June 15, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics, Part 2

In casting my mind around for works of various art forms that have and do inspire and inform my own faith, it immediately occurred to me that I know some forms better than others. Narrative art forms have always had a certain power over me, and as a result I am less able to call, say, a transcendental painting or musical piece immediately to mind. There were also a few additional points that I thought I should raise.

First, while a lot of Christians may think of a favorite work of Christian fiction or a contemporary Christian song when I speak of linking "faith" and "aesthetic experiences," I'm basically talking about works that are valued by the secular world for reasons which have little to do with religion per se. For the most part, these will be works that you won't find in a Christian bookstore (or, at least, not exclusively there). Some of them are religious works created by religious people, but to me their power is that they continue to be appreciated by all sorts of people.

Second, I envision art which inspires a sort of faith as being of at least two kinds. There is art which is explicitly religious (that is, actually about faith in some way), and there is art which inspires a response through its beauty or emotion or profundity without any obvious religious connection. The works that I have chosen to describe below are primarily the former type simply because, even if they don't speak to you the way they speak to me (as some/most of them certainly will not), you will at least be able to see the connection.

I'll start with the Jennings poem (which I didn't include last time) that really inspired this whole line of thought to begin with:

"Act of Imagination" by Elizabeth Jennings

Surely an Act of the Imagination
Helps more than one of Faith
When a doubt brushes us. We need strong passion
To summon miracles. Life after death,

Bread turned into flesh and blood from wine,
I need to cast around
And find an image for the most divine
Concepts. My mind must move on holy ground,

And then the hardest creed - the rising from
Death when Christ indeed
Bled finally - ideas cannot come
As barren notions. Yes, I always need

Herbert's sonnet 'Prayer' say, or that great
Giotto painting for
My heart to leap to God. I want to meet
Him in my own poems, God as metaphor

And rising up. I watch a lucid sky
And see a silver cloud
And Christ's behind it; this is part of faith,
Hear the Great Hours sung and let faith be loud

With the best imagining we have.
This is how I approach
My God-made-Man. Thus I learn to love
And yes, like Thomas, know Christ through a touch.

I love the image of imagination as a virtue and as a faculty worth cultivating, and the way this poem expresses the joy of belief without being dismissive of the magnitude of obstacles to belief. There are all sorts of ways in which doubt can lead to a crisis or loss of faith, but surely one of the most tragic of these would be a simple failure of imagination. I had hoped to somehow avoid invoking the Inklings, but if we're talking about the power of imagination and its role in spiritual life, no group or movement has championed it as thoroughly or eloquently as they have.

Now, while I genuinely enjoy the experience of going to art museums and just standing in front of an original, full-sized painting or sculpture, it isn't something I've done as often as I'd like. The same could be said of my relatively limited knowledge of famous artists and their creations. As a result, not only is my experience very limited, but I must fall back on images that I have only experienced via copies, and often only on a computer screen.

One of the first such images that came to mind in the context of this project was William Blake's "The Ancient of Days." It is not a work which immediately stuns the viewer with its beauty or skill, the way a painting by, say, Caravaggio might, but there is something immediately striking about the way it captures the lovely scriptural metaphors of creation.

God is crouched within the circle of the sun, as though it were not a sphere, and his hair is blowing wildly to the side (by what? we wonder), lending a feeling of energy and activity which might otherwise be lacking. Notice how his attention is focused completely, and with such care and intensity, on the work of creation below. Notice the grace and precision with which he holds that magnificent compass. He seems to be projecting it outwards from his fingers as beams of light. Awesome. The picture makes the immense, unfathomable act of creation into an image we can grasp in the same way that scripture does: by depicting God as a master builder/craftsman/artisan.

When I was much younger, my favorite music was classical (as I had little exposure to any contemporary music that wasn't praise & worship), and my favorite composers were Tchaikovsky and Gershwin. When I reached my mid-teens or thereabouts, my appreciation of instrumental music led to an interest in movie soundtracks; and now, as a full-fledged movie fanatic, I am hard-pressed indeed to call to mind a suitable piece of music that is not from a feature film.

Lest you think I'm cheating, I should note that I own a lot of soundtracks, and the music I'm talking about is not necessarily associated with corresponding images from the film in question. I love it for itself. Before I share, though, I would like to throw in some images from a film: specifically, the scene from Amadeus where Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart's music.

I feel like I'm hearing that voice sometimes when I'm listening to music, and probably never so much as in this piece from Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission (mostly the first two and a half minutes or so). The film itself is wonderful, but this particular piece seems to have something of its own to say. I'm even less of a music critic than I am an art critic, but there is an extremely haunting beauty about the way that lone oboe carries its melody across the backdrop provided by the rest of the orchestra. It seems like the sort of thing Jennings might have been talking about when she writes (in "Eden"):

There are moments when we find we are
Back in Eden. Its authentic air
Carries the breeze and draws up every flower
Sunwards and shining. Trees surround us but
Always a special one is heavier
With fruit and promise too. No gates are shut

But all swing to our touch. We do not go
Directly to one tree but back in sun,
Sit down a moment, then walk to and fro
shaped of admiration, looking on,
Not picking anything [...]

By way of transition into more literary forms of art, I offer a song that many of you probably already know I particularly love: "Into the West" by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox (who sings it). The song, of course, plays over the end credits of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of Tolkien's Return of the King, and it is an incredibly fitting end on a number of levels. In writing the song, the lyricist has drawn a number of ideas and phrases from the book itself (always a good place to start), and there is a wistful, bittersweet quality to the music and performer's voice that heightens the effect considerably.

The song is ostensibly about the final departure of the story's heroes from Middle Earth to the lands across the sea, but of course it is really an extended metaphor for the loss and separation of death, tempered by a hope for an eventual joyous reunion on the other side. To me it is both a reminder that nothing is forever (neither life on earth, nor the separation from loved ones who have gone on before or remained behind) and a heartbreakingly lovely collection of celestial images. I have listened to this song countless times, and it never fails to move me in some way.

In this, it is not unlike another favorite poem of mine: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." This poem is much more about the author's feelings about his own death rather than death in general, and it is much more specific about what he hopes to find on the other side. The last two lines of this poem (or perhaps the last four) are among my favorite lines in literature.

Moving on to narrative, I offer the 7th chapter of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. It's a very fun book with memorable characters and an exciting story, but this chapter (which really has nothing to do with the main plot) is something quite special. In it, Mole and Rat decide to help out in the search for a missing otter pup, but end up finding a great deal more than they expected.

The events in this chapter represent for me the most intense and captivating description of an encounter with deity that I have ever read. It will take the most time to experience of anything that I've linked, but it's not an absurdly long read, so of course I recommend it. At the very least, though, scroll to just over halfway down the page and read the crucial scene. I won't promise that you won't regret it . . . but I never do.

Last but not least, here is my example from that synthesis of all art forms: film. Naturally I've had a number of profound experiences while watching movies, but this scene from American Beauty is a particularly good example because it is actually about the way that aesthetic experiences can surprise and transform anyone at any time, as long as they have been willing to keep their eyes open. Additionally, in the same way that we might not find much meaning in the experience that this character describes, so some viewers and critics found this scene hokey and pretentious, while others were moved by it and what it had to say. In this way it also illustrates yet again the subjectivity of the aesthetic experience.

These are just a few examples for the sake of the conversation which I hope others will contribute to. I'm interested in what sorts of works inspire you, in how you describe that experience, and in its effect on you and your feelings about faith. Talk to me.

Posted by Jared at 02:21 AM | TrackBack

June 11, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics, Part 1

I'm not sure what this post is about, or how to go about ordering my thoughts into something that looks more like a blogpost with something to say than a canoe ride in my stream of consciousness. Sometimes, though, it just helps to start writing. I'm taking a class right now in 20th Century British Poetry. I had never really heard of any of the poets before starting this class, but I've really enjoyed the readings. The professor has us focusing on works with heavy religious imagery, particularly works about faith and doubt.

We're on our third poet, Elizabeth Jennings (a Catholic), and today I'm thinking about the relationship between faith and art. In her poem "An Age of Doubt," Jennings describes her childhood faith, the loss of it she experienced as a young woman ("I suddenly felt unsure/Thought of the Holy Ghost as a huge bird/Which I knew did not exist."), and its eventual return: "So I began to feel a little, O such a little/But so authentic a power, it altered my poems/Whose rhythms sometimes moved to the tide of creation/And felt the touch of a God."

The idea that art has a powerful connection with faith reminded me of a great essay from the New Yorker that Wilson sent me some time ago (I posted on it here). In it, the author describes the experience of watching Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light in a church with another friend from college. The effect was a powerful one, but when the minister followed it up with a particular painting that the author found shallow and kitschy he lost that strong connection. His friend, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The author wonders:

would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.

And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot.

So, what is this power, exactly? Apparently art somehow opens us up to the possibility of faith, but perhaps its role is even more profound than that. Something about art cuts straight to the core of belief in a way that nothing else does. I'm not entirely sure what that something is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that great art communicates truth directly to parts of ourselves that we often don't think consciously about unless we're actually interacting with a work of art. If the work is at all successful, then we sense and appreciate the truth it reveals, even truth about faith.

As Jennings says in her poem "Works of Art:" "every fashioned object makes demands/Though we feel uncommitted at the start." Those two lines capture the way that great art draws you in, forcing some sort of dialogue. The poem is largely about the frustration of only being able to glimpse certain things through art, but Jennings concludes, "coolness is derived from all that heat,/And shadows draw attention to the sun." These tantalizing glimpses of truth are what drive us to continue producing art and entering into conversation with it.

Where this gets even more interesting (at least for me) is the subjectivity factor. As Wolff's Winter Light essay indicates, people respond as variously to art as they do to everything else. In fact, people will often respond differently to something at different times in their lives. Whatever the particular work may be, though, people respond powerfully to whatever manages to speak to them; so powerfully that comparing this response to a "religious experience" is almost a cliche.

Certainly, when I think about it, my own faith is as much aesthetic as it is anything else; probably even more. And yet it is a force that I am sure goes largely unrecognized among believers and nonbelievers alike. When people have a belief that is based in part on Reason, they tend to describe it as though it were only based on Reason (and, consequently, it becomes vulnerable if their reasons are unsound). On the other hand, if someone cannot find a way to rationally articulate their beliefs, they tend to fall back on nebulous claims about the "need for faith." This makes them feel very pious, and (unsurprisingly) is generally sneered at by the people who asked for a reasoned explanation.

What I am proposing is that there are all sorts of other elements in play that most people are not aware of, and wouldn't know how to articulate if they were. Lumping these things into a group and calling them "faith" is easy, but it is also deceptive. I suspect that this sort of "faith" may not always be a kind of blind trust but rather, say, a combination of things like imagination and aesthetic experience. These are things which most of us are not equipped to recognize consciously, and certainly not able to process in the form of a convincing argument. They are, of necessity, very personal.

One of the things that I have appreciated about Jennings' poetry is her ability to describe her own experience of art feeding faith in a way that illuminates my experience for me. This is, in fact, precisely the sort of feat of communication that artists can accomplish for our benefit. In any case, it's gotten me thinking about works that have elicited that kind of strong, quasi-religious experience from me, and I want to come up with a few examples from as many different art forms as possible.

However, perhaps I have a few readers that might be thinking of some experiences of their own, and it'll take me some time to gather a collection like that. Certainly it will provide enough fodder for a whole new post, and I'd like to hear some thoughts on this one before I get specific about my personal experiences. What do you think? Is there any validity to this line of thought, particularly with respect to what makes faith tick? If faith can somehow arise out of aesthetic experiences, does that make it irrational? Is that a negative thing?

Posted by Jared at 01:53 PM | TrackBack

December 03, 2008

Oh You and Your Crazy Reading Self . . .

