November 13, 2010

i thank you God for most this amazing

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 6:13 pm

i thank you God for most this amazing
by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings;and of the gay
great happening ilimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

March 9, 2009

The Watchmen: Rorschach Test

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 7:24 pm

You really don’t need to know anything about The Watchmen to see the irony. All you need to know is that one of the characters in the movie, and the graphic novel it is based on, is named Rorschach, as in the psychological inkblot test. That, and that an Objectivist sees in Rorschach an Objectivist hero.

Why else would you create a character named “Rorschach”, except to invite each reader to decide just what it is they see in him?

This is one, but only one, of the fascinations of The Watchmen. (I haven’t seen the movie yet, but just finished reading the novel.) What we believe about Rorschach has more to do with what we bring to it than the character itself. I am sure that someone to the left of me would see a tragically broken man who, through a horribly screwed up childhood, has become a vengeful vigilante full of hate and anger, desperately in need of healing. And they would be absolutely right. Meanwhile, our libertarian friend at Reason magazine sees a noble Objectivist right out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or even better, The Fountainhead, ready to blow up any building that violates his architectural principles. And he’s right.

Rorschach’s ability to evoke in us what we want to see isn’t because he is a mushy gray character. There is no ambiguity — his every action, and every action taken towards him, is black and white. But it is the complex combination of black and white that allows us to see in him what is already in us.

Just like an inkblot.

So what do I see in Rorschach? A brilliantly post-modern character, full of good and evil, hatred and hurt, noble moral principle and foolish stubborness. He’s both protagonist and antagonist, horribly complex, humanity’s vices and virtues all in one person. There is no moral to Rorschach’s tale, no heroic example to follow. Nothing but permission to accept that we are all also full of our own contradictions, at the same time both sinner and saint. And that’s enough.

April 3, 2008

Spring Break DVD Recap

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 8:08 pm

Last week we had spring break, complete with lots of DVD watching. Herewith, a round-up:

Michael Clayton: An excellent movie, if a bit challenging. The movie starts about three-fourths of the way through the story with a series of scenes without context or exposition. It then backs up four days to start at the beginning, proceeding until the meaning of the already viewed snippets emerges. It forces the viewer to be comfortable with their ignorance, letting these early scenes sit off to the side completely uncomprehended for over an hour. A great exercise in living with ambiguity. Oh, and the plot is good too.

No Country for Old Men: Lousy. The plot goes something like this: a guy takes some money from a drug deal gone bad, a bad guy goes after him to recover the money, the bad guy kills everyone. The end. Oh, and then the sheriff retires. Now I get the point about “no country for old men”, i.e. the sheriff, but there’s a hell of a lot of gratuitous violence to make a smallish point.

The Kingdom: Just a fun action movie, but with an interesting bit of social commentary at the end. Most of it is kind of a CSI Saudi Arabia, with a big final battle at the end when the FBI catches (and kills) all the Saudi terrorists. So far, a typical good-guys vs. bad-guys movie. But at the end, one of the FBI agents is asked what he had said to a woman agent to comfort her in her grief over the death of her boyfriend at the hands of the terrorists. He says he told her “don’t worry, we’ll kill them all”. Cut to the survivors in the terrorists’ household after all the adult males have been killed by the FBI, and a mother asking her 10 year-old boy what the patriarch had told him as he died from his wounds. The boy replies “don’t worry, we’ll kill them all.” All of a sudden, a cold splash of moral ambiguity in the viewer’s face — we see that this cycle of revenge and hatred will never end.

Sweeney Todd: A dark, but fun and funny, musical. It’s gruesome, but in an outlandishly exaggerated way that makes it comic. Some pitch-perfect (literally) comic turns by Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Sasha Cohen. And a great moral to the story — when we seek revenge, we end up destroying those we love. But I found myself gingerly rubbing my neck for the rest of the night.

January 22, 2008

His Dark Materials: Anti-Church? Anti-God?

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:26 pm

So I’ve finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The question I wanted to answer for myself was whether these books were anti-God, or merely anti-church. Before I report on the answer to this question though, a couple quotes:

My books are about killing God.

Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials

[Philip Pullman advocates] a totally atheist ideology, the enemy of all religions, traditional and institutional, and of Christianity and Catholicism in particular.

Editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and His Dark Materials fan

So are the books anti-church, which is entirely appropriate, even warranted, given that the church is a human institution? Or are they anti-God, which would not be reason enough to pull the books from libraries, but would give some credence to the hysteria surrounding the movie?

(Warning — spoilers abound!)

In Pullman’s books, God, YHWH, the God of Abraham and Moses, is called the “Authority”. He is merely an angel, like any other, except that long ago he was able to put himself in charge over the other angels and the humans in a manner which his name would suggest. He perpetuates the pretense that he is the creator. (No one knows whether there really is a creator or not.) He has built the Kingdom of Heaven, a huge cloud-encircled mountain floating in the air from where he rules.

