Thursday, October 1, 2015

Banned Books Week

It's Banned Books Week again! Every year, the American Library association celebrates "Banned Books Week," this year celebrated September 27-October 3. From the website:

Banned Books Week is the national book community's annual celebration of the freedom to read. Hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2015 celebration will be held September 27-October 3.

Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 311 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2014, and many more go unreported. 

Books are often banned or challenged by parents for their inclusion in curriculum, school libraries, or even public libraries. These books are often considered inappropriate based upon age-appropriateness, dealing with controversial themes, or critiques of religion or established social order.

A school district recently came under fire for putting a pro-life sticker over top of a portion of a textbook that spoke about various forms of contraception, including abortion. This is just one recent example of censorship. The Banned Books Week webpage I linked to above also includes a list of the ten most banned or challenged books of the past year.

I would like to emphasize the importance of Banned Books Week. I would also like to point out that many of the bans and challenges to books throughout history were by religious groups. I think of the burning of Galileo's books by the Catholic Church, Martin Luther's burning of the papal bull (which was reactionary to the Catholic Church's burning of his writings), and even a few years ago the Florida pastor who suggested the Qur'an be burned.

This says something about the power of the written word--the power to communicate ideas, to expand horizons, and challenge deeply held beliefs. This is why books are so threatening, but also why we need them. It is such a shame that religion, and particularly in this country, Christianity, has been so often used to ban books, when Christianity is itself a celebration of Logos--the word. Christianity got its start as a religion following the written-down stories of Jesus and the written advice and leadership of the apostles. With such a long-standing appreciation for the written word, why is Christianity so often used in banning the written word?

What if instead of banning what makes us uncomfortable,  challenges us, or disagrees with us, why don't we instead use it as an opportunity to challenge ourselves or have conversations with our children about our beliefs? We only can gain from that situation. And in avoiding those conversations, we lose.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A short discussion on having conversations with the past

I just finished reading Timothy F. Lull's short book (only 154 pocket-sized pages) My Conversations with Martin Luther. This book was given to me as a confirmation present on Reformation Day, October 31st, 2000 by the church I was confirmed in. I've had the book since then, patiently sitting on my shelf until the opportunity arose for me to read it. An essay contest involving having a contemporary conversation with Luther gave me the motivation I needed to read this book, and I am glad to have done so.

The book is divided into six chapters, detailing six conversations Lull had with Luther over the course of a decade. These conversations are just that--Martin Luther, the famed Reformer, appearing to Lull and having brief conversations about events from Luther's life and about Luther's works. Lull begins by saying that the reality of these conversations having actually having taken place are more or less irrelevant, saying that he believes "the book will make for better reading if those who decide to explore it will put away such questions as what did and did not happen, what might or might not have taken place, and instead follow what Dr. Luther has to say--whether from any actual visit or in my (supposed) fantasy" (p 7). The conversations range from Luther's biographical details to Luther having the chance to revisit his (quite frankly, detestable) writings on the Jews. Lull was quite an excellent Luther scholar and while this book purposefully takes a light, conversational tone, the scholarship is evident nonetheless.

The purpose of this post is not to write a review of Lull's short little book, although, I do recommend that anyone interested in Luther studies read it. Instead, I want to comment on Lull's hope from this book, namely, that others will be inspired to have their own conversations with Luther. Lull doesn't just lead the reader to fend for themselves; Lull actually gives three pieces of advice for how the reader might have their own conversation with Martin Luther. I think these three tips work for any great thinker of the past, so I will share them here:

1. Read the thinker's own words. For Luther, Lull recommends specific works, such as his own edited volume, Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. This is essential for any writer, though--start with their words!

