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Coffee and Conscience – Part 3

In Christ and Culture on October 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm

“Where quality is the thing sought after, the thing of supreme quality is cheap, whatever the price one has to pay for it.” – William James

For many, coffee can only be enjoyed when they know that the production of it hasn’t had significant environmental and human costs.  To help such concerned consumers find ethical coffee, various organizations have begun to certify producers and label coffee according to standards of stewardship.  For those who want to drink coffee that doesn’t hurt the environment or the people who produce it, these labels help direct them to this coffee.

The Fair Trade label indicates that the producers and workers in developing countries have received a fair price for their coffee and a fair wage for their labour.  The rap against Fair Trade coffee is that it is restricted to small, family run farms, and, even though there are larger, non-family run farms that produce coffee ethically.  Furthermore, there is nothing stopping greedy merchants from taking advantage of well-intentioned consumers by charging exorbitant prices for coffee bearing the label.  These concerns may be valid, but a third is not.  The objection that Fair Trade coffee isn’t quality coffee is misapplied; average ratings given to Fair Trade coffees by professional tasters are the same as those of other specialty coffees, and they are on the rise.

The Certified Organic label means that the coffee wasn’t grown using pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance-Certified Shade Grown coffee labels mean that it was grown using traditional methods so that trees on coffee plantations are preserved, rather than clear-cut.  The Rainforest Alliance has begun to certify coffee producers who raise coffee in areas that have been deforested if these producers are pursuing a program to return trees into these clear cuts and cultivating coffee in the shade.

There is another way you can be reasonably assured that your coffee is produced ethically—simply drink great coffee.  The idea here is to pay a higher price for a higher quality and by doing so, rewarding the most committed growers.  Great coffee is not grown in the full sun of a clear cut and doused with chemicals.  Great coffee requires great care at every step of the process.  There’s a wonderful principle at work here.  The best coffee is produced using methods and means that respect the people who grow it and the environment in which it is grown.  It’s as if justice and natural law have been fused.

*

Suzanne, a friend of mine, has visited Honduras twice in the last three years.  She did so as a member of her church’s Missions Team.  She was struck by the poverty she saw there.  In order to eat, entire families worked on the coffee plantations and were paid almost nothing.  Suzanne believes that if the adults received an adequate wage, the young children would be able to go to school and the cycle of poverty would be broken.

The Missions Team, believing that serving ethical coffee was essential to supporting the coffee producing communities, like those in Honduras, convinced the church leadership to switch to Fair-Trade coffee.  They agreed, but Suzanne now wonders if perhaps they agreed because they believed, as do the corporate advertisers, that ethical coffee was chic and would be an attractant of sorts.  When Suzanne’s church began a large building project, there was an over-all increase in donations, but less was directed to church ministries.  Cuts were necessary.  They switched to a less expensive coffee.

*

Residents of Abbotsford, BC, where I live, are the most generous people in Canada.  Their contribution to charities is more than double the national average.  One explanation is that the community is very religious.  My experience with the religious community in Abbotsford is that they will, in a flash, write a cheque to help a school in Nicaragua or a water project in Guatemala.  But, all the while, they go home and make a pot of coffee from a can, not realizing how much they could help those very communities by switching to good coffee.

They buy the cheaper product because they are good people with a commitment to stewardship, unaware of the global effect of their purchase habits.

*

What about Starbucks?  Starbucks has good coffee.

If you are concerned with the social and environmental effects of coffee production, your choice between buying Starbucks and corporate canned coffee is clear—buy Starbucks.  Starbucks does deserve some thanks.   Although it was unintentional, they have helped the plight of the coffee grower.  In their quest for profits, they have given us a taste for good quality coffee. When I had my first sip of Starbucks, I thought it was too strong and too bitter.  By the time I finished that cup, I realized there was much more to coffee than caffeine and a bit of warmth; I realized I loved coffee.  It was Starbucks that helped me to see coffee as more than a caffeinated brown liquid.  And by introducing me to good coffee, they put me on a quest for a great one.

But, to whom should Starbucks be compared?  If you are comparing Starbucks to a small roaster—again, the choice is clear—don’t buy Starbucks.  Because there are so many good coffees to experience, it seems a shame to limit oneself to Starbucks’ Pike’s Place blend.  Further, the variation found in the coffee be reflected in the environment we drink it in.  Since when did conformism become a core American value so that the coffee shop needs to look exactly the same in Seattle as it does in Soho—or worse yet, the same in Vegas as in Venice.

