Thursday, May 26, 2011

In Defense of One-Liners

A lot has been written in recent months about Rob Bell, author of the controversial book Love Wins, which I have not read and which for the purposes of this post it's not necessary to have read. In Love Wins (or the anagram some of its critics might make of it, "Evil's Now") Bell explores the complex and controversial notion of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment, juxtaposed with the notion of a God of love. The "love" camp likes the conclusions Bell draws or the conversation he prompts; the "hell" camp is concerned about what's eroded from Christian orthodoxy if hell is not what we've historically taken it to be. I don't know, something like that; like I said, I haven't read the book and honestly don't intend to.

I'd like instead to focus on a snarky sidebar conversation that has kept pace with the more theological debate about Live Wons, which might best be characterized as a question: Why does Rob Bell write so many infernal one-sentence paragraphs?!?

Honestly, he's known for it, for scarcity. Bell may or may not be a universalist, but he is undeniably a minimalist. I once sat through a presentation he gave to a banquet hall full of pastors; one of his Powerpoint slides was a black screen with three little words in the upper left corner: "Chocolate-covered turd."

It says so little, and yet evokes so much.

Rob Bell is known as a "next-generation preacher," or a "preacher of the Great Emergence," or any number of other future-oriented monikers. That's in part because of the way he uses multiple media or the way he smirks through those punk glasses he wears, or the product he applies to his gently mussed hair. Bell isn't the only "new wave pastor" out there; I've watched starry-eyed Christian girls creep tentatively up to Dan Kimball (author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church) and ask sheepishly if they can touch his carefully crafted pompadour; I've heard him enter into long discussions about theological topics, yes, but also about where he got his jacket or his jeans or his hair gel. Bell and Kimball are both great preachers, but they're also cultural icons--visual representations of what the future of preaching may well look like.

Bell in particular is also known for the way he talks, and the way he writes, a staccato style that frequently punctuates and, apparently, frustrates.

I find myself leaping to Bell's defense whenever I hear his style critiqued--not at all because I also speak staccato (obviously I don't; it'll take me another five hundred words just to get to my point) but because he's not by any means the first. One-liners are a grand tradition in preaching and really in all communication. In that respect . . .

Bell hasn't created a style, he's simply innovated it.

See what I did there? Your eye is drawn to the one line. I don't pretend to know why, although I could speculate with what I think, at least, would be informed speculation. Either we're hard-wired to look for the simplest distillation of things, or we've come culturally to expect it. We associate simplicity with speed, and so the fewer the words, the more likely the simplicity. And when we see a one-line paragraph after a series of long paragraphs, we infer a synthesis or summation, a bottom-line.

The bottom line, I'd argue, is how the one-liner was used prior to the Bell era in Christian publishing. Modernist megapastors, whose defined core audience tended to be the busy business executive, gave special attention to the executive summary. "It's not all about you," the opening line of The Purpose-Driven Life, is an example of this executive-summary approach. If you don't want to commit forty days to letting Rick Warren help you find your purpose, you'll make some headway on your own with his bottom-line thesis. You're welcome, America. Back to work.

The one line also implies emphasis. Similarly minded writers and pastors use the one-liner in ways they heard comics use one-liners when they were growing up. "Take my wife . . . please," the classic Henny Youngman line, always got a laugh because it was so stark. You could almost hear the comic's eye winking as he said it. One liners for modernists can serve a similar purpose: to remind the reader/congregant that the expert on stage or behind the book is human and hip and fun to be around. It's an opportunity to breathe, a verbal rim shot. I once read a book by one such modernist megapastor type who was leading off a chapter by telling a story about singer James Taylor. He concluded the story with something along the lines of "Some people would go so far as to say that James Taylor is the voice of a generation." Then paragraph break (read: "pregnant pause"). Then "Guilty." Then paragraph break (read: "wink"). Then on to the point.

Rob Bell's pregnant pauses are generally neither bottom lines nor winsome winks. His intentions are typically neither emphatic nor synthetic; they're more . . . atmospheric. Empathic.

