Monthly Archives: July 2008

Update From Oxford

I arrived in Oxford on Saturday afternoon for the 2008 Oxbridge conference, and things have been great so far! Saturday night I attended a small dinner/reception at The Kilns, the lovely home of C.S. Lewis which is now owned and maintained by the C.S. Lewis Foundation.  There’s something truly magical about being in this place–the gardens and study where Lewis found his inspiration to write such classics as The Chronicles of Narnia among most of his other pivotal books. Its a comfortable place, quiet and stately, very English but not at all pretentious. You can almost feel his presence here.

Other highlights of the conference so far include:

  • A beautiful opening worship service at St. Mary’s the Virgin Church in Oxford, in which the preacher, Derick Bingham (of Christ Church, Belfast) quoted a glorious passage from C.S. Lewis’ famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which Lewis delivered in the same pulpit 67 years earlier.
  • A plenary address by Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Seminary) which included him joking about being happily Calvinist and yet deeply respecting the ideas of Lewis (who tended toward Arminian thought).  Mouw also showed a clip of Mick Jagger and made references to Derrida, Gergen, and other “postmoderns” in a way that was suprisingly not so tiresome.
  • An amazing theater performance in which the famous “Addison’s Walk” conversation between C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson was reenacted. This was the walk (in the gardens of Magdalen College) where Lewis supposedly was convinced that not only was there a God, but that Jesus very likely was his true son.  Lots of great, theological dialogue inspired by Tolkien’s notions that in ancient myths we see the divine preparation for the one True Myth (Christ’s death and ressurection)… a sort of working-out through the arts of God’s mystical revelation and incarnation.

Overall the conference is just as magical as it always is, what with the towering spires of this ancient land and the spirit of Lewis hovering over it all… But most of all his legacy, which includes such great ideas and articulations of the Christian (nay, human) experience. Take this quote from “The Weight of Glory”:

“Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised by the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

It’s nice to be reminded that as dire as our human condition is and as corrupted as our desires may be, there is still a spark within us–a longing–that pushes us towards a higher satisfaction. You can feel glimpses of that here at this conference, and as such it’s an event that beautifully embodies Lewis’ legacy.

Many more great things to come in the next 10 days, doubtless. I’ll try to post another update soon!

Films About Guys Who Can’t Grow Up

I saw Step Brothers earlier this week, and laughed a lot. It’s a film about two forty-year-olds (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilley) who act as if they are thirteen and bond over shared interests such as velociraptors and Cops. It’s a very funny, highly enjoyable film; but it’s also a very familiar film. How many of these R-rated “guys stuck in adolescence” films have we seen in the last ten years? Call it the “frat pack” or whatever you will, but the trend is hard to miss: films about guys hanging out with other guys and getting into all sorts of immature mischief.

The list of films is very long, and includes such hits as Wedding Crashers, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Dodgeball, and Superbad. These are films celebrating the R-rated, testosterone-fueled hijinks of man-boys who refuse to grow up. They are films that are immensely popular with mainly male audiences, but why? What is it about watching pathetic grown men acting like infants that we find so fun and appealing? (And I laugh too… certainly).

I suspect it has something to do with the larger trend of demasculization in culture that has taken place in the last few decades. After the first couple waves of feminism, the divorce boom in the 70s and 80s, and the pushing of all sorts of sexual boundaries in the 90s, gender has become a very confusing issue. Men have come out of this time the most damaged, it seems, with fewer and fewer father figures and role models to show them the right way to express adult masculinity. It’s only natural that film and television would express this confused identity in comedic form—historically the site of much of our collective working-out of contradiction and paradox.

I suppose the films of Adam McKay and Judd Apatow are popular not only because they are full of hilarious actors, but because they are giving voice to a large population of American males who feel stuck between an adulthood they aren’t prepared for and an adolescence that’s never felt completely comfortable. We don’t know quite what to think about masculine identity anymore, so the logical thing to do is just parody and laugh at it.

Another Sad Blow for Film Criticism

As if to rub salt in the already gaping wound of professional film criticism, it was announced this week that Disney was revamping “At the Movies,” the syndicated TV series in which Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper (filling Gene Siskel’s original slot) gave weekly “two thumb” ratings to new film releases.