I came to Baylor this morning to sit in on a sophomore-level undergrad class (oh, the memories) in order to write an evaluation for my Research & Bibliography course. The class is reading Ernest J. Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men, in which football plays a rather prominent role. As a result, Dr. Ford was using the topic to draw out discussion from the students:

"I'm not really the intended audience here. I don't get this whole 'football' thing. I'm one of those people who sees the fans on TV, cheering the game with their bodies all painted, and thinks, 'Don't you have anything better to do?' So, help me understand why football is such a big deal."

One of the first students to reply was a large, athletic-looking fellow sitting in the corner, who (in a rather affectionately condescending tone) asked, "I suppose you'd rather read a book than play football, huh?" When Dr. Ford replied in the affirmative, the student just shook his head with a knowing grin and settled back into his chair with a chuckle.

Oh, you crazy, crazy English lit professors and your reading . . . Will you never learn?

(Sidenote: It's weird to remember that I used to always share class time with these people.)

Posted by Jared at 12:23 PM | TrackBack

November 12, 2008

The Death of Political Humor

So, there have been a lot of articles and blogposts and whatnot entertaining the speculation that political humor is about to have to go on a 4-year (at least) hiatus. Really? You think Obama has sucked all of the air out of the Funny Room? Honestly, I would just guess that people are bored and looking for any topic to fill the post-election vacuum, but let's see how the idea holds up anyway.

At first I was confused as to why no one seemed to consider that conservatives would be quick to step in with a joke or two at the expense of the new administration, but then I remembered that conservatives aren't very funny. Does anyone remember The 1/2 Hour News Hour, Fox News's answer to The Daily Show? No, because while the latter is in its thirteenth year and has been joined by an equally-successful spin-off entering its fourth year, the Fox offering flopped like a drunken diver after six months on the air. Why? It wasn't funny, so no one watched it.

Meanwhile, one example of conservative political humor that I've heard during the last week is: "So did you hear that the White House is now the Black House?" This, while lacking the caustic and embittered tone of most of what I've been hearing, sounds like something an elementary-age child dreamed up. In short, we can't expect the right-wing to pick up the slack in the humor department.

But do we really think that moderate and liberal humorists will be forced to abandon a suddenly-dry well of topical humor? Surely not, and as an example of what I mean, I present to you two hilarious videos from the past few days. The first is from a website I just discovered (236.com), and should be avoided if you find profanity offensive (there are, like, two).

The second is a clip from The Daily Show, which should answer specifically an article I saw which wondered if Stewart's comedy could survive an Obama presidency. Granted, he takes a few shots at Bush and spends the lion's share of the clip on his favorite target (the media), but there are some definite jabs in Obama's direction. Enjoy:

Posted by Jared at 11:03 AM | TrackBack

October 13, 2008

With Grave Concerns

Something like 8 of my last 11 posts have been somehow related to the upcoming election. I continue to think that it has the potential to be one of the most important elections in a generation. I'm a little uncertain of employing that kind of rhetoric without qualifications. Many elections, even recent ones, have had that same potential, and this one may or may not live up to the possibilities. I posted a few months ago about what made this election so different, and that was even before McCain added Gov. Palin to his ticket.

I don't remember whether I ever mentioned this on my blog or not, but I was pretty happy with the state of the election back when McCain had won the Republican nomination and then Obama finally edged Clinton out of the Democratic ring. It seemed like a uniformly hopeful election to me. In light of the past two elections, and the ugliness of the pre-primary playing field, things seemed to have turned out rather well. In a country that has seemed increasingly polarized between red and blue, both candidates felt like relatively healthy shades of purple.

McCain was the moderate Republican, the one who avoided the Coulter-esque rhetoric of his party, unlike Giuliani or Romney or the current presidential administration. Obama wasn't Hillary (though I may be damning him with faint praise there), and, what's more, he was (and remains) an inspiring figure to an enormous segment of the population.

Then, somewhere between Hillary's defeat and the Republican National Convention, McCain lost his way. I don't really know when or how it happened, but at this point I think it is pretty undeniable that he has lost sight of the principles he started with as he felt the presidency slipping through his fingers. In those intervening months, McCain (and especially his slimy running mate) has turned increasingly to mudslinging tactics, extreme jingoistic rhetoric, and preying upon the emotional fragility of the voting public. And it's not all McCain's doing, either. Despicable e-mail forwards crowd my inbox, and the pile grows every day: a frightening smoke-screen of manipulative lies perpetrated by the conservative base. The election has turned ugly.

I don't really have enough experience to comment definitively on the precedent for the sort of things that are happening at McCain campaign rallies (as detailed in the above stories). However, I would venture to say that there is a level of fear and anger among conservative voters that has not been seen in a long time, perhaps even since the 1960s. If you're paying attention to the news, you're probably thinking now of the comments by John Lewis (which McCain has criticized so shrilly). McCain's outrage aside (and, really, how else can he respond?) I think Lewis has a valid observation.

I should pause for a moment and applaud McCain for standing up to his own constituency and counseling calm respect and sanity towards his opponent. That's a glimpse of the McCain that I liked a few months ago. Still, when his campaign, including his running mate, are so busily whipping up a frenzy with crap like this Ayers terrorism connection, what does he expect? If he can somehow calm the angry white vote during the next few weeks, that will be a real feat of leadership.

No matter who wins the election next month, there are going to be whole demographics of angry voters who will suddenly feel very marginalized and threatened, and I think we should be ready to see them lash out when that happens. If (and I am still tempted to say "when") Obama wins, those voters will largely be white, conservative, perhaps Christian Americans who have been fed a pack of possibly the most irresponsible falsehoods ever spread about a candidate. These are people who do not understand anyone who is different from themselves, and who are afraid that their president may be a terrorist and a foreigner who wants to take away their freedoms (in the form of things like guns and religion) and maybe even ultimately their lives.

Understand here that I am not necessarily speaking of anyone that I know, or know of, or have encountered. I'm talking about the people at these McCain rallies who read somewhere that Obama is an Arab, and who are shouting out things like "terrorist" and "kill him." What worries me, though, is that they are not as much on the fringe as they ought to be. After all, I am getting some of these e-mail forwards from people I know, even people who should know better. I am hearing some unwarranted fear and hatred in gatherings with Christian friends. Above all, there is a genuine (and misguided) shock that the Obama these people think they have pegged (a man who does not, in fact, exist) is days away from cinching the presidency.

I understand the source of a lot of these emotions, and some of the criticism I hear is not unfounded, certainly. But the irrational, baseless fear of Obama is strong, and it is undeniably a product of some combination of ignorance and blind prejudice of a sort that I have not seen directed at any presidential candidate in my lifetime . . . even Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal.

Despite these strong, raw emotions, I believe that Obama will still win this election, possibly even by a margin larger than any we have seen in 10-20 years. However, if he doesn't, that, too, will prompt a reaction. I think that an Obama loss will prompt outrage among certain segments of the black community, and a dull disillusionment among the more idealistic liberals (like the reaction to Gore's loss in 2000, but stronger). Because a McCain win would resemble a punch to the gut for those on the left, while an Obama win might be characterized more as witnessing a sacrilege, it is possible that the response of Obama supporters might be more muted if they lose. However, it would be unwise (though, at this point, politically correct) to overlook the volatile role that race may still have to play in these proceedings. I'm just saying.

If I seem more concerned about behavior from the McCain camp, it is for three reasons: First, the possibility of a volatile reaction to an Obama loss has bee floating around for quite some time now, while I think anger and fear about an Obama win has only reached a fever pitch within the past few weeks. Second, as I keep saying, I really feel like a McCain loss is the overwhelming likelihood at this point. Third, until he cinched the nomination, McCain was not viewed with a great deal of sympathy by the right. There have got to be a lot of people, at this point, who are voting against Obama, and because that is the case, McCain may not have a lot of "pull" when he tries to allay the fear and prejudice of those voters. In any case, I hope both candidates will be working overtime, both in the days leading up to and the days following the election, to calm the voters down regardless of the outcome.

Also, I hope that nobody I know, at least, is voting for McCain because they are afraid of Obama, or because they are afraid of those who are. The former is foolish, and the latter is perfidious. Do what you think is right, certainly, but don't do it for the wrong reasons.

Posted by Jared at 09:07 PM | TrackBack

October 06, 2008

Gee Golly Gosh Darn It, Dontchaknow

After discussing my mode of discourse about Sarah Palin, I decided I really wanted to go back and take a closer look at her discourse. I'm sitting here, a few days later, feeling fairly calm and collected. I've got a debate transcript from CNN in front of me, and I've pulled a portion for examination, which I then tweaked for accuracy against the video of the debate on YouTube. There were lots of excerpts I could have selected, certainly, but I settled on this one. I have checked it several times, but if you want to see the excerpt yourself, I've included the video at the bottom of the post. The piece in question runs from about 1:10:05 to 1:11:36. I recommend watching, just so you can absorb the full effect of her vacuous, backwoodsy perkiness.

What I'd like to basically do is walk through the segment in its entirety. This portion (like most of what she had to say) is filled with fragments, run-ons, awkward phraseology, tangents and disconnected ideas. In it, she latches onto a single word spoken by Biden, and uses it to springboard into a totally irrelevant topic. She runs with it, but flounders twice into irrelevancies. Once she does get back on track, she still manages not to say anything. In short, it is the perfect demonstration, in miniature, of Sarah Palin's mental bankruptcy and the source of my disgust.

For context, the moderator had questioned the candidates about what their presidency might look like if anything were to happen to their running mates after the election. Biden answered first, and explained the Obama policies he would follow and why. Palin went next and ended her answer with a dig at Obama's economic policies (which was, at best, questionable). Biden quickly jumped back in with an indictment of the results of Bush administration policies, and drew the all-important link between Bush and McCain. The important quote, coming about halfway through his remarks, is this: "[...] ask them whether there's a single major initiative that John McCain differs with the president on. On taxes, on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on the whole question of how to help education, on the dealing with health care."

Palin responds:

Aww, say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again pointing backwards again though. You prefaced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad that you did. I know that education you are passionate about and with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her, her reward is in heaven, right? Um, I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watchin' this debate.

Education in American has been in some senses some of our states just accepted to be a little bit lax and we have got to increase the standards. No Child Left Behind was implemented. It's not doin' the job though. We need flexibility in No Child Left Behind. We need to put more of an emphasis on the profession of teaching. We need to make sure that education in either one of our agendas, I think, absolute top of the line. My kids as public school participants right now, it's near and dear to my heart. I'm very, very concerned about where we're goin' in education and we have got to ramp it up and put more attention in that arena.

She chuckles her way amiably through the first few sentences, prefacing a deflection that everyone can see coming a mile away. "Doggone it," she just wants us all to forget about what a mess the last eight years have created and how closely aligned her running mate is with the leader that brought us here. Well should she want to just laugh Biden's comments off and then ignore them. President Bush's approval rating last month was at 19%, a record low. That's lower than Truman's during the Korean War, lower than Carter's during the Iran Hostage Crisis, and even lower than Nixon's during Watergate. To honestly acknowledge the accuracy of Biden's observation (which you'll notice she does not deny) would be political death. Instead, Palin grabs ahold of the lifeline Biden has unwittingly tossed her: An in into a topic she actually thinks she knows something about.

You mentioned education and I'm glad that you did. I know that education you are passionate about and with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her, her reward is in heaven, right?

Oh, I'll bet she's glad. I will forever wonder what she would have come up with if he hadn't mentioned it. Still, she derails herself almost immediately in an attempt to form a sentence that reminds me of watching a hamster scrabble at the walls of its aquarium without gaining any purchase. It tries to go in three directions at once, loses track of its syntax, and finally circles around into a rhetorical question.

