Dispatches > The Buzz

Christ is so much better

The suicidal guru and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

This god really is dead
Frederick Lenz said he could teach people to surf the Himalayas and snowboard to Nirvana. He claimed to be a bit of everything: a best-selling author, a mystic, a black belt, a computer expert-and the incarnation of a Hindu deity. He peddled enlightenment everywhere from Harvard to Heidelberg. Mr. Lenz may have sold books, but he wasn't divine. The man once known as Zen Master Rama is dead. His body was found under 20 feet of water next to his $2 million Long Island compound. Mr. Lenz, 48, swallowed a handful of Valium, then fell into a bay, according to authorities. A female companion survived. His publisher, St. Martin's Press, loses the shot at a third bestseller, since his latest book wasn't finished. Before his demise, Mr. Lenz was known as a charismatic leader who repackaged Eastern religion for a '90s audience. His detractors called him a cosmic con man. A protest group called Lenz-Watch said the Buddhist teacher collected up to $6 million a year from his students. Disgruntled ex-followers claim Mr. Lenz told them to sever family ties, then manipulated them for his sexual gratification. Even though Mr. Lenz denied the charges, he said sex with students was perfectly acceptable. (Naturally, he rejected the call to chastity from his own guru, Sri Chinmoy.) Later in his career, Mr. Lenz retooled himself as a computer guru, pitching software development and computer seminars. On his Web site, he claimed he could double and quadruple his students' incomes through his courses in computer programming. An exposé in an early issue of Wired described Mr. Lenz as ripping off millions of dollars from hundreds of gullibles. "Lenz gets smart people to do stupid things," it said. Mr. Lenz attacked his critics, saying they were sensationalists who wanted to blame him for their problems. "Perhaps my own struggle against the negativity created by these so-called critics," he said on fredricklenz.com, "has enabled me to develop a more resilient, peaceful, inner strength which I, in turn, have attempted to communicate to others." But all his inner strength couldn't keep him from tossing himself off a pier. Dark movies
As America's moribund moral center crashed and burned during the 20th century, few art forms took as much notice as film noir cinema. This universe of reckless men, mysterious women, and impending doom tossed moviegoers from a world of light into darkness. Recently, the genre has come back with such movies as Fargo, L.A. Confidential, and U-Turn. Now Entertainment Weekly alumnus David Meyer has a field guide to the land of unhappy endings called A Girl and a Gun (Avon). In simple terms he defines what makes noir so noir and appraises its major products. Mr. Meyer claims that the unifying factor of movies like The Maltese Falcon, Cape Fear, and Kiss Me Deadly is sheer existential terror. Postwar pop philosophy and Alfred Hitchcock unite on the silver screen. Characters trapped in a morally relativist universe turn fatalist. They must make their own morality in an absurd universe. "Noir heroes make their own moral choices," writes Mr. Meyer, "and for those choices, dues must be paid, large and small." In the end these guys wind up dead, alone, tortured, or incarcerated. If they are rescued at all, they are saved by an arbitrary happy ending. Studios loved this stuff because it let them produce macabre scenarios without violating Hollywood's codes. As the restrictions loosened, content became more explicit and the bruising potboilers became fewer and fewer. Now noir lives again on video and in retro filmmaking. As the author discusses dozens of movies, he cynically sends up his subject. Some of these films are atrocious, but they left their mark on cinema. These brooding melodramas about aimless drifters, hard-shelled detectives, and femme fatales often seem comical now. Characters take their perils with unshaking seriousness that seems unintentionally humorous today. In contrast, today's noir films tend to be self-consciously ironic, at best a pop-existentialism without the honest agony of the real thing. Looking into the abyss just ain't what it used to be. Chesterton wins again, without even trying
Take an old book once owned by G.K. Chesterton, whose penciled-in notes are as long as the original text. Then republish a reprint of the whole thing as a rediscovered treasure from a great writer. That's the story of Platitudes Undone. It's an exact reprint of Chesterton's copy of a now-forgotten collection of sayings called Platitudes in the Making. The original author, Holbrook Jackson, was a self-professed Nietzschean, a book lover, and an intellectual sparring partner of G.K.C. Beneath each entry in this little book, Chesterton added his own retort. Sometimes he praised; sometimes he tossed in a one-liner; sometimes he castigated Jackson. All of it was written in the green-pencil lettering that is faithfully reprinted eight decades later. "He who never reasons is lost," says Jackson. "He who never reasons is not worth finding," replies Chesterton. When Jackson says, "The great revolution of the future will be Nature's revolt against man," Chesterton writes, "I hope man will not hesitate to shoot." The atheist says, "The theologian is the apologist of death"; the creator of Father Brown asks, "Why? Because he proclaims life everlasting?" This demonstration is made more amazing by the fact that the book was not meant for the public. Chesterton was just jotting down ideas for the fun of it. Yet few modern satirists can top this book. Chesterton also has an amazing ability to make his anti-secularist point without sounding flushed. His tone is always witty and friendly. Jackson, on the other hand, hasn't aged well. When he says things like, "All dogmas are right: but it is wrong to need them," and, "Morals are only the rules of communities," he comes off stiff. But he leaves a ready-made canvas for Chesterton to work on. Platitudes Undone demonstrates why Chesterton has his reputation as a Christian thinker, wit, and deflater of secularism.

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