Monthly Archives: August 2008

Is She a Game-Changer?

Sarah Palin was no one’s expected choice for John McCain’s vice presidential running mate. And that in itself is remarkable. John McCain did exactly what a self-styled “maverick” leader should do: he picked the person no one expected he would.

My first reaction: this is a brilliant move.  Just as Obama picked a cynical old white man Washington career politician (Joe Biden) for his running mate, McCain counters by picking a young, idealistic, tough-as-nails woman from Alaska! That’s about as far from Joe Biden as you can get…

She’s a great pick for other reasons:

-She’s huge on family values and pro-life issues. This is what McCain needed to reassure social conservatives and Catholics.

-She’ll be a boon for the Western vote. The typically red-state West is in play this election, and she should give McCain’s campaign a big boost among western republicans and independents. She’s all about gun rights, small government, and traditional values. And she’s not Mitt Romney.

-She’s a woman! This is amazing and historic: the first woman to ever appear on a Republican presidential ticket. And in a year when Hillary was supposed to be there! I imagine a number of Hillary’s 18 million fans will wonder: why didn’t Obama pick Hillary for VP??? How embarrassing for the democrats that in a year when they had the best female candidate, they chose two male senators and let the republicans “break the glass ceiling.”

-She’s an amazing amalgam of likeable traits. She’s a “hockey mom,” played tons of sports in high school and college, was a beauty queen, is a hunter, a former union member, is married to a champion snowmobiler/fisherman, and has a son in Iraq.

-She’s a Washington outsider, unlike the other three people in the election. She has a small-town, down-to-earth feel (mother of five… and one baby just recently born) and will really appeal to the “Obama is elitist and out-of-touch” people out there…

-She’s a good speaker. I just watched her speech from Dayton, OH. She has the right mix of force/authority and deference. You can tell from her speaking tone that she can spar with anyone and hold her own, while also demonstrating a mother’s compassion.

-She’ll clean house. As governor of Alaska, she’s cleaned up some of the corruption in that state’s republican party. Republicans need someone like her, coupled with Maverick McCain, to clean house and rid Washington of cronyism and “good ole boy” clubs…

-She looks like Tina Fey!

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Crazy, Hulking White Man Attacks Defenseless Filipino-American Woman Outside DNC

That headline sounds like something that would happen at the Republican Convention, right? But no… apparently there are psychotic, abusive white men lurking around the DNC as well. In this case it is Alex Jones, Texas conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, who went a little bit insane earlier this week at a protest at the Denver Mint near the Democratic National Convention. He encountered neo-con nemesis Michelle Malkin, newspaper columnist and political commentator, and proceeded to verbally assault her with help from a crowd of rabble-rousing cronies. Unfortunately for Jones (or maybe fortunately), the whole thing was captured on video:

Among the names he called her: “Dirty anti-American!,” “Fascist piece of trash!,” and “disgusting wicked new world order trash!” (nicely worded insult, I must admit). Others in the crowd disturbingly chanted “Kill Michelle Malkin!” while Jones insisted that “you’ll be known as an Adolf Eichmann!”

It’s an entertaining bit of protest theater, and fun to watch in a nostalgic, “this is almost like Chicago ’68” sorta way.  It’s also interesting to see how many cameras and journalists are swarming around Jones and Malkin. It’s all so very performative.

Malkin is no saint, certainly, and she’s only a few steps below Ann Coulter on the crazy conservative scale. But at least she’s relatively tactful and not spewing horribly offensive verbal missives at her opponents.  In any case, it’s fun to see at least something interesting going on at this convention… even if it is ultimately an insignificant scuffle between extremists.

In Defense of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I almost didn’t go see Vicky Cristina Barcelona because of a 1.5 star review I read by one of my favorite film critics, Jeffrey Overstreet. But the fact that it was a Woody Allen film with a high percentage on rottentomatoes ultimately led me to go see it this weekend. I’m so glad I did. Just seven months after he crafted one of the tightest and most underrated films of the year in Cassandra’s Dream (read my review here), Allen has done himself one better with this film, his best since Match Point.

