CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

Did David Foster Wallace predict Donald Trump?

I am reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  What a book!  1000 plus pages, massive paragraphs and some of the longest sentences you’ve ever seen.   Wallace comments on everything in our culture from the Boston AA to how we talk on the telephone (each of these topics receiving pages and pages of exploration–and it never gets boring!).

I’m pretty sure Wallace is a prophet.  Over 20 years after its publication, so much of what he predicted has, or seems to be in the process of, coming to fruition.

The book is set in the future.  This gives Wallace the opportunity to satirize American (and Canadian) culture showing us what we may become if we continue on our current trajectories.

For instance, much of the book takes place in The Year of the Depend Undergarment.  Yes, much like we currently sell the names of sports stadia, Wallace predicts we may eventually offer time up for sale.

Today I got to a bit where he describes the President of our near future.  Did Wallace predict Trump?

  • Did David Foster Wallace predict Donald Trump? #InfiniteJest #DavidFosterWallace
    Johnny Gentle began his career far from politics—he was an entertainer.
  • His campaign was built on ridiculous promises–“Let’s Shoot Our Wastes Into Space”
  • He won the nomination and the presidency because Americans were “pissed off.”
  • The president widens and exploits rifts between Americans–America has no more enemies, so it has turned on itself.
  • The president seeks an Other “to blame,” even though America is flourishing economically.

Here is the passage of Wallace’s prophetic descriptions of a future American President:

(In order to showcase Wallace’s brilliant prose, I’ve posted the entire excerpt here.  The italics are mine.  I don’t blame you if you don’t want to read this whole passage but don’t miss the last bit.)

Johnny Gentle is a former

lounge singer turned teenybopper throb turned B-movie mainstay, for two long-past decades known unkindly as the ‘Cleanest Man in Entertainment’ (the man’s a world-class retentive, the late-Howard-Hughes kind, the really severe kind, the kind with the paralyzing fear of free-floating contamination, the either-wear-a-surgical-microfiltration-mask-or-make-the-people-around-you-wear-surgical-caps-and-masks-and-touch-doorknobs-only-with-a-boiled-hankie-and-take-fourteen-showers-a-day-only-they’re-not-exactly-showers-they’re-with-this-Dermalatix-brand-shower-sized-Hypospectral-Flash-Booth-that-actually-like-burns-your-outermost-layer-of-skin-off-in-a-dazzling-flash-and-leaves-you-baby’s-butt-new-and-sterile-once-you-wipe-off-the-coating-of-fine-epidermal-ash-with-a-boiled-hankie kind) then in later public life a sterile-toupee-wearing promoter and entertainment-union bigwig, Vegas schmaltz-broker and head of the infamous Velvety Vocalists Guild, the tanned, gold-chained labor union that enforced those seven months of infamously dreadful ‘Live Silence,’149 the total scab-free solidarity and performative silence that struck floor-shows and soundstages from Desert to NJ coast for over half a year until equitable compensation-formulae on certain late-millennial phone-order retrospective TV-advertised So-You-Don’t-Forget-Order-Before-Midnight-Tonight-type records and CDs were agreed on by Management. Hence then Johnny Gentle, the man who brought GE/RCA to heel. And then thus, at the millennial fulcrum of very dark U.S. times, to national politics. The facial stills that Mario lap-dissolves between are of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, founding standard-bearer of the seminal new ‘Clean U.S. Party,’ the strange-seeming but politically prescient annular agnation of ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owl-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers, a surreal union of both Rush L.- and Hillary R.C.-disillusioned fringes that drew mainstream-media guffaws at their first Convention (held in sterile venue), the seemingly LaRoucheishly marginal party whose first platform’s plank had been Let’s Shoot Our Wastes Into Space,150 C.U.S.P. a kind of post-Perot national joke for three years, until — white-gloved finger on the pulse of an increasingly asthmatic and sunscreen-slathered and pissed-off American electorate — the C.U.S.P. suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it, the two established mainstream parties split open along tired philosophical lines in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splatted, and also, recall, a post-Soviet and -Jihad era when — somehow even worse — there was no real Foreign Menace of any real unified potency to hate and fear, and the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear. This motionless face on the E.T.A. screen is Johnny Gentle, Third-Party stunner. Johnny Gentle, the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech. Whose new white-suited Office of Unspecified Services’ retinue required Inauguration-attendees to scrub and mask and then walk through chlorinated footbaths as at public pools. Johnny Gentle, managing somehow to look presidential in a Fukoama microfiltration mask, whose Inaugural Address heralded the advent of a Tighter, Tidier Nation. Who promised to clean up government and trim fat and sweep out waste and hose down our chemically troubled streets and to sleep darn little until he’d fashioned a way to rid the American psychosphere of the unpleasant debris of a throw-away past, to restore the majestic ambers and purple fruits of a culture he now promises to rid of the toxic effluvia choking our highways and littering our byways and grungeing up our sunsets and cruddying those harbors in which televised garbage-barges lay stacked up at anchor, clotted and impotent amid undulating clouds of potbellied gulls and those disgusting blue-bodied flies that live on shit (first U.S. President ever to say shit publicly, shuddering), rusty-hulled barges cruising up and down petroleated coastlines or laying up reeky and stacked and emitting CO as they await the opening of new landfills and toxic repositories the People demanded in every area but their own. The Johnny Gentle whose C.U.S.P. had been totally up-front about seeing American renewal as an essentially aesthetic affair. The Johnny Gentle who promised to be the possibly sometimes unpopular architect of a more or less Spotless America that Cleaned Up Its Own Side of the Street. Of a new-era’d nation that looked out for Uno, of a one-time World Policeman that was now going to retire and have its blue uniform deep-dry-cleaned and placed in storage in triple-thick plastic dry-cleaning bags and hang up its cuffs to spend some quality domestic time raking its lawn and cleaning behind its refrigerator and dandling its freshly bathed kids on its neatly pressed mufti-pants’ knee. A Gentle behind whom a diorama of the Lincoln Memorial’s Lincoln smiled down benignly. A Johnny Gentle who was as of this new minute sending forth the call that ‘he wasn’t in this for a popularity contest’ (Popsicle-stick-and-felt puppets in the Address’s audience assuming puzzled-looking expressions above their tiny green surgical masks). A President J.G., F.C. who said he wasn’t going to stand here and ask us to make some tough choices because he was standing here promising he was going to make them for us. Who asked us simply to sit back and enjoy the show. Who handled wild applause from camouflage-fatigue- and sandal-and-poncho-clad C.U.S.P.s with the unabashed grace of a real pro. Who had black hair and silver sideburns, just like his big-headed puppet, and the dusty brick-colored tan seen only among those without homes and those whose homes had a Dermalatix Hypospectral personal sterilization booth. Who declared that neither Tax & Spend nor Cut & Borrow comprised the ticket into a whole new millennial era (here more puzzlement among the Inaugural audience, which Mario represents by having the tiny finger-puppets turn rigidly toward each other and then away and then toward). Who alluded to ripe and available Novel Sources of Revenue just waiting out there, unexploited, not seen by his predecessors because of the trees (?). Who foresaw budgetary adipose trimmed with a really big knife. The Johnny Gentle who stressed above all — simultaneously pleaded for and promised — an end to atomized Americans’ fractious blaming of one another for our terrible151 internal troubles. Here bobs and smiles from both wealthily green-masked puppets and homeless puppets in rags and mismatched shoes and with used surgical masks, all made by E.T.A.’s fourth -and fifth-grade crafts class, under the supervision of Ms. Heath, of match-sticks and Popsicle-stick shards and pool-table felt with sequins for eyes and painted fingernail-parings for smiles/frowns, under their masks.

