Saturday, July 18, 2009

"What is a saint anyway?"

It's been a month since I posted on this blog. During that time I've been moving (from Berkeley back to L.A.) and running an emerging church chapel in the midst of the exhibition hall at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

You may have seen news reports about the Episcopal Church's controversial legislation regarding same-sex marriage rites and gay bishops. But one thing you might not have heard about is our new list of "saints". The Episcopal Church has always had an unusual understanding of sainthood. The movie The Third Miracle (Holland 1999) is a meditation on sainthood. When someone asks the main character (a priest played by Ed Harris) "What is a saint anyway?", he answers "A saint is a person who is with God in heaven. If you pray to that person and your prayers are answered that means that person has a special connection with God." So the Catholic Church looks for miracles to prove that a person is in heaven and has a special relationship with God. The Episcopal Church, however, is a Protestant church that rejects priestly mediation and hierarchy. We think all Christians have a direct connection to God and can be sure they are going to heaven.

To be fair to The Third Miracle, this might be the point of the film. The representative of the Church hierarchy says "We live in a fallen world. Martyrdom, the great act of faith, seems impossible. Therefore, acts of simple goodness, a soup kitchen, kindness to the poor, have come to seem worthy of saint. But true sainthood is of another world. ... A saint loves God beyond the ordinary human power to love God." But the film presents him as unreliable and hypocritical, suggesting that there can be such a thing as an ordinary saint.

In any event, the Episcopal Church recognizes ordinary saints. We remember people for their contribution to the life of the Church, even if they did not demonstrate any "heroic virtue". In other words, most of our saints are along the lines of what Roman Catholics call "Doctors of the Church".

But unlike the Catholic "doctors", we do not limit our saints to theologians. We recognize artists and scientists as saints, too. For example, poets George Herbert and John Donne were already saints. At the last convention, we added C.S. Lewis. This year we added writers John Bunyan and G.K. Chesterton, composers Bach, Handel, Purcell, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis, hymn writers Fanny Crosby and Isaac Watts, artists Albrecht Durer, Matthias Guenewald, and Andrei Rublev, and scientists Copernicus and Kepler.

Moreover, if you didn't notice from the above list, the Episcopal Church is unlike most churches in that we recognize saints outside our own tradition. For example, joining the likes of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonheoffer, this year we added John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Merton, and John of the Cross.

Finally, we let in philosophers. Joining Augustine, Aquinas, Berkeley, and Joseph Butler, we now have Soren Kierkegaard.

St. Clive? (as in Clive Staples Lewis) St. Kierkegaard? These are saints who inspire me to heroic virtue!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"The medium is the message."

Here is an interesting audio interview with Todd Bouldin, founder of Pepperdine University's MFA in Screenwriting. I disagree with Bouldin's theory of the Church's relationship to the secular culture, but the interview did make me realize something. Bouldin started out wanting to make an "impact" for Christ in law and politics and then decided that the media is a more important influence on American culture. This connection between politics and the media helped me see what has been bothering me about the typical theory of how Christians should relate to Hollywood.

In the interview, Bouldin expresses a viewpoint similar to H. Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr rejected what he called the “Christ-against-culture” position in favor of “Christ-transforming-culture” position. (The fun pictures to the left come from this blog post.) This move has become the party line for Evangelicals in Hollywood. The claim is that Christians in the middle part of the 20th Century rejected involvement with secular culture as sinful. But, having been abandoned by Christians and left to their own secular devices, the centers of culture like Hollywood, Washington DC, and Harvard, only got worse and worse and eventually dragged down all of America with them. According to this narrative, the only hope for redeeming American culture is for Evangelical Christians to move from cultural non-engagement to engagement – from Christ-against-culture to Christ-transforming-culture.

But while Evangelicals in Hollywood are still following this party line, many Evangelicals in Washington have changed their view. (I’m not sure about the Harvard folk.) The difference seems to be that Evangelicals haven’t yet tasted any real power in secular media, but they have in politics. The United States had an Evangelical president. There’s nowhere else to go from there. But despite having achieved genuine power (not just the presidency, but many other influential governmental positions), Evangelicals have failed to transform culture. America is just as godless as ever – maybe more so. Some of the founders of the Religious Right have now admitted that they were “blinded by might” and corrupted by the power they achieved. (Here is a nice summary of this theory.) Instead of the Church transforming culture, culture transformed the Church. Baby boomer Evangelicals still seem intent on the old model (witness Sarah Palin), but younger evangelicals seem to understand the failure of their parents’ ideas (they voted for Obama). Many young people are leaving politics behind for direct engagement with the world. They’re less interested in top down transformation of culture than bottom up revolution. Why bother with ineffective politicians when we can, for example, make a real economic difference by living and working in the inner city?

