Oren Moverman). World premiering at the 2015 Cannes Film Fest, his second appearance there after Velvet Goldmine in 1998, the film was eagerly anticipated. Adapted to the screen by Phyllis Nagy, it’s based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, featuring two great actresses, Blanchett, fresh off from Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine, and Rooney Mara, best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Though he didn’t write its script, Carol continues to explore ideas and characters that have preoccupied him over the past three decades. Like other indie directors—Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, all roughly his age—Haynes is an auteur in the thematic rather than stylistic sense of this concept, as formulated by the great critic Andrew Sarris. Carol belongs to Haynes’ provocative films about deviance, all astringent explorations in theoretically infused feminist and queer cinema. Like most of his oeuvre, it deconstructs sexual politics, centering on role of the housewife. The 1995 critically acclaimed Safe offers a perceptive portrait of a San Fernando Valley housewife who’s a product of stifling suburban existence and rigid patriarchy. As a screen character, in class and emotional malaise, Carol, an elegant upper-middle class femme, is closer to the leisurely heroine of Far From Heaven than the protagonist of Mildred Pierce (Haynes’s HBO series).

(more…)

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

An Interview with Emanuel Levy, author of “Gay Directors, Gay Films?”

Gay Directors? Gay Films?

The following is an interview with Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters

Question: What was your motivation for writing this book?

Emanuel Levy: The notion that a distinctly gay gaze and a distinctly gay sensibility are reflected in the work of openly gay directors has not been thoroughly explored in the fields of cinema studies. Gay Directors, Gay Films? deals with one central issue: the effects of sexual orientation on the career, film output, and sensibility of five homosexual directors: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters. I wanted to show that these directors have perceived their sexual identities as outsiders in complex and varied ways, that the impact of sexual orientation may differ from one director to another and from one phase to another within the career of the same director.

Q: Please explain the book’s title and the question mark at the end?

EL: The book centers on five openly gay directors and their work, from the first film to the present. It raises a series of interesting, not easily answerable questions. Is there a distinctly gay mode of looking—gay gaze as it were—at social reality, at sexual politics? Do gay directors make specifically gay-themed films that are targeted at mostly gay audiences? How do we define a film as gay? By its explicit contents (text) and/or by its implicit meanings (subtext)? If a film contains one gay character, surrounded by straight figures, and does not deal with the standard issue of coming out (very popular in films of the 1980s and 1990s). These are some of the intriguing questions, which are theoretically-infused an and have pragmatic implications, that have guided me in this book, and are still at the center of film, feminist, and gay and queer studies.

Q: What was the perspective guiding your research and writing?

EL: I chose a comparative socio-cultural perspective, namely, placing these directors, their films, and their careers in the sociopolitical, ideological, and economic settings in which they have lived and worked. The five directors share two things in common, sexual orientation (they are all openly gay) and biological age, all five directors were born after World War II and thus belong to the same age cohort. At 69, Davies is the oldest, and Haynes, 53, is the youngest. In between, there are Van Sant, 62; Almodóvar, 65; and Waters, 68.

Q: Why did you choose these, and not other, directors?

EL: I wanted to examine the impact of national identity and indigenous culture on the film oeuvre of these directors, three of whom are American (Waters, Van Sant, and Haynes) and two European (Almodóvar (Spanish) and Davies(British)). Originally, the book proposal also included the gifted French director, Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women), but the scope of the research and space consideration (the book’s length) have presented some constraints.

(more…)

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Book Giveway! Gay Directors, Gay Films?

This week our featured book is Gay Directors, Gay Films?
Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters
by Emanuel Levy.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Gay Directors, Gay Films? to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 4 at 1:00 pm.

Molly Haskell writes, “An impressively informative treatment of five prominent gay directors who represent a wide range of differences within the gay spectrum. Emanuel Levy’s background in gay cinema, independent cinema, and traditional Hollywood cinema make him the ideal author for this significant and original study.”