Angels age, and eventually die, and the Authority is no different, dying of old age near the end of the trilogy. In his old age decrepitude, his power has passed to his Regent, the angel Metatron, who is more of a totalitarian ruler than the Authority. While the Authority has been content to let the church enforce his rule, Metatron plans to put angels in charge of a new Inquisition to tighten control. Not good.

A key character, Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist former nun who renounced her vows and her faith, says that Christianity is “a very powerful and convincing mistake”. However, it is not accurate to say that the books are atheistic. “Dust” is a substance streaming through the universe. Dust is alive, conscious, and influencing the affairs of humans — it gives Lyra (the main heroine of the story) and Dr. Malone direction and guidance through various means. Dust is a personal God, an immanent God, but is in and through the entire universe.

The Authority and the Church are on the losing side of a Great Battle, to which the reader cheers enthusiastically. But this Authority and this Church bear no relationship to the God and the Church with which I’m acquainted. They are a caricature, they are invented characters that happen to be called by these familiar names. They are not the God and Church as many of us actually experience them. It is Dust that more closely resembles God as Christianity understands God, but even Dust is not omnipotent, and certainly not the creator of the universe (or universes in this case).

Anti-God or anti-church? They are definitely anti-authoritarian, which is a good thing, but it’s much harder to say they are either anti-God or anti-church, Dr. Malone’s statement notwithstanding. This is a fantasy, and even young readers won’t confuse it with reality. If our church was as evil and controlling as Pullman’s Church, it should be fought and overthrown. If God were not immortal, omniscient, omnipotent or omni-beneficent, then God would deserve our contempt, not our worship. In this respect, Archbishop Williams is right — this God needs to be killed.

But our church, or at least my church, is nothing like Pullman’s Church, and the God I experience is nothing like Pullman’s God. So it’s hard for me to take this as a real critique of my religion. It’s a fantasy. Getting upset at these books over their theology is like getting upset at Star Trek over of its faux-science.

The real question everyone should be asking is whether these books are any good as fantasy, not as theology. And there I would have to say that they’re okay, but just okay. For me, they fall short of, say, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. But that’s hardly reason enough to wage a media campaign against them. Any young adult, or not-so-young adult, reader will recognize them as fantasy, not as a documentary expose’. However, that distinction seems to be lost on some.

January 13, 2008

Zeitgeist the Movie

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:03 pm

Ah, yes. We live in a post-modern world, a world of truthiness, where we each pick and choose our own set of “facts” to accept unskeptically as true. I blame the internet for drastically exacerbating this phenomenon of competing personal truths.

My seventeen year-old son asked me to watch a movie on the web called Zeitgeist. Apparently it is passing virally among his peers, so he and some of his friends watched it. The first part purports to debunk Christianity as an entirely fictional re-telling of pagan astrological myths created by Gnostics who replaced the traditional sun-god with a fabricated Jesus. Several of his friends were convinced by it, and decided they were atheists. This caused a bit of a crisis of faith in my son, so he wanted me to watch it with him.

It is really, really clever. I immediately spotted some logical flaws and outright falsehoods, but was impressed by it as a high caliber of propaganda. But propaganda it is, pulling lots of truths and half-truths out of context to support their agenda. (Just one example – Jesus was born on December 25th, the winter solstice, just like many other pagan deities, so his birth is a rip-off of pagan myths. Except that, um, Jesus wasn’t born on the winter solstice. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The early church celebrated his birth on the winter solstice to co-opt the pagan feast of Saturnalia.) Anyone who has ever actually read any of the New Testament will find that their arguments don’t match at all with the facts, but obviously that isn’t their target audience. Those who just don’t know better will find it convincing.

It turns out that the “Jesus Myth” has been around for a long time, and debunked repeatedly. It’s an urban legend.

The problem with finding the truth on the web becomes one of “authority” and “trust”. Anyone can put up a website, make a movie, throw around all kinds of specious claims. If they’re good, they can make it really compelling. If they’re really really good, they will tap into the, yes, Zeitgeist to convince people of things they would like to believe anyway, such as the world is really controlled by a cabal of evil white men so [insert personal disappointment here] is all their fault, or Christianity is an evil plot that has been used to control the masses through fear and intimidation so I don’t have to consider it’s truth-claims.

No one seems to know who is behind this Zeitgeist movie, their credentials, agenda or motivations. They don’t provide sources for their claims. Yet it is compelling enough that lots of teenagers (and I’m sure adults as well) are buying it. So I’ve tried to use it as a learning opportunity for my son — don’t ever believe anything you read (or watch) on the internet unless you know who it is making the claim, what their credentials are, what their agenda is, and what the other side is saying. Determine the authority for the claim, and only when satisfied with the authority should you extend your trust. Be skeptical. Demand primary sources. Look for credentials, opposing viewpoints. Doubt.