What we are seeing is that Niebuhr’s categories are misleading. Everyone – even those like Tertullian, Tolstoy, and the Quakers who Niebuhr cites as paradigmatic defenders of the Christ-against-culture position – want to transform culture. The question is not should we transform culture, but how can we transform it. The Christ-against-culture position rejects the idea – held by the Christ-tranforming-culture position – that Christians can use the tools of cultural power (e.g., politics, the arts, higher education, etc.) to transform culture. Rather the Christ-against-culture position holds that the Church has its own tools and its own very different understanding of power. On this view, whenever the Church attempts to use the world’s tools, the Church only succeeds in transforming itself into the world. For example, when the Church uses advertising techniques to market itself, it positions itself as just another product to be consumed and ceases to be an alternative to consumer culture. This is what Marshall McLuhan was talking about about when he said “The medium is the message.”

Unfortunately Evangelicals in Hollywood haven’t learned the lessons of Evangelical engagement in politics. Evangelicals still dream of “impacting” Hollywood by lifestyle evangelism (as Bouldin says, “simply being there”). The assumption of this strategy is that if individual filmmakers “get saved”, then culture will change. The problem is that it won’t work. If getting the President of the United States saved couldn’t transform American culture, then why think getting the president of Disney saved would work better? It is mystifying to me that Bouldin could understand that politics can’t transform culture but think the media can.

What if we give up pursuit of Hollywood power for the kind of direct engagement in the world that young people are discovering in the political realm? This would look like making independent films by, for, and about Christians. I’m not recommending cheesy evangelistic movies of the past, but serious (both dramatic and comic) artistic engagement with the issues that matter to us but which secular filmmakers simply can’t understand. What we need is a Christian version of Spike Lee who makes excellent art by, for, and about, African-Americans. This is a Christ-against-culture position. But it is not a call to hide in some self-imposed Christian ghetto. We shouldn’t create a parallel Christian movie studio. That would be like rejecting both the Democrats and the Republicans to create a third party for Christians. Instead we should -- if we want to transform American culture – reject politics/Hollywood altogether and do something entirely new.

There’s nothing wrong with working in Hollywood or Washington, DC as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’re secret missionaries who will have some sort of “impact”. True transformation will have to come from a more radical strategy, the strategy of the Cross. Politics is all about power, but the Cross repudiates power in favor of weakness. That’s why Jesus says thinks like “My Kingdom is not of this world” and “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. You might be able to be a Christian who is involved in politics, but you can’t be a Christian politician who uses the tools of Washington to further the cause of Christ. Similarly, the media is all about money, but the Cross reveals money to be an idol. That’s why Jesus says things like “You can’t serve God and money” and “Sell all you own, give to the poor, and follow me.” Again, you might be able to be a Christian who works in Hollywood, but you can’t be a Christian filmmaker who uses the tools of Hollywood to further the cause of Christ.

Am I wrong? Please let me know by posting a comment. I welcome any friendly criticism you can offer.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the answer."

This weekend I finally got around to seeing last year’s Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle, 2008). I liked it a lot, but I couldn’t help wondering, “Was this really the best movie of 2008?” My first thought as the film was ending was “That was good, but not as good as Wall-E or The Dark Knight.”

Now, the Academy certainly shouldn’t be ashamed of honoring Slumdog. It may be a mistake, but its not nearly as embarrassing as giving the award to Forest Gump instead of Pulp Fiction in 1994 or giving the award to movies that are actually bad like Crash in 2006 or Titanic in 1997. This line of thinking got me wondering about how often the Academy has be wrong in recent years. Here’s my list of best pictures in retrospect, all the way back to the biggest recent goof in 1994. In my opinion, the only year the Academy got it right was 2007. (Note that these aren’t necessarily my favorite movies; they’re my vote for the best movies of that year. The only years my favorite movies were also the best movies were 2001 and 2002)

The Best Movies of the Past 15 Years
1994: TIE: Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994) and Three Colors: Red (Kieslowski, 1994)
1995: Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
1996: Fargo (Coen, 1996)
1997: Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997)
1998: The Truman Show (Weir, 1998)
1999: Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999)
2000: Memento (Nolan, 2000)
2001: Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001)
2002: Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
2003: Dogville (von Trier, 2003)
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondy, 2004)
2005: The New World (Malick, 2005)
2006: Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006)
2007: No Country For Old Men (Coen, 2007)
2008: The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)

Just for fun, here are my favorite movies of the year. For the most part, they are runners-up for the best movies of the year, though some are more like guilty pleasures. (In particular, I’m not sure I can defend the artistic value of Bottle Rocket, Shaun of the Dead, The Prestige, Hot Fuzz, and Speed Racer. I just think they’re a lot of fun to watch.)