For more on the book you can read the introduction:

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds — Donald Prothero on the Oldest Human Skeleton

“For only the past 30,000 years has there been a single species of homi­nin dominating the planet. Now Homo sapiens threatens to wipe out nearly every other species, as well as itself, making them just as extinct as the fossils described in this book.”—Donald R. Prothero

Donald R. Prothero concludes The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by examining the discovery “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. In the following excerpt, Prothero examines Lucy’s legacy and the efforts of paleontologists and anthropolgists to discover more fossils of human ancestors:

Lucy’s Legacy

The rush to find hominins from the “Dark Continent” soon spread across East Africa, especially in regions with long sedimentary records in fault ba­sins along the Great Rift Valley. Louis Leakey’s son Richard, who was ini­tially uninterested in anthropology, eventually adopted his father’s mantle. Seeking to escape his father’s shadow, he began to excavate in Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana) in northern Kenya in the 1970s. There, many more skulls were found, including the best-preserved specimen of Homo habilis, the oldest species in our genus, Homo. Richard moved on to prominent po­sitions in the Kenyan government (especially fighting the poaching of rhi­nos and elephants). His wife, Meave, working with local people, carried on the Leakey legacy. His mother, Mary, continued to make significant finds, especially the spectacular trackway of hominins at Laetoli in Tanzania.

Kenya and Tanzania were in the news almost every year with the spec­tacular finds of the Leakeys. In the late 1960s, Louis Leakey had lunch with President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The emperor asked Leakey why there had been no discoveries in Ethio­pia. Louis quickly persuaded him that fossils would be found if he gave the order to let scientists explore for them. Soon anthropologist F. Clark How­ell of Berkeley was working on the northern shore of Lake Turkana, where the Omo River flows out of Ethiopia. Howell and his colleague Glynn Isaac spent many years collecting in the Omo beds, which have abundant volca­nic ash dates. Unfortunately, these deposits were formed in flash floods that produced gravelly and sandy streams, which tend to break up and abrade fossils, so no well-preserved hominin specimens were found.

Meanwhile, other rising young anthropologists were eager to make their own discoveries in a region that had been almost exclusively the territory of the Leakeys and their allies. Two of them were Donald Johanson and Tim White. Both were seeking to make their professional fortunes by explor­ing sites not under the control of the Leakeys. Through French geologists Maurice Taieb and Yves Coppens and anthropologist Jon Kalb, they learned about beds in the Afar Triangle, the rift valley that is opening between the tectonic plates where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea. These beds al­ready had yielded numerous fossils of mammals, suggesting that they were at least 3 million years old, which made them potentially older than any hominin fossil found so far in Kenya or Tanzania. Johanson, White, Taieb, and Coppens received permission to work in these beds and began to exca­vate at Hadar in 1973.

After months of exploring and prospecting for fossils, and finding a few hominin fragments, on November 24, 1974, Johanson took a break from writing field notes to help his student Tom Gray search an outcrop. He spotted the glint of bone out of the corner of his eye, dug out the fossil, and immediately recognized that it was a hominin bone. They continued to un­earth more and more bones, until they found almost 40 percent of a skele­ton of a hominin. It was the first skeleton, rather than isolated bones, found of any hominin older than the Neanderthals of the late Pleis­tocene. That night as they celebrated over the campfire, they were playing a tape of the Beatles when “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on. Sing­ing lustily along, a member of the crew named Pamela Alderman suggested that the fossil be nicknamed “Lucy.” Later, it was formally named Australo­pithecus afarensis, in reference to the Afar Triangle, where it was found.

A year after the discovery of “Lucy,” the crew returned to Hadar, where they found a large assemblage of A. afarensis bones. Nicknamed the “First Family,” it was the first large sample of fossils of both juvenile and adult hominins from beds dating to 3 million years ago, and it gave anthropolo­gists a look at how much variability was typical in a single population. This can be important when deciding whether a newly discovered fossil that is slightly different from specimens found earlier should be considered a new species or genus or just a member of a variable population.

