Month: November 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire — Cosmetics and Self-Sacrifice

Catching Fire

Loved it!

OK, now the thing that really set me off.

Before I was born, the film was preceded by newsreels — meaningful because it was informative with a little propaganda thrown in for good measure.

When I was a kid, the movie was preceded by a cartoon–meaningless, but entertaining.

Now, the film is preceded by commercials–demeaningful.  They are demeaning.  They reduce audiences of people to mere consumers.

The Worst Commercial Possible

One of the commercials that preceded the latest adventure of Katniss Everdeen as she, once again, squares off against the evils of the Capital, was for a new line of makeup for Cover Girl.

And the name of this new, somewhat outlandish line?

The CAPITAL Line!

The trilogy written by Suzanne Collins is in the genre of dystopian fiction. That is, it presents a horrible world against which the protagonist must contend. The whole point of this genre, and therefore this particular movie, is to be a warning. By exaggerating and projecting into the future an aspect or aspects of our present-day culture, this movie makes us more aware of our vice, or (at least) our folly.

The Capital is frivolous and exploitive. One scene, in particular, brings this home. Our heroes are forced to attend a Capital party where there are so many good things to eat, Peeta laments he cannot try them all. He is immediately offered a beverage that will empty his stomach of its contents so that he may start all over again. The irony of this is not lost on Katniss who comments that many in the districts starve while they provide all the resources for those in the Capital to maintain their lifestyle of excess. Oh, and as an external symbol of the Capital’s excess –meaningless adornment.

Enter Cover Girl’s Capital Line of cosmetics.

If the audience were capable of absorbing the core meaning of this film, Cover Girl would right now be attempting to recover from one of the greatest advertising debacles in history.  Young women would be rushing home from the theatre to post pictures to Facebook of them destroying all their Cover Girl products, or shooting kabob skewers at magazine-ad targets with bows made of pencils and rubber-bands.

But alas, Cover Girl didn’t make a mistake.

They know that we are capable of believing one thing and doing another.

Knowing and Doing

We can root for Katniss and everything she stands for, while in our theatre seats, but when we walk into the air, we become, once again, the citizens of the Capital, blind to our frivolous and exploitive lifestyle.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Cover Girl, particularly. I’m sure they no longer test their products on baby seals, but that they succeed in selling a product line based on the antagonist shows a disconnect.

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon buying a compact car called the Grendel, or the medieval peasants wearing Turk Brand jeans, or the British public ordering up a pint of Prussian Ale–in 1916. It wouldn’t be possible.

Why can Cover Girl get away with it today?

Because we are different than our predecessors.  For them, truth and action were inseparable.

For us, there is a gap between knowing and doing.

Not so, in the movie.  The main virtue celebrated in the film was doing what one knew. 

Katniss and the rest of the good guys knew the Capital was wrong in their exploitation of others and that things needed to change, so they did something about it, even in the face of great pressure to do otherwise.  They each embodied the anti-Capital attitude of self-sacrifice.

As a matter of fact, this is the primary error of President Snow–he assumes that once in the arena, Katniss she will betray her professed altruistic values and become the killing machine he knows her to be.  He is right that if she does this, the revolution will be over.

All of the revolutionaries are banking on her constancy–and she lives up to these expectations.  It is not only Katniss that embodies the anti-Capital attitude of self-sacrifice; for Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Cinna, Mags, Fennick, and Prim there is no gap between knowing and doing.

I loved this movie because it was true, but does it really do any good if we don’t act on that truth?

And do we really live in an age when art no longer has any effect?

Jesus and Injustice: 12 Years a Slave

12-years-a-slave

I had to drive past two super-sized cinemas, both showing the same eight (bad) movies so I could see 12 years as a Slave.

My wife and I like to see all the movies with Oscar buzz and, given the reviews, thought this one was a must see, so we made the trip. I’m not sure it lives up to the comparison with Shindler’s List, but it was good.

(Spoiler Alert)

It was good, but I was a little irritated by the portrayal of Christianity in the film.

Christians in 12 Years A Slave

Not only were the slave owners explicitly Christian, but the one sympathetic character–the one who boldly expressed abolitionist ideals–was not. The most abusive slave owner–the one who had his slaves whipped if their daily cotton picking was less than the day before, the one who regularly raped his best worker, the one who shredded the back of a defenseless woman–used the Bible to justify his behavior. Mr. Bass, played by Brad Pitt, is the savior of Solomon Northrup, the protagonist of the film. Bass’ opposition to slavery is based on a vague objective equality inherent in all men.  Where did this idea?

