Thursday, May 17, 2007

A thought in church

Sometimes I write in church. I used to feel bad about this, but a friend, Bethany Lee, who is also a worship leader, once explained some things to me about the true nature of worship, and now I feel a lot more free to write if I feel called to do it, no matter where I am. Anyway, here's a little note I jotted down last Sunday, something of an unpolished thought:

"I think about this new wave of intellectualizing against faith of all kinds, and I cannot help but notice that these men: Dawkins, Hitchens, Onfray, seem to me to have an immature, underdeveloped knowledge of their own ignorance. They are reluctant to acknowledge that which they don't know but take on faith. This, in itself, is not an argument for faith. That would be a God-of-the-gaps argument, for one thing, and frankly, I'm coming to believe that apologists for Christianity are not "The second Judas", as Kierkegaard called them, but merely an embarrassment to themselves and other Christians; Not the second Judas, but the second Kirk Cameron. Still, these anti-apologists strike me as lazy philosophers. They are quite aware of the irrationalism of their religious neighbors, but they do not know themselves with any particular clarity or insightfulness. One of my old professors, a man who firmly believed in Intelligent Design (remember what I said about apologists and embarrassment?) who felt that if Christianity gave up its scientific claims it would be giving the ceding the entire playing field to atheism. I believe, increasingly, that the battle lines have been falsely drawn between scientific rationalism and ignorant, anti-intellectual irrationalism. To a large degree, men like my professor created this false dichotomy in their attempt to employ science to promote faith: instead of promoting faith, the made a mockery of it while promoting a reliance on science as authority. By promoting bad science, they reaffirmed the supremacy of the scientific ideal while undermining their own religious beliefs.

When the false debate of science vs. no science ends, and science wins resoundingly in the hearts and minds of people dependent on their microwaves and cell phones, I hope we will move on to a healthier recognition of the limits of science and the relationship between intellect and faith. I believe there must be Christians out there who are also eager to reject anti-intellectualism and earnestly explore the nature of an intellectual faith in God. Maybe I'm naive to think there are many folks out there who are still interested in this, and I admit I see dwindling empirical evidence of this kind of community of believers, but I'm a person of faith, so I go on hoping."


Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Parent’s View of Bush’s Laughter

My wife Paige and I had a couple of conversations today which might seem disparate, but are actually related. When Noah placed a couple of his super-hero action figure in a measuring cup, I told him that was silly. We giggled about it a bit, and I realized I tell him that all the time. I started thinking that this information is particularly useful to a two-and-a-half year old. After all, how would he know that super-heroes don’t normally hang out in measuring cups? How else might he learn that underwear doesn’t belong on one’s head, or that it’s not completely commonplace for a child to wear his mother’s fuzzy slippers? Furthermore, if he’s not informed through a smile, how would he know that he’s created innocuous nonsense, rather than committing some unacceptable breach of etiquette? Paige noted that it’s important that he hear this in an encouraging tone, so he doesn’t think he’s done something wrong. This got me thinking, what if a child isn’t told that things are silly? What might be the consequence? Might he grow up to believe that all nonsense is acceptable, or, conversely, that any nonsense is immoral?

This reminded me of a conversation we’d had in the car earlier today. While driving to Portland to see some friends we listened to an episode of This American Life about the abuses perpetrated against detainees at Guantanimo Bay, foremost among them being the immoral suspension of Habeas Corpus that leaves them in legal limbo, a tactic designed not only to shield the Bush Administration from any oversight for the other kinds of torture the detainees experience, but also to take away any hope of release as a mean to force confessions. Among the more appalling moments in the show (not quite rising to the level of horror we experienced when detainees and attorneys describes prisoners being doused in menstrual blood or being told that their torture was being done because it was the will of Christ, but horrible none the less) was a sound clip of President Bush arguing for their indefinite detention. He said they were men picked up on the battlefield who had been caught in the act of trying to kill American soldiers. For one thing, this was a lie. A Seton Hall University study found that less than five percent were actually soldiers picked up on the battlefield, and that most were handed over to our government by other governments in exchange for money, regardless of the prisoners’ guilt or innocence. Some might call that a distortion, but I was raised to believe that is called a lie. If I told my parents that I earned a dollar, when I actually earned nickel and stole ninety-five cents, they would have punished me for lying, not for a “distortion”. But hearing the president lie wasn’t the worst part. More disturbing was the fact that, as he talked about human beings being kept in prison forever, without the protection of any nation’s laws or any international agreements about human rights on the grounds that these human beings had been attempting to kill other human beings, specifically our own soldiers, he was laughing. Between each phrase he was giggling.

