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ESSAY: The president's ready for his close-up; Book and music reviews; Media Picks; PLUS: Zen and the art of lifestyle maintenance.

ESSAY

Vital Front Row Center

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Mike Nichols' film adaptation of Joe Klein's political roman à clef Primary Colors is that it's being made at all. Voter turnout is at an all-time low, and surveys show Americans to be not just disenchanted with government but passively, appallingly, removed from it. More Americans are willing to believe that politicians are hiding information about UFOs (80 percent) than that a politician would put the people's needs ahead of his own (37 percent).

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That the public would believe more in the existence of little green men than an honest pol shows just what kind of fantasy critics engage in when they interpret the political setting of a fictional piece as a political statement. The action-hero commando-in-chief of Air Force One, George magazine's titillating combination of insider skinny and zaftig girls (minus Kate Moss' Eve, of course), the nightly sucker punch of television's "Politically Incorrect"—these successes attest to people's interest in gunplay, sex, and comedy, not Washington. Politics can hold people's attention only when it is ensconced at the multiplex, in the Magnavox, or on the magazine stand. That we may stumble upon scenes lifted from reality in our search for escapist entertainment is simply a happy coincidence. It's likely, in fact, that government's popularity as a plot device and editorial hook will only further convince people that politics is show business, and that the public has as little say in the crafting of policy as it does in the writing of scripts.

Clinton's digitally engineered cameo in last summer's Contact—however nonconsensual—was actually just the next logical step after his sax performance on "The Arsenio Hall Show." In 1992, campaign strategists discovered the value of "alternative venues" such as talk shows, MTV, infomercials, and town meetings in delivering a message unhampered by the pesky context of news. And if politicians wish to be treated like movie stars, no doubt they will become them. The more politicians rely on scripted sound bites and staged photo-ops to communicate their message, the more politics comes off as just another channel, and we start to believe that changing the channel is a kind of protest. Once platforms and film premieres share the same shelf space in the marketplace of ideas, it won't be Pat Buchanan whom Democrats (and astute Republicans) should worry about beating in the polls, but Harrison Ford.

Think about it: What better way to further remove politics from the real world than to put it on the big screen, where shouts of "Look behind you!" go forever unheard? As politically themed blockbusters such as Air Force One and Primary Colors become indistinguishable from action flicks like Twister, we begin to understand that politics has the same relationship to our lives as a natural disaster: The effects are immediate, the causes random and inexplicable.

It's worth noting that John Travolta, who has publicly admitted he's playing Bill Clinton and not Klein's "Jack Stanton," has also played a hit man with a magic briefcase, as well as an angel. Though the press has gone to great lengths to describe the "realism" that Travolta brings to the role—Time gushed that he has "copied the president's hair color, body language, and a remarkably accurate honey-dipped Arkansas accent"—believability hardly seems the issue. Rather, Travolta and Nichols should worry about whether the story (and its characters) will be implausible enough, if it will have the mythic scope and prurient content that separates drama from daily life and E! from C-SPAN.

Ana Marie Cox is the editor of Suck, a daily online magazine of humor and media criticism.

REVIEWS

books

The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Writings, Essays, Speeches, and Documents From the Bible to the Present Edited by Micheline R. Ishay. New York: Routledge, 1997. 510 pages. $29.95. This anthology hinges on the idea that human rights advocacy stems from religious beliefs—the missionary position as historical trope, so to speak. Unfortunately, a lack of focus makes it difficult to stitch together a coherent narrative of this tradition. Early Bible texts are described briefly, while too-general periodizations ("The Enlightenment," "The Industrial Age") and contemporary documents from the past 10 years of human rights activism make up the bulk of the book. There is no doubt a strong connection between the Ten Commandments and the Fourth World Conference on Women's 1995 Beijing Declaration. But one is left with the impression that the ideas generated by these documents are all that's required to put human rights into action; this despite several selections from Marx and Gandhi that imply that more active interventions may be required. —T.D.

A Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith Edited by Tom Hazuka and J.P. Maney. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. 331 pages. $25. This collection is organized around five principles—mystery, doubt, evil, the supernatural, and reconciliation. Overanthologized works by such writers as Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Isaac Bashevis Singer appear alongside relatively unknown pieces. The perfunctory inclusiveness—Taoist (Maxine Hong Kingston), Islamic (Najib Mahfuz), and Native American (Leslie Marmon Silko) selections all make the cut—suggests a multifaith checklist being fleshed out (though the perspective remains overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian). Indeed, the collection bears more than a whiff of all-religions-are-one Campbellism. The unexpected pleasures are largely contextual: Seeing schlock jock Stephen King's devil yarn as part of a religious dialogue gives more familiar ghost stories new life. —T.C.

Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers' Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage Edited by Michael Wolfe. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1997. 620 pages. $32.50. For those who prefer religion with backbone, Islam is the way. And at the spiritual and emotional heart of Islam is the hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims must make at least once. In 23 nonfiction accounts, ranging from the 1050 journey of the Persian sultan's administrator Naser-e Khosraw to the editor's own pilgrimage in 1990, One Thousand Roads captures the excitement of the arduous but rewarding spectacle. Wolfe, an American convert, explains the seductiveness of the hajj and of Islam—a faith most Americans consider unbearably stringent—with a collection that is intelligently culled, amply mapped and indexed, and beautifully presented. —T.C.

God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission By R. Marie Griffith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 275 pages. $24.95. After two years of studying Women's Aglow Fellowship International, the largest interdenominational women's organization in America, R. Marie Griffith concludes that Aglow employs a "doctrine of submission" to God and male authority as a way of coming to terms with incest, abuse, and neglect. As it's described, this doctrine seems retrograde and simplistic: Of course a husband who grumbles when meals are late will cease his whining and become more loving when meals arrive on time. A reliance on personal anecdotes can make for a monotonous read (stories of abuse, despair, and triumph through prayer blend together into one repetitive "hallelujah!"), but Griffith finds in these women a quiet strength that feminist discourse has all but ignored. —K.R.

Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies By Margaret R. Miles. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. 255 pages. $25. Suspension of disbelief, according to Margaret R. Miles, is an act of faith, whether you're contemplating a crucifix or watching Dead Man Walking. This imaginative leap serves as the crux of this astute, if earnest, analysis of how Hollywood projects collective anxieties onto America's movie screens. A professor at Harvard Divinity School, Miles turns a cultural-studies lens on popular films from the '80s and early '90s. The book has an admittedly short shelf life; Chariots of Fire and The Piano have since been eclipsed by Forrest Gump and Breaking the Waves. But Miles' review of religious themes proves illuminating, even if in rejecting violent imagery—curious given its centrality in Christianity—her tone is closer to movie critic and moralist Michael Medved than to Pauline Kael. —B.G.

The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology Is Changing Our Spiritual Lives By Jeff Zaleski. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997. 284 pages. $22. It's tempting and hip to say that technology has a significant impact on religion, but the conceit is quite simply wrong, confusing what you worship with how you worship. Zaleski would have us believe that the global village is a global congregation, yet any America Online subscriber can testify that what passes for community online is often just a group exercise in delusional solipsism. The irony of his effort to chronicle the digital revolution in human spirituality is that modern religions—especially the cheap American smorgasbord of Buddha, Jesus, and the acoustic guitar—are predicated on extreme self-involvement. To that end, sitting alone in your bedroom gazing into your active matrix screen, your vanity mirror, or even your belly button has roughly the same theological impact on the world at large—a kind of nothingness even a Zen Buddhist couldn't love. —H.E.

God Is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism By Rabbi David A. Cooper. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. 333 pages. $24.95. This is not really a bad book, just an irritating one. Written in the language of business and self-help manuals, with their talk of "paradigm shifts," "flow," and "deep structures," Cooper packages the mystical tradition known as kabbalah as "a respite from the busy world around us," and reveals that he too, dear reader, was once on the treadmill of materialistic success. He felt spiritually empty, though, and eventually found his way back to his Jewish roots. God Is a Verb has a lot going for it in the contemporary marketplace of spiritual ideas: Its concern with unearthing hidden meanings and mystical truths provides a pleasant diversion from more obvious— if less inspiring—truths about society and culture. —T.D.

music

ABSOLUTES Stavesacre (Tooth & Nail, 1997)
LIFE IN GENERAL mxpx (Tooth & Nail, 1996)

In the mid-'80s, Christian rock was a few guys in Lycra who toured with their mothers and played Bon Jovi-style pop metal to Isaiah-quoting minions. As with its secular counterpart, only the poses and the time signatures have changed. Christian rock has kept relatively apace with what it calls the "general" market, tapping into all the lucrative alterna-niches that have sprung up since the martyrdom of Kurt Cobain. Today's saved children are losing themselves in an exhausted mimicry of the mainstream, from mxpx's watered-down Green Day impersonation (itself watered-down '70s pop punk) to Stavesacre's excruciating hard rock generica.

Still, Christian rock has a certain integrity that mainstream music lacks: If you are going to adhere robotically to musical forms forged well before your birth, why not also preach a 2,000-year-old faith? A lot worse has been performed in the name of Jesus than a predictable drum fill. But will well- intentioned mediocrity cut it when His horn section blows its last rapturous riff? Derivation, like temptation, is a hallmark of rock, but it will take some real Old Testament verve to drive Satan, that eternal headliner, from the mike. —S.L.

Reviews by Tim Cavanaugh, Tom Dowe, Hans Eisenbeis, Bill Goggins, Sam Lipsyte, Kate Rope.