CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

The Meaning of Monsters

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I have this theory about monsters and what they mean.

Although they are antagonists, they are not the same as villains.  They are much more interesting.  Heroes are about what we want to be.  Villains are what we don’t want to be.  Monsters are what don’t want to be, but we might be anyway whether we like it or not.

Heroes and Villains

Heroes are our ideal.  They represent our best selves.  They stand for what we want to stand for as a group. They have the characteristics that we value, and wish we had more of.   Heroes are always courageous because this is a universally admired characteristic.  Heroes tend to defend the innocent and the collective good.  We normal humans don’t always do these things, but we like to think of ourselves type of person who would.  We project all this awesomeness onto our heroes.

Our heroes change because we change.  The great hero Beowulf bragged about his heroic exploits.  Today, we’d find his sort of arrogant pride to be villainous, but Anglo-Saxon listeners loved boasting if you could back it up.  When the great Achilles wasn’t harvesting Trojans, he could be found weeping by the seashore.  For Greek audiences, this wasn’t a sign of weakness, but passion–a virtue, until he took it a little too far; the Greeks also liked a tragic flaw.

Villains are the opposite of heroes.  They have qualities and characteristics that we castigate.  Villains break promises or they are cowards or they threaten the lives of the innocent and the virtue of women.  They possess the characteristics for which we punish our children.   Not all otherness is a threat.  Villains represent the bad side of “otherness.”

And so we have a fence around our identity.  Within the fence, we find our people and the values we espouse.  What lies outside the fence is otherness–other people and the values that we don’t hold, some of which we reject.

Heroes are how we see ourselves, villains are the opposite, and monsters represent the nasty bits of ourselves we'd rather not admit to. Click To Tweet

Narrative Identity

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) describes the relationship between narrative and identity suggesting that when we tell our stories, we are clarifying our identity.  Stories constitute the identity of individuals, but the mechanism is the same for collective identities.

Ricoeur suggests that identity is revealed through the interplay of two competing forces within narratives. The first force presses on the narrator to represent his role in the story in a way that is consistent with his view of himself—this Ricoeur calls the “demand for concordance.” We like to think of our identity as having some permanence, so we are compelled to tell our stories in a way that is consistent with this idea we have of ourselves.

The second force at work in the recounting of past events is what Ricoeur calls the “admission of discordance.”  This force presses the teller to accurately represent himself in thought, word, and deed.

These two forces are not always in concert.  Sometimes how we think of ourselves is inconsistent with reality.  A small divergence can be easily suppressed, but small divergences can build up and large ones are not easily ignored.  The discordant force threatens the supposed permanence of the teller’s identity. The competition between these stories can create tension in our narratives. It is out of this tension, says Ricoeur, that his identity is shaped and expressed.

Let me tell you a personal story that which illustrates this dynamic.

A True Story

When I was around 19, I went to a midnight movie with three friends, Jim, Marylou, and Stewart—I think the movie was Animal House. After the show, I stopped briefly to chat another friend in the theatre lobby, so I left the theatre alone a few minutes later.  As I stepped outside, four guys in an old car aggressively pulled up to the curb and, completely unprovoked, flipped me the bird.  Without thinking, I responded in kind, then turned to walk down the dark alley in the direction of the car.

I sensed that I might be in some danger when I heard the car doors slam behind me.  I knew they were coming when I heard the sounds of pursuit behind me. I picked up my pace, just a little.  I didn’t need to go any faster because I saw that I would make it around the corner before they caught me.

My friends were ready.  Jim had already told MaryLou to get into the car and lock the door.  He stood leaning against the car, waiting.  Stewart had taken off his jacket and was lighting a cigarette.  I don’t know how they knew what was happening but, I was glad they did.  I turned and prepared to meet the threat, with fists if necessary.  It’s all we had, and I hoped it would be enough.

My would-be assailants, thinking they would catch a vulnerable victim, rounded the corner at a run, eager for blood. When they saw that it was going to have to be a fair fight, they slowed to a walk, nodded, said “Hey,” and kept walking past us.

The Demand for Concordance

I’ve told this story many times, and it’s the same every time.  When I analyze these events, it’s not to hard to find some tension between the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance.

I think of myself as a nice person and a peacemaker. I am good at navigating around conflict.  In my recounting of the above story, I suppressed those little things which were inconsistent with this identity as I saw it.  I didn’t really behave like a peacemaker when I returned the obscene gesture, but I soften this inconsistency by describing my attackers as aggressive and my role in this altercation as, merely unthinking.  But there is an even more powerful challenge to my identity than the one against my peacekeeping ideals.

Am I a coward?

In my narrative, there is no mention of the fear I felt at the time, but I was scared.  This omission is a result of my reluctance to admit the possibility of cowardice. I don’t remember if there were four or three attackers, but I went with four because it excuses the fear that still clings to this memory.  In the retelling, I emphasize that I picking up my pace was strategic, and not out of any fear.  Their unwillingness to fight even with numerical superiority transfers cowardice onto them.  Lastly, I don’t know if Stewart calmly lit a cigarette and, although I think Jim leaned against the car, I’m not sure he was that casual. These details suggest a calm in my friends, which is transferred to me by association.  I also remember trying not to hurry, but was I as successful as my story recounts?  There is no lie here, just nuance that comes from the demand that my story concords with my held identity.

It is conceivable that new experiences would reveal that I was not a peacemaker, or I was in fact, a coward.  If this turned out to be true it would have gotten harder and harder to admit this discordance relative to me self-understanding.

This can happen on a collective level as well.

Here is where the monsters come in.

When Monsters Attack

Monsters show up–with any kind of strength–only under particular circumstances—when our collective identity is in crisis. When the stuff we’ve been suppressing begins to create weak points in the boundaries between the “us” and otherness.  The monster is what prowls around the fence and attack it at its weakest point.  The weak points of our identity are those places in the boundaries of our collective identity where we begin to lack certainty about who we are.  The parts that are getting harder to suppress.  Discordance that is beginning to demand admission.