The Johnny Gentle, Chief Executive who pounds a rubber-gloved fist on the podium so hard it knocks the Seal askew and declares that Dammit there just must be some people besides each other of us to blame. To unite in opposition to. And he promises to eat light and sleep very little until he finds them — in the Ukraine, or the Teutons, or the wacko Latins. Or — pausing with that one arm up and head down in the climactic Vegas way — closer to right below our nose. He swears he’ll find us some cohesion-renewing 

Other.

Right after this passage, Wallace uses the words “fake news.”

David Foster Wallace wrote this in 1996.  He died in 2008.  I wonder what he’d write today?

 

Carl Grimes, Hope and Merry Christmas

At the end of the mid-season finale of the 8th season AMC’s The Walking Dead, Carl Grimes reveals that he’s been bitten.  Fans are upset. 50,000 fans have signed a petition to remove showrunner Scott Gimple from the show.

Why are they so upset? I think it’s because children, Rick’s children, Carl and Judith, and Maggie’s unborn child, mean something. They are a glimmer of future hope in a very dark world. Perhaps they represent our hope as well, because, for some of us, the real world is very dark as well.  To kill a child is to kill hope, and we don’t like that.

We shouldn't be all that upset with Gimple for killing off Carl Grimes.
The thing is, we shouldn’t be all that upset with Gimple for killing off Carl Grimes. Gimple is doing what all zombie storytellers do–they give us characters that embody things that we value and then the kill them.  This goes all the way back to Night of the Living Dead in which most of the traditional values are murdered.

Barbara embodies devotion–dead.

Johnny, cynicism of every kind–dead.

Ben, the hero–dead.

Tom and Judy, romantic love–dead and dead.

The Coopers, the nuclear family–dead, dead and dead.  This, of course, includes little Karen, representative of innocence, who slays her mother with a cement trowel.

Conclusion:

If you are watching a show about zombies, get ready for the things you hold dear, and the characters who represent them, to snuff it.
Zombies are trying to tell us something

Zombie narratives force us to face the contradictions between what we profess and what we actually believe. It’s why monsters appear, and why the zombies have been so popular for the last fifty years.  On the one hand, we profess that there is no God, no universal truth, no ultimate meaning in life,  just what we create for our individual selves.   On the other hand, we believe that families and promises and honesty and courage and fair play matter. We live and act as if things like these are universal and objective.  We believe it’s wrong to deny someone their rights.  We believe that it’s wrong to exploit the weak. That it’s wrong to use women for sex against their will. We believe it’s wrong to kill and eat other people. We believe these things to be universally wrong.  We profess that life has no universal meaning, but we love the parts in TWD where the characters talk of the “something else” that we are fighting for that goes beyond survival.  Zombie narratives don’t let us get away with these inconsistencies.

Much of what Carl did in the final episode was to make his life have some meaning before he died–I can’t recall exactly, but I think his last words included, “I did this” as he pointed to all the people he safely evacuated from exploding Alexandria. But, unless the show does something totally inconsistent, and lame, Carl will die.  Will his life have meaning?  Will his death?  His future is now certain–he will either be dead or he will be lurching-dead–that’s it.  In the fictive world of The Walking Dead, millions have already met one of these two ends.

