Monday, June 30, 2008

Army Wives

For the last four years, my wife and I have lived within two miles of a large Naval Air Station. With most of our current friends in the Navy, then, we’ve had front row seats to the displacement and uncertainty that come with regular deployments and frequent moves. It’s not an easy life, and I have great respect for those accept it for their country, but I'm not sure I could do it myself. Perhaps that’s why I’ve become a fan of Army Wives, even though it plays on a channel (Lifetime) which I’ve never previously found interesting. Now in its second season (you can watch full episodes here), the show is a bit uneven, but it offers an engaging and sympathetic picture of military life. Following five army families struggling to live and love in a time of war, it explores all the usual relationship tensions you’d expect in a modern drama, but it retains a natural and lighthearted tone. Though it can get overly-sentimental at times, it's usually thoughtful (without being overly political) and includes a strong cast of genuinely likable characters, imperfect though they are (spoiler warning).

The first season included everything from adult friendship and teenage love, to unplanned pregnancy and adultery. It ended with various relationships in flux, three husbands leaving on a hasty deployment, and four of the “wives” trapped in their favorite bar where a disgruntled soldier, strapped with explosives, has come to confront his own unfaithful wife (a minor character, not one of the five). Picking up in the aftermath of this bombing, the second season has continued to explore the tensions and uncertainties in the lives of these five families as they try to find their way back to some semblance of normalcy. To tell the truth, the season premier was a bit awkward, by only revealing what happened at the bar slowly through flashbacks, but the three episodes since then have offered more interesting plot-lines, all of which emphasize the importance of love:

For instance, the youngest of the five wives (Roxy LeBlanc) selflessly invites the bar owner--a cantankerous woman named Betty (a civilian) who was already dying of cancer when her busines and home were destroyed--to stay with her while her husband is on deployment. A Lieutenant Colonel (Joan Burton) decides not to abort her unplanned (and decidedly inconvenient) pregnancy, choosing to forgive her husband Roland for cheating on her (he was deeply sorry) and working to restore their marriage. But perhaps the most interesting has been the story of Claudia Joy, whose teenage daughter was killed in the bombing. By the third episode of the season, called “The Messenger,” she is losing touch with everyone she loves. Standing outside her church where she has arrived late, she suddenly meets a mysterious elderly man named Henry, who is “visiting” the area. Unsure she wants to enter, Claudia Joy urges him to go in without her, but he replies “Going inside is not that important anyway; God’s out here too.” When she responds skeptically, he offers his condolences for her loss and wishes her a nice day, and she leaves without entering the church.

But he keeps turning up, that evening when she is sitting on her porch, the next morning when she is getting the mail, on her “date” with Roxy’s five year old son (who has a school-boy crush on her, and seems to be the only other person who can see Henry). Each time he draws the conversation around to her need for love: “Love is an amazing thing,” he says, “Can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t smell it. Yet it’s there with us from the day we’re born.” Finally he turns up in her living room while she’s watching a movie late at night (hiding from her family, to whom she can't bear to speak):

Henry: Can we watch a comedy for a change? I need to laugh.
Claudia Joy: You’re not real; I’m not talking to you. Go away!
Henry : I told you, when you don’t want me here, I’ll leave.
Claudia Joy: I’m tired of these cryptic little sayings you use.
Henry: You’re angry.
Claudia Joy: Damn right, I’m angry. I wanted more, I wanted to see her graduate college. I wanted to help her buy a wedding dress. I wanted to hold her babies in my arms.
Henry: And you blame God.
Claudia Joy: Where was he, huh? You tell me that! Where the hell was God when my daughter was murdered?
Henry: Protecting Roland, and Denise, and you!
Claudia Joy gets up to leave the room.
Henry: It was Amanda’s time, nothing was gonna change that.
But Claudia Joy isn’t convinced. Turning away she mutters: No.
Henry: Death is a part of life. You can’t have one without the other.
Claudia Joy: It was too soon.
Henry: We all have our time, and it always comes. Until then, love is the best thing going. And there seems to be a lot of that around here. You just have to let it in.

The episode doesn't tell us who Henry really is (we later see him wave goodbye and then climb into a taxi), but in the end Claudia Joy takes his advice and begins the difficult process of opening up to her husband and (remaining) daughter, finding comfort and healing in their love and mutual grief. As I said, the show gets a bit overly-sentimental at times, but I do like this scene, not only because it explicitly brings up the question of God’s goodness in the face of tragedy (though, let's face it, “it was her time” really isn’t much of an answer), but also because it affirms that knowing “why?” may be less important than recognizing the essential role of love in our lives. In exploring how such love looks in a group of flawed and broken military families, Army Wives is in fact a refreshingly uplifting television show, and a welcome break from the reruns and game shows the major networks are running this summer.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Quote - C.S. Lewis on Human Destiny

C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory:

It is a serious thing, to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or another of those destinations. (pg. 15)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Inclusivism and Injustice

On my last post, commenter majorsteve asked some questions about the fairness of the Bible's claims that Jesus is the only source of salvation:

Ken you have written before on the topic of "why I am a Christian". I had a fleeting glimpse of how that topic is related to my leaning away from exclusivism.

