The four metaphors for religion (repost of something from April of 2005)

This was my first attempt, I think, to explain a concept that I have continued to find useful ever since. What was originally two posts on my old blog, I have combined into one.

If you want to understand why apparently nice people can be so intolerant over religion — including people who seem constantly to be talking about the importance of tolerance (but who can’t say the word “fundamentalist” without sneering) — then you have to understand the role dominant metaphors play in religion. There are seven critical points you must grasp.

(1) Whenever someone thinks about religion, he thinks of religion in terms drawn from a particular dominant metaphor. That metaphor makes it possible for him to think about religion meaningfully, but it also puts limits on his religious thought. It is also from that metaphor that he draws — without even thinking about it — his assumptions about what a person ought to feel about various situations in which religion is involved; when it comes to religion, all his motivations and emotions are drawn from the metaphor, not from religious beliefs standing on their own.

(2) Very, very few people have consciously chosen which metaphor they are going to use — in fact, very few people are aware that they are using any metaphor at all. It’s rarely the case that people have looked at the different metaphors available, weighed the choices, and chosen the one they think is most appropriate. The vast majority of the time people are conditioned by their upbringing (by all the complex human relationships and formative experiences that we subsume under the word “culture”) to use a particular dominant metaphor to make sense of religion. Furthermore, when they do become aware that there is a difference, somewhat more often than not they automatically assume that their own culture’s metaphor is the “right” one.

(3) Therefore most people assume, without thinking about it, that everybody else who talks about religion is working from the same metaphor they are, and they draw conclusions about other people’s motivations and emotions by trying to figure out what motivations or emotions would cause those actions or opinions to be generated from their own metaphorical framework (rather than from the one the other people are actually working with).

(4) Two people who are using exactly the same words, but working from different fundamental metaphors, can mean radically different things — but if they don’t realize they are working from different metaphors, they usually think they understand what the other person is saying, and pass judgment accordingly on the other person’s opinions and/or character.

(5) Historically there seem to be four dominant metaphor-families that people have used to think about religion:

(a) Religion as superstition/opiate/poison.

(b) Religion as family/culture/clan membership/sense of belonging.

(c) Religion as therapy/magic/tool/hobby/emotional pragmatism.

(d) Religion as fact/truth/science/medicine.

I need names for these other than just the letters; so purely for the sake of having names I’ll refer to them as “Superstition,” “Family,” “Happiness Machine,” and “Fact.”

(6) The predominant metaphor in modern Kazakh society (a particular interest of mine) is what I’m calling “Family.” The predominant metaphor in both China and modern American society is “Happiness Machine.” However, there is a very significant subculture of American society (which used to be the dominant culture and is extremely displeased at having now been relegated to minority status) for which the dominant metaphor of religion is “Fact.” And then much of the American Jewish subculture, and especially the more Orthodox variants of Judaism, come from a passionate attachment to metaphor “Family.” Finally, there is a small but very highly vocal element that sees religion as “Superstition.”

(7) Most of the bitterness, hatred and intolerance in American society comes not from a disagreement on specific religious doctrines such as whether or not there is a hell that all infidels (from whichever perspective) will wind up in, but from a fundamental disagreement on whether religion ought to be thought of in terms of “Happiness Machine” or in terms of “Fact.” And since this is not recognized as the fundamental issue — in fact it’s hardly recognized as an issue at all — all of the talking and arguing and mutual recrimination do absolutely nothing to move us toward any sort of reconciliation, since practically all of the sound and fury manages to miss the point entirely.

Having introduced the metaphors in one post, I then wrote another one for my kids making use of the metaphors, but with the specific purpose of showing how understanding other people’s religious metaphors can reduce misunderstanding and therefore conflict. This presumes, of course, that one actually desires to understand others rather than merely to seek acceptance in one’s own social circles by condemning and hating the Others who Do Not Think Like Us. If one is morally leprous enough to be gratified by hatred, or to be willing to hate and slander and abuse others for the sake of social validation, then nothing in this post will help solve your particular problem.

So I have these nine kids, and I want them to be able to understand and respect other people, and I have to figure out how to help them do that even in a world where people habitually get mad at each other over subjects they feel strongly about…especially religion. That means I have to help them understand the underlying metaphors of religion, introduced above.

Let me just say before I start that I’m using gross oversimplifications here, and that I’m using extreme cases to illustrate my distinctions, not because I really think most people are that extreme. It’s exactly the same as with something like the Meyers-Briggs test: there’s a spectrum, and some people are obviously out on one end or the other while other people are kind of in the middle and hard to place, but the guys explaining how J and P are different (or whatever) use extreme examples just to make sure you understand what they’re talking about.

Also, I can speak from within the Fact perspective naturally, but when it comes to the Family and Happiness Machine perspectives it’s like I’m talking a foreign language that I’ve tried very hard to learn but in which I’m still not really fluent. And I don’t try to address the Superstition perspective at all because I have had no luck at all in figuring out where you guys are coming from…I don’t even begin to understand you and I am certainly not going to try to explain you because my explanation would be downright slanderous. If you guys who are native speakers of the Family and Happiness Machine metaphors can provide better illustrations than mine, that would be very helpful to me when I’m trying to help my kids understand you guys better than I presently do myself. Just remember that they need to be relatively extreme illustrations in order to make the distinctions clear, even though most of you probably aren’t on the extreme edges of any of the positions.

Another important caveat: Most of us actually have a dominant metaphor and a secondary metaphor, for example; few of us work entirely from a single, monochrome perspective. I can try to separate out the metaphors so that you can see how they work, but in real life, you’ll find that they exist in individuals mostly in combination. That’s part of what makes each person so gloriously unique. Most Kazakhs are going to have a Family orientation, but you may find that some Kazakhs have a relatively strong undercurrent of Happiness Machine subordinated to the Family theme, while others have a relatively strong undercurrent of Fact; and the result is two different flavors of Family orientation. My Kazakh friend Gauhar was entirely justified to complain that her experience is more “multilayered” than I made it sound once when trying to explain Kazakh attitudes toward religion to a group of prospective adoptive parents. If you want to understand any particular individual, you almost always will have to mix at least two of these metaphors together, though in my experience there’s always one that dominates the other. To assume that, because a person’s primary metaphor is Family, he therefore places no value on Fact, is a bad idea. I’m presenting “pure” orientations because I’m trying to illustrate the metaphors themselves. Please don’t think there are very many people in the world who work utterly from within one of these metaphors without any influence from the others.

Finally, what I’m wrestling with in this post is religious conflict — how do I keep my kids out of unnecessary conflict situations involving religious misunderstanding? It’s sort of a common assumption in Happiness-Machine-dominated America that you get conflicts when you have Fact people who disagree with each other, but I have become convinced that that’s a misreading of the situation. For example, I maintained a close and highly valued friendship for years with a Tunisian Muslim who also came from a strongly Fact-oriented perspective, though his was Muslim. I even sent my then-wife to Tunisia to attend his wedding (I tried desperately to make arrangements to go and couldn’t; so I sent her instead). Najmeddine and I disagreed about a lot of religious perspectives; we talked long into the night; each of us cheerfully tried to convert the other and prayed for the other. And hey, I’d’ve been insulted if he hadn’t — he was pretty sure I was going to hell, so what kind of friend would he have been if he hadn’t tried to keep that from happening? I was honored and grateful that he was willing to spend effort praying and working for my conversion. This is not the reaction a Family- or Happiness-Machine-oriented person is likely to have when they find themselves “in the crosshairs of a soul-hunter looking to get another notch on his Bible,” to use a vivid image from my college days.

My Kazakhstani friends Marina and Gauhar would get along great, despite being Orthodox and Muslim respectively, because they’re both Family-oriented. But Najmeddine and I also get along great, and we are Fact-oriented Muslim and Anglican respectively. And I get along so well with my very Fact-oriented Roman Catholic friends that I once helped them put on a retreat at St. John Neumann’s in Austin, despite not being Roman Catholic; and most of my kids’ godparents are Southern Baptist who insisted on long discussions about the validity of infant baptism before agreeing to serve in that capacity, because they also care very much about Fact; and yet despite our disagreements we are devoted to each other. Religious disagreement — even if you are someone that the average American would label a “fundamentalist” based on your beliefs — doesn’t need to involve disrespect or preclude affection.

And yet the conservative and liberal branches of the Episcopalian church can hardly speak to each other, and the majority of people I know who say that religious tolerance is important to them can hardly manage to speak the word “fundamentalist” without a sneer, and that’s not even mentioning the Catholics and Protestants in Belfast…so how do I help my children defuse conflict like that instead of inflame it?

I’ve thought about this for years, and I’ve come to think that religious conflict and bitterness and hatred isn’t particularly associated with any set of beliefs. It seems to me that when I see people getting angry about religion, almost always one of four things is happening:

1. Frequently, I’m talking to someone who has been badly hurt in a way that they associate with religion. If, for example, I grew up with viciously hateful parents who also happened to be thoroughgoing religious hypocrites, then my reaction against my parents is also going to be all tied up with my reaction to religion in general and my parents’ religion in particular.

2. You have somebody who has taken up religion as a tool they can use to pursue selfish, self-aggrandizing goals. The traditional English hatred of Roman Catholicism arose originally out of the English conviction that the Pope was a tool of the French and Spanish kings and was delivering his “religious” verdicts (such as which royal marriages could be annulled and which couldn’t) purely with an eye to helping the French achieve domination of England. The English only came to love Protestantism because they first loved freedom, and came to see the Pope as the enemy of English freedom. And most of us who grew up in congregationalist churches have seen our share of nasty internecine fights…I remember one lady in my childhood church years ago. Whenever this lady said, “Now I say this in a spirit of love…” everybody ran for cover ’cause she was about to launch a mercilessly savage attack against some person whom she thought was gettin’ uppity and interfering with her ability to make sure the church followed her own personal rules (e.g., “We don’t invite colored teenagers to our church ’cause they should stay in their own churches where they belong”).

3. In many cases religion has come to be associated with some other, essentially non-religious, source of conflict. For example, the past fifty years of Polish history have pitted an atheistic regime imposed by foreigners, against the will of the Polish people led by the Church, and any Pole will tell you that Communism really ended in Poland when the Pope came home in ’79. So it would now be a daunting task indeed to try to get an ordinary Polish dockworker to be able to separate in his mind Poland, Solidarnosc, and the Catholic Church. (If you aren’t familiar with the history-changing events of 1979 then you simply must read Peggy Noonan’s “We Want God,” the best short explanation I’ve seen of what happened in those astonishing two weeks.) Or, to return to a previous example, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has very little to do with Catholicism and Protestantism per se, except insofar as they are historically associated with English occupation and Irish subjugation.

