Thursday, July 16, 2015

How to restore the glories of the Old South

I have an idea for people who value their region's heritage so much that they continue to wave what they think is the Confederate flag (though it is actually the battle flag of Northern Virginia).

I suggest that they volunteer to be slaves. For life.

Fact: The 19th-century Southern way of life would have been impossible without enslaved people.

Fact: Just waving a flag will not bring back the shady verandahs, the mint julep breakfasts, and the boundless cotton fields enjoyed by rich white people. Neither will it bring back the advantages enjoyed by poor white people thanks to the vast enslaved class that was much worse off than they were (and if you can't imagine what those advantages might have been, read this article written by a Jefferson Davis supporter in 1861).

Probability: The one thing that could bring back that romantic bygone era would be if, once again, some 39% of the population were enslaved (that's the average percentage of enslaved people in the Confederate states).

Proposal: Let's recognize that no one values personal liberty as much as Southerners do. And let's take their word that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism. Let's encourage true Confederate patriots, especially white folks who are not racists, to volunteer to work in the fields from sunrise to sunset. There will be no pay, of course, and no bothersome education; but food, lodging, and two sets of work clothes per year will be provided. And the South will rise again.

I realize that the above photo was taken in Oklahoma, which was not a state during the time of the Confederacy. In fact, Oklahoma had a lower percentage of slaves than did the actual Confederate states--perhaps only 14%. So, to be fair, only 14% of Oklahomans will need to volunteer for slavery in order to bring back the halcyon days of yore--546,000 of their 3.9 million inhabitants should do the trick. It won't be hard to find that many volunteers, will it?

Admittedly, it may be harder to persuade 57% of South Carolinians to sign up. To match their percentage of slaves in 1860, they would need 2.75 million volunteers today--but surely nostalgia for the good ole days will eventually move the hearts of the good ole boys, and they'll do the right thing, don't you think?

But wait: as elegant as my proposal appears, it might not work. South Carolina has removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas have outlawed Confederate flags on state-issued license plates. (So has my adopted state, Maryland, which--though a Union state because federal troops forced it to be--enslaved 13% of its people in 1860). Other states are talking seriously about removing Confederate symbols.

Maybe there aren't enough Confederate flag-wavers to make voluntary slavery work. Maybe the apparently omnipresent flag-wavers are really just a few noisy, annoying people who risk giving millions of really nice Southerners--some of whom I'm closely related to--a bad name. Still, I'm sure that any flag-wavers who do volunteer to become slaves will have no trouble finding masters. And I'm also sure that once their masters take measures to keep them off the streets, the South will be an even lovelier place.

Here's a chart showing the percentage of enslaved people in the 11 Confederate states one year before they joined the Confederacy (I adapted it from 1860 census figures). The first 6 states to join the Confederacy were the 6 with the highest percentage of slaves. The last state to join had the lowest percentage. Once a state's percentage of slaves dropped below 25%, it didn't join at all.

By the way, I'm not accepting any comments, pro or con, for this post. I do hope all my readers recognize satire when they see it.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


My review of A Spool of Blue Thread was published in the April 29, 2015, issue of The Christian Century. I especially enjoyed that novel because I read it just a few months after moving to a Baltimore house only a few minutes' drive from the house in the story. I also enjoyed it because it is about aging parents and their adult children; over the last 25 years I have mysteriously shifted from one category to the other. And, of course, I enjoyed it because it is by Anne Tyler.

The review is behind a paywall, so I'm reproducing it here. If you want to read more of my Christian Century reviews, some 15 or 20 are available (to subscribers only, alas) at their website. My most recent review, of The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, appeared in the June 29 issue. Try the link--it may not be hidden behind the paywall yet.


Anne Tyler’s 20th novel is, like her previous 19, about a mildly dysfunctional Baltimore family of loyal yet infuriating people who love one another, but not always helpfully. It is about youth and age, parents and children, brothers and sisters, ambitions and disappointments. It is about four generations of the Whitshank family and the house they inhabit for some 70 years. Most of all it is about home.

 In the opening scene, Red Whitshank is on the phone with his third child and elder son, Denny, who has just announced that he is gay. A few weeks later Red and his wife, Abby, learn—not from Denny—that he has withdrawn from college.
Denny . . . had withdrawn from the family years ago. What other middle-class American teenager lived the way he did—flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely out of his parents’ control, getting in touch just sporadically and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means of getting in touch with him? How had things come to such a pass? They certainly hadn’t allowed the other children to behave this way. Red and Abby looked at each other for a long, despairing moment.
Fast forward a couple of decades. The other children still live close to home. Amanda is an attorney; Jeanne and Stem work in their father’s construction business. All three are married with children. Denny, on the other hand, has had a succession of short-lived jobs. Apparently not gay after all—his parents can’t bring themselves to inquire—he has a failed marriage and a daughter who only occasionally joins family get-togethers in Baltimore. Red and Abby are still fretting about him.