If I were to write about why I am a Christian, the discourse would most certainly emanate from the fact that I was born into a Christian household in the U.S., specifically, in northeast Texas, therefore the chance of me turning out to be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu was virtually nil. At the same time, if I had been born into a Muslim home in Saudi Arabia the chances of me being Christian would also be virtually zero. The chance of me converting to Islam is similarly slim as is the chance of a Muslim in another part of the world converting to Christianity. Although every religion has its apostates, does God really expect significant numbers of those who've endured decades of cultural and societal indoctrination to hear The Word and then suddenly see the light? If so, why?

Also, is it possible to get into heaven and NOT believe in exclusivism? If not, then what is the entire list of things I must believe in order to get into heaven? Is there such a list?

These are all good questions, and I didn’t want them to go unnoticed. I don't think he's alone in asking them either, given that a recent poll found that 70% of Americans, including 57% of Evangelical Christians, now believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life" (HT: Exploring Our Matrix). I certainly can’t claim to have final answers to these questions, but I wanted to make a few points, building on what I have said previously:

One the one hand, I don't think God is as much concerned with our particular beliefs as he is with our trust in him, with our love for God and neighbor (see, for instance, Matthew 22:37-40). Though John 14:6 is widely claimed as the proof that the Bible sees belief in Jesus (in this life) as the only means of salvation, this is not the whole story. After all, this verse only says that we must come to God through Jesus, it doesn't spell out what that means, and the answers the rest of the Bible gives seem rather less exclusively focused on belief in Jesus. Saving faith is not about passing some kind of theological multiple choice test.

For instance, when Hebrews 11 lists the Bible's heroes of the faith, not one of them had ever heard of Jesus. These Old Testament saints trusted God as far as they knew him, and that was apparently enough. That being the case, I hardly think that mere mental assent to exclusivism (or any other doctrine per se) is a requirement for salvation, even if God is an exclusivist (of which I am not convinced). More to the point, note that in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus says that those accepted at the final judgment are not the ones who claimed the proper title or belief in this life, but those who fed the hungry, welcomed the homeless, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned. Similarly, James 1:27 claims: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

On the other hand, the Bible is clear that we do need genuine faith to be accepted by God, and while I can't rule out that those who follow other religions might find a similar faith, neither can I assume that they will. Certainly not all religion (not even all so-called Christian religion) points people to that kind of faith and love, and it's up to us to spread that news. Is it unfair that some go through life in cultures that never tell them of God? Perhaps, but that's an inevitable corollary of human freedom: our choices always affect those around us, and that includes helping to create the societies our children are born into (on that point, see here, one of my very first posts). As so often, C.S. Lewis sums this up well, in Mere Christianity (also quoted here):

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ's body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man's fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more. (pg. 64)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I’ve been enjoying the sunshine we’ve been having ’round these parts, finishing up a couple other writing projects, and working to get the house ready for our second child (due next month!). So while I’m thinking about kids, here are a few interesting items about WALL*E (which I can’t wait to see, though I don’t know when I will): First, Jeff Overstreet links to an excellent interview with writer-director Andrew Stanton, at Christianity Today. Second, one of the film’s themes is the danger of excessive consumerism (it, literally, destroys the earth), and there is a humorous and satirical webpage for Buy N Large, the fictional corporation at the heart of the movie. On the other hand, the film’s critique of consumerism is ironic (perhaps even hypocritical?), considering the fact that, like all Disney films, WALL*E has been accompanied by its own heavy merchandising campaign. In any case, this is a great shot of WALL*E sitting atop a pile of garbage, including Pixar’s own toys!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Save Money: Gallons Per Mile

This is well outside my usual subject matter, but it was news to me, and very practical (HT Evangelical Outpost):

Inspired by debates they had while carpooling in a hybrid car, management professors Richard Larrick and Jack Soll ran a series of experiments showing that the current standard, miles per gallon or mpg, leads consumers to believe that fuel consumption is reduced at an even rate as efficiency improves. People presented with a series of car choices in which fuel efficiency was defined in miles per gallon were not able to easily identify the choice that would result in the greatest gains in fuel efficiency.

For example, most people ranked an improvement from 34 to 50 mpg as saving more gas over 10,000 miles than an improvement from 18 to 28 mpg, even though the latter saves twice as much gas. (Going from 34 to 50 mpg saves 94 gallons; but from 18 to 28 mpg saves 198 gallons).

Here's something to think about when you buy your next car. A difference in fuel efficiency between a 10 mpg SUV and a 20 mpg SUV will save 500 gallons of gas per 10,000 miles driven (more than $2000 by current prices). By contrast, the difference between a 35 mpg sedan and a 50 mpg hybrid only saves 86 gallons per 10,000 miles (around $400 by current prices). Consider that the next time you contemplate the sticker price difference; I know I will.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Get Smart Review

So my wife and I saw Get Smart tonight. All around it's more mindless than Smart, but a lot of fun. It does include a fair bit of sexual humor, some skimpy outfits (including a shot of Steve Carell's bare butt), and lots of bloodless violence, but otherwise it's a relatively clean PG-13. There's plenty of action and a good dose of the quirky humor that I loved in the TV show (always a favorite when I used to watch Nick at Night), including a few truly hilarious moments. Steve Carell does a great job in the role of Maxwell Smart, and Anne Hathaway (apart from some excessive eye make-up) balances him well; even Dwane "The Rock" Johnson seems to be enjoying himself.

