Archive | Current events RSS feed for this section

A Sleepless Christmas Eve

26 Jan

(I began to write this blog during a sleepless Christmas Eve night in the hospital. I have no idea what the connection is between my situation and the subject of the blog, but I wrote energetically—in the middle of the night.)

Crass materialism is a worldview and a way of life that has taken hold of our society in a troubling manner. Materialism has been with us forever, but in recent decades it seems to have become our public philosophy. This worldview narrows our perspective on human life, to what we can see, touch, and handle. It is a one dimensional view of reality that eliminates depth and larger meanings for life. Science goes against this worldview when it shows that the material world is more amazing and complex than it appears on the surface, but science cooperates with materialism in its focus on the natural world that we can manipulate and use for our own purposes.
Crass materialism is a worldview of the surface, not the depth. Herbert Marcuse offered a critique of this world view in his 1964 book, One Dimensional Man.

A second feature of crass materialism is that it measures human life and human beings in terms of their productivity and profitability. The two great world views of the 20th century, capitalism and communism, shared this way of measuring humans: their material productivity and their ability to contribute to the economic life of society. This is revealed in the changing manner in which the working force is evaluated in the life of business. No longer is the workforce a community of human beings, rather it is considered to be a business expense. And as with all other costs of business the point is to reduce it to a minimum. In his new book, Grasping the Hebrew Bible, Robert Butterfield writes about the significance of the seventh day of creation as the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a powerful testimony that humans are not exhaustively measured by their working life Monday through Friday. There is more to human life, and the Sabbath points to that “more.” It is no surprise that our economic system long ago erased the distinction between the work days of the week and the Sabbath.

Crass materialism offers a picture of humans who cannot and should not transcend the material world, and then it claims that this is the only world—this is all there is.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “Once you give up survival at any price, then you learn the most valuable thing in life is the development of the soul.”

When I started writing this, I was tightly bound into the world of medical science, and I was hoping with all my being that it would succeed in helping me. Our healthcare system is based on the premise that our material life should be extended as much as possible. It teaches us that survival is the goal, and makes it very difficult for us to follow Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom.

Yet there must be voices that remind us that there is more than the material world—otherwise we lose our souls. There must be a “counter culture,” if you will. Religion is part of that counter culture. So are the concerns that go beyond the highly praised STEM areas—science, technology, engineering, and math. The humanities, poetry, literature, music and the arts point us beyond one-dimensionality. Perhaps my awareness, in the hospital, that my material body is weak and impermanent, is what moved me to write this.

The counter culture is beleaguered at the moment. Our economic system is ever-more pushed in the direction of what the French call “American ‘savage’ capitalism.” Religion is scoffed at. Some leaders argue that non-STEM studies should be discouraged in schools and colleges. But there is more than one dimension to our lives. Let the counter culture flower!

(c) Phil Hefner January 25, 2018

Truth as hard and tough as nails

22 Mar


I am surrounded by public art. Just across the street, on a hill in Jackson Park are seven half-sunken Buddha heads in a circle–Indria Freitas Johnson’s, “10,000 Ripples.” The heads, which were put in place on World Peace Day, September 21, 2016, symbolize peace; “We need to be reminded that peace is possible,” the artist says.

A half mile to the south, behind the Museum of Science and Industry, adjacent to the Wooded Isle with its lovely Japanese Garden of the Phoenix , Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” was recently installed. Giant lotus petals rise out of the green turf, turning our eyes upward in welcoming gesture. The installation ceremony, which included dancers and special music, is pictured above.

Yoko Ono is a respected, if controversial, avant-garde artist and musician. When she married John Lennon, the couple became strong activists against the Vietnam War. “Skylanding” takes its meaning from her early life in Japan. She lived in Tokyo, her life disrupted by the firebombing and atomic bombs of World War II. In those days, the sky was a fearsome place–bombs rained down death, suffering, and destruction. Her family fled the city and scratched out an existence in the countryside. “Skylanding” welcomes the sky, its lotus leaves reaching upwards. The scene is one of peace, dancing, and song.