Um, I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving.

She starts over again and takes another run at the topic, getting a bit further this time. We've got a crushingly obvious observation, phrased backwards (education, America should focus more on it) and followed by a run-on thought that totally fails to make any sense, leaving a sad trail of mutilated verbage in its wake. Does she mean that schools need to improve to justify the already-high level of funding? Does she mean that they deserve more funding and should get it? Does she mean anything at all? We may never know.

Teachers needed to be paid more.

But now they . . . don't? This is just the first in a string of nonsensical and disorienting tense changes: "My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years." Ow, right? But that's nothing compared to what's coming.

My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watchin' this debate.

This just shows that her mind isn't staying far enough ahead of her mouth to save her from dissolving into a lazy drift along the good old stream of consciousness. As one might eventually infer from that much-abused jumble of words, Palin's brother Chuck Heath teaches third grade at the above-mentioned school. Lord knows what she means by "best schoolteacher in the year," but it hardly matters. By the time she finishes leading herself down the garden path that is this whole paragraph, she has completely lost the thread of whatever it was she was trying to say (something about how teachers used to need more money, wasn't it?).

Education in American has been in some senses some of our states just accepted to be a little bit lax and we have got to increase the standards.

She limps gamely back into the fray in the next paragraph, but crashes and burns again without even leaving the tarmac. It's so outrageously stupid that it's almost clever; she seems to hint at a little apathy in American education without getting into potentially offensive specifics. Really, though, that's just one possible interpretation of a quasi-sentence-like mass that might keep a crack team of linguists and literary theorists occupied for years under different circumstances (i.e. if someone of importance who spoke with an ounce of credibility and intelligence had said it).

We need to put more of an emphasis on the profession of teaching.

After briefly navigating the treacherous, policy-filled waters of No Child Left Behind (and neglecting to mention the Bush/McCain backing of the program), Sarah "Captain Obvious" Palin sails the good ship "You Betcha" back into the more familiar territory of the blindingly self-evident. The success of this voyage emboldens her, and she decides it is safe to bring it on home.

We need to make sure that education in either one of our agendas, I think, absolute top of the line.

Whoops. Watch out for that grammatical sandbar. You might want to think about plugging that leak with a verb, or at least a complete thought.

My kids as public school participants right now, it's near and dear to my heart.

Sentence fragment ahoy! It's okay, dear. We know what you meant. Nevermind the dock, let's just get this sucker to the beach.

I'm very, very concerned about where we're goin' in education and we have got to ramp it up and put more attention in that arena.

A last, helpful swell from the direction of innocuous (but meaningless) statements that everyone can agree with brings the governor blessedly ashore and the lifeg- err, moderater hops to her aid with a quick joke. And you thought the guys on Wall Street were the only ones getting a bail-out . . .

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my complete bafflement that anyone can listen to Palin "talk" for two minutes and not have immediate doubts about her qualifications as a mayor or governor, let alone a possible vice-president. She has charisma, certainly, but it's like a black hole behind her eyes that consumes all doubt and derision, leaving nothing but brash, unfounded confidence in its place.

I think the commentators and pundits who were waiting for her to burn out spectacularly during the debate were morons (despite her desperate flopping in the Couric interview). They are the ones who set the stage for her ghastly nonperformance to exceed expectations. Note to everyone: Just because the candidate does not suffer a nuclear meltdown in mid-sentence does not mean she performed well, or even adequately. You've got one month to realize that she needs to be sent packing. Now, go do the right thing.

Posted by Jared at 10:41 AM | TrackBack

October 02, 2008

Sarah Palin is a Yokel

She is a yokel, and a putz, and a schmuck. That may sound ridiculously harsh, but I've just watched her debate Joe Biden for an hour and a half, and experienced shooting pain stretching from my ears up into the rational portions of my brain every time she opened her mouth. Am I a Biden fan? Not particularly, but this woman is an idiot. Do we really want to vote for yet another ticket that features someone who cannot pronounce the word "nuclear?" Palin has taken folksy jargon in national politics to a whole new level.

As of now, I still have not been able to discern what ratio of Palin's rhetoric is sincere blue-collar arrogance (more on that in a moment) and how much of it is naked, cynical pandering, but I'm certain that all of it is some combination of the two. I simply do not understand the appeal to any voter of someone who refers to herself in every other sentence as "average," "middle-class," "Joe Six-pack," etc.

Why would I vote for someone who self-identifies with the typical knuckle-dragging xenophobe who spends his leisure time chugging beer on the couch? This goes back to something I've had cause to complain of before: growing American pride in the "redneck" label and all of the moronic bigotry that that label implies. When did it become uncool to be well-educated, well-spoken, and well-bred?

As to specific complaints about Palin in the debate, her statements throughout the evening only reinforced her status as a mindless McCain mouthpiece, a clueless, bumbling tool of a dying campaign. I very much doubt she could have shoe-horned in one more use of the word "maverick" if she were getting royalty payments for it. It seemed to magically morph into every part of speech at some point during her remarks: "The maverickish maverick mavericked maverickally."

With respect to the economy, she stated that the best barometer of how the economy is doing is to attend a kid's soccer game. When asked who was at fault for the sub-prime mortgage crisis, her response began, "You're darn right it was the predator lenders." I don't in any way want to downplay the complicity of pure capitalistic greed. However, starting off on that tack is offensive on two levels: On the one hand, it ignores the personal responsibility of the people who took on more debt than they could physically afford, and on the other hand it demeans their intelligence, painting them as hapless rubes who were suckered by the Wall Street snake-oil salesmen.

Throughout the debate, Palin's dialogue was littered with button-cute, country-fried buzzspeak and strangely devoid of meaningful content. So much so, in fact, that it leaves me with very little to talk about beyond a general distaste for her values, her style, and the lack of activity taking place between her ears.

In the words of a pre-debate commentator: "People making the mistake of trying to understand her unparseable constructions suffer greatly. Only by matching her smile and blank cheerfulness can one withstand the sucking black hole of unreason that is Palin attempting to communicate with words."


I despise her and her entire regular-American approach to politics with a flaming passion. It has been a blight on the nation since the days of Andrew Jackson. I'm still with Jon Stewart. I want my president to be an elitist. You don't know anything about leading the nation because you're just like the rest of us? Well, screw you. Get out of the race.

Posted by Jared at 09:33 PM | TrackBack

September 10, 2008


So, approximately three weeks into graduate studies, I've figured something out by way of a vivid image that hit me (literally . . . more on that in a moment) at the end of my Research and Bibliographic Methods class today.

Imagine someone hanging around inside the house who decides to walk down to the corner store and pick up . . . oh, say, a degree. His friends warn him to be sure and "watch out for the snow," so he bundles up for blizzard weather and departs. Stepping off his front porch, he pauses and looks around him. There is no snow on the ground, but a few very fine white flakes are drifting down here and there. Confused, he unwraps his scarf and has his jacket halfway off . . . and that is when he is caught completely off-guard. Up on the roof, a mischievous snow-elf shakes loose a large snowdrift which lands on our hero with a perfunctory ploompf, burying him up to the eyeballs in frozen water molecules.

It seems that graduate school is not like navigating a blizzard, i.e. forging one's way through a constant, blindingly-abrasive barrage of work. It's more like walking under a series of eaves and being trailed by a snow-elf who occasionally glomps you with a snowdrift, then leaves you to frantically dig your way out and try to move forward a few steps before it can find another one to dislodge.

Watch out for the snow.

Posted by Jared at 07:40 PM | TrackBack

August 30, 2008

Tough Call

You know, I'm beginning to think that the history of American presidential elections might be a very interesting subject indeed. Everybody knows that 2008 is a historic election year; even more so now, because at the end of it we will have either the first African American president, or the first female vice-president (not counting Glenn Close, of course). Fewer people realize that this will be the first election to see a senator ascend directly to the presidency since JFK in 1960 . . . but I've seen it mentioned here and there.

What I haven't seen anyone talk about was a discovery I made last night, as I contemplated the difficulty of knowing exactly how either candidate might handle himself in the White House. In the last 56 years, there has not been a presidential election where the public could not simply cast their vote either for or against the policies and accomplishments of the previous administration. Every election since 1952 has involved either a president up for re-election, or that president's vice-president. Check out this blurb about the '52 election and see if it sounds familiar (yes, it's paraphrased from Wikipedia):

National tension and weariness after two years of bloody stalemate in the Korean War set the stage for a hotly-fought presidential contest. The Democratic Party nominated Governor Adlai Stevenson II of Illinois; Stevenson had gained a reputation in Illinois as an intellectual and eloquent orator. The Republican Party countered with popular war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Of course, there are a lot of interesting differences. This was at a time when "war hero" meant World War II, in those heady, patriotic days before Vietnam. Then, too, it was the Democrats who were the unpopular incumbent party, coming off of 20 years in power with Harry Truman at a record-high 66% disapproval rating (later surpassed by Nixon and Bush II).

During the campaign, Stevenson ran on a contrast between America under Herbert Hoover and the Republicans at the height of the depression and America under the Democrats at the beginning of the prosperous 1950s. His speaking style was eloquent and thoughtful, but he was branded an "egghead" and an intellectual . . . not the best label at the height of McCarthyism. Ike, meanwhile, chickened out and embraced McCarthy publicly, though he loathed the man and his tactics in private. His campaign blamed the Democrats for the trouble in Korea, and for the encroaching malaise of global Communism.

The Republicans hit a portentuous snag when Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, was accused of accepting large, undeclared gifts from donors after he had accused the Democrats of similar ethical lapses. Ike nearly dropped him from the ticket, until Nixon gave a stirring TV address that came to be known as the "Checkers" speech (see below, particularly from about 6:06 to 7:23 . . . it's crackerjack).

Anyway, I'm about to hit a tangent in earnest and be researching and writing for hours, so I'll just stop there. The point is . . . pay attention. This is going to be unique.

Posted by Jared at 12:31 PM | TrackBack

August 07, 2008

Defining Terms

Sadist - One who checks out library books exclusively from the bottom shelf knowing that someone will have to put them back.

Masochist - The unpaid volunteer that puts them back.

Posted by Jared at 04:18 PM | TrackBack

July 26, 2007

It Is Finished

Potterheads rejoice! The 7th book is out, most of you have finished it (if you haven't . . . spoiler warning!), and it is a worthy final chapter in an epically-good series that I will relish sharing with fellow readers for some time to come. Rachel, having seen the first five movies and heard the first book read aloud (by me), wormed a partial summary of book six out of me so I could read Deathly Hallows out loud to her. Not what I would have done, but this is the girl that normally reads the ends of books first. I was just glad she didn't immediately jump to the epilogue and then tell me all about it.

I read about half of it aloud, and the rest we read separately. I finished on Sunday and she finished on Monday. Now she's started over . . . she read Sorceror's Stone and about half of Chamber yesterday. She probably would have read more, but I got irritable at about 2 in the morning when she kept exploding with shrieks of hysterical laughter and thrashing about while I was trying to sleep right next to her. I'm such a grump.

Anyway, back to Deathly Hallows. My expectations for this book were absolutely through the roof (no way to keep them down), and they were satisfied. This book has everything: weddings, funerals, high-speed, high-altitude chases, riddles, mysteries, sudden reversals, disguises, duels, a bank job, a battle . . . even a Grail quest! And it fills in perfectly all the gaps that were left in the story and backstory, all the way back to Dumbledore's early career. Awesome.