But my favorite line comes from the terrorists. About half way through, the baddies at KAOS are discussing their plans to nuke Los Angeles and the underling (Shtarker; played by Ken Davitian) says to his superior (Conrad Siegfried; played by Terence Stamp): "Seems a shame to kill all those Hollywood celebrities." Siegfried replies with perfect sarcasm: "Yes, how will we survive without their razor-sharp political commentary?"

At other times, the film seems to forget it's supposed to be a spoof at all and becomes a decent action movie, but just when you start taking it seriously they throw all believability out the window (literally, in several cases). All in all, despite Rottentomatoes only having it at 51%, Robert Ebert gets it right:

It’s funny, exciting, preposterous, great to look at, and made with the same level of technical expertise we’d expect from a new Bond movie.

Good popcorn flick.

[Updated 6:oo am]

[Update 2] Upon further reflection, the plot makes even less sense than I had realized (for instance, dozens of nukes are mentioned, but only one is ever accounted for. The rest are not left as a teaser for a sequal; they are simply forgotten by the end). Ah well, I still enjoyed it.

Todd Hertz at Christianity Today, on the other hand, didn't enjoy it quite as much, but he did point out a good theme that I overlooked:

One interesting thread to the plot is Smart's care for individuals—even if they're employed by KAOS. Often, Smart discusses how our enemies are humans, too. "They do bad things, but that's only what they do—not always who they are," he says. That theme comes to a head in the film's middle when Smart shows that compassion for an individual can truly be mightier than violence.

In fact, the scene to which he refers is a rare treat for an action movie: an attempt to actually love your enemies, to convert or save a villain rather than just to thoughtlessly destroying them. It's played for comic effect, but it ends up being rather central to the film's resolution. Maybe Get Smart isn't so mindless after all....

Friday, June 20, 2008

Something to Waste Your Time: Wordle

This is pretty cool, it lets you create various sorts of word clouds from any block of text (HT: Between Two Worlds). Here are the top 150 words used on this blog (not just tags, but every word from the entire feed; I think it excludes pronouns, prepositions and the like):


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Christian Carnival 229 and Other Good Stuff

This week’s Christian Carnival is up at and includes my post on Art, Nudity and Sex and the City. Among the other posts, I found David Gushee’s The market economy’s moral influence, at CounterCulture, to be the most interesting.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Ted Slater has added a follow-up to his criticism of Christianity Today’s approach to Sex and the City; Jeffrey Overstreet and Peter Chattaway have responded. Ted also invited Adam Holz (Senior Editor for Plugged In) to explain their approach to immoral content in film, and I found his explanation much more sensible than Ted's own posts.

Battlestar Galactica’s mid-season finale has also gotten a lot of attention (again with the spoiler warning). James McGrath links to a number of posts (including mine), Maureen Ryan offers perhaps the best run-down of the episode, and in case you missed the comments on my entry, check out this startling post at the JLA Battlestar forum. Whoa.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Pro-Life" Pharmacies?

According to this article in The Washington Post (free registration may be required; HT Salvo), a small but growing number of drugstores are refusing to stock or sell contraceptives:

The pharmacies are emerging at a time when a variety of health-care workers are refusing to perform medical procedures they find objectionable. Fertility doctors have refused to inseminate gay women. Ambulance drivers have refused to transport patients for abortions. Anesthesiologists have refused to assist in sterilizations.

The most common, widely publicized conflicts have involved pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills, morning-after pills and other forms of contraception. They say they believe that such methods can cause what amounts to an abortion and that the contraceptives promote promiscuity, divorce, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and other societal woes. The result has been confrontations that have left women traumatized and resulted in pharmacists being fired, fined or reprimanded.

In response, some pharmacists have stopped carrying the products or have opened pharmacies that do not stock any.

The concerns raised by those pharmacists are among those I discuss in my upcoming article in Salvo 6 (due out in early September). I think they are legitimate, though not enough to rule out all contraceptive use, still I find such "Pro-Life" drugstores interesting. As the article notes, there are two conflicting issues here: One is the right of a business to decide for itself what to sell (and pharmacies are businesses), which seems to be pretty fundamental. Just because a customer wants a business to sell something doesn't mean the business has any legal obligation to do so (though they obviously have an economic incentive). In an urban context where, presumably, anyone seeking contraception should have little trouble finding another drugstore that does stock them, this seems pretty indisputable. But what about in a rural context where there may only be one pharmacy within 20 miles, or where all the pharmacies in a county might conceivably adopt such a "Pro-Life" practice?

"We may find ourselves with whole regions of the country where virtually every pharmacy follows these limiting, discriminatory policies and women are unable to access legal, physician-prescribed medications," said R. Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist. "We're talking about creating a separate universe of pharmacies that puts women at a disadvantage."