Bell's one liners draw attention to the blank space surrounding them, evoking the idea that there's infinitely more to be said, that words require more space than we often allow them. The speaker/writer's brevity and the emphasis on open space invites, even compels, the hearer/reader to fill the space, to continue the thought. Such a one-liner evokes feelings, intuitions, imagination. The plot has twisted, the mood has shifted. If the comic one-liner elicits a "tee hee" and the synthetic one-liner elicits a "to do," the atmospheric one-liner elicits a "tell me more . . ." or a "dum dum dummmmm . . ."

The fact that people are expressing fatigue over Rob Bell's innovations on the one-liner, to me, suggest that we're getting tired of feeling, of intuiting, of imagining. We don't want to simmer in our thoughts; we want to get on with it. We didn't pay good money for blank space; we want direction, and we want it now.

Just because we're tired of a thing, however, doesn't make the thing obsolete. We need the moments of identification that come with the winking one-liners because we need to be reassured sometimes that the "experts" we invite into our lives are human like us. We need the takeaway utility of the synthetic one-liners because we have things to do and need the skills and know-how to do them well. But we also need to have our imaginations prodded, our emotions evoked, our intuitions brought to the surface. Because we're human beings, and so we need to regularly be human.

If you don't like how Rob Bell uses one-liners, that's fine. You can leave Levi Snow on the shelf where you found it. But if you don't like to feel or thnk or imagine, I don't know what to tell you.

Or maybe I do . . .

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nice Knowing You

I've had one "get right with God" moment in my life. I was on a plane, flying into New York, at an age when I didn't pay attention to details such as which airport. All I know is we were over water and on our descent, and it was windy--terrifyingly windy. The pilot veered this way and that, like he was swordfighting the elements. I was sure we were going to crash into the Hudson River. And I made my peace with God.

Turns out I wasn't a very good flier, and that's just how planes land (at least in New York). It was nothing really, and yet I was as serene as I've ever been when we finally touched down. There's something to the act of preparing yourself for death, for entering eternity.

Today is supposedly rapture day, according to the calculations of apocalypse-hunter Harold Camping--the day when true believers in Jesus Christ are delivered from the wrath that is to come. I don't think it is, but I guess you'll only ever know after the fact. In any case, as fun as it is to joke about partying like it's 1999 or shouting in unison "Leonard Bernstein" (a la REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It [and I Feel Fine]"), there's a little piece of my brain that can't stop thinking about it, can't stop trying to prepare myself for it. There's the slightest part of me aching for the serenity I felt when I first landed in New York and knew that God and I were good.

Yesterday morning a woman stopped her car to tell me "God--you know, God?--asked me to tell you he loves you and is proud of you." I could have lit into her or made fun of her, but instead I thanked her. Last night I had trouble falling asleep because I'm getting older and I'm not OK with it. This morning I'm counting down the hours till we know one way or another if Harold Camping is right or not. Whether it's the last night of the world (that's Bruce Cockburn) or just another day for you and me in paradise (that's Phil Collins), this day has my attention. And at the top of my apocalyptic playlist is a song by Rich Mullins, who died in a motorcycle accident years ago but who was as good a model as anyone for getting right with God:


The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through
My heart is aging I can tell
So Lord, I'm begging
For one last favor from You
Here's my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we're mended
And how we're torn
How it's okay to be lonely as long as you're free
Sometimes my ground was stoney
And sometimes covered up with thorns
And only You could make it what it had to be
And now that it's done
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper
Or if they dined me like a prince
If they lay me with my fathers
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind
I don't care

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It'll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won't break my heart to say goodbye

There's people been friendly
But they'd never be your friends
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground
Now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
'Cause it's the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting
Though I ain't never seen the other side
They say you can't take in
The things you have here
So on the road to salvation
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride
And His music is already falling on my ears

There's people been talking
They say they're worried about my soul
Well, I'm here to tell you I'll keep rocking
'Til I'm sure it's my time to roll

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It'll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won't break my heart to say goodbye

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Awana and A-Two-a: How Narcissism Pervades Contemporary Culture & What to Do About It

Earlier today I had the chance to visit the home office of Awana, a program designed to introduce children to the Bible. I let some people know I was going, and they went gaga--people who have experienced Awana are crazy fans of it.