4. And when we get past all of these yet still have anger and bitterness associated with religion, what I have realized I almost always find, is a clash of metaphor. It’s not that people with different dominant metaphors have to clash; obviously my adoption coordinator Marina and I worked together and loved each other and admired each other even though she’s Family and I’m Fact. I really want to emphasize this, because for the rest of the post I’m going to be talking about religious conflict, which is an unpleasant topic, and I don’t want it to sound like I think religious conflict is everywhere you look. I’m just saying that when you do find two people hating each other over religion, and the problem is really religion (not personal trauma or conflicts of ego or some non-religious issue wearing a religious mask), you always seem to find a clash of metaphor.

And that’s why I’m struggling so hard to find ways to teach my children how to get outside their own metaphor at least long enough to understand their friends and neighbors rather than knee-jerk clashing with them. I don’t want them to miss out on friends like Marina or Aigul or Aliya or Gail over nothing more than misunderstandings arising from clashing metaphors.

Okay, back in 2005 I was talking to my Sunday School class of junior-high girls, who came from a religious tradition with the Fact metaphor but who attend public schools dominated by the Happiness Machine metaphor, and this whole subject came up because they were concerned about taking flak if they were to express their religious opinions publicly. And I’m sitting there trying to figure out how to explain this whole concept of underlying metaphor to these kids.

What I wound up doing is this: I assigned two of the girls to do an impromptu skit, where I gave them the roles and the situation but left them responsible for the dialogue and emotions. The situation was that a mother was trying to convince her daughter to attend their son’s/brother’s wedding. But the daughter was refusing to go, because she believed it was absolutely true that her brother was making a bad mistake.

They did a very good job with the skit, I thought. They were both very convincing…the daughter saying, “I don’t want to be there and watch him ruin his life and pretend like I think it’s a good idea,” and the mom saying, “It doesn’t matter whether you think it’s a good idea or not — he’s your brother, and you should be there.”

Then I told them to do the skit again, only this time the mother was trying to convince the daughter that she should support her brother’s decision to maintain his heroin habit, because whether she thought he was making a mistake or not, he was her brother, and she should loyally support him. And they absolutely couldn’t do it — the whole room dissolved in giggles. They literally couldn’t even try to act out what seemed to them to be such a ridiculous situation.

Then I tried to explain to them that, if you come from a background where Family is the dominant metaphor, then deciding to convert out of your family’s religion merely because you think it’s true that your family’s religion has its facts wrong, seems to your family like refusing to go to your brother’s wedding merely because you think it’s true that your brother is making a big mistake. What does it matter? Maybe he’s making a mistake, maybe he isn’t, but he’s still your family and by God you go to the wedding. But if you come from a background where Fact is the dominant metaphor, then deciding to stick with the family religion even after you’ve decided it isn’t true, is at best like continuing to believe in a flat earth because that’s your family tradition. Is cocaine good for you or not? That is a question to be settled without reference to whatever your family may traditionally have believed about the benefits of cocaine. Do you go to your brother’s wedding or not? That is a question to be settled without reference to your opinion about whether your brother is making a mistake or not. But which kind of question is the question of what religion you should follow?

To put it another way, the Family perspective fosters a strong sense of the moral obligation to be loyal — as my friend Gauhar put it, “I don’t see how doing what your parents want is just a family loyalty. It is a girl’s religious and moral duty to follow her mother.” Do you see that “family loyalty” is, for Gauhar, something that ought not be downplayed by calling it “just a family loyalty” or “mere family loyalty” as if other things were more important?

By contrast, from the pure Happiness Machine perspective, there is no particular religious or moral duty to follow your parents’ religion unless it works for you personally. And from the Fact perspective, the primary moral obligation is honesty, not loyalty, and while you do have a duty to obey and respect your parents as long as they are not ordering you to do something immoral, following a religion that is false is in fact immoral and is one of the things you can’t do even if your parents command you to. “Anyone who does not hate his father or mother is not worthy of me,” said the paradigmatically Fact-oriented Jesus, and while he was using rhetorical hyperbole to make a point, there’s no doubt that his point was that the truth is so more important than family loyalty that in any conflict between the two family loyalty ought to be completely irrelevant — if it takes you longer to snap your fingers than it does to set aside the family loyalty that’s standing in the way of living the truth, then you are not yet where you ought to be. And that’s a collision of fundamental metaphor, made deliberately violent by Jesus’ deliberately shocking phrasing. If you’re a pure Fact-oriented person trying to understand a pure Family-oriented person, you have to understand that they feel as strongly about the non-negotiability of family loyalty as you feel about the non-negotiability of speaking and living the truth…and if you’re a pure Family-oriented person trying to understand a pure Fact-oriented person, you have to go the other direction.

So I know a lady my age whose mother, long before my friend was born, converted to Christianity from Judaism, on the grounds that Christianity was true (having clearly, at some point, moved from her inherited Family orientation into a Fact orientation, acquired I don’t know whence). As a result, naturally my friend grew up with her mom’s adopted Fact orientation. But her Jewish grandparents and aunts and uncles were still firmly in the Family orientation. And my friend thought it was just so incredibly bizarre that her grandmother would tell her, “You know, if your mother had converted because she was marrying a Christian boy, that would have been okay; but to convert just because she thought Christianity was better, that was just such an insult.” She thought her grandmother was a very nice and sweet lady, but sort of crazy, because why in the world would you be fine with it if your daughter underwent a “hypocritical” conversion to a religion she didn’t believe, but would be infuriated by a conversion that came out of “honest conviction”? But of course to convert to someone’s religion because you’re joining their family, makes obvious sense if religion is about Family…a conversion like the fiancé’s conversion to Greek Orthodoxy in My Big Fat Greek Wedding would make perfect sense to my friend’s grandmother but seems somehow awry from the Fact perspective. So all those years my friend thought her grandmother just had something in her head that apparently didn’t work right; but in reality her grandmother’s reaction makes perfect sense, given her grandmother’s way of perceiving and experiencing religion.

So that’s an example of a person from a Fact perspective not being able to understand somebody from a Family perspective, even though they knew them well and loved them a lot.

Now here’s a similar but opposite situation, again having to do with a Jewish conversion to Christianity. In this case, I knew a girl in college who converted to Christianity from Judaism, purely because she decided that the evidence was that Jesus had, in historical fact, risen from the dead and was actually the Messiah. I am NOT taking a position on whether this is a good reason to convert (I mean, I do have an opinion, but that opinion is not germane to this post). I’m just saying that’s why she made that decision. I knew her well, and I can tell you that she was very proud of being Jewish (this probably is making little sense to some of Jewish readers, but just trust me on this), and she continued to think of herself as Jewish even after her conversion, and almost two decades later she still thought of herself as Jewish by culture and Christian by religion. She could think of herself this way, because she thought of religion as primarily an issue of historical factuality quite distinct from family heritage and culture; but her grandparents (who were Holocaust survivors) thought the very notion of being a Jewish Christian was self-contradictory and even repulsive.

So the Daily Princetonian ran an article on religious conversion on campus…I don’t remember the exact details, but say that they chose a person who had converted to Islam from being Southern Baptist, and somebody who had converted to Buddhism from Catholicism, and Amy. (Something like that, anyway.) It was their feature story, and they included a lot of quotes from Amy in which she very explicitly said that she was proud of being Jewish and had converted purely out of factual conviction, not out of any distaste for Jewish culture or her family, both of which she admired and loved and valued highly. The very next issue included a full page from the president of B’nai B’rith bitterly attacking Amy for spitting in her family’s face, and saying that she was wrong to despise Jewish culture because it was actually a tremendously rich and valuable heritage…and not a word had a thing to do with any question of historical fact about Jesus. This guy was so utterly locked into the Family metaphor that it was inconceivable to him that any Jewish person could possibly convert to Christianity for any reason other than hatred of their Jewish brothers and sisters, and he complained bitterly and at great length that Jewish people didn’t deserve to be hated and that Amy was a jerk for hating them — despite her explicit assertions to the contrary. I had never seen anything like it and (at the time) couldn’t understand it. So naturally I decided the guy was a moron and a fool — which just basically means I was doing the exact same thing to him that he was doing to Amy! Not that I had the sense to realize this at the time, because, as I say, I was even more of an arrogant jerk then than I am now, which is saying something.

So that’s an example of a person from a Family perspective finding a person from a Fact perspective completely inexplicable and therefore going off on her with rage and venom (it was a really nasty article) because he completely misread her motivations and emotions.

When we bring Happiness Machine people into the mix…okay, now I have to try to express the Happiness Machine perspective in terms Fact and Family people will understand and sympathize with, and that’s somewhat tricky because I don’t buy the Happiness Machine perspective myself and never have. I have much more natural sympathy with the Family view than with the Happiness Machine view. So I may not get this right. Only, do please make allowances for the fact that I have to oversimplify and that I’m using extreme examples because extreme examples make the differences clearer.

If I had to try to capture the Happiness Machine perspective in a single sentence, it would be this: from within the Happiness Machine metaphor, what matters about religion is whether it yields the desired results. The results may be sociological; they may be personal; whatever. The question is — does it work? And, since Americans are a very pragmatic people, this metaphor resonates better with most Americans that does any other metaphor.

Of course you have to ask what the goal is that religion is supposed to accomplish. Here I can only speak to the Happiness Machine people of my experience, which is predominantly (a) progressive Episcopalians, recently, and (b) Princeton undergraduates, rather longer ago. So I can only describe an American variation on the Happiness Machine perspective, and I don’t know to what extent this holds true outside of America.

America is an extremely individualistic country, and it is, generally speaking, a relatively hedonistic country. More often than not, the Happiness Machine viewpoint sees religion as a way to make yourself feel better, or to make yourself be a nicer person, or to derive more personal satisfaction out of your life, or to be better adjusted to your surroundings — the point being that many Americans turn to religion for precisely the same reasons they would turn to a therapist. This doesn’t apply to all Happiness Machine folks, I should say. My friend Laura once tried to describe to me a Unitarian perspective that would, I think, be a variation in which religion was viewed more as a way to make society a better society than as a way to make one’s own life more enjoyable, if I understand her correctly. (I have never myself gotten to know any Unitarians well and so don’t know from personal experience.) Jordan Peterson (who is Canadian but whom we will treat as an honorary American for our purposes) talks about how Christianity solved all the problems of ancient Roman society but was largely abandoned because it couldn’t solve the problems of modern society. There is no sign that it ever has crossed his mind that the purpose of Christianity was never to create a utopia and that any societal problem-solving arising from the widespread practice of Christianity would be a mere collateral benefit. Peterson is about as simon-pure a Happiness Machine person as you ever likely to find, and a big component of what he wants religion to do is Fix Society. But the majority of American Happiness Machine folks I know, think of religion almost 100% from the perspective of what works for each individual separately.

