A COUPLE OF weeks ago, I wandered into the hills north of the UC Berkeley campus and showed up at the door of a shambling Tudor that was filled with lumber and construction equipment. Samantha Matalone Cook, a work-at-home mom in flowing black pants and a nose ring, showed me around. Cook and her family had moved into the house in April and were in the middle of an ambitious renovation. “Sorry,” Cook said, “I didn’t tell you we were in a construction zone.” A construction zone, it turns out, that doubles as a classroom.
We walked into the living room where Cook’s two sons, Parker and Simon, were sitting on the couch, silently scribbling. The boys, aged 12 and 10, had the air of young Zuckerbergs-in-training. Babyfaced and freshly scrubbed, they spoke with a somewhat awkward and adenoidal lilt and wore sweatshirts with the hoods flipped up and no shoes. The room around them was chaos—piles of art supplies were stacked around the floor and paint samples were smeared next to the doorways. The family’s two dogs, Dakota and Kaylee, wrestled loudly over a chew toy. The sound of pounding construction equipment drifted in from the basement. And yet the boys were focused on what I soon learned were math workbooks—prealgebra for Parker, a collection of monster-themed word problemsfor Simon.
May 5, 2005, Houston Southeast City Jail.
The blankets are “at laundry,” the guards say. Some of the other inmates grouse at the news. “Like we just animals,” one girl says and then slams the fleshy side of her fist into the Plexiglas opposite the guard picket, leaving a sweaty hologram like one of those baby feet prints Josh and I used to make on the inside of Dad’s frosted hatchback. I am tempted to walk over and dot five little toes in an arc over the print before it fades, and the thought forms a sad lozenge in my throat. The guards ignore us, but it’s a studied nonchalance, sadistic and mirthful.
“Shhhhhhh!” I scream inside, thinking it can’t be good to piss them off, better to be sycophantically polite. I am so white.
We are in a communal holding cell, where about fifty of us sit at a cafeteria table in front of our middle-of-the-night breakfast trays. We are in mini-skirts and stretchy knits, in soiled jeans and Goodwill t-shirts: we are bloodied, stricken, wigs akimbo—all of our night-filth naked to florescence. The table is god’s waiting room: here we sit together, passing stories and powdered eggs. The meaty part of my upper arm oozes blood from a two-inch gash, what will later be the one physical scar I sustain, and my thighs and knees ache from the crash, the blood now a dark syrup that stiffens my jeans. From my tray, I drink thick fruit punch from a disposable cup with a foiled lid, but avoid the pale spitballs of scrambled eggs. A lanky black girl, who reminds me of Big Bird with her fried blonde-turned-yellow hair and her huge Muppet hands, asks what happened.
“I dunno,” I offer. “Car accident,” I say, then tell her I was arrested for drunk driving.
If you ask people in the city of Mexicali, Mexico, about their most notable regional cuisine, they won’t say street tacos or mole. They’ll say Chinese food. There are as many as 200 Chinese restaurants in the city. North of the border, in Imperial County, the population is mostly Latino, but Chinese restaurants are packed. There are dishes in this region you won’t find anywhere else, and a history behind them that goes back more than 130 years.
And much like the Incredible Hulk, Ken Baumgartner – 6’1”, 205 pounds, with a penchant for doling out punishment – was not the kind of guy you wanted to see angry. Baumgartner was a left wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. More specifically, he was their enforcer; a man paid literally to inflict pain on opponents. But in 1992, the target of his aggression was not another player; nor was it a coach or referee. It was a videogame producer at Electronic Arts named Michael Brook.
Outside an NHL Players Association (NHLPA) meeting held in San Diego, where players had gathered to discuss licensing opportunities, Baumgartner lumbered towards the young producer.
‘Hi, I’m Ken Baumgartner,’ he said flatly by way of introduction. As a lifelong hockey fan, Brook already knew who he was, and indicated as much with a tiny flinch of a smile. Despite the recognition, the thuggish enforcer felt compelled to further introduce himself:
‘I’m the guy you gave a zero rating to for Intelligence.’
Oh my god, Brook thought, growing red in the face.
What he didn’t realise at the time was that the beta version of his new hockey game, NHLPA Hockey ’93, had been the highlight of the licensing meeting. But the players had been interested not so much in the game itself, as in the ratings that Electronic Arts had awarded them for categories like Passing, Agility, and of course, Intelligence. That’s when Baumgartner had noticed that his 16-bit self was a dunce. To make matters worse, this detail hadn’t escaped the attention of the other players around the conference table, who seemed unable to stop laughing.