2. Read a biography about the thinker. Once you have read the words of your subject, now read a biography so you can place them in context of their life. This also lets you get acquainted with how others saw them. For Luther, Lull recommends many books, including my personal favorite, Heiko A. Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

3. Lastly, read scholarship on the thinker. By this, Lull means to look specifically at what you want to talk about with your intended conversant. Once you have that issue or theme in mind, look for contemporary scholarship on it. For Luther, Lull recommends serious items of scholarship on the reformation (such as Eric W. Grtisch's Fortress Introduction to Lutheranism) to perhaps more whimsical or lighter fare, such as a travel guide that allows you to visit some of Luther's haunts (Wolfgang Hoffmann's Luther: A Practical Travel Guide).

I think these three nuggets of wisdom are essential to any conversation with the past. It is often intimidating for someone to take up conversing with the past--I know often times I am often imitated when approaching the works of an accomplished thinker. Where do I start? In someone as prolific a writer as Luther (with over 100 volumes of his work in the Weimar Edition of his works), it can be even worse. It helps when you have a guide like Lull's book, which eases you into the writings. Even without that, with the internet it generally isn't too difficult for most authors (obviously not super obscure ones) to find what work is probably best to start with. Aside from that, as Lull's conversational and informal tone implies, have fun!

Two final notes: My own recommendation for Luther is to start with his Small Catechism. This little book goes over the core of Christian beliefs, and as such, the core of Luther's teachings. It is available in its entirety on the ELCA website, in addition to a few hundred different print editions, including being a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal.

Second, and this is just a personal note of serendipity: before moving out to Berkeley, CA, I had no idea that Lull was formerly the president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, also in Berkeley, CA, up until his death in 2003. Imagine my surprise when I open his book to find that much of these conversations with Luther happened only a mile away from where I was reading them! I of course knew of Dr. Lull, especially his aforementioned Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, but I did not know much of his biographical information. How cool it was for me to read his words overlooking the same scenic San Francisco Bay that he saw as he wrote them, twenty years earlier. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Disney Infinity 3.0 Review--Where's the Diversity?

Two years ago, I published a review on my blog of a brand new game, Disney Infinity. The slogan for Disney Infinity is "Infinite Possibility," so I tongue-in-cheek called my review "infinite white guys, limited diversity" in reference to the jarring lack of playable characters of color and women. Each year since then a new version has been released, capitalizing on Disney's recent acquisition of new properties: in 2014, we saw the release of Disney Infinity 2.0, featuring characters from the Marvel universe; just this past August, we saw the release of Disney Infinity 3.0, featuring characters from the Star Wars universe.

For those who are not familiar with the Disney Infinity franchise, here is a quick recap taken from my original review of the game: "Disney Infinity is perhaps one of the most enjoyable and addicting games I have ever played. The game is on the one hand an open-world sandbox game (á la Minecraft), on the other hand, a collecting of Disney characters element (á la an extremely expensive Pokémon—Disney Edition), on yet another hand with different Disney mini-worlds that each have their own theme, cast, and missions (á la Disney Universe), all presented in a style similar to the popular Skylanders series (how many hands was that, by the way?). Many have reviewed the gameplay, cost, and other features, but I have yet to see anyone review the game’s selection of available characters, and especially the lack of diversity in those characters." 

I ended my original post by predicting the inclusion of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, speculating: "Can you imagine Princess Leia and Mace Windu fighting against Nick Fury and Black Widow? Now throw in Mrs. Incredible and Sorcerer Mickey into the mix. That truly would be an epic game, and if licensure allows, Disney Infinity might just be that game."

Well, with the release of 3.0 this past month, Disney Infinity had just the chance to be that game. Over the past two iterations, we certainly saw a concerted effort to increase the women and girls: 2.0 added six playable female characters (out of a total of 30) and 3.0 has eleven (out of a total of 34). Add this to the original eight playable female characters from the original game, and you have a grand total of 25 playable female characters out of a total of 73. That's a little over 1/3 of the representation of the entire game! And this is coming from a company that has a strong Disney Princess Franchise, and has released in recent years several animated features with strong, female characters.

The often used excuse in gaming is that there are not as many girls out there playing these games as men, yet even the Disney Infinity crew admitted their shock when they found that the game appeals equally to boys and girls. So I will hand it to them, they are making a concerted effort to increase the amount of female playable characters.