But the central question to zombie narratives is, if there is no transcendent meaning, is our existence really any different than Carl’s? Death is certainly at the end.  Perhaps we can say, “I did this.”  Is this adequate?  Is this all there is?

Don’t get mad at Gimple.  This is all our idea.

Unless, of course, there is a transcendent God in whom Truth and Meaning dwell–who Loves the world and has come to live among us to show us the way out of zombieland.

Merry Christmas

Why Christians Might Watch Game of Thrones

Image: HBO

 

Kevin De Young stated recently that he didn’t understand Christians watching Game of Thrones.  From the comments following his post, it’s obvious that this is a bit of a contentious issue.  I don’t think that Kevin De Young is necessarily wrong, but I do think that there is one reason why some Christians might watch Game of Thrones.

Before I engage his main idea, I have a few preliminary, knee-jerk reactions to his post:

First:  A particular strain of North American Christian is particularly sensitive to sexual content.  DeYoung’s post only questions this. Ten of John Piper’s explanations of the Twelve Questions to ask before You Watch Game of Thrones are centered on sex.  That violence in Game of Thrones doesn’t seem to be a concern suggests an imbalance.

Second:  Because he has not seen Game of Thrones (“Not an episode. Not a scene. I hardly know anything about the show.”) I don’t think De Young is qualified to publically comment on the show.   The question a discerning Christian viewer must ask about questionable content (coarse language, violence, and nudity) is not whether or not it is present, but whether or not is it gratuitous.  I have no problem with anyone choosing to avoid a program because of the content, but this does disqualify them from making a public critique of the show.  I have had many frustrating conversations with people bent on banning books they’ve never read–Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were the subjects of three of these conversations.

Third:  I find his use of the adjective “conservative” to be puzzling.    De Young is baffled that many “conservative Christians” are watching the show.  Why not just “Christians”? With this usage, he seems to be suggesting that there are all sorts of things we might expect from _____________ Christians, but conservative Christians should know better.  There is so much damage done in the church through the deliberate perpetuation of divisions within the body of Christ, and they are often completely imaginary.

Fourth: De Young’s post is short because “the issue doesn’t seem all that complicated.”  Oversimplification is a dangerous thing.  I concede that over-complicating simple issues is also a danger–which is this?  I don’t think too many things are simple.  In this post, De Young is oversimplifying a complex topic: the Christian engagement with culture.

 

OK, so why might some Christians watch Game of Thrones?

 

Game of Thrones is art.  It may be bad art or art to be avoided, but it is art.  It is a product of our culture and it contributes to the discussion about what it means to be human.  Christians have some important things to say on this topic, and should not exclude themselves from the table.  Most Christians should be paying attention to this conversation, and some Christians might need to pay attention to the contribution that Game of Thrones makes to this conversation.  The stakes are high, and, like I said, we have some important things to say on this topic.

Some Christians ought to be paying attention to the contribution that Game of Thrones makes to the conversation: What does it mean to be human?
I’ve recently read a book called, How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson.  In Chapter 7 — “Winter is Coming: The Slide to Subjectivism,” the authors suggest that Game of Thrones “gives us a picture of the world that could (and can) be but not the world that is.”  Of course, the dragons and whight walkers are fantastic, but Joustra and Wilkinson are talking about one of our cultural pathologies that is on display in Game of Thrones–instrumentalism.  Less and less, in Western culture, do we make decisions based on morals, ideals or principles.  We weigh costs and benefits, and these are measured on a scale of personal fulfillment.  Whatever benefits me is meaningful; I get to decide what benefits me–meaning is subjective.

The problem is that we live in a world that has a bunch of other people living in it too, and these folks present conflicting meanings.  Very quickly we are faced with a problem: How do we decide whose meaning is more meaningful? The answer is simple: whosoever is the stronger.  Consequently, everyone wants power, for only with power can my idea of personal fulfillment be realized for me.  This is, perhaps, the reality to which we are headed.  This is the world of Game of Thrones–“You win, or you die.”  Because Game of Thrones gives us a peek at our possible future, it can be taken as a warning.  We aren’t supposed to find the sex and violence stimulating, we are supposed to find it offensive because they are being used as tools to achieve a particular idea of personal fulfillment–this is something hellish.

If the show uses sex and violence simply to titillate and entertain, it is gratuitous sex and violence, and Christians ought to avoid this show.  If the show condemns the instrumental use of sex and violence, then we are on the same page as the creators and watching the show will enable us to engage in meaningful dialogue with our culture, so that we might yet pull back from the slide to subjectivism.  The problem is, I suspect the show uses the sex and violence both gratuitously and as a signifier of important ideas.  See what I mean?  It’s not simple.

One of the problems with the sex in Game of Thrones is that it distracts Christians from much more important and much more dangerous ideas than the sex and nudity.  It would seem that the artists who create Game of Thrones are concerned about the increased role that power is or might be, playing in our culture.  As Christians, we are concerned about that as well and we might, perhaps, be thankful that they pointed it out in such a way that so many people are paying attention.  Christians have something far more to contribute to the conversations about Game of Thrones that go way past nudity–in the Gospel, we have the resources to challenge subjectivism, instrumentalism, and power before they transform our culture into one that too closely resembles what we see in the television program.  Some Christians will need to be watching the show in order to take part in this important conversation.

Sex in television is a problem because it distracts Christians from ideas that are much more dangerous than nudity.