The fascinating thing about monsters is they don’t simply represent otherness. This is too simplistic. Monsters are the projection of uncomfortable possibilities.   The monsters that intrigue us, the ones that, again and again, find their way into our stories, are the ones that most directly challenge our understanding of ourselves.  By their very presence, they ask us the questions that, deep down, we have already been asking ourselves—Is this really who you are?

The hero is what we are, or at least want to be. The villain is what we are not. Monsters are the embodiment of what is perhaps the truth that we want to suppress. They appear as the suppression begins to fail.Click To Tweet

Our Monsters

The Greek’s had the Minotaur and Medusa. The Anglo-Saxons told stories about the monster of the moors and marshes, Grendel and dragons.  Demons and witches terrorized the medieval identity. Later came Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the vampire who attacked the boundaries of Modern identities.

Each of these monsters terrorized a particular cultural identity that was in crisis. If Anglo-Saxon storyteller had conceived of Frankenstein’s monster and, the next night in the mead hall, told his story about a creature made from corpses, he’d receive an awkward silence and some puzzled grunts from his Anglo-Saxon audience. Such a monster would not have intrigued them, and the first telling would also have been the last.

Monsters scare and fascinate a people because the monster is tailor-made for that culture. Its form is the embodiment of particular doubts about who we are. It attacks the fence that surrounds our identity at exactly the point where it is the weakest. This is why we can learn a lot about a culture by studying its monsters.

This is why we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying our monster—the zombie horde.

Disney’s Hidalgo: Racism and the America’s Identity Crisis After 9/11

Image by CineMaterial

On September 11, 2001 Americans experienced an event that resulted in a national identity crisis.  Someone had to hate America so much that they’d be willing to kill, and die, to express that hatred.  In the wake of the attacks, Americans had a lot of questions.  Who are these terrorists?  Why do they hate us?  Is Islam peaceful or not?  Was this attack all about religion?  Who are we?  Did we do something to deserve this?  What don’t they understand about us?  What don’t we understand about them?

Deep down, these questions are about identity. We were having an identity crisis.

In the face of this crisis, Disney makes a movie.

To assist in the clarification of the American identity, they release the film Hidalgo (2004).  In it, an America encounters the other with an Arab face as Frank Hopkins and his mustang, Hidalgo, enter an endurance race across the Arabian Desert.   Americans are asking, “Who am I and who are these people called Muslims?”  Hidalgo answers these questions for the viewing audience by clarifying what we are against the Arab other.

In Hidalgo, Disney uses a mythologized version of history to present an innocent and morally upright America which finds strength in the virtues of egalitarianism, self-determinism, and cultural diversity. Click To Tweet 

The Myth-Making of Disney

The popular understanding of the term myth is “a story that isn’t true”—or even an outright lie.  This is not what myth means.  Truth is central to the idea of myth.  Myths  are stories that communicate a vision of a people and their understanding of the world.  Roland Barthe says that in myth a worldview, set of values, or an ethos, are presented as if they were part of the natural order of things.  These things are constructed, they are products of history, but they are powerful nonetheless, for they define a cultural reality—they articulate the truth according to a particular people, those who have adopted the story as their own. 

Myths are not always some ancient story about origins.  Religious figures, authors, politicians, artists, and journalists create and communicate myths as well.  When it comes to the creation of myths, Henry Giroux says “there are few cultural icons in the United States that can match the signifying power of the Disney Company.”

Disney wants to construct a collective identity from the American past.  It is a particular identity they want to create and they aggressively rewrite and mythologize history to do it.  This is almost always done in opposition to some other.

Disney is not unique in this approach.  We’ve been doing it since we were living in caves.  Richard Kearney says that crises of national identity “seek provisional resolution by displacing the internal conflict of us/them onto an external screen.  Hence, the need to identify outside enemies.”  The other against which identity is constituted is mythic, in the Barthean sense.  It’s presented as if it were part of the natural order of things.

For a time, America’s indigenous people filled the role of the other against which the national identity was constituted.  Because of its dynamic nature, the mythic other is subject to change.  This shift is evidenced in Hidalgo where it is the Arab other that represents alterity and the Sioux is brought to conform with notions of self-identity and sameness.   

Hidalgo: Reimagining Wounded Knee

The inciting incident in the film Hidalgo is the Battle of Wounded Knee after American soldiers misunderstand the Sioux Ghost Dance to be a display of aggression. This event has been altered and mythologized in the film.

The Ghost Dance.  Historian Jeffrey Ostler explores Sioux life as they lived in the economy of the reservation which replaced their dependence on the buffalo herds.   Reservation life, says Ostler, was a “project of control.”  The Sioux experienced a systematic attack on their way of life which reflected a “commitment to cultural genocide” on the part of the American government.  The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance, which lead to the events at Wounded Knee, would bring about a cataclysmic event that would restore the buffalo and remove the whites from the earth.  Ostler says it “is best understood as an anticolonial movement.” Disney empties the dance of its “oppositional character” and turns the events of that fateful day in American history into a new story.

In the film Hidalgo, the Disney version of the event has been mythologized—emptied then selectively refilled—to show that the events at Wounded Knee were accidental.  The meaning of the Ghost Dance has been distorted in the film.  Rather than an anticolonial movement, it is made passive.  It is a prayer “to their ancestors for help.”  Where Ostler emphasizes the Sioux as active agents, Disney chooses to present them as passive victims.

It serves Disney’s purposes in the film to put partial blame on the U. S. Army for the tragedy.  Therefore, some of the soldiers clearly hold racist attitudes which are expressed in derisive comments and maltreatment of the Sioux.  Yet the massacre is primarily attributed to misunderstanding.  The soldiers are nervous because they mistakenly believe the Ghost Dance to be a prelude to an uprising.  The first shot fired is accidental as an impatient soldier attempts to disarm a deaf boy who did not understand the soldier’s intentions.

By presenting the events at Wounded Knee as accidental, American innocence is maintained and yet, the results are suitably tragic to have a significant impact on the protagonist.  He must experience guilt for his participation in the events at Wounded Knee Creek. 