Unthinkably, this “revamping” includes firing Ebert and Roeper and hiring (brace yourselves) Ben Lyons of E! and Ben Mankiewicz of Air America to take the reigns. Now I don’t know much about Mankiewicz, but I do know that Ben Lyons (son of legendary poster-quote whore Jeffrey Lyons) is not a film critic by any means. He’s a film critic in the same sense that Heidi Montag is Christian pop singer. In other words: nothing more than a pitiful wannabe.

In addition to the new hosts, the reworked “At the Movies” will aggressively target a “younger demo,” according to Mankiewicz. In essence this will mean no more nuance or intelligent analysis of film.

Thankfully Roger Ebert has refused to relinquish his trademark ownership of the “thumbs up” moniker, so the new pair will have to use another set of catchy critical criteria: “See it, rent it, skip it.” Doubtless they will put the “see it” designation to frequent use with respect to Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott, and Eli Roth films, and other such wicked awesome frat film favorites.

Granted, Ebert being replaced was a necessary change (he can’t speak anymore), but why couldn’t they have replaced him with some up and coming critic of merit like Variety’s Justin Chang, LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas or The New York Times’ Manolia Dargis (a colleague of mine at UCLA).

Alas, I shouldn’t be too worried. The new version of “At the Movies” will doubtless be cancelled within a year. Young people aren’t going to start watching TV again just to hear what some unproven idiot like Lyons has to say about The Watchmen.

Even so, it is certainly the end of an era—the “Ebert on TV Era” we might say—and that is a painful fact for those of us who’ve looked up to him for so many years.

What Was Going to Be My Epic Calvinism Post…

So I wrote this long draft of a blog post a few weekends ago entitled “Why I am a Calvinist” and it was full of some heavy duty theologizing (for me). I spent hours and hours writing it, talking about the doctrines of predestination, the atonement, justification, and so on… I was quoting John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and many others. It was epic. And then I lost it. All of it. Unsaved and (somehow) un-recovered on my computer.

So of course when that happened I wondered: was this a sign? Was I being chastised for attempting to make an argument for Calvinism? Or maybe it was the devil?

Either way, as someone with a definite Calvinist bent, don’t I have to believe that the unfortunate deletion of my epic blog post was meant to happen? If God is supremely sovereign in all things (which I believe he is), why should I be worried by something like this? Surely there is a reason for me losing that work, and maybe it’s that I’m now writing this. Or maybe I can’t understand how God works or what sovereignty and free will look like. And that, ironically, is one of the main points I wanted to make in the first place.

People look at Calvinism and think of predestination, an angry God, and an elitist “elect.” It doesn’t look that attractive to the average human because it goes against (seemingly) so much of what we feel to be true: that we are aware of our choices and active in our actions, that we have free will. But my question is: why do we assume that what we think of as free will is necessarily in conflict with the sovereignty of God (which we’ve conceptualized in terms like “predestination”)? Couldn’t it be true that in God’s reality (which is certainly not within our human capacity to understand) there is no disharmony between him determining all human history and reality and it actually happening by what we call choice? I’m not saying all human dichotomies have no transcendent application (surely good and evil are transcendent categories in eternal conflict); I’m only suggesting that many of them might end up being perfectly sensible and resolved in God’s plane.

But that’s really abstract, and if anyone is going to be swayed by anything I write I should probably move into more rational modes. So briefly, here are but a few of the more concrete reasons why Calvinism is attractive and sensible to me:

• It views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. To me, if there is a God, he is either infinitely sovereign or not God at all.

• In this view, God alone is sufficient to save. He doesn’t need any help (i.e. he doesn’t just “open the door” for people to choose salvation but does it all, start-to-finish, himself). Those who insist that humans have to do some of the salvation work, even just by consciously deciding to accept God’s gift, are limiting the power of God. Did not the cross accomplish salvation once and for all? Did not he say “It is finished!”? Salvation belongs to the Lord, the author and finisher of it.

• Calvinism has a much more beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.

• Calvinism’s view of God is ultimately the most comforting. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, I think that I would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.

• It rings true to me that nothing I can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that I have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).

• “God wants me” holds infinitely more weight than “I want God.”

• Calvinism is about certainty; There is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough, because it has nothing to do with my own powers. God pours out his grace freely and unconditionally, and all I can do is be consumed by it.

• Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. Like it or not, this makes so much more sense to me than a Christianity that isn’t first and foremost about God saving pitiful sinners.

• Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. We need to fear him, and respect him. He’s God, whether we like it (or believe it) or not.