The article also quotes bioethicist Nancy Berlinger that "If you are a health-care professional, you are bound by professional obligations...You can't say you won't do part of that profession." But I can't see how this is true. Doctors routinely practice only one form of medicine or refuse to perform procedures that they consider unethical or dangerous. A pediatrician could not be held liable for refusing to perform brain surgery, nor should a gynecologist be required to perform abortions if she is morally opposed to them. Why should a pharmacist be any different? Granted, if they stocked contraceptives and simply refused to give them to certain customers, that would seem to be a form of discrimination and would likely be illegal. But to choose not to stock certain products seems within their rights, at least as long as customers have another option within reasonable driving distance.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Battlestar Galactica "Revelations" and Unanswered Questions

UPDATE March 2009: This post covers the mid-season finale. For my thoughts on the answers given (and further questions raised) by the series finale, go here.

This week’s Battlestar Galactica mid-season “finale” was one of the most fascinating in the whole series. Though I still think last week’s episode, “The Hub,” was better, this one raised the more interesting questions (do I need to say spoiler warning?).

In last week’s episode the humans and rebel Cylons rescued the resurrected Three/D’Anna who knows the identities of the Final Five Cylons. On the rebel Basestar she tells President Roslin that she will only reveal them once she is safely with the human fleet. This week, they return to the fleet and D’Anna turns the tables on them. Revealing that only four of the Final Five are in the (human?) fleet, but not giving away their identities, she offers the Four to join her on the Basestar, warning that Roslin and the rest will remain captives until then. Not unexpectedly, Tory immediately accepts the offer, reveals her true identity to Roslin and coldly declares that she won't follow her orders any longer.

As if to prove she’s serious, the Cylons then airlock one of the Colonials and insist that they will continue to kill one hostage every 15 minutes until all four Cylons are handed over. In response, the Colonials gear up for a rescue mission and consider destroying the Basestar (including all the human hostages) if it should fail. The Cylons in turn respond by preparing to nuke the civilian fleet. All of which raises an acute question: How much sacrifice is worth the hope of reaching Earth? Both humans and Cylons seem willing, if necessary, to sacrifice a great many lives to accomplish that goal.

In the midst of all this, the Four begin hearing music again (as at the end of Season Three, when they first discovered they were Cylons), and this time it leads the three left on Galactica to the Viper in which Kara Thrace returned from earth (again, from the end of Season Three; as you can see, they are finally tying up some of the many storylines introduced in that episode). Not seeing what significance the Viper could have, Sam Anders and Galen Tyrol decide to enlist Kara’s help, while Colonel Tigh decides that the time has come to reveal his identity to Admiral Adama. Thus, while the rest of the human and Cylon leaders consider sacrificing thousands of others to ensure their own path to Earth, Tigh takes the truly noble course and sacrifices himself to prevent such bloodshed. Adama’s devastated reaction to the news that his oldest and best friend is actually a Cylon is predictable (at least he didn’t wreck his model ship again!), but well-acted and moving, and before Tigh finds himself in an airlock while Lee Adama (acting as President in Roslin’s absence) threatens D’Anna with his execution if she won’t release her hostages.

In the end, of course, Tigh is not sacrificed. At the last moment Kara discovers that the Viper to which they led her was receiving a transmission which pointed to Earth. With the Four now known and the way to earth revealed, the humans and Cylons reach a tentative peace, the hostages are returned, and they all together jump to “Earth.” After much celebrating, the episode ends with a brilliant final pan: Beginning with Adama finally picking up “that first fist full of earth,” a Geiger counter suddenly chirps to life, as the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust are slowly revealed, including what appears to be an overturned car, the ruins of various stone and metal buildings (one of them looking like a cross, another perhaps being the Temple of Aurora discussed at beginning of the episode), and a collapsed bridge that looks suspiciously like the Brooklyn Bridge.

This Planet of the Apes-style twist leaves us with plenty of questions, the most basic being, Is this Earth? Though it seems plausible (Gaeta did say the constellations “matched,” whatever that means), there are several things that make me suspect that all may not be as it appears. First, it is odd that when they discover the bearing provided by the Viper, it’s said that they will need to “adjust” their trajectory as they go, but they only seem to jump once. Second, when they are shown above the planet, no recognizable continents are shown (as North America was at the end of Season Three), nor is the moon visible. Third, did not Pythia’s prophecy say that the dying leader would not herself live to see the new world? Yet Roslin (the clear candidate for this role) is shown on the ground here. Fourth, when Kara returned at the end of Season Three, she said she had been to Earth and it was “beautiful,” and this planet certainly is not (it’s even worse than New Caprica), which either means this isn’t Earth, or something drastic has changed since she was there. Finally, in the original Battlestar Galactica, the humans are shown to reach a planet that they believe is Earth, only to discover that it is in fact Terra, yet another human colony. In the original, Terra had itself been on the brink of nuclear war, which was only avoided through the intervention of the Galactica. It would not seem too much a stretch, then, to think that this “re-imaging” of the series might explore a similar possibility, with the twist that the war has already occurred.