I respect and accept Overstreet’s criticisms of the film, as being demeaning to its female characters and a celebration of self-destructive behavior. The film can certainly be read in this way, and certain tonal attributes do indicate that Allen is gleaning much pleasure out of watching his characters suffer under their own silly neuroses. But don’t all comedies take pleasure in the misfortunate of their characters? Sure, this is slightly closer to home than the fakeries of Tropic of Thunder, but it’s crafted with the same storytelling logic: point out the faults and fireworks of human nature (lust, narcissism, etc) and milk it for laughs. It’s exactly what Shakespeare did in his comedies. Don’t tell me that The Taming of the Shrew was any less cruel to its characters than Allen is to his.

Beyond that, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is just an amazingly well-made film. One doesn’t have to agree with all of its philosophical conclusions (and with Allen, one rarely does) to enjoy that it is remarkably sharp, erudite, and entertaining. I couldn’t help smiling at how utterly precise the film’s script was, nailing its characters (albeit bathed in unabashed stereotypes) with the punctual economy and poise of an experienced and world-weary storyteller. And the actors Allen picked work so, so well for the story. Newcomer Rebecca Hall is a stunner, Javier Bardem proves his worth playing a non-psychopath, and Penelope Cruz sizzles with unbridled and hilarious intensity.

And a word about Scarlett Johanssen. I don’t know why people pick on her acting so much. She was totally convincing in this role, playing the same sort of confused, naïve, hormonal youngster in search of herself that she played in Match Point and which serves as Allen’s muse. Yes, it’s a type, and no there is not a lot of nuance to it. But the majority of people don’t have a lot of nuance to them, and someone has to play them. If anything, Johanssen gives her character (Cristina) more depth than she deserves. She’s funny and tragic and remarkably beautiful, and I wouldn’t have had anyone else play the part.

I also don’t think it’s fair to hold this film up to Allen’s oeuvre and pronounce it lacking the “insights about faith or true love” that his best films supposedly have in spades. This is a gorgeous film, vibrant and alive and everything a film should be. But beyond it’s artistic merit I do think it adds to the thematic and, yes, spiritual explorations of Allen’s films. This is a film about individuals longing to be other than what they are… each character has lofty ambitions and dreams and is not satisfied in their current predicament (even while they are all middle or upper class with scant reasons to be dissatisfied). Whether it be a home in Bedford with a tennis court, an aspiration to have a more open and “European” soul, or a desire to eschew fidelity for a passionate dalliance with a Spaniard, this is a film that is fueled by the very human (but perhaps particularly American) desire for the unattainable. Allen is not sanctioning or vilifying such desires, he’s just acknowledging them—in the same way Beethoven acknowledges insatiable passion in his music or Picasso in his painting.

The artistic and truthful representation of passion and longing (even through the somewhat ironic and cynical lens of Woody Allen) is, I argue, innately spiritual. It may not be intentionally so, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a spiritually relevant movie. It’s a harsh and hilarious critique of just how self-indulgent and ridiculous we are in our bourgeois spiritual searches, but it is also an earnest lament for the fact that we can’t escape our prevailing discontent if we keep looking for it in the wrong places.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

What happened to Barack “I’m a new sort of politician” Obama? This is the guy who endeared himself to many, many people (even me) when he proclaimed that he would run a new, higher-brow campaign that eschewed attack ads and favored productive dialogue over the traditional mudslinging tactics. I was so excited to see a politician committed to being so nonpolitical. Alas, it appears that Obama has given up on that dream.

The nail in the coffin of that idealistic spirit came with the VP announcement of Joe “venom-spewing” Biden, an old-school Washington politician who runs his mouth off in negative ways better than just about anyone. If Obama had wanted to prioritize his “new politics” positivity, he would have picked a Washington outsider like governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. Instead, and clearly out of fears that the election is looking closer than he originally intended, Obama picked a blue-blood politico with the gall to fight back against McCain. It’s probably a shrewd move, but it’s one that really disappoints me. Obama is clearly resigned to waging a war, forsaking his (admittedly naïve) ideals of waging a “new sort of campaign.”