Awana ("Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed," drawing from 2 Timothy 2:15) is a Chicago original. The model for Awana's Bible-based youth outreach was developed in the early 1940s by Lance Latham and Art Rorheim for the North Side Gospel Center. Today the program is run in over twenty thousand churches spread throughout over a hundred countries. And they do it all out of their corporate offices in lovely suburban Streamwood, Illinois. I went to a Christmas party at their corporate office once; it's very nice.

I was there today to talk about issues related to my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. How do we explain the apparent rise in narcissistic tendencies in contemporary culture? How do these trends relate to more fundamental spiritual conditions that we can identify? And if a culture of narcissism is in some ways an outcome of a spiritual state, how do we contend with it and help people (and ourselves) recover from it?

This was the stuff we talked about. The book is its own thing, but I thought folks might appreciate some supplemental material, so I made a handout available. I post it here for the convenience of folks who listened to the podcast, and for those of you who might be interested in such things.

• “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present.”

• “By 2006, 1 out of 4 college students agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits.” (The Narcissism Epidemic, p. 2)
o Grandiosity and exaggerated self-importance
o Fantasies of, and obsession with, personal exceptionalism
o A deep sense of personal uniqueness and “special class”
o A desire to be admired and/or feared. (Michael Scott of the Office: “Would I rather be feared or be loved? Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”)
o A sense of entitlement
o Manipulative and exploitative
o Devoid of empathy
o Aggressively envious and paranoid
o Arrogant, magical thinking and behavior, and prone to rage when frustrated

• Two types of narcissism: the “cool” and the “vulnerable.” The vulnerable form can lead to, among other things, eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors.

• Such behaviors also manifest in people who are victims of a narcissistic culture, with its impact on body image and perfectionism, and so on. (Note: I’m not a psychologist, and self-injury and other self-destructive behaviors require clinical assessment and care.)

• The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic identify “five key causes of the rising narcissism in American culture”: a focus on self-admiration; child-centered parenting; celebrity glorification; an exhibitionist Internet; and easy credit.

• Contemporary cultural narcissism is more tornado than virus; it’s a force with its own momentum in technology, educational models, national identity, etc. People suffer from cultural narcissism, but we also suffer through it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Traveling Wilburys, Vol. Next

I've always felt conflicted about supergroups. They always look good on paper, and yet they never quite live up to the hype. I shouldn't say "never," since the occasional supergroup song is honestly super: I heard Asia's "Heat of the Moment" the other day and was instantly transported back to my childhood, when I was wholly prepared to become a rock drummer.

Asia wasn't just a rock group; it was a rock "super group," featuring a who's who of progressive rock: Steve Howe from Yes, John Wetton from King Crimson and blow-my-mind drummer Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake and Palmer (in the video for "Heat of the Moment" he played this sweet fill and then THREW HIS STICK IN THE AIR AND CAUGHT IT!!!). I was all about Asia for the very brief period of time in which they were popular. Critics, apparently, weren't as blown away by Palmer's stick throwing, and the band sort of imploded. I moved on to devote myself temporarily to other supergroups like the Power Station (with Robert Palmer and members of Duran Duran), Hindu Love Gods (with Warren Zevon and members of R.E.M.), and Animal Logic, featuring Police drummer Stewart Copeland, jazz bass phenom Stanley Clarke and some piano teacher they hired to write songs and sing.

Asia is only one of many supergroups, as it happens, each of which has its moment and then doesn't. From the 60s-era Cream and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to the glut of the last couple of years (Them Crooked Vultures, Tinted Windows, the Dead Weather, Atoms for Peace, the Damned Things and Broken Bells), supergroups keep seeming like a good idea to successful but restless musicians. Sometimes they crank out some great music; other times they fail to thrive. Time magazine once described these phenomena as amalgams "formed by the talented malcontents of other bands," which is probably the clearest insight into why they tend to be short-lived.