1994: The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994)
1995: 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995)
1996: Bottle Rocket (Anderson, 1996)
1997: Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
1998: The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)
1999: TIE: Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) and The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999)
2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000)
2001: Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001)
2002: Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
2003: Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003)
2004: Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004)
2005: The Constant Gardner (Meirelles, 2005)
2006: The Prestige (Nolan, 2006)
2007: Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007)
2008: Speed Racer (Wachowski Brothers, 2008)

And, while I’m making lists, here is my current Top 10 Favorite Movies of All Time. I try to make one of these lists every couple of years, and they inevitably change. (For example, 1 and 2 new on the list this time, having become favorites since I last made a list in 2004,)

1. Babette’s Feast (Axel, 1987)
2. F for Fake (Welles, 1974)
3. Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
4. Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
5. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard, 1990)
7. The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)
8. 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995)
9. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Selick, 1993)
10. The Lord of the Rings (Jackson, 2001-3)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


What's with the number 9? I just spent some time looking at movie trailers on the Apple website, and I noticed that this year (2009) we will have movies titled Nine, 9, $9.99, and District 9. What's more they're in my favorite genres: Nine is a musical, 9 and $9.99 are animated, and District 9 is sci-fi. Also Nine is a remake of an art film (Fellini's 8 1/2). And, judging from the trailers, at least two of the movies (9 and District 9) have political themes and the other two are about the meaning of life (Nine and $9.99). It looks like 2009 will be a great year for lovers of film as well as lovers of the number 9.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"To progress by moving backwards"

I was walking down the street the other day and saw someone pushing a Bugaboo Cameleon stroller. Bugaboo is one of the hippest brands of stroller, largely (I think) because it is the most expensive brand. Personally I prefer both Stokke and Quinny strollers. (Both are only slightly less outrageously priced than the Bagaboo. We were lucky enough to get a gently used Quinny for Maggie at half the list price.) But if I had to buy a Bugaboo, I'd go for the "Cameleon" model. In one of its configurations it transforms into an old-school British-style pram. (The Cameleon is pictured to the left, and an antique pram is pictured to the right.)

This is great example of retrofuturistic design. I discussed retrofuturism in my earlier post on the movie Steamboy. By the way, the current Wikipedia article on retrofuturism has got it wrong. That article limits the use of the term "retrofuturism" to nostalgic representations of what past eras thought the future would look like. For example, if Old Navy started selling silver jump suits, that would be retrofuturistic. And that is definitely one common use of the term. But, as Wikipedia itself notes, the term was originally coined by conceptual artist Lloyd Dunn who used it to mean "the act or tendency of an artist to progress by moving backwards." Dunn was an early practicioner of what has come to be called mashup in which parts of several existing artworks are combined to form a new artwork. Here is an excellent article about the history of the term, written by people who worked with Dunn. The article explains that:

Retrofuturism is an idiom in which expressions are constructed, as in any natural language, out of pre-existing conventional elements. The machine arts (photography, xerox, audiotape, video, etc.), like the work of the contemporary language poets, coin new "words" like no other media in history. Because they are mechanistically reproductive, they also conventionalize and codify information. Conventionalized material, like the cliché (a form of verbal shorthand which collapses entire narratives, often into a few syllables) becomes the raw material for for the construction of new metalogic expressions. Artworks are also complex, like real words, which have an internal syntax all their own. Retrofuturist artworks do them one better by being like sentences, recursive collections of (themselves) recursive words; all parts of which exhibit syntactic structure (and play with it) to express new thoughts (and old ones in novel juxtapositions).

So in its broadest use "retrofuturism" is just another name for "mashup". In its more common use, retrofuturism means the use of design conventions and clichés from past artistic periods to present something that looks modern, even futuristic. This is the way the Museum of Contemporary Art used the term when it applied it to a show of car designs by J Mays (the artist who designed the new VW Beetle, Ford Mustang, and Ford Thunderbird). (You can read more about the show and see some pictures here. And you can get a good sense of what Mays is doing if you compare the 1955 Thunderbird seen here with the 2002 Thunderbird seen here.) And this is what the Bugaboo pram is doing.

Seeing this retrofuturistic pram also made me realize that this is what the emerging church is doing, too. (See my earlier post on the emerging church and/as avant garde.) Having realized that the church's links to philosophical modernism has left it theologically bankrupt, emerging theologians are attempting to return to premodern ancient and medieval theology for resources in constructing a postmodern theology. (Hence such formulations as "ancient-future faith".) In other words, they are looking to the past to find a way to move forward. In still other words, the emerging church is retrofuturistic religion.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"BSG expressed what we really are: all messed up and barely hanging on."

It's been about six weeks since Ronald D. Moore's remake of Battlestar Galactica (Moore et al, 2003-2009) ended its television run. I have to admit that, depite its defender's hyperbolic claims of greatness, the series left me cold. While I am a fan of science fiction, but I don't feel the need to watch every sci-fi show on TV. I only watch the good ones. And all I can say for Battlestar is that, while it certainly isn't one of the bad ones, it doesn't quite reach the level of the good ones. In that category I would include The Twilight Zone, Star Trek (especially The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Lost, and Dollhouse. When compared to these shows, Battlestar is just mediocre.