Intellectually, Michael Brook had always known that his sports games were based on real people, but this was the first time that the notion really hit him on an emotional level: EA’s hockey games had become so popular that the hockey players themselves actually took notice.
Howe Street on the east side of Manchester, New Hampshire, is part of a tight-knit community of working-class families where neighbors commonly show up unannounced for a favor. So nothing seemed unusual to LoriAnn Silver when her new next-door neighbor walked onto her porch in the summer of 2004 and pressed the buzzer.
The woman at the door wore an African caftan, braided hair extensions, and a friendly smile. “I’m Bea,’’ she said. In a mix of French, Kinyarwandan, and American accents, she explained that she’d just moved into the adjacent home, a three-bedroom ranch with a fenced-in backyard and an above-ground swimming pool that was perfect for her three young daughters: Charlene, then 11, and twins Simbi and Saro, 10. The pool, however, was giving her trouble. LoriAnn happily sent her husband, Scott, over to help.
This first encounter sparked a routine of sorts. LoriAnn seldom saw Bea except when she needed a hand with something, usually the pool, the lawn, or shoveling the driveway. For the most part, Bea and her family kept to themselves. Once, when Bea was outside wearing a tank top, Scott noticed several ribbons of scar tissue running along her back. But Bea didn’t offer much about her past, and LoriAnn didn’t pry. What little their neighbor told them was enough: Bea’s full name was Beatrice Munyenyezi, and she said she had fled to the United States as a political refugee from her native Rwanda.
Taco Bell is the best Mexican food I ever ate. I will say this to your face over a plate of enchiladas suiza. You will shake your head at such transparent provocation. What a shocking thing to say at a restaurant that has the best tacos in New York City!
I won’t even correct that assertion. There is no such thing as “the best tacos in New York City.” There are only two kinds of tacos in New York City: adequate, and whatever is a little better than adequate. Unless we’re talking Taco Bell. Which I will talk about, at length, even if you haven’t asked a question that has anything to do with Taco Bell.
Yes, fast food is unhealthy. It preys on the poor by offering scientifically-engineered food products that are devoid of nutritional value, but are richly emotionally satisfying. These products are intensely tasty, and most of all, cheap. Why spend five bucks on groceries? What can you get for five bucks at a grocery store anyway? A stalk of broccoli and a jar of mayo? Since we’re at dinner, and I’m busy proselytizing, I’m not currently able to fact-check the following statement, but I’m pretty sure you can buy ten tacos for one dollar.
Taco Bell tacos are crunchy, crispy, meaty sailboats of spicy chemical flavor. The Taco Bell Cool Ranch Doritos taco shell is the most important invention of this century. But we’ve come this far, and you’re halfway through your plate of organic, locally-sourced, New York Magazine-celebrated Mexican tube casserole, so we have time to talk about Taco Bell. I’ll order more chips and salsa. Now I’m going to hold up my fingers and wiggle them. This will signify we’re flashing backwards in time.
A lot that traffics under the banner of “Christian” public theology has little to do with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our imaginations have been sufficiently disciplined by the assumptions of liberalism to be uncomfortable and embarrassed by forthrightly Christian hopes for temporal government.
What, then, to make of Augustine’s encomium for the emperor Theodosius who “was more glad to be a member of that Church than to be ruler of the world” (City of God, 5.26). Augustine celebrates not primarily his power or accomplishments but rather his Christ-like humility:
Nothing could be more wonderful than the religious humility he showed after the grievous crime committed by the people of Thessalonica. On the intercession of the bishops he had promised a pardon; but then the clamour of certain of his close supporters drove him to avenge the crime. But he was constrained by the discipline of the Church to do penance in such a fashion that the people of Thessalonica, as they prayed for him, wept at seeing the imperial highness thus prostrate, with an emotion stronger than their fears of the emperor’s wrath at their offense.
Our allegedly “Christian” public theologies appeal to creation order and natural law, invoking norms restricted to general revelation and the dictates of “reason.” But where does reason dictate penance? And where does the natural law commend forgiveness and mercy? Did creation order ever drive us to our knees in a passionate prayer of confession? And are not such practices and virtues germane to the image-bearing task of governing?