*

On Saturday mornings, I often accompany my wife to the local farmer’s market, an excursion made much more attractive since Grab-A-Java set up a booth.  Grab-A-Java, “a small-batch, wholesale micro-roaster,” is owned and operated by Dave Perrit.  I visited his roaster one cold November afternoon.  The small black roaster squats in the middle of a room in his house.  It is warm and the hum of the fans swirl the woody aroma of the roasting coffee beans.  Dishevelled piles of labels run along the counter which is shared by large bins filled with freshly roasted coffee.  His coffee comes from one supplier, Organic Products Trading Co. (OPTCO), which sources green coffee from all over the world.  All the beans are both Free Trade and Certified Organic, but they are special in another way.  They are Café Femenino beans.

Café Femenino is a cooperative formed in 2004 by women in Northern Peru who were searching to improve the lives of their families as well as to gain some control of the coffee they worked so hard to produce.  To sell coffee from Café Femenino, a roaster must commit to contributing to local women’s shelters and/or the Café Femenino Foundation.  Grab-A-Java supports both.  This concept is spreading to existing co-ops in Columbia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil and Guatemala, and soon to be introduced in Rwanda.

*

In 1999, I watched a bandana-masked protester heave a USA Today newspaper box through the window of a Starbucks during the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.  This attack wasn’t just random window breaking—it had targeted the coffee shop.  At the time I was disgusted by the lack of respect for property and authority.  But one question lingered: What are they so mad about?  Since then, I have heard things, dark whisperings about coffee and third-world exploitation.  I worry that maybe righteous anger is the appropriate response, and I should indignantly slam my coffee cup (empty) into the bin.  But I love coffee.  Coffee is why I get up in the morning; it’s why I can teach writing to 16 year olds in the last class of the day; it’s why I am willing to run errands after work.   But I also desire to do what’s right and good, so I have endeavored here to find out if there is such a thing as an ethical cup of coffee?

It turns out there is—a great one, best served with a home-made chocolate-chip cookie.

Other resources:

Bacon, Chris.  “Confronting the Coffee Crisis.” World Development33:3 (2004) : 497-511.

Ball, Barbara. Coffee Talk: Sharing Christ Through Friendly Gatherings. San Bernardino: Churches Alive!, 1979.

“The Coffee Addiction.” Scott Wapner. CNBC, Shaw Cable, West.  29 Sept. 2011. Television.

Capon, Robert Farrar.  The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. New York: HJB, 1969.

Davids Kenneth. “Starting with Cans: Mainstream Supermarket Coffees.”  Coffee Review.  Jan. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2011

Ditto, Jason. 2basnob.com. “Coffee Tasting” n.p. 2008. Web.  12 Oct. 2011.

Ellison, Katherine . “Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?” Smithsonian 35. 3 (2004) : 100-107.

Gaudio, Rudolf P. “Coffee Talk: StarbucksTM and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation.” Language in Society.  32:5 (2003) : 659-691.

Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff.   Free Range Studios, 2007

Moguel, Patricia and Victor Toledo.  “Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems in Mexico.” Conservation Biology.  13.1 (1999) : 11-21.

Murray, Douglas L. “The future of Fair Trade Coffee: dilemma’s facing Latin America’s small scale producers.” Development in Practice. 16.2 (2006) : 171-192.

“Pencils, Metal Recycling, Coffee.” How Its’ Made. Discovery.  Shaw Cable, West. 12 Oct. 2011.

Rottenberg, James A. “Ecological Role of a Tree [Gamelina Arborea] Plantation in Guatemala.” The Auk. 124.1 (2007): 316-330.

Steer, Simon M.  Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God.  Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2002.

 

 

Coffee and Conscience – Part 2

In Christ and Culture on October 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea.” — Abraham Lincoln

*

C. S. Lewis explores the demonic view of pleasure in The Screwtape Letters.  An experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, a novice demon, on the use of pleasure to ensnare a human soul.  He tells him, “You must always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure, to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable” for when dealing with any pleasure in its “healthy and normal and satisfying form we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” For Screwtape, the demonic formula for the distortion of pleasure is “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.”

