Monday, May 13, 2002

When does history merge into the present? I'm big on reading about the actual people of the past rather than a list of dates, and recently I've been on a royalty binge. Victoria's Daughters (Jerrold M. Packard) led to Michael John Sullivan's A Fatal Passion: The Story of Victoria Melita, the Uncrowned Last Empress of Russia, one of Queen Victoria's granddaughters, which brought up the rather weird (to me) point that there are still heirs to the Imperial throne of Russia. Tsar Nicholas II with his wife and children were killed by the Soviets, but descendants of Nicholas' cousins still exist and are still given the title of Grand Duke (or Grand Duchess).

Obviously I knew England still had a monarchy -- it's difficult in the English-speaking world to escape news coverage of the English royal family. But I've always found the royals of the past and the power that they wielded to be more interesting than the current ones who seem more hemmed in by their symbolic role than anything else.

It's just odd, though, to think of those descended from royalty and nobility, bearers of titles no longer recognized in the countries that once granted them. They may be only great-nephews and -nieces of those who actually ruled, but they are the people who would rule if there were still monarchies.

It's even weird to think of kaisers, tsars, and kings as forming part of a time with remotely modern technology. Gordon Brook-Shepherd's Royal Sunset: The European Dynasties and The Great War goes over the roles of European rulers in the causes of World War I, and frequently mentions governments and rulers sending telegrams to one another, and even Edward VI of England giving Franz Josef of Austria his first ride in a car. It underlines the humanity of royalty in a way that even Henry VIII's six wives or Peter the Great's passion for boating never could.

So The Royal Families of Europe, by Geoffrey Hindley, was an interesting peek into the present lives of royals. Prince Nicola Petrovic of Montenegro is an architect in Paris, but apparently 200,000 Montenegrins came to see him on his trip to his family's homeland on 1989. Dr. Otto Habsburg of the family which used to rule Austria and Hungary (but now a German national) was elected to a seat in the European Parliament; his son is a program director for a Hungarian TV station. Louis Ferdinand, a younger son of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, worked for the Ford company in the U.S. for a while, though he later went back to Europe and married a daughter of Grand Duke Kyrill, who would have been next in line for the Russian throne.

Reading about the marriages between members of the royal families particularly boggles the mind -- that same Louis Ferdinand's will designated one of his grandsons as his heir because all his sons except that grandson's father had married women of low rank. One of the disinherited sons challenged the will in court, but Germany's Supreme Court ruled against the challenges.

King Simeon of Bulgaria (living in exile in Spain) even has a website where you can send him e-mail! (I wonder if a monarchy in exile runs to the same number of assistants who would take care of correspondence, or if Simeon actually reads his own e-mail.)

The ones who do still reign in Europe are described in Laure Boulay and Francoise Jaudel's There Are Still Kings: The Ten Royal Families of Europe as largely performing a businesslike function of signing papers and making public appearances. There's nothing wrong with that -- both books on modern monarchy credit the royal house of Belgium with a major part in holding the country's two ethnic groups together under one government -- but it's a far cry from most people's visions of kingship or queenship. Fascinating to know, yes, but a little bit of magic leaves the world, even for an egalitarian American like me, on finding out what the 20th century did to royalty.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

Agnostic that I am, I picked up Mark Pinsky's The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family mostly out of curiosity. I'm the type of Simpsons fan who can parrot entire conversations from the show, and I didn't really see what pro-religion message could be gotten from my favorite show.

However, Pinksy showed me a lot I hadn't noticed about the show, probably because I'm entrenched in my own beliefs. Once it's pointed out, it becomes a lot more obvious that The Simpsons is one of the few TV shows to deal with religious faith at all. How many sitcoms ever show their characters attending religious services or praying? And yet these are important parts of many people's lives -- this animated show is here more realistic than most live-action ones. The show certainly makes fun of religion-related topics at times, but it makes fun everything else, too. Is religion being mocked when Homer Simpson cries out "I'm not normally a praying man, but if you're up there, please save me Superman!"? Or is it the naive attitude of many who look at the supreme being they believe in as only there to make things better for them?

The Christian part of the book also brought home to me the difference between belief in salvation by faith and by works. I had certainly known about this distinction, but the book's examples made things much clearer, (in a similar way to my mother and I referring to Gone with the Wind when discussing social interaction -- fiction can be more instructive than reality). Of course the faith/works issue brings up many more questions for me -- if, as Pinsky says, The Simpsons usually represents an Old Testament-based religion with more emphasis on works than faith, why does the show ring so true in comparison to real-life Christians who claim that belief in Jesus is salvation? If that belief is salvation, then why are numerous Christians (at least a very loud minority) campaigning to control others' behavior?

As its name implies (at least to me) the book spends more time dealing with Christianity on the show, but does not completely neglect other faiths, since major characters Krusty the Clown and Apu are Jewish and Hindu, respectively. There's not as much reference to the beliefs of these religions in the show or in the book -- the chapters on Judaism and Hinduism mostly deal with their interface with the U.S.'s Christian-majority culture. One wonders what an Israeli or Indian cartoon who with the same irreverent attitude would be like.

So the book really does rather well as an overview of religion in American life in the past few years. It won't convert any Simpsons fans who weren't already religious, but it points out examples to help people like me understand the mindset of the faithful, and it might make humor a little more palatable for those not inclined to see any kind of faith as a laughing matter.