My favorite supergroup, bar none, was the Traveling Wilburys. It was a classic blunder in many respects (a Beatle! Bob Dylan! Roy Orbison!) and their accomplished admirers from a later era (Tom Petty! That guy from ELO who produced Tom Petty!). They took fake names and pretended they were brothers, and they made no attempt to blend their voices; how could they, with sweet-toned George Harrison and Roy Orbison standing right next to road-worn Dylan and nasally Petty? They took turns singing, with one member playing point, and never quite sounded anything more than George Harrison and a bunch of friends horsing around. But I like when friends horse around, and regardless of how funny they sounded, you're still listening to some of the best songwriters ever singing each other's songs. Everybody wins and no harm done.

Roy Orbison died before the release of the band's second single, and George Harrison died in 2001, and the band has effectively died as a result. But the idea of the band never quite died. Get some friends together, have a good time, record some undeniably catchy tracks, make your fans happy while enjoying yourself. Harmless fun that I'd like to see some more folks have. So I put the question to some friends on Facebook: Who should populate a revived Traveling Wilburys?

Three of the original members, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, are still living. So we might give them honorary spots. But here's the very nostalgic and potentially entertaining list my friends came up with:

Kid Rock, hard-edged rocker and noted nostalgist.

Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac.

Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits.

Elvis Costello, straight from heaven.

T-Bone Burnett, Grammy- and Oscar-winning producer.

Pete Townshend of the Who.

Robyn Hitchcock, of Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians.

And Sufjan Stevens, artiste extraordinaire.

A list this long looks less like a supergroup and more like a benefit concert. But I'm open for more suggestions. I just want to horse around and enjoy some good music; is that so wrong?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Adam and Ezer

I sometimes indulge in the relatively sick pleasure of "playing with Scripture." I picked up this habit from Peter Rollins, an Irish theologian who does it quite a bit better than I do in his books The Fidelity of Betrayal and The Orthodox Heretic (his other books are focused on other things). Anyway, even Peter Rollins is only one in a tradition of playing with Scripture that is perhaps best described by Robert Farrar Capon in his trilogy on the parables of Jesus, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment:

My commitment to Scripture as the inspired Word of God–as a sacred deck of cards, not one of which may be discarded and not one of whose spots may be altered or ignored–in no way inhibits me from playing with Scripture. . . . We were meant first of all to spend huge amounts of time in the attic just poring over it and trying all of it on for size. And were were meant, above all, to invite the world up into the attic to play dress-up with us. We are supposed to be kids, you see: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes.’ You can’t get more encouragement than that for holy horsing around.
This week I ran across some writing by British import and missions trainer Jo Saxton that inspired some further holy horsing around on my part. Jo was writing about the translation issues associated with the biblical story of the creation of Eve, the first woman. Here's a common translation of how the story begins.

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Many people have suggested that the language of "helper suitable" has contributed to the long history of the subjugation of women. Women aren't treated as "equal partners" in a male-female relationship (personal or professional) but are praised for "helping" men. Women are not valuable in and of themselves but only insofar as their are "suitable" for some man. That sort of thing. They may be right; I'd be a horrible editor indeed if I didn't think the words we choose matter. In any case, this translation is problematic even without speculation about its political implications, because the Hebrew being translated evokes much more than "helpfulness." Here's Jo's take on the language behind the translation:

The word translated helper or helpmeet is EZER. We discover that it appears many times in the OT, but the vast majority of those times EZER describes God, as he is delivering and rescuing (helping) His people. It’s a word conveying power and strength, a word with military connotations. . . . Then the Knegedu “suitable” bit. The phrase means facing, corresponding to, like it. . . . The EZER is not wrapped up and consumed in someone else’s story. The Ezer stands in bold partnership separate and equal, eyeball to eyeball. EZER is also a verb meaning to protect, surround, defend, cherish.
So it appears that what God thought of the first woman and what history has made of her have little in common. We might say that God's impression of woman is from Mars, and history's impression of woman is from Venus. (We might say that, but we would be incredibly cheesy if we did.)

So why the big mixup? It might be because God didn't name the woman; Adam did, because while making stuff was God's job, naming stuff was Adam's.