*

I first started drinking coffee in university.  My mother had sent me off to school with the essentials: fifteen pairs of underwear, with my name written on the band with a laundry pen, and a little, yellow, two-cup kettle to boil water.  At some point I picked up a little jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee.  My coffee consumption was strictly utilitarian: I drank it to stay sharp while writing papers and cramming for exams.  I didn’t particularly like the taste, so I drank it with lots of sugar and nondairy creamer. I might just as well have taken NoDoz.  Like a cup of coffee, one caplet contains 200 mg of caffeine, and, according to the company’s promotional material, it’s much better than coffee:  “Fewer pit stops, cheaper than a cup of coffee on the go, no awkward ordering, conveniently keep it in your pocket or purse and never gets cold.” For many drinkers,  the attraction to coffee is the caffeine.  The appeal of caffeine is three-fold.  It reduces drowsiness by blocking adenosine, a chemical created in the brain that slows down nerve cell activity.  With the increase of neural activity, the pituitary gland releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline so the subject is ready for fight, flight or even a very animated discussion on the merits or absurdity of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Caffeine also increases dopamine that activates pleasure centers in certain parts of the brain.  In short, it gives you a sparkle and jolt and an ahhhh. Father Capon is a lover of food and drink, and more foundationally he is a lover of things.  He says “things are precious, before they are contributory.”  I think he’s onto something; to reduce coffee to its function as a conveyance system for C8H10N4O2 is to commit some sort of crime against this precious thing.  True delight is a far more appropriate response.

*

If it’s the caffeine you want, the most efficient coffee product to deliver the goods is instant coffee.   It requires only a spoon, a cup and some hot water.  Because the process to make instant coffee creates such a poor tasting coffee anyway, cheap, poor quality beans can be used.  Instant coffee production extracts twice the stuff from the bean as does the brewing of a regular coffee.  From the position of taste alone, the additional extracts should have been left and tossed out with the grounds.  But by squeezing out more product per pound of beans, profit margins are increased.  Unfortunately, the over-extraction of the grounds results in a bitter and aromaless product.

*

I remember the commercials for Nestlé’s Sunrise instant coffee.  The advertising slogan encouraged consumers to buy this coffee because it was “mellowed with chicory.”  Chicory is an adulterant.  It is cheaper than coffee, so by adding it to the ground coffee the price can be dropped.  Chicory isn’t the only adulterant added to coffee over the years.  Mark Pendergrast offers an amazing list of adulterants.  I suppose parsnips and pea hulls aren’t so bad when one considers baked horse liver and brick dust.  But, by principle, chicory is no different than burnt rags and coal ashes or dirt and dog biscuits—the fundamental principle is the increase of profit margins.  Although this list comes from the Industrial Revolution, the motivation behind the addition of adulterants to coffee is alive and well in the big coffee producers to this day. Cheap coffee means more coffee sold and that means more profit.

*

 “The best part of wakin’ up, is Folgers in your cup.” I hate waking up.  The thing that gets me out of bed is the promise of a cup of coffee.  Because I delay getting up as long as possible, my first cup is usually at work.  There we drink whatever is on sale at Costco.  We’ve had Folgers “Classic Roast” in the bright-red plastic container.  Proctor and Gamble’s promotional material says that the classic roast is a “blend of Arabica and Robusta beans for a smooth, full-bodied flavor.”  That little word “for” suggests causality, does it not? Approaches to coffee cultivation lie on a continuum between the traditional shade grown coffee and the more modern unshaded monoculture.  The first is carried out at higher elevations under a canopy of trees where there is a constant replenishment of organic material as the leaf litter decomposes.   The trees are a home to an array of beneficial insects and birds that act to control potential pests.  The unshaded monoculture, on the other hand, demands the removal of all organisms but the coffee plants.  These are set out by the thousands in rows upon rows that stretch for miles.  This method allows for efficiencies like mechanized harvesting, but it also results in environmental degradation—water pollution, soil erosion, declines in local fish populations due to sedimentation and bird populations because of loss of trees, increased soil and air temperatures, and lower amounts of moisture and microorganisms in the soil.  The problems that directly affect the coffee production are solved by the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Essentially, two varieties of coffee beans are grown.  The Arabica variety grows at high altitudes.  Its beans develop slowly and are few.  The Robusta grows at lower elevations. Its beans develop quickly and are more numerous.  When it comes to flavour, Arabica beans are superior in every way.  From a commercial perspective, Robusta beans are superior in every way: The mechanized Robusta plantation will out produce traditional Arabica shade farm by as much as four times per acre.  The result is a vastly inferior tasting cup of coffee. You can buy a three pound can of Folgers Classic Roast at Costco for $12.99 CDN.

