Saturday, July 18, 2009
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
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
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
Friday, May 8, 2009
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
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.
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.
Friday, April 10, 2009
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
Here is one of my random results:
Friday, March 20, 2009
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Saturday, March 7, 2009
"Historically, many of the greatest philosophers have argued that homosexual acts are morally objectionable."
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
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:
In the end, the essay's point is about self-deception, one of my favorite themes in cinema:
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.
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
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.