Battlestar is only a "brilliant" sci-fi show when you compare it to lesser shows such as Stargate, or Heroes. It took me a while to figure out that that's what Battlestar's defenders were doing. Hard core sci-fi geeks are so amazed when a sci-fi show doesn't absolutely suck that they tend to overpraise it. A comment by Geoff Holsclaw over at the Church and Postmodern Culture blog helped me realize what was going one. Holsclaw writes:

Once Firefly was canceled (which still remains unrivaled in my opinion) I thought there would never be redemption for televised science fiction. I thought I was condemned to watching Andromeda or Stargate forever. I thought that I would eternally dwell in a universe created by Gene Roddenberry.

Holsclaw admits that Firefly is far better than Battlestar but then declares the latter great in comparison to crap like Andromeda and Stargate.

But I can't let him get away with his denigration of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Holsclaw's reason for thinking that Battlestar is better than Star Trek is that the latter was "really just a liberal, multi-cutlural fantasy giving us an image of what we aspired to be as a society without calling us out everything that hindered us." Now, the first half of this statement is true. Star Trek is a fantasy of why liberals aspire society to be. But I disagree that Star Trek didn't criticize liberal society's failings. On the contrary, every alien society the Starship Enterprise encountered was a thinly veiled metaphor for 20th Century Earth. While the future Earth as Star Trek envisioned it was perfect, each of the alien planets had some problem that the Star Trek writers saw in America. The show was specifially designed to critique the failings of our society and point us toward an idealized vision of the future.

As a postmodern Christian I see much to criticize in Star Trek. I think what Holsclaw is Star Trek's liberal assumption that the ideal society would be perfectly godless and secular. But that's not what he explicitly criticizes in Star Trek. He does not criticize its particular vision of the idealized society, rather he attacks the aesthetic of idealization itself:

As someone said, Star Trek was a symbol of what we hoped to be while BSG expressed what we really are: all messed up and barely hanging on. For the most part BSG unflinchingly dealt with the tragic aspect of humanity, that we are simultaneously cylons and humans, uh, I mean sinners and saints.

But I reject his premise that only realistic (as opposed to idealistic) art can be good. Art has both realistic and idealistic functions. Take 80s sit-coms, instead of sci-fi. While it might be important to have sit-coms like Roseanne or The Simpsons which show us a realistic portrait of a messed up family, it is just as important to have sit-coms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties which give us idealized families. An idealized TV family gives us something to aspire to and helps form our moral imaginations with images of what is possible rather than leaving us stuck with our current problems. Maybe no father is as perfect as Bill Cosy's Cliff Huxtable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to live up to that standard.

Note: I blogged about this issue before in my post on Thomas Hibbs's idea that recent Christian artists have failed to imagine a world where goodness is attractive.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know."

There was an interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times this week in which David Brooks comments on recent work by cognitive scientists that shows that our moral reasoning is more akin to making an aesthetics judgment than to working out a math problem. This is not really a new "discovery". One of my favorite books on this subject (Mark Johnson's Moral Imagination)was published in 1994! And this view was defended by David Hume as long ago as the 18th Century (the topic of my PhD dissertation). Similar comparisons between aesthetics and ethics (at the expense of mathematical reasoning) were also made by ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and (arguably) Plato.

So, despite Brooks's headline, these "discoveries" don't mark "The End of Philosophy". Also, the fact that our brains make unconscious decisions implies neither that we can not nor ought not to guide our moral jugdments with consious reasoning. Brooks writes:

Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong. In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

This is true, but it does not make moral judgment merely a matter of taste. Well, maybe it does, but there is no reason to think that taste is "a matter of taste". Even if we think ethics is analogous to aesthetics, we can still think some aesthetic judgments are better than others.

So I am puzzled by Brook's conclusion:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Why wouldn't "bookish" philosophy help us guide our emotions? And the "new atheists" are mostly evolutionary scientists. What reason would they have to question the conclusions Brooks is discussing?

Most of all, I'm puzzled by the claim that Talmudic tradition is opposed to this view. It seems to me that Talmud anticipates postmodern aesthetics in a lot of ways. (Here is an interesting article about Derrida and Jewish Studies.) Importantly, the Jewish tradition has always allowed for alternate readings of sacred texts and has preserved them side-by-side rather than suppressing one or the other. (Here is a discussion of a brilliant lecture by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman in which he argues that the polyphony of Scripture should lead us to reject religous absolutism.) Why wouldn't the recognition of the aesthetic basis of ethical reasoning should lead us to pay more careful attention to our traditions and sacred texts rather that to make snap decisions?

Sometimes you do have to decide if something is beautiful. But your decision will be based on a combination of emotion, reason, tradition, etc. It won't look anything like a mathematical proof.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"There are no facts, only interpretations."