Where the Happiness Machine viewpoint is aimed at making the culture better or the family happier, then it can coexist pretty well with the Family viewpoint. If, however, you’re talking about a more individualistic, ‘Sixties type of Happiness Machine angle — “I gotta be me,” so to speak — then the Happiness Machine and Family viewpoints can come into conflict, in which case the Family side tends to see the Happiness Machine side as selfish and disloyal, while the Happiness Machine side tends to see the Family side as restrictive and controlling.

You’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, right? And you know what a terrible time Tevya has with Havilah’s decision to marry a goy. Even though she’s in love and there’s a strong Family motive to her conversion, it’s not enough to overcome Tevya’s sense of her betrayal.

Now imagine how much worse it could get, if she not only abandoned her own family, but abandoned the entire Family metaphor as well, switching over to the Happiness Machine perspective. Imagine this: instead of Havilah’s meeting her father on the road to tell her she’s married a Russian, she comes up to him and says, “Look, Papa, this whole Jewish deal just really isn’t working out for me. I mean, I know it works great for you and Mama, and I think that’s wonderful. But it’s not for me. So I’ve decided I’m going to try the shiksha thing out for a while and see how that goes. And I just hope you love me enough to support me in that decision.”

Can you even imagine Tevya’s fury? — which would be a function of the enormous pain he would feel, since for him the Family orientation is dominant to a very, very high degree.

I think when we Happiness Machine /Fact Americans hear about somebody converting to a different religion and then being legally disowned by their parents (I know people who have had this experience, and whose parents consider them to be dead), we naturally feel outraged. But you have to understand that, from the family’s perspective, it was the child who disowned the family, not the other way around. Do you see? It’s not that the child disagrees with the family; it’s that the child has disowned the family. The outrage we naturally feel toward the parents for disowning the child, is very much the same outrage that the parents feel toward the child — for disowning them. I know that this is an extreme case and that (certainly in America and I think in Kazakhstan as well) not many people are going to disown their children on grounds of religious conversion. But I do think that the pain that Family-oriented parents feel when a child converts away from the family religion, is the pain of personal rejection and disownment, not the pain of disagreement. Again, imagine how Tulia’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding would feel if Tulia were to walk in and say, “Papa, I’ve decided I’m going to become a Roman Catholic.” That pain would have nothing to do with doctrinal disagreements — it would be exactly the same pain as if she were to walk in and say, “Papa, I’ve decided I’m going to consider myself Turkish from now on.”

If I were trying to help a very strongly Family-oriented person understand a Happiness-Machine-oriented person who seemed to be behaving in a selfish and hurtful manner, I think I would probably go back to the Fiddler on the Roof story and ask them to imagine how horrible it must have been to be Havilah, feeling that all her happiness depended on this man that her family tradition was telling her she couldn’t have. Or try this: Imagine that all your life you’ve been subject to more or less constant nausea and vomiting, and now you have suddenly discovered that it’s because (a) having been born into a Cajun family, you eat red beans and rice every other day, and (b) you happen to be allergic to red beans and rice. How would you feel if your family insisted that you had to just keep on eating red beans and rice for the rest of your life because “that’s what a Boudreaux is supposed to eat”?

Such a comparison must strike many strongly Family-oriented people as offensive in the highest degree. But from within a Happiness Machine experience, there’s nothing bizarre about comparing a bad reaction to a particular religion to a food allergy, because the Happiness Machine mindset finds it quite natural to assume that different people can have different reactions to the same religion and that in fact what “works” for one person won’t necessarily “work” for another. If you come from a strong Family orientation and find it highly offensive to have your tradition compared to a food allergy…listen, I’m not saying that the comparison’s valid. I’m just telling you, if your children have picked up the Happiness Machine metaphor from popular American culture (in which it is thoroughly pervasive), and you want to understand your children’s motivations and feelings, you need to understand that they probably feel much more like Havilah than like Tevya, and that religion may seem much more like a subject for personal variation to them than it does to you.

I really don’t know how strong the Family loyalty pressure is in Kazakhstan. I did have an interesting conversation with my young Kazakh Muslim friend Aigul, whom I love like a daughter and who likes me very much, and who also loves two young Kazakh children I tried for two years to adopt (only, ultimately, to fail, and don’t ask me to talk about it because it hurts too much). Aigul very delicately tried to warn me that Nurgul and Ramazan probably consider themselves Muslim, and wanted to know whether I would try to insist upon their converting to Christianity if I were to adopt them. It was very difficult to explain to her that, since our family tradition is a Fact tradition, we wouldn’t be able to “make” them convert in any meaningful sense. We could hope that they would convert, since we believe that, at the points where Christianity and Islam disagree, Christianity is correct, and that you’re better off having correct opinions than incorrect ones. But within our traditional family way of thinking, this is a decision that Nurgul and Ramazan would have to come to on their own, and becoming Christian just because they’re joining a Christian family would be a poor reason to become a Christian. In short, our family tradition doesn’t encourage people to become Christian for the sake of family tradition. It’s a sort of Catch-22, almost like, if you’re Catholic and the Pope says, “Hey, guys, I’m not infallible,” then what are you supposed to believe?

This whole way of thinking was so alien to Aigul that it was very hard to get her to see that (a) Christianity was literally the most important thing in the world to our family and yet (b) we would never require Nurgul and Ramazan to convert to Christianity in order to be part of our family. To Aigul, coming from a Family orientation, that combination made no sense at all together.

Okay, this leaves Happiness Machine and Fact.

[sigh] This is very hard work, and I don’t think I’m doing it at all well. And I was just going to say, “Okay, I give up…” when suddenly an argument, just moments ago, broke out in this coffee shop where I’m typing, in which one person just informed the other emphatically, “Well, not all of us were raised in a family of Bible-thumpers.” So I guess I’ll take that as a sign to try to keep muddling on.

Here are a couple of stories I might use to try to get Fact people to start working toward understanding Happiness Machine people. You Happiness Machine guys may not like them, but do remember that I’m trying to tell your story in Fact terms, which are probably not the terms in which you would tell your story…if you told your story your way, then the Fact people probably would misunderstand it.

Adults — the lucky ones, that is — have often found their “calling.” You find work that just calls to you and you love the work and it’s what you were born to do. For some people it’s raising a family; for some people it’s art; for some people it’s athletics; for some people it’s business…whatever. Now, imagine that you’re a woman who has discovered that you have a passion for astronomy; it’s what you were born to do, so to speak. But the people who control the observatories have decided, from sheer prejudice, that astronomy is Not For Women, and they tell you that you are not allowed to do astronomy yourself; you’re only allowed to take notes for the Real Astronomers (i.e., the men). So you wait until you’re alone and you secretly do as much astronomy as you can do while taking pains not to be found out, and you hide the notes so that nobody sees them, and you limp along with this unsatisfying half-life which is all the powers that be will allow you, until you die. And only after you’re dead and people are going through your notes, do they realize how much you accomplished and how passionately you loved it and how bloody good you were at it and how much needless frustration you endured purely because of other people’s insistence that you live by their groundless prejudices.

That, by the way, is a true story of one the nineteenth century’s most talented astronomers, whose name escapes me (she held a menial job at the Harvard observatory in order to have a way to stay in the vestibule of the astronomical temple, so to speak). It also is, I think, a story that at least starts to capture how a Happiness-Machine-oriented person tends to see the insistence of a Fact-oriented person that everybody has to do it one particular way. If some, or even most, women like raising children and running a household better than doing astronomy, more power to them; but why should the women who find that astronomy works for them, if I may put it that way, be denied that satisfaction and sentenced to frustration? Now when a Happiness Machine person finds a religion that just really grabs them and works for them, and then you come along and tell them that that religion is a bad thing and they aren’t allowed to follow it, can you see how they might feel the way this particular lady did?

Or try this: as it happens, I (despite being myself blond to a degree that Anna Nicole Smith’s hair maintenance engineer would despair of imparting) do not find blonde women romantically attractive; if you ain’t brunette, it ain’t happenin’ for me. Just a personal quirk, which, since I found a delightful Chinese girl who had the poor taste to be willing to marry me, does nobody in the world any harm. Well, no problem there. But what if I were now to run around trying to pass a law that said that nobody was allowed to marry a blonde woman because they aren’t pretty, or that all blonde women had to dye their hair black? To a Happiness Machine person, trying to run around telling everybody they have to follow your religion is more or less analogous to telling everybody they have to agree with you on which women have It. How would you feel if I told you you had to dye your hair because Dubya doesn’t find women with your hair color to be attractive?

If I wanted to try to get Happiness Machine people to start understanding Fact people, I would tell stories like this:

What if I told you that I believed that the sun goes around the earth? — or, better, what if I told you that I intended to teach my children that the sun goes around the earth? Would you be comfortable saying, “Hey, if that’s what works for you, that’s great”? In fact you may have heard a news story of some “religious fanatic” whose children have cancer, but who refuse to allow the child to receive medical treatment because they believe God will heal the child miraculously. How did you respond when you heard that story?

What if I were to tell you that I intended to teach my children that the earth was created in six twenty-four-hour days a few thousand years ago, and that I did not want them ever to hear the theory of evolution? Would you think that was wonderful, and would you feel called upon to support me in my scientific choice?

What if I were to decide that slavery is a painful subject, and therefore I intended to make sure that when I taught my children United States history, I intended to pretend that slavery had never existed in the U.S.? What if I were to decide that I’m happier believing that the Holocaust never happened, and that my children would also be happier believing that the Holocaust never happened, and therefore I decide that I’m going to proceed as though it never happened and teach my children that as well? And what if, when you object that the Holocaust really did happen, I calmly inform you, “Well, I’m sure that’s true for you, but it isn’t true for me”? How do you react, for heaven’s sake, to “climate deniers”?

What if, when you started talking about leukemia, I were to say, “Well, I don’t believe in cancer”? And you say, “But cancer really exists,” and I respond, “How can you beLIEVE that? What kind of sadistic person wants children to die in agony before they have the chance to grow up? What makes you think you’re so much better than those children that you think that they deserve to die and you don’t?” What would you say to me?

Now to a Fact person, the question of whether, say, hell exists, is a question on the same order as the question of whether leukemia exists. They aren’t believing in hell because that belief “works for them,” in the sense that it makes them happier or well-adjusted. I don’t know any rational person who believes in hell who doesn’t hate the doctrine, exactly the way those of us who believe in leukemia (which killed my late business partner) hate the disease. Question: Why would you distress a teenager by telling her that her parents went to hell for believing the wrong religion, and that if she doesn’t choose her religion wisely, the same thing could happen to her? Like any good Irishman, I’ll answer with another question: why would you distress a teenager by telling her the truth about people die of AIDS, in order to warn her that if she doesn’t make sure to practice safe sex, the same thing could happen to her? In both cases the answer is simply: because you think it’s true, and you don’t want bad things to happen to the kid, and while significant emotional distress isn’t any fun now, it’s better than AIDS — or hell — later.