And, perhaps most important of all, I hope that anyone still saying these books cannot and do not speak profoundly and meaningfully of key Christian truths feels a right stupid git now. Harry selflessly walks to his death at Voldemort's hands and then finds himself in King's Cross for a discussion with Dumbledore about the deeper magic that Voldemort doesn't understand. He then returns to life where Voldemort is all ready to proclaim his triumphant victory, performing the cruciatus curse on Harry's limp body and lifting him into the air three times. Voldemort declares his supremacy to the still-defiant good guys, but they can't be hurt by him or his followers. They are protected from harm by Harry's blood sacrifice. Harry and Voldy then duel and Harry wins the final Hallow from him, becoming the "master of death."

Pretty blatant stuff.

As soon as I finished the book, I started combing the interwebs in search of others who "got it." I particularly wanted to see what John Granger had to say, but he's not covering the symbolism exhaustively just yet. If you start over at his blog, you'll find a fun list of 20 discussion points to look over. I commented on #12 (the Horcruxes and Hallows) because no one had mentioned the Grail aspects of the Quest.

In the meantime, while I await a more complete discussion of Deathly Hallows from Granger, I also discovered this. It's an outrageously long discussion of the Christian elements of Half-Blood Prince that Granger posted on a Barnes&Noble forum. Good reading, but sadly he eventually allowed himself to be drawn down into a rather silly and petty side-debate over the origins of Christianity (and came off rather badly, IMO) before the thread was locked by a moderator a few weeks later. But the initial post is interesting.

"Christianity Today" (long a bastion of enlightened reason regarding Harry amidst a sea of evangelical inanity and insanity) dove right in with a discussion of the latest books Christian elements. Good article.

And they aren't the only ones that noticed. "The Wall Street Journal" commented on it in their review, as well. (Thanks, Martinez.)

John Mark Reynolds at Scriptorium Daily soberly discusses his impressions of the final book and the series as a whole, as a reader who enjoyed them but is unsure of their literary merit or staying power. Here's more of the same from "Rafting the Tiber." Lots of good commentary out there, and I hope to stumble across some more as people have time to articulate.

Meanwhile, two more links: Remember those raving lunatics from "Exposing Satanism" that I discovered a few years back? No? Well, they're still around, but a lot of the stuff from their site isn't around anymore . . . this article is, though. It's good for an outraged laugh (sexual congress with goats?!), and there's some very clever (if self-defeating) symbology work. Reminds me of Dan Brown, oddly enough. And, finally, courtesy of Uncle Doug, here's an interview with Rowling in which she reveals some information that didn't make it into the epilogue. If you're feeling like you need some more closure, definitely check it out.

Posted by Jared at 04:43 PM | TrackBack

February 25, 2007

2007: An Oscar Commentary

Well, just a few final thoughts, I guess. The Departed won 4, and that was the maximum number of awards tonight. 3 wins for Pan's Labyrinth (it really should have been tonight's big winner, honestly, and I submit that it would have been without the "foreign film" kiss of death). 2 apiece for Little Miss Sunshine, Dreamgirls, and An Inconvenient Truth (which was ridiculous). And 1 award apiece for everything else, including a very sad 1 out of 7 for Babel. Talk about a scattershot . . . but it was obvious from the nominations that there were no overwhelming favorites this year, and no movie could have won more than 6 awards tonight, what with redundant nominations.

Ellen DeGeneres made me laugh from time to time, yes. But she was largely unfunny, and when she fell flat, she fell very flat. I saw maybe 5-10 minutes of Jon Stewart's stuff last year, and he was funnier than her whole show tonight . . . but from what I hear the people at the show hated him, so there's just no way to win, I guess.

One final thing . . . I'm going back to my predictions of a month ago to see how I did. I guessed on 8 of the categories, and got 5 right. Not bad. I straight-up missed on director and supporting actress (although I knew my choice there was unlikely at the time, so I'm not quite sure why I made it). I struck out on the foreign film front, as well . . . but that's a hard one to pick. Maybe if I'd seen more of the nominees. It really didn't go the way I hoped, or thought it should have, in any case. And that wraps up the Oscars for this year. I'm not sure how well this worked. I'm gonna bump the last few paragraphs up to the top, drop the running banter beneath the fold, and then keep experimenting next year. Adios!

So, here we are on Oscar night. Let's see if I can find anything worth writing about as I watch, shall we? But I'm totally ignoring the carpet chat, because it makes me ill.

Opening montage: Lots of nominees talking about various things. Some funny, some not . . . and it went on for a really long time. Anyway, Ellen DeGeneres time . . . will she be funny? We shall see. After she's been talking a few minutes, I'm gonna go with . . . yes. She's funny. Her first joke fell flat on its face, but now I'm actually laughing. She's making fun of how the Brits always win Oscars. That's hilarious. Wait, wait, wait . . . Jamming with a gospel choir what? Oh, no. That's no good. That needs to stop.

And here come Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig to present the first Oscar of the night: Art direction. I'm crossing my fingers for Pan's Labyrinth. It really needs to win. Here it comes . . . Yes!!! Excellent. First win for the two nominated guys, and I am very happy with this one. We're off to an excellent start.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is out now. Not sure what she's doing. Okay, confession time: I've never watched the Oscars before ever. For the past few years I've pretty much followed them by hitting "refresh" over at imdb.com. So, maybe I won't know what's going on sometimes. That's just the way it goes.

Back from commercial break, and Will Ferrell is singing a song about how badly comedies do at the Oscars. And there's Jack Black. Sounds like they want to beat up the nominees because their own movies will never win anything. And now John Reilly joins in. He's walked that fine line . . . both Chicago and Talladega Nights, right? And everything in between. He will show them the way. And now that that's over, it's time for them to present the Best Make-up award. Pan's Labyrinth had better win this one, too, or I will be very disgusted. And they do. Pan's Labyrinth has now won both of its most deserving awards. Let's see how it does with the others.

But now, the two little kids of the awards, from Little Miss Sunshine and The Pursuit of Happyness, there to present Best Animated Short. How adorable is that? I've only seen one of these. So, I dunno. Heh, Will Smith's kid just started reading too far ahead on the cue card. That was funny. And the award goes to "The Danish Poet." Yes, I don't know, either. And nobody cares. Now, Best Live Action Short. Same presenters, still adorable, nobody cares about the award still, ditto ditto and moving on. "West Bank Story," a comedy musical about Israelis, Palestinians, and falafel stands, wins. Interesting. Well, whatever. The presenters stole that show, for sure.

There is a quick feature about Best Picture nominee The Sands of Iwo Jima which I really need to see. And I still have no idea when or how I'll be able to do that. If it wins tonight, I'll probably be able to see it a lot sooner, but there's just no way that it will. Thank God . . . a commercial break. This is harder than I thought it would be. Maybe I should stop playing World of WarCraft . . .

Now, this is really cool. They've got a choir doing sound effects to images on a screen. Cars peeling out, trains, rain, the chariot race from Ben-Hur, and airplane taking off, the crash scene from The Aviator . . . wow. Most impressive. And now Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear (both from Little Miss Sunshine) are coming out to present Best Sound Editing. What'll it be? I haven't seen any of these nominees except Dead Man's Chest. The winner is Letters from Iwo Jima . . . wasn't I just saying something about seeing that? I submit that I was. These guys were also nominated for that film's sister-flick, Flags of Our Fathers, which I may see. This guy needs to stop his speech, already, though. Because he's really suffering from monotone syndrome.

Now, James McAvoy and Jessica Biel will present Best Sound. I haven't seen any of these either, (except Dead Man's Chest, again). The Oscar goes to Dreamgirls, which I haven't been able to talk anyone into seeing for the past month. It is the most nominated movie this year, and it may be the biggest winner, even though it has none of the major nominations. It has already lost Art Direction.

Rachel Weiss will now present Best Supporting Actor. I'm really rooting for Alan Arkin on this one. Who will it be? Alan Arkin. Excellent. I would love to see Little Miss Sunshine win as many as possible. It has three more chances. Arkin was nominated twice in the late '60s, but this is his first actual win.

Now they're gonna sing one of the nominated songs . . . the one from Cars. Dreamgirls has 60% of the nominations here, so I'm guessing that's where the award will fall. Unless it split its own vote, that is. Cars is followed up by another nominee, the one from An Inconvenient Truth. This song sucks, and if it wins (which it may), we'll all know why.

Now, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore are here to present . . . I don't know. They won't shut up about the environment. I liked the documentary, I really did, but seriously . . . Now, Gore is pretending to announce his candidacy in the presidential race when he is interrupted by the music. That was funny. And they didn't present anything, just talked about how the awards have "gone green." Stupid false alarm.

Cameron Diaz will now present Best Animated Feature. I don't remember if I've seen any of these . . . Oh, yeah. Cars. Pixar deserves to win on principle, despite this being their weakest effort to date on everything but the actual animation. Oh, geez. Happy Feet took it. I did not expect that at all. Ben Affleck introduces a great little screenwriting montage. Lots of fun here. Are they going to present one or both of those awards now . . .?

Here come Helen Mirren and Tom Hanks, but what are the presenting? Best Adapted Screenplay. The moment of truth: Will Borat lose? Please? This could be the biggest groaner moment of the year. I'm rooting for Children of Men . . . sort of. Really, though, I'm just rooting against Borat. The Departed gets it . . . maybe my third choice, but I haven't seen it yet. Not bad, I guess.

Best Costume Design presentation will now be made by Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt (from The Devil Wears Prada, which is up for the award). It is the only one of the nominees that I have seen, but based on what I'm seeing here, I'm gonna go with Curse of the Golden Flower or Dreamgirls . . . Marie Antoinette. There's some really deserving stuff here. And it's Marie Antoinette, the 3rd Oscar win for this costume designer.

Uh-oh. Tom Cruise has taken the stage to talk about . . . Sherry somebody. A big name in Hollywood, apparently. But I've never heard of her. And she just won something, but I can't tell what. It doesn't seem to be important, though. Bring on the next movie already! Stop pretending like this is about anything else! Ah, good. Gwyneth Paltrow is coming out to present Best Cinematographer, one of my favorite awards. I've seen 4 of these, and they were all great. But I'm still rooting for Pan's Labyrinth with good money on Children of Men. Yes! Another win for Pan's Labyrinth. That's really good stuff. I'm excited now. This movie has won 3 out of it's 6 nominations, and I have high hopes for 2 of the others. Dreamgirls now has a shot at 2 Oscars, tops. It might win 1.

Now that the break is over, Naomi Watts and Robert Downey, Jr. are out to present Visual Effects. I've probably seen a lot of these, I don't remember. Let's see. Dead Man's Chest, check. Poseidon, nope. Superman Returns, sadly check. Oh, good. Dead Man's Chest won. I have to say, I really liked it, and the effects blew me away. Next up, Catherine Deneuve and Ken Watanabe are here for one that I'm very excited to hear this year: Best Foreign Film. What will it be? I've only seen two and I'm torn between them . . . and one of them may not even win! Oh, the suspense!

But first, a montage of Best Foreign Film winners of the past. Cool. I should be taking notes, but this is moving way too fast. I've seen a lot of these, but I need to see more. Rashomon, The Bicycle Thief, The Tin Drum, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Babette's Feast, Life is Beautiful . . . Wow, that was long. Oh, bugger. That wasn't the award at all. Clive Owen and Cate Blanchette will do the honors now. It needs to be Water or Pan's Labyrinth. I'm hoping the latter gets it to fill out the big night. Oh, what a disappointment . . . Germany wins for The Lives of Others. I guess I need to see that now, and I really didn't want to.

George Clooney will now present Best Supporting Actress. I'm seeing lots of dripping mascara . . . hmmm. Fingers are crossed for Abigail Breslin, aaand . . . Well, no luck tonight. It went to Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls. She was on American Idol, I think I object to her victory on principle. Honestly, I didn't expect Breslin to win, but I didn't think Dreamgirls would win either. A Breslin win would have just made my night. Oh, well. Time to move on to other things.