Am I arguing that all Christians ought to watch Game of Thrones?  Certainly not.  Many should stay far from it because of the sex and the violence–it will cause them to sin, or another to stumble.  Others should stay away from it because no Christian should ever passively consume a show like Game of Thrones, or any show for that matter.  We are not of the world, but we are in it, and if we are going to be in it, some of us will need to understand it–this takes a lot more work than many people want to do, so these, too, should avoid shows like Game of Thrones.

When it comes to our interaction with culture, Christians often find themselves caught between a desire to be innocent as doves and to be as wise as serpents.  It seems that it is Christ’s desire that we be both.  So we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, are left to sort it out.  This conversation has been going on for a long time; DeYoung leaning more toward a Puritan position, and my ideas coming out of a more Kyperean-Calvinist model.

Whatever position we take in this conversation, I believe these things are important:

  1. There is a line.  Game of Thrones may have crossed it and the “cultural engagement,” or “Christian freedom” arguments can’t be used as excuses to do whatever we want.
  2. Our engagement must be inclusive and holistic.  We need to pay attention to more than sexual content.  This would include violence, but I think the far more subtle ideas about human value (or lack thereof) and meaning (or the lack thereof) are far more dangerous, and these are to be found in movies that are rated G.
  3. I think it is important that we do not perpetuate artificial divisions between others in the body of Christ.  Most of our differences have to do with differing emphases.  Too many Christians are getting caught up in the political polarization that dominates our culture–we don’t have to go down that road.  I would suggest that to do so is to defy Christ’s desire that we be unified.
  4. And we must not over-simplify things which are not simple.

What do you think?  Is there a place for some Christians to watch Game of Thrones?

Image: HBO

 

 

My Question about Dunkirk

 

A few quick thoughts on Dunkirk (no spoilers)

Incredible film–go see it.

In Dunkirk, we see people under stress.

Under this stress, some people respond well, others not so well.

Everyone in the audience agrees when a person does something good, and when a person behaves badly.

When someone is willing to sacrifice another in order to save themselves, we consider this bad behaviour. Conversely, when someone willingly gives up something for the benefit of someone else, we consider this good. It’s like there is an external standard that we all agree on by which we judge the actions of the characters.

But as a culture, we are very uncomfortable with this notion of an external principle, because it must be grounded in something or someone–we’ve been on a trajectory for about 500 years where we slough off any form of external authority–Pope, King, God. We seem to be well on the way to negating the authority of our biology to set any limits on our freedom. We are on a quest for complete individual autonomy.

Yet here we all sit watching Dunkirk, judging this person to be good and this action to be bad. It wasn’t just the papists, or the royalists, or the theists who were judging–everyone was. By what or who’s authority? If we were truly free to create our own morality, wouldn’t we accept someone saying that they thought character A was bad (you know of who I’m talking about)?

Here’s my question: Let’s say we find this current generation in some sort of Dunkirkean crisis–would we see the same proportion of people stepping up–behaving admirably–as in the events faced by “The Greatest Generation.” Or would our passion for individual autonomy translate into the whole lot of us trying to save our individual skin, dooming us to collective, and probably individual, destruction.

The good news is we still seem to know what a hero looks like, but will we be able to be one when the time comes.

The good news is we still seem to know what a hero looks like, but will we be able to be one when the time comes.
I don’t really know.

Not unrelated is my post on Wonder Woman.

The Gospel According to Wonder Woman

I like nearly all of the superhero movies that have inundated the summer cinema for the last decade, but Wonder Woman might be my favourite. For one thing, it is set in Europe during the First World War.  I’ve been interested in The Great War since a veteran came to my grade 7 classroom and talked about his experiences in the trenches. My interest continues; since 2014, I’ve read at least 15 books on the First World War–it’s been my way of engaging the centennial.

I also like good writing. When I watch a movie, I don’t focus on the writing and decide if it is good or not. It’s good if I don’t wince or snort during dialogue. I winced once in this movie; more on this later.

The big story is also part of writing and I love this big story because of how it presents the Gospel to a modern audience.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m obviously not much of a comic book fan, because I didn’t know that Wonder Woman is Diana, the daughter of Zeus.

Importantly, in the world of the movie, all the gods (except Diana and her brother, Ares) are dead. By the end of the story, we are down to one diety.  This offers a parallel to the Modern world where all gods are dead; the death of the last one, the Christian God, was declared by Nietzsche’s madman in The Gay Science (1882). This was thought to be a good thing for now we were free.  On a popular level, there was quite a bit of optimism in the late 19th century–we didn’t need God. Human ingenuity seemed limitless; science and technology, the offspring of our new god-incognito, Human Reason, would lead us to a better world.  This optimism was also based on human perfectibility–the idea that human beings are basically good and getting better. This march toward a better world and human perfectibility fit nicely with a popular misinterpretation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; rather than simply adapt, organisms improve. Although many thinkers and artists questioned 19th century optimism, society in general looked forward to the new century with positive anticipation. Then came WWI.

Faith in human goodness continues despite a calamitous 20th century. I recently had a conversation with a friend about basic human nature. He said he believed that people are basically good. Our problems come from the small minority who are bad. The solution? These need to be rounded up and put into prison.   A lot of my other friends identify social conditions (poverty, education, racism, etc.) as the source of our problems, but their faith in human goodness is unfaltering.  They believe that everyone’s natural goodness will shine through with the elimination of poverty, racism and equal access to education.  The battle continues in our culture–more prisons or more social programs, but neither of these solutions will work, because both have a naïve understanding of the problem. The problem is not a few “bad apples” nor is it poverty or racism. It’s us!