One of my Kazakh friends mentioned in conversation that the Christian missionaries she knows seem too aggressive, and I’m sure that’s exactly how they come off…and I certainly would remind missionaries from any religion of Owen Wister’s observation that, “But I knew he was a good man, and I knew that if a missionary is to be tactless, he might as well be a bad man.” But those of you from the Family or Happiness Machine perspectives must remember that one of the most common stories Fact-oriented missionaries tell to explain why they spend their lives doing what they do, is this: if my neighbor’s house is on fire, and I know he’s peacefully asleep in the bedroom enjoying pleasant dreams, and I don’t rush in and do whatever I can to wake him up and get him out of the house before it collapses on him, then what kind of neighbor am I? Maybe the missionaries are wrong to think that’s how religion works — I’m perfectly willing to admit that possibility. But we’re not talking about whether the missionaries are right or not. We’re talking about understanding them and seeing their actions from within their story rather than ours. And whether religion really works that way or not, that’s how they think it works, and that’s why they act they way they do. To ask them to “be tolerant” is to ask them to pretend the house isn’t burning and nobody’s gonna die.

You see, one of the problems with communication between Happiness Machine and Fact people is simply that the same words mean such different things. There are a number of such double-meaning terms (including the term “tolerance”), but the most deadly is, I think, “truth” itself.

To a Happiness Machine person (at least in my experience) “true” means — if we’re talking about religion, as opposed to something like the Holocaust or the theory of relativity — “useful, producing satisfactory results.” To a Fact person, it means “objectively factual, independently of whether any particular person chooses to believe it or not.” Thus it is perfectly sensible, from the Happiness Machine perspective, to say, “I’m sure that’s true for you, but it doesn’t work for me,” which statement tremendously confuses and frustrates a Fact person, since in their view if something is true about God then it’s true about God, period, no matter what you or I might think about it. It would be like saying, “Well, the Copernican model of the universe may be true for you, but the Ptolemaic one is true for me,” and actually expecting that we could both get into our spaceships and successfully fly to Mars. The Fact person naturally thinks, “That’s so stupid; what a moron.” But all the Happiness Machine person is really saying is, “I’m sure that helps you feel better about religion, but it doesn’t get me where I want to be.” And there’s nothing at all inherently stupid about that. The Fact person’s judgment is inaccurate and unfair.

The doctrine of hell is a very good example of how the two different perspectives clash. If a Princeton undergraduate is so deeply embedded in the Happiness Machine perspective that he’s never realized that someone might choose a religious belief for any reason other than that it “works for them” or “does something for them,” then when he runs up against a “fundamentalist” who believes in hell, he assumes, quite unconsciously, that it does something for the fundamentalist to believe in hell — that is, that the fundamentalist finds the belief satisfying or reassuring or pleasurable or something. And if that’s what you think, then it’s very hard for that undergrad to keep from thinking that the fundamentalist is some sort of sadist. You have no idea how many times I’ve listened to a discussion between a Happiness Machine person who didn’t believe in hell and a Fact person who did, and have heard dialogue like this:

Fact: But if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’ll go to hell.

Happiness Machine : How can you beLIEVE in a place like hell? Why would you want to send everybody who disagrees with you to hell?

[The Fact person, being as clueless about the Happiness Machine person as the Happiness Machine person is about the Fact person, now proceeds to start laying out evidence that he thinks proves the existence of hell, thus confirming the Happiness Machine person’s belief that the Fact person is a shameless and enthusiastic sadist.]

There is of course no logical way to leap from “I believe in hell” to “I’m glad hell exists” or “I want lots of people to go there,” any more than there is any logical way to leap from “I believe in leukemia” to “I’m glad leukemia exists” or “I want lots of people to die of leukemia.” But the whole point is that to the Happiness Machine person, hell and leukemia are in completely different categories — as are, for that matter, hell and logic. Leukemia is the province of truth as in scientific truth. Hell is the province of religious truth as in emotionally satisfying belief constructs. Why would anybody believe in hell if they didn’t find that belief emotionally satisfying?

But I’m going on too long about how Happiness Machine people misunderstand Fact people, when in fact it’s just as absurd for the Fact person in this dialogue, having been given this flashing-neon-sign clue that the Happiness Machine person thinks he likes the idea of hell, to respond to, “How can you beLIEVE in a place like hell?” with whatever evidence for hell’s factual existence he thinks he can muster. Just the intonation ought to be clue enough that the real question is, “How can you possibly like the idea of hell?” (If the other person were requesting evidence, the intonation would be quite different: “How can you believe in a place like hell?” rather than, “How can you beLIEVE that?”) If you answer with evidence, then that’s a clear sign that you weren’t listening carefully enough to hear the real question.

Fact-vs.-Happiness-Machine is not necessarily, by the way, a matter of theological belief. One major point I have to make when talking to Americans about Kazakhstan is that Family-oriented Kazakh Muslims are much more like Family-oriented Kazakh Orthodox than they are like Fact-oriented Tunisian Muslims, despite the American habit of lumping them all together as “Muslims.” I have a friend who maintains that Muslims emphasize right actions rather than right beliefs, and she’s probably right. But while Saudi Arabian or Tunisian Muslims like my friend Najmeddine may emphasize right actions rather than right beliefs, they still (unlike the Kazakh Muslims I know) work from a Fact orientation, simply because they believe the same moral rules apply to everybody, whether everybody accepts them or not. In their eyes, if you don’t see anything wrong with certain sexual practices, for example, then you just don’t understand what God’s moral rules are. Whether you dance before the wedding or after it, or whether your wedding lasts two hours (like a big American wedding) or two weeks (like Najmeddine’s wedding in Tunisia to which I sent my then-wife). How long your wedding lasts is a cultural thing, and it didn’t bother Najmeddine or his friends that my wedding hadn’t looked like his.

But Samiha’s brother at one point carefully asked his brother’s American guest, “Now, you and your husband — are you really married, or are you just pretending [i.e., living together]?” To Najmeddine and his family, whether you slept with people without bothering with a wedding or not was a matter of fundamental morality, and if our culture didn’t do it that way, then that just meant our culture was screwed up. Weddings two weeks long, weddings two hours long — interesting cultural variation. No wedding at all — depraved American culture. With the Muslims of my close acquaintance, I think my friend Suzanne may be right to say that the focus is more on behavior than on belief; but there’s still the underlying idea that there is a right behavior, and if you don’t recognize that morality, then you are mistaken and potentially in trouble. In Najmeddine’s Fact-oriented eyes, sex without marriage is wrong, and anyone who does it is wrong. But the Happiness Machine viewpoint has perhaps rarely been expressed with more passion and heartfelt sincerity than by my gay Jewish friend Gary, from Princeton, who once cried out from the bottom of his soul, “Christians think they’re right, and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong — and that’s just wrong!”

I thought about going on to distinguish between open-minded and narrow-minded Fact people (which is an emotional difference rather than a philosophical one), and on how “open-minded” and “tolerant” mean one thing to Happiness Machine people and something entirely different to Fact people…but I think I should quit here. It’s too long a post as it is, and you have no idea how exhausting it is to try to illustrate these points without accidentally starting to either defend or attack specific beliefs and without being utterly unfair to half the people on the list and utterly offensive to the other half. Look, if I can just convince the Happiness Machine people that we Fact people are often constrained by the evidence (as best we can evaluate it) to accept beliefs that we intensely dislike (such as the existence of hell), so that you don’t assume that because we have all these horrible beliefs that we are such horrible people that we actually take pleasure in them, that would be great.

It would be a complete bonus if I could get you to see that just because we sometimes think you’re wrong, that doesn’t mean that we think you’re stupider than we are or that you’re morally inferior to us. (Of course there are people who are really that arrogant and self-righteous, but almost all Fact people tend to come off that way to Happiness Machine people whether they’re really arrogant and self-righteous or not. There are also Happiness Machine folks who are simultaneously intellectually self-impressed and intellectually lazy, but almost all Happiness Machine people tend to come off to Fact people as intellectually lazy whether they really are or not.) My wife, bless her blinded-by-infatuation heart, thinks I’m a genius and loves me; but that certainly doesn’t keep her from, frequently, pointing out that I am temporarily making a fool of myself ’cause I’m saying something that isn’t true (usually when I’m telling a story and getting all the details wrong). Disagreement, even on matters religious, does not necessarily imply disrespect, and certainly not dislike, when the person doing the disagreeing is a Fact person.

Again, the fundamental attitude I’m trying to create in my kids is that if you tell me what you believe, that will determine whether I agree with you or disagree with you, but it won’t have any particular impact on whether I admire you or love you. I find that a whole lot of Happiness Machine people simply can’t imagine that you could think they were mistaken about religion but still think they’re awesome and admirable and delightful people. But a Fact person sees no incongruity in that at all, and many of us see no value judgment in it, either. (Of course there are Fact people who look down on those who disagree with them, but that’s a function of self-righteousness, not of the Fact perspective. I know plenty of Happiness Machine people who hold “fundamentalists” in just as much contempt as the contempt in which the “fundamentalist” holds the “sinners.” Self-righteousness is a pleasure in which all perspectives can indulge themselves equally, and nobody wallows in self-righteousness with more glee than the Social Justice Warriors who call anybody who disagrees with them on any point whatsoever a “homophobic fascist white supremacist” — even if five minutes previously they were assuring you, in all sincerity, that there is no absolute truth in either religion or morality. Anybody can be narrow-minded and suffer from a settled disposition to belittle and hold an contempt those who do not share their views, because those flaws are a matter of moral character, not of logical belief. So the Fact perspective does not per se entail contempt of those from other perspectives; it merely entails disagreement with them.)…

…And I just keep babbling on and I will just have to make myself stop right there: if my Happiness Machine friends haven’t yet gotten an idea of what I’m trying to express then another ten thousand words won’t help.

And if I can just get through to my fellow Fact people…

Look, I’ve used examples of how other people have misjudged people by assuming the other people worked from the same metaphor; it’s only fair for me to close with an example of how I misjudged a Happiness Machine person and for years held that person in utter contempt, without adequate justification.