When the analysis of “Lucy” was conducted, Johanson and White de­termined that the skeleton was that of an adult female that had stood about 1.1 meters (3.5 feet) tall. The most important evidence was the knee joint and the hip bones, which show the critical features that prove that A. afarensis walked upright with its legs completely beneath its body, as do modern humans. It had a relatively small brain (380 to 430 cc) and small canines, like those of advanced hominins, yet still had a pronounced snout, rather than a flat face. This was yet another blow to the “big brains first” theory of human evolution, which was still in vogue in the mid-1970s. Its shoulder blade, arms, and hands are quite ape-like, however, so A. afarensis still climbed trees, even if it was fully bipedal. Yet the foot shows no signs of a grasping big toe, so its legs and feet were adapted entirely for walking on the ground and its toes could not grasp branches.

(more…)

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Mega-Jaws — Donald Prothero on the Rise and Fall of the Giant Shark

Carcharocles megalodon

As the title The Story of Life in 25 Fossils suggests, each chapter of Donald R. Prothero’s book focuses on how fossils reveal something about the history of our planet. Surely, one of the most fascinating moments in this history is when Carcharocles megalodon or “Mega-Jaws” ruled the seas. In the following excerpt from the book, Prothero explains what the fossil record reveals about the fate of these giant sharks:

Monster of the Seas

The sheer size of Carcharocles megalodon raises a question: Why did it grow so big? The most common answer seems to be that sharks were respond­ing to the great abundance of large prey in the Miocene, especially the huge radiation of many types of whales and dolphins that developed in the early and middle Miocene. C. megalodon was bigger than all but the largest whales known from the same beds, so it was a true “super-predator,” capa­ble of killing and eating almost anything that swam in the Miocene oceans.

There is abundant fossil evidence of this behavior. Deep gouges and scratches that could have been produced by only the huge teeth of C. meg­alodon have been found on many fossil whale bones, suggesting that the sharks scratched the bones as they tore flesh from the carcasses. The list of whales with traces of C. megalodon attacks is very long, including dol­phins and other small whales, cetotheres, squalodontids, sperm whales, bowhead whales, and rorquals like the fin whale and blue whale, plus seals, sea lions, manatees, and sea turtles (which were three times the size of the largest extant sea turtles). A C. megalodon tooth was found associated with the bitten ear bone of a sea lion. There were also several finds of C. mega­lodon teeth embedded in whale backbones, and numerous cases partially scavenged whale carcasses (especially at Sharktooth Hill) have been found surrounded by shed C. megalodon teeth.

Of course, this does not exhaust the list. Most sharks (especially great whites) are indiscriminate, opportunistic feeders and attack anything that moves that they can catch. This is why so many modern sharks have ocean trash (including road signs, boots, and anchors) in their stomachs when they are cut open. So C. megalodon certainly would have eaten smaller fish and most other sharks when it could catch them. But its large size is primar­ily an adaptation to attacking large prey like whales, which no other marine predator could threaten until C. megalodon came along.

The bite marks on one particular whale specimen about 9 meters (30 feet) long suggests how C. megalodon preferred to attack. The marks seem to focus on the tough bony areas (shoulders, flippers, rib cage, upper spine) rather than on the soft underbelly, which modern great whites target. This suggests that C. megalodon tried to crush or puncture the heart or lungs of the whale, which would have killed it quickly. This, in turn, explains why the teeth of C. megalodon are so thick and robust: they were adapted for bit­ing through bone. Another common strategy focused on the flippers, since fossils of the hand bones have the highest frequency of bite marks of all. A big bite to crush, cripple, or rip off one flipper would have been sufficient to disable the prey and allow the shark to finish it off with several more bites.

(more…)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast! — Donald Prothero

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

“So before everyone begins the big party for ‘Brontosaurus’ and celebrates this huge diversity of sauropod names, let’s hold our horses.”—Donald R. Prothero

The following post is by Donald Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Earlier this year, there has been a big buzz with the media reaction to a study by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson analyzing the diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs and figuring out their classification and relationships. As I discuss in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, since 1903 most paleontologists have regarded “Brontosaurus” as just another junior name for the dinosaur properly known as Apatosaurus.

The Tschopp et al. study itself is a landmark in careful anatomical work, analyzing the problem specimen by specimen (a total of 81 specimens used) rather than generalizing based on previous clusterings of specimens, and looking at far more anatomical evidence than any previous study. Naturally, the press missed the significance of the study completely, and focused on just one minor point: the idea that “Brontosaurus” is again a valid name. ALL the publicity, and all the reactions of the non-paleontological reporters and readers was focused on this rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way (except that we always get asked about it by the general public). Most of the reaction by sauropod paleontologists who were interviewed were generally favorable, but others were more cautious. Almost all agreed that is the most thorough work on the subject written to date, and it will be the foundation on which all future analyses will be built. Similar reactions could be found on the SVPOW (“Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”) website, which is the main forum for discussion by specialists and amateurs about sauropods.

(more…)

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Interview with Donald R. Prothero, Author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

The following interview is with Donald R. Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Question: How do you summarize the history of life in just 25 fossils?

Donald R. Prothero: That was an incredibly difficult decision, since there are millions of species and thousands of different known fossil species. I tried to focus on fossils that represented important landmarks in the history of life, important transitional fossils that demonstrated the macroevolution of one group from another, and some of the most extreme examples of life illustrated by the fossil record: the largest marine reptiles and dinosaurs, the largest sharks, the largest land mammals, and so on.

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about evolution?

DRP: In the book, I describe many examples of “transitional fossils” (incorrectly called “missing links”) that demonstrate the evolution of one major group from another. This is sometimes called macroevolution, and its existence is denied by 40% of Americans who don’t accept the reality of evolution. We now have snakes with legs (including a four-legged snake fossil that was just published last month, too late for our book), turtles with half a shell (including a new transitional reptile more primitive than the turtles in our book, also published too recently for our book), a creature that is the link between frogs and salamanders, many fossils that show how fish crawled out on land to become amphibians, and many feathered dinosaurs that showed how birds originated from creatures like Velociraptor. These examples could go on and on, so the new book just discusses a few of them. Many more examples are given in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about the origin of animals?

DRP: In Darwin’s time, there were no fossils that showed how the oldest known fossils, such as trilobites, evolved from more primitive creatures. But in several chapters of this book, I talk about the first known fossils (primitive bacteria forming mats and domes called stromatolites, over 3.5 billion years old), the first multicellular animals from 600 million years ago, the first tiny, shelled fossils from 550 million years ago, and the earliest trilobites from 525 million years ago. Contrary to people who argue that the “Cambrian explosion” was an instantaneous event that required divine intervention, we now know it was a “Cambrian long fuse,” with all the stages from single cells to soft-bodied multicellular life to tiny shells to the first large shelled animals, all stretched out over tens of millions of years.

(more…)

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

This week our featured book is The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by Donald R. Prothero.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 28th at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Niles Eldredge says about The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: “Prothero, an outstanding paleontologist and skilled communicator, has written the best up-to-date account of the history of life as revealed by the fossil record that I have ever had the pleasure to read. His lucid prose brings these long-dead organisms back to life, while painting a picture of how all life has been interconnected through evolution. ”

For more on the book you can read the chapter, “Planet of the Scum”:

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: The Great Gift of “Laudato Si’”

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“Pope Francis offers a brilliant explication of the importance of a new form of research, one that I like to call the emergent field of sustainable development, to integrate the areas of specialized knowledge into a comprehensive and interconnected form of understanding.” — Jeffrey D. Sachs

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, the final of the week’s feature, we are happy to present an article on the encyclical by Jeffrey D. Sachs that originally appeared in America Magazine.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

The Great Gift of ‘Laudato Si’’
By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” is a great and timely gift to humanity. To avoid a catastrophic collision of the world economy and environment, humanity urgently needs to change the trajectory and functioning of the world economy. Yet the world economic system is a juggernaut nearly impervious to coordinated changes at the global scale. “Laudato Si’” opens the path to a veritable revolution of ideas to bring about the needed changes.

As Pope Francis eloquently and accurately describes, the economic juggernaut is destroying biodiversity, dangerously altering the climate and undermining the life-support systems of the planet for humanity and millions of other species. On all of this, Pope Francis offers a compelling summary of the scientific evidence, presented with clarity and precision. His concision and precision on these matters exemplifies the church’s profound commitment to the marriage of faith and reason, with its abiding commitment to science.

Yet, as Pope Francis describes, the economy keeps barreling along, seemingly oblivious to these hazards and to the deadly costs they are imposing on the world’s poor and vulnerable people. In the very powerful phrase of his earlier exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the world suffers from a “globalization of indifference” that makes it nearly impossible for humanity to reorient toward sustainable development over the current destructive trajectory. (more…)

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.” — James Lawrence Powell

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, James Lawrence Powell takes a close look at the actual science cited by Pope Francis in the encyclical and asks, simply, did the Pope get it right?

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?
By James Lawrence Powell

When most people read “Catholic Church” and “Science” in the same sentence, they are apt to think of the inquisition of Galileo, who narrowly escaped burning at the stake for espousing the Copernican view of a Sun-centered solar system. But that is old news. In 1992, Pope John Paul II stated his regret for Galileo’s treatment and in 2008, the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his pioneering astronomy. The Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno won the 2014 American Astronomical Society’s Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science for his many books.

The Catholic Church has also been forthright in its defense of evolution, Pope John Paul II telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “…new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Catholic schools in the U.S. and elsewhere teach evolution both as a fact and as the result of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the updated version of Darwin’s theory.

Though Young-Earth creationists maintain that our planet is only a few thousand years old, the Church has long accepted the antiquity of the Earth and the authenticity of the fossil record as validating the history of life. In 2004, before Cardinal Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, he endorsed a statement by the International Theological Commission that,

The universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life.

Thus Pope Francis’s recent encyclical — Laudato Si, or “Praised Be”— is but the latest in a series of statements from the Catholic Church that offer increasingly strong support for science. Pope Francis’s eloquent encyclical not only does that, but it also casts the protection of the environment and the prevention of global warming as predominantly moral issues. He introduces the encyclical as an “Urgent appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” Francis asks for “a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

The question I am addressing is whether the Pope gets the science of global warming right. We should not be surprised if he does, for he was trained as a scientist: before becoming a priest, young Jorge Mario Bergoglio trained and worked as a chemical technician. Just as no one can discredit Francis’s moral standing, neither can anyone discredit his understanding of science.

As would any climate scientist today, Francis regards human responsibility for global warming as an indisputable fact. He does not present a list of arguments designed to persuade his readers that anthropogenic global warming is true, but simply says that it is true:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Exactly right. First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.

Further evincing his understanding, the Pope writes:

It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

Again, exactly right. Several factors affect global temperature but only one can explain the rise in temperature since the 1970s: the increase in greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion. A climate scientist might argue that the last sentence of the quotation is an oversimplification in that it does not explain the mechanism by which greenhouse gases increase temperature. But the sentence as it stands is correct and sufficient for a general audience.

The Pope also demonstrates his understanding of the consequences of unchecked global warming:

The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

As result [of human activities] some species face extinction.

The effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now.

As remarkable as Francis’s understanding of science is his powerful and eloquent language:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.

The environment is… on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.

Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

The Pope ends the encyclical with the moral argument in the form or a prayer, entreating God to,

Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.

The sentence that I will remember most is this one: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Like climate scientists, the Pope regards global warming as threatening the future of humanity.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“[T]he Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer.” — Whitney Bauman

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, Whitney Bauman does a close reading of the Encyclical and comes to some surprising conclusions about the Pope’s message.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing
By Whitney A. Bauman

There is much to be commended in the Pope’s recent Encyclical on “the environment.” He clearly did his doctrinal, historical and philosophical homework on issues of human-earth relations. There is much one would expect to find in the document: such as the use of St. Francis in the title, couching of creation-care in terms of “the common good” and the prominence of catholic social teaching. There are also some surprises—such as his knowledge of the history of the environmental movement and his use of Integral Ecology which understands nature and culture as already and always together. At times it reads like a traditional Papal document while at others it reads more like something that Bruno Latour or leaders of the New Materialism might have written. In this brief piece, I want to focus on two points that I find most poignant in the Encyclical: the critique of modern technological society and the call for a more robust dialogue between religion and science. Both of these points participate in what Judith/Jack Halberstam calls “The Queer Art of Failure” or what Catherine Keller might call “the Art of Unknowing.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes: “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure). The creativity of abject identities, of those who have failed to live up to the norms of hetero-normative, anthropocentric capitalism, is indeed the source of creativity for seeking a different planetary future. In other words, failing is precisely what we need in this day and age if we are to find our way forward through the problems brought about by globalization and climate weirding. Pope Francis identifies this problem as well in his critique of modernity found in the Encyclical. He writes (and here I quote at length):

§107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

(more…)

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion

Reactions to Laudato Si'

Laudato si reaches out to scientists to participate in a shared global problem, the damage that humans have done to their planet and by doing so the harm they have wrought upon one another. Pope Francis directly invites for a new dialogue concerning how we are shaping the planet. Regardless of their religious persuasions, scientists should bring what they have learned from science to the discussion.” — H. H. Shugart

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, we are kicking things off with an essay by H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of Shugart’s book!

The Encyclical Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion
By H. H. Shugart

Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home was released to the public on the May 24th of this year. It is a clearly stated, easily accessed and well-reasoned treatise on the moral position of the Church on the consequences of changes in the global environment. When the pontiff of the one and one-quarter billion member Catholic Church makes any statement, it by definition becomes news. Nevertheless, this encyclical represents something much more than a hamper of news items whirling on the media spin-cycle. The pope structures his encyclical around what the collective “we” are doing to our common home, the planet and its inhabitants. Pollution, climate change, water scarcity, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in well-being of people and of their society ― all are problems needing religious and scientific thinkers to pull in single harness toward solutions. Pope Francis deconstructs the Judaeo-Christian concept of humans as the stewards of the Earth to find a moral obligation to maintain planetary sustainability embedded in biblical scripture as well as in the encyclicals of earlier popes. While he segues around the issue of human population growth, Pope Francis identifies conspicuous (over)consumption, the throw-away economy and human greed as immoral transgressions, often perpetuated by the rich and powerful and whose consequences fall upon the poor and defenseless.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (in the original Umbrian Italian “Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore” and meaning “Praise to you, my Lord”) is the opening of the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon composed in late 1224 by St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition relates that the saint sang it from his death bed. It is a song praising creation, notably, “… our sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” The pope took his papal name from this same St. Francis, and the Saint’s teachings are woven through the Laudato si narrative. The pope is writing on a topic of obvious personal importance framed in the regnal name that he chose at the beginning of his papacy.

Because it presents multiple facets for consideration, Laudato si’ has inspired many commentaries and it will undoubtedly inspire many more. He is the first Pope Francis, the first non-European pope since 741, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first from the Western Hemisphere. Laudato si’ identifies greed, particularly when it is at the expense of others, as a sin; it references the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, on the spiritual connection between humans and the natural world; it quotes Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, that “… to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”; it provokes with, “ The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (more…)

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Feature and Book Giveaway

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.” — Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Laudato Si’

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. Each day this week, we will post one essay from these scholars on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering FREE signed copies of H. H. Shugart’s Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, August 21st at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?

Gray Sabbath

“The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many [evangelicals]. And it often influences political decision or indecision.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In this, the final post of the week’s feature,

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?
By Shawn David Young

Doomsday is always upon us, or so we are told. Belief in the apocalypse informs the way many view time, and it often works against active politics. But this belief has grown diverse, complex. Left-leaning evangelicals such as Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne continue to challenge evangelical policies. For Wallis, “Many American Christians are simply more loyal to a version of American nationalism than they are to the body of Christ.” With sarcasm, McLaren also notes the disconnect: “If the world is about to end…why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or peak oil? Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway?” His questions tap the core of a belief that continues to affect social activism. “If God has predetermined that the world will get worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light (epitomized most often in the United States) and the forces of Darkness (previously centered in communism, but now, that devil having been vanquished, in Islam), why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?”

Positions held by McLaren, Wallis, and others on the left indicate a growing trend among evangelicals. Still, conservative Christianity remains a powerhouse. But even when Jesus People USA fully embraced conservative theology, their social activism was unfettered, in spite of evangelicalism’s near-fanatical dedication to the writings of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many. And it often influences political decision or indecision. (more…)

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Placing Jesus People USA Within Evangelism

Gray Sabbath

“Unimpressed by the evangelical marketing machine, JPUSA views isolationism as dangerous to both the individual and the larger church culture. Simply put, its members are best understood as practical contemplatives.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. To start off the feature, we have excerpted part of Young’s Introduction, in which he explains the development of the Jesus People community, the evolution of the cultural stances of evangelicals, and the political importance of evangelical Christian groups.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Religious Certainty and Decision 2016

Gray Sabbath

“For the life of me I cannot understand how religious certainty continues to translate into political certainty. Yes, the faithful (if true to their belief) will certainly channel their ideas in a way that informs public policy. But when people of faith hold myriad interpretations of matters cosmic, how can they effectively engage matters that have global implications?” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In today’s post, Young looks at the history and the future of the complicated relationship between evangelical Christianity and American politics, paying particular attention to the way that evangelicals will affect the upcoming election cycle.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Religious Certainty and Decision 2016
By Shawn David Young

An aging hotel looms over a street packed with cars, pedestrians, and sidewalks. A man stands near, asking for spare change. Others hustle by, talking to themselves. Sirens. Car horns. Music blaring from cars. Jaywalkers weaving in and out of cars on the street, eager to make way to the other side. Sporting a blue awning with white lettering, Jesus People USA’s building (quaintly named “Friendly Towers”) conveys a welcoming message, complete with psychedelic images in the windows. The front door opens to a hallway covered by an ornate ceiling—a relic of what was once a hotel—ending at a locked door; people are buzzed in by those holding post at the front desk. Regardless of the time of day, one can expect a mix of old hippies, young punk rockers, “goths,” and senior citizens. While an outsider might write the scene off as chaotic, it is readily apparent that all are members of a tight-knit community dedicated to shouldering the burdens of its members, many of whom display a certain sanguinity one might expect from utopian hopefuls. This community is about Jesus. But it’s also about discovery. (more…)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

On Jesus People USA and the Evangelical Left

Gray Sabbath

“The reason evangelicals have increasingly reconsidered their popular conceptions about faith, politics, and music can be traced to the so-called culture war, as represented in our common political and theological binary.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. To start off the feature, we have excerpted part of Young’s Introduction, in which he explains the development of the Jesus People community, the evolution of the cultural stances of evangelicals, and the political importance of evangelical Christian groups.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock

Gray Sabbath

“A compelling story of the evolution of both an intentional Christian commune and of a generation of Christians who have become increasingly disenchanted with the religious right’s subservience to the Republican Party. As such, Gray Sabbath presents a possible model of what the theological and political future of evangelicalism could become.” — Jay Howard, Butler University

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Gray Sabbath. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, August 14th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!