The Nietzsche Family Circus is a great dadaist artwork that "pairs a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Friedrich Nietzsche quote". If you refresh the page enough times, you can come up with striking juxtapositions.

Here is one of my random results:

"Faith means not wanting to know what is true."

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don't stay away too long."

Here's a clever analysis by Matthew Moretz of one of my favorite movies, Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964). Father Matthew (an Episcopal priest) argues that the title character can be seen as a Christ-figure.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe..."

Here's a parable of nihilism. There is a group of blind men trying to describe something they've been told is an "elephant". One says it is like a snake, another says it is like a spear, another a wall, a tree, a fan, and so on. But each of them, unbeknownst to the others, is actually empty-handed and is completely bluffing. None of them are holding anything, but all of them are pretending to describe something anyway so as not to look ignorant. The "elephant in the room" is that there is nothing there. There is no "elephant".

This is, essentially, the point of Gus Van Sant's film Elephant (Van Sant, 2003). Inspired by the Columbine massacre and other high school shootings, Elephant considers the question of why a teenager would one day murder a dozen of his classmates. The violence comes "out of the blue" (the opening and closing images are a blue sky) without warning or provocation. And Van Sant's suggestion is that the "elephant in the room" is that there is no explanation for the violence. This is just the kind of thing that happens in our world. Things are random and meaningless, hence the film's final lines: "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe..." The killers have no reason for what they do any more than anyone else does.

After the Columbine shooting, there was much speculation in the media about the causes of the killers' rampage. Was it the music they listened to or the video games they played? Was it their parents' fault? Were they bullied by their classmates? Elephant rejects those explanations. Each of the main characters has more reason to shoot up the school than the actual killers do. The other students have alcoholic parents, get punished unjustly by the principal, are made fun of by other students, are accidentally pregnant, etc. But only two of the students turn out to be homicidal. The fact that these students do murder their classmates is just as (and no more) inexplicable than the fact that the other students do not murder their classmates.

This inexplicability is mirrored in the film's camera work. Almost all of the film is shot in long tracking shots which follow students as they walk through the hallways of the school. This gives the film a restless, searching tone. But when the camera stops moving, something interesting happens. The camera stands still and lets the action happen around it without focusing on anything in particular. The best example is a scene on the football field early in the film.

The shot starts with the shy and nerdy girl Michelle staring unexplicably into the sky. She then walks off screen, but the camera doesn't follow her. The shot continues to show the field. In the background some students are playing football. They move on and off the screen, but the camera doesn't follow them. This continues for several minutes, an excruciating amount of time for nothing to happen in a movie. Since there is nothing to look at except the football game, we watch that, but the players keep disappearing. We feel that there must be something happening just off screen, but we can't see it. There must be more going on here that we don't know about. Finally a student in a lifeguard shirt walks by and we follow him into the school.

This feeling that there is more going on continues throughout the film. On screen, there is no plot, no story, nothing really happens. But we feel like there must be more going on than we can see, maybe off camera. The elephant in the room, however, is that there is nothing else. This is life as it is. This is life in its meaningless randomness. This is the nihilism of Elephant.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"Historically, many of the greatest philosophers have argued that homosexual acts are morally objectionable."

I haven't posted for a while, because for the past month I've been deeply immersed in my dissertation. And it looks like I'll be at that for a couple more months still. But something happened that I thought I needed to share with you. I accidently signed a petition asking the American Philosophical Association not to penalize Christian colleges for discriminating against gays and lesbians in their hiring practices. Twice. I accidently signed the petition, and then I did it again.

Actually, I signed the petition on purpose, but I tried to attach a comment explaining that while I didn't agree with discrimination, I did agree that the schools had the right of religious freedom and if the schools had theological reasons for discrimination, then they should be allowed to hire whoever they wanted. But the comment function on the online petition didn't work. So now it looks like I support the cause without reservation. Oh well.

Here's a link to the petition. It's actually a counter-petition in response to a petition asking the APA to censure the Christian colleges. Here's a link to that original petition. As discriminatory schools, it specifically mentions "Azusa Pacific University, Belmont University, Bethal University, Biola University, Calvin College, Malone College, Pepperdine University, Westmont College, and Wheaton College", many of which I would love to work for, and two of which I have already worked for.

Anyway, here are my comments on the counter-petition -- the one I signed but don't entirely agree with:

This petition's distinction between act and disposition is compelling. It says "Institutions can require their faculty to agree to abide by ethical standards that forbid homosexual acts while not ipso facto discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation." In other words, they are not technically violating the letter of the APA anti-discrimination policy. This should be enough to allow these schools to avoid official censure.