It is historically accurate to present slave owners justifying the institution of slavery with the Bible. It is also, certainly, true that some of those who opposed slavery were freethinkers like Bass—unaffiliated with Christianity.

But I was irritated that the filmmakers chose to associate Christianity with the injustice of slavery and ignore the fact that Christians played a major role in the Abolitionist Movement.

Throughout history, men have used whatever it takes to justify their own greed or lust for power. Within a Christian culture, such men will use Christianity to do so. This, however, does not make them Christians–to be Christian, one must walk in the footsteps of Christ. One need only read a few chapters of one of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John to see how Jesus would respond to slavery.

It was a Christian view of humanity that fuelled the abolitionists’ opposition to slavery.

I thought the movie overlooked this fact.

I was angered by the injustice of slavery as I watched this movie. I caught myself thinking, “If I were there, I would have done something.” Almost instantly, I recalled that our world is full of injustice today–including slavery.

Modern Slavery

It is the love of and for Jesus that motivates the International Justice Mission. There are millions of victims of slavery in the world today. IJM is doing something about it. Working with local officials, IJM rescues victims of slavery and sexual exploitation and they prosecute the perpetrators of these injustices.

IJM, and Christian organizations like it, are doing exactly what the makers of 12 years as a Slave hold up as the ideal, and they do it in the name of Jesus Christ. Sadly, the movie applies his name to those whose motives and behaviours are most contrary to his.

The movie is obviously concerned with exposing injustice. But I wonder about the long-term effect of consistently presenting Christians as those who perpetuate hate and injustice.

I worry, but won’t be surprised, that it will result in some new forms of injustice.

 

Only Good People Deserve Heaven

falco / Pixabay

There are good people and there are bad people; we are the good people and if you aren’t like us, you are bad people.

This idea has been around for millennia.

I get the impression that, outside of the church, this is considered a typically Christians attitude.

In my experience, not very many Christians think this way.

But some certainly do.

Good and Evil

They divide humanity up into categories of good and bad and then stick themselves in the good category. This sort of thing is easy if you make the categories.

The bad people are people who get divorced, have affairs, abortions and/or are homosexual. They certainly drink (more than the occasional wine with dinner) and often smoke–perhaps even do drugs. And the clincher is, they don’t do any of the things good people do.

The good people go to church weekly and listen to Christian radio. They are considered “wise” if they avoid thinking. They pray, sing and read the Bible. They talk a lot about “family values.” They vote Conservative in Canada and Republican in the States.

Although often attributed to Christians, these categories wouldn’t work for Christ. If you’ve got these categories in your head, you might actually misunderstand what Jesus taught it in one of his best-known stories.

“The Prodigal Son”

Everyone is familiar with the parable of the “Prodigal Son” or the “Lost Son” — this is what it was called when I was in Sunday School.

These are actually completely inaccurate titles for what goes on in this story. This version presents two sons, one “good” and one “bad.” The bad son squanders his inheritance on parties, loose women and going to R-rated movies. The good son stays at home, works hard and goes to church, etc. The bad son finally sees the light when his money runs out and repents of his evil deeds and is welcomed back into the family. The moral of the story is that God will forgive us if we repent of being bad and become good.

Although this it is true that God will forgive, this is not at all what the parable is about.

The Parable of the Lost Sons

In his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller, says this story would better be titled “The Parable of the Lost Sons” because both sons are lost. Neither son loves the father for who he is; both are just after his stuff. They represent two different strategies for getting ahold of it. By the end of the story, one son is saved. Interestingly, it’s the “bad” son who is saved. The “good” son remains lost.

The older brother has two problems. His first problem stems from his motive for being good. He leverages his good behavior against his father–his attitude: “I’m ‘good’ so you owe me!” His second problem is that he’s measuring his goodness against the standard set by his younger brother. In this comparison, he comes out pretty good, which is why he does it. This guy is exactly the sort of guy that many accuse Christians of being.

Good news — bad news — good news

The good news: Jesus audience was exactly the sort of “holier than thou” hypocrites that drive us crazy, and even keep us out of church. This self-righteous bunch of Bible thumpers were the target of his story and he nailed them, big time!
Here they are, creating some random criteria and then measuring themselves against how poorly others live up to their arbitrary standard.

