Tag Archives: Religion

The Book of Mormon and the Delicate Balance of Religious Satire

(I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway last weekend, and I have a lot of thoughts. Assume that there will be spoilers below.)

1289926514-Mark TwainUnbeknownst to most modern readers, Samuel Clemens spent most of his final decade on earth obsessing and writing about a small religious movement that seemed to be taking the world by storm: Christian Science. In a series of articles that were published in book form in 1907 under the title Christian Science and in an unfinished short story that Clemens thought of as a sequel to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and called, I shit you not, “The Secret History of Eddypus, World Empire,” the pre-eminent American satirist had a heaping ball of fun at the expense of Mary Baker Eddy’s followers but also just at people in general.

Finding it at best unfunny and at worst incoherent, most scholarly readers tend to set this particular part of Twain’s opus aside and back away very slowly. Without understanding the complex debates about religion and religious freedom in which the writer was engaging, these texts remain nearly incomprehensible to the twenty-first century reader. Granted, many of Clemens’s contemporaries thought so too. While his critique of Eddy was uncompromising, Twain refused to conform to the prevailing public narratives about Christian Science. Having tried just about every form of non-traditional medical treatment available during his lifetime, dared to take seriously their claims about spiritual healing (as did William James). Likewise, he rejected the positivist narrative that linked religion as a whole to ignorance that could simply be combated with secular knowledge and instead linked Christian Science to recursive historical cycles of human fallibility in a way that implicated both religion and (small “s”) science.

The_Book_of_Mormon_posterThe point is that though religion in general offers plenty of fodder for ridicule, good religious satire is really, really hard, a comedic problem that even one of the most successful humorists in American history struggled to render intelligible to his audience in a way that was both funny and honest. And that is why what Trey Parker and Matt Stone manage to accomplish in The Book of Mormon is perhaps nothing short of miraculous and why it is one of the most poignant and insightful things I have ever seen on Broadway in addition to being really, really funny.

Recognizing hat when it comes to the truth claims of the Latter Day Saints, they are dealing with low-hanging fruit, Parker and Stone take what could have been a succession of easy jokes and instead reflect on issues of faith and religious exceptionalism through a story that treats the spiritual and material struggles of all of its characters as both comedic and entirely serious and real. And that’s why, I think, it has managed to capture the imaginations of both religious and non-religious people in spite of its epic profanity (the refrain of one song is literally just “Fuck You, God” over and over and over again, and at one point, Jesus has a boner) in ways that Bill Maher just never will.

The protagonist of The Book of Mormon is Elder Price, a Mormon golden boy from Salt Lake City who thinks of himself as a protagonist in every possible way. About to embark on his two year mission, he sees the experience as an opportunity to continue proving himself worthy to God by being awesome. The people he is allegedly going to help and his companion, Elder Cunningham, are merely supporting players in the ongoing drama of his life. Naturally, the script he has written for himself gets disrupted when it turns out that Elder Cunningham is a nerdy beta male with a compulsive lying problem and that they are being assigned, not to Orlando, but to an impoverished Ugandan village where 80% of the population has HIV and a warlord who shoots people in the face and demands that all women be circumcised.

Trained to believe that his sacred texts offer answers to all of life’s possible problems, Elder Price is unprepared for the fact that nothing he has to say about a dude who dug up some golden plates in upstate New York has is even remotely relevant to the bleak circumstances of these people’s lives. And he is equally disillusioned by the fact that his Mormon brethren have nothing to offer him in the face of his doubt but the recommendation to “Turn it Off” (in my opinion, the funniest number in the entire musical), just as they do with pesky problems like being attracted to other men and being forced to contemplate their own mortality.

Elder Price’s subsequent melt down essentially ushers him out of the limelight, and his character development happens in the background as other characters start to come to the front. One of these is Nabalungi, the daughter of the village leader, who thinks that maybe these white guys and their weird religion will offer them a path toward a better life. The other is Elder Cunningham, who due to his partner’s hasty exist, is in a position to play missionary to the villagers. The problem is that he has never read The Book of Mormon and gives in to the impulse to start making shit up when someone asks him why, exactly, God thinks FGM is bad. What results is a village full of converts to a weird religion that is a hybrid that is part Joseph Smith, part JRR Tolkein, and part George Lucas in a kind of absurdist redux of the LDS origin story. But, of course, because that religion is tailored for them, it is actually relevant to their immediate circumstances.