At the same time this distinction is somewhat disingenious in that a job candidate at most of the schools in question who was open about having a "homosexual orientation" and did not "repent" of that orientation would be disqualified for the job -- even if he or she promised to remain celibate and to abstain from "homosexual acts". In other words, many of these schools really do discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

But for me this is an issue of religous freedom. As the petition points out, the discriminatory schools are simply "abiding by their long-standing and coherent ethical norms" -- despite the fact that, as I believe, their ethical norms have turned out to be false. Their position on homosexual acts is deeply grounded in their theological system such that they could not change their position without giving up their entire religious way of life. For that reason I believe these schools should have the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

This may or may not be a right we wish to reward with government funding (see my post on Prop 8), but a private organization such as the American Philosophical Association -- which was founded (according to the APA website) "to promote the exchange of ideas among philosophers, to encourage creative and scholarly activity in philosophy, to facilitate the professional work and teaching of philosophers, and to represent philosophy as a discipline" -- should allow for a diversity of moral viewpoints.

P.S. The petition's appeal to authority (quoted in the title of this post) is not exactly convincing. Most modern philosophers see appeal to authority as a logical fallacy. At the same time, it is fun to notice that many excellent philosophers have signed the petition. My favorite is Alasdair MacIntyre. Predictably all my Biola professors and collegues signed. Also: Peter Kreeft, Hugh J. McCann, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, Linda Zagzebski. Even my fellow Hume scholar Donald W. Livingston.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

“You’re working for me now.”

I currently live in Berkeley but Los Angeles is my home. So I never miss a chance to watch L.A.-themed movies. This week I watched for the first time To Live and Die in L.A. (Friedkin, 1985). It was a strange experience. For most of the movie I had the growing suspicion that the film was a piece of crap. It seemed like an utterly cliché cop buddy movie. All the characters speak in fake movie dialogue -- but dialogue that sounds silly, not cool like the fake movie dialogue in a Tarantino film. The alledged "hero" of the movie is an idiot who does all sorts of stupid and dangerous things that only movie cops do and would get real life police officers killed. More than that, the hero is a psychopath. He's beyond Dirty Harry. He's more like a Bad Lieutenant. But the film treats him in a typical heroic mode.... at least until the end.

The end of the movie caught me completely off guard. The hero just dies all of a sudden. And not in a big climactic shoot out or anything. The movie is going along like normal, and BANG, the guy dies. Then the movie goes along without him. It shouldn't be surprising that he dies since he's an idiot and a scumbag. If anything it should be suprising he lived as long as he did.

So the ending was like a Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects moment which sent me back to re-evaluate what I had seen earlier. A little Googling turned up a rather brillian essay that sheds light on the experience I had. It's a pretty long piece, so here are some quotes:

After nearly two decades of regarding To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) with a spectrum of emotions ranging from disdain-at-first-sight to qualified enthusiasm, it occurs to me that of all his works, this is the film I have watched and pondered most frequently. No longer do I see it as a shimmering piece of costume jewelry, but a forceful, semi-serious diagnosis of a prevalent human malady: the discrepancy between what we desire, or what we are pleased by, and what we claim to value, not only in life but in cinema. ...

[Director William] Friedkin redirects the modern cop thriller through the chartreuse time machine of noir, adorned with the MTV confections of Miami Vice, but his film emerges assomething far more nasty and authentic. ... To Live and Die in L.A. is also quite amusing, presumably intentionally, but possibly not. The humor is a conscious or unconscious byproduct of Friedkin’s love-hate relationship with the genre he plunders...

But once the superficialities are shunted aside, it becomes clearer that Friedkin’s film strives to deviate from the norm. Its hero is a corrupt man emblematized by a refusal to change, and his partner willingly swaps his morality for depravity. The villain, who murders only those who have betrayed orendangered his interests directly, is never as unlikable as the hero becomes. The protagonist, whose conduct leads to the death of innocent bystanders, is dispatched in the climax without a tear being shed. The hero’s obligatory “romantic interest” is at the very least a reluctant victim of coercion, and, conceivably, might qualify as a sex slave. And the voracious slickness that taunts Miami Vice (1984-1989) has, by film’s end, become the source of as much discomfort as pleasure. So this is not your ordinary cop thriller. ...

One of To Live and Die in L.A.’s persistent motifs is the creation and pursuit of phony things. As spectators grow to distrust the contradiction between what the film introduces itself to be and what it in fact is, they begin as well to question their own moral gullibility and aptitude in judging what is set before them. ...

I believe Friedkin is intrigued that we are so quick to take sides in a movie, and so easily manipulated to accept complexity as simplicity. This is likely why he adheres to the conventions of the buddy thriller—at times pressing them beyond credulity—before escalating what becomes a point-by-point repudiation of the devices used in such films to make spectators comfortable with dynamics that should not evoke comfort.

In the end, the essay's point is about self-deception, one of my favorite themes in cinema:

once we have agreed to stipulate that Chance is our hero, [Friedkin] wants, like a Judo master, to use the momentum of our own self-deception to flip us on our backs.
You can read the whole essay here at the website 24 Lies A Second.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

"I just try and refresh folks memory by way of illustration."