Neither liberal nor conservative solutions will work, because both have a naïve understanding of the problem.
When Diana leaves the Edenic paradise for Europe she is naïve. She thinks that the problem is an evil Ares–the black sheep of the Greek pantheon.  Ares is wiser; he understands the problem, and it’s not him, and it’s not war. Human beings are what’s wrong with the world.  They aren’t made to be evil, by some external force, they choose it.  Evil lives within their hearts–all of them are corrupt. Steve Trevor says, “Maybe we are all to blame.” We are: Paul says in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” For Ares, doesn’t represent Evil, he represents Justice.  It is just that human beings are destroyed; we deserve destruction.

What we deserve is a central theme in the film. At one point our group of heroes offer up the familiar Irish drinking toast: “May we get what we want…and may we get what we need. But may we never get what we deserve.” As a human race, we don’t deserve Wonder Woman; we deserve destruction. This idea is everywhere in the film, and it’s central to the Gospel. Diana sets out to be the saviour of humanity, and both her mother, Hippolyta, and Ares tell her that humanity doesn’t deserve her. Her initial motivation to save us is her naïve assumption that we are good and deserved to be saved. Diana experiences a major crisis when der declared purpose to save humanity from evil, comes into conflict with her realization that Ares is right, the human race deserves destruction.

As a human race, we don't deserve Wonder Woman; we deserve destruction.
In the movie, this crisis is ultimately resolved in our favour. Thankfully, in the real world this crisis is also resolved in our favour–this is the Good News, or The Gospel.

Like Jesus Christ in the real world, Steve Trevor is our advocate in the world of the movie. He says, “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s what you believe.” I winced at this line, initially considering it hokey, but there’s more to it than I first thought. I missed the pronouns they and you. He says that the motivation of the saviour comes not from the attributes of those who need saving, but from the one who saves. This echoes Paul’s words in Roman’s 5:6-8 where he says,

6 . . .  when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Steve Trevor exemplifies for Diana the characteristic that is necessary for saviours when he gets into the big bad airplane with all that deadly gas. He willingly dies in order to save all the residents of the city of London from Doctor Poison’s gas attack.

The lesson is not lost on Dianna. Trevor’s death is resolves her crisis, and in that resolution we get our cinematic saviour. She summarizes her journey from naïve warrior to wise saviour:

I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. I’ve touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they’ll go to for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world.

To an audience that has been exposed to the Hollywood gospel for their entire life, this line comes as no surprise–true love is always the source of salvation. This is not just the case for romantic comedies, it’s true of almost every film of almost any genre. But this is not what is happening in this story.

She’s not talking about Romantic love, but love of another kind–the love that is manifest in self-sacrifice.

Sacrificial love will save the world, especially if it's the primary quality of the God who made us.
Over and over in the Bible we find that God will save us, because he wants to save us. Not because we deserve it, but because it is his will to do it. Search up “Bible verses, condemnation” and you will find a long list of verses about how we deserve destruction, but the idea of condemnation rarely stands alone. It is almost always accompanied by God’s desire to save us.
Romans 5:8 puts it succinctly:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

This is what Wonder Woman comes to understand as she resolved to continue as a saviour for mankind.

One final element of the Gospel is present in the movie–the role of ordinary people in the story of redemption–just before Steve Trevor gets onto the airplane where he will die, he tells Diana, “I can save today. You can save the world.” We cannot save ourselves, and we cant save the world, but we can, in small ways, imitate our saviours as we show self-sacrificial love to others, whether they deserve it or not. It’s not going to save the world, that’s already been taken care of, but it could save today.

Not unrelated is my post on the Warsaw Ghetto.

I Still Love Audible Books

I have kept up with my “reading” on Audible Books for another year. Still climbing my local mountain. There is some concern that I won’t hear the bears, but so far I have seen them a long way off so my sense of hearing has not, so far, been necessary.

This year I listened to some books I have read before (some of them multiple times). These include

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl,

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe by Douglas Adams,

Shogun by James Clavell,

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens,

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and

Dracula by Bram Stoker.

I loved these books when I read them, and got even greater pleasure from them this time around with Audible.

A lot of my enjoyment of Audible Books is the performances–Especially good performances were :

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, was performed by Anthony Bourdain himself.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre was read by John Lee

Excellent Woman by Barbara Pym was read by Jayne Entwistle

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was performed by Joe Morton

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens was read by Simon Prebble

The books I would most strongly recommend are:

William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, II: 1932-1940. I own all three volumes in book form and read and loved reading volume 1. Volume 2 on Audible was very, very good. Volune3 was fine.  The issue here is Manchester passed away before he could write volume 3. Using Manchester’s material, Paul Reid wrote volume 3.  He’s good, but his prose isn’t as engaging as that of Manchester.

Ready Player One by Earnest Clone is pure entertainment. Great story and you will especially love it if you grew up playing video games in the late 70s early 80s. Apparently this book is being made into a movie and I can’t wait to see it.

The list below rounds out the books I listened to since my last post about Audible Books I have “read.”  I enjoyed all of them.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

The Innocent: A Novel by David Baldacci

The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, III: 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reframe: From the God We’ve Made to God With Us by Brian Hardin

Battle by John Toland

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser

The Sea Wolves by Lars Brownworth

If you regularly drive or walk for any significant amount of time, you must consider an Audible Books account.  I love it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 — The Tale of Two Daddys

 

SPOILER ALERT

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter Quill finds his father.  He actually finds two.