Whether this is Earth or not, I suspect that when the series returns we will discover that there is more to this planet than it now appears. Perhaps they will find survivors, or some sort of beacon, or maybe even the final Cylon. If this is Earth, though, there are even more perplexing questions to answer, especially What happened? One possibility might be that the non-rebel Cylons somehow reached Earth first and are responsible for destroying it. Another is that Kara herself somehow caused this to happen when she was here before. Still another is that Earth was destroyed long ago by their own version of the Cylons (of whom the Final Five might be a remnant). As Pythia said, “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.” On that possibility, there is Kara’s (possibly prophetic) comment at the beginning of this episode that “the parents have to die for the children to reach their full potential;” is this perhaps a hint that the search for Earth might itself be getting in the way of their true destiny? In the end, will this crop of humans and Cylons together have to restart the cycle? Who knows, but I can’t believe we’ll have to wait until 2009 to find out!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Quote - Wendell Berry on Art and Sex

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community:

When sexual lovemaking is shown in art, one can respond intelligently to it by means of a handful of questions: Are the lovers represented as merely "physical" bodies or as two living souls? Does the representation make it possible to see why Eros has been understood not as an instinct or a "drive" but as a god? Are we asked to see this act as existing in and of and for itself or as joined to the great cycle of fertility and mortality? Does it belong to nature and to culture? Can we imagine this sweetness continuing on through the joys and difficulties of homemaking, the births and upbringing of children, the deaths of parents and friends--through disagreements, hardships, quarrels, aging and death? Does it encourage us to forget or to remember that "certainly it must come to pass that the very gentle Beatrice will die."?...

The relevance of such imagining is urgently practical; it is the propriety or justness that holds art and the world together. To represent sex without this fullness of imagination is to foreshadow the degradation and destruction of all that is not imagined. Just as the ruin of farmers, farming, and farmland may be predicted from a society's failure to imagine food in all its meanings and connections, so the failure to imagine sex in all its power and sanctity is to prepare the ruin of family and community life and of much else. In order to expose the privacy of sex, we have made of it another industrial specialization, leaving it naked not only of clothes and of customary discretions and courtesies but also of its cultural and natural connections. (pgs. 165-166)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Art, Nudity and Sex and the City

As you may be aware, the new Sex and the City movie has caused quite a stir in some Christian circles, for its graphic sexuality and nudity. Though the movie was mostly panned by the critics (Rotten Tomatoes has it at 52% - rotten), it was popular at the box office and at least a few Christians have written positive reviews (for instance, Barbara Nicolosi, whom I respect). When Christianity Today (CT) published its own quite positive review, however, it sparked so much controversy that they felt obliged to post a response defending their right to review morally objectionable films. Ted Slater then wrote a scathing Open Letter at Boundless Line (an arm of Focus on the Family), denouncing them for “promoting” such a film and calling them to repent:

Your review grudgingly admitted that "there is a lot of sex and nudity in the movie." Your disclaimer went on to say that this movie isn't for "some adults." By "some adults," do you mean those who take the call of Christ seriously, to flee sexual immorality and pursue a life of righteousness? And that other, less conscientious adults should disregard the pursuit of holiness and "enjoy" (to use a term from the original review) this portrayal of illicit vulgarity?
The post drew 150 comments and a number of blog reactions, ranging from enthusiastic congratulations to impassioned objections (for example, see these discussions at Christ and Pop Culture). The key issues at stake seem to be: 1. Is it OK for (some) Christians to watch sexually explicit films, and 2. If (some or all) Christians should not watch such things, do Christian publications have a responsibility not to “promote” them through positive reviews?

Now I have not seen Sex and the City, I have no desire nor plan to do so, and I’m not even that concerned to defend or condemn Christianity Today (I think their review was questionable, but Slater’s response was over-the-top). But these two questions are broadly applicable and have left me rethinking my own approach to film. The truth is, my own views have become much more permissive over the years. When I was single, I firmly believed that any nudity in film (and most sexuality) was sinful and not something I should see. I don’t think I was wrong, either; as a single guy that was a temptation I was not equipped to handle well. When other Christians tried to distinguish between “tasteful” nudity and mere pornography, I understood the artistic difference (sort of), but could not see the moral distinction. As far as I was concerned, any movie that included such a thing, no matter how good otherwise, was off-limits.

But since I’ve been married (five and a half years now), my views have softened and I find myself watching films with stronger sexual themes without qualm. Whether because I'm more mature, or just desensitized, I know that these films do not affect me in the same way that they once did. For instance, if I had watched Knocked Up as a teenager… well, let’s just say it would not have been good for me; but at this stage in my life its excessive sexuality left me more disgusted than harmed. It was gratuitous and immoral, but it’s a simple fact that such images don’t stick with me the way they did as a teenager.

More generally, I no longer think that the amount of nudity (or other immorality) is as important as the context in which it is shown. If deliberately sexualized, even implied nudity can be much more harmful than explicit (but non-sexual) nudity. An obvious example of the latter would be the nudity in Schindler’s List, which is very graphic, but not at all sexual nor gratuitous. In contrast, these days it seems like almost every soap commercial is filled with highly sexualized images of women showering. Though they never include full nudity, these ads present a sexuality with no connection to any relationship. Added simply to get a reaction out of the audience, it doesn’t much matter that the sexual organs are just off-camera, this is essentially pornographic.