American Identity: Sioux Heritage

Frank Hopkins is the hero of the film.  In Disney’s mythology, Hopkins is America.  He’s a cowboy.  His strengths and character represent those that we accept as the essential characteristics of America and its people.  Significantly, Frank Hopkins is half Sioux and he is embarrassed by his Indian blood.  As an Army dispatch rider, it is Hopkins who delivers the orders from General Miles which say, “If they choose to fight, subdue them” and so he blames himself for the massacre.  Hopkins rides through the aftermath, the bodies of victims frozen in a grotesque tableau.   

This scene, which again emphasizes the Sioux as passive victims, is juxtaposed with a reenactment of the event in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where they are presented as savage aggressors.  Buffalo Bill narrates the drama and describes how the U. S. soldiers were “outnumbered by warriors, but undaunted in spirit, the brave held their ground.” The juxtaposition of these scenes indicates Disney’s critical attitude toward this blatant revision of history present in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the racist assumptions which underlay it.

Disney is particularly critical of representing of the kind old Chief Eagle Horn as “the last of the wild hostiles, the red pirates of the prairies.”   Hopkins is a participant in the show and his continuous drunkenness indicates the guilt that he feels over his participation in the massacre of the Sioux and his denial of his Sioux heritage.  It is in the resolution of this identity crisis that Hopkins, and the American audience, will ultimately find redemption.

Hopkins’ is called to undertake the quest for his identity by Arab strangers and he reluctantly accepts.  Buffalo Bill has titled Frank Hopkins and his mustang Hidalgo as the greatest living endurance race champions of all time.  An Arab sheikh, who hears this label at a show in Europe, objects and insists that Buffalo Bill remove the title from this horse and rider or enter them into a thousand-year-old endurance race called The Ocean of Fire in order to back up this claim.

Dual Heritage, Dual Mentors

Initially, Frank refuses this call to adventure, but Old Chief Eagle Horn in the role of mentor addresses the truth that Hopkins has been avoiding.  He tells him that he can resolve his identity crisis in the Arabian desert.  Hopkins reluctantly accepts the challenge.

On leaving New York harbor, Hopkins stands on the deck of the ship as it slowly passes the Statue of Liberty.  The scene is shot as if to show a conversation with the statue-as-mentor.  We can assume that she tells Hopkins to remember what America stands for.  She knows for it is engraved on her pedestal.  

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!  

Hopkins is on his way to “ancient lands” where he will encounter “storied pomp” and Lady Liberty implores him to remember that America does not present masculine “conquering limbs” to the world, but a maternal light of “world-wide welcome.”  Here again, we see the perpetuation of a mythology which presents America in a way that is completely contradicted by the events at Wounded Knee and yet is to be accepted, by the audience, as truth.

Frank Hopkins: Middle-Class Family Values

In his encounters with the other, Frank Hopkins, the embodiment of the American identity, is presented as morally upright which means, for Disney, that he adheres to a code of “family values.”

Because Disney’s world is “middle class in its portrayal of family values,” cheating and adultery are activities performed by the evil, and fair-play and chastity are practiced by the good.  Accordingly, Frank Hopkins is good and most of the Arabs in the film are evil.

Where Hopkins is inclined to help fellow riders who have fallen, the Prince, who rides the favored Al-Hattal, pays British soldiers to prevent Hopkins access to the well they guard.  The Prince’s actions, as well as those of several other Arabs who cheat, steal and betray, reinforce the idea that the Arab is capable “of cleverly devious intrigues, [and is] essentially sadistic, treacherous, low.” When Lady Davenport, a member of the British aristocracy and owner of a horse in the race, perceives that Hidalgo is a threat to win, she offers Hopkins sexual favors and a great deal of money for his withdrawal from the race.  She is later found to be conspiring with the story’s villain, Sheikh’s bastard nephew, to ensure the victory of her horse.  Frank’s refusal to cheat or throw the race for either money or sex shows a moral strength that is superior to that of both the Arabs and the British.

Although the moral code to which Hopkins adheres is based on the Judeo-Christian values, the writers have chosen that he is to be known as “The Cowboy” and the adulterous and dishonest Lady Davenport is given the title “The Christian Lady.”  This suggests more than just a secularization of the moral code, but also, in the reversal of meaning of the historical signifiers, a not so subtle hostility to Christianity. Thus, the American national identity is constituted against that of the other—Arab, British and Christian—and has been found to be morally superior.

American Values: Human Equality

Another piece of the American identity that the movie reinforces is the idea that we stand for human equality.  On disembarking in Aden, Hopkins’ immediately encounters a harsh, hierarchically structured society.  Just outside the port city, the caravan passes a group of black men chained together at the ankles.  Frank makes eye contact with a little boy walking in his chains of unusual size.  One of the Arabs says to Hopkins, in a mocking tone, “Have you never seen a slave market, Mr. Frank?”  Then he laughs.

That slavery in America was abolished only a few decades previous, and that Hopkins had certainly seen the inhuman treatment of the Sioux Indians is forgotten.  Of these facts, the audience is expected to have, what historian Mike Wallace calls, “selective amnesia.”  In the Disney mythologized history, Frank’s feelings at the sight of the boy in chains are the same as those of the audience—revulsion—because this could never happen in America.  History has been “sanitized” for the sake of this new mythology.  Frank eventually buys the boy and takes off his chains, and although he runs off at first, he returns to help Frank of his own volition.   

When he arrives at the Bedouin camp, Hopkins discovers another helper has been assigned to him, a goatherder who has been accused of stealing milk.  For this minor crime, he was given the choice to either “serve the infidel” or lose his left hand. Like the slave boy, the goatherder decides to join with the infidel.

The goatherder consistently attempts to establish his superiority over the boy, which he is entitled to according to the structure of Arab society. On these occasions, Hopkins asserts his egalitarian values and insists on the equality of the two.  Thus, he embodies the inscription communicated to him by Lady Liberty as he began his quest.

However, in Hopkins’ treatment of his two assistants lies an assumption of white superiority which is assumed even in the midst of his insistence that black and Arab are equal.  The audience accepts as natural the Orientalist sentiment articulated by Edward Said in Orientalism where he says that the white man “belonged to, and could draw upon the empirical and spiritual reserves of, a long tradition of executive responsibility toward the colored races.”