These fathers embody contrary philosophies.

In The Guardians Vol. 2 two fathers embody contrary philosophies, that of heaven and of hell.

The philosophy of heaven and the philosophy of hell.

Ego, played by Kurt Russell is the representative of the philosophy of hell.  This perspective is described by senior tempter Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition.”

This is also the vampiric approach–to take from the other (to their detriment) for the benefit of the self.  It is selfishness to the extreme.

The philosophy of heaven is, I suppose, the reverse.  It is extreme selflessness.  To give up ones life for the other.

In John 15, Jesus commands his followers to

love one another as I loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus follows this up by doing it, for us, on the cross.

Yondu Udonta is not Peter’s biological father, but by the end of the movie, Peter realizes that he is his “Daddy.” He embodies the philosophy of heaven.  He gives up his life so that Peter could live.

 

Why read 1984?

1984 may be the most important novel for our time.

I feel vindicated.

I have been asked countless times, “Do you still teach that?  I read it when I was in school.”  This past week George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, topped Amazon’s bestseller list.  There is so much that recommends it.  One of the reasons everyone should read Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it is a relevant warning.  It is so masterfully articulated that the terms Orwellian, Big Brother and double-think evoke and almost visceral response in those who’ve read it.  Consequently, these terms are powerful weapons against the abuse of power.

This week, Kellyanne Conway was accused of double-think when she used the phrase “alternative facts” in defence of President Trump’s press secretary’s assertion that 500 000 is greater than 1.8 million.

We have entered an age where doublethink is possible #Orwell #1984 #alternativefacts
One of the reasons I am so committed to teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four every year, is to explore with students the necessary conditions that make double-think possible.  These conditions are, apparently, present in our “post truth” culture right now–as is evidenced by the phrase, “alternative fact.”

What are these conditions?

[Spoiler Alert]

One of the main ones is articulated by O’Brian in Part 3 of the novel.  O’Brian’s task is to “cure” Winston from his mistaken view of reality.  Winston’s error?  A belief in objective reality.  In a very early session, Winston objects to O’Brian’s assertion that “we, The Party, control . . . all memories.”  Winston challenges, “It is outside oneself.  How can you control memory?”  Winston is appealing to the existence of an external reality.  O’Brian counters,

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external.  Reality exists in the human mind and no where else.  Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes . . . only in the mind of the Party.  . . .  Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is the truth.”

(Sound familiar?)

Winston has a hard time understanding this; he argues that the Party doesn’t control the climate or gravity.  O’Brian’s response:

We control matter, because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull. . . .  There is nothing we could not do.  Invisibility, levitation–anything.  I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to.  . . .   You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature.  We make the laws of Nature.

O’Brian is simply saying that reality or truth is defined by human minds, it is not a thing in itself.   Consequently, if one controls human minds, then one controls reality.

If truth and reality are defined by human minds, then one need only control human minds to determine truth and control reality. #1984 #Orwell
For this conclusion to be true, O’Brian’s first premise must be true.  Is reality defined by human minds or is Winston right, does reality or truth exist outside the skull?

Human beings have always believed that reality or truth exist outside the human–the Ancient Greeks called it the kosmos, Taoists and Buddhists think of it as a transcendent truth, the Jews and Muslims understand it to be in a transcendent God, Christians find it in the person of Jesus Christ  (this is another majority view held by all religions).

Recently, within the last 150 years or so, something changed in our culture–in the West.  We broke with the rest of humanity and began to consider the possibility that the universe might be made up of just material.  This meant that there is no God or gods or transcendent truth.  Objective reality had not place to live but in matter.

All this has lead to a different way of talking about truth.  Truth and fact used to mean different things.  You used to be able to call all sorts of things true, not just things like,

  • water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom
  • the Battle of Hastings was in 1066
  • 2+2=4

but sentiments could also fall under the heading of “truth”:

  • the waterfall is sublime
  • the Parthenon is beautiful
  • courage is better than cowardice

In a world of only matter, truth is reduced to fact.  The rest of what used to be truth has to find a different place to live–it did.  It took up residence in individual human minds.  The truths in the second list are now “just” opinions–or are said to be merely subjective.

We’ve been going along quite happily so far with our separation of fact and opinion, but it couldn’t last.  As Orwell warned, without an external objective reality, rational facts will eventually go the way of rational sentiments.  If the truth is in the mind, then the, so called, facts have no more chance than did true sentiments.  This is how O’Brian can state with confidence that 2+2=5 if Big Brother says it does.

This is what happened this past week on Meet The Press.  It was officially declared by a representative of the President of the United States of America that 500 000 was greater than 1.8 million.

When we separated the mind from the world outside the mind, the first casualty was the loss of true sentiments, but it was only a matter of time till the facts themselves fell victim to the denial of objective reality.

The only way to get back to reality is to recover the pre-modern idea of objective truth. Objective truth, not only links reason to reality, but grounds sentiment as well. This is expressed in The Abolition of Man, where C. S. Lewis argues that emotions are not “in themselves contrary to reason” (19).   Some sentiments are reasonable or unreasonable only as they conform, or fail to conform, to something else–to some external standard.  He said that “a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can only lead to ruin” for it “has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship” (“Poison” 80-81).

It is appropriate to be alarmed by the “double-speak” coming from the White House this past week, but we oughtn’t be surprised–Orwell warned us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that this was coming.  It has apparently arrived.