I was a classics major at Princeton, and naturally we were held to very high standards. If you were going to write a thesis on, say, the Eleusinian mysteries in the time of Socrates, then you had better never put forward a hypothesis without considering the evidence both for it and against it; you had better consider the reliability of your sources (applying standard, well-known criteria for source reliability); you had better know which conclusions were well established and which were questionable because of lack of evidence and you had better make it clear to your reader which conclusions fell in which category; etc. In short, the task of the scholar was to determine, as much as possible, what could be known to be true, to fill in the gaps where possible with reasonable speculation, and to always, always be clear on what was knowledge and what was speculation and just what degree of speculation was involved. For it was assumed that something actually, in objective fact, happened in those mysteries (or whatever your topic was), and all of the resources at your disposal were to be brought to bear in order to determine, as far as the evidence allowed, what that something really was.

In short, the discipline of history was seen to be a discipline interested in historical truth, to the degree to which it could be obtained, and persons who carefully followed the methodologies that experience had taught were reliable were considered good scholars, and persons who took any half-cocked guess and tossed it out there as “scholarship” were held in contempt.

At the same time, I was trying to establish what was true and what was false about the things I had been taught as a child in the Baptist church and the things other religions taught. I had read the Bible cover-to-cover before I was seven years old; now I started reading the Talmud (though certainly not cover-to-cover) and the Quran (which I have read all the way through, though only in translation, which several of my Muslim friends tell me doesn’t count). I took courses in Buddhism and in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas; I spent long hours discussing Hinduism with a close Sri Lankan friend; I read C. S. Lewis but also Aldous Huxley, Josh McDowell but also Elaine Pagels, Dante but also Kant…I wanted to know what was true and what wasn’t. You see, I came from a Fact background, and I assumed that obviously what was important about a religion was the truth of its teaching, and being a genuinely open-minded person (in the Fact sense, though not the Happiness Machine sense — this is one of those two-meaning terms) I was willing to go to whatever work was necessary and give everybody the chance to make their case.

There was one book in particular that everybody from one particular variant of the Happiness Machine perspective kept telling me was a wonderful book, and how well it proved what it was that Jesus “really” taught. Back then I didn’t know that “really” didn’t mean to Happiness Machine people what it meant to me, and so I was very excited to read this book. I got it, and I read it…and it was awful. That is to say, everything I’d learned about how to tell pseudo-historical bogus scholarship from solid professional work was just screaming, “B.S. Alert! B.S. Alert!” It was just…I don’t know…it was just so sloppy and shamelessly dishonest. It was like she hadn’t even tried to do her homework. I just don’t know how exactly to put it…if I had written that book instead of her writing it, and I had turned it in as my undergraduate senior thesis, the classics department professors would have crucified me.

I can’t tell you how much contempt I felt for that woman for years, and, for that matter, for Departments of Religion in general (because the more widely I read the religious “scholarship” the more obvious it became that this kind of “sloppy, not remotely professional pseudo-scholarship” was pouring out of departments of religion and seminaries everywhere you turned). Only much, much later did it occur to me that what I was assuming was the whole point of “scholarship” wasn’t even a matter of relevance from the Happiness Machine perspective. This book was inspiring; it was thought-provoking; it provided a whole new way to look at Jesus that works much better for many modern Americans who simply can’t be bring themselves to accept the traditional views; it gives an interpretation that hangs together very nicely and cohesively if you don’t yank on the curtains too hard. Now, it’s true that it happens that if you apply evidential tests to her hypotheses to see where on the classicists’ scale of probability they fall, the best you could get for her would be “purely speculative and in conflict with the heavy preponderance of the available evidence.” But you would only go to the trouble to apply those evidential tests (which are a lot of trouble and require a lot of work) if you thought it mattered whether Jesus really acted that way or not — that is, if you came from a Fact background. To a Happiness Machine person, it doesn’t matter so much what Jesus’ life really was; what matters is what his life Means For Us Today…and that’s something that, in the end, is up to us to decide (that is not at all what Jesus or St. Paul thought, but it is what the Happiness Machine person believes to the bottom of his soul). What do you WANT it to mean? What meaning will “work” in your life? If you find a way to think about Jesus that works for you, what does it matter whether the real Jesus was actually like that or not? And if it doesn’t matter, then why would you bother to go to all the trouble to apply all those boring and onerous and completely unnecessary tests?

Well, I wrote her off as a moron and a fool and an academic fraud, and I can tell you I didn’t hold much respect for the university that (as I thought) “couldn’t see through such a transparent b-s’er.” And it still is hard for me to respect, say, the Harvard University department of religion, which has a professor who once confidently delivered himself of a carefully footnoted statement about Neanderthal religious beliefs that seemed to me wildly speculative, and when I checked the footnote, it turned out that his “scholarly” anthropological source was The Clan of the Cave Bear (I kid you not). But I’m slowly getting there, as I just keep reminding myself that the more or less complete absence of anything I would recognize as scholarly method (that is to say, safeguards to keep you from coming up with whatever wild speculation you found attractive and presenting it as the results of your “scholarly research”) is not due to stupidity, nor to willful dishonesty, nor even to laziness. When a scholar from the Happiness Machine perspective does religious scholarship, he just has a completely different set of priorities than I have, that’s all, and the only thing that to me makes it worth the trouble to read scholarly works at all, is something that he finds of no value whatsoever and hardly even pretends to pursue.

Another very recent example: if you have read Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life, it is gob-smackingly apparent that it has never crossed Dr. Peterson’s mind that it might matter whether or not the stories of Jesus are, you know, true. He happily tells Jesus-stories with the same attitude that he would tell fairy tales: if he can extract a Jungian archetype from them that helps make his practical convictions about life sound reasonable, then that’s all he cares about. It’s not just that he gives not the slightest evidence of being able to even imagine that the Gospel accounts of Jesus could be true; that would be a question to be addressed by evaluation of evidence. It’s that he gives not the slightest evidence of being able to even imagine that it could possibly matter, even to the tiniest degree, whether the Gospel accounts of the doings of Jesus were true or not. For years my term for the perspective I here call “Happiness Machine” was actually “the Therapy metaphor” — and Jordan Peterson is, if I may say so, himself an archetype of someone for whom religion is a therapeutic tool and nothing else. (For all I know he’s a good therapist; my only point here is that he is a flesh-and-blood incarnation of the Happiness Machine approach to religion.)

One last thing: I know that many of you Fact people are out there saying, “Well, yes, I understand that they have a different way of looking at it, but their way of looking at it is wrong; and it’s gonna cause a lot of ’em to wind up in hell.” And there are some Happiness Machine people who are saying, “Okay, this helps me understand why the fundamentalists act the way they do — they think there’s absolute truth in religion. But they’re wrong, and it makes them intolerant, and religious intolerance has killed hundreds of thousands of people and ruined countless more lives than that.” And there may be a Superstition person saying, “!#@$#@!, the sooner we get rid of this religion virus entirely the better off we’ll be.” And you know what? Any of us could be right (though — spoiler alert — I’m confident for at least two different reasons that we Fact people are right and the rest of you are wrong) — but that’s for another day and another post.

I’m sorry I couldn’t do better, and I’m sincerely sorry for anybody whose views I misrepresented (which views are probably all the views I tried to present except my own), and if anybody from the Family or Happiness Machine perspective can help me do a better job of explaining this, I’ll be very sincerely grateful for whatever assistance may be offered.


Final word on nutrition and health

For those of you who watch what you eat, here’s the final word on nutrition and health. It’s a relief to know the truth after all those conflicting nutritional studies:

1. The Japanese eat very little fat
And suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat
And suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

3. The Chinese drink very little red wine
And suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

4 The Italians drink a lot of red wine
And suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

5. The Germans eat lots of sausages and fats
And suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.


Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is what kills you.

(I got this from a friend back in 2009 who wished to remain anonymous…and now, alas, I can’t remember who that was.)

I discover Cheng Chao (and if you have any sense, so will you, at the first opportunity)

Let’s sum up this whole post right off the top: keep your eyes open for anything that is directed by a guy named Cheng Chao, or anything in which appears an actress named Liu Wanlin, and if any opportunity arises to see their work, seize it with both hands.

I just had the privilege of watching, back to back, Mr. Cheng’s three short Chinese films Angel’s Mirror, Only a Thought, and My Bride, which all together add up to fifty minutes or so of extremely high-quality movie-watching. I heard of Mr. Cheng through the Worldfest International Film Festival, where My Bride won a Platinum Emmy, and I had a stroke of great good fortune (at the time I had no idea how great said good fortune was) in making the acquaintance of his production manager Yao Xin, who was kind enough to provide me with links to the three films — for which I can’t thank her enough.

Mr. Cheng much prefers showing a story to telling it. By that I mean that his short films have very little dialogue; the stories are told almost nonverbally. I suspect actors are more than usually interested in working with him, as the communication of thoughts and emotions to the audience without words is a challenge I assume any decent actor would relish.

It’s rather difficult to review his movies, however, because it is critical to avoid spoilers. I can say that Angel’s Mirror is a film in which the absence of dialogue arises simply from the fact that the young boy and girl in the film build their entire friendship at long distance, with the boy in the playground and the girl in the upstairs window. The story is very cute, and the girl does a perfectly adequate job, though the boy is a little overmatched by the demands of the role. Cheng’s style of storytelling is one, frankly, which doesn’t lend itself to child actors who aren’t English. (I don’t know why the English come out of the womb able to act at Oscar levels; they just do — Hermione Granger could not have been more clearly described in the Potter books, and Emma Watson looked nothing remotely like Hermione Granger, and yet by the time she was thirty seconds into her first scene she was Hermione Granger and nobody else was ever going to be able to play the part again. It must be nice to be a director of English children’s movies.)

Even so, the story itself is charming enough to overcome the limitations of the young actor (who is plenty cute enough for us to forgive him). And the use of the various mirrors as minor characters in their own right is unusual, and perfectly fit for purpose. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find out why the girl doesn’t come down to play in the playground, but I didn’t see the boy’s last decision coming. This will be a theme as I review all three of these shorts: none of them are even twenty minutes long and yet I never knew what was going to happen next.

At any rate, that last decision from our lead character was completely unexpected – and absolutely perfect. (How often do we get that combination?) Only the very last shot of all left me puzzled: I would have ended the film with a different use of the binoculars (and unfortunately I can’t explain how I would have used them without committing a spoil), but it isn’t my movie, and I imagine that there was some Chinese symbolism in the ending that I’m not culturally fluent enough to grasp.

Put it this way: the biggest problem I found (and it amused me more than anything) is that we are supposed to believe that the four other boys spend most of their spare time playing table tennis – but they are hilariously bad at table tennis. I mean, we are talking Steve Martin / Dan Ackroyd Saturday Night Live bad – but at least Martin and Ackroyd were doing it on purpose. One of those kids misses the table on a trivially easy shot by easily ten feet. And…this is China. You couldn’t find four kids who could play table tennis…in China?? What are you going to do next, go to Brooklyn to shoot a scene with some kids playing three-on-three and somehow manage to pick six kids none of whom can dribble a basketball without using both hands?