But what is remarkable is that while there is plenty of absurdity to be had, the text never treats any of these characters–from the impossibly naive Elder Price to the increasingly megalomaniacal Elder Cunningham to the benighted Nabalungi and her family–as contemptible.  They are presented sympathetically with inner lives worthy of taking seriously. There are extremely thorny issues of race, gender, and the consequences of imperialism, but Parker and Stone manage to convey the horrors of, say, rape, while also making jokes about it. It is a particularly vertiginous kind of balancing act that feels like it could come crashing to earth at any second but somehow never does precisely because they manage to remember that these are people who deserve our empathy. So, you can have a song in which a group of Mormon teenagers, elated by the number of baptisms they have racked up (though they have no idea why), sing “We Are Africa” with all of the gross ethnocentrism and exceptionalism that implies, and yet they are never exactly villainous. Likewise, when Elder Price returns to sing “I Believe” in the moment where he re-commits to his inherited vision of Mormonism just before his final fall, he can say a bunch of weird stuff (“I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”) without becoming an object of ridicule.

And the same goes for the Ugandans who, to the surprise of both the Mormons and Nabalungi, interpreted pretty much everything Elder Cunningham said in the light of myth and metaphor. Her disillusionment and anger with the fact that she was lied to is real and justified, but her community has transformed the message into something so much bigger than their dubious prophet. The play essentially takes the Jamesian position that what matters about religion isn’t its truth claims but the affective resources it gives both to the individual and the collective to rise above circumstances, resist oppression, make ethical choices, and form interpersonal bonds. The Ugandans, along with the Mormon missionaries who have been soundly rebuked by the Mission President, create a new religious community that, like the original Latter Day Saints, exists outside of institutional structures and remains intensely meaningful despite the improbability of its origins.

This is a height of comedy and profundity that something like Religulous will just never be able to attain. Because what works about this musical, like what works about most comedy that has to do with religion, is that its sense of the ridiculous is mingled with genuine affection both for the Mormons and for the Broadway tropes it satirizes.


Logical Fallacy Friday: False Cause and Slippery Slope

Interior photograph of the Troyes Cathedral The false cause fallacy comes in a couple of different Latin flavors: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (with, therefore because of) and Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (after, therefore because of). Both variants occur when one argues that because two events have occurred in time together or seem to have some kind of relationship, one must have caused the other. An example of the Cum Hoc fallacy would be something like:

Whenever it rains, I see people holding umbrellas. The fact that umbrellas and rain go together must mean that taking an umbrella outside causes rain.

I’ll let Martin Sheen and Alison Janney demonstrate the Post Hoc fallacy for you.

In this clip from the second episode of The West Wing, the Press Secretary (played by Janney) is arguing that the President’s public wisecracks are creating public relations problems. She ties a joke he made about golf to the fact that a group of pro golfers canceled their White House visit and a joke he made about big hats to the fact that Texas went Republican during the general election. The President reminds her that just because the canceled visit and the electoral loss happened after he told the jokes doesn’t mean that the jokes caused those events. The punch line is that they lost Texas when the President learned to speak Latin.

First frame:  "I used to think correlation implied causation."  Second frame:  "Then I took a statistics class.  Now I don't."  Third frame:  "Sounds like the class helped."  "Well, maybe."Cause and effect are usually complex relationships that can be mediated by any number of factors. Scientists talk a great deal about the difference between correlation and causation.  Two variables that appear to be related to one another may be causing one another, or they may both be caused by a third variable.  Last semester, I took a Sociology class for kicks.  The title of the class was “Religion, Health, and Mortality,” and in it we discussed the surprisingly vast body of research that shows a relationship between regular church attendance and physical and mental health, measured in both objective (blood pressure, cancer risk, etc.) and subjective (self-reported sense of well-being) terms.  It’s a rather shocking but difficult to deny statistical relationship that could have some disconcerting policy implications if one isn’t careful about how one understands the causal relationship between the two factors.  Is it really attendance at church that makes people healthier?  Should doctors and policy makers then be recommending that everyone get their ass into a pew on Sunday, whether religion is meaningful to them or not?  Is this somehow a scientific argument for the preferability or even necessity of religious lifestyles?