Alternatively, if a film shows two people fall in love and then implies that they had sex (perhaps even showing some skin), that may often be immoral, but it’s not necessarily as harmful to me as a viewer – it largely depends on the moral tone of the story. Is it presented as a legitimate expression of sexuality or a mistake? Are the real consequences of sex recognized or ignored? Does the film have an overarching moral tone, or is it simply trying to titillate the viewer? Unfortunately, the vast majority of the sexuality in modern film falls into the latter category, but this is not always so, and when it is an important part of a redemptive story, even full nudity can be less harmful than using sensual images simply to induce a sexual reaction in the viewer.

But however that may be, such distinctions require a level of maturity that is not automatic. It’s not just that I didn’t recognize them when I was younger, but that I couldn’t. At that stage of my life, almost any nudity was liable to affect me as strongly sexual, and I have to realize that this is still true of many other (younger) Christians, some of whom may perhaps read this blog. I’m starting to recognize that if I’m going to discuss films or TV shows with sexual elements, I need to be more aware of this potential and do a better job than I have of warning about such aspects of anything I recommend or discuss.

Moreover, even such considerations do not excuse all my viewing of sexually explicit material. However I may have matured, I’m still a human male who (whether I see it or not) is liable to be influenced by the presentation of sex I see in the media. And just because I now believe that some nudity can be legitimate and, occasionally, even necessary, that doesn’t change the fact that most of what Hollywood produces does not fit that category. Even if I am better at recognizing and critiquing such distortions than I once was, that doesn’t mean it’s good for me to see such things. As St. Paul said, just because it’s permissible doesn’t mean it’s beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

As I’ve shifted from judging film by the amount of immorality it portrays, to judging by the overarching worldview it embodies, I may have become a more mature critic, but in the process have I rationalized my own exposure to immorality? Where once I would have rejected a movie with brief nudity or even just too much swearing -- even if the story as a whole was redemptive -- today I’m more likely to do the opposite, forgiving almost any fault if the eventual goal is positive or thought-provoking. Granted, the world can be a messy and immoral place, and it is legitimate for film to acknowledge that, but have I drawn the line too far? If a film does include gratuitous nudity and excessive sexuality, can I justify dismissing that just because the story symbolizes some spiritual truth that, frankly, I could just as easily learn elsewhere? I’m not so sure anymore. “Mature” or not, perhaps I’m more a child of my culture than I’d like to believe.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Moloch or Mammon

Interesting comment by Mark S. (from here, commenting on this post; links added):

I can completely understand a devout Christian looking at the political views of Obama (as well as most prominent Democrats) and being rather disgusted. I get it. In fact, I'm right there with you.

What I don't get is many of those same people turning around and loving the Republicans. Their vileness is a different vileness, to be sure, but it is still vile.

Just because I won't vote for Moloch doesn't mean I'm going to vote for Mammon.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Internet Fried My Brain

Interesting article in The Atlantic on the Internet’s impact on reading habits (HT Boundless Line):

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle....

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

I certainly empathize with this struggle to keep engaged with lengthy material. I rarely read anything online in full, unless I plan on quoting it, and I am easily distracted no matter what I’m reading. It’s particularly a problem if I’m sitting near my laptop, in which case I’m constantly fighting the urge to check my email, sitemeter, or favorite blogs. I have use of an office at my church, and when they finally decided to secure their wireless network, I was almost glad not to have the WEP key -- I get so much more done there without the temptation to hop online.

But I can’t say that I read any fewer books now than I ever did. Perhaps because I’ve been an Internet addict since at least sixth grade, I tend to automatically switch between different approaches to reading, from scanning, to reading quickly but in full, to slowly digesting with pencil in hand. My ability to concentrate depends greatly upon the nature and context of what I’m reading. Of course, if something is well written, on a subject I care very much about, and/or helpful to answering a question I’m curious about, I’m more likely to finish it, but I have a much easier time reading large blocks of text on paper than on a computer. I really can’t imagine ever reading a full book on my laptop, nor do I think I would remember as much of it if I did so. Even lengthy articles make me antsy when I try to read them online (heck, I didn't even finish the one quoted above!).

As much as I love the idea of carrying my library around in my computer, I'm beginning to think it would only be helpful as a supplement to "the real thing," never as its replacement.

Quote - Christianity and Story

Robert Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue:

Christianity is, at its core, not an abstract philosophy, but a story; not pure factual reportage, but a recounting of one life in order that other lives might be transformed. (pgs. 78-79)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Good and Evil in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

I finally finished my latest Salvo article this morning, so hopefully I can get back to more regular posting now (but then again, my thesis is suffering from lack of attention, so we’ll see). In the mean time, here’s a reworked post on Star Wars Episode III, which I watched again today (I needed a break):

I can’t say if Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Star Wars film, but it ranks near the top. Yes, the acting and dialogue are pretty bad at times (in which Star Wars film aren’t they?), and yes the CGI was sometimes over-the-top (but much better than in Episodes I and II), but I love the glimpse it gives of the Old Republic in all its glory, the battle scenes are far and away the best of the series, and all around I think it gives good closure to the story.