And from the fact that I have to pick that in order to have a good rant, you know how little was wrong with this movie.

If we move on to Only a Thought, my question here is simply – how in the world do you cram that many plot twists into a movie that isn’t even fifteen minutes long? I mean, I watched Cheng do it and I still don’t know how he did it.

Really, there’s almost nothing non-spoiling I can say, other than that the choice to shoot in black and white is at the very least not a bad one – I don’t know that it would have been that different if shot in color but it doesn’t need color. Everything else I would like to say, I would want to say to somebody who had already seen the movie. “Didn’t you like the way the parallelism between…” “Shh! That’s a spoiler!” “Well, what about the way the…” “Shh! That’s a spoiler!” “Okay, but what about –” “Dude, enough with the spoiling already!”

So, you know, please go watch this movie so that I can talk about it to you, because it was really good and I really want to be able to talk about it with people.

And this brings us to My Bride. This is easily the best of the three. Oddly, it was slightly messed up for me by the fact that I guessed the major plot twist before the movie even started – because the Worldfest synopsis wasn’t careful enough. So don’t read the Worldfest synopsis, and you should be okay.

Lead actor Sun Yuandong (“Wang Tao”) and lead actress Liu Wanlin (whose character’s name we never learn, and to whom I will therefore refer to as “the bride”), get to talk briefly at the beginning to set the stage, but for the last fifteen minutes they are asked to carry on an entire relationship – including major discoveries, major tension, major decisions – with literally no dialogue at all other than The Bride’s single line, “Wang Tao!” It reminded me of the old “John!” “Marsha!” vaudeville routine, except if literally all the dialogue was five minutes of nonverbal acting, followed by a single “John!” followed by five more minutes of nonverbal acting.

And they pull it off. Seriously, you have no doubt what is in their heads and hearts from the moment the silence descends. Both these two have, I should think, a very bright future indeed; but while Mr. Sun is impressive, Ms. Liu (whose role, to be fair, is much richer and more complex) is a minor revelation.

The production values are excellent, and the directing is solid without being unduly obtrusive. The only time the director really seems to say, “Hey, look at me,” is on a shot where Wang Tao, the bride, and the bride’s best friend are symmetrically staged around the hospital bed and the bedframe is used as a picture frame. It’s a nice effect, except that it is just obvious enough to become an Effect. But that is a very very picky point indeed, and at least it’s a pretty cool Effect, and for the rest of the film there are no missteps at all.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the combination of (largely wordless) script, intelligent direction, high production value, and spot-on acting, is by juxtaposing two particular sequences.

When we first meet the bride, it is as she reaches the landing on a cheerless staircase in the run-down hospital where her mother lies dying. The lighting is exactly right: dim enough to be bleak and depressing, yet with a hard-edged clarity that brings out every line on her face, even from several feet away. In the moments before her appearance, two male characters, one clearly a doctor, have been discussing a patient’s case, and clearly there is nothing that can be done. Then we hear an almost inaudible, nearly lifeless girl’s voice saying the doctor’s name from a few feet away. When the camera pans over to the bride, she is the very embodiment of hopeless, exhausted resignation. She is not even moving – merely standing in a stairwell – yet you know at a glance her physical and emotional state, and that the patient whose case is hopeless belongs to her, though we do not yet know the specifics of the relationship.

Ten minutes of screen time later, the same two men are back in the same place, shot from the same camera angle, lit by the same low but harshly clear light, smoking cigarettes with the same ashtray, and for all practical purposes having the same conversation. But in the interval the bride has had a visit from her best friend (played by An Yu), and while we do not know exactly why, the friendship had clearly been under some sort of strain, which the two friends have resolved. And again the two men’s conversation is interrupted by the bride calling the doctor’s name – but her voice this time is strong and clear. Again the camera pans to The Bride – and her eyes are alight. There is at least one thing now that has changed when everything seemed to have gone wrong, at least one thing that has gone right, and you can see it somehow in her face and most of all in her eyes – even though, still, she is merely standing there in what seems to be the same pose as when we first met her. The camera moves back to the two men, who look at her, but who find nothing to say, and can only stare first at her and then at the ground. And when the camera pans back…the light in those eyes is absolutely gone; you can hardly believe those eyes ever could have held light. The pose has not changed and yet everything is different – or perhaps it is better to say that the difference is gone and she is once again the girl she was when we first saw her. Life has once again been swallowed up by death. (I explained this to my fourteen-year-old son and then showed him the two scenes, and when the camera panned back to the bride, his eyes widened and he exclaimed, “That’s scary!”)

Ms. Liu is well cast in the role, and not just because she is a first-rate young actress. She has an unusual facial structure that she and Cheng use to full effect. When she is smiling, I think anyone would say she is beautiful. But it is a beauty of very high, prominent cheekbones and a very strongly defined facial structure, particularly unusually so among Han Chinese – one thinks instantly of Katherine Hepburn and not at all of Audrey. And while a face with such a structure can be very beautiful indeed, it is only a few strokes of makeup and a slight change of lighting away from being gaunt and haunted and almost skeletal. Ms. Liu can therefore swing very dramatically from hopelessly depressed to delighted and joyful in a heartbeat, merely by turning on the light bulbs, as it were – or, as she does in the scene I have described, she can go the other way. Both she and Mr. Cheng take full advantage of this natural duality.

I must warn Americans that something very overtly symbolic happens at the very end of the movie that I frankly don’t understand beyond a rather desperate guess – and that is very unfortunate because it is clearly meant to be the movie’s climactic point. I think that here – as perhaps also in Angel’s Mirror – Cheng is ending with a flourish of symbolism that Chinese audiences would be able to interpret but that leaves me at sea. But it doesn’t really matter; the last thirty seconds may go over my head, but despite the fact that this is practically a silent movie, we still know everything that matters about the plot, including everything that matters about what has happened off-camera between the scenes we are allowed to witness. This is very, very high craftsmanship. I can absolutely understand both My Bride‘s Platinum Remi and its status as finalist for Best Short Film in this year’s Singapore Independent Film Festival.

Cheng Chao is a director to keep your eye on. Anything else he produces, I want to see, and I can’t wait for him to try his hand at a full-length feature film. And the same goes for Liu Wanlin. They are both bona fide Discoveries.

Sadly, I don’t know yet how to tell Americans where to see these films. Angel’s Mirror has a Canadian distributor, but that’s about it. Thanks to Ms. Yao I had access to a private Vimeo link, but as they are still potentially coming to American theatres I do not have the right to share that link with you, O Gentle Reader. Besides, I want these films to make lots of money because I want Cheng Chao to make lots more movies. All I can tell you is: keep your eyes open for anything that is directed by a guy named Cheng Chao, or anything in which appears an actress named Liu Wanlin, and if any opportunity arises to see their work, seize it with both hands.

UPDATE/POSTSCRIPT: I completely embarrassed myself in the first version of this post by assigning literally every one of the performers to the wrong character. I have mentioned before that Chinese names are not gender-specific; so I can never tell from the name whether it refers to an actor or an actress…and Chinese movie credits from time to time list the actors but don’t tell you which character they are playing. So the first version of this post said that Liu Wanlin was the leading man, when in fact she is the bride; I said An Yu was the bride, when in fact she is the best friend (which she plays very competently though it is a relatively small part); and Sun Yuandong didn’t get his name mentioned at all even though he is the leading man…I just well and truly covered myself with glory there. Fortunately I had met Ms. An briefly in person, and although I had thought Ms. Yao had said Ms. An was the bride, when I rewatched it and the best friend showed up for the first time, I suddenly thought, “Hey, wait a minute — that’s An Yu!” So I checked with Ms. Yao and she kindly straightened me out.

Worldfest 2018 posts

Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.

I mislead some nice Chinese girls

Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)

Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)

Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…

General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest

Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)

Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!

Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)

Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, featuring Ma Liang, winner of the festival’s Best Supporting Actor award)

Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold Remi winner)

Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)

Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)

Chinese Wife Logic Dept.

A night at an awards gala banquet

People we met at Worldfest

Additional Worldfest low-budget reviews for the future if I can find a way to see them, having not been able to catch them during the festival proper: My Bride (China, Platinum Remi winner), In My Mind (UK, Gold Remi winner), Pastoral Song of the Spring (China, Gold Remi winner, and/or Rose Colored Shades (USA, Remi winner but I don’t know which “metal”). All of these are movies I hope to find a way to view at a later date, either streamed or in theatres; if I ever do see any or all of them then I will post an exceptionally tardy Worldfest post.

People we met at Worldfest

To wrap up the Worldfest posting:

One of the things I enjoyed most about Worldfest was the people I met there. So for my farewell-to-Worldfest post, I thought I’d just look back over the week and the people.

Hayden Munt

Hayden is the director of In My Mind, a Gold-Remi-award-winning short scifi film. Also, to my delight, he turned out to be a classics major, and one who agrees with me in preferring the Aeneid to the Iliad. To be fair, I didn’t get around to reading Homer in Greek while at Princeton (I focused more on Latin than Greek and my Greek was almost entirely third- and fourth-century Attic), and I am only up to the Catalogue of Ships right now. But really and truly I decided just last month that it would be disgraceful if I died without reading Homer in the original, and so I ordered a copy of the Iliad, and right before Worldfest started the book arrived and I set about reading it, which means I actually have an opinion now on whether I like Homer or Virgil better. Of course my main reason for preferring Virgil is that I’m much better at Latin than I am at Homeric Greek, so it is not a particularly valid opinion, but still at least it’s a real opinion. Good thing I didn’t run into Hayden three months ago when I would have had no opinion at all, right?

At any rate, I met Hayden on the hotel-to-theatre shuttle on opening night, as described here, which also tells how I met…

姚欣 Yáo Xīn and 于安 Yú Ān (the latter of whose family name I’m guessing at because there are like eight different Chinese family names spelled “Yu” in English). Very nice young ladies who sadly wasted time on Preston and myself on Opening Night, as described in the previous link, where you may also find Ms. Yáo’s business card. I am happy to report that their short film My Bride took home a Platinum Remi, which tells me that both Ms. Yáo and Ms. Yú are very good at their jobs.

刘金璐 Liú Jīnlù

Liú Jīnlù shared our table at the awards dinner, as I described here. Her card, and a sample video of her on duty as a broadcaster for BackChina TV, are at the end of that post.