• Calvinism allows the modern church to reconnect with its heritage and grounds itself in history, tradition, theology, and the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. I like what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.

I could go on and on, but that’s probably enough for now. While I am more and more identifying with Calvinism these days, I don’t want to come across as some sort of apologist for it. First of all, it’s not some monolithic way of thinking or some “club” to which one must belong. On many levels I think Calvinism and Arminianism are not as diametrically opposed as they are often assumed to be.

As I stated early on in this post, I think it is beyond our rational capabilities to truly understand the mysteries of free will and determinism. And honestly, does it really affect your day-to-day life? Even if I think that God has ordained my every action, I still must make choices to either sin or strive for righteousness, and those are real choices (in a sense we can’t fully understand). And while I agree that grace is given solely by God and salvation is his work 100%, I still must actively engage people in conversations about the gospel, presenting it to them as a conduit of God’s grace, just as I must help the poor and the sick even while understanding that God controls all of it. Calvinists who shrug off these responsibilities are erring on the side of fatalism. It’s one thing to completely ignore the repeated commands of Christ (the great commission, etc), but it is also just nonsensical to assume that God disseminates his grace outside of the work of human agents. This isn’t the same as saying he needs us; just that we are his, bound up with his grand purposes on earth. Such are the awesome mysteries of being captured by God’s grace.

Evil Incarnate in Cinema

Because I had other things to say about The Dark Knight in my previous post, I avoided too much discussion of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. But there is a ton to say about it, and after seeing the film a second time today, I really feel like writing more…

Heath Ledger’s Joker is, in a word, evil. Pure evil. He goes beyond a villain. As others have suggested, he may even be the devil incarnate. He’s motivated not by money but by a desire to see good go bad, to show the world that there is no escaping from sin (in the way that Satan hoped to tempt Christ in the desert and prove him susceptible to sin like everyone else).

In addition to Ledger’s maniacal, full-bodied (possessed?) acting, there are other things Nolan and crew do to make the Joker so utterly disturbing. The fact that he just pops onto the Gotham crime scene, seemingly from hell, makes him all the more devilish. We know nothing of who he is, where he’s from, if he’s really human. When incarcerated, the police can’t find any traces of anything remotely useful for identification. He’s a ghostly ghoul, a specter of chaos who seems to have superhuman abilities to orchestrate mayhem in all corners of the city. (And I’d be lying if I said the ghost-aspect wasn’t all the more eerie in light of Ledger actually being dead.)

Other, more subtle filmmaking touches add to the character’s malevolence. Sound, for example: the dissonant, buzz/drone Joker theme (as devised by Hans Zimmer) is spine-tingling; and the scene where Nolan cuts all sound as the Joker frightfully sticks his head out of the speeding cop car hammers home just how utterly serious this sometimes-funny demon actually is.

Portrayals like this—where evil is totally unexplained and yet so thoroughly convincing—are far more disturbing than the “look what happened in my childhood” villains of the horror film pantheon. Ledger’s Joker reminded me of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, or even Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview—other recent embodiments of amoral men wreaking havoc, death, and destruction in the worlds they inhabit. It is interesting to me that these performances are increasingly the most lauded and rewarded in our culture. Both Bardem and Day Lewis won Oscars for their performances last year, and Ledger will doubtless be nominated for one (if not win) this year.

What is it about seeing evil so convincingly rendered on screen that attracts our praise? Why are there so many more “tour de force” performances of dastardly wretches than there are of good people? Indeed, why is it so hard to evoke a convincing portrayal of good, pure, moral characters in film and literature? Dostoevsky tried it in The Idiot (in the character of Myshkin) but ultimately failed. Is it even possible to evoke a righteous person as convincingly as an evil one? Perhaps it is because we are fallen and so unfamiliar with righteousness that we cannot produce these performances. But that still doesn’t answer the question: why do we celebrate the evil characters so much? Why are we going so ape-wild over Heath Ledger’s presentation (and I’m guilty of it, for sure) of an evil that is perhaps unparalleled in screen history?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for great acting performances. But at what point should we worry about our attraction to something so devilish as Heath Ledger’s Joker?