One of my favorite movies about filmmaking is The Five Obstructions (von Trier and Leth, 2003). It is a non-fiction film in which director Lars von Trier challenges his friend, fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake his 1967 short film "The Perfect Human" five times, each time under different constraints. For example, once Leth must remake the film with no shot longer than 12 frames (half a second), another time he must make the film as an animated cartoon. Each time Leth remakes the film, he approaches the same material from a slightly different angle thereby revealing a different aspect of the infinitely complex truth of the human condition.

Today I was watching von Trier's own film from the same time period Dogville (von Trier, 2003), and it struck me that von Trier's entire English language career (his Danish language films are another story) has been a Five Obstructions-style series of remakes. Von Trier keeps remaking the same movie a female Christ-figure -- a pure-hearted woman who suffers unjust torments in order to save someone she selflessly loves. In Breaking the Waves, von Trier challenged himself to shoot the film in a hyper-realistic hand-held camera style; in Dancer in the Dark he remade the story as a musical; and in Dogville he remade the film on a single sound stage without any sets in the manner of Thornton Wilder's Our Town or a Bertolt Brecht play.

The strange thing is that Dogville ends quite differently than the previous films it is remaking. In the earlier films, the suffering woman is eventually killed but brings a kind of redemption through her death. These are clearly New Testament sort of stories. At first Dogville seems to be following the same narrative, but in its last ten minutes the story suddenly turns Old Testament: a God-like gangster shows up and convinces the film's Christ-figure to choose judgment over forgiveness. I'm not sure what to make of this. Is von Trier repudiating the earlier films? Or is he merely showing us another aspect of the infinitely complex truth?

At one point, the philosopher-novelist character says he is writing a story based on the events of the film. When he adds that he hasn't come up with a good name for the town yet, the heroine asks him why he doesn't just call it Dogville. He replies: "It wouldn't work. It's got to be universal." Well, if the movie we're watching is called Dogville, does that mean it isn't (and isn't intended to be) universal? So perhaps the point of the film is not to reject forgiveness and mercy entirely but to remind us that grace is not the whole story: there is judgment and justice, too. Rather than read Dogville as a critique of the Gospel narratives, perhaps we should read it as a retelling of the Sodom and Gomorah narrative: God sends an angel to the town but the people rape her and so God destroys the town. This isn't the prettiest story in the Bible, but it is still in there and must be reckoned with.

Starting from this reading it is tempting to see the film as von Trier's reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (This was von Trier's first film made after 9/11.) Perhaps, like Jeremiah Wright and Jerry Fallwell, von Trier is interpreting the terrorist attacks as God's judgment on the United States. Especially in light of the closing credits which plays David Bowie's "Young Americans" over images of American crime and poverty, combined with the film's Prologue about the philosopher's attempt to teach the town a lesson about their inability to receive good gifts, von Trier seems to be saying that God has given the U.S. grace upon grace but we have not provided God's gifts with a hospitable place in which to live and bear fruit. And if we persist in our inhospitality we will face God's wrath.

Fortunately this is only one aspect of the infinitely complex truth. Instead of following the townspeople of Dogville, we might instead follow the selfless heroines of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. We might choose to take the world's suffering on ourselves and to transform it into an opportunity for love.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Hand of God, that bible stopped a bullet."

This week I watched a couple of heist genre movies: Mission Impossible III (Abrams, 2006), and Heist (Mamet, 2001). It occured to me that heist movies suggest various positions on divine Providence.

In many recent heist movies, there is an elaborate, twist-filled plot which makes it seem that the robbers are facing various set-backs until in the final scene the criminals seeming complications are revealed to have been part of their plan all along. Perhaps the best classic example of this plot is The Sting (Hill, 1973). Recent examples include the Ocean's Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001) and Inside Man (Lee, 2006).

What is interesting about the two movies I saw this week is the way they deviate from the conventional plot. In The Sting et al, seemingly unforseen events occur throught the film, but the heroes turn out to have been in control of these events all along. These movies could be read as a symbol of Providence -- God is in control even if we can't initially see how. But in Mission Impossible III (actually in all three of the Mission Impossible movies), it turns out in the end that the villain -- not the hero -- was actually in control of the seemingly random events all along. This a pessimistic vision of a kind of dark Providence. More interestingly, in Heist there are real set-backs, though the heroes manage to be successful in spite of them. Here we have a world of real contingency where there seems to be no providence at all: genuinely random things happen of which no one is in control.

That writer-director David Mamet knows his film is dealing with (the lack of) Providence is seen in these lines, thrown away in a quiet moment in the middle of the film: "We knew this firefighter, this trooper, who always caried a bible next to his heart. We used to mock him, but that bible stopped a bullet. ... Hand of God, that bible stopped a bullet, would of ruined that fucker's heart. And had he had another bible in front of his face, that man would be alive today." In Mamet's world, shit just happens, and even miracles are random and meaningless.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"These are the fittest, well-fed, best-kept horses I've ever seen."