It is not only blacks and petty criminals who are treated poorly in Arab culture.  It is clear that women are degraded as well when the Sheik declares that “On cold nights, my wives sleep in the stable tents so that Al-Hattal, his champion horse, is comfortable and appeased.”  The plight of women in Arab society is primarily explored through the Sheik’s daughter, Jazira.  If the Prince, riding the Sheikh’s own Al-Hattal, wins the race, she will be added to the Prince’s harem as his fifth wife.  In this position, she will be no better than a slave.  For this reason, she secretly assists Hopkins and Hidalgo.  Thus, the team of misfits now also takes up the cause of women.

However, because the Sheikh loves his daughter, he secretly allows her to ride even though it is forbidden for her to do so.  The implication is that traditional Arab ways are contrary to expressions of paternal love.  Because the Sheikh is conflicted between his love for his daughter and the Bedouin tradition, he is endeared to the American audience.  This is an example of what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls historicism, the idea that history is a developmental process and all cultures are evolving to the same enlightened end, but they do so at different rates. The Sheik’s conflict between tradition and love, suggests he is a little further along than the rest of Arab society, and American society with its egalitarian values is much more advanced than the Arab society.  The historical fact that women suffrage would not be won in the United States for another thirty years is ignored.   

American Values: Self-Determinism

Another aspect of American identity that is emphasized in the film Hidalgo is self-determinism.  In the film, fatalism dominates the Arab view of the world and therefore the race.  There is no doubt in any of the Arabs’ minds that Hopkins will perish in the race, for Allah would not allow an infidel to succeed.  That Hidalgo will eventually win the race casts dispersion on the idea that such a thing is ordained by God.

The conflict between Hopkin’s self-determinism and Arab determinism is before us continually.  Although Hopkins is inclined to help another rider whose horse was killed, he was forbidden to do so because it is Allah’s will that the horse fell. The goatherder explains to Frank, “There are those who are chosen to be winners and those chosen to be losers. Allah chooses thus, and it is written.”  At the beginning of the race, a rider, named Sakr, says that he thought an infidel’s presence in the race is sacrilege, but, he says, “I trust in Allah that He’ll roast some of us like sheep on a spit before the sun sets today. You shall be among the first.”  Later, when he encounters Sakr near death in quicksand, Frank refuses to allow him to die.  Although Sakr protests that it is Allah’s will that he perish, Frank argues “What about your will?  What about your horse’s will?  Seems to me that’s what will get you across a finish line.  Only then is it written.”  Frank pulls him free against his objections, but Sakr learns a valuable lesson.  Later, he sacrifices his own life to save Frank.

In the argument between American self-determinism and Arab fatalism, the former is clearly presented as superior as is evidenced by Sakr’s complete conversion to its precepts.  Another example from the film occurs when Jazira asks Frank, “How did you tame [Hidalgo]?”  To which he answers, “I didn’t.”  In America, not even a horse is denied the freedom to write his own destiny.

Hopkins’ Struggle for Identity

A dominant theme of the film challenges the British and Arab belief in the idea of racial superiority.  Hidalgo is a Mustang, a breed which Lady Davenport correctly explains as having “mixed blood of Spanish origin.”  The contest is presented as a competition between the “impure animal” that is Hidalgo and the “purest equine bloodline in the world.”  At the top of this list is Al-Hattal—“equine perfection.”  Frank is warned that should Hidalgo attempt “to cover an Arab mare, it would be viewed as a most inviolable blemish.  The foal would need to be destroyed before touching the ground.  As would the offending sire.”  Frank Hopkins’ mother was a Sioux Indian and so he too is of mixed blood.  The antagonists in the story are both Arab and British, each who believe in the importance of pure bloodlines, not only in their horses but in themselves.   

It is in the contest between the pure and mixed bloods that Frank addresses his own identity.  His meeting with Chief Eagle Horn after he is challenged by the Arabs takes place in a dark compartment in the train symbolizing the suppression of Hopkins’ Sioux ancestry.  Chief Eagle Horn tells him that he is called far rider not because of his many long distance races, but because he “rides far from himself, and wishes not to look home.”  The chief suggests that Frank is lost until he accepts his Sioux ancestry because right now he is “neither white man nor Indian.”  With this wisdom, the old chief imparts the gift of a necklace on which hangs the circular Sioux symbol first seen among the bodies at Wounded Knee.  Later, the goatherder, in ignorance, creates a flag using the Sioux symbol from the necklace.  Hopkins’ identity crisis is resolved in the climax of the story.

Hidalgo has been injured in the final battle against the Sheik’s bastard nephew and the race has taken its toll on both horse and rider.  It is clear to Frank that he must euthanize Hidalgo.  In his sorrow and his exhaustion, he begins to sing the song of the Ghost Dance.  As he sings, he hallucinates and he sees his Sioux ancestors dancing around him.  At this moment the Prince rides up and ridicules Hopkins for ever thinking that he had a chance against him.  The Prince declares, “I am born of a great tribe—the people of the horse.”  At that moment Frank embraces his Sioux heritage with pride and says, “So am I.”  With this internal victory over himself, Frank can finish the race.  To symbolize his complete acceptance of his Sioux blood, he rides toward the finish line without a saddle or cowboy hat.  As they race at full speed to the finish line, the Prince uses a whip to drive on Al-Hattal, but Frank only whispers “Let ‘er buck.” Under the banner of the Sioux symbol, Frank and Hidalgo win the race.

Ironically, in the resolution of Frank’s identity crisis, and in the resolution of the American national identity of which he is representative, the identifiers of self-determinism and egalitarianism have been undermined.  Thus far the film has consistently asserted that it is neither God’s will nor the blood in one’s veins that determines destiny or worth.  Yet at the climax of the story, we are presented with the idea that blood does, in fact, matter.  It is the blood of America’s Sioux that is superior to Arab blood and which determines Frank’s destiny.  This determinism and blood superiority is inconsistent with the other major themes of the story.  However, because it conforms to the dominant theme of the film—the superiority of Western culture over that of the East—the inconsistency is easily ignored.

Crisis Resolved:  American Superiority Maintained

All the themes in the film, which are grounded in comparisons between American and Arab cultures, fall under the overarching theme of American superiority.  In each comparison—Cowboy/Arab morality, egalitarian/hierarchical society, self-determinism/fatalism, and American diversity/Arab purity—the controlling theme of the film, and therefore the fundamental aspect of America’s identity, is its superiority over the Arab.