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for the man no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took part of the man's side and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
We learn later that Adam further names the woman "Eve," which probably meant "living," "because she would become the mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20).

It strikes me that Adam may have gotten Eve's name wrong; if God had named her, God might have called her "Ezer." Adam picked a name based on how, not why, the woman was made. If he had given the matter a bit more thought, the story--and maybe even all of history--might be just a little different.


The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a powerful person like him to rescue him from alone-ness.”

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But none of the birds and the wild animals proved capable of rescuing the man from alone-ness. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took part of the man's side and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a person from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘Ezer,’
for by her I shall never be alone.”
The passage goes on to extrapolate forward and explain how this story makes sense of current cultural realities. "That is why," the Bible tells us, "a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." Such a notion has fallen on hard times in the recent past; U2's song "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World" aims at empowering women, but they manage to throw men under the bus as they do so. "A woman needs a man," Bono sings, "like a fish needs a bicycle." This lyric was an homage to Irina Dunn, an Australian educator credited with the line.

I was paraphrasing from a phrase I read in a philosophical text I was reading for my Honours year in English Literature and Language in 1970. It was 'A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle'. My inspiration arose from being involved in the renascent women's movement at the time, and from being a bit if [sic] a smart-arse.
Often Eve gets blamed for humanity's fall into sin; after all, the serpent wooed her, and she strong-armed Adam into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But that again is a relatively careless reading of the Scriptures, and in any case I think the impulse behind the fall from grace was a particularly human one, not a specifically feminine one. Women don't need men; men don't need God--these are assertions of arrogance. In the earliest pages of the Bible, the only person who seems capable of recognizing real need, and of addressing it in real ways, is God:

"It is not good for the man to be alone." . . . So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. . . . God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Something Akin to Charlie Sheen

Next week I'm giving a talk/interview at Awana next week. An old friend asked me to come and discuss my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, and its implications for the work Awana does (put simply, child spiritual formation). I don't know much about raising kids, not having any myself, so it'll be a bit of an uphill climb. I can use all the help I can get. So lately I've been reading The Narcissism Epidemic, by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.

Twenge's earlier book Generation Me was pretty important to me as I wrote Me-Ville; while she generally avoids issues pertaining to spirituality and faith, she has made sounding the alarm about narcissism (from the cultural to the clinical) her life's work. Generation Me was a bit snarky and self-indulgent, as cultural critique goes, but Campbell evens her out a bit in the followup--and besides, when it comes to dealing with narcissists, a little snark can be a good thing.

Today I read about the Proteus Effect, a phenomenon labeled by social psychologists studying people's behavioral changes in a virtual environment. The term alludes to Proteus, son of the Greek sea god Poseidon, who was a reluctant clairvoyant and shape-shifted to avoid telling people the truth about their futures. Researchers noted the malleability of personalities in a virtual environment, not to mention their association of personality traits with certain body types: people operating attractive avatars talked more about themselves and walked closer to other avatars; short avatars lost out in negotiations with tall avatars--because the operators of the tall avatars were more assertive and competitive.

This, according to Twenge and Campbell, extrapolates out into how our use of virtual social media affects our behavior and even blows back onto our personality. This is reflective of philosopher Marshall McLuhan's assertion that "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us." Twenge and Campbell argue that the "brand management" taking place on MySpace (the book's a few years old now) and other social media, and the aspirations put before us there (high friend counts, high comment counts, etc.), are making us something akin to Charlie Sheen.

They don't mention Sheen, of course; at the time of their writing he was still a few years from his most recent freak fest. But we might, if we accept Twenge and Campbell's assumption that as a culture (and thanks to our latest technologies) we're becoming chronically narcissistic, think of Sheen as the chip off our block, the termination point of our flow chart, the nut that has fallen from our tree. We might consider that Sheen, like Proteus, has the capacity to tell us our future, to tell us the truth.