Recently actor Liam Neeson was a guest on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. He was supposed to be there to discuss his new movie, but the interview ended up focusing on a local New York City political debate about the horses used to pull carriages around Central Park. Stewart maintains that animals "would rather run" freely than pull carriages and deserve "a better life" in a "pastoral existence". But Neeson argues that domestic animals like cows and horses have "been trained for thousands of years" to do this work and actually enjoy it. Neeson's suggestion is that domestic animals can actually be fulfilled by their work (when given humane working conditions) in the same way that humans can be fulfilled by their jobs.

I couldn't get the embed function to work, but you can watch the video here. (The relevant discussion starts at 1:40 and ends at 5:04.)

Neeson's view reminds me of C.S. Lewis's argument in The Problem of Pain that it is the human vocation to domesticate all animals. In contrast to what he calls “atheistical thought” which sees wild animals as natural and domestication as artificial, Lewis argues (based on God's command in Genesis 1:28 to "subdue" the earth and "have dominion" over the animals") that the tame animal is “in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal – the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy".

For a reconstruction of Lewis's view see my essay "Animal Pain and the Community of All Creatures" (esp. p. 10ff) available on my website.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"If you want more meaningful art, build a more meaningful world."

I found myself with some time to kill in a bookstore recently. Mostly I read philosophy and theology books, but brick-and-mortar bookstores rarely carry a very good selection of such books. I have to go to Amazon to find most of the stuff I'm looking for. So I often turn to the periodical section to kill my browsing time.

This time I ended up reading the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Adbusters magazine. I've been a fan of the Adbusters anti-capitalist artwork (such as the image above), but I've never read the actual magazine. There were several really interesting articles in this issue.

The first one that caught my eye was about pop art (foreshadowed by Ducham's dadaism) as a critique of American capitalism's implicit nihilism. Author Sarah Nardi quotes Warhol as saying he "wanted to paint nothing" and Murakami as saying he tries to "express hopelessness." You can read the article here.

But a more thought-provoking article was "Virtual Morality" by Andrew Tuplin. Tuplin explores the phenomenon of violent video games such as Gand Theft Auto and amoral virtual worlds such as Second Life. These and other computer programs allow users to act out violent and sexually deviant fantasies.

Tuplin points out that the Enlightenment conception of morality (which most Americans have) is more or less libertarian: the purpose of morality is only supposed to allow us to pursue our own freely chosen goals while preventing us from hurting others in the process. In short, something is morally wrong only if it harms someone. And "harm" is defined as doing something against someone's will. Note that on this view it is conceptually impossible to "harm" oneself (as long as you are not acting out of some sort of confusion or insanity such as addiction). So for those with this conception of morality, there could be nothing wrong with acting out fatasies of rape, torture, pedophilia, etc. if these fantasies are simulated and do not harm any actual person.

Then Tuplin argues that religious ethics can provide an alternative to this view. According to Tuplin, religious ethics teaches that something is wrong if it offends God and that God is offended by our thoughts and desires as well as our actions. On this view, it is morally wrong even to want to rape or torture whether you act on those actions or not. So for those who have this conception of morality, there is no significant difference between virtual and actual behavior.

Now, I see what Tuplin is going for. The subtitle of his essay asks the question "Are we free to do anything we want in a virtual world, or are some things inherently wrong?" So he is attempting to reject the ethical view called "consequentialism" according to which something is wrong only if it harms someone. Instead he want to affirm a form of "deontology" according to which actions are inherently right or wrong regardless of their consequences. But he doesn't seem to understand that one need not be religious to affirm deontological ethics.
And he doesn't seem to understand that one need not hold to a divine command ethics in order to be religious. Historically, the majority of Christian theologians have rejected the sort of ethics Tuplin calls "religious". Indeed, I would argue that, it is logically incoherent to think that morality is based on what offends God.

But Tuplin is on to something when he says "The humanist or secular view of morality is concerned only with what we do. True religious morality is concerned not only with what we do, but with who we are, with what we desire to do." If we disregard his characterization of the two views as religious vs. secular, Tuplin has indeed given us a good alternative to Enlightenment ethics. The point is that for pre-Enlightenment views morality is as concerned with character as with behavior. (Note that this was the view of the Greek philosophers and is not essentially tied to religion.)

The important difference between this view and the Enlightenment view is that morality is not simply about preventing harm to others, but involves preventing harm to oneself. "Harm" on this view is doing something against an ideal, not simply doing something against one's will. This is a health model of morality. If you act in a way that is not healthy (i.e., it is not living up to the ideal of human nature), then you harming yourself and are acting immorally even if you don't harm anyone else.

This view gives us a way to criticize violent and sexually deviant fantasies: it is an abuse of one's own character to have immoral desires even if one never acts on those desires.