But there are two particular aspects of the film that have left some people scratching their heads: The apparently superficial justification for Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, and the conversation between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi just before their climactic light-saber duel. In the first case, Anakin goes from learning that Palpatine is an evil Sith Master and wanting to kill him, to saving his life and killing in his name, only because he thinks it might save his wife Padmé’s life. In the second, Obi-Wan responds to Anakin’s insistence that he either support the Emperor or be seen as his enemy, by claiming “only the Sith deal in absolutes” - a strange thing to say considering Star Wars’ consistent emphasis on the choice between light and dark, good and evil. What’s going on here? Both of these oddities could simply be chalked up to George Lucas’ famously poor writing, but together I think they actually make an important point about the nature of good an evil.

It’s easy to think that evil is a power all its own, an equal and opposite alternative to good. Indeed, it seems possible to find such a view in Star Wars itself, with its emphasis on the light and dark sides of the Force. This, in fact, is what Palpatine himself affirms in enticing Anakin with powers supposedly unavailable to him among the Jedi. “The dark side is a path to many abilities that some consider unnatural,” he tells him, and implies that only through the dark side can Anakin save Padmé. Even Anakin’s destiny – “to bring balance to the Force” – could be understood in this way, as a balance of competing opposites. But Revenge of the Sith seems intent to deconstruct such a view. Palpatine, it turns out, has no real power that a true Jedi lacks – he doesn’t save Padmé, nor does he prove any stronger than Yoda in battle – he succeeds only by twisting the loyalty of others (itself a good thing), quietly turning the Republic into an Empire.

In the same way, Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is not presented as an embrace of dark and unnatural powers particularly, but as a misguided and destructive crusade (ostensibly) to save his wife. Believing that only the Emperor can do this, he comes to see all disloyalty as evil, blinding himself to the much greater evils he is doing in the process. It is this, then, to which Obi-Wan is responding when he says “only the Sith deal in absolutes.” It is not the absolute of good verses evil to which he refers - as though Star Wars had suddenly embraced moral relativism - but the absolutizing of one good to the exclusion of all others.

One path to the dark side, Lucas seems to be saying, can lie in making any particular good so all-consuming that everything else becomes dispensable. Anakin has become so obsessed with “saving” Padmé that he is willing to destroy everything good in the universe to do so – even, it turns out, Padmé herself. By opposing him in this, Obi-Wan has become – to Anakin’s mind – an enemy, but that is only because Anakin has lost sight of the true line between good and evil. In rejecting such an “absolute,” Obi-Wan is trying to confront Anakin with the danger of this path, but Anakin can no longer understand such thinking. He now sees any and all disloyalty to himself or the emperor as enmity, the only evil he can still comprehend.

By presenting the central tragedy of the Star Wars saga in this way, Lucas has in fact dismantled the dualism (light balanced with dark) that many found in the original trilogy, replacing it with a much more Christian understanding of evil. In fact, he’s really echoing St. Augustine, who argued that evil is not a thing in itself – some alternative power standing over-against God and good – but merely the absence or distortion of good. So when in the end Anakin does fulfill his destiny and bring balance to the Force, it comes precisely by destroying evil - killing the emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. Evil, it turns out, is not a balancing factor, but the source of unbalance, a parasite on the good, not its equal. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that evil in the Star Wars universe is known as “the dark side” – for darkness is not a thing in itself; it is merely the absence of light.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Prayer Request Update

Thank you so much to those of you who prayed for my brother-in-law! I haven't been able to visit him yet, but here's what I've heard: Yesterday afternoon he was at work (he's a welder) cleaning a machine he doesn't normally operate, when someone accidentally turned it on, crushing the fingers of his left hand. In order to avoid causing even further damage, it took them fully two minutes to safely disengage the machine and free his hand. He was then driven to a local hospital, which was unable to treat him, and flown across the state to a hospital that could. The four fingers were "hanging by a thread" and kept on ice during the flight.

Arriving at the new hospital, the surgeon said that the bones had been crushed and estimated that he had a 95-99% chance of losing them (if not the whole hand). But after a seven hour operation, they were able to reattach all four (but "shortened," with the crushed portion removed), and are hopeful that he will retain their use. This is by no means assured at this point, and he's expected to be in the hospital for at least five or six days anyway, but it looks like the surgery was far more successful than they had hoped. Thank God!

I'll update again when I know more, but please continue to pray that there are no further complications.

The Wittenburg Door on the Atheist Alliance International Conference

The Wittenburg Door has up a long but informative and entertaining article covering last September’s Atheist Alliance International Conference and the perspective it provides on “the New Atheism.” In the article, Joe Bob Briggs describes the feverish atmosphere, the curious lack of any intereaction with previous generations of philosophers and theologians who have pondered the subject, the near constant obsession with Science as The Answer To All Our Problems, and the anti-religious nature of much of the conference (and especially Christopher Hitchens). But to me the most interesting part of the article was his description of the one speaker – Sam Harris – who dared to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of his fellow-presenters:

The Harrisy began as most heresies do, with a few simple offhand musings. Harris noted that he’s an atheist only by default. After writing The End of Faith he was constantly questioned about his own religious beliefs, and for a long time he didn’t give any answer. Eventually he started calling himself atheist because he thought it was becoming intellectually dishonest to say anything else. Still, he continued, he doesn’t think atheism should be a movement, and that perhaps the term itself is a mistake. “After all, did you have to be a non-racist? Atheism is not really a philosophy or a worldview. So we run the risk of being seen as a cranky subculture. And I think that could be a trap that is deliberately set for us. It allows people to reject our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. We should not call ourselves anything. We should be under the radar.”