*

In an online discussion, the question was asked, “Which coffee do you liked best?”  Here’s one of the replies: “Well I love Starbucks . . . as much as the next person. The reality is, I will not pay the price for it on a daily basis, buying it in bulk for home is just as expensive. I can buy a huge container of Folgers/Maxwell House for $7 at Wal-Mart whereas the little Starbucks’ bag costs the same.” For many, price is a significant factor in what coffee one drinks.  But the questions must be asked, “If I am not paying for the coffee I drink, who is?”

*

Several years ago, I watched an animation called “The Story of Stuff” narrated by Anne Leonard.  She asked a question that has haunted me since.  When stuff is so cheap, who’s paying the cost? A long chain of costs connects the coffee plant to our coffee cup here in North America: plants must be tended, fruit must be picked and transported to the processor, the pulp removed from the beans, the beans dried, and sorted and bagged, the bags transported to a warehouse to rest, the rested bags must be transported to the roaster, the roasted coffee graded and packaged, and the packaged coffee transported to retail outlets. Roasted coffee costs less than 5% of the total you pay for a Latte in a fancy coffee house.  If you brew canned coffee at home, the coffee is costing you less than 10 cents per cup. If we are paying so little for the coffee, who, then, is paying for all that goes before?  The companies that transport, roast, and package the coffee aren’t paying for it.  They are enjoying healthy profits.

*

Although they have risen in the last year or two, world coffee prices are volatile and, for the last decades, have been very low.  Low coffee prices had a lot to do with a large surplus of Robusta and poor quality Arabica being produced by huge coffee plantations in Vietnam and Brazil.  When prices are as low as they have been, farmers get less for their coffee than the cost of its production.  Consequently, throughout the coffee-growing world, desperate farmers abandon their trees to look for work elsewhere while their families live under plastic tarps by the roadside.  Some daughters resort to prostitution to support their families.  Other farmers have burned their coffee plants and replaced them with drug crops like coca or qat.

*

Historically, American consumers have insisted on a low price for coffee.  Cheap coffee has been so important that when the price of coffee rose sharply, Congressional hearings were held to investigate the reason behind the increases.  Some were blaming the producers of taking advantage of the defenseless coffee drinker. The documentary Black Coffee records a speech made by Congressional witness, Andrés Uribe*, when prices spiked in 1950.  He explained the sudden price rise was because of a shortage of coffee.  He pointed out that most of the money Americans paid for their coffee did not go to Latin American producers, but to U.S. roasters, retailers, and restaurants.   Uribe said, Gentlemen, when you are dealing with coffee, you not dealing only with a commodity, a convenience. You are dealing with the lives of millions of people.  We in Latin America have a task before us which is staggering to the imagination—illiteracy to be eliminated, disease to be wiped out, good health to be re- stored, a sound program of nutrition to be worked out for millions of people. The key to all of this . . . is an equitable price for coffee. Other-wise, you cast these millions of persons loose to drift in a perilous sea of poverty and privation, subject to every chilling wind, every subversive blast. His words had no effect.

*

The real enemy of coffee growers, the environment and the consumer is the big coffee companies.  They provide a market for Robusta beans, the production of which is not environmentally sustainable, and thus, driving down the global price of coffee.  This threatens the viability of producing the quality Arabica coffees.



* the New York representative of Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and chairman of the Pan American Coffee Bureau

Coffee and Conscience — Part 1

In Christ and Culture on October 15, 2012 at 11:31 pm

On the eighth day God created coffee — Zazzle Mug from zazzle.com

At the farm, coffee time never varied.  I’m not sure why I recall coffee time at Grandma’s with such reverence and affection.  Perhaps it was grace—inclusion in a ritual when I was too young to partake in the eponymous element. To a child, it wasn’t about the coffee, but the cookies—the same cookies: home-made chocolate chip and store bought chocolate-covered, marshmallow-puffs with a drip of raspberry filling.  I occasionally used to buy a box of those marshmallow cookies out of nostalgia, but they were never as good as their memory, and not nearly as good as the homemade ones.

Coffee time was a regular and holy mystery—the conversation was as incomprehensible to me as the black stuff the adults drank.  In something as quotidian as coffee time, I experienced what priest, writer and gourmet chef, Robert Capon, calls the “unutterable weight of glory.”  But at the time, I had no idea; I’m sure that I had to be prompted to say thank you before I raced outside.