The bad news:  Yes, the older-brother-types receive some major chastisement from Jesus in this parable. But if you identified with the younger brother, you aren’t off the hook. Both sons were lost because they both wanted the blessings of the father, but not the father himself. Unlike the older brother, he realize how wrong he had been, and he came back home. You can’t come home unless you turn around and walk in the other direction.

The good news: There’s lots of good news in this parable. The father loved both his sons, even though they weren’t very nice to him. And when one son appeared in the distance, the father ran out to meet him. This is not the sort of thing a respectable middle eastern patriarch does–and Jesus’ audience knew it. Further, he gives him the robe and a ring and kills the fatted calf in celebration of his return. He had already given this son half of what he had, and now he gives him even more.

The prodigal in this story is the father — Keller defines this term as “recklessly spendthrift.” This is God the Father as Jesus presents him. This is the accurate representation.

Those in the faith have the obligation to present our heavenly father as he is. The last thing we want is for people to think our heavenly father is like the older brother in the parable.

Those who are inclined to walk away from God, need to reject him as he truly is. Not as a false representation.

When Atheists are Right

falco / Pixabay

There are a bunch of reasons to be an atheist.

  1. Certainly one of them could be

the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God

(2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)

This would probably be the first reason offered by many believers, and the last reason offered by the atheist.

2. Consider this: Perhaps some that have walked away from God are actually rejecting a misrepresentation of God.

If someone rejects a misrepresentation of God, are they not actually walking toward God?

There are many misrepresentations of God.

There is one true representation of God and that is Jesus Christ.

That’s not just my opinion–he said it.

Conversation with a Textbook

Pathways-Banner

I recently sat down with the new edition of Pathways: Civilizations Through Time, a Social Studies textbook used in grade 8 classes in Canada.  As I read the foundational materials in the beginning section, I found myself in conversation with the text.  This is that conversation:

Me: I wanted to talk to you a little about the section called “Religion and Civilizations.”  It must be a little dicey to talk about religion in a way that is acceptable for use in schools.  I mean, there’s going to be a wide range of religious beliefs in the classrooms where you are read.  You are supposed to remain neutral on this sort of thing.  How do you frame religion in relation to your overall topic, civilizations?

Pathways:  “Religion is an important aspect of civilization.  In many civilizations, both in the past and in the present, religious beliefs are one way a civilization defines and describes itself.  Religion also influences people’s values and actions.” 

Me: So it’s important for us to learn about religions.

Pathways: “Learning about different religions allows us to understand the civilizations to which these religions belonged.”

Me: That shouldn’t upset too many people, but as a religious person myself, I must admit that I’m a little leery about the idea of looking at religion just to understand a civilization.  I mean religion is pretty important to people. But I guess you’re limited in how much you can say about religion and still maintain your neutrality.   Tell me, what is your view on why we have religions in the first place? 

Pathways:  “Human beings have always asked what we call ‘big questions.’  You have probably asked them, too.”

Me: What do you mean by “big questions”?

Pathways: What happens to me after I die? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why am I here? Why do bad things happen? How was all this created?

Me: Wow, those are big questions.  They are important questions too, we should be answering them.   

Pathways: “Human beings like to have answers to their questions.  

Me: They “like” to have answers to their questions?  Maybe if the question is “When’s dinner?” Aren’t these questions a little weightier than that?  Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that human beings need to answer these questions?  I mean, the answers will change everything.  How can we not answer them?  Don’t you think that these questions and the answers to them are hugely important?  It seems like they might be the most important questions we can ask? 

Pathways: Having answers make us feel more secure.

Me: That’s it? Security?  You realize people aren’t wrestling with the big questions because they are on a quest for security, right.  It’s a search for meaning and purpose.  Any security, if it’s gained at all, is just a by-product of the search for big answers to the big questions.  How do you answer the big questions? 

Pathways:  “[T]hese big questions cannot be answered the same way ordinary questions can be.”

Me: Ordinary questions? What do you mean by “ordinary”?

Pathways: “For example, science tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.  This is based upon creating a hypothesis and then using experiments to discover if our original ideas were correct. 

Me:  So by ordinary, you mean questions that result in answers that you can prove using the scientific method.   You are right.  The answers to the big questions can’t be proven like H20 questions.   