But here's the big issue. Where are the characters of color? The original game had one person of color as a playable character (Tonto from the Lone Ranger; though it is fair to say that he doesn't count since he was played by Johnny Depp in the film). Despite including practically every other named character in the Incredibles play set, there was no mention, let alone playable character, of Frozone, the cool black superhero with ice powers voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (pun intended).

Disney Infinity attempted to increase their diversity with 2.0--two black superheroes, Falcon and Nick Fury, fight alongside the Avengers and Spider-Man, respectively. Middle-Eastern characters Jasmine and Aladdin are playable in the toy-box alongside Asian-American Hiro from the film Big Hero 6 (but one could easily make the argument that Jasmine and Aladdin white-washed, considering how light their skin is).

And now, with 3.0, we have the addition of the Star Wars universe, yet surprisingly (or not), the only possible people of color are the racially ambiguous (i.e. tan skinned) characters from Star Wars Rebels: Sabine, Kanan, and Ezra. Disney original characters added to the mix include Mulan and... that's it.

Here's the crazy part--in the Disney Princesses franchise, there are quite a few people of color: the aforementioned Jasmine and Mulan, but also the Native American Pocahontas, the African-American Tiana, and sometimes included, the Roma Esmeralda. Obviously they are surrounded by a whole bunch of white girls, but there is certainly more diversity than is represented in the Disney Infinity game thus far. Also, notoriously absent or sidelined are some of the people of color from both Star Wars and Marvel: Black Panther, White Tiger, and Luke Cage all make appearances as non-playable characters in 2.0 and Mace Windu--arguably the coolest jedi in the Star Wars prequels, is relegated to a non-playable character! The playset based off of the original Star Wars trilogy is yet to be released, so it remains to be seen if Lando Calrissian even makes an appearance, though he is not a playable character.

I'm not sure which is worse--not including the people of color at all or including them only as non-playable helper characters relegated to supporting your WHITE character. Come on Disney Infinity team, lets include more people of color and women. Marvel has plenty of strong women and people of color, Star Wars is... getting there, and the Disney properties are also, in recent years, becoming more diverse. Please reflect that in your game. It's already been proven to you that half of the players of your game are girls and women, so please consider making them have greater representation in your game. Along with people of color, too. Maybe then there truly will be infinite possibilities, but until then, it still seems to be infinite white guys, limited diversity.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Two Brief Prayers for Use on the Forty-Sixth Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots

Next Sunday, June 28, 2015, marks the forty-sixth anniversary of what is often called the catalyst of the Gay Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots. LGBTQ+ people are slowly gaining acceptance in mainline protestant churches, but it is an ongoing process. There are vocal opponents to equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, and many of these opponents claim their Christian faith as the foundation of their opposition to equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Suicide is still a very unfortunate reality for many LGBTQ+ youth; transgender people, in particular, are often the targets of violent hate crimes; access to rights for LGBTQ+ people vary drastically across the United States, and many LGBTQ+ people have very little support in their faith communities and families. As such, I offer below two prayers that can be read on Sunday, June 28, by Christian faith communities to celebrate Gay Pride Month (every June) and commemorate the forty-sixth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The first prayer is meant to stand on its own or be incorporated into a liturgical rite to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, the second prayer is much shorter and is meant to be an intercession read during the Prayers of the Church. I follow this by a brief history of the Stonewall Riots and LGBTQ+ Pride Month in addition to a note on terminology.

Transcendent God, you took human form and with it human sexuality and gender, entering into our broken world, bearing our suffering along with us. We remember that on this day, forty-six years ago, a riot broke out as a response to years of victimization and oppression. We lift up those lives and their voices, remembering their hardships. We ask you to send your spirit to us that we may give voice to those without one, and work together to end the oppression of your children who are hurt by discrimination based upon their sexual orientation or gender. As your son, Jesus Christ, healed the woman who touched the hem of his cloak, help us to provide healing to the LGBTQ community, removing the barriers that separate these your children from access to hope, safety, and life abundant. Let this church be a safe haven. Through your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.