What Edward Said described as the cultural hegemony of Europe is true of America.  The idea of America is a collective notion identifying “us” Americans against all “those” non-Americans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in American culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside America: the idea of American identity as a superior one in comparison with all non-American peoples and cultures.  Giroux says that Disney’s world is largely “colonial in its production of racial differences” and this is apparent in the film Hidalgo.  We need look no further than the fundamental story: an American defeats one hundred Arabs riding purebred Arabian horses.

At the conclusion of the race, the Arabs are shown to have learned some valuable lessons from the cowboy and tacitly admit American superiority.  When they first meet, Hopkins was refused a handshake from the Sheik because to touch an infidel would negate his powers to tell the future. In the end, the Sheik offers a handshake admitting that he could never tell the future in the first place.  This is an admission of human equality and therefore an agreement with the egalitarianism America espouses.  Sakr, formerly so committed to Allah’s will, writes his own destiny and willingly give his life for Hopkins.  His conversion to American self-determinism is so complete he is willing to die for it.  At the race’s conclusion, the Prince admits that purity of blood is not the only measure of a horse, and by implication of a man, when he says, “It is a magnificent horse.”  Not only did Hopkins learn of the superiority of his Sioux blood and culture, but the Arabs also learned about the inferiority of theirs.

As in other Disney films, the racism in Hidalgo “is defined by both the presence of racist representations and the absence of complex representations of . . .  people of colour.”  The Arabs are portrayed as arrogant, dishonest, disloyal, racist and incredibly bad shots with a rifle.  Yet, Disney presents these, what Said calls Orientalist, ideas as “morally neutral and objectively valid.”

But not only has the Arab been inaccurately presented.  The historical “cowboy and indian” are nowhere to be seen in the film.  Disney has taken a mythologized notion of the adventurous cowboy and the most noble, mythic qualities of the American Indian and has put them into Hopkins to be representative of America.  The film clearly communicates regret at the killing of the Sioux at the beginning of the story, but they offer no such sentiments for the killing of Arabs.  This contradiction is apparently acceptable because of the myths which have been constructed about these groups within the film, as well as in popular culture.  The Sioux have been cast as the innocent victim; the Arab as the brutal victimizer.  The filmmakers are critical of the mythologized history presented at the Wild West show, yet feel no compulsion to direct their critical eye at their mythological presentment of Arab culture.

Even though they claim the film is based on a true story, it is clear that Disney’s priority when telling the story of Hidalgo is not historical veracity but the construction of a national identity.  In fact, Frank T. Hopkins’ race across the Ocean of Fire may have been completely fabricated.  Fellows Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, founders of the Long Riders Guild, claim that the that the legend of Hidalgo is “the biggest Wild West hoax in American history.”  Still, the film’s screenwriter, John Fusco, insists that his story is based on rigorously checked historical sources.  The extent to which Disney has diverged from historical truth in the Hopkins’ story is debatable, but that they have altered historical truth about America’s dealings with its indigenous people is not in question.

Disney does not consider this abuse of the past—“they freely and disarmingly admit to its falsification, pointing out that this is, after all, just entertainment.”  Of the Hidalgo debate, Nina Heyn, Disney’s Executive Director of International Publicity said

No one here really cares about the historical aspects. Once a picture has been shot, people move on to others. We’re like a factory. It’s like making dolls. Once the latest doll is out we go onto the next one. If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question I don’t think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film. It has little to do with reality.

Three years after 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released. In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks. Click To Tweet

Three years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released.  In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks.  In the film, the American audience comes face to face with the Arab other.

To this end, Disney offers a comparison between America and the Arab other—American versus Arab morality, egalitarian versus hierarchically structured society, self-determinism versus fatalism, and racial purity versus cultural diversity.  In every case the Arab is found to be inferior, thus the monster has been defanged.

Because its purpose is to create a collective identity against the other, Disney perpetuates the Orientalist vision of “difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)” (Said).  In doing so it fails to use history as a site of a cross-cultural, cross-categorical conversation between America and other peoples.  When history is a means to understand the other, rather than as a means to identify oneself against the other, we develop what Richard Kearney calls “narrative sympathy” which enables “us to see the world from the other’s point of view.”  It is unfortunate that with its incredible power to influence culture, Disney has chosen to close to avoid meaningful conversation in favor of a racist monologue.


 

The Theology of Hell’s Kitchen (2)

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Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t really so much a picture of hell, as it is a picture of pagan worship.

But, in a sense, the latter is a picture of the former.  The interactions between the contestants in Hell’s Kitchen are seasoned with the bitter tastes of hell.

The interactions between the contestants in Hell's Kitchen are seasoned with the bitter tastes of hell.Click To Tweet

Hell’s Kitchen: The Community

The god shapes the community of worship.  Ramsey lays out how the community is to function on Hell’s Kitchen.  He’s very sparing with his blessings and establishes a competition–for his favour.  In this competition, there will be one winner.  All the others, eventual losers.

Each contestant is pitted against the others.  “Friendships” are largely opportunistic.  If another contestant goes out today, then I stay.  If someone wins, I lose.

In a sporting context, there are always winners and losers.  In Hell’s Kitchen, the competition doesn’t stop after the contest is won and lost.  It moves into the dorms and the jacuzzi.   Ramsey promotes it–“Go back to the dorms and determine which people you want to put forward for elimination.”  And we get to watch this agonizing process.  Like I said, it’s hellish.

C. S. Lewis writes about the ethos of hell in The Screwtape Letters.   In this excerpt, an experienced devil, Screwtape, explains it a novice tempter, his nephew:

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”.

In this sense, Hell’s Kitchen is hellish.

There are many contexts in which we find ourselves in hellish circumstances.  It’s when we encounter someone who believes everyone is against them and they will use us, and anyone else for their own gain.  They use people for financial gain, to feed their ego, for sexual pleasure, or because the need to be in control. They will take, and never give, unless there is something in it for them.

But this doesn’t describe all of our experience with others.

Christianity and Competition

In our daily lives, many of us experience a little heaven now and then

The whole philosophy of Heaven is, logically, opposite as that of Hell.

This philosophy rests on the recognition of the axiom that one thing is part of other things, and, specially, that oneself is another self.  My good is your good and your good is mine.  What one gains the other also gains.

We often experience the philosophy of heaven in the best moments of our lives.

When we give of ourselves to our spouse, their gain is also our gain.  When we sacrifice for the sake of our children; what we give up is eclipsed by what we receive from their joy or flourishing.  We give time to colleagues, students, even strangers and receive many times the blessing back, sometimes just in the form of a smile.  The math doesn’t work, and this is incomprehensible to the devils like Screwtape and those humans who buy into his logic don’t.  They just can’t imagine how it’s possible to can give and get back more back.  Happily, most people get it–the math of heaven.

I think Gordon Ramsey gets it.  We catch glimpses of it in all of his shows.  I don’t think his moments of sacrificial kindness are simply a means to more viewership.  Yes, he does it for ratings, but perhaps deep down he does it because heaven feels better than hell.

One such moment was in episode six of this season’s Rookies versus Veterans edition.   Chris decided to step out of the competition.  He was on the verge of a breakdown.  The show is stressful enough, but he had also been involved in a serious accident nine months before coming to the show.   Sous Chef Christina and Ramsay caught wind of Chris’ plight.  Their response was sympathy and by urged Chris to seek professional help.  It’s a small thing, with hardly any sacrifice, but for a moment I believe that Ramsey was acting almost completely in Chris’ best interest.

On Hell’s Kitchen we see quite a bit more hell than heaven.  That’s why I stopped watching it.  But I never miss an episode of Master Chef.

The Theology of Hell’s Kitchen (1)

patticake1601 / Pixabay

I used to watch Hell’s Kitchen.  I like Gordon Ramsey, despite the arrogance.  He knows what he’s doing in the kitchen and his food is amazing.  I’ve eaten it.  And he knows how to run a restaurant.  Always a little harsh, he’s nearly altruistic in Kitchen Nightmares and the new Hell on Wheels; he’s almost nurturing in Master Chef.  But I’ve stopped watching Hell’s Kitchen because it’s way too hellish.  Ramsey is abusive and the contestants are mostly a bunch of cocky malcontents with personality disorders. To have to go out to dinner with these people would be hell enough. To have to live and run a dinner service with them, I don’t have to imagine–this is the subject of the show.

Although Ramsey is not all that religious, he’s given his show a name that is foundationally Christian.  Is the kitchen in the show anything like the scullery where the reprobate will eternally toil in “adamantine chains and penal fire”?

The simple answer is, of course, no.  And Ramsey is not really anything like a devil.

All images in the show’s opening credits suggest Gordon Ramsey is the boss of hell.  Horns, pointy tail, glowing demonic eyes, but if you look at the show theologically, Ramsey occupies a position similar to that of a pagan god than the Christian Satan.

The opening credits of Hell's Kitchen show Gordon Ramsey with horns, pointy tail, and glowing demonic eyes, but if you look at the show theologically, Ramsey occupies a position more like that of a pagan god than a devil. Click To Tweet

Pagan Worship

Life was hard in the ancient world.  Floods and drought threatened vital food supplies as did marauders who were forever running off with the harvest.  In this world of uncertainty, vulnerable humanity sought the aide of the gods to ensure fertility and security.  Survival, they believed, depended on their ability to humour and mollify these gods.

The gods themselves were very unpredictable. The slightest thing could set them off.  The demanded attention, the right kind of attention.  They were jealous when they felt others received more attention.  When resentful, they lashed out against the people.

How do you manage gods like these?  Invariably, people came to the conclusion that the gods needed to be manipulated.  In almost all religions the gods need to be appeased.  Worship was, and in many cases still is, appeasement.  If you can please the gods, blessings will follow.  Failure to do so means disaster.  The rain ceased to fall, and the land failed to bear fruit and the women were barren.

It is no accident that in places where there were no natural barriers and the climate was most unpredictable, the sacrifices demanded by the gods were far more costly than in places with more reliable food supply and less threat from enemies.  The bad things were thought to be an indication of the gods’ displeasure with the sacrifice, so the ante had to be increased.  This is why some cultures ended up sacrificing their children, so high was the gods’ price for blessing.

Appeasing Gordon Ramsey

In Hell’s Kitchen, worshipers must obey and appease a powerful and aggressive diety in order to earn favour and blessings.  Through appeasement and performance, contestants attempt to earn, the salvation for which they hope: survival into the next episode and ultimately, a dream job in the restaurant business.

In Hell’s Kitchen, appeasement is both individual and collective.  The most competent team is rewarded with a cool culinary field-trip; the losers are given a hellish chore, and one member of the losing team will be sent away.

There are three means by which Ramsey is appeased.

Appeasement in Hell’s Kitchen means getting good food out fast.  “Two scallop”  means two, perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, perfectly presented scallops at the pass when Ramsey wants it.  If your number, cook, seasoning, presentation, and timing are perfect, or nearly so, you will earn a blessing–a “nicely done” or “the scallops are perfect.”

Woe to the chef who fails in one or more aspects of this complex ritual.  Many cooks will be berated for failure to appease, but one will be banished.  Banishment from the presence of the god, banishment from the community and the hope for salvation will be dashed.

There are other means of appeasement in  Hell’s Kitchen.  As you stand before Gordon Ramsey facing eliminations as one of three, he asks you, “Why do you think you should stay in Hell’s Kitchen?”  He can be appeased, it seems, if a would be Executive Chef can convince him of her passion.  Passion is what one must bring to the altar.

The third way to appease the pagan god, and Gordon Ramsey, or more accurately avoid his curse, is to submit.   Muttering under your breath, talking back, or directly defying Ramsey will bring down his wrath.  No ego but Ramsey’s is permitted in Hell’s Kitchen.

Christian Worship: Favour First

Christian worship is different from pagan worship because the Christian God is different.

God is love and he is also holy.

He loves us.  He wants to be with us.  This is mostly for our sake, not his.  It’s good for us to be with him; he desires our good; therefore, he wants to be with us.  The problem is, we can’t be with him–we are not holy.  Unholy things can’t be in his presence–they couldn’t survive.

As in pagan worship, Biblical worship involves sacrifices and offerings to God, but not to appease him, but to purify ourselves.  Purification comes from the blood of sacrifice.  The purification from the blood of animals was very limited.  There were still many barriers between the Holy God and his people.  But they laid the groundwork and created a pattern through which his people could understand his holiness and their need for his grace.

In pagan worship, the people acted first so that the gods would give favour.  In Old Testament worship, God’s acts first–in giving favour.   It need not be earned, we have it already.

Christian Worship: Gratitude, not Appeasement

In the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1–16) we see two offerings.  Able’s offering was acceptable to God.  There was something about Cain’s offering that wasn’t acceptable.  It is not certain, why God rejected Cain’s offering, but I think there is a good possibility that Cain’s offering was meant as appeasement–a bribe for divine favour.  He sacrificed in a manner consistent with the pagan nations.  Abel’s offering, then, was a gift of gratitude.  An appropriate attitude toward the God that he knew.

The sacrifice of animals on the Old Testament was inadequate.  It was always temporary and symbolic.  To purify all of humanity and all of creation, a much bigger sacrifice must be made.  Bigger and completely perfect.  The only one who meets these requirements is God himself.  He would have to bring the sacrifice; he would have to be the sacrifice.

Jesus is God and his death on the cross was the once and for all sacrifice that purifies all of creation, including humanity for all eternally.  We can only be in God’s presence if we are clothed in the blood of Christ.  We are not thus attired unless we accept the sacrifice.  This is all that is required of us, but it makes all the difference.  If we accept Christ’s sacrifice, we can be in God’s presence because we are covered in the blood of Christ.  He took on our sin received the effects of sin, we take on is purity and receive the effects of his purity.

Christian worship can’t be about appeasement, because we had his favour before the sacrifice.  We couldn’t bring any offering that would have purified us, so God made the only sacrifice that could save us.

1 John 4: 8-10 is the summary.

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

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

We don’t get what we deserve; we receive salvation at his expense.  What can we do now, but be grateful?  This is central to Christian worship.  And Christian worship isn’t limited to church services.  Christian worship is a life lived out of gratitude for what God has done.

My favourite part of all of Gordon Ramsey shows is when he comes down from his throne and offers grace to one of the lesser folk.  He takes on the price for someone else’s benefit.  These moments are always poignant, but even more so on Hell’s Kitchen where we are usually experiencing Ramsey’s continuous wrath.  Viewers like these gracious moments.  I think something resonates in us when we see moments of grace.  Perhaps because this is what our hearts were made for.

I was defeated by Ulysses

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

I was defeated by Ulysses.

Well, that’s not so bad, so was the entire city of Troy, 200 suitors, and the Cyclops Polyphemos.

I mean the book. The one by James Joyce.  I quit half-way. I’m supposed to be smart. I teach literature.  I did War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Don Quixote in the same year.  I read Infinite Jest in three months, for crying out loud!  (Read this; it is really funny.)

There was that time when I threw Wuthering Heights across the room. But that was when I was young, and I later read that one no problem.  Not so with Ulysses.  I know when I have been beaten.

Maybe this is just round one.  I can go back to it later, to keep up my record.

I don’t want to. Not even a little bit.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I took a British Literature class.  We read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I enjoyed parts of this book, particularly the description of hell in Father Arnall’s sermon.  But there was something inside me that said this book was too much of something.

Here is an actual dialogue I had with a fellow student in this class after reading this book:

Professor: Is A Portrait a novel?

Me: No, a masterpiece but not a novel.

Brown-noser: Of course it’s a novel.

Me: No, it’s just Joyce showing all the neato things you can do to a novel.  Novels are meant to be read, this book is not.  It’s meant to be studied.

Brown-noser: Just because it’s not like a typical novel . . . if a painter uses a lot of new techniques we still call it a painting.

Me: If a painter brushes his initials onto a rock with water-soluble paint and then throws it off a cliff into the ocean before anyone sees it, do we still call it a painting?

The “too much of something’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was many times too much in Ulysses.

Ulysses: Life is too Short

I agree with Ron Rosenbaum in “Is Ulysses Overrated?

Actually, Rosenbaum doesn’t even agree with Rosenbaum, as much as I do.

I was fascinated by the fact that the plot of this book covers just a single day.  It’s witty.  Each chapter is written in a different style. For some people, all the allusions get in the way, but I thought they added to the meager appeal of the book.

I think that my main problem is that the book overturns almost every traditional way of telling a story.  Is this book, change for the sake of change?  One might argue that this is no worse a sin than writing in traditional modes for the sake of writing in traditional modes.  And one would be right.  Except one wouldn’t be holding Ulysses as one said it.

Traditional modes or writing need to be rejuvenated with new approaches, absolutely.  But in Ulysses, Joyce has evolved the novel brilliantly, but this has not ended up with a book I want to read.

It’s a masterpiece.  By all means, study it, but don’t bother reading it, for there is no joy there.

Or perhaps all this is simply justification and defensiveness arising from my humiliation–perhaps.  If it ends up to be this, I will be posting a refutation and celebration of having finished Ulysses and proclaiming it’s brilliance.

Ulysses is a masterpiece. By all means, study it, but don't bother reading it, for there is no joy there. Click To Tweet

The Perpetual Victim: Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”

Free-Photos / Pixabay

Everybody whines and complains on occasion.  It can be how we process disappointment.  Some, for one reason or another, whine and complain all the time.  This can be a defense mechanism; “If life is going to suck anyway, I might as well anticipate the disappointment.”

In “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor describes the perpetual victim and provides the antidote to this poisonous view of oneself.

The Perpetual Victim

Mrs. May, protagonist of “Greenleaf,” declares, “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”

Mrs. may owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends,

“Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.”

No wonder she considers herself a victim, if she thinks weather and soil are her antagonists.  She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries; they are gifts.   And so is the help against which she rails—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.”  Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm.  Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is.