No, probably not.  The relationship between regular church attendance and health is not at all clear cut.  Most social scientists and epidemiologists (not to mention most respectable theologians) have written off the possibility that God intervenes and grants better health to those who follow his dictates by showing up to church.  Furthermore, it isn’t likely that attending church has some kind of direct and immediate effect on health by, say, lowering your blood pressure during a sermon.  So, rather than a causal relationship, we are probably talking about a mediating or moderating relationship between religion and health.  Some hypotheses suggest that churches provide forms of institutional and social support that people are unlikely to find in more secular contexts, a theory that seems to be supported by the fact that religion has the strongest relationship to health among poor older women of color.  Other research suggests that the religious make-up of a community plays a significant role in health care delivery.  Church members may also play a role in the lives of co-religionists by encouraging the use of preventative care as well as offering free services and referrals.  Furthermore, there is some indication (supported by studies of Buddhists and Christians) that an active spiritual life plays a role in relieving stress and moderating the effects of negative life events (such as sickness or injury).

So, the answer isn’t to get everyone in the world to start going to church. The answer is to do more research to figure out how we might translate the support systems provided by religion and spirituality in secular contexts.

My students often get slippery slope and false cause confused. They are related, but while the Post Hoc fallacy postulates that X caused Y because X and Y are related in time, the slippery slope fallacy is about prediction: X will cause Y and Z, because Y and Z are the natural outcomes of X. Usually, the intent is to cause alarm about the supposedly horrible consequences of something. I could show just about any clip of Glenn Beck or of Jon Steward making fun of Glenn Beck to demonstrate this one, but my favorite slippery slope example comes from the film Good Will Hunting. Transcript below. Enjoy.

Will Hunting (Matt Damon):  Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks ’cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

Photo by Piotr Tysarczyk, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, Part Deux

Yesterday, I wrote a 3000 word post about grammar that some folks seemed to like. The point of that post was that grammatical correctness is often confused for facility with words, that the former is a step toward the latter but not the entirety of it. I argued that it is more important for writers, be they students or professionals, to say what they mean. In that post, I used a sample from Lionel Tiger’s new book–a sample originally posted on The Sexist–to show how grammatically correct writing can sometimes become unreadable. Amanda Hess evidently saw the trackback and liked it, because she devoted a whole post to it! And traffic on this blog has increased by like 2000%! And I’ve had to delete some trolls who didn’t actually read the post, which is, I think, a blogger rite of passage!  So, thank you Amanda Hess!

Today, however, I am going to offer up an example of how language can be used beautifully, how a writer can use sophisticated sentence structures and even non-standard grammar to great effect. I just finished teaching Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to my Literature and Religion class, so I might as well go with that. When students first encounter Rushdie’s prose, they often find it difficult to wade through, but as I will show, the complexity of it–the way he piles images and motifs onto one another–actually enhances the ideas he is presenting without obscuring them. In other words, it’s challenging in a good way. It immerses you in the ideas instead of pulling you out of them.  Let’s start with the third paragraph of the first chapter, which begins with two men falling from the sky:

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohe, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.” At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling headfirst in a grey suit all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his head, pulled a nickname-hater’s face. “Hey, Spoono,” Gibreel yelled, eliciting a second inverted wince, “Proper London, bhai! here we come! Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm!Wham!, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear, splat.”

Ok, first of all, let’s get one thing straight. This is not stream of consciousness narrative. My students are quick to toss this term onto the table, but it isn’t accurate. One of the Amazon commenters on Tiger’s book referred to it as “stream of consciousness,” which has come to mean, I think, “prose I don’t understand.” Stream of consciousness narrative attempts to replicate the thought processes of an individual mind and reads the way it does (not easily) because when we think, our thoughts jump around. Perception and cognition aren’t coherent or linear. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is representative of stream of consciousness because we never leave the mind of the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus. The first two sections of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are stream of consciousness because they occupy the minds of Benjy and Quentin, and they are difficult to read because neither of these two characters are neurotypical.