旭仁花 Xùrénhuá

I met Xùrénhuá in the chaos of the first night – she was one of several Chinese people who took their picture with me – but didn’t talk to her again until Sunday morning. Helen and I wound up spending a lot of Sunday with her. She has the cutest little five-year-old son you are ever likely to see, especially since on Sunday he was wearing a brand-spankin’-new, perfectly-fitting white cowboy hat.

Xùrénhuá is Mongolian, rather than Han Chinese. She wrote and directed the Mongolian-language film 牧歌 Mùgē, which the official program translated as Pastoral Song of the Spring, but which I think is better rendered The Shepherd’s Song (when she showed it at le Festival du Cinema Chinois de Paris last year, the French title was Le Chant du Berger; so the French agree with me). The Worldfest synopsis was not at all helpful, but the French film festival’s version was much more descriptive.

There is a famous Inner Mongolian folk song “牧歌 Mùgē (The Shepherd’s Song),” written in the early 20th century. It is a truly beautiful song, and you can find fifty different versions on YouTube, of which my favorite is embedded herein — though, if you don’t know how to type 牧歌 into the search field, you will have to search for the traditional English title “Pastoral. “(The first English guy to translate the title, many years ago, was a no-doubt-classically-trained intellectual who thought in Latin as easily as in English and to whom it was obvious that “pastoral” means “having to do with shepherds,” pastor being Latin for “shepherd.” In modern English, of course, outside of the very narrow world of universities, “pastoral” has nothing to do with shepherds at all and, if anything, is going to make Americans think the movie has something do with church.)

Guo Gan plays “The Shepherd’s Song” on the èrhú, a traditional Chinese instrument made from python skin (1) I’m not making that last bit up. (2) I love the sound of an èrhú.

The song tells the true story of the young singer’s tragic loss of the girl he had loved, and who had loved him, since their childhood days. They got engaged just before he left to go to war, but the very day before he returned home from the army, she was caught in a wildfire and burned to death. He poured his love and sorrow into this folksong, which is now one of the most beloved of all Inner Mongolian songs. And at some point, Xùrénhuá decided to tell the story in a movie. That is to say, she has done for “The Shepherd’s Song” what George Miller and Cul Cullen did for Banjo Paterson’s Australian poem “The Man from Snowy River.”

I didn’t get to see Pastoral Song of the Spring at the festival, but I hope to find a way to see it online. If memory serves it won a Platinum Remi. It also won Best Director and Best Music in the “ethnic minority films” category at that Paris film festival. So, you know, good movie; but it was showing at 5:00 p.m. and I don’t get off work in time to go to 5:00 movies. I’ll have to find another way to see it.

A couple of times during the week I had noticed Xùrénhuá sitting in the hotel lobby with her son (he really is just ridiculously cute), and we had spoken briefly on Opening Night; but Helen and I really got to know her only on Sunday. She was wanting to take her son on the sailing expedition, but one of the major weaknesses in the Worldfest organization seems to be communication with Chinese-only speakers, and while she knew there was an outing happening, she didn’t know where to go or how to join it. She remembered me from Opening Night, however; so she came up to me as I was standing outside the lobby and asked if I was going sailing. With Helen there handy, language ceased to be a problem, and so she just stuck close to us until we got on the bus. Then by that time we knew that she was on her own and couldn’t understand English; so Helen and I helped her navigate NASA and the Houston Yacht Club. There weren’t enough boats for everybody when the buses got to the yacht club – there was a sign-up sheet, but again, most of the Chinese speakers had not understood that they were supposed to sign up in advance, because Worldfest’s communication with Chinese guests needs improvement – so Xùrénhuá and her son stuck with us until a boat came available, which was most of the afternoon. Then we all went sailing together.

I felt kind of bad for Xùrénhuá after Helen passed on some of their conversation. She didn’t get treated very well by the U.S. government and she was a victim of Worldfest’s poor Chinese communication all week. The original plan was for her to come to Worldfest along with the actors and other crew members including the English translator – but the U.S. government denied everyone’s visa except Xùrénhuá’s and her son’s. So she came to America with her son, knowing not one single other soul at the festival, and not knowing any English to speak of. Then the festival turned out to have lots of Chinese movies but not much in the way of Chinese-language guidance for Chinese-only visitors. That meant she and her son pretty much spent the whole week by themselves in the hotel, until they were able to make friends with us on Sunday. The sad thing is that she and I did meet briefly on Sunday, and while my Chinese was not at all good, I was still at least friendly – so she spent the rest of the week looking for me, but regrettably we never crossed paths at the same movies. If I had realized the difficulty it would have been easy to arrange for her to join our family in one or several of the five Chinese movies we took in during the week. (If Worldfest did have a movie schedule in Chinese, Xùrénhuá never saw it; so she even missed most of the Chinese films because she didn’t know when they were playing.)

But at least they got to go to Disneyland on their way home. And when her next movie comes out, if she brings it to Worldfest, she’ll have friends in Houston, and we’ll make sure she doesn’t spend the whole week sitting alone in her hotel room.

A side note: Xùrénhuá actually already inspired a blogpost – or, rather, her business card did, when Helen decided Mongolian is harder to read than Chinese is. If you are in the market for a producer for your Mongolian/Chinese movie, you can also find her card at that link. A further side note: Xùrénhuá started off as an actress, taking the part of Genghis Khan’s principal wife Börte in the three-hour 1985 Chinese epic Genghis Khan. The only copy I have access to is an online version that is not, alas, of very good quality (I mean the quality of the online streaming, not the quality of the film). There are of course no English subtitles, but it is in very clearly-enunciated Mandarin rather than in Mongolian, if that helps you. (If you’re going to watch it you need to know that Genghis Khan’s name was Temüjin up until he had successfully risen to lordship over all of Mongolia, which is to say, up until literally the last minute of the movie.) At 45:40 you can join the audience in getting the first glimpse of young Börte, which is to say, Xùrénhuá.

Meeting Börte

Börte (Xùrénhuá) emerges from her yurt in her bridal regalia (Genghis Khan, 1986)


Annie Wang (author), Lindsey Hintz (actress)

On the bus back from the yachting expedition, we were sitting across from Annie Wang, a noted Chinese novelist now living in Katy (we didn’t know who she was until relatively late in the conversation). I have always been extremely impressed by those few persons (Vladimir Nabokov is probably the most famous) who proved their ability as novelists in their native tongue and then proceeded to write equally good novels in a second language, and Wang is one of these: her first few novels were written in Mandarin, but her most recent two novels were composed in English.

After I got back home, I looked up Ms. Wang on Amazon, and downloaded her novel Lili. I found it a powerful piece of work, although I won’t recommend it to Helen – not because the book isn’t good; on the contrary, I was very impressed and am looking forward to reading her others. I won’t recommend it to Helen simply because Helen probably wouldn’t make it through the book in one emotional piece, as Helen even feels sorry for the characters in my jokes. The title character of Lili, who is in her late twenties during the period of the novel, was a child during the Cultural Revolution, and she and her family are working her way emotionally through the aftermath thereof. So it is not a light-hearted, feel-good romance by any means. But the character and her motivations are thoroughly believable, and the revelations about her past that shed light on her present emotions and behavior are paced most effectively. It is narrated in the first person and in the present tense, both of which techniques require a sure-handed novelist, and both of which usually fail; but in Wang’s hands both are exactly right for Lili. Furthermore, I can tell you that for a half-hour after I finished the book I found myself arguing in my head with the principal American character, whose particular brand of well-meaning folly and cluelessness about human nature is one I’ve come across in American life fairly frequently – an exasperatingly over-intellectualized person who has good intentions but really, really fails at a fundamental level to engage with people (especially the uneducated) as people rather than as, for lack of a better word, specimens. Then I realized…that’s a pretty good job on Wang’s part of creating a character who comes to life as a real person, if I keep arguing with him in my own imagination even after I finish the book.

And this is not to mention the fact that she was writing in English. Not many people can write that well in their native language, much less in one they learned as a teenager. So, I’ll give you the same sort of recommendation for Lili that I gave for the movies Blaze and Grass Ring: it is not what I would call a “fun” or “amusing” experience – but it is a powerful one, and as long as you are in the mood for a thought-provoking and intense experience rather than a light-hearted way to kill time, I think you’ll find it well worth the investment.

At any rate, there on the bus last Sunday afternoon, Wang asked a question of her seatmate that he literally had no response to; so I injected myself into the conversation, as it seemed to be a question she really wanted answered. Wang was one of the people who suffered much loss in Hurricane Harvey, and she was struck by the fact that the Buddhist temple to which she had donated large sums of money over the years, did nothing at all to help her; but Christians whom she didn’t even know went to great lengths to help her in any way they could. And her question was basically: do Americans help other people because they are Americans, or because they are Christians?

When her seatmate had literally nothing to say – not even, “I don’t know” – I leaned over and excused my interruption and then explained that, while it is true that the majority of those people in America who help strangers at much inconvenience at expense to themselves, are deeply religious people, still a lot of non-religious Americans continue to feel a moral obligation to help strangers. And this is because the American culture was shaped by Christianity, and even after many Americans have stopped being religious, they still without even thinking about it accept some of Christianity’s basic moral principles. Every American knows what a “good Samaritan” is, and most Americans agree that a person ought to be a good Samaritan, and that if you see a stranger in obvious need of help and you don’t stop to help them, you aren’t a very good person. And that’s true even though millions of Americans who think this way, have no idea that the phrase “good Samaritan” comes from one of Jesus’ parables, never having read the Bible. So there is a link between American generosity and Christianity; but it is today becoming rather more of a cultural relic than an actual direct connection: it is still true that devout Christians are more likely to help than non-religious people are, but I think on the whole it is more true to say that people help because they are Americans than that they help because they are Christians, at least if you are not so unfortunate as to live in New Jersey. (I had though about this question extensively already because of my own experiences in Harvey, particularly the story of how a redneck stranger named Eddie came to the aid of a Chinese family one dark night in the middle of the crisis.)

At that point the young lady in the seat behind me joined the conversation: “That’s a great answer.” Well, obviously, this young person was an extremely intelligent and perspicacious young lady of fine character and I was very happy to make her acquaintance… At any rate, after Lindsey Hintz and Helen and I had exchanged names, the conversation wandered around leisurely for a while. Helen told the story of our romance; Annie told us about her novels; Lindsey, under polite interrogation, revealed herself to be an actress whose movie Rose Colored Shades was one of the films being screened at Worldfest, and also posed a question that I found interesting enough to ponder over for the next few days. (She lives in Seattle, and said – I think I am paraphrasing accurately – that it had become impossible to discuss politics in Seattle these days without risking friendships, and she asked was it like that everywhere, and if so why did I think that was? I went away and thought about that and e-mailed her my answer eventually, which I hope she finds helpful. In the meantime, I have to find a way to watch Rose Colored Shades.)