I suspect that these last few months of increased attack ads and pushback by Obama have disheartened more than a few Obama supporters. In surveying the message boards and blogs on MyBarackObama.com today, I found several indications that young voters especially (those, like me, who most responded to Obama’s anti-political persona) have indeed become a little disillusioned.

Take this confessional blog post (copied from MyBarackObama.com) from Alex Leo entitled “Why I am suspending my campaigning efforts”:

When I first became attracted to Obama as a leader, and as a candidate for president, it was March of 2007. The more I had learned about the political process and the more I understood about the framer’s intentions behind the Constitution, the more disillusioned I became with politics, the people in power, and the state our nation had come to. Disillusionment turned to Cynicism, and Cynicism to a total lack of Hope.

It comes as little surprise to Obama supporters why Obama’s message attracted me. Obama spoke to the corruption that was in Washington, spoke to the areas where the system had been crippled, and promised a campaign devoid of “that kind of politics.”

I believe that Barack Obama has reverted into the same level of politics that he so promised he would stand above. There were signs of it in the race against Clinton; the clever campaign slogans, the trite phrases designed for soundbytes. At the same time, he still held largely to his convictions and ran one of the cleanest campaigns anyone could have.

Not so, now. From political shifts to the center that underscore the campaigns expediency, to “response-to-attack” adds that utilize the same negative add tactics that McCain is using, Obama seems to have gone astray from the “different kind of politics” that he promised. For the time being, Obama stands as any other Democratic politician.

So, because much of my initial reasoning for supporting Obama has been undermined, I am suspending my efforts to actively campaign for him. I am still going to vote for him; I agree with many of his policies, and have no respect for McCain at this point. If the campaign cleans up, I may choose to resume my active campaigning, but for the time being, I’m going to hold Obama to the standard that he once demanded of Washington.

I agree completely with Alex. It would have been interesting to see if Obama could have won or lost the election had he stayed the revolutionary course of a “different kind of politics”; but now that he’s just another politician doing the tiresome mudslinging thing, we’ll never know. Thanks for trying to set a new example, Barack. A future leader will have to carry on where you left off.

“Christian Film”: Still Abysmal After All These Years

As someone who has lived, worked, and/or studied in the film industry for the last three years, it pains me to say it, but say it I must: the “Christian film” is no better today than it ever was. Of course, I would be the first to suggest that there shouldn’t even be a Christian film industry, that “Christian” makes no sense as a generic modifier. But there IS a Christian film industry, and will be as long as there is a Christian subcultural marketplace; thus, the least we can do is make good films, right?

Wrong. We make films like this:

Does anyone want to see that movie? The problem is not the concept; I would welcome a film that uplifts marriage and argues against divorce as the easy way out. The problem, of course, is the execution. This film–as evident from the trailer–features antiquated filmmaking techniques, cheap-looking sets and costumes, horrible acting, and a cheesy Christian music soundtrack. There is nothing aesthetically interesting going on in the trailer. It’s painstakingly ordinary and grievously cliched. God help us if this is the best we can do.

We need to put a moratorium on making films like this until we can prioritize craft. We have to appreciate aesthetics as valid apart from didactic storytelling (aka preaching). Good can be done (dare I say: converts won) by an achingly beautiful cinematic image just as effectively as by the most clear-cut conversion scene. We must recognize the value of style as itself a crucial form of content.

But mostly we just need to strive for excellence and stop churning out bilge.

Rick Warren as “The New James Dobson”: Pros and Cons

I wasn’t able to attend the Saddleback Faith Forum on Saturday night, but I’ve read oodles of articles and commentaries from both right and left dissecting what it meant for the McCain and Obama camps. The consensus seems to be that McCain came out a little better off than Obama, which is predictable if only because McCain is a republican and Obama is not. It was ostensibly a republican event; Warren is a republican… it’s not surprising that McCain came out smelling like roses.