*

The coffee plant is particular as to where it grows, for it desires heat.  It climbs up the equatorial mountains where it hides in the oppressive humidity of the world’s jungles.  And it likes rain—lots of rain.  The earth and air flavour the fruit.  In Africa, the seeds absorb essences drawn from rich black soil, evening fog and very hot days.  In Central and South America, mountain vistas and heavy humidity suffuse the beans with both light and depth.  Coffee grown on the slopes of the Pacific Islands is imbued with the vastness and verve of the surrounding ocean.

Because of its capacity to absorb its environment, coffee offers some of the most complex and varied flavours of anything that we put into our mouth.  Furthermore, all the flavour of a particular bean is present at the time of its picking.  Nothing will be added, but without due care, much can be lost.

*

I sit watching an episode of How It’s Made. First, the frenetic assembling of pencils; then an exposition on the processing of scrap metal, and then comes coffee.  The narrator explains that coffee “boasts over eight hundred flavor characteristics; at least double those of wine.”  The human senses can discern all these complex flavours.  And poetic language is necessary to even come close to celebrate them.   Kenneth Davids’ is a coffee aficionado and reviewer.  His reviews approach poetry.    With a few omission and some restructuring, a poem is created:

Kenya Karatu AA” by Caféa Rotisserie

 

Aroma

Sonorously bright

Lush yet delicate:

Flowers, orange, nut, fresh-cut fir

 

Flavor

A rounding hint of milk chocolate.

Silkily smooth.

 

Finish

Sweet but crisp,

Orangy chocolate.

*

The flavor is extracted from the extraordinary beans by various methods.  The most common in coffee houses is the espresso, brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee.  Then the human creator fulfills his mandate to innovate.

The variations to the making of an espresso include lungo with more water and ristretto with less.  You can add water to make an Americano, steamed milk to make a Latte, lots of steamed milk to make a Macchiato and equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk to make a Cappuccino.  Each of these has vintages has variations, as well.  For instance, a Cappuccino can be dry with less frothed milk and no steamed milk at all.  It can be Mocha with chocolate syrup and Breva if made with half-and-half, instead of whole milk.  All of the above can be upgraded to a Double: two espresso shots rather than one.  Further, a plethora of syrups, flavorings, and spices can be added.  Chocolate is the most common, either sprinkled on top or added in syrup form. Other favorites include cinnamon, nutmeg, and Italian syrups and nearly any alcoholic beverage.  And it need not be hot, had warmed or even iced.

*

Starbucks has over 170,000 beverage possibilities.

I was standing in line to order an Americano.  In front of me was a young man casually dressed only in black and white.  His track pants were black with white stripes, and his jacket was black with white sleeves.  His backpack was black with white detailing, and his shoes, white with black detailing; bracelet, black; ear buds, white.

From his position in the line of customers, he was writing on the side of a Starbucks’ cup (white) with a pen (black).  With the flourish of a calligrapher, he wrote something in every one of the instruction boxes, except the one labeled “Decaf.” He passed the inscribed cup to the barista.

“They let you do that?” I asked.

“I work here,” he explained.

“It looks complicated.”

“May I help you,” the barista asked me?

“16 ounce Americano, please.”

“Would you like room for cream?”

“No thanks.”

I took my coffee and the guy in black and white was still waiting for his.  Such extravagance takes time.  I asked him if he could write his recipe on my cup.   He did so gladly.

Shots:              1 Aff, 1 Ris

Syrup:              4pV

Milk:                S

Custom:           140° x C Driz

Drink:              CM

And then with the pride of the artist, he signed his masterpiece, “Scott Hancock.”

“Did you invent this drink?” I asked.  He nodded proudly.

Three days later, I tried Scott’s masterpiece.  How could I not?

I will stick to my simple Americano.

It was good, but I will likely not order it again.  It came up on my bill as a Macchiato.  I like my coffee very hot but this one was served at only 140°.  It was also too sweet for a guy that drinks his coffee black.  I don’t ever take milk, let alone soy milk.  I think it was the soy that offered an aftertaste that I didn’t like.  I momentarily tasted the espresso, but it was distant and quickly subdued by the milk.

*

Cultural expressions of coffee add to the variety—Madras filter coffee from southern India is very different from the Kopi Tubruk from Indonesia.  Oliang from Thailand is distinct from Turkish and Vietnamese style coffees—all exceptional, and all brewed and drank with unique cultural differences.