This scene from the City of God suggests a more integral link between the church and politics without simply conflating or identifying them. It suggests that the practices of the church as an outpost of the heavenly city are integral to the political goods of even the earthly city—that the liturgy of the body of Christ bears up those worshipers who are then sent to take up the vocation of earthly rule. This suggests a Christian political theology that is rooted in the substance of the Gospel and the specific practices of the cruciform community that is the church. The public task of the church is not just to remind the world of what it (allegedly) already knows (by “natural” reason), but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know—and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.
This vision is one of the key contributions of British theologian Oliver O’Donovan. In contrast to the various political deisms on offer, O’Donovan articulates a properly evangelical political theology. Rejecting the moral minimalism of the “natural law” project as a sub-Christian expression of political theology, O’Donovan also has important lessons to teach those of us Kuyperians whose “Christian” public theology too often settles for “creation order.”
Social collapse, always a long time coming, usually owes as much to good intentions gone terribly wrong as to malevolent design. The rot creeps in through weak seams and unattended fissures. It insidiously spreads and corrodes, thanks to humanity’s usual admixture of hubris, fecklessness, and evil. Once conditions are beyond repair, the manifold causes of the damage are readily apparent—say, the lead sutures in ancient Rome’s water pipes, the vacillation of good men, the determination of bad ones—but singly, or even in aggregate, they rarely seem sufficient to account for the scale of the catastrophe. In the end, trite as it sounds, a society’s breakdown is inexplicable.
And so last August experts and advocates, journalists and politicians, most seeking the truth and not a few trying to conceal it, offered up institutional pettiness, bureaucratic shortsightedness, official negligence, and political correctness as some of the factors that had contributed to an enormity: the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class, by gangs of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afghan men in England’s industrial (or post-industrial) North and Midlands—largely Sheffield and its environs, including, most notoriously, the Borough of Rotherham—from 1997 to 2013.
Certainly the explanations propounded last summer help account for the state’s failure to stop these crimes, as did the blind eye of a significant portion of the largely self-segregated Muslim population in Britain’s North. And certainly these crimes emerged from facets of that population’s peculiar sexual culture. But that these horrors were visited upon so many underage victims who were presumably under the care of others, that the crimes were so widespread and spanned so many years (all evidence, by the way, suggests that similar crimes are being perpetrated today), and that virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.
Angel the concierge stands behind a lobby desk at a luxe apartment building in downtown San Francisco, and describes the residents of this imperial, 37-story tower. “Ubers, Squares, a few Twitters,” she says. “A lot of work-from-homers.”
And by late afternoon on a Tuesday, they’re striding into the lobby at a just-get-me-home-goddammit clip, some with laptop bags slung over their shoulders, others carrying swank leather satchels. At the same time a second, temporary population streams into the building: the app-based meal delivery people hoisting thermal carrier bags and sacks. Green means Sprig. A huge M means Munchery. Down in the basement, Amazon Prime delivery people check in packages with the porter. The Instacart groceries are plunked straight into a walk-in fridge.
This is a familiar scene. Five months ago I moved into a spartan apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of tech workers live. Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring: Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible, quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one another. I floated a few “hi’s” in the elevator when I first moved in, but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was clear:Lady, this is not that kind of building.
Near the end of last year, several photos and videos of Vladimir Guerrero’s 15-year-old son Vlad Jr. began to appear on the internet.
The photos were picked up by several prominent baseball websites, whose write-ups marveled at the fact that Guerrero—who has not played since 2011 and only officially retired last year—not only had a son of that age, but had a son who appeared to be a tremendous prospect. In fact, Vlad Jr. looked like an exact copy of his father. He was big and broad and took long, powerful hacks at the plate.
The videos hit every nostalgic nerve of baseball fans who missed the wild-swinging Guerrero, a cult hero for the reckless way in which he played the game. Vlad would swing at everything and hit everything—and who couldn’t admire, and even, envy someone with that philosophy? If only we were all so bold as to spend our lives swinging at every pitch. Vlad did that and mounted a career worthy of, at the very least, Hall of Fame consideration.
And now, here were videos—highly trafficked videos—showing that another Vlad existed. There was hope. Where did this glimmer of hope come from?
The majority of photos and videos were posted on Twitter by someone named Matt Hall, who in his bio said he worked for the Guerrero Baseball Academy. From the looks of it, Hall was a white American kid in his 20s, more or less the last person you’d expect to be working for the Guerrero family in the Dominican Republic. Club representatives were equally confused, trying to figure out who exactly was this kid posting these videos. Where had he come from?