Oh, and if only the first part of this Zeitgeist movie is devoted to unmasking Christianity, what is the rest of it about? 9/11 was a government plot, as was the assassination of JFK. Rich bankers caused World War I, the Depression and World War II.

Zeitgeist indeed.

January 1, 2008

Mark Hanson, Passionate Doubter

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 1:35 pm

I watched “In God’s Name” back before Christmas, and enjoyed it quite a bit, although running commercials every 12 minutes kind of destroys the thread of a documentary considering the ultimate truths of the world’s major religions. All of the 12 religious leaders highlighted in the film came off sympathetically for the most part (it touched on a few controversial topics such as the middle east and “spiritual warfare” that had me rolling my eyes a few times).

But of course I was paying particular attention to the profile of Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and the President of the Lutheran World Federation. Before seeing this, he was just a name to me, so it was nice to learn something of his background. I can see why he was elected Presiding Bishop. One quote of his had me smiling in particular:

I’m known as a passionate doubter, but who never ever loses his faith.


Nice to know I’m in the right denomination.

December 9, 2007

The Golden Compass, Donohue, and God

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

I’m going to go see The Golden Compass. What’s more, I’m going to buy the entire Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass is the first book). And I have Bill Donohue of the Catholic League to thank.

In Christian ethics, there are two seemingly contradictory strands of thought regarding criticizing others. First is the “judge not”, be charitable, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all, strand. Second is the prophetic strand, wherein prophecy doesn’t mean fortune-telling, but telling truth to power. So while this is rather uncharitable, I say it prophetically: Bill Donohue is an asshole. He is a bully, an idiot and a self-promoting asshole.

So when I heard he was advocating a boycott of The Golden Compass, my first thought was “that’s the movie for me!” After all, the most wonderfully inspiring Christian movie I’ve ever seen was The Last Temptation of Christ, which was loudly criticized by many (conservative) Christian groups as anti-Christian propaganda.

After reading this article by Donna Freitas, Phillip Pullman fan and faithful Catholic, I am convinced of it. She is a professor of Religion at Boston University, and she writes:

I recently published (with Jason King) a book called “Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials.” I wrote this book, which portrays Pullman as a theologian rather than an atheist, and a rather Christian theologian at that, because I love “His Dark Materials.” And because I am a Catholic. I don’t see any contradiction between the two.


I don’t see any contradiction between loving God (whoever S/He may be) and loving a good story, even a challenging one, like Pullman’s, that has the power to transport us from here and now to another place and time, to forget time altogether as we journey into another world with a young girl (Lyra) and boy (Will) on a fantastic adventure. God is big enough, I think, to coexist with Will and Lyra. It is the critics of Pullman’s novels who are trying to make Her small.

Criticizing the church is not the same as criticizing God. The church is a human institution, and as Martin Luther and other reformers demonstrated, it deserves a good smack upside the head from time to time. It is particularly when the church attempts to quell dissent that dissent is most needed. As I understand it, Pullman’s bad guys are a metaphor for the church, not God.

But I also understand the books in Pullman’s trilogy go after God as well. Good. Abraham Jacob wrestled with God all night long. Job humbly but persistently challenged God. I am sure God would much rather have us argue with God than treat God with indifference and apathy. Fighting with God means we’re engaged. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

Apparently Pullman is an agnostic, not an atheist. And from what I hear, his books are good (the movie may be another matter). I never would have heard about them if not for Bill Donohue. Thanks Bill!

November 11, 2007

Black Snake Moan

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media,Music — Bob Gifford @ 7:39 pm

I broke with my recent exploration of old science fiction movies and watched Black Snake Moan. Excellent, excellent movie. It doesn’t have a single space alien, marauding robot or spaceship, but it does have two things even better: a tale of redemption (actually two of them), and the Blues.

Black Snake Moan poses the question: can freedom be found by being chained to a radiator? The answer, of course, is yes. This is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity and many other religions — freedom as surrender.

Rae (Christina Ricci), a rather screwed up young woman who has been using sex to quiet the demons in her head, is found unconscious in the road by Lazarus (Samuel Jackson), a rather screwed up older ex-blues-musician. He takes her into his house, and when she starts wandering around in her delirium, he chains her up. When she gains consciousness, she is less than enthusiastic about this arrangement. But Lazarus tells her “God seen fit to put you in my path, and I aim to cure you of your wickedness!” to which Rae replies “What are you, some kind of pervert? Or a f**king Jesus freak?”. Both reasonable conclusions from Rae’s persective. But in what I found to be the most compelling scene of the movie, that night Rae is restless, unable to sleep on the couch in Laz’s house. So she wraps the slack in her chain around her body like a blanket, after which she visibly relaxes and immediately falls to sleep.