On this day we remember the Stonewall Riots that took play forty-six years ago, and all the people who have been oppressed based upon their sexual orientation or gender. We ask that you bring hope where there is none, healing where there is hurt, and acceptance where there is hatred. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

LGBTQ+ History, Stonewall Riots, and Gay Pride Month
While today LGBTQ+ people are receiving more federally recognized benefits, the late 1960s were a very different time for the LGBTQ+ community. Sodomy laws were in effect that criminalized same-sex sexual activity, people who would in today’s terminology be called transgender were often times forced into sex work and were often times the victims of hate crimes and police brutality. In today’s society, LGBTQ+ people can often times find safe-havens in the form of advocacy groups, on-line communities, and gay bars, this was not the case in the 1960s. Gay bars were often outlawed, and the few gay bars that were in existence were not safe places to be, often subjected to police raids.

The Stonewall Inn was one of these early gay bars. It was run by the mafia, and was by no means a safe place for LGBTQ+ people, but it was one of the few places that LGBTQ+ people could gather as themselves. On the early morning of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn. On any other night, this would very likely have simply ended the bar service for the night, or it may have resulted in the bar being shut down. This particular night, people fought back. Patrons were emptied out of the bar and arrests were being made when someone allegedly told the crowd of patrons, “Why don’t you guys do something?” The crowd retaliated and went “berserk,” fighting against police, as some called out “gay power” and others began singing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome.” The rioting continued for several days before it was finally subdued, but the message was clear: the community was not going to take this anymore. Overnight, it seemed, gay rights organizations formed and existing ones saw an increase in membership and community response.

Gay Pride Month occurs every June to serve as a testament to the brave people who stood up after years of oppression on that night. Pride is understood as the opposite of the social stigma that the LGBTQ+ population had to endure for years (and still does, in many ways). It is a celebration of being true to oneself in addition to being a call for greater visibility, self-affirmation, and acceptance by larger society.

For further reading on the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the Gay Rights movement, I recommend David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.

LGBTQ+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (and/or Questioning), and the plus sign stands for the many other people of differing sexual orientation, sexuality, and gender that may not fit easily into the categories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer. This is an umbrella term that is meant to represent what is in actuality not one community but a wide diversity of people with varying sexual preferences and/or gender identities.

Acceptable terminology is still evolving for the LGBTQ+ community. The reason the terminology is still in flux is because there are many voices being added to the movement that have not had the opportunity to share their experiences or stories before in a safe environment and only recently have had the privilege of even being listened to. There are many terms and acronyms out there that can be confusing, especially for straight, cisgender men and women who have not been exposed to LGBTQ+ language. Confusing terms (or being confused by terms) is bound to happen, and that’s okay. The important thing is to be respectful, and ask respectfully if you do not know what a specific term means. There is a fairly comprehensive list of terms here:

Another frequent question is “Why is it important to use this language? Can’t we just say homosexual and heterosexual (or gay/straight, etc.)?” This touches upon the issue of communities of people being given the agency to name themselves. One of the most important parts in the journey of any community being granted a voice when they previously had one is that they are granted the ability to name themselves instead of being forced into the categories and names that the larger society gave them, especially as these categories/names are often very limiting or hurtful. This is why it is generally no longer acceptable to use the term “negro” to refer to African-Americans, or “retarded” to refer to someone who is differently abled. Many write this off as being overly-P.C.—the frustration can certainly be understood, especially when what is considered offensive may seem to someone outside of the LGBTQ+ community as changing every day. But the bottom line is that it is a sign of respect and affirmation to call a community by the name that they recognize as their own. As I said above, if you don’t know the right word, ask respectfully. Most people in the LGBTQ+ community are more than happy to explain what terms they are most comfortable with, especially if they are referring to themselves.