Eva Green and Gael Garcia . . . I didn't catch the last name and I have no idea who it is. They're presenting Best Short Documentary. No way I've seen any of these, sadly. "The Blood of Yingzhou District" wins. It is about Chinese AIDs orphans . . . now there's a powerful subject. But I'm falling behind. What's Seinfeld doing here? I missed it. He's a funny guy, Seinfeld is. Ah, Best Documentary. Al Gore had a slick presentation, but he does not deserve this award. I'm hoping for Jesus Camp or Deliver Us From Evil. But, of course, I don't get my wish. An Inconvenient Truth couldn't not win, and that's just really sad. There was nothing special about that documentary. No great camera work or editing, just a glorified Power Point presentation. Oh, well, whatever.

Clint Eastwood is up now to give Ennio Morricone the Honorary Oscar for his musical work during the past several decades. There's some heartbreakingly gorgeous stuff here, including the music from The Mission. This guy has scored over 500 films in his career, quite impressive. A lot of foreign work, and I've seen several of these, but it's time to move on. Celine Dion is out to sing some song or another, and she's laying it on thick. Hopefully it will be over soon.

There are eight awards left to present, so I guess we're moving into the final hour of the show, now. We've got Best Score and Original Song, Best Editing, Best Screenplay, and the four major awards still to go, and I'm ready for them to get here. Ah, good. Penelope Cruz and Hugh Jackman will bring us Best Original Score, and I'm pushing hard for Pan's Labyrinth (again). It had some really beautiful stuff . . . Aw, rats. Babel took it, and gave me false hope. I heard the hispanic name and thought my pick had won. That just makes it worse. I should be watching that film in the next two or three days, so I guess I'll assess the music then.

Here come the Spiderman stars, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, to do Best Original Screenplay. Last chance for Pan's Labyrinth to take an award, but Babel will probably win again. Oh, and Little Miss Sunshine is up for this one, too. Oh, no. Two of my favorites are competing, and both might lose. That's just heartbreaking. The moment of truth: Little Miss Sunshine! Awesome. I was really thinking neither one would pull it out. The night is now over for Pan's Labyrinth, stopped dead at 3 wins. Little Miss Sunshine, on the other hand, is now in a good position for the upcoming Best Picture award, although I still doubt that it will take it. Still, I can hope, right?

Jennifer Lopez is out on stage now . . . how does she get to go on in the Oscars so much? I mean, really. Well, she's just introducing two of the leads from Dreamgirls, which means it's about time for that movie to walk out of here with the Best Original Song already. Time to get that over with, finally . . . once they stop singing. Geez. John Travolta and Queen Latifah will do the honors. I repeat: An Inconvenient Truth had better not win. It did. Unbelievable. Since Borat lost, that makes this the absolute biggest groaner of the night. The declaration has been made, nothing worse than this will happen this evening. Man, oh man.

Back from a long break, they trot out Will Smith to present Best Director. But first, another sweet montage! This one is decidedly mixed. Some great movies, and some total crap. I'm not sure what the logic is here . . . but this one's pretty long, too. Yeah, he wasn't presenting. I got faked out again. Kate Winslet will be presenting . . . Best Editing. Forgot about that one. Okay, so no director Oscars just yet. Children of Men needs to finally win something, and this is it's last chance, but it looks like The Departed may be front runner. And it is. No Oscars for Children of Men, and now two for The Departed. Chances are looking better and better for this film to be the big winner of the year. I really hope it's better than The Aviator, but it'll be another week or two before I can see it.

Jodie Foster introduces a montage of the movie people who have died in the last year. *moment of silence for Don Knotts and James Doohan and . . . lots of others* And that, sadly, leads into a commercial break, which is even sadder. It looks like they're gonna stretch out the last 4 awards something awful. Yeah, Ellen just made a joke about it. But Philip Seymour Hoffman is presenting one of the final four now, Best Actress. Buzz says Helen Mirren, I'm kind of hoping for Kate Winslet. Now, let's see who it will be: Oh, yeah, I thought so. Helen Mirren it is. Gotta love those Brits (but wait, Kate Winslet is British too, right?). Oh, well. Everyone who has seen The Queen can't shut up about how great her performance is.

But we're getting another commercial break, sadly. There will probably be one between every award now. Best Picture, as far as I'm concerned, is completely up in the air still. Best Director, likewise, but if you believe in the "redressing theory" it's gotta be Scorcese . . . likewise for O'Toole in the Best Actor category. The awards I cared most about for this year, though, are gone now. Anyway, I can stop babbling because Reese Witherspoon has shown up to present Best Actor. I still think Forest Whitaker is going to take this award, but it could be Peter O'Toole. I don't see any of the others having a chance. Will I be right? Oh, yes. I will. The Oscar does indeed go to Whitaker, and I truly must see The Last King of Scotland. It looks just great.

Oh, sweet. Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg, and George Lucas come out to present the best director award, and make fun of Lucas for never having won an Oscar. That's high comedy. And it is indeed Martin Scorsese's year. The crowd is going nuts on this one. Everybody wanted him to win, it seems. A few weeks ago I'd have said it was about time, having seen the incredible Taxi Driver, but then I saw The Aviator and I wasn't so sure anymore. Now I guess I just need to see The Departed, which I am now virtually certain will win Best Picture (with a nod to Babel to hedge my bet).

And it's that time, with the presentation coming from Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. My hope for Little Miss Sunshine is non-existent as this point. And the winner is, in fact, The Departed (which, it is announced, Scorsese calls his "first movie with a plot"). I'll bet he wishes he'd thought of that earlier.

Posted by Jared at 07:17 PM | TrackBack

February 13, 2007

Dissed and Dismissed (Updated)

Well, isn't this interesting: Christian filmmakers bite back at the critics who spurn them (great headline there). Peter Chattaway reviewed The Last Sin Eater a few days ago for Christianity Today, and on the same day he got a rather whiny e-mail from one Brian Bird, the writer/producer of the movie.

Chattaway then discovered that a radio interview with the director, Michael Landon Jr., was also conducted last week by Paul Edwards of The Center for the Study of God & Culture. In that interview, Chattaway's review was quoted at Landon, who also responded to it, though much more dismissively.

Chattaway responds politely, but without apology:

"I [...] hope that 'contemporary Christian filmmakers' can avoid falling into the trap of insinuating that just because they make films with a Christian agenda, it necessarily follows that we are all now obliged to say nice things about their movies."

Well said. I find that I have many thoughts on the subject, but that it would probably be just as worthwhile to send readers along to the link above to read for themselves. Go take a look.

Feb. 15

It's not over yet over there. The aforementioned Paul Edwards has floated into Chattaway's comment section for a little back-and-forth action. Great reading, no matter whose side you're on.

Posted by Jared at 10:08 AM | TrackBack

December 28, 2006

Source Material

I sat through The Fifth Element once more tonight. It is a fat, sloppy, stupid mess of a sci-fi/action flick that you'll hate yourself for liking, and I've probably seen it five or six times. It makes me ill to think I've endured half a dozen showings of this thing and maybe two of, say, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now or The Godfather but no more . . . I probably haven't seen it in 2 or 3 years now, and as I watched this time a revelation hit me like a ton of bricks:

Writer/director Luc Besson's 1997 movie is the hideous sire of writer/director George Lucas's monstrous 1999-2005 Star Wars prequel trilogy. Lucas ripped off The Fifth Element just as surely as the Wachowskis' Matrix movies ripped off Dark City.

It's in the individual elements: the cab chase in 23rd century New York City translates directly to the Coruscant car chase scenes of Episode II; the opera diva and her entourage are dead ringers for Queen Amidala and hers; Chris Tucker's shrill DJ, Ruby Rhod, and Ahmed Best's frantic Gungan, Jar Jar Binks, are brothers from a different mother. But it is also in the style, the atmosphere, the costumes, the dialogue (and acting), the set design, the characters and the flow. Watch any movie from the original Star Wars trilogy and The Fifth Element, back to back, then follow it up with any movie from the prequel trilogy and tell me where the family resemblance lies.

A quick internet scan revealed that I am not the first person to make this connection to some degree (but I didn't find anyone who seems to realize the extreme degree of sameness). Similarities and even duplicate elements abound to a degree that makes them difficult to catalogue. I'm not sure what conclusion that leads to or what questions it raises (if any), I was just too thunderstruck by the sudden realization not to share it, for whatever that's worth. The Fifth Element is a compendium of everything I hate about the Star Wars prequels.

Posted by Jared at 12:05 AM | TrackBack

November 02, 2006

On the Subject of American Warfare and Other Sundries

So many directions, so little time . . .

The "anomalous" (probably a poor choice of words) nature of World War II has nothing whatsoever to do with the genocide involved. I never said it did . . . that would be especially silly since it had nothing to do with the causes of the war, and nobody really knew about that until the war was all but over. What sets WWII apart, to my mind, is that it is the only war in history where the fate of pretty much the entire world seemed to hang in the balance, combined with the powerful element of self-defense after we were attacked.

I should probably ask those who have mentioned specific wars to defend their approval of Christian involvment in the wars mentioned, but I'll try to streamline that by discussing them from my perspective first:

-The American Revolution resulted from a sequence of events beginning with a simple political disagreement that escalated into acts of terrorism by American colonists, prompting an understandable response from the British government and finally erupting in war. The fighting was ultimately caused by hot-blooded, impulsive acts of violence on our side rather than patiently seeking a peaceful resolution to our problems. What would you, as a Christian, be fighting for exactly? To defend yourself and your family? C'mon, the British weren't going to kill you. Fighting for your independence? Where does the Bible say you should do that? (Hint: It kind of says just the opposite)

-It is generally agreed that the War of 1812 happened only because of the slowness of communications at the time. It began after rogue British naval officers kept swiping American citizens (and British deserters) off of ships to help them in the war against the French. The British government actually put a definite stop to this, but by the time we heard about that we had already declared war. No going back. The war was bad for both sides (not uncommon, in war) . . . Britain was in no position to be distracted from its ongoing conflict with France, and America just generally suffered some severe humiliation, including the loss (and partial destruction) of our capital city. We also got kicked around a good bit by Canadians (if you can imagine . . . even at the time they were thought of as wusses on the battlefield). Finally, probably the most famous battle of the war took place after it was officially over. The Battle of New Orleans was fought a good month after the peace treaty was signed. Talk about your senseless violence.

-The American Civil War is a real classic. I probably don't need to ask this, but which side would you be on, and why? They were both right and they were both wrong. Families, neighbors and fellow citizens killing each other in the costliest war in our history. Which group of Christian Americans would you, as a Christian American, feel most comfortable shooting a gun at?

-I was pretty surprised to see the Spanish-American War make an appearance, considering that a large portion of its cause rested on exaggerated and outright fictitious news reports and war-mongering. Not to mention the fact that we pretty much turned around and immediately duplicated Spain's Cuban atrocities in the Philippines. Ugly stuff.

-We entered World War I after Germany (which had no interest whatsoever in getting us involved) began to disrupt our shipping to their enemies (which amounted to our supplying aid to their enemies) out of desperation to bring the conflict to a swift end. Evidence suggests that the most famous ship involved, the Lusitania, was carrying munitions . . . hardly the sort of thing that a country in a fight for its life could be expected to let slide. As for the infamous Zimmerman telegram, even if Mexico were both a genuine threat to our national security and willing to go along with Germany (neither was the case), the details of the "plot" were only to be carried out if the U.S. actually entered the war. If anything, Zimmerman's note seems more like a deterrent.

-If you're actually interested in an alternate perspective on WWII, or just some little-known history, read this (an essay about Gandhi's letters to Hitler). It is, at the very least, a fascinating read.