The celebration of friendship and family is central to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  In a process that takes hours, the coffee is always prepared and served by a woman or a girl wearing a traditional white dress.  After she has arranged a tray holding the cups, she will roast the carefully cleaned coffee beans over an open fire.  A nutty aroma fills the room as the stirred beans rattle against the metal of the long handled pan.  The heat coaxes out the oils making the beans shiny and black.  When they start to crackle, the woman removes the pan from the heat and walks around the room so the smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air.

Using a wooden pestle and mortar, she grinds the roasted coffee and then stirs it into a black earthen coffee pot.  The pot is left for a moment while the grinds settle to the bottom and the flavours permeate the hot water.  The pouring of the coffee requires grace and skill.  To further diffuse the aroma through the room, the woman pours the coffee in one continuous stream from over a foot above the small handleless cups.  It falls to the youngest child to announce that the coffee is ready and to serve it, starting with the eldest member of those who will partake.  The coffee is drunk with plenty of sugar. The woman is lavishly praised for her efforts in producing the coffee.

Three rounds of coffee are served with stories and conversation.  The last cup is called, “Baraka”—the cup of blessing.  It is possible to come as a visitor to a simple peasant hut in Ethiopia and be treated to this Yirgacheffe, which is, according to coffee experts, one of the best coffees in the world.

*

 “HEY! Coffee time”

Don, our boss, almost always barked, “Hey!” before he said anything. I think he liked to see us jump.  If we were shoveling, he’d yell, “Hey!” and sternly and impatiently show us the most efficient way to move dirt.  And if you called it dirt, he’d snap, “Hey! Dirt is what’s under your fingernails; this is soil.”  Until I got used to his manner, and I never really did, I always had the sense that I did nothing right.

He knew we were on edge and he seemed to derive some pleasure from it.  Twice a day he’d come up behind us and bark, “Hey!” followed by a much softer, “Coffee time.”

When we sat down for coffee, everything changed.  He told us stories about the Vietnam War and laughed at our stories about college life.  The breaks were supposed to be just fifteen minutes long, but if the mood struck, he’d sit there much longer.  We never checked our watches; we just enjoyed the company of those who worked hard together and enjoyed the grace of a few minutes of holding a coffee instead of a shovel.

A Negative Times a Negative Equals a Positive?

In Books, Movies and Television on October 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm

I never really understood math.

Apparently I could do it, because I got Bs in my math classes, but doing it and understanding it was not the same thing.  My strategy was to look at the pattern in the sample question and repeat the pattern in the exercises.  The trick on the test was just to apply the right pattern.

Now, over 30 years later, I understand one of the great mathematical mysteries—mysterious, that is, for all students who excel only in the humanities.

How does multiplying a negative by a negative give you positive?

I have known this to be true for a long time, but I never understood how it’s possible; it’s counterintuitive as far as I was concerned—a special knowledge reserved for great mathematical shaman like Mr. Stauffer, my high school math teacher.

But recently I caught a glimpse into how this could be possible.

In my English class we are talking about being discerning when we watch movies and read novels.  Given that any novel or movie will have elements that are “good” as well as elements that are “bad,” (for more, read “Dog poop in the Brownies”) discerning viewers and readers need to be able to identify what’s what.  Fearing that these categories would be over simplified, I said that a movie could have “bad” things in it, but not be a “bad” movie.  I was talking about Groundhog Day and Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, was doing bad things like driving drunk.  It is not discerning to identify this as an example of that which is false, evil or perverse because the movie is critical of his behaviour.  The movie’s attitude toward this behaviour is negative, making this aspect of the movie something that is good, true and beautiful.

Exercise 1 – reduce the following equation (show your work):

Phil Connors is drunk driving. Groundhog Day is critical of this behaviour.  Groundhog Day is saying something true.

  1.  Phil is doing a bad thing.  The movie says it’s bad.  This is good.
  2. A negative (is shown to be) negative is a positive.

This works for the other ones too.

If a movie has a bad thing in it, but calls it good, it’s bad.

A negative (is shown to be) positive is a negative.

and, a positive times a negative is a negative.

and, a positive times a positive is a positive.

The key, then, to assessing the good, true and beautiful in a movie involves discerning the movies stance toward the false, evil and perverse in a film.