I know it sounds misogynistic, but it’s really not. It’s a fable about setting boundaries as an act of love, something Rae’s parents most decidedly did not do (her father abused her and her mother rejects her in a scene difficult to watch). Rae, for the first time, feels safe, and her fears begin to recede. The chain (which soon comes off, by the way) becomes a symbol of safety, of security, of being tied to someone forever in an entirely non-sexual way. The chain is her redemption.

And of course the redeemer (Laz) becomes the redeemed as he begins to play the Blues again. The movie takes place in rural Tennessee, so the Blues are true to the setting, but they fit in another way as well. The Blues is an extremely simple, and constraining, musical form. The twelve bar Blues and its handful of variations is always the same. Once you know the simple rules, you can jump in and jam with anyone on a blues song you’ve never heard before. The Blues is like being chained to a radiator.

But it’s a chain that frees us. Through the constraints of the Blues form, incredible heights of improvisation and emotion are made possible. The Blues is about being set free to communicate musically that which can’t be communicated through complex melodies, intricate harmonies or big orchestras. It’s about expressing the pain in our souls, and through its expression, overcoming it. It fits the movie like a glove.

True to its tales of redemption, religion is always just below the surface of the movie, and at times breaks above it. Laz’s preacher friend tells Rae (and I’m doing this from memory, so don’t quote me):

I think people talk too much about heaven. People think heaven is like an all-you-can eat buffet, so they do what they need to on earth so when they die they can eat whatever they want to in heaven. But for me, it’s about the present. When I have no one else to talk to, I talk to God.

Some great homespun theologizing. This movie works on many levels — highly recommended.

October 28, 2007

What Book Are You?

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 7:38 pm

Continuing with my survey of old science fiction movies, last night we watched Fahrenheit 451, a movie version of the book by Ray Bradbury. It’s about a dystopian future where books are outlawed because they “confuse people and make them unhappy”, unlike the ubiquitous wall-size televisions. At the denouement (spoiler alert), the hero finds his way to the “book people”, a group of people living on the fringes of society. Each person has memorized a book, thereby preserving it for posterity. By “book people”, Bradbury doesn’t mean that these are people who like books, although they are definitely that. He means that each person has become a book. They are a book made flesh, and each of them introduces him or herself by their title: “nice to meet you, I’m Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky” or “hello, I’m Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov”. (Interesting phrase, that last one.)

Which raises the question — if you were to devote your life to preserving a single book, to spend countless hours memorizing every word, which book would it be?

It would have to be a book that is particularly meaningful to you. It wouldn’t be enough that others think it’s a classic worth preserving. You would have to be willing to become that book, to take it on as your identity. It needs to be the one book that you would want to keep alive.

So which one? The Bible is an obvious choice, but that’s too easy, kind of like Bush’s Jesus-is-my-favorite-philosopher comment. Some of my favorite classics on theology, like Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship or C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce come to mind, but the value of these books are the ideas they present, not so much the specific words used to present them. It would be much easier to learn (and to re-tell) their lessons without memorizing each and every word.

For a book to deserve word-for-word memorization, it would have to not only convey profound ideas, but do so profoundly. The words themselves would need to be things of beauty, without which humanity would be the poorer. A high hurdle indeed.

Shakespeare of course. But which play? I’m not a huge Shakespeare reader, but I’ve read my share. It would have to be a tragedy, since comedies, even Shakespeare’s comedies, aren’t particularly universal. I would narrow it down to Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.

The world would suffer greatly without Hamlet and Macbeth, but I would have to go with Romeo and Juliet. It is romantic, and I mean not only that it deals with romance, but it’s also a precursor of the Romantic period of art and literature. It not only speaks of great tragedy, but of great love, of the exalted nature of human emotion, rarely glimpsed.

Sure, Hamlet is more fashionable in these cynical times; Romeo and Juliet can seem a bit adolescent with its insistence on innocent love. But there you have it — I’m Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

October 21, 2007

My Netflix Queue

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 2:34 pm

Actually, these are the movies I’ve already rented from Netflix this year, in reverse order:

  • Total Recall
  • National Lampoon’s Animal House
  • Mission to Mars
  • A Boy and His Dog
  • Westworld
  • The Andromeda Strain
  • The Omega Man
  • Bonhoeffer
  • Fantastic Voyage
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Soylent Green
  • Bladerunner

So, I never said I have sophisticated tastes when it comes to film. Just thought I’d come clean with how low-brow my tastes are. (Although I should get some credit for Bonhoeffer, highly recommended btw.)

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