Pathways: With religion, people have to accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence. “

Me:  Yes, they do. But that’s not really a problem with the questions, is it?  The problem is with the method. Your scientific evidence is limited—it’s limited to physical things, and event that happen in the realm of physical things.  Religions are looking for answers that go beyond material.  You can’t get very far studying the stars with a dissection tray and a microscope.  These are the wrong tools.  Science is the wrong tool to determine the meaning of life. Or do you think that science is the only legitimate tool in the search for any truth? All truth? 

. . . Where were we?  Oh yes, you said that ordinary questions are the ones for which the answers are based on science, and the answers to big questions are non-scientific.  Are you implying that the answers to big questions are not as good as ordinary ones? Like they are sorta just made up? 

Pathways: “In effect, [people] have to accept them based on their beliefs (faith).”

Me:  Well, that’s not entirely true, it is?  Even though the answers might be non-scientific, that doesn’t mean they are non-rational.  Sure, there is an element of faith, but there is also a significant element of reason involved in religion.  I mean it’s reasonable to conclude that there is a god, or gods, behind the creation of the universe.  Just like it’s reasonable to conclude that there isn’t. 

But there’s another thing about your word choice: I noticed you consistently use the term “us” when speaking of knowing scientifically and the word “people” when speaking about believing?  I thought it was interesting how you distance yourself, and, consequently, your young readers from the act believing.   

I’m beginning to be a little suspect of your neutrality. 

But let’s move on.  Why do we have so many different religions? 

Pathways: “Different Faiths, Different Answers”

Me: Could you elaborate?

Pathways: “There are many religions in the world, and each one has different answers to the big questions.” 

Me: Which one is right?

Pathways: “Which one is right? No one religion has the ‘right’ answers, because the big questions have no scientifically provable answers.”

Me:  Did I hear you right?  You didn’t say that “You can’t know who is right”; you said “you can’t be right if the answers aren’t scientifically provable.  That doesn’t make any sense—it’s not logical.   If there is a right answer, but it can’t be proven to be right, isn’t it right anyway?  

. . . All religions  answer the questions differently, so on one question some religion must be closer than others—that’s logical, isn’t it?  If one religion teaches you love your enemies and another teaches eat your enemies, they can’t both be equally true.  They say opposite things.  The only way they can be equal true, is if they are equally false. 

. . . I think I understand your problem.  You actually believe that something isn’t true unless it is proven scientifically, but you can only believe that if you believethat reality is only physical things and physical events.Are you saying that reality is nothing but physical or material?

Be careful.  However you answer, you will be making a scientifically unprovable claim in response to a big question. 

That’s OK, you don’t have to answer.  You already did anyway.  You’re as bad as religious people. 

You realize that you are not nearly as neutral as you think.  Whether we like it or not, we all answer big questions.   

My concern is for the students who might read this section, especially those who don’t have teachers who can guide them through your non-scientific beliefs.  What do you say to a grade 8 student who is thinking about the big questions?  You aren’t really going to be allowed to discourage participation in religion. 

Pathways:  In Canada today, there are many different religions.  If you were looking for a religion to belong to, you could find out what different religions say about the big questions.  Then you could choose the religion with the answers you are most comfortable with, or that fit best with what you already think. 

Me: At least you are consistent.  Since they are all equally false, it doesn’t matter what religion you pick, or the criteria by which you pick it. I understand that you think you are being equally fair to all religions, but you actually being equally unfair. 

People are looking for truth and meaning, and they believe they can find it.  So, we can’t just shop for a religion like we do for shoes and pick the pair that fits.  If truth and meaning exist, we will conform to it, not it to us.  

How do you suggest we deal with people who have a different religion? 

Pathways:  “Even if you had a different religion than your friends, that probably would not matter too much.  If fact, you could probably learn something from each other.”

Me:  I thought you would say that.  It’s fine to have a religious belief but don’t take it too seriously.  I suppose that’s your picture of religious tolerance.   

I think that the only way to have true tolerance is to take each other’s beliefs very seriously—even yours.  Wouldn’t the picture of tolerance be a materialist, such as yourself, talking with a Christian and a Muslim over a good cup of coffee.  And listening.  And disagreeing, but enjoying the company, the conversation, and the coffee all the while respecting the sincerity of each other’s beliefs?   Wouldn’t this be a better picture to present to grade 8 students? 

For that to happen, you’d have to step down from your position as final arbiter of truth and admit that your just like the rest of us.  Trying to understand the world around you. Having faith in the idea that there isn’t something up there. 

Unless we all take this posture, nobody is going to learn anything from anybody. 

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