It’s more than adding up the # of objectionable words/phrases, etc.

Failure to understand the implicit attitude toward these things in a movie, places the following movies in the same category.

Parental Advisory #1

  • Sex/Nudity: sexually related dialogue and gestures
  • Drugs/Alcohol: drinking, marijuana is used; mention of other drugs
  • Violence/Scariness: people are killed; gunfire; fighting
  • Objectionable Words/Phrases: 295

Parental Advisory #2

  • Sex/Nudity: sexually related dialogue
  • Drugs/Alcohol: drinking, smoking
  • Violence/Scariness: fatal shooting, beating up, intimidation of others
  • Objectionable Words/Phrases: 140

The first is Pineapple Express, the second, Gran Torino.  Don’t see the first; don’t miss the second.

 

The Demonic and the Stupid

In Books, Movies and Television on October 5, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I went to see Looper on opening night.

There’s plenty to talk about in this movie, but too many people haven’t seen it yet and I don’t want to spoil it for them.   But my experience in the theatre that night had me thinking that two more points should be added to the list that I started in the last post (Read “. . . Will We Watch?”).   There, I suggested that we might consider having two standards regarding Language, violence and sexual content in movies.   Movies that explore what it means to be human can have greater latitude for including this adult content; a film that is just for entertainment, less so.

The principle is: language, violence and sexual content can be a means to an end, but not an end in themselves.  To these I’d like to add the demonic and the stupid.

One of the films previewed before the feature presentation was Sinister.  The preview scared me spitless.  I cannot declare with certainty that this movie even has a demon in it, nor can I say with certainty that that this movie is using the demonic as entertainment.  But, I think, based on the trailer, it’s likely.

Even if it’s not, I know that this type of movie is not good for me to see.  This is a bit tangential, but an important point when it comes to movie viewing.  Not everyone can view everything.  For some, sexual content needs to be avoided as a matter of course.  For others, this isn’t an issue, but violence is.  For me, it’s the demonic.

Even though the demonic in The Exorcist is a means to an end, this type of content is something I avoid.  Dicerning movie viewer need to know themselves.

The Exocist (1973) is such a film in that it deals with important themes and in many ways it affirms Christian understanding of reality.   The presentation of the demonic was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  This is more than can be said of the flood of “supernatural thrillers” that followed.  Like sex, and violence, the demonic is not to be glorified or celebrated or simply exploited for entertainment purposes.

Nor is the stupid.  I was reminded of this by Jeff Daniels.

Jeff Daniels plays the role of Abe in Looper.   He also played Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber (1994).   I admit some parts were pretty funny and a little clever.  This is probably one of the best in the genre—but it spawned a long string of movies that celebrate utter stupidity.   Most fall far short of clever and don’t have the same level of talent (Daniel’s co-star was Jim Carrey).  These movies compensate for their lack of cleverness and comedic talent, with more stupidity and crudity.   I’m not sure if it’s even possible to have stupidity as a means to an end.  Maybe that’s why most of these movies are simply stupid, and because we can’t send them to their room for misbehaving, we can only ignore them and hope, that without an audience, they will stop.

Language, Sex, and Violence — Will We Watch?

In Books, Movies and Television, Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm

“If it’s not appropriate for children, it’s not appropriate for anyone.”

I’ve always had trouble with this idea, because if I took that approach, I’d no longer be able to read my Bible.

I have been told by those who can read the original languages in which the Bible has been written that some of the language is pretty course, especially in the prophets. And you don’t need to read the original language to find sexual content both the beautiful stuff, like The Song of Songs, and the repellant, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36) comes to mind. There’s also plenty of violence. When I was young, my imagination played the tent peg story (Judges 4:21) and the murder of Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) clearly on the screen of my mind.

The good folks down at the Skeptics Annotated Bible give the following, tongue in cheek, review of the Bible using the same categories that some concerned Christian groups give to movies:

• Sex/Nudity: 197
• Drugs/Alcohol: no information
• Violence/Scariness: 957
• Objectionable Words/Phrases: 180

Their jibe does make a point.

Rather than using the MPAA rating system (Read Post “R Rated Movies”) or a misunderstanding of Philippians 4:8 (Read “Dog Poop in the Brownies”), I would like to suggest a new standard by which discerning parents, can determine what movies to watch with their older children or patronize themselves.