And then the family dynamics begin to shift. Red, now in his midseventies, has a heart attack. His hearing deteriorates. Abby sometimes blanks out. She starts calling the dog Clarence after a dog that died long ago. At one point she wanders outside in her nightgown and gets lost. The children aren’t sure how to respond: after all, “Abby’s ‘usual’ was fairly scatty. Who could say how much of this behavior was simply Abby being Abby?”

Yet clearly something is amiss, and something must be done. Should Abby and Red downsize? Should they hire help with their daily tasks? Should one of the children move in with them—and if so, which one? And is anybody paying attention to what Abby and Red themselves want?

The caregiving dilemma allows festering resentments to surface. The long-standing push-pull relationship between Abby, “so intrusive, so sure of her welcome, so utterly lacking in self-consciousness,” and Denny, her beloved but baffling prodigal son, has set the stage for intense sibling rivalry to erupt whenever major decisions must be made. Over and over, the two older sisters and the younger brother wonder: Why, when we have stayed nearby and minded the family business, does Denny get all the attention? Why does nobody kill a fatted calf for us? At the same time Denny feels unwanted and disrespected, not only by his siblings but also by his parents. And then tragedy strikes.

A Spool of Blue Thread could have been a novel about the trials of the sandwich generation or the loneliness of old age. Tyler, however, inserts lengthy backstories that distract from what appears to be the main story. “In the Whitshank family, two stories had traveled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential—as defining, in some way.”

The first story is about how Red’s sister, Merrick, contrived to marry her best friend’s very wealthy fiancĂ©. The second is about how Red and Merrick’s father, Junior, bootstrapped his way out of a three-room cabin in West Virginia, eventually building a thriving business and the house of his dreams in one of Baltimore’s most prestigious neighborhoods. Patience, Tyler writes, “was what the Whitshanks imagined to be the theme of their two stories—patiently lying in wait for what they believed should come to them.” Envy, she suggests, might be a more accurate theme. Or disappointment, because neither Merrick nor Junior finds lasting happiness in what they have acquired.

Abby tells a third story, about the day she fell in love with Red. She tells the story often, always beginning with the same words: “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning.” Her story is not about patience or envy, but rather about seeing the goodness in an ordinary young man she has known for years. Her story leads to many complications, but never to disappointment: Abby is fundamentally happy. For some reason the Whitshank family does not see her story, along with the two others, as defining.

In Tyler’s books, character is always more important than plot. That doesn’t mean that A Spool of Blue Thread has no plot. Each chapter could, with minor adaptation, be a well-plotted short story on its own, and by the end of the book the longest story—that of the aging parents and their children—is pretty well wrapped up, though book groups will still have plenty of opportunity to debate what’s likely to happen next.

Still, the sudden shift two-thirds of the way through the book from story to backstory, and then to even further backstory, is jarring. At first I thought the book would have been stronger without those interjections, interesting though they were. And then I realized that the book is not just about the Whitshank family; it is also about the house on Bouton Road. Lovingly built by Junior, loved by Abby, inherited by Red, lived in or visited by every Whitshank since 1942, the house becomes a metaphor for the family it shelters. It is a sacramental house, an outward and visible sign of the home within—a place that makes home real, even though each family member has a vision of home that differs from or even conflicts with the vision of other family members.

It is at the end of chapter 4 that Abby begins telling her familiar love story:
On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and children calling, “Safe! I’m safe!”
In spite of misunderstandings, irritations, rivalries, and even grief, they are—for a time at least—safe at home.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

To my SDA friends on the eve of the GC vote on women's ordination

[Norval F. Pease, 1972]
As you prepare for what may well be a watershed decision on women's ordination, I would like to tell you a story. I think it happened in 1972.

My husband was a seminary student at Andrews University. My father, Norval F. Pease,* was a religion professor at Loma Linda University.

My father had a short sabbatical, and my parents came back to Andrews to be near us and to enjoy their two baby grandchildren. One Sabbath afternoon we went to visit our dear friend Hedy Jemison.**

Now Mrs. J was a good and conscientious woman, but flexibility was not her strong point. And my father was a loyal and conservative SDA, but fundamentalism did not appeal to him. For some reason, that Sabbath afternoon the topic of conversation switched to women's ordination. Mrs. J, not surprisingly, was against it.

My father, with a twinkle in his eye, said, "I agree with you that women should not campaign to be ordained." He paused for that to sink in, then continued: "I think men should campaign in favor of women's ordination."

At that point Mrs. J excused herself to refresh our drinks.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that if my father were alive today, he would go to General Conference, and if he were a delegate, he would vote in favor of women's ordination.

*For those who don't remember my father: he had also been, among other things, a pastor, a religion teacher at the College of Medical Evangelists, president of La Sierra College, chairman of the department of applied theology at the Adventist seminary, chairman of the Loma Linda University religion department, and the widely read author of books such as By Faith Alone and And Worship Him.

**For those who don't remember Mrs. J: she was associate director of the White Estate at Andrews University in the 1970s and 80s.