-The Korean War is, I believe, illustrative of the problems of occasional tolerance. However great and noble and necessary war may seem in a given instance, how justified is it in light of many of the ugly practices involved in carrying it forward? Shocking treatment of prisoners by our side and civilian massacres were all part of the Korean War. Also, what role do "necessary" and "just" wars play in the continuation of unnecessary and unjust warfare? A pretty big one. The Korean War set the stage for all sorts of American horrors involving the Third World: Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran and so forth. War may be undertaken for the right reason, but it's still generally the wrong thing.

-The Persian Gulf War is illustrative of the problems of perpetuation that I mentioned above. In 1953 we were responsible for overthrowing Iran's first democratically-elected government and replacing it with a despotic regime. In 1979, the people of Iran had had enough and they overthrew said regime. Naturally, there was more than a little hostility and suspicion aimed in our direction . . . Would we pull the same stunt again? As a result of this, relations were strained (to say the least) between our countries for the next decade and more. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein spent most of that decade at war with Iran, with military and economic support from us.

Just before Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he met with the American ambassador, who declared that the U.S. has "no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts." Some believe that this was understood as American approval of an invasion (not much of a stretch). It is a severe oversimplification to call the war "simply a matter of assisting a friend in a war of self-defense," when we were fighting a country which had ostensibly been our friend. Out of this grew a new enemy that lasted for a little over a decade . . . and here we are today. We have blundered every step of this disastrous chain of events. What new enemies are we creating now that we'll find it "necessary and just" to deal with 10 years down the road? When and how will it end?

-Important point: Of course "most Christians who fight in wars have what they considered a moral imperative for doing so." Non-Christians operate more or less the same way. (Virtually) nobody walks into a war if they think they're in the wrong. Everyone thinks they have a good reason to fight. Maybe they do, maybe they don't . . . maybe they both do and don't at the same time. "I can find a moral imperative to join this war" simply cannot cut it as justification. I'm hearing a strong vibe of "the end justifies the means."

-Important point: I would suggest that the statement "Sometimes violence is the only answer" is akin to "Third parties are a waste of my vote." Well, of course, you twit. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe it, it will be true regardless of its validity. As Isaac Asimov said, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

Thanks to everyone for your well-thought out responses. I don't at all feel that I am unequivocally right in this discussion, but neither am I convinced that I am entirely wrong. There is much still to consider.

Posted by Jared at 04:00 PM | TrackBack

October 31, 2006

Good Company II: The Family Tree of Modern Non-Violence

In 1838, William Lloyd Garrison, along with a man named Adin Ballou (1803-1890) and numerous others, signed his name to a statement of peaceful non-resistance which began:

We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury . . .

I'm more than a little sympathetic with that statement, certainly. However, the group went on to repudiate as unlawful, immoral and unchristian all wars for any reason whatsoever, all preparations for war, all armies and weapons, all prosecution of criminals and acts of self-defense. And then they declared themselves removed from all official positions related to human governments for the duration of their lives (governments are enablers of violence, you see). "Radical" and "extreme" seem to fall short as descriptors of the stance they took.

Adin Ballou lived that life, too. He wasn't messing around. In 1842, Ballou and others purchased some land in Massachusetts and founded the town of "Hopedale" (which still exists to this day). The town existed on principles of absolute equality and peace, and during its peak years (early 1850s), about 230 people lived there. The venture more or less folded in 1856 when the primary stockholders pulled their support and invested in a factory instead. Ballou, however, continued to live in Hopedale for the rest of his life, publishing books about abolition and non-violence.

His most important work on the subject is Christian Non-Resistance (1846). In it, he explains what Christian non-resistance is, examines scripture that he believes supports it, answers common arguments (both against the concept and against his interpretation of the scripture involved), and argues that non-resistance is more conducive to self-preservation. Ballou's view is particularly significant as being the first to advance a pacifist position on rather naturalistic rather than strictly religious grounds. In any case, you've probably never heard of Adin Ballou. I hadn't.

But I had heard of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Of course, I hadn't heard that he was a major figure in the history of pacifism and non-violence, just that he was responsible for those two famous paperweights (long valued for their shelf-filling capacity) Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Well, Tolstoy had a bit of a crisis of faith at age 50, but it was after his literary peak so I suppose it isn't considered important in my discipline.

A few years after this, in 1884, Tolstoy decided to share. He wrote a little book called What I Believe. Naturally this work was immediately supressed in Russia (although Tolstoy notes that an astounding number of Russians wrote widely-circulated refutations of it, which was quite interesting considering that no one was supposed to acknowledge that it existed). In any case, it found an appreciative audience almost everywhere else, especially in America. Before long, Tolstoy began to receive a flood of correspondence, particularly from Quakers, responding to his pacifist leanings.

Before long, Tolstoy discovered Adin Ballou and corresponded with him until the latter's death in 1890. Three years later, Tolstoy came out with a 500-page treatment of the subject of non-violence and the Church: The Kingdom of God is Within You. He meant it to be the definitive argument in favor of a position which he observed had existed for many centuries. However, he had also bitterly observed the response to those who had come before him:

The work of [William Lloyd] Garrison in his foundation of the Society of Non-resistants and his Declaration, even more than my correspondence with the Quakers, convinced me of the fact that the departure of the ruling form of Christianity from the law of Christ on non-resistance by force is an error that has long been observed and pointed out, and that men have labored, and are still laboring, to correct. Ballou's work confirmed me still more in this view. But the fate of Garrison, still more that of Ballou, in being completely unrecognized in spite of fifty years of obstinate and persistent work in the same direction, confirmed me in the idea that there exists a kind of tacit but steadfast conspiracy of silence about all such efforts.

Tolstoy was shocked and outraged to find (as I, too, have noticed in my turn) that all of the noise that he and others like him were making about this idea was conveniently ignored by almost everyone. It is no wonder that this is the case, certainly, for there can be only two responses. One sees few blanket justifications of war by Christians floating around, and when we do we know what they're worth. But neither do Christians seem comfortable embracing a position that is so potentially scary and (*gasp*) discomforting as this. So, it remains largely ignored. Such was the fate of the men who influenced Tolstoy, and such was the fate of Tolstoy's own book on the subject. Not only had I never heard of the book, but, as I mentioned, I didn't even know he was a pacifist.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was living in South Africa when he first encountered The Kingdom of God is Within You. Of it he later said, "Its reading cured me of my skepticism and made me a firm believer in ahimsa [nonviolence]." Gandhi corresponded regularly with Tolstoy, beginning in 1909, and continuing until Tolstoy's death in November of 1910. Gandhi considered Tolstoy to be the greatest apostle of non-violence of the age, which is interesting since many people would apply that same title to Gandhi himself.

Gandhi's most significant contribution to the ideas he picked up from Tolstoy was to change the focus from non-resistance to non-violent resistance. I haven't been very good at maintaining a consistent differentiation between these two ideas thus far, so let me clarify. While Tolstoy and Ballou believed in almost total non-resistance whether violent or not (extreme passivity, I'd call it), Gandhi believed in the power of non-violence to both resist and transform. Ballou and Tolstoy sought to remove themselves from society and effect slow change through individual conversion to their ideas and through non-cooperation with "the system." Gandhi saw, I believe, something much closer to the route Christ himself takes (if we're really paying attention).

Certainly, Jesus was not a passive non-resistant. In particular I would point to the most important act of his life: his death. If Christ's crucifixion does not represent the ultimate resistance of evil, then I'm not certain what it does represent. And through it he accomplished more than every violent act in human history combined, from the murder of Abel to the people who died in Iraq today. It is a powerful testament to force of a non-violent approach, if not one that many people may feel can be applied to their own lives. Under what circumstance would the results of a violent approach be more positive than the results of a non-violent approach to the same situation.

Gandhi, of course, dropped many pearls of wisdom during his long life, here are a few:

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"

"There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for."

"Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was introduced to Gandhi's teachings on non-violence at a time when he had "despaired of the power of love in solving social problems." He immediately began to read everything he could about the man:

As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency . . . The 'turn-the-other-cheek' philosophy and the 'love-your-enemies' philosophy' were only valid when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

We are all familiar with the results of his efforts. I find it fascinating that principles and ideas explored by abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou helped to yield many of the objectives they worked and hoped for after more than 100 years had passed and their ideas had traveled around the globe, arriving back in America precisely when they were needed. The observation is neither here nor there with respect to what I have to say, but I thought it was worth noting.

Indulge me again with your comments and questions. I am stating a belief that non-violence (but not non-resistance) is not only a defensible and highly effective approach to life, but also an important part of being a Christian. Tell me what you think, that we may all develop our ideas further.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

October 27, 2006

Good Company I: A Brief History of Christian Non-Violence

"It's very hard to look at [the] family tree of non-violence in a way that makes the religion incidental."

That sentence in a review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion intrigued me. The philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to all of us, I'm sure. Gandhi's ethic of non-violent resistance inspired MLK's crusade to transform our own country. But, I wondered, who inspired Gandhi? And who inspired the guy who inspired Gandhi? And how far back does this go? What is the well-spring of this important ideal and how (if at all) has it changed?

These, at least, were the questions that I originally set out to answer. I thought I could insulate and isolate a few people apart from the historical milieu of Christian non-resistance and trace their influence on each other over the course of about a century while ignoring everything else. Unfortunately, my research style (rabbit-trailing) got in the way, so we start with some groundwork before moving on.

It should surprise no one to learn that the history of nonviolence begins with Jesus Christ. Christianity and the Church may have inspired a lot of hatred, death and violence, but there's a lot of peace-mongering hovering in the margins as well. Jesus, by all accounts, lived "a blameless life," part of which was the substitution of love and grace for hatred and violence, and the repayment of evil with good.

His life, his message, and the testimony of the church he left behind all attest to the Christian obligation to act always in a spirit of love rather than of violence. The jumping-off point for many later proponents of non-violence begins with Matthew 5:39 (most specifically, "resist not evil"), but really there is a broad scriptural (New Testament) basis for non-violence (Romans 12:17-21 is another reference that comes to mind).

Unlike many of the sectarian doctrines and dogmas under constant debate (*cough*Calvinism*cough*), non-violence does not rely on the sketchy intrepretation of a verse or two. It is a pervasive and recurring theme. Various finer points may be argued as ethical "what-ifs" are proposed, but it does not seem convincingly arguable that a commitment to non-violence should not be a part of the Christian lifestyle. I suspect anyone who would seek to deny this of being more interested in interpreting the Bible based on the standards of contemporary social mores than on discovering and living by what it actually teaches.

For centuries there has always been some portion of Christianity devoted to pacifism, non-resistance, non-violence, etc. These have included the Amish and various other types of Anabaptists, the German Baptist Brethren and the Mennonites. The trail of important individuals which I am trying to link up with, having begun with Jesus Christ and continued through early Church leaders for a few hundred years (more on that in a moment), makes a very long leap of about 14 centuries to George Fox (1624-1691) and the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers).

Fox established what is known as "the Peace Testimony" in 1651, refusing to be involved in England's military endeavors (he found himself sitting in a nasty prison for his pains). This idea was derived from the teachings of Jesus, various passages from the New Testament and the example of the Early Church. Later Quaker sources point to a multitude of first and second century Christians who either refused to enter military service, or who left the military immediately upon converting.

According to one Quaker (writing in the 1800s), there is no record of a Christian in military service during the first 200 years after Christ's death . . . and precious few for about a century after that (these two statistics are "probably not true" and "probably true," respectively). Early Church leaders who discussed this doctrine in their writings include Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origenes.