Paige had to stop the recording to note just how nauseating she found this laughter. Even if he had been telling the truth, it’s hardly funny. My first theory was that he uses laughter to dismiss opposing views, but even when he was espousing his own, he laughed. The circumstances amused him. Perhaps he is a sociopath, and finds explanations for vengeful cruelty funny. Perhaps he knew he was lying, and was laughing at the shrinking numbers of Americans who still believe the words that come out of his mouth. Perhaps it’s just an affectation he cannot escape. But what, I wondered, might cause such a habitual derisive laugh to accompany any off-the-cuff statement he makes?

This evening, as Paige and I discussed Noah’s silly behavior and our sing-song response, I began to wonder about W’s parenting. I am reluctant to blame Bush 41 and Barbara, because parents often have children who, despite the parents’ best efforts, turn out to be criminals or just jerks. Bush 41 strikes me as someone who would be a stern or distant parent, but that might be unfair. I don’t know how he raised W. And Barbara, by all accounts I’ve read, is something of a shrew. But I’ve never met the woman. Perhaps everyone who’s ever written her just happened to catch her on bad days. Regardless, neither strikes me as the kind of person who would say, “Oh, George, that’s just silly.” Based on my reading and observations of the parents and their son, I would guess that things in their house were either not talked about, or were very black and white, right and wrong. There was probably no room for nonsense in a household grooming its children to be governors and presidents. Might W’s disconnect from the normal rules that govern all social interaction, large and small, stem from this lack of understanding?

I wonder how W sees nonsense. I would guess he knows the word, but I’ll bet he only knows it in the context of dismissing ideas he doesn’t like, a tool for disempowering those he disagrees with, rather than an accurate description of things which, regardless of their moral weight, simply don’t fit. This might explain how he embraces Orwellian double-think (a “Clean Air Initiative” that dirties the air, a “Healthy Forrest Initiative” that opened up wild lands to more logging, a pre-emptive war on a country that never attacked the US sold as a moral struggle). At the same time, this might explain how he rejects criticism and oversight, to the point of suspending Habeas Corpus, one of the founding legal principles of every country the respects the rule of law, so that prisoners who might say embarrassing things about their own treatment can never be realeased to speak about the conditions of their detention, even when they are found to be innocent of any wrongdoing. Maybe Bush sees disingenuous policy-making as his privilege, his “political capital”, and therefore it is fitting. Maybe he sees all criticism of his choices as not-fitting and therefore irrelevant, or worse, requiring silencing. What he lacks is the truth in between; that some ideas, regardless of their sources, are nonsense, some merely silly and some immoral.

Maybe he just needed parents who could say, “No, George, calling dirty air clean is just silly, but making that a law is wrong. Calling a tree that is cut down a healthy tree is just silly, but making it a law is wrong. And people killing one another, or people being thrown into dungeons with no hope of freedom; that’s nonsense, but it’s never funny.

“It is not something decent people laugh about, George.

“It’s wrong.”

If anyone reading this knows Bush 41 or Barbara personally, will you please ask them if they taught their son the difference between amusing nonsense and immoral behavior? Is their son a sociopath who ignored their teaching, or were they negligent parents? Please let me know what they say.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Review of Spider-Man 3

When I was in high school I had a lingering suspicion that my teachers were not all capable of performing the tasks they assigned to us. This last week I assigned a critique of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, and tonight I went to see Spider-Man 3. I think this is a perfect opportunity to reach out to any kids who are as snotty and skeptical as I was and put their minds at ease. It will be difficult for me to stick to the strict 400 word limit I gave them for the body of the text, but here goes:

Spider-Man 3: A Fun Pop Song With a Few Off-Notes

Sam Raimi’s newest installment in the Spider-Man franchise is being beaten up (super-villain style) by most critics. By and large, they are missing the point. The general critique relates to the gimmick of the alien symbiote that changes Spider-Man’s costume black and makes him evil. Is this conceit cartoon-ish? Certainly. But that’s because it comes directly out of the comic book. That’s not to say the film is without flaws, but the most glaring mistakes related to choices that deviated from the comic book series, not the choices that were faithful.

The CGI action sequences were fun, and the scene where the Sandman gains his super-powers is nothing short of movie-making magic. Hayden Church and Topher Grace do all that can be expected with the parts they are given, and they aren’t alone. The leads play comic book roles with comic book overacting, which doesn’t seem out of place. They don’t have a lot of choice, since close-ups on their faces force them to telegraph every emotion. Like the acting, the dialogue is ham-handed and the story is clunky. Again, this felt faithful to the comic book genre, and any attempt to make the movie more literary would have been wasted on a movie about a man with super-powers delivered by a radio-active spider.

The biggest pitfalls came where screenwriters San and Ivan Raimi deviated from the comic book. William Shakespeare wisely avoided putting Rosaline on the stage with Juliet, because, beauty being subjective, half the audience might have felt Romeo picked the uglier girl. The Raimis falls into this trap in Spider Man 3. In the comic book, Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s first girlfriend, a looker, but no Mary Jane Watson in her heyday. She is caught up in the story of the Green Goblin and dead before Venom ever appears on the scene. Having missed the Gwen Stacy death storyline in his original movies, the Raimis opt to use her as an object of Peter Parker’s wandering eye and a motive for Eddie Brock, the future Venom, to envy Peter. The problem is that Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Stacy, is simply more stunning than Kirtsen Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson. According to the comic Mary Jane becomes a supermodel eventually, and though Dunst is a looker, Raimi was smart to give that occupation to Howard. This might not have been a problem if Gwen Stacy were a shrew, but the character is also likable, while Mary Jane, in this installment, is insecure and needy. When Parker uses Stacy as a means to make MJ jealous, he not only comes off as a jerk, but as a fool.

The song and dance sequences (you read that right) are silly, but not in a comic book way, so they didn’t fit. I applaud Raimi’s creative bravery, but for the reported $270 million the movie cost, someone could have told him that comic book silliness and movie musical silliness are to different, incompatible animals.

Ultimately, the inflated climax and the preachy voice-over felt like they could have been lifted out of a comic book, too. No single issue of any comic book should be the reader’s favorite novel, and this movie won’t be anyone’s favorite, either. But I’d come back for the next issue.

Word Count: 551

* * *

So maybe I was right as a high school student. This teacher can’t pull off what he assigns. Students, feel free to lower my grade.

Socially Unacceptable Moviegoer Behavior

Some Central students behind me were doing their best to reach new heights of obnoxiousness. I don't mind the occassional carefully chosen obscenity (I've been known to drop the occasional F bomb myself) but the string of filth coming out of these kids mouths not only made them sound trashy, but it was generally incoherent and sometimes meant things I know they didn't intend. When a guy shouts "Show me your tits!" across a crowded theater and you're actually relieved that he's cleaned up his language, that says something not just about his vocabulary choice, but also about his quality as a person. I decided I would not hesitate to have them tossed out.

Ultimately, that didn't turn out to be necessary. About ten minutes into the film I turned around and forcefully told them to shut up. I waited about thirty seconds, and when they started again I turned around, looked right at the most obnoxious kid, and said, "You are not funny. Shut up."

And he did.

They tried to make a few more comments near the end of the movie, but they were about as quiet as the woman who thanked me and then later, oblivious to her hypocrisy, started making comments to her boyfriend.

I am of the opinion that if people are not mature enough to be quiet in movie theaters, or are interested in impressing their friends with their color commentary, they should wait for a movie to come out on video so they can humiliate themselves in the privacy of their own homes. But perhaps we have reached a tipping point where decent people who are actually interested in movies are the ones relegated to watching films at home. If that's the case, it's just another sad footnote in the general decline of Western Civilization, and I shouldn't be surprised. Thank goodness for Netflix! I am willing to forgo the movie theater experience, but I like movies too much to let them go. So, let the yahoos foot the bill for these blockbusters they attend but don't want to hear, just so long as a few good movies are still made for me to rent.