All very nice, we say, but what do these sculptures really amount to? Life is hard, not soft and beautiful. Hard here on the south side of Chicago, with its guns and gangs, as well as the unflinching dollars-and-sense calculation of urban developers. The artists seem to be engaging in out-of-touch soft power, while life around us operates on hard power.

This is where Ute Lemper enters. She is one of the great cabaret singers and composers of our time, a matchless interpreter of Kurt Weill’s songs and the Brecht/Weill classic Threepenny Opera. Fans of the movie, “Cabaret,” recall that the classic era of cabarets and their singing was early twentieth century Germany, and that they waged cutting satire of their society and its politics. Imagine a much more sardonic version of “Saturday Night Live.” Hitler shut them down–fascists don’t tolerate satire.

Lemper entitles one of her songs, “Munchhausen”–named after a sixteenth century German baron, who was notorious for his habit of lying. Its refrain:

I’m sick and tired of lies from you
But how I wish your lies were true
Liar, liar, liar, liar, liar, liar
Truth is as hard and tough as nails
That’s why we need fairy tales
I’m all through with logical conclusions
Why should I deny myself illusions

Hard power can banish soft power to the sidelines, even into obscurity. But soft power cannot be eradicated. It lives on–in the form of stories, fairy tales, songs, hopes, myths, and dreams. In a brilliant turn of phrase, our truth is tough as nails and fairy tales house their toughness.

Political figures, barons of business, dictators–these pass away, but dreams, hopes, and fairy tales live on and on. We remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the time of the Babylonian oppression of Israel–“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” But who recalls the names of the oppressor Babylonian kings?

It has been said that the fairy tales and dreams are the opiate of the masses, intended to sedate their senses. I prefer to think of them as the sigh, deep in our hearts, that lives below the surface of events. Fairy tales are not only tough as nails, they are subversive of the existing order. They undercut human pretensions.

Lemper includes fairy tales in her song:

I saw a film the other day
That really varied from the norm
There were no soldiers on parade
And no one marched in uniform
Its heroes were not supermen
And no one even shot a gun
The audience still loved the film
Though not a single war was won
But I was really shocked to see
This film was made in Germany

I saw a land that hated war
And melted all its weapons down
To build a boat of love for kids
Who planned to sail from town to town
Declaring peace for all the world
Let killing now come to an end
Embrace your enemies instead
Your former foe is now your friend
Ev’ry conflict now will cease
And all of us will live in peace

These kinds of fairy tales are subversive–little wonder that Hitler closed them down.

Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” expresses such a subversive dream. Our skies are not so friendly today–bombers and drones in the Middle East, lung-eating pollution around the world, amid moves to increase military forces. It is a dreamy fairy tale, but it advances a truth that is hard and tough as nails. If it were a policy proposal, it could be scrapped; as proposed legislation, it could be tabled. As hope and dream, as fairy tale, it will live on as long as human beings exist on this planet.

(c) Phil Hefner 3/22/2017

More than Wealth

24 Dec

I sometimes try to read the news with a Bible near by. I read these two items during the day yesterday, and the psalm was part of my evening devotional reading.

I’ll put these items side-by-side. They speak for themselves. Nevertheless, I will add a brief commentary.

The amount of wealth possessed by Trump’s cabinet members, at least $9.5 billion, is greater than the 43 million least wealthy households in America.–News report.

Donald Trump defended his selection of millionaires and billionaires to join his administration:
“I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump said.

The amount of wealth possessed by Trump’s cabinet members, at least $9.5 billion, is greater than the 43 million least wealthy households in America.–News report.

Donald Trump defended his selection of millionaires and billionaires to join his administration:
“I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump said.

Psalm 49.
Why should I fear men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches? For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must both perish and leave their wealth to others. Do not fear when a man grows rich, when the glory of his house increases. He takes nothing with him when he dies, his glory does not follow him below. In his riches, man lacks wisdom: he is like the beasts that are destroyed.


The point that wealthy successful people may find ways to improve living standards for rank-and-file Americans might be true, and I hope it is. However, there is more at stake–a worldview that is projected. Material well being can make lives better in many ways, but there is more to life. That “more” is what America needs most at this moment in our history. Christmas is a message of the “more” we need.

(c) Phil Hefner. 12/23/2016