Abraham, Issac and The Walking Dead Season Premiere

lucilleOf course I watched the season 7 premier of The Walking Dead to find out whose head got smashed with Lucille, in last season’s finale.  I expected Abraham because he’s too much of a soldier; Rick and company need to be vulnerable in the face of Negan.  I was also prepared for Glen because he gets it in the comic books.  However, I was not ready to lose both.  It was intense emotionally, and gory visually.  My twitter feed was full of indignant fans who said, “This time they went too far!”

Maybe they did, but that’s not what I was thinking about as the credits ran.

I was thinking about the event that actually broke Rick, the event that broke the viewing audience.  It’s the central event of the episode that will “change everything”–I was thinking about the near-amputation of Carl’s arm by his own father, called off by Negan at the last second.

This is an obvious allusion to Genesis 22 where God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and . . .  sacrifice him . . . as a burnt offering.”  Abraham obediently took Isaac to the place designated for the sacrifice. Isaac, ignorant of the plan,  asked his father where the lamb was for the sacrifice.  Abraham was evasive and answered that the Lord would provide the lamb. Once they arrived at the site, Abraham bound Isaac with ropes and put him on the stone altar.

Negan makes the same demand on Rick–“Sacrifice your son!” or at least, permanently maim him.  We are clearly expected to interpret this scene in, in the light of Genesis 22, so here’s some background.

In Hebrew  culture, the first born belongs to God; Yaweh (the Hebrew name for God) has a claim on the first born as representative of the family (Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8) — the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

A foundational premise in The Walking Dead, the ancient Hebrews also understood that people were generally guilty of evil, either overtly or in their heart–usually both.  The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family and belonged to God as payment for this moral debt.  God’s demand of the sacrifice of Isaac was simply a calling in of the debt.  That’s how Abraham took it anyway.

So Negan is in the position of God, Rick in that of Abraham and Carl, Isaac.  It might be said that Rick and his “family” of survivors, owes Negan.  In season 6, Rick and a number of Alexandrians carried out a pre-emptive attack on Negan’s people, the Saviors.  The reason for the attack is that the Saviors were extorting supplies from the peaceful Hilltop community and Rick expects them to eventually do the same to his Alexandria community, so he proposes the attack.  Morgan, assuming the role of moral conscience, opposes the idea.

As evil as the Saviors are, we ought to have been a little disturbed by the nocturnal attack.  Rick walks into a room and finds a guy sleeping, and he silently presses a knife into his head. The guy never wakes up. This silent execution is repeated by Glenn and Heath.  They admit to each other that they have never killed a living human being. Heath can’t do it, so Glenn murders both in their sleep.  The entire Savior outpost is whipped out in two episodes.  And we see our heroes do some very questionable things.  They aren’t comfortable with them.  Carol even leaves the community because she can no longer handle the guilt of these events.

Negan has been wronged and, like the Hebrew God, is simply calling in the debt.  In the ancient, eye-for-an-eye legal code, he has a right to an arm and a life–this is his declared purpose for killing one of Rick’s people–which turns out to be two.  Both Glen and Abraham were a part of this clandestine first strike on the Saviors.

Although the Abraham of the Bible would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due, but Abraham’s blow never falls on his son.  Before he can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”

The demand for Carl’s arm, and the sudden and unexpected revocation of that demand solidly correlates Negan to Yaweh.  So what is the point of this allusion?

Is it meant to draw a comparison between the harsh demands of the God of the Old Testament?  If this is the case, the writers missed some pretty important elements of the story.  Immediately after the biblical Abraham is commanded to stop the sacrifice,

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

In Genesis 22, God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a substitute for Abraham’s family.  Christians draw a parallel between the ram and Christ who dies on the Roman cross as a replacement for sinners.  It’s a story where Grace is at the centre. The God of the Bible transfers the punishment for humanity’s moral failings upon himself.  It seems to me, in order to understand this pivotal scene in TWD, we need to look for the substitute, after all, Carl doesn’t lose his arm.   What is sacrificed in it’s place?  Rick’s strength or defiance is destroyed.  Negan can see it in his eyes; Rick is broken.

Negan’s method to achieve Rick’s submission to his will is coercion. Negan threatens to destroy Rick’s whole “family” if he doesn’t comply.  God, as represented in both the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, does not use force.  Although many elements of The Walking Dead’s season premiere and the story in Genesis 22, and the Gospels is similar, this difference is absolutely key.

To illustrate:  Imagine Negan making that whole season 6 finale speech that somebody must die.  And he does the “eeny meeny miny moe” thing, and then stops and says,

You are guilty and all deserve death for what you did to my people and what you’ve done to others since the dead began to walk.  Rick, don’t you know that human beings were made to do wonderful things in the world.  Yeah I know, the zombies complicate things, but they are no excuse.  You got distracted from that purpose, Rick.  And then you killed people.  And I am pissed about that Rick, and someone is going to die because of all the bad stuff you’ve done.

And then he nods and they bring a ram into the circle and smashes its head with Lucille, and they all sit down to a dinner of roast lamb.

A New Testament version would end with:

Remember Rick.  You and your people, all people actually, you were made to thrive, not just to survive.  I want you to get back on track Rick, start thriving.–because I love you Rick.

But that’s another episode.

The allusion breaks down because Negan isn’t comparable to God regarding righteousness.  Negan is far from righteous.  Rick has paid for his sins against Negan with the deaths of Abraham and Glen, but, to use biblical language, Negan is still piling condemnation upon himself.