It is not the language, sexual content and violence in and of themselves that should keep us from reading the Bible. It is not the presence of Sex/Nudity, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence/Scariness or Objectionable words/Phrases that should prevent us from going to movies.

It is how they treat these things. If they treat them as the Bible does, then we can watch them. Or even OUGHT to watch them? You see, I’m not just looking for a loophole to get away with watching whatever movie I want. I believe that by encountering this art form makes us better neighbours.

Art—and movies are art—is a dialogue about what it means to be human. It explores the good and beautiful; it also explores the evil and sin; and it explores the need and longing for redemption. Experiencing art broadens and deepens our experience and, therefore our understanding of our neighbours. Understanding the language of film, and how to talk about it, makes us better able to attend to, and even contribute to, the dialogue and, thus, be more effective servants to God and neighbour as we partake in Christ’s redemption of creation.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

Movies have two functions that occupy points on a continuum. On one side are movies which are made to provide consumers with pleasure or entertainment. Commercial success is the primary goal so these movies are designed to help large numbers of people to escape the tedium or stress of their ordinary lives. This is not in itself a bad thing. Because they want to attract as many viewers as possible, they have to provide a good product, and they need a PG rating, so they don’t have strong language, nudity, or realistic violence.—if successful, everybody wins. I would classify The Avengers (2012) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a film that occupies this end of the spectrum.

On the other end are movies that are made in the hopes that it may broaden, deepen or sharpen our awareness of the human experience; these bring us into reality, rather than provide an escape from reality. These have a more artistic purpose and they demand more from us in that they attempt to bring us more deeply into life’s joys and struggles, while they and often produce empathy in the audience. Precious (2009) or Ordinary People (1980) perhaps fit into this category.

Because this is a continuum, movies usually occupy some point between the two ends of the spectrum. Some lean toward the entertainment side, but still tell us something about life—Finding Nemo. Others tell us something serious about live, but while they do it, they entertain—Little Miss Sunshine.

How much language, sexual content and violence we are willing to tolerate in a film has something to do with where it is on the continuum. Movies that are on the entertainment side of the continuum ought to have a minimum of language, sexual content and realistic violence. These things are a means to an end, and they ought not to be an end in themselves. If they are presented as such, discerning viewers will avoid them.

But because language, sexuality and violence are a part of the human experience, they can be in the sorts of films that bring us into reality. Context matters a great deal here. The nudity presented in Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List (1993) is much different than the nudity presented in American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006). The first shows the humiliation and abuse of women in a very dark time in human history, and the other objectifies women for the viewing pleasure of its male audience.

I have never been impacted by a scene of violence as much as the opening scenes of A Time to Kill (1993). 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked by two rednecks. These two white racists are caught boasting about what they did to Tonya. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson is understandably distraught and, recalling an incident a year previous when four white men were acquitted after raping an African-American girl in a nearby town. He is determined that justice will be done. So he shoots and kills the smirking rednecks as they leave the arraignment.

The violence of the initial attack is intense, but it was necessary for us to share some of the horror and violation of the act, so that we could empathize with the distraught father who killed the men who attacked his daughter. The rest of the film involves his trial for murder. There is no doubt that he is guilty, but we understand his actions because we watched the event that motivated his decision to kill. Had you read this story in the newspaper, you’d likely be able to offer a flippant opinion about who’s right in this case, but by your participation in the violence, the issue is at least more complicated and your empathy makes you a better neighbour.

The violence in this movie is not the end, it is the means to an end, and that end is the honest exploration of the human condition.

There are some movies that seem to say something significant about life and human experience, but are really presenting sentimental and over simplistic views of life. One such movie is Remember the Titans, which the filmmakers would have you believe is a realistic representation of how a football team overcame issues of racism and hatred to win the state championship. Although, based on a true story, racism in the real world is not so easily dealt with and movies that tell us that it is are not doing us any good.

The following analogy might be helpful.
• The movies which are just for entertainment are like home-made apple pie with a scoop of good quality ice cream a la mode; they are really good, but you oughtn’t have a steady diet of the stuff.
• The artistic film that bring us into reality is like a well-balanced meal—I’m thinking turkey dinner here—they are good for the soul.
• Then there’s the TV-dinner type movies that pretend to be saying something about life, they got turkey and vegetables, but they are really giving us such a simplified version of reality that we’re better off eating the pie.
• The ones that are full of sex, violence, or base humour are analogous to chocolate covered dog poop—they might look good in the trailers, but you won’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth.