CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

Why Are the Best Books the Banned Books?

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I am doing a “Banned Books” unit in my English 12 class this year.

The idea came to me when I heard that it was Banned Books Week (this year, September 22-28).  This is an annual religious festival in honour of one of our culture’s main deities–Freedom.   More particular, we celebrate the freedom to read.  Because, in some circles, to challenge a book is to challenge a god, the celebration can sometimes take on a “screw you” sort of tone.  But this is a worthy focus week, even for those for those who don’t bend the knee to freedom, for there are worrisome current and dangerous historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.  These are often attempts not just to protect the vulnerable but to limit thought.

Most of the books on the banned books lists were not, in fact, banned but challenged by someone somewhere about the use of these books in a classroom or their presence in a library.  I like to use the word banned because, sure, it’s more sensational, but mostly because it alliterates so nicely.  As in . . .

Banned Books or Bland Books

No, we are not reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, not only because the content is inappropriate for young readers, but because it isn’t very good.
That’s the interesting thing, most of the books on the banned or challenged book list are the same books that have been taught in schools for decades.  In other words, most of the banned books are the best books.
There’s a reason for this: the best books are often provocative.
Books that aren’t banned ask little of readers.  They affirm our values and fulfill in the end what they promise in the beginning.  Books that aren’t banned, are often bland books.
Books that make demands of its readers are challenged.  Books that challenge readers to look at the world differently are burned.   Books that startle and shock us out of our comfort zone are banned.  These are the books we should be reading.
The books that do this, are the best books, and they are the banned books.

A List of Banned Books

Here’s a list of some books that have been challenged; it’s also my recommended reading list.  Its a list of books that everyone should read before they die, or better yet, long before they die so that having read them may do some good.
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Catch 22 Joseph Heller
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

These next three I actually haven’t read, but I’ve read what my students have written about them.  These stories had an impact.  Students understood, in a meaningful way, something more about our indigenous neigbours, systemic racism, and the girl with no hope.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

 

Prophetic Speech from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 this past week.  Montag, the protagonist of the story is a firemen.  In this futuristic world this job entails the burning of books and the houses that contain them.   How did the culture come to this?  Captain Beatty’s speech to Montag explains:

“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War . . . .  The fact is we didn’t get along well until photography came into its own. Then–motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.”

“And because they had mass, they became simpler,” said Beatty. “Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests.  Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!”

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience.

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! 3 Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Yes, but what about the firemen, then?” asked Montag.

“Ah.” Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe. “What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in your assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me.”

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

…If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the Theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

Beatty got up. “I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you. I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.”

“One last thing,” said Beatty. “At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I’ve had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.” 

 

Best Dystopian novels in order of Awesomeness

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Here are my favourite dystopian novels.  I placed them in order of the pleasure I derived from reading them, and their signficance, and their literary merit:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)​
  3. Feed by M. T. Anderson (2002)​
  4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
  5. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)​
  6. ​That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (1945)​
  7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) ​
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)​
  10. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
  11. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)​
  12. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  13. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)​
  14. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)​
  15. The Running Man by Stephen King (1982)​
  16. A​nthem by Ayn Rand (1938)​

Next on my list is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)​.

Here is my list of favorite dystopian fiction novels.ist of my favorite dystopian fiction novels. Did I miss any? Click To Tweet

 

Come From Away and The Book of Mormon

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This summer my wife and I saw Come From Away.

We also saw The Book of Mormon.

Completely different experiences.

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Nova Scotia on September 11, 2001.  When President Bush closed American airspace all the US-bound aircraft needed to land elsewhere.  38 big jets landed in Gander, almost doubling the population of this small Canadian town.  This is a story about real people doing something beautiful in very difficult circumstances.

The Book of Mormon is about a couple of young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints going on their missions trip to Uganda.  They are naive and unprepared to face the difficulties in Africa including HIV/AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, and hostile warlords.  It was considerably more offensive and blasphemous than I expected, and I regretted being there almost immediately.

Why go to The Book of Mormon?  I love live theatre and I try to see the good ones.  It won nine Tony Awards and was called “the best musical of the century” by the New York Times.  I also consider it a bit of a responsibility to understand the culture and this play is hugely popular.  And The Prince of Wales theatre was reputed to have airconditioning and it was the hottest day in London’s recorded history–we needed to go someplace cool.

As expected, the show is brilliant in so many ways–the singing, dancing, acting, and production are as awesome as any of the big blockbuster musicals.  But I walked out of it–I don’t know–horrified?

It wasn’t just that it was irreverent and offensive–I understand that art will sometimes challenge our sensibilities.  I don’t mind being challenged, and I certainly don’t mind it when the sensibilities of others are challenged.  The play does satirize the hypocrisy, naivety and even silliness of Mormons, and by extension Christians and all religious people.   Fine.  But when you ridicule good things that you’ve made no attempt to understand . . .  well, then you’ve gone beyond satire.  I was offended by the mockery of good things.  Good things that everyone knows are good.  Things writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone know are good, but they deride them just the same.

And then there’s the laughter of the audience.  It was a completely sold-out show.  And everyone in the audience was apparently delighted by the ridicule and mockery.  As I walked out of the Prince of Whales, which by the way didn’t have very good airconditioning, I was horrified by the laughter.

Four Kinds of Laughter

In the eleventh letter of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, senior demon Screwtape instructs his nephew, junior tempter Wormwood, about how to use laughter to win his patient’s soul to what they call “our Father’s house.”  According to Screwtape, there are four kinds of laughter, only one of which is truly effective for demonic purposes.

The first kind of laughter arises from Joy.  Screwtape and fellow devils don’t understand this one any better than they understand music.  They usually observe joyous laughter “among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday.”  But they are puzzled by this kind of delight because the laughter is disproportionately bigger than the “smallest witticisms” that produce them.

Fun generates a second type of laughter.  It too is useless to the demonic powers in that “it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.”

The Joke proper, “which turns on sudden perception of incongruity” will cause the third kind of laughter.

Before we get to the fourth kind of laughter, let’s talk about the laughter of the audience at Come from Away.

Come From Away and Laughter

The audience of Come From Away laughed. We laughed often. We laughed long. We laughed hard.

We also cried, and winced, and clapped our hands with delight.  The laughter occurred in the context of a wide range of human emotions.

The theme of this whole story is that life can be very difficult and what we do as individuals and communities can make a  significant difference in the lives of others as they navigate life’s disappointment and challenges  It shows us that by giving of ourselves, we can be profoundly blessed.  The play shows us what it means to be, and experience, good neighbours.

The laughter came from joy and fun and jokes; it came exclusively from the first three of Screwtape’s three forms of laughter.

And though it all, Come From Away praises what is good.

Flippancy and The Book of Mormon

The most useful form of laughter to the minions of hell is Screwtape’s fourth–Flippancy

One reason flippancy is “the best of all” is because of its economy.  “Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue.”  Flippancy requires no cleverness, for it assumes the joke has already been made.  The laughter arises not from delight or fun or an incongruity, but from the mockery and ridicule itself.  Thus, the good can be laughed at as easily as can something which is actually funny.

I experienced each show with audiences of hundreds of people, but the feelings I carried for my fellow patrons through the exits were very different.

In Come From Away, we had shared in the celebration of something good–something we want more of, something we need.  We shared a commitment to be better people.

The only thing we shared in The Book of Mormon was derision for someone else and a twisted delight in our own superiority.

It is as Screwtape said, the fourth kind of laughter “deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

In Come From Away, we had shared in the celebration of something good--something we want more of, something we need. The only thing we shared in The Book of Mormon was derision for someone else and a twisted delight in our own superiority. Click To Tweet

Liberal or Conservative: How does the Devil vote?

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Does God want us to be liberal or conservative?

How do the demons vote?

We get a pretty clear answer to the second question in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.   The book takes the form of a series of letters that have been written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and junior tempter, Wormwood, on the best means by which to bring a soul to dwell for all eternity with “Our Father below,” as they refer to him.

In the seventh letter, Screwtape explores the question of whether to make Wormwood’s patient an “extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist.”  This was the question on everyone’s mind when the Letters were published in 1942.

Screwtape is quite clear that the devils are not interested in whether Christians support or oppose World War II.   Neither side is inherently Christian, it seems.  As a matter of fact, Screwtape seems to see more possibilities to lead him astray through pacifism.

Today, the specific circumstances are different, but Christians are still struggling to answering the same general question.  The contemporary question has us wondering between liberal or conservative, Trudeau or Scheer, Democrat or Republican, Trump or someone else?

If Lewis is correct, the minions of hell can use our conservatism just as easily as our liberalism to gain possession of a soul for all eternity.

If Lewis is correct, the minions of hell can use our conservatism just as easily as our liberalism to gain possession of a soul for all eternity.Click To Tweet

Screwtape explains the process:

Step 1:

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion.

It is clear that the position the Christian takes is of no consequence; the goal of the forces of hell is to erroneously connect our position on the political spectrum with our faith.  From much that I read from Christian writers on the internet, it is apparent that the devils are having a very easy time of it.  We are very willing to take the first step.

Step 2:

Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part.

Again, it doesn’t appear as if we are having the demons work very hard.  I’ve heard many stories of people who can no longer associate with, let alone fellowship with, brothers and sisters in Christ who occupy a different position on the political spectrum as they.  The “camp” to which we belong is so obvious and it is not coloured by any qualification involving all the other dimensions of the Christian faith.

Step 3:

Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.

C. S. Lewis never read a single blog post or online article, and yet it is as if he’s read the same religio-political diatribes and tirades that I can only escape in the shower.

But there is hope.  Screwtape reveals the means by which we might reverse our steps toward the eternal flames.

The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience.

This is Lewis’ real point.  Whether left or right, we ought to treat our political positions as primarily material for obedience to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Our position on the environment, taxes, deficits, size of government, guns, immigration, abortion, LGBTQ, education, is secondary to obedience.  In the fifth letter, Lewis makes this point, through Screwtape:

The Enemy [God] disapproves many . . . causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

It is more important for us to be obedient than it is for us to be right.  And yet, because we have allowed the faith to be slave to the cause, we find it easy to hate our political opposites.

Back to the seventh letter:

Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,

And here we have it.  This is a dire warning for those who have made faith a means to an end.

This is Us, in Space–Star Trek Discovery

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I know I would hate This is Us.  The trailers show a bunch of face actors disgorging feelings onto each other.  The plot elements exist only to generate intense emotional communication opportunities for pairs of characters.  Barf.

This may be unfair to This is Us; I haven’t seen it, but I have seen Star Trek Discovery and this is exactly what it’s like.

It’s so bad, I can’t bring myself to rewatch the final episode so as to support my assertions.  It would be too much to bear a second viewing.

I seem to remember hearing that Star Trek: The Next Generation had a team of super-nerd, Star Trek geeks fact functioning as a sort of a quality control committee.  Well, there is no such committee on Discovery.

The writers of this latest Star Trek installment are not governed by precedents established by previous Star Treks.  It’s not even governed by the universal principles of good writing or those of common sense.

Should the Admiral or the Captain sacrifice their life for the good of the ship?  Hmmm–obviously there is no Star Fleet protocol to help make this decision–the only thing we can do is have a discussion in which we set out our emotional appeals in the hopes of the other seeing the power of our emotional position.  This all while the ship is in imminent peril.

Oh, let’s not forget the context of this conversation.  The ship is in the middle of a fight for its life.  Why are the admiral and the captain the only two people who can work on the little problem of an unexploded photon torpedo stuck in the hull?  Aren’t their thousands of guys in red shirts that can do this?  At least have some engineer there to work on the door.  Barf.

Oh, and where do faulty photon torpedos come from?  Does that make sense?  This plot element is great for a WWI movie, or Gilligan’s Island, but not the Star Trek Universe.  The whole plot is like this. Contrived, contrived, contrived.

There are all sorts of peril in Star Trek Discovery, but despite the urgency of the situation, there's always time to stand face to face and explore feelings.Click To Tweet

I remember when Star Trek was about a five-year mission to “explore strange new worlds/To seek out new life/And new civilizations/To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Not so with Discovery.

They have no time to explore the universe, they are too busy standing about with watery eyes and quivering lips, yapping about their feelings.  Even Spock.   Barf.  With this show, any new life and new civilization we encounter is just a catalyst for a long self-indulgent simpering, and exposition.

When they aren’t standing face-to-face talking about their feelings, they are standing face-to-face explaining things.

“We can’t do this and this because of that and that, so we have no alternative but to do this and this makes me feel deeply, so deeply that I must unpack my feelings onto you, and the viewing audience, before I do what needs to be done.”

Barf.

But I really like Captain Pike (Anson Mount).

I suppose it’s too much to hope that all the shows current writers and controllers followed Michael Burnham and Discovery into the time-space wormhole leaving Captain Pike and the Enterprise to be the subject of a New Star Trek series.

And then we can follow Spock’s advice and “never to speak of Discovery, its Spore Drive, or her crew again, under penalty of treason.”

 

The Meaning of Game of Thrones

I read the first three books. I loved them, and then I waited.  I waited for George R. R. Martin to write the fourth book.  By the time it came out, I had forgotten what happened in the first three, so I read no more Song of Fire and Ice.

Then, in 2011, HBO gave us the television series Game of Thrones.

I’ve enjoyed watching, thinking and arguing about the series.  Some people don’t think Christians should watch it because of the content.  I disagreed with them in “Why Christians Might Watch Game of Thrones.

Now we are in the eighth season.  The first episodes of this final season suggest an important theme.  Perhaps it’s the way we might understand the entire series.

The story is set in a pseudo-medieval world, a brutal world.  The series follows the main players in the deadly game of thrones.  The purpose of the game is to  establish and solidify and expand their kingdoms in Westeros at the expense of the other players.

The nine main houses of Westeros are Stark, Arryn, Baratheon, Tully, Greyjoy, Lannister, Tyrell, Martell and Targaryen.   The first 7 seasons are dominated by the overt and covert machinations of various of these houses as they struggle for control or domination of a greater piece of Westeros.

SPOILER ALERT

The Game of Thrones

The cost of playing the game of thrones is high.  Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is beheaded at the end of season 1.  Ned was thought to be the hero of the story–he was admirable in every way.  If he played the game at all, he played it with integrity.  His integrity, in fact, kills him.  His name has become a verb in my family–when a main character is unexpectedly killed on a TV show, he is said have been “Ned Starked.”

Besides Ned Stark’s there are many significant deaths that are a result of playing the game:

  • Oberyn Martell played the game with a little too much confidence in his matial skills–he payed, first with his eyeballs, then with his life.
  • Because of this death Ellaria Sand poisoned young Myrcella Baratheon, a Lanister princess.
  •  Sweet and innocent Tommen Baratheon kills himself after his mother kills his wife, and a lot of others, when she blows up the Sept of Baelor in the game.
  • Lysa Arryn cannot fly, so she falls to her death when pushed through the Moon Door by Lord Baylish, a master player until the Stark girls take him out.
  • Renly Baratheon is murdered indirectly by his brother, Stannis.  He is assassinated by magic smoke.
  • Speaking of Stannis; he burns his own daughter to death in order to win the assistance of the Lord of Light to win the game.  The Lord of Light was away from the table.
  • Viserys Targaryen earned a golden crown–he died because the gold was still in liquid form.
  • Joffrey Baratheon was poisoned by at his wedding by Olenna Tyrell–no regrets here.
  • The vile Ramsey Bolton decided to play.  He played the game hard, but lost big time.
  • Walder Frey wanted to play.  His big move was the Red Wedding.

Almost all of the people who killed the above were killed our of revenge for doing it.

“Winter is Coming”

“Winter is coming” has been the tagline of the show since the beginning.  In literature, the seasonal year has long been a metaphor for human life.  Spring is linked to birth and the winter is analogous to death.  This idea is reinforced in Game of Thrones with the simultaneous arrival of winter and the Night King.

“Winter is coming,” then, means “Death is Coming.”

The Night King is accompanied by a gigantic army of the dead.

By the end of season 7, Jon Snow realizes that the inhabitants of Westeros are no longer playing a game of thrones, but a game of life and death.  His mission is to convince the other leaders that they must stop fighting each other and come together to face the far bigger enemy–the Night King and his host.

He has limited success in creating a coalition of the living against the zombies from beyond the wall.  The houses Stark, Targaryen and Arryn join together to fight the dead.  But that’s pretty much it.

The Tullys would likely help, but the head of their house, Edmure, was last seen rotting in a cell at the Twins.  Gendry is the only remaining Baratheon. He’s at the fight, but since he’s illegitimate, he’s just a soldier.  Theon of house Greyjoy is doing his bit, but he’s brought no army.  House Tyrell has been erased.  All that’s left of the Martells is Ellaria Sand who is in a prison cell watching her daughter decompose.  These families have lost the game of thrones before it became the game of life.

This leaves the Lannisters.  Although her brothers fight with the north, Cersei and all the armies under her control have refused to march. The Greyjoy navy under Euron are joining with Cersei.

Game of Thrones as Allegory

Game of Thrones can be looked at allegorically.

“Winter is coming,” means “Death is Coming.”

This might be the tagline for all of our lives.  There are various ways to play the game of life.  We can pursue love, money, fame, sex, family, and power.  Analogous to the game of thrones, our playing of the game of life will have a high cost.  We invariably pay the cost by sacrificing our relationships or money or family or health or happiness.

Then we become aware of death.  For many, this awareness comes too late; they have  already been consumed by the game itself.   Some will stop playing the game when the reality of death crosses the wall.  Priorities will change as they become begin to grasp reality.  An then there a those like Cersei.  Still able, but refusing to acknowledge the reality of death, the true enemy.  They respond by playing the game harder than ever.

Game of Thrones might be, among other things, an allegory for our response to the reality of death.  If the series is, in fact, allegorical, it will be very interesting to see the conclusions Game of Thrones will offer in the remaining episodes.

Game of Thrones is a life and death allegory for the way we play the Game of Life in the face of Death. Click To Tweet

A Christian Watching After Life by Ricky Gervais

I love Ricky Gervais.  I suppose this has a lot to do with The Office–the original one.  That show was genius.  Ricky Gervais is in my top ten “If you could have coffee with anyone living or dead” list.  One of the things want to talk with him about is about faith and religion.

Gervais is a vocal agonistic atheist.  In his movies, interviews and stand-up routines he often sets up and destroys Christian strawmen.  So I have some understanding as to why he’s not Christian, but less of an idea as to how his atheism works for him and provide a moral foundation and purpose to his life.

His new Netflix series, After Life, which he wrote and directed, seems to give some explanation about the meaning of life for Ricky Gervais.

I liked After Life.  I loved some parts, but there were other bits that fell short.

SPOILER ALERT

Meaninglessness is a Superpower

The main character, Tony, is devastated by the loss of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) of 25 years to cancer.

“It broke me,” he says. “I just don’t see any point in living.”

The first five of the six-episode series show us that Tony isn’t dealing very well with the loss.

His nice apartment is a total mess and he’s eating cold curry straight out of the can.

He’s nasty to his co-workers; he heaps abuse on one because she’s boring another because he’s developing “neck fat.”  He abuses shop keepers and engages in a pointless power struggle with his postman.  Perhaps the pinnacle of his horribleness is when he threatens to bludgeon a 10-year-old with a hammer.

Matt (Tom Basden), his  boss and brother-in-law, tells him, “You can’t just go around being rude to people!”  Tony answers, “You can, though, that’s the beauty of it.”  Tony explains. “It’s like a superpower.”  Not caring if you live or die, gives him the power to say and do whatever he wants.  This power is most often expressed by treating people like they are garbage.

Tony tells Matt, that because he, Matt, is a nice guy he, Tony,  can do whatever he wants.  He, Matt, won’t really do anything.  He concludes:

“There’s no advantage to being nice, and thoughtful, and having integrity.  It’s a disadvantage, if anything.”

Gervais seems to be acknowledging this moral cynicism as an unhealthy possibility in atheism.  It doesn’t survive the series, but is there anything in atheism that will deter it?  One of my questions over coffee.

Atheist Apologetics

Gervais is abundantly clear that Christianity is not an option.  He gives Tony the occasional platform from which to present his atheist apologetic when challenged by the one explicitly Christian character in the show, Kath.

Kath is no match for Tony.  He explains that he simply believes in one fewer God that she does.  She’s not able to offer a meaningful challenge to Tony’s point (as I do here).  Strawman Christianity is no match for Gervais’ atheism.

When Kath, asks, “If your an atheist, and you don’t believe in heaven and hell and all that, how come you don’t go around raping and murdering as much as you want?” Tony’s answer is, “I do. I do go around raping and murdering as much as I want, which is not at all.”  This is a clever answer; it show’s Tony’s intellectual superiority over Kath who incorrectly thinks that Christian morality is grounded in a fear of hell.  But he doesn’t really give an adequate answer to Kath’s question.  What if you are the kind of person who likes to rape and murder?  What’s to stop you if your an atheist?  Another one of my questions over coffee.

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

Without Lisa, life is meaningless for Tony.

Tony has stepped into the book of Ecclesiastes.

He tries professional help. There are some really funny bits here.  He tries drugs.  I think he knew that would be a dead end.  There is no meaning in his work.  Tony writes for a small town newspaper, The Tambury Gazette–local stuff about nothing: “Local baby looks exactly like Adolf Hitler.”  He could have advanced over his career, but he never wanted to: life was worth living because of Lisa.

His dog?  There’s something here.  Each time he takes a step toward the cliff of suicide, the dog pulls him back.  The dog is the first of several honest and open relationships in the show.

Ricky Gervais and the Meaning of Life

“Once you realize you’re not going to be around forever, I think that’s what makes life so magical.”

–Tony

Lisa’s grave is situated next to Stan’s.  Tony has several conversations with Stan’s widow, Anne (Penelope Wilton) who helps him process his loss and helps him to move forward.

In episode 4, she explains to him that he’s completely self-centred, even in his grief.  She tells him,  “We’re not just here for us. We’re here for others.”  Tony thinks she’s going to get all Christian on him and tells her so, but she assures him that the whole God thing is “a load of rubbish.”

“All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die, and then we’re done.”

She makes the point that if you love someone you delight in their happiness, even if it’s not yours.

For Gervais, loving and caring for others seem to be central to the meaning of life.  Later, Tony admits that he doesn’t have a superpower because “You can’t not care about the things you actually care about.  You can’t fool yourself.”

“Good people do things for other people. That’s it.  That’s the end.”

–The Widow

So, a few more questions for our coffee”

What about the bad people?

It seems that Gervais has a pretty high regard for people in that there are very few bad people in the show.  Quite a few stupid people, but only the only bad people I saw were muggers.

I’d argue that I’m a bad person.  I fail to live up to the standard for goodness to which I hold others–especially when driving.  I don’t know how I would have behaved if I were in, say the Warsaw Ghetto.  So I think we’re all bad.

But even if Gervais is right, that there are only a few bad apples.  What do we do about them?  They do bad things to good people and often get away with it.  What is their end?  They get away with it until they die and then end up like everyone else.

Who’s to judge?

Tony gives a partial answer.   He commits to continue “punishing the world, but I’m gonna punish the people that deserve it.  I’m  gonna use my superpower for good.”

So bad people will get what they deserve at the hands of the good people.

Who decides who is good and who is bad?  Apparently, this all happens on an individual level.  We each get to decide for ourselves who is bad and then dole out punishment accordingly.

Yeah, what could go wrong?

After Life: Like a Bad Christian Movie

One of my recurring nightmares is to be with a bunch of new Christian friends and the conversation shifts to movies, and someone starts talking about God is Not Dead or some such, even suggesting we all watch it together for our mutual encouragement and growth.  I glance over at my wife who knows what’s coming and she’s already shaking her head.  She knows I won’t be able to keep my mouth shut and that we will never see these people again.

In many ways, Ricky Gervais' After Life is like a bad Christian movie with swearing.Click To Tweet

At the climax of many bad Christian movies, one character tells another character that they are a sinner and need Jesus. There is, of course, a conversion followed by a happy ending.  All the Christians leave the theatre with a warm, fuzzy feeling in their hearts.  The hope is that all the non-Christians in the audience feel convicted of their sin and have taken a significant step toward their eventual conversion.  That’s the idea.  In reality, the movie is just bad because it doesn’t tell a story, it preaches a sermon and it reinforces ideas that are so simplistic, they are almost lies.

After Life is the atheist version of a bad Christian movie.  The protagonist is intellectually superior to everyone else. Those with opposite religious beliefs are particularly dumb and offer up slow lobs for the protagonist to bash over the fence.

Like a bad Christian movie it’s got a preachy bit.  The sermon is in episode 6, delivered to Tony’s co-workers.

As with bad Christian movies, the conclusion is convincing only to those who already agree with it.

Be nice to the nice?

Gervais’ answer to grief in a godless universe is a little too simple, and disappointingly limited.

I was waiting for something a little more poignant.

In its most optimistic, Gervais' approach will result in a temporary, slightly better life for a few people. Perhaps this is reality and theists are just fooling themselves. But perhaps Gervais is settling for too little. Click To Tweet

Over the six episodes, Tony finds meaning in loving and caring relationships. First, it’s Brandy the dog and his nephew George.  Lenny, the drug dealer, and Roxy, the sex care worker are added to his sphere.  Anne becomes particularly important to him.  He eventually adds his father who suffers from dementia, his co-workers and even the postman.  The possibility of a new romantic relationship with his father’s nurse rounds out Tony’s new larger collection of meaningful relationships.

It’s interesting that, at the end of it all, Tony finds meaning in relationships.  Relationships are foundational to Christianity as well.  Christianity is a little broader though–it goes beyond Gervais’ “love good people” all the way to “love your enemies.”

Gervais believes there is no evidence for God.

I know that I’m not going to convince him, but the beauty in the world, especially that which he finds in Brandy the dog and “good people” might be an indication that a something more exists–some transcendent good.

If that good happens to be a God who is so loving that he gives up his life to show us how to love others, and lives within us, then it’s possible for us to do the impossible–to love more than just good people, but also to love our enemies.

“Be nice to the nice?”  can make a difference in people’s lives.  Ricky Gervais has that right, love and caring do counter suffering, but individual contributions, even if many, won’t do much to alleviate the suffering in this world.  I can’t even adequately deal with the suffering that I personally cause in the lives of the people I love.  We need a far greater act of love.  This is where Gervais doesn’t go far enough.  For cosmic redemption, we need a cosmic act of love.

Ricky, I’m going to be in London this summer if you’d like to have coffee.  And if you want, we can upgrade to a pint.  Let me know.

Dystopian Literature and Film: A Christian Perspective

Trixieliko / Pixabay

There has been an increase in the popularity of dystopian fiction, especially in the number of books targeting young adults. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are but a few examples.

Because so many of my students have read these books, I often teach a unit on dystopian literature and film.  In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Some students also read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Still others read FEED by M. T. Anderson.  We analyze portions of films like Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot.  Students are often inspired to head to our library and check out other books in this genre, including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Dystopian Literature in a Christian School

I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit like this, but in a Christian school, a particular kind of Christian school, it is taught a little differently.  I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and being human.  The central purpose of each novel/film is to critique the subversion of human value to some other value–some other aspect of creation.

Dystopian fiction and film is essentially a prophetic genre--it uncovers and condemns idolatry.Click To Tweet

This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry.  Human beings have value because they are created in the image of God.  Humanity has been placed at the top of creation and given the responsibility to take care of it.  When God is replaced by some good thing he created, humanity too is replaced from its position above all that was created.  Idol worship always degrades humanity.  Thus, this unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and value, and idolatry.

The creators of dystopian literature and film are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing humanity to our cultural idols:

  • the idols of power (1984)
  • pleasure (Logan’s Run and Brave New World)
  • technology (Bladerunner and Feed),
  • genetic perfection (Gattaca),
  • a longer life (The Island), etc.

The presence and popularity of these narratives are encouraging.  They indicate that there still is a large segment of our society that accepts the premise of human value.

I will rue the day when dystopian literature and film are no longer popular--it will mean that we've stepped off the edge.Click To Tweet

Reading Difficult Material

Hans / Pixabay

A few years ago I read a translation of Paul Ricoeur’s book, Oneself as Another.  This was some hard reading; I felt like I didn’t understand a word.  I needed to understand this book so I read and re-read it, word by word, paragraph by paragraph.  It worked.  I eventually used two of the chapters in a paper I wrote about zombies.  What follows are two entries I included in the annotated bibliography for this paper.

What is remarkable about these entries is that, reading them now, I have no idea what they mean, but at the time I understood them so well that I nuanced one of my professors reading of them.

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “Personal Identity and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Narrative mediates between the descriptive viewpoint of action and the prescriptive viewpoint of ethics. Idem-identity or sameness is associated with the question, “What am I?”  It can be understood as numerical identity: different occurrences—events—of the same; qualitative identity is extreme resemblance; and the third component of sameness is uninterrupted continuity across change which becomes permanence in time. Ipse-identity is linked to the question, “Who am I?” It includes both character and “keeping one’s word” or (self-constancy), which also becomes permanence in time as opposed to permanence of the same. Character is essential to both, but in idem-identity it is descriptive (structural), and in ipse-identity it is emblematic. Narrative mediates between character, where idem and ipse-identity overlap, and the maintenance of self, where they can diverge. Ricoeur holds in opposition self-constancy (keeping one’s word) and character, and by doing so he highlights the ethical dimension of self-hood.

 

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “The Self and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The identity of character is constructed by emplotment. Between action and character we find a conflict: the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance. The act of configuration mediates between the two. Within character we see the same conflict: a “dialectic of discordant concordance.” Within narrative, narrative identity is challenged with the imaginative variations that narrative engenders. When a character is confronted with these variations we find an interplay between self-hood as sameness and the pure self-hood of self-constancy—narrative mediates between the two in that it connects these opposite poles in the narrative circle.

Don't give up on reading something, just because it's hard. You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare. You can get to the point of enjoying the classic novels. Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work.Click To Tweet

For my students, let this be an encouragement to you.  Don’t give up on reading something, just because it’s hard.  You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare.  You can get to the point of enjoying the Brontes and their contemporaries.  Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work–grit.

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