No, The Satanic Verses employs a straightforward omniscient narrator, and omniscient narrator who turns out to be Satan actually, but we don’t know that at this point in the novel. The terms that best describes Rushdie’s prose are non-linear or surrealistic, though magic realism is the generic name for this type of fiction. Magic realism is where the narrative clearly inhabits the “real world” (i.e. this isn’t Narnia or Middle Earth) but crazy supernatural stuff happens. However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

In this paragraph, he is introducing the two main characters of the novel and showing us that they are complete opposites, “levity against gravity.” Though Gibreel’s banter and his mode of falling, we get a sense of his exuberance and wonder. Then we see Saladin Chamcha with his buttoned up suit, bowler hat, rigid posture, and hatred of nicknames and immediately understand that he is a grouch. Gibreel is sort of loving this unlikely and surely terrifying experience, but Saladin is clearly hating it. If you got nothing more out of that paragraph than what I just said, you would be perfectly capable of grasping what happens in the rest of the chapter and the rest of the novel. In other words, it is possible to have a purely straight foward, non-symbolic understanding of this paragraph if that’s your thing.  But there is actually more going on here, and one of the beauties of Rushdie’s prose is that it rewards you on the second and third and fourth reading. Having read this book something like five times, I now know enough about what is about to come to appreciate how Rushdie uses these early paragraphs to set up all of his themes.

In traditional sonata format–the compositional structure that informed a lot of the classical music you hear–the first section is called the Exposition. This is where the composer introduces the tonal key and musical ideas he plans to explore in the rest of the piece. That’s essentially what Rushdie does here. For one thing, there is actual music here.  Gibreel falls while singing, an activity that presages the significance of “verses,” namely the verses of the Qu’ran later in the book.  We are also about to learn that Saladin Chamcha, an Indian expatriate who lives in London, has shunned his past and family history. His fractured relationship with his father, his embarrassment about coming from the “third world,” and his desire to impress the British have led him to become, well, T.S. Eliot or something. He has reinvented himself and become more British than the British, adopting a stereotypically “proper” mode of dress (the grey suit and bowler hat). Furthermore, the nickname that Gibreel uses–“Spoono,” which is a play on Saladin’s Anglicized last name, which used to be Chamchawala and is now Chamcha–translates to something like “sell-out.” Saladin’s truncated name is a derogatory word for Indians who collaborated with the British under the Raj, and Gibreel is mocking him for it. Conversely, Gibreel, a Bollywood film star, is the pop culture icon of his nation. He is exuberant in his Indianness, and that is partly why Saladin finds his nattering–so different from Saladin’s, due to his attempts to erase his linguistic past from his speech patterns–so irritating.

But it gets even more trippy than that. Rushdie slyly sneaks in many of the leitmotifs that will become significant in the rest of the novel. The big theme of this book is transformation. He is exploring the way the post-colonial experience has metamorphosed not only individuals but entire cultures, the way in which it is in the process of transforming both colonizer and colonized in frightening and unintended ways. Gibreel and Saladin are about to be changed into the forms of the angel Gabriel (Gibreel adopts “heraldic postures” in the air) and the Devil respectively (there’s that whole magic realism thing) following this fall from the sky. The first sentence of the book is “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'” So after metaphorically “dying” by falling from an airplane that was taking them from India to Britain and was blown up by a suicide bomber, they emerge from the English Channel bearing these new forms, which will symbolize the divergent fates that await immigrants on the shores of a new country.

So this paragraph is laden with images of transformation. Among Gibreel’s many mid-air stunts, he performs a “butterfly-stroke,” and butterflies will become an important metamorphosis image later on. We also have the exploration of liminal space. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshhold and means the space in between spaces or states of being. Victor Turner applied the term to religious rituals he observed in his ethnographic research.  In the space of the ritual, social boundaries evaporated and roles were reversed. One might say that it is in the liminal space of the Eucharist that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Liminal spaces are where things pause on the way to becoming other things, where the magic happens. When Rushdie speaks of “the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn,” this is what he is talking about–the in between time where these people are no longer what they were but not yet what they are going to be, no longer night, but not yet morning.