I enjoyed the movies at Worldfest, but I tell you what, the people you find yourself talking to can be truly fascinating people. Lindsey has no training at all as an actress. She is (or was) a Seattle bartender, from a small town in eastern Washington. A few years ago a friend decided to make a low-budget “short,” and asked her if she wanted to be in it; so for a lark she said, “Sure.” The short did well as shorts go; so he made another one, and invited her to be in that one, too. Well, the first one had been fun, so, sure. Then last year he comes in: “Hey, Lindsey, I got money for a full feature film – you up for it?” And so here was Lindsey at Worldfest, still without a single acting class under her belt, starring in an award-winning full-length feature film, about as accidentally as Helen and I found ourselves sitting on the bus one seat in front of her. Life, as I have said before in talking about Worldfest, is a rum old thing.

Patrea Patrick

On the bus Sunday morning, Kai found himself seated one row behind me and one row ahead of Ms. Patrick, though we didn’t yet know each other. Looking for local information, she leaned forward and asked Kai whether Texas had any nuclear reactors. He didn’t know, but of course since the energy business is my business, I could answer her question. “There are two,” I told her, “one up near Dallas and another just southwest of here, down near Bay City.”

We talked briefly for another minute or two, and then I mentioned that America’s nuclear power plants – indeed the entire power grid — have disgracefully bad cybersecurity and that this is a huge national security problem for us. And the next moment she was reaching across Kai’s seat to give me her card – because her movie Black Start is all about the terrible security risk posed to our nation by the power grid’s disgracefully bad security. Now I think while my concerns are primarily cybersecurity and EMP’s, her concerns range more widely to the physical vulnerability of the grid as well; but at least I know we are highly at risk. Talk about her being thrilled to find somebody who already knew about the danger – well, you can just imagine her reaction.

Not having seen her film, I don’t know what solution she proposes – that probably has to do with her politics and I don’t know what they are. So who knows if I will agree with the blame she assigns (if any) and the solutions she proposes (if any). What I do know is that not one person in a hundred has a clue how exposed we are in this respect, and also I know that it is better to disagree about solutions than it is not even to know there is a problem in the first place. Therefore I am inclined to recommend her movie despite not even having seen it. Thus I hereby recommend it: if you get a chance to see Black Start, I say you should take the opportunity.

And with that, this blog says goodbye to Worldfest for now. I’ll be back next year — though ala, I’m pretty sure I won’t have a Thousand-Dollar Award-Winning Director’s VIP Badge. Ah well, it sure was fun while it lasted.

A night at an awards gala banquet

Veritas at Worldfest

The Veritas team shows up in honor of Home of Mephibosheth: Kyle and Minh Dickard, Janette and Fred Lindner, Helen and The Peril, Jaycee and August Al-Uqdah. (Actually…Jaycee-short-for-Jacqueline, how do you actually spell your nickname??? “JC”? “Jc”? “Jessie”? “JéÇí”? Inquiring minds want to know…)

A week ago tomorrow night, Helen and I, along with our friends the Al-Uqdahs, the Dickards, and the Lindners, showed up in force to represent Home of Mephibosheth at the Worldfest awards banquet. We had a table for ten reserved, but two seats were empty as Mike and Marti Burger couldn’t join us until the next day, for the sailing expedition. Those empty seats didn’t last long, though – there had been some mix-up in the arrangements and the table in front of us had too many people assigned to it. So we wound up with two extra guests at the table, both young mainland Chinese ladies. The one whose English was not very good…I don’t remember her name, I’m afraid. The other young lady, being much better prepared than her compatriot, gave me her business card and explained that she had moved to Houston some time ago to be a newscaster on BackChina TV. This was 刘金璐 Liú Jīnlù, and you may see her at work in the YouTube video embedded at the bottom of this post.

But before we collected our party’s two extra members, we had an unexpected and absolutely delightful surprise. Helen got a WeChat message from Shanna, a Chinese friend of ours whom we hadn’t seen since her cousin, a close friend and cancer patient, died at M.D. Anderson a while back. And the WeChat message said: “I think I just saw Brother-in-Law in the hotel lobby! Are you at the Worldfest film festival?”

Brother-in-Law is me, because Helen is a dearly-beloved honorary family member “Sister Shushu” to thirty different families who have gone through the hell of cancer at M.D. Anderson and been loved by Helen. (This is one reason we have friends all over China now; it also demonstrates a point I made in an earlier post, which is that Chinese tend to prefer to address people by family relationship rather than by name — apparently even if on occasion they have to invent the family relationship.) It turned out that Shanna is a reporter in China, and she had been sent to Houston to cover the Worldfest ceremonies. So Helen and I leaped to our feet, excused ourselves to our friends at the table, and rushed out into the lobby, where we had an impromptu family reunion to the delight of all three of us. We even tried to invite her to come eat with us – the journalists weren’t getting any of the dinner and we had two extra seats that came with two extra dinners – but sadly she was on duty and couldn’t stop to eat. Still…what a very pleasant surprise that was!

We returned to our seats. At first we thought we had a great table – near the left-hand side of the stage from the audience’s perspective, and in the second row of tables, so quite close to the stage. But it turned out that as each award was announced, the Beautiful Young Person carrying the award would proceed from our right to our left, and would hand the award to the grateful – and picture-desiring – recipient right in front of us. So in very short order our view of the stage was blocked by rabid picture-takers. Periodically Liú Jīnlù, who appears to be a young lady of initiative and spirit, would get up, tap the offenders firmly on the back, and clear the line of sight; but for a significant portion of the evening we couldn’t see Hunter Todd, the founder and to this day still the head honcho of Worldfest, who was giving out all the awards. And since the sound quality was also not very good, and since people who had already gotten their awards tended to stop paying attention and start chatting at their tables, it wasn’t long before we couldn’t hear, either.

As I have explained in an earlier post, each film submitted to the festival (and I think Todd said there were about 4,500 entries) is scored on a scale from 1 to 10 on each of ten separate aspects of filmmaking (photography, editing, script, acting, etc.) The ten individual aspect scores are then added together. If the score is in the high 80’s, you qualify for a Bronze Remi; if in the low 90’s, you win a Silver; if in the mid 90’s, a Gold. If you can get to 97 or 98 — which, as simple math will tell you, requires you to get a perfect ten in at least seven of the ten aspects and no less than a 9 in the remaining two or three — then you win the Platinum Remi. I had seen nine films by the time we got to the awards dinner, and had liked seven of them. Home of Mephibosheth had not even gotten screened; so I was expecting a Bronze Remi. But he got to the end of the Bronzes and said, “That’s all the Bronze Remi’s; now we go to the Silver.” And I was like, “Hey, wow, Lí Guáng, you rock! A Silver!” (Lí Guáng is our friend who put the documentary together and whom we were representing at the festival.)

It was getting noisier and noisier and several times I could neither see nor hear Todd as he announced the winners. So when he got to the end of the Silvers, I started to worry that we had missed our moment, especially since a couple of the films I had seen and liked had already had their Silver Remis announced. And when, in an even noiser and more chaotic atmosphere, he reached the end of the Gold Remis, Helen I looked at each and other and thought: “We had better go check.” I mean, several of the movies I had like very much had already been announced; and we already knew that Mephibosheth hadn’t even been selected for screening.

So we left the ballroom and went to the information center out in the lobby, where we explained what we were worried about.

“Which film?” asked the lady at the computer.

Home of Mephibosheth.”

“Oh, yes – well, you definitely won a prize,” she said immediately, without even looking. “How far have they gotten?”

“They’ve awarded all the Gold Remis already.”

“Well, you know what that means, don’t you?”

I explained that the problem was that we hadn’t been able to hear a lot of the awards and thought probably we had already been announced.

“What table are you at?”

“Number 17.”

“Well, go back to your table, and I’ll look you up just to be sure and come give you an update in a minute.”

We followed instructions, and sure enough a few minutes later there was a top on my shoulder. Helen and I both turned and looked up at the lady, who simply smiled beatifically and said one word:


Sure enough, a few announcements later, Todd held up his script, stared at it, and said, “And a Platinum Remi Award goes to…this film also is from China, but I can’t pronounce its name…”

And we stood up and cheered because we knew exactly whom that award was for.

There are no acceptance speeches at the Worldfest banquet; but to accompany the acceptance picture, I’m attaching a letter Li Guang wrote to express her gratitude, to God and Worldfest, for having won the award. I will give it in her Chinese and then in my best attempt at a translation.
On stage accepting Remi

Helen and I — resplendent in my $28 Chinese outfit purchased for the occasion at the Hong Kong City Mall down on Bellaire — accept Home of Mephibosheth‘s Platinum Remi on behalf of the people who really deserved it — Lí Guáng, who edited and directed the film, Steve Schroeder and Wáng Xīnwěi, the astonishing people whose dedication and compassion and joy are the subject of the documentary, and most of all the God who over a decade gave Steve and Xīnwěi the supernatural strength never to run out of that dedication and compassion and joy

Lí Guáng’s letter:





I am honored, and extremely grateful to the Worldfest International Film Festival committee for choosing our film Home of Mephibosheth for this award. This encourages us so much!

This film was sixteen years in the making. Dozens of individuals cared about the family in this documentary, across the many stages of this film’s development. They came from many places, practiced many different professions. As well as directing, I was also, starting in 2012, one of the many different camerapersons who documented the life of this family, and filming only concluded in May of 2017. Over 600 hours of film exists, and before the film was completed over a hundred hours of film was chosen for editing. For this reason, the current film is the first in a series; the story will be continued in later installments.

Throughout the making of this movie, I have been profoundly aware of God’s hand at work, and am deeply honored to have been able to be a part of that work. Through the making of this film, my own life has been utterly transformed: it was in the making of this film that I met, fell in love with, married, and had children with the man who is now my husband. The only reason I am not at Worldfest in person, is that four days ago I gave birth to our new daughter.

I am very grateful to God for His arrangements: Shushu and Kenny, a married couple who were important collaborators in this movie, actually live right there in Houston, and so they are able to accept this prize on my behalf, and to share with others there the joy I feel! Thank you to God our Heavenly Father, and thank you to the Worldfest committee for this so very beautiful gift!

Lí Guáng

So, one last time: congratulations to director Lí “Esther” Guáng and her producer (and husband) Chén Zhōngshī, twice over: once, for having won the Platinum Remi award – and secondly, and much more importantly, for the safe and healthy birth of their new daughter Chén Zàn. Mazel tov! And l’chaim! (Sorry, I went Jewish there for a second for some reason.)

P.S. Almost forgot: here is Liú Jīnlù’s business card and a sample clip.

Liú Jīnlù_s business card