The Dark Knight

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

Some have accused The Dark Knight of being too much movie, and if there is any fault with this epic film, this is probably it. Knight is so absolutely full—overflowing, really—with ideas and provocations… it is almost too much for one movie to bear. As such, I’ve had a hard time deciding just what I wanted to say here about it. I could go on and on about Heath Ledger’s performance (which was spectacular, frightening, funny, disturbing, etc) or talk about the film’s striking resonances with a post 9/11, terrorism-stricken world (not to mention a presidential election year).

But as much as this film is about politics and terrorism and psychopaths and crime, it is also a film about ethics and epistemology and the questioning of the hero myth.

As the marketing campaign indicated it would be, Knight is chiefly about three men: Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent. Each has his own way of dealing with a world gone wrong. Batman compensates for his own emotional injuries by donning a mask to battle one city’s criminal underworld to whatever extent he can. The Joker compensates in a different way: by making things even more anarchic. Because he suffers from the world’s cruelty, the Joker makes everyone else suffer. And then there is Harvey Dent, the “white light” of Gotham who offers the city’s best hope for reform. Dent is an idealist, answering the insanity of the world by aggressively dealing in fixed binaries: good vs. evil.

In the end, the approaches of the Joker and Dent (Two Face) prove unsustainable. The Joker’s thesis that chaos necessarily reigns supreme because humans are irredeemably self-destructive is proven untrue in the film’s final setup, but this is no big surprise. The world is obviously not quite as malevolent as the Joker hopes it is.

What happens to Dent and his ideologies, however, is far more disturbing. Doubtless he is sincere about his desires to make things better for Gotham, but his sense of justice ultimately proves his downfall. He appeals only to himself for ethical jurisdiction, rather than any transcendent norms or guidelines. “I make my own luck” is his mantra early in the film, with his two-headed coin his symbolic way of mocking fate. But as the film progresses, Dent comes to see that his bifurcated moral lens is altogether arbitrary and unable to wield much authority over the complexities of morality and law. Having lost faith in “the good guys” by film’s end, Dent loses trust in himself. His coin becomes the two-sided, fate-driven determinant of crucial ethical choices.

This is, of course, exactly what the Joker wants: for Gotham to see that even its most “moral” hope is ultimately subject to the collapse of his unsupportable dogmas. But Batman will not let this happen, and herein the film’s most incisive commentaries come to fruition. Batman orchestrates a cover-up so that the public will not see Harvey Dent’s moral collapse. Taking on the mantle of the “Dark Knight,” Batman becomes public enemy #1 so as to maintain order and hope in a “for the greater good” sort of way. In the film’s beautiful (and tragic) final scenes, director Christopher Nolan’s point is hammered home: in a world as crazy as this one, sometimes deception is necessary to protect the world from itself. If the true ugliness of everything were revealed, perhaps chaos would reign supreme. We need examples, figureheads, Aristotelian moral guidance—otherwise we might give in to the worst within our selves.

This is a stark and disturbing conclusion, and it bothers me in many ways. I’m not sure if Nolan is arguing that this is how it should be (lying for the greater good) or this is how it is, but either way it is frightening.

It is immensely dangerous, I think, to protect our heroes from fallibility. The end of Knight suggests that letting the public see a flawed, morally (and physically) disfigured Dent would cause irreparable damage to the fight against crime. But isn’t it true that things would be even worse if later on people found out that Gotham authorities had covered up Dent’s failings, holding the wool over the public’s eyes to keep them gleefully ignorant? Though not a parallel example, the film made me think about Pat Tillman—how the government lied to us about the circumstances of his death to offer us a heroic figurehead who died at the hands of the enemy terrorists (turns out he died by friendly fire). How many other cases are there in politics where we’ve been deceived by a government who concluded it was in our best interest to not know the “full truth”?

The danger and deception of holding our leaders and heroes to too high a standard is never more evident than in the church today. Time and time again the church is made to look foolish because of fallen leaders (Catholic priests, Ted Haggard, etc) who—because they have been painted as incorruptible moral exemplars—do immense damage to the overall legitimacy of Christianity. If we are more about hiding sin than dealing with it, why would anyone look to our gospel for any sort of relevant, reconciliatory truth?

Whether it is a letter than we burn to protect someone from the truth (as Alfred does with Rachel’s letter to Bruce), or a surveillance technology we use in secret “for the greater good,” we must sacrifice full disclosure—The Dark Knight seems to suggest—for the sake of order rather than chaos. Though I agree that things are complicated (morality especially), I’m not sure that protecting people from the dark truths in the world is the best course of action. We need heroes, yes, but not heroes that are too perfect.