This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted.  For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality.  Mr. Greenleaf likely ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Mrs. May frequently speaks of how hard she works.  She believes she “had been working continuously for fifteen years” and that “before any kind of judgement seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.”  Interestingly, she doesn’t do a stitch of actual work through the whole course of the narrative.  Conversely, Mr. Greenleaf is always occupied with farming tasks.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf.  But she doesn’t see any of it.  She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she has received.

Mrs. May’s Faith

Two quotes will suffice to give us the state of Mrs. May’s faith:

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

“She thought the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.”

Symbolism

Mrs. May seeks no relationship with God and her rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols.

A stray bull has arrived on her place.  In the opening scene, he is compared to a Greek God, complete with a wreath upon his head.  He stands beneath her window like a bovine Romeo.  Not only is this an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, it is also a reference to Zeus who, in the form of a bull, rapes Europa.  When the wreath “slipped down to the base of his horns . . .  it looked like a menacing prickly crown.”  The bull has become a symbol of Christ.  Mrs. May’s view of this transcendent visitor is far more terrestrial–“an uncouth country suitor.”  As a symbol of Jesus, the bull is persistent in his pursuit of Mrs. May.  She consistently tries to get rid of him.

Another symbol in the story is the sun.  Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.”  The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property.  In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.”  Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The symbolism of the bull and the sun as two figures of the Trinity some together in description of Mrs. May’s view out her window.

The sun, moving over the black and white grazing cows, was just a little brighter than the rest of the sky. Looking down, she saw a darker shape that might have been its shadow cast at an angle, moving among them.

The “shadow” is the bull, a manifestation of the sun on this side of the impenetrable trees.  Mrs. May lives in rejection of God and all his gifts.  She believes herself to be self-sufficient and autonomous.

Lillies of the Field

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” onto the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

It is not accident that both Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf each have two sons.  In this way O’Connor can compare the generational affect on rejection and acceptance of Grace.  The May boys are as unhappy and resentful as their mother.  The Greenleaf boys are flourishing.

It is because they are flourishing that Mrs. May resents the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28,

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

Victimhood and Gratitude

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

O’Connor’s point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment.  Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, while lecturing Mr. Greenleaf on the supposed ingratitude of his sons, she says, “Some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”  She doesn’t know that she’s speaking only of herself.

The cure for Mrs. May’s form of perpetual victimhood is gratitude.  Unfortunately for her, Mrs. May’s ingratitude and victimhood is terminal.  She never receives the cure, although in the moments before her death, she does see what she’s been missing her entire life.

She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.

As she dies in the unbreakable embrace of the bull’s horns, she sees the insignificance of the tree-barrier that separated her kingdom from God’s.

A Walking Dead Zombie Christmas Message

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

We’ve seen nine seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead.  The remaining children are still alive.

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 were upset. 50,000 fans signed a petition to remove showrunner Scott Gimple from the show. He was removed.

Why were they so upset?

I think it’s because children, Rick’s children, Carl and Judith, and Maggie’s child, unborn at the time, 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.

In season 9, Henry is spared and Carol burns a group of former Saviours alive to protect him.  It’s a trade we all accept.  Why?

Besides innocence, children represent hope.  And to kill a child is to kill hope.  To save a child is to preserve hope.

AMC's The Walking Dead brings Christmas Hope. Click To Tweet

The thing is, we shouldn’t be all that upset with Gimple for killing off Carl Grimes. Gimple, or any loss of a child in suture seasons because this is what  zombie storytellers always do–they give us characters that embody things that we value and then the kill them.

Night of the Living Dead

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.

Zombies Are Trying to Tell Us Something

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.Click To Tweet

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.  In our culture, individuals get to make these things up for themselves.

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 of Season 8 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.

Does Carl’s life have meaning? Does his death?  Yes or No?  We can’t have it both ways.

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 any more meaningful than a zombie? 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 so much that he has come to us as a baby, to live among us to show us the way out of zombieland.

Merry Christmas

The Meaning of Zombies

If you are interested, here is the first post of a series about the meaning of zombies: Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

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?Click To Tweet
  • 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?

 

Audible Books: Year 3

 

I continued to hike and listen to books on Audible.  At some point this year, I switched from Audible.com to Audible.ca.  This was a good financial move since I pay less per month and my the amount isn’t dependent on the exchange rate.

The standout books this year were:

The Social Animal by David Brooks

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann: This is a book of history.  It’s got a lot of detail, but it’s quite incredible.

The English and Their History by Robert Toombs:  This is such a good book.  It covers the names and the dates, but it also interprets history and offers an understanding of the English people.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage:  This is history lite. But really interesting to read history through six beverages.  I wish I wrote this book.

Don’t bother reading these:

The Swerve by Stephan Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt is a bright fellow, so I was baffled that he would write such a book.  The whole book is based on a historical narrative in which Reason is the hero.    You know, the story where, following the fall of glorious Rome, civilization fell into an age of intellectual and cultural darkness.  But then in the Renaissance, we opened our eyes to the light of Reason and turned from the oppressive weight of God and His Church into glorious freedom.

In order to maintain his narrative, Greenblatt found it necessary to distort actual historical fact.  For me, the merits of this book were clouded by the ridiculous story being told–perhaps I’m just too post-Modern to be able to stomach this nonsense.

Ulysses by James Joyce

I was defeated by Ulysses.  I have never been beaten by a book.  This one took round one.  I got to about half-way and I realized that this was time that could be spent reading a book that I actually enjoyed instead of this piece of .  .  . literature.

I read some books in preparation for our trip to England this summer:

The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman

Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

Amped by Douglas E. Richards

Here’s the rest.  I enjoyed all of them.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

My Man Jeeves by P. G. Woodhouse

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

The Tao of Pooh byBenjamin Hoff

This is my third year with Audible.  Come back to read about Audible Books: Year 4.

My First Year of Audible

My Second Year of Audible

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.

 

[tweetshareinline tweet=”OK, so why might some Christians watch Game of Thrones?” username=”Dryb0nz”]

 

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.

[tweetshare tweet=”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?” username=”Dryb0nz”]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.

[tweetshare tweet=”Sex in television is a problem because it distracts Christians from ideas that are much more dangerous than nudity.  ” username=”Dryb0nz”]

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

 

 

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