The real winner, however, is probably Rick Warren himself. For years he has been seen as the “rising star” of evangelicalism in America, and this event–which may turn out to be a pretty huge deal when all is said and done–could well solidify Warren’s status as the new voice of evangelical Christians. Indeed, as the “new Dobson.”

From my point of view, this development is mostly a good thing, and the following are some pros and cons of Warren assuming the reigns of the evangelical political monstrosity:

PRO: Pretty much anyone would be better than Dobson.
CON: There are many evangelicals who would be better than Warren.

PRO: Warren is a “brand name”– he’s legitimate in the eyes of millions of people who loved The Purpose-Driven Life.
CON: The Purpose-Driven Life was not a good book.

PRO: Warren is surprisingly focused on justice issues, poverty, and outside-America problems… things Dobson does not have the time of day for.
CON: Warren’s PEACE plan was too ambitious and by some reports has done more harm than good in Africa.

PRO: Warren is much more media-friendly and savvy. He doesn’t boycott things like Spongebob Squarepants.
CON: Warren is a little boring. It takes him actually getting Obama and McCain to come to his church and share the stage in order to grab headlines. Dobson can do it by taking a sneeze. But maybe this is a PRO.

PRO: Warren is a tad bit more ambiguous about his party affiliation than James “I could never vote for a Democrat” Dobson is…
CON: Warren is still a long way from Billy “Bipartisan” Graham.

Do Humans Have Souls?

Many Christians consider this a settled question. Of course we have souls! … Right?

At the 2008 Oxbridge conference earlier this month, however, the question was very much open to debate. In fact, two of the plenary speakers gave talks that took polar opposite views on the matter.

The highly esteemed Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, gave a rigorous argument for the existence of the soul as an entity of entirely difference substance than the body (substance dualism). Swinburne is about as dualist as you can get on the matter—even moreso than Descartes. I won’t go into Swinburne’s arguments (which were thorough and intriguing, if a little hard to follow), but it should be pointed out that outside of Christian philosophical circles, substance dualism is a rather marginalized position.

On the other end of the spectrum was Nancey Murphy, Christian philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary. Murphy is a proponent of non-reductive physicalism, which is the notion that there is no separate mental realm or “soul,” apart from the physical, but that the mental cannot be reduced to merely physical properties. Murphy’s talk at Oxbridge was entitled “Why Christians Should be Nonreductive Physicalists.”

Essentially, Murphy’s main thesis is that humans are their bodies; there is no additional metaphysical element such as a mind or soul or spirit. She suggests that the perception that the bible teaches dualism is simply a result of bad translations. Whereas dualism is completely theoretical and has no scientific evidence, Murphy believes that there is ample evidence to prove that we are merely physical (rather than metaphysical) beings. In her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Murphy suggests that the cognitive neurosciences give us reason to think that the human capacities we attribute to the soul can be understood as “processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”

Of course, Murphy’s commitment to physical/material explanations of everything also means that she cannot accept the existence of angels or demons and is dubious about things like the “holy spirit” (in the metaphysical sense that Christians have conceived of it)… which maybe makes her a heretic. But apart from looking slightly goth, she doesn’t seem too heretical (she’s ordained in the Church of the Brethren)…

But does any of this abstract philosophizing make a difference on a practical, how-we-live-our-lives level? Perhaps. If Christians adopt physicalism (as Murphy hopes we do), we must put a greater emphasis on the significance of the body, and on the earthly reign of God, in which followers of Jesus participate by active love of neighbor and in struggle for justice and peace. If one adopts Swinburne’s hardcore dualism, our commitment to the body (which Swinburne is reluctant to say will even exist in heaven) is undercut and our motivation to redeem the physical all but made moot.

Alas, I will reserve judgment on the matter until I read books on both positions. I find the whole debate highly provocative and important to have… Though it does alarm me that Christians can be so utterly opposite on a matter so seemingly basic and vital to our faith. But in the spirit of healthy discourse, maybe the disparity should thrill me.