I read an essay once by Jenny Lyn Bader that described the transformation of heroes in American culture over the past fifty years, and I think it is instructive here. She argued that our “larger than life” heroes have proven less and less relevant in a world in which life is now larger. Because we now realize that the good guy/bad guy split is a reductive approach to life, we have to look beyond superheroes to more everyday, imperfect yet admirable role models, though it may prove more difficult:

A world without heroes is a rigorous, demanding place, where things don’t boil down to black and white but are rich with shades of gray; where faith in lofty, dead personages can be replaced by faith in ourselves and one another; where we must summon the strength to imagine a five-dimensional future in colors not yet invented. My generation grew up to see our world shift, so it’s up to us to steer a course between naivete and nihilism, to reshape vintage stories, to create stories of spirit without apologies.

In Knight we see the polarities of naivete (Dent) and nihilism (Joker), and how Batman tries to forge the gray middle ground between the two. In the end I’m not sure how I feel about what Batman has become, though I suppose that is how we are supposed to feel. On one hand his is a story of spirit without apology—a man willing to bear the weight of hatred and “be the villain” in order to truly be the hero. But I also don’t feel completely comfortable with his willingness to deceive the public—to keep them from the horrific truths that he is somehow uniquely able to bear. It is a dangerous thing to designate oneself as somehow more capable of dealing with truth than the “average Joes” of the world. Dostoevsky could tell you that. So could Shakespeare. And if Batman continues down that path, he’ll become in truth the villain he is now only pretending to be.

Is “Online Community” an Oxymoron?

L.A. is a lot like the blogosphere. It is sprawling and overwhelming, though manageable if you find your niche. It’s full of pockets and localized communities where ideas and ideologies are reinforced in insulated communities. And like L.A., the blogosphere can be very, very impersonal.

One thing I’ve struggled with during my first year of blogging is the ever present dichotomy of, on one hand, feeling more connected to people than ever before, and on the other feeling a bit isolated from the “real” world. Do you other bloggers feel that tension? It is a very personal thing to share one’s thoughts, but also a very strange thing to do it from so veiled a position. Are humans really meant to be so unrestricted in their ability to mass communicate?

I certainly feel more empowered and willing to say pretty much whatever I want when I write for my blog, which is totally great but also a total misrepresentation of non-blogging life. I wouldn’t dare say some of the things I’ve written on this blog in person to very many people, though that doesn’t mean I don’t believe them. Which, of course, begs the question: what is more “real”? Self-constructed, though thoroughly free-wheeling and uncensored online discourse, or co-constructed, slightly-more-tactful in person communication? I want to say the former, but large parts of me feel that the latter is truer, that it is in the unsaid presences and awkward cadences of simultaneous communication between people that the most important things reveal themselves.

Of course, by saying this, I’d have to say that Martin Luther reading the words of Paul in his isolated monk’s chambers is somehow inferior (in terms of meaning-making) to an insipid dorm room conversation about predestination, and I’m not prepared to go that far. But I think I might be talking about two different things here: communication as arbiter of ideas and communication as creator of relationships. Perhaps one method (the written or otherwise recorded word transmitted impersonally) is superior in terms of elucidating the meaning of abstract ideas and theories, while the other method (in person community and communication) serves better the development of emotional and relational existence. In platitudinal terms: one is better for the head, the other for the heart.

This may sound obvious, but the mainstream of communication theory has heretofore been unable to reconcile the two “purposes” of communication (in William Carey’s terms: the “transmission” vs. “ritual”). Traditional scholarship views communication as either a way to communicate things and ideas from one place or person to another (emphasis on what we communicate), or as a symbolic process of shared meaning (emphasis on the act of communication). With the Internet, though, I think we have to reexamine all of these things; we have to re-conceptualize communication itself.

More presently to my concerns as a blogger: should I view it mainly as a community and value it as such (for the visitors, the comments, the entertaining back-and-forth, regardless of how productive), or should I look at it is a place for ideas to be born and bred? It is interesting to wonder: with all the thoughts and ideas bandied about on the blogosphere every day, is there any resultant progress in the overall level of human understanding? Has discourse been furthered? Or maybe it has made things worse for actual productive discourse? I’d hope it’s not the latter. I’ll continue blogging in the wishful understanding that it is the former.