According to this and other sources, the Catholic Church eventually killed that bothersome "pacifist Christians" idea (sometimes literally), ruling that it applied only to members of the clergy. Interestingly enough, this happened practically the year after Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of Rome (Synod of Arelate, 314 A.D.), and Christians suddenly found themselves in a position quite different from any they had ever been in before. I'm trying hard to be fair in my judgment of something that happened a very long time ago, but really I almost have to attribute the sudden change in doctrine to the necessities of political expediency within a Church corrupted by its rise to power. In other words, from the beginning, Christians who say war is okay are pretty suspect.

Various minority groups continued to flock back to it from time to time for the next several hundred years. Most notably, of course, were the Albigensians (or Cathars) in the 11th century. Their beliefs included the condemnation of all war and capital punishment. Eventually, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade on them, and they were wiped out over the course of two decades of massacres which were considered barbaric even by medieval standards. It would be unfair to imply that their doctrine of non-resistance was the only beef the Roman Catholic Church had with them. They also believed in reincarnation, and their view of Jesus had a suspiciously Gnostic flare. However, it was a reason.

As one might expect, when the Reformation rolled in the issue flared up again. However, as I (for one) would not have thought, mainstream Protestants (Lutherans and those dirty Calvinists) were perfectly in step with their Roman Catholic enemies on the subject of Christian non-resistance. Only the Anabaptists insisted that Jesus be taken at his word.

That brings us back to George Fox and the Quakers. I don't want to spend too long on the Quakers, except to note that a large group of them eventually wound up in Pennsylvania in 1681, where they were safe from religious persecution. Their influence has been felt here and there on the history of the United States ever since. In particular, a fellow abolitionist and friend of the Quakers, William Lloyd Garrison (perhaps you've heard of him), was quite probably inspired (at least in part) by their Peace Testimony to take a shockingly strong stand behind the principle of non-resistance in the late 1830s.

I'll quit with Garrison for now, as this will soon be a history of individuals and their ideas rather than of denominations and sects and their doctrines. I'll leave you with a question that a lot of advocates of Christian non-resistance are going to start asking right around Garrison's time, namely: How can so much of mainstream Christianity pretend like the conflict between the true faith of peace and love and Church-sanctioned practice of violence and war does not exist?

Please don't hesitate to throw comments and questions my way. In particular, if you feel that anything needs clarification, further justification, further research, more sources, or you wonder why I didn't mention some fact (I probably wasn't aware of it), say so. That'll help me render my own knowledge of the subject as complete as possible.

Posted by Jared at 05:14 PM | TrackBack

October 20, 2006

Like a Cliff-Diving Hippo

So, I keep hearing about this new satellite production company: FoxFaith Movies. This looks to me like the first rumblings in the direction of an established Christian movie industry to match the Christian book and music industries. (This is, at best, tangential to the point of this post, but it occurs to me that, while the South may have been the "Sahara of the Bozart" 85 years ago, that title must now assuredly rest squarely upon that segment of society which identifies itself as "fundamentalist Christian.")

Anyway, needless to say I was more than a little alarmed at this prospect, for a number of reasons. I have every reason to hope that any such venture will flop like a cliff-diving hippo. And so I sought further information. I came up with, first, a neat little self-description at the new label's own website, foxfaith.com:

FoxFaith Movies is the Christian moviegoer’s online guide to current and upcoming faith-based theatrical releases from FoxFaith. FoxFaith is a new branded distribution label from Twentieth Century Fox, created to house and distribute its growing portfolio of morally-driven, family-friendly programming. To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian Content or be derived from the work of a Christian author.

With FoxFaithMovies.com you can use the navigation bar to the left of the screen to click for information about FoxFaith films currently playing in theaters and where to find them in your area . . . We also have a banner in the bottom right hand corner of the home page where you can find out about other family friendly films. Because these are not titles with overt Christian content, they are not Fox Faith titles, but they are Movies that we believe that many in the Christian market will enjoy.

Morally-driven programming? I guess it's the old didactic vs. beautiful debate that's been raging about art since Aristotle. Still, whenever I hear someone talk like this, I always recall the words of Oscar Wilde:

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

"The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium."

No, the real kicker is the requirement of overt (and, apparently, capitalized) Christian Content . . . or having a Christian author as a source in order to qualify for FoxFaith's "high" standards. The adjective "overt" brings to mind particularly alarming visions of gratuitous teary-eyed conversions and half-baked sermonizing splashed all over the screen. Speaking of Christian authors, please to be reading All Truth is God's Truth (1977) by Dr. Arthur Holmes . . . actually, in this case, the title alone should do the trick.

Really, though, I think we have their true measure when they let slip that little phrase "the Christian market." Congratulations, American Christians. Hollywood has raised you to the level of "preteen girls," "dating couples," "horror movie fans" and what have you. They think they have you packaged and pegged and they're ready to make a profit . . . and a lot of you are ready to play along.

A little more rooting around uncovered this article from the LA Times.

Fox might seem an unlikely studio to pioneer a religious label, given its history as a purveyor of salacious TV programming. Yet people in the Christian community say the company has gained credibility as the voice for conservative America through its Fox News Channel.

FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.

Fox seems to be getting a warm reception from the Christian community. "It is extremely satisfying to be taken seriously," said Nancy Neutzling, vice president of marketing for Word Distribution, FoxFaith's distributor to Christian retailers. "It's like we have arrived."

How ironic (and yet, how very unsurprising) that a news organization that specializes in slanted, yellow journalism should be viewed as the source of credibility for an otherwise undesirable organization. And then there's that head-scratcher about our supposed "arrival." Where has the Christian community arrived? Why did we want to be here?

What, precisely, could make anyone believe that this is a sign of the Christian community being taken seriously? We have been placed in a constraining box of our own making and we will now be exploited by an industry which is proving savvier than we. They will make money from us by selling us what everyone else recognizes as an inferior product (and which should be evident from the amount of money being spent on it as well as from the pre-defined formula for its production).

Peter Chattaway, Christian film critic (that's Christian reviewer of films, not reviewer of Christian films) from Canada, is keeping a close eye on the whole business, as reported on his blog, and had this to say:

This may sound like heresy, but for years, I have said that I am glad we do not have a Christian movie industry on anything like the same scale that we have a Christian music industry.

Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of music that can usually be found only at Christian book stores. But there once was a time when magazines like Campus Life reviewed mainstream music as well as the relatively small number of albums put out by Christian artists. That was what Christian critics had to do if they wanted to engage the culture on some level.

However, in more recent years, as the Christian music scene has grown into the institution that it is today, it has become all too easy for we Christians to focus on our own little niche market and to ignore the larger musical world as a whole.

So far, movies are a different story. They cost a lot of money to make, and there just aren't that many Christian films out there. So one of the joys of being a Christian film critic is that you have no choice but to constantly interact with the world outside the Christian ghetto.

I know that all of these quotes and my commentary on them are a bit scattered, but I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Road to Perdition and Schindler's List are both incredibly moving stories of sacrificial redemption from evil. The Godfather, Parts I and II provide a fascinating study of innocence and noble intentions corrupted through too much power. Amadeus dramatically shows (among many other things) the destructive effects of attempting to trade devoted service to God for self-aggrandizement and success. All of these heart-stopping works of cinematic art, but they are still full of meaningful Christian themes if anyone would just take the time to watch them properly.

This idea that we must pull far, far away from secular art in any of its forms and substitute our own unworthy attempts simply for the sake of having a "Christian" version of what someone else is already doing . . . well, it's just wrong. And the fact remains, the purpose of most Christian "art" is not primarily to glorify God with its beauty or speak to deep truths which resonate within the human spirit, but to drive home a trite, shallow message. If I, as a Christian, don't want to watch the cinematic equivalent of your pastor's latest power point presentation, why would anyone else?

Confession time: When it comes to church services, I have a memory like a sieve. I honestly can't remember a single full sermon that I have ever heard in my life (and I must have been to over 1,000 in my lifetime). And you know what else? That means that a sermon has never offered me anything in the way of a life-changing, perception-altering message. You may blame that on me, and you may be right, but the fact remains. I don't say that it can't be done, I just don't hear a lot of really worthwhile messages coming from a church setting . . . and I've even taken to listening to the talking heads on one of the local Christian radio stations in recent weeks, looking for someone out there who has something important to say. Perhaps this belongs in another post . . . I sense that I am getting off-track.

What I mean is, my life and my ideas have not been changed or even shaped by people behind a pulpit, they have been changed and shaped by conversations, by classes, by books, and yes, by movies. I ache for new things to really chew on, and that's where they are to be found . . . And I'm not really going to manage coherent, on-topic specificity. At this point, I'm clearly just throwing up a smoke screen around the topic I started off addressing.

Anyway, I'm still not focusing the way I'd like to be, but here are a few related links I turned up as I was contemplating this subject:

Christianity Today provides this fascinating compendium of a wide spectrum of opinions regarding Christian movies. It's quite long, but well worth at least a skim.

Columnist Terry Mattingly of the Council for Christian Colleges and universities speculates about the consequences of low-grade Christian movies achieving financial success:

If this film DOES make tons of money, Hollywood may distribute more of them. Do we really want to send the message to Hollywood that the kind of films Christians want will be characterized by poor acting, low production values that are inoffensive, make us cry and also make tons of money? Is this truly how we want to influence Hollywood for God?

Dick Staub tells us where we've gone wrong:

Any Christianity that knows God as savior, but not as creator, will produce "Christians" who are less than fully human and such people will never create good art or care to.

And this is our dilemma as people who love Jesus and art. We live in a culture that loves art but not Jesus and in a Christian sub-culture dominated by a Christianity that loves Jesus, but not good art.

And the people over at getreligion.org wonder if we are witnessing the birth of Contemporary Christian Cinema.

The problem, of course, is that creating this kind of culture is really hard work that takes talent, patience, skill and teamwork — teamwork that almost always is going to include seeking excellence among unbelievers as well as believers. There are, of course, serious (and diverse) networks of Christians already doing fine (and commercially hot) work in Hollywood. They make real Hollywood movies for audiences of normal moviegoers.

The question, it seems to me, is whether we are about to witness the birth of what can only be called the Contemporary Christian Movie industry. Wait, that “CCM” thing has already been claimed. Contemporary Christian Cinema? CCC? Is this kind of niche market strategy (again) a good idea for faith in popular culture?

Do you see the irony? This is a solid niche market. But it will not help shape the mainstream. Also, it is hard to imagine how Contemporary Christian Cinema will reach many people who do not already believe. This is evangelism for the already evangelized.

Posted by Jared at 04:30 PM | TrackBack

October 02, 2006

Literature and the Libido of the Lifelong Learner

As I was mulling over my recent reading last week, I bethought me of an interesting trend in the way a particular type of character is often portrayed which struck me as being worth a little extra thought. Not worthy of a major paper, perhaps, but more of a journal of sorts.

I've been reading some Nabokov lately, mostly during my break at work. I'm working on the third of his novels that I've picked up, and I've begun to notice a bit of a recurring theme which called to mind another of my favorite authors: Mervyn Peake.

I've written both frequently and at great length about the first Nabokov novel I read, Lolita, since I first encountered her a few years ago (most notably here). I'm not particularly interested in her right now, but in her revolting and sympathetic immortalizer, Humbert Humbert.

HH's career path is, essentially, "intellectual academic." He is a brilliant writer who falls back on teaching university courses when the creative well runs dry . . . or when it is too consumed with "extracurriculars" to be of any other use. By all accounts (well . . . at least, by his own account), Humbert is extremely smart, well-read, widely-traveled, a man of refined artistic tastes and delicate sensibilities, articulate, knowledgeable . . . and a pedophile and sexual predator.

He is not particularly ashamed of it (at least, for most of the novel), wandering easily into detailed descriptions of the exact numeric specifications that make up his tastes (age, build, size, personality, disposition, and so forth). His character seems to flow quite naturally from brilliant into deviant, with no marked contrast between these aspects of his personality.

