By LeRoy Lawson
Jim Henson: The Biography
Brian Jay Jones
New York: Ballantine Books, 2013
Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures
Sarah A. Lanier
Hagerstown: McDougal Publishing, 2000
When Salman Rushdie published his infamous The Satanic Verses in 1988, the Muslim world went crazy. Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s revolution—the one that drove the Shah from the Peacock Throne and into exile—outraged by what he perceived to be Rushdie’s attack on religion in general and Islam in particular, pronounced a fatwa against him. In the name of Allah, he cried, Rushdie must die, and blessed be his assassin.
Thus began eight years of a murderous game of hide-and-seek, the hunted author imprisoned by his 24/7 police guards, the haunted governments—Muslim and secular alike—obsessing over this blasphemer who must be killed (declared Iran and its collaborators) or protected (by a reluctant England and her allies), going to extraordinary lengths to bring him down or hide him away.
I read The Satanic Verses shortly after its publication and found it undeserving of all the attention. Later, I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; in this book, the author’s skill impressed me. (I wasn’t alone; he was awarded the coveted Booker Prize for its merit). That sent me back for another look at The Satanic Verses; this time I persevered and found the effort worth it.
There’s no doubt about it: Rushdie is one of the world’s leading authors. He is also a hard man to like. Joseph Anton is named for two of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. He adopted this pseudonym because it was unsafe to use his own name, and it became his public identity for most of the eight years he dodged the bullet. This memoir, like his novels, is not a casual read. It’s a long (more than 600 tightly packed pages), detailed, and painfully honest portrayal of one of the most controversial figures of the past three decades.
Rushdie is not only an atheist, but a determined anti-theist. He hates religion. He hated it even before religion (in the form of the fatwa) returned his hatred. He who is such a careful, discriminating creator of good fiction, with a clear eye for discerning and depicting individual differences among his characters, lumps all religions into the same toxic mix and will have none of any of them.
He disapproves of just about everything I stand for, I suppose. Yet the book engendered my sympathy. I cannot believe that anyone, anyone, should be killed in the name of God. Religion as seen through his eyes is toxic. But there are other ways to see; he does not choose them.
Salman Rushdie, this brilliant, cocksure egoist, is at the same time a courageous, determined battler for justice and his version of righteousness. A study in contrasts to be sure.
If you still believe it doesn’t matter what a person believes so long as he is really sincere, I challenge you to read this book. It matters.
You probably wouldn’t have been impressed. There I was, sitting last week in my study, holding my laptop computer, staring into the little screen at—Muppets. Yep. The same Muppets I watched from the family room couch with three Lawson offspring years ago.
They irritated me sometimes, those little ones (the offspring, not the Muppets). They made noise right at the best parts. They didn’t seem to realize the adults in the room were more fascinated by those magical characters than the children were. But, then, the children had difficulty following the intricacies of the romance between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. They liked Animal better. My favorite was (is) Fozzie Bear.
My re-viewing of The Muppet Show and The Muppets Take Manhattan (I liked them even better this time around), may say something about my second childhood—or about the value of reading up on the making of a movie before actually seeing it. It was prompted by Brian Jay Jones’s biography of Jim Henson, the improbable genius behind one of greatest collections of actors to grace modern media—and they are all inanimate puppets until brought to life by Henson and company.
From the size of this book (more than 600 pages) you know the subject must be important. Only presidents are accorded such lengthy treatment, or kings or generals, or major contributors to society (or autobiographers like Rushdie). Contribution? Then I guess Henson deserves this book’s bulk.
He didn’t start out to be a puppeteer, and, in fact, did not want to be known as one. He wanted to be what he became: a producer of fine cinema. En route, however, his Big Bird and other creations energized Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live, and transfixed a whole generation of viewers with The Muppet Show. Not everything was cheerful; he also gave us The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Some of his produced ideas flopped.
What Jim Henson never is, though, is boring. On these pages we marvel at his meticulous craftsmanship, admire his hard-nosed contract negotiating, and learn from his skill as leader of teams of unusually loyal partners and workers. We also grieve as we watch his marriage to Jane, cocreator in the early days and mother of his five children, dissolve. Not everything about Henson is admirable.
Fully human as he is, though, you are prepared to forgive a man who brought into the world some of a child’s (and the child’s parents!) most enduring friendships. Brian Jay Jones gives us this man whom Frank Oz, a longtime collaborator, labels “delightfully imperfect.”
Hot or Cold?
Before CMF International’s board meeting in Indonesia in May 2014, Lisa Richardson, who had taught there for more than two decades, hoped to reduce the number of predictable gaffes by us tourists, most of whom had never been to that beautiful country. She urged us to read Sarah Lanier’s Foreign to Familiar. Good advice.
I should have read this small volume (just 128 large-font pages) when I started traveling for CMF years ago. It would have prevented many embarrassing moments and greatly reduced my stock of stories about my cultural faux pas. Lanier divides the world’s population into two groups (with some exceptions)—those who live in hot-climate cultures and those who live in cold-climate cultures. And in this case, hot and cold don’t mix.
Lisa thought we Americans, convinced as we are that our folkways are superior to all others, needed Lanier’s counsel. I would add that it’s also a helpful guide for people moving to or even visiting another section of the United States. With this book in hand, we will be a little less judgmental—and a whole lot more welcome—in interacting with our new acquaintances.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.