There are multiple liminal spaces in The Satanic Verses, but the two important ones in this paragraph are water and air. the air part is obvious. That’s what they’re falling through. It is the medium they inhabit between the wreckage of the airplane, carrying their past lives, and the new life ahead with all of it’s uncertainty. Thin air is a dangerous place, but it is also a spiritual place. Gibreel himself refers to “thin air” at the end of this paragraph, and that phrase gets repeated twice in the next paragraph. (Ok, how cool would it be if it turned out that Jon Krakauer’s book title was a reference to this?)  That paragraph also references Mount Everest, the obsession of British mountain climber Allie Cone, who sees ghosts and angels after ascending the highest mountain in the world without supplemental oxygen. High spaces, where the air is thin, are spaces in which we face mortality, in which the barriers between life and death, earth and the afterworld are rendered permeable. This is also true of water, which is the space of birth but also of drowning, the space of baptism and ritual cleansing but also of destruction (later we are introduced to a desert city made of sand, where water represents a threat). Rushdie is playing with these two mediums by having Gibreel literally “swim” through the air as they plummet toward the sea.

These are profoundly religious images. Angels, demons, baptism, rebirth, judgement. Rushdie mines the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism for metaphors and narratives that help him explain how post-colonial migrants experience this new world. In doing so, he is giving that story dignity, but he is also commenting on the role that religion itself plays in public life. Gibreel alludes to this when he mentions “meteor or lightning or vengeance of God.” Rushdie is concerned about what happens when these religious myths and metaphors cease being metaphorical and start structuring our lives in potentially scary ways: when religion is used to justify oppressing people or blowing up planes. Gibreel will ultimately style himself as the instrument of God’s vengeance upon the unfaithful (namely, people he does not like or trust), and that brings him to a bad end.

And all of that stuff is expressed within that one dense paragraph. As I said, even without knowing all that is foreshadowed here, you could get the major point. The complexity adds meaning to the text rather than obfuscating it. It’s difficult to say the same for Tiger’s “enchanted puzzlement.” No words are wasted here.

Yet two weeks ago, one of my undergrads moaned, “Why can’t he just use proper grammar?” This happened. I’m not making it up. It’s at times like these when I wish my classroom came equipped with trap doors under each chair like at Dr. Evil’s conference table. First of all, this student and his ilk clearly did not recognize that most of Rushdie’s prose is grammatically correct. He does deliberately use things like sentence fragments in dialogue because that is how most people talk, and most novelists since the Victorian era have felt free to break that rule. What they seem to be reacting to is the non-linearity and complexity of it. And I’m actually ok with that. Occasionally, good writing doesn’t bottle-feed you. This is why we have English class.

When you were a snotty teenager and first saw abstract art, wasn’t your first reaction something like, “Feh, I could do that.” The truth is, no you couldn’t. Most abstract and surrealist artists had to learn how to do photo-realistic drawing and painting before they moved on to paint splatters and blocks of color. Grammar is sort of like that. You have to learn how to play by the rules so that you can selectively break them when it serves your purpose. As a former Washington Post columnist, Rushdie has proven time and time again that he is capable of writing lucid expository prose. Here is what he says about the stories religion gives us, the stories that inform alot of his fiction, in a 1997 letter to the “Six Billionth World Citizen” and reprinted in the non-fiction collection Step Across this Line:

Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful, and therefore seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of “dead” religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories, and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them must become a ital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity. It is possible that they may at some point come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other, properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.

Okay, I chose this passage on purpose, not only because it speaks to the themes of The Satanic Verses but because it says something rather similar to what the Tiger example says. It’s talking about the intractability of public discussions about religion as an evolutionarily and aesthetically important part of human history because the enemies and champions of religion essentially have nothing to say to one another and don’t want anyone else to talk about it either. But look what we have here: modifiers, some of them even arguably extraneous, but none of which impede the flow of the writing. In addition, we have poignant metaphors, sentence variety, neat shifts from lofty to vernacular language, from “pretexts” to “order you around.” The meaning of this paragraph is transparent and well-said. It’s quotable, even. I can read it out loud to my class (which I did) and maintain their rapt attention.

That’s what language, in the right hands, can really do. Rushdie is capable of using both standard and non-standard grammar because of that fluency thing. He commands the English language. Every word does what he wants and needs it to do.