I don’ think the writers of the show are trying to make some statement on the Old Testament God.  I think they are making a statement on guilt–Rick’s guilt, and that of his band of survivors.  In the world of The Walking Dead, our group of would be survivors might just be a new chosen people, who are called to return to humanity’s purpose.  To thrive in the world despite the zombies.  I am hoping that the allusion to the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac plays out with a form of redemption for Rick and the rest of the “family” as they seek their lost humanity.

Microwave Chicken Teriyaki Jesus

I really liked Bryan F. Hurlbutt’s book Tasty Jesus. In it he asserts that Western Christianity holds to various cameos of Christ that aren’t accurate. This is because we tend to reconfigure Jesus to suit our personal preferences. In order to make complex cultural and philosophical ideas accessible, Hurlbutt uses food analogies to illustrate the shortcomings of five most significant “christological malformations” in the Western church. His analysis of these is thorough and nuanced.  But I’m wondering if, perhaps, there is not a configuration that might be added to his list, and a food analogy that would challenge the view of Christ held by many of the readers of this book: Modern evangelicals.

First, here are Hurlbutt’s five predilections that wield a lot of power in the Christian West:

  1. Theological liberalism has largely naturalistic roots and, consequently, has stripped Jesus of his deity. This is the “creampuff Jesus,” tasty, but of no nutritional value at all.
  2. Fundamentalism is a response to theological liberalism. It tosses out the creampuff, but keeps crossing things off the menu–out with the potatoes, pasta and bread. This no-carb approach eliminates important parts of a balanced diet.  Ultimately, this approach is  spiritually toxic.
  3. More recently, postmodern ideas have influenced ideas of Christ–the core of this stance is relativism. Like a meal at a smorgasbord, this version of Christ can appeal to many diners because it makes no absolute claims. Have some pork chops, top them with ice cream and vegetable soup–whatever.
  4. Gourmet Jesus is the Christ of those who believe in the prosperity gospel–God wants you to be rich. The Biblical promises of spiritual or eternal flourishing are understood to mean material prosperity–God’s wants you to eat lobster thermidor. He clearly says so in the Bible, if you take a few verses out of context.
  5. Pop-culture Jesus–this is a “shallow and spurious” Jesus. Gastronomically, this is the homogenized Jesus, heated to the point where anything dangerous or confusing has been eradicated.  It’s the opposite of the delicious unpasteurized cheese you can buy in Europe.

These are Hurlbutt’s five. There might be a sixth cameo of Christ that is significant enough to be added to this list. It is the view toward which many of the readers of this book might lean.

I called this group Modern Evangelicals.  These terms are so overused that their meaning has become unclear, so let me explain who I’m talking about.  They lean toward Conservatism.  They fall somewhere between the mainline denominations and the Emergent church, of which Hurlbutt is quite critical.  They aren’t like the traditional mainline churches for they have left behind traditional liturgies and no longer hold strictly to their traditional theologies.  Because they are Modern, they take a rational approach to reading the Bible and are suspicious of the magical and mysterious, for instance, they might think of Communion as “just a symbol.”  Paradoxically, they place a high value on the symbolism of believer baptism.  They tend to emphasize the transcendence of Christ and the Bible, perhaps at the expense of their incarnational natures.

They will be quite happy with Hurlbutt’s five cameos because they are not particularly guilty of these. Just as it’s easy for Canadians to see peculiarities in the American view of the world (and vice versa), to which they are themselves blind, so too Modern evangelicals can easily see problems in the Liberal or Fundamentalists stance, but fail to see the plank in their own eye.

What is the gastronomic analogy that might get at some of the limitations of the Modern evangelical take on Jesus?

A microwave Teriyaki Chicken dinner.

It is an individual serving, efficiently prepared with the modern convenience of a microwave. It’s slightly exotic–it’s teriyaki, after all–but it’s largely Westernized. The ingredients are theoretically tasty and nutritious, but the effects of mass production and microwaving have removed most of their structure, taste and probably nutrients. It’s convenient, only requiring a few minutes to prepare and eat–ideal for busy people on the run. Even if you ate it every day, you could do worse–it’s probably healthier than any of the other five diets.

Now, I know plenty of evangelicals that do not have the microwave teriyaki chicken image of Christ. For these, the analogy would be more like a healthy, well-balanced dinner–an herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus and a  small, sweet dainty for dessert. But I think even this more robust and balanced picture, as compared to the microwave meal, reveals the limitations of the evangelical Christ.

What would be the best gastric analogy for the real Jesus?

I think it would be a family meal, something Middle Eastern. My daughter told me about the meals she ate in Israel. These were family meals. They ate fresh pita and hummus, tzatziki, olives of course, lentils, roasted vegetables, lamb on skewers, lamb in grape leaves. Importantly, this is a balanced meal. But the contents, especially the spices–cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, thyme–were strange to her western palate. She had to humbly look to her hosts, even the children, for some indication of how to eat it and what to put with what. She wasn’t confident; she wasn’t certain. She was repeatedly surprised–sometimes delightfully, at other times, unpleasantly by the flavour combinations. This meal was full of grace and love–the family that prepared it, pulled out all the stops because there were guests at the table. My daughter felt so blessed that such a sacrifice would be made for her.

No analogy can ever begin to capture the true Jesus, but I do think that even evangelicals need to think, not only about other, clearly problematic predilections, but also their own reconfigurations of Christ.

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