You could already sense the crowd starting to move toward the audience-participation microphone–this was a cold-water moment for those who had shown up to start the revolution–but then Harris went further to say that much in atheism was lazy: “We have to admit that Islam is quite a bit scarier than Christianity. So we are constrained to talk about Islam. To be evenhanded is bullshit. Some religions don’t have extremists.”

More murmuring. Moses is temporarily absent on Horeb–what’s this guy doing?

But Harris, it turned out, was saving his real bombshell for the end. He concluded his talk with a review of “the rich vein of contemplative literature” indicating that there might be some value to religious mysticism! “Our pleasures are fleeting,” he said, sounding a little like Billy Graham. “We enter into a search for happiness, a victory over boredom and doubt. So many people wonder: Is there a deeper form of well-being? Is happiness possible? This question lies at the periphery of all religion. And we love our answer. For many of us, that answer is No. And yet certain people are led to spirituality and meditation. If happiness exists, it should be available somewhere. Otherwise this life is a form of solitary confinement. So we have this rich vein of contemplative literature. Is it all psychopathology? Is it all a fraud? Perhaps there are alternatives to neurosis. . . . As atheists, we can be accused of purging the universe of mystery.”

I was stunned. Did I just hear the leading exponent of atheism in America, the guy who told Rick Warren what a crock his Jesus was, make some Ecclesiastes-style observations about the emptiness of day-to-day life and then say “haven’t you ever thought there must be more than that in life”? Isn’t that the traditional lead-in to . . . gulp . . . the altar call?

Well, yes. Yes, he did, and the atheists weren’t happy about it.

The whole article is well worth reading (but set aside some time for it, it’s over 7500 words).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Please Pray...

I don't normally post personal matters, but please pray for my brother-in-law! This afternoon his hand was crushed in a hydraulic press, nearly severing all five fingers and causing substantial damage. He is currently being airlifted across the state to a hospital that can treat him, but there is a (good) chance he could lose his hand. He's only 22 and has a young son. Please pray that God would give the doctors wisdom to restore his hand!

Gregory Wolfe on Pop-Culture and Battlestar Galactica

Gregory Wolfe (editor of the “highbrow” journal Image) offers some excellent perspective on the highbrow/lowbrow distinction and why "popular culture" is a bit of a misnomer (HT Jeff Overstreet):

The problem isn’t really Highbrow versus Lowbrow. That’s a simplification. The criticisms of pop culture I most resonate to are not the ones that decry pop because it’s not sophisticated and complex. No, the problem with popular culture these days isn’t that it comes up from the people. It’s that it comes from massive corporations, who produce it according to marketing statistics so that the end result is bland, lowest-common denominator schlock.

True pop culture came from the people; it was hand-made, plucked on guitars and sawed on fiddles. It arose out of common experience; it had a history, even a tradition.

He goes on to explain why, despite all this, he’s become a huge fan of shows like Battlestar Galactica, which defy that lowest-common denominator approach:
BSG has everything I’d always loved in sci fi—space battles, ethical dilemmas, and a certain grittiness that reminded me that those space-faring folks were still profoundly human. The retro elements of the series—the Battlestar is more like an aircraft carrier in WWII than a starship, there are no transporters, and they still use telephones attached to the walls!—keep it real. Moore has given us a series that contains three things that Star Trek had abandoned: politics, war, and religion.

Moreover, by having the rebellious robots (known as Cylons) evolve into biological entities indistinguishable from human beings, Moore came up with a perfect device to explore the ambiguities of the human condition.

Quote - John Haught on God and Science

John Haught, "Darwin, Design and Divine Providence," in Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA (edited by William Dembski and Michael Ruse):

The real issue here is not whether evolution rules out a divine designer, but whether the Darwinian picture of life refutes the notion that divine Providence is essentially self-giving love. The approach of evolutionists such as Dawkins and Dennett is first to reduce the idea of God to that of a designer, then to argue that Darwinism explains design adequately, and finally to conclude that Darwinism has thus made God superfluous. It does not help things theologically, of course, that ID also - at least in its formal argumentation - implicitly reduces ultimate explanation to that of intelligent design. However, in any serious discussion of evolution and theism, there is little point in abstract references to emaciated philosophical ideas of deity, especially those that picture this ultimate reality as essentially an engineer, mechanic, or designer. Instead, scientists and scientifically educated philosophers must converse with thoughts about God that arise from actual religious symbols and teachings. (pg. 241)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

How to Waste Your Theological Education

I think this list is aimed primarily at seminary students, but a number of them hit home for me as well. I'm linking it here so I can reread it any time I become too focused on academics to the detriment of my spiritual life.