The second Nabokov I picked up, fairly recently, is the lightly comical Pnin. A more different book from Lolita can hardly be said to exist. Timofey Pnin is the charming, bumbling antithesis of Humbert Humbert. He teaches a few extremely unpopular Russian courses, is widely lampooned by students and fellow faculty alike, and maintains his position at the University only through the benevolence of the head of the German department (under whose jurisdiction he somehow falls).

His English is abominable, his skill in the classroom dubious, and his skills outside the classroom virtually nonexistent. Timofey is extremely kindhearted, but intolerably timid and fussy (very like Mr. Norrell, in fact, although that is neither here nor there). He is also (of course) quite, quite impotent (sexually and in most other respects). He was married, decades earlier, to a mediocre poet named Liza who abandoned him for a mediocre psychologist (a profession which Nabokov particularly despised).

She returns, months later, pregnant and feigning reconciliation just long enough for the hapless Timofey to pay her passage to America, then revealing that she will be living there with the father of her child. Years later, she visits Timofey again to gouge money out of him for her son's education. She has him wrapped tightly around her little finger, but their relationship brings him nothing but pain in return. His subservient role in their relationship is quite possibly at the core of his lack of success and happiness.

And then, finally, there is Pale Fire . . . a very odd and interesting work indeed. I can't even pretend to come up with a brief and coherent summary of the book on my own, so I'll swipe one:

John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.

Charles Kinbote aka (maybe) Charles Xavier aka King Charles II is an even more difficult character to get at than Humbert Humbert. (Side note, in case you were wondering: Pale Fire (1962) came out the year before the first X-Men comic book (1963). I have no idea if Professor X's name owes anything to this book. I doubt it, but it does seem like a rather astounding coincidence.)

Anyway, putting aside all questions of whether Kinbote even exists, whether he is insane, whether he is hallucinatory, schizophrenic, and paranoid, whether the poet he idolizes exists, and so on . . . Putting all of that aside and taking Kinbote at face value (dangerous from a Nabokovian first-person at the best of times), what do we have?

An extremely obsessive academic (Professor of literature, actually); a compulsive liar; unbearably arrogant, sneeringly superior, pretentious (but then, he might be royalty, after all); and an unabashed sodomite to the most hedonistic degree, frequently indulging in oily digressions to drool over the lithe form of some young buck.

Humbert is certainly a slimier character than Kinbote, but Kinbote lacks Humbert's charisma. Poor Pnin is just pathetically pitiable.

In Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, there are a plethora of extra-special characters, but few are as special as the castle's professorial staff: Bellgrove, Cutflower, Perch-Prism, Opus Fluke, Throd, Shred, Shrivell, Splint, Spiregrain Flannelcat, and the rest. One of the most memorable and entertaining sequences in the novel (although it has little or nothing to do with any of the central plot threads) takes place when Irma Prunesquallor, Gormenghast's only eligible spinster, invites all of the professors to a party with the intention of marrying one of them.

The professors are immediately thrown far outside of their comfort zones at the prospect of encountering even one member of the opposite sex. No one knows quite how to react, but they all agree to go. The opening minutes of the party are excruciating, but it takes the reaction of one in particular to really freeze things over:

And it was then, at her third convulsive stride in the headmaster's direction that something happened which was not only embarassing but heart-rending in its simplicity, for a hoarse cry, out-topping the general cacophony, silenced the room and brought Irma to a standstill.

As every head was turned in the direction of the sound a movement became apparent in the same quarter where, from a group of professors, something appeared to be making its way toward its rigid hostess. Its face was flushed and its gestures so convulsive that it was not easy to realize that it was Professor Throd.

On sighting Irma, he had deserted his companions Splint and Spiregrain, and on obtaining a better view of his hostess had suffered a sensation that was in every way too violent, too fundamental, too electric for his small brain and body. A million volts ran through him, a million volts of stark infatuation.

He had seen no woman for thirty-seven years. He gulped her through his eyes as at some green oasis the thirst-tormented nomad gulps the wellhead. Unable to remember any female face, he took Irma's strange proportions and the cast of her features to be characteristic of femininity. And so, his conscious mind blotted out by the intensity of his reaction, he committed the unforgivable crime. He made his feelings public. He lost control. The blood rushed to his head; he cried out hoarsely, and then, little knowing what he was doing, he stumbled forwards, elbowing his colleagues from his path, and fell upon his knees before the lady, and finally, as though in a paroxysm, he collapsed upon his face, his arms and legs spread-eagled like a starfish.

While all of Throd's colleaugues and Dr. Prunesquallor gather around him an academic fascination, Headmaster Bellgrove moves in on Irma and whisks her out to the garden to woo her off her feet. Their dialogue is straight out of a third-rate melodrama . . . Naturally, since that is the closest either of them has ever been to genuine romance. In the midst of this, Prunesquallor manages to pull Throd out of his catatonic state and the professor makes a most undignified exit, streaking naked out the window, through the garden and over the wall, never to be seen again.

The point of all this (which I've been such a very long time getting to, I admit) is that the old "nerd" stereotypes from high school and beyond are carried one step further in literary circles. Academics don't get girls, either because they don't want them or because they simply can't. I found it very interesting that, over and over, I see academics in literature imbued with a somehow deviant or defective version of what is commonly viewed as the "normal" sex drive. I'm not entirely certain why this is, but it happens a lot.

A few other examples of this which come to mind: Cecil Vyse (A Room With a View), Frederick Chasuble (The Importance of Being Earnest), Quentine Compson (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom). With a bit of reaching or speculation, I could spin out a couple dozen more candidates as well. Any thoughts (if you're still here)? Perhaps Wilson could ask that History of Sexuality chick what she thinks . . .

Posted by Jared at 04:24 PM | TrackBack

September 25, 2006

The Digest of American Torture

Waterboarding: A Prestigious Tradition (scrolling required)

So, who’s right? Is waterboarding torture, or is it merely a stressful psychological technique?

Interestingly, the United States has long since answered that question. Following the end of the Second World War we prosecuted a number of Japanese military and civilian officials for war crimes, including the torture of captured Allied personnel. At one of those trials, United States v. Sawada, here’s how Captain Chase Nielsen, a crew member in the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan, described his treatment, when he was captured, (and later tried for alleged war crimes by a Japanese military commission):

Q: What other physical treatment was administered to you at that time?

A: Well, I was given what they call the water cure.

Q: Explain to the Commission what that was.

A: Well, I was put on my back on the floor with my arms and legs stretched out, one guard holding each limb. The towel was wrapped around my face and put across my face and water was poured on. They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation, then they would let me up until I'd get my breath, then they'd start over again.

Q: What was your sensation when they were pouring water on the towel, what did you physically feel?

A: Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.

Accountability Is For Losers

Although Section 1003 applies to the CIA, and some of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as "waterboarding"(16) may be outlawed under the legislation,(17) CIA activities remain largely secret and are exempt from new military rules on interrogation when outside a Department of Defense facility (see below). Thus, there is no way of monitoring whether or not they may continue to use interrogation techniques which violate international law.

Disturbingly, the legislation included another amendment (section 1005, also known as the Graham-Levin amendment(18)) which curtailed the right of the Guantánamo detainees to federal habeas corpus review and barred them from seeking review by US federal courts of their treatment or conditions of detention.(19) The amendment also allows evidence obtained by coercion (and therefore, possibly, torture) to be weighed for its probative value by the Combatant Status Review Tribunals in Guantánamo. These measures serve to fundamentally weaken the prohibition against torture or ill-treatment by removing key enforcement mechanisms.

The impact of the Graham-Levin amendment was graphically illustrated when the US government recently sought to have a torture claim brought by a Guantánamo detainee before a federal court thrown out. The detainee sought an injunction from a federal judge to ban "extremely painful" methods of force-feeding which included improper use of a restraint chair and heavy nasal tubing, which his lawyers described as "amounting to torture".(20) During the proceedings, government lawyers reportedly contended that even if the treatment breached the "cruel, inhuman or degrading" ban in the McCain amendment, detainees in Guantánamo had no recourse to the US courts on account of section 1005 (above).(21)

"Whoops, I Think You Killed Him": Keeping the Agony Non-Fatal

The American Civil Liberties Union today made public an analysis of new and previously released autopsy and death reports of detainees held in U.S. facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom died while being interrogated. The documents show that detainees were hooded, gagged, strangled, beaten with blunt objects, subjected to sleep deprivation and to hot and cold environmental conditions.

"There is no question that U.S. interrogations have resulted in deaths," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "High-ranking officials who knew about the torture and sat on their hands and those who created and endorsed these policies must be held accountable. America must stop putting its head in the sand and deal with the torture scandal that has rocked our military."

The documents released today include 44 autopsies and death reports as well as a summary of autopsy reports of individuals apprehended in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents show that detainees died during or after interrogations by Navy Seals, Military Intelligence and "OGA" (Other Governmental Agency) -- a term, according to the ACLU, that is commonly used to refer to the CIA.

Spreading More Than Democracy

Bodies found in the Baghdad morgue "often bear signs of severe torture", said the human rights office of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq in a report.

The wounds confirmed reports given by refugees from Iraq, Mr Nowak said.

He told journalists at a briefing in Geneva that he had yet to visit Iraq, but he was able to base his information on autopsies and interviews with Iraqis in neighbouring Jordan.

"What most people tell you is that the situation as far as torture is concerned now in Iraq is totally out of hand," the Austrian law professor said.

"The situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein," he added.

Do It For Machiavelli

"The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced. Those who protest coercive methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a useful climate of fear. It is wise of the President to reiterate U.S. support for international agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators to employ whatever coercive methods work. It is also smart not to discuss the matter with anyone."[17]

This appears to be exactly what the Bush Administration did. "We now know that at the highest levels of the Pentagon there was a shocking interest in using torture and a misguided attempt to evade the criminal consequences of doing so," said Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. But, Roth added, "[i]f [the Pentagon's] legal advice were accepted, dictators worldwide would be handed a ready-made excuse to ignore one of the most basic prohibitions of international human rightslaw."[18]

Legal Advisors Say Torture "a Go"

Torture is allowed as part of President Bush’s "ultimate authority" as commander in chief, and neither treaty obligations nor existing congressional statutes can stop him (or those acting on his orders) from torturing if he believes it is necessary. That’s what two high-level legal memoranda prepared by the White House counsel and a special Defense Department working group have concluded.

Meet the Killjoys: Kimmons Edition

I am absolutely convinced [that] no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tell us that. . . . Moreover, any piece of intelligence which is obtained under duress, through the use of abusive techniques, would be of questionable credibility, and additionally it would do more harm than good when it inevitably became known that abusive practices were used. And we can't afford to go there.

Some of our most significant successes on the battlefield have been -- in fact, I would say all of them, almost categorically all of them, have accrued from expert interrogators using mixtures of authorized humane interrogation practices in clever ways, that you would hope Americans would use them, to push the envelope within the bookends of legal, moral and ethical, now as further refined by this field manual.

We don't need abusive practices in there. Nothing good will come from them.

Meet the Killjoys: Powell Edition

I just returned to town and learned about the debate taking place in Congress to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. I do not support such a step and believe it would be inconsistent with the McCain amendment on torture which I supported last year.

I have read the powerful and eloquent letter sent to you by one my [sic] distinguished predecessors as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Jack Vessey. I fully endorse in tone and tint his powerful argument. The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.

I am as familiar with The Armed Forces Officer as is Jack Vessey. It was written after all the horrors of World War II and General George C. Marshall, then Secretary of Defense, used it to tell the world and to remind our soldiers of our moral obligations with respect to those in our custody.

Posted by Jared at 02:21 PM | TrackBack