Sheen made the fastest recorded climb to one million followers in the history of Twitter, so he's got the friend count thing mastered. He's been a fixture of all trending topics (perhaps briefly sidelined by the death of Osama Bin Laden) for most of 2011, so in terms of comment counts he's a raging success. Where things get tricky is when we consider Sheen as a case study in the Proteus effect, because Sheen is something of a hybrid. He has seemed to fully embrace the persona he played (till his very public parting of the ways) on Two and a Half Men, and yet his character was (supposedly) modeled after Sheen's personal life. So in a sense there is neither chicken nor egg here: Charlie Sheen is his avatar, and his avatar is him.

Of course, Charlie Sheen (as well as his character on the show), by taking center stage so forcefully, and by wooing us into following his rants and antics--indeed, simply by becoming a celebrity, a TV star--has become our avatar as well. What does that portend for us? A personality too big to fail loudly asserting that he is "winning" even as he appears to be failing. An adrenaline junkie eschewing propriety and self-care and significant relationships. A hedonist drowning in his own self-indulgence, singing as he goes. And the whole world sings with him.

Charlie Sheen may feel, at the moment, like last month's news. But give it a month; I suspect he'll be back. Also give it some thought, because when we imagine something akin to Charlie Sheen, when we allow him (or something like him) to become our avatar--when we shape him as a tool for our amusement--he subtly but unrelentingly goes on to shape us.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Death Comes to All

When I was a kid (I don't recall what year) my class was visited by a retired CIA agent. I think he had written a book or something. He was regaling us with stories of failed assassination attempts against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Maybe I was a lazy student, but I still know precious little about Castro and all his crimes against America; from what I can tell, our beef with him is that (a) he aligned himself with the Soviet Union and (b) he oversees a country uncomfortably close to our national border. In any case, it stimulated my nascent imagination to hear such tales of international intrigue; I remember him telling us that the CIA, knowing of Castro's fondness for conch shells, packed a particularly irresistible shell full of explosives and planted it near where Castro liked to go swimming. No dice: forty-some years later Castro is still swimming.

Failed assassination attempts aside, I find it a little disconcerting that twice in the past decade the United States has made headlines, called press conferences, interrupted broadcasts to celebrate bringing two world leaders to justice.

* Saddam Hussein, fished out of a spider hole in Iraq by American troops and later publicly executed by his own people.

* Osama Bin Laden, descended upon and shot dead in a mansion outside Islamabad, supposedly (it's still early, and details are still sketchy) buried at sea by the U.S. government.

Both were legitimately considered enemies of the state: Hussein, among other things, had attempted to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush; Bin Laden had sponsored the attacks on September 11, 2001, among many other campaigns against the United States. The death of each was a strong message to the world: Don't mess with US.

These executions, however, seem to be aberrations of history. Like Castro, any attempts on the lives of other enemies of state were kept under wraps, and most of the most notorious lived long and prospered despite our declared enmity. Consider some other public enemies, number one:

* The Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran who approved a 400+ day hostage crisis against the American embassy, died a decade later of natural causes.

* Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam during its war with the United States, died of heart failure.

* Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union and sworn enemy of the United States, died of a cerebral hemorrhage (although it's sometimes claimed that a member of his inner circle poisoned him).

* Adolph Hitler, genocidal maniac who led the whole world into war, died by suicide in the face of advancing Russian armies.

* Emperor Hirohito, who authorized the second-most devastating attack on U.S. soil (Pearl Harbor), died decades later of pancreatic cancer.

* Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, which threatened to destroy the integrity of the United States and launched still the bloodiest war in American history, died of natural causes nearly twenty-five years after his capture by Northern troops.

I'm no fan of Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or anyone who declares jihad or war or any other state of violence against my country. I also don't pretend to know the inner workings of our government, particularly its military or foreign policy protocols. I believe in justice and long for a day when justice will be embraced worldwide. But it's worth noting, at least briefly, that Bin Laden and Hussein are exceptions to the rule in the long history of American world relations. By and large, regarding its international enemies, the U.S. government has let nature take its course.

In the meantime, the death of anyone at the hands of anyone else gives me pause. So while today the United States, indeed the world, celebrates the conclusion of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, may we also shudder at the power that we hold, and at the vulnerability we still face. And may we be utterly circumspect about both.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...