CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

The Movie that Shaped My View of the World

Image from iMDb

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a book that changed the way I viewed the world.

First Monday in October (1981) is a movie that shaped, if not my view of the world, at least my position on all issues surrounding Freedom of Speech.

Apparently, it isn’t a very good movie.  The Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score for First Monday in October is 46% (there is no Critics Consensus).

I don’t remember if Walter Matthau was brilliant as Supreme Court Justice Daniel Snow.   Nor do I if Jill Clayburn was any good at her portrayal of the presidential appointee to the Supreme court.

I just remember one scene.

And it has stuck with me for almost 40 years.  And, given the way the world has changed in the last few years, I think about it almost daily.

It was a single conversation that makes this movie memorable for me.

But here is what I remember:

The Supreme Court needs to decide what the law says about an obscene movie.  Liberal Justice Daniel Snow (Matthau) refuses to go to a screening of the movie.  He says it is immaterial to how he intends to vote.  Newly appointed, conservative, justice Ruth Loomis (Clayburn), insists that Snow must watch the film in order to decide if it ought to be protected under the tenets of Freedom of Speech.

Snow knows how he will vote regardless of how bad the content is–he will not limit Freedom of Speech.

Going into the film, I think my view would have been similar to that of Loomis; I came out agreeing with Snow.  And I still do.  I think Freedom of Speech is foundational to our culture.  If pornographers are free to express their material, then I am allowed to express my opinions too.

It’s another world today.  The roles seem to have been reversed.  It’s not just conservatives who want to limit free speech.  People on the extreme liberal end of the spectrum seem to be quite willing to silence the speech of any who disagree with them–even fellow liberal extremists who express a different flavour of liberal extremism.  And it feels as if the willingness to suppress, not just voice, but thought itself is moving in from the extreme.

Interestingly, conservative are now joining moderate liberals in the defense of free speech, but this support seems to be quite selective.

What disturbs me is that dialogue is being stifled–quite unapologetically.

I don’t know if we will ever go back to having conversations and arguments about what we believe, all the while allowing that the other has the right to say what they will.  I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Pastors Must Read Fiction

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Recently, I heard a pastor admit from the pulpit that he didn’t read fiction–I’ve heard this before.  These confessions are not usually necessary for it is usually apparent from their sermons.

I have heard the reasons.  Some don’t read because they see reading fiction was a frivolous endeavor, even a dangerous one.  Others, because they have no time.  After you read the Bible and the theology texts, blogs, and all those books on Christian living, there isn’t any time for fiction.  Some don’t read fiction because, “Well, it just isn’t my thing.”

I perused several articles in which other pastors exhort their colleagues to read fiction.  These articles offer some very good reasons for pastors to read fiction, but they didn’t give the most important reasons, which I will save for last.

It’s Relaxing

Reading a novel is relaxing, and pastors should find time to relax.  Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson is a great read, but it’s a book for the beach.  I’m not arguing that pastors read more beach books, although it couldn’t hurt.

Get Out of Yourself

We all live narrow lives and look at the world with a fairly limited vision.  I am a white, North American male who was born in the early 1960s.  I look at the world through these lenses.  I was never sexually abused.  I don’t know what it is like to be an immigrant or a tanner in India. I don’t have autism or a brother with schizophrenia.

When you read good fiction, you are immersed in the reality of these things.  Can you see how imaginatively understanding these things would make one a better pastor?

Experience the Beauty and the Power of Language

Good art, be it visual arts, music, or fiction, is good because it is rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by creative human beings. Art isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning, and what he initially declared.  When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to other human beings, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”

Good Fiction is True

Good fiction challenges us where we need challenging: In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says fiction “helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest to us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”  If Gardner is right, and I think he is, what human being, let alone pastor, wouldn’t benefit from the reading of good fiction.

As poetry is “the art of saying what cannot be said” (Alan Watts), narrative attempts to explain the inexplicable.  You can’t deal with ideas like Good, Sin, Death, Sacrifice, Grace, Love, Redemption, etc. propositionally.  Only narrative is up to the task.  A sermon delving into topics like these needs the support of a mind that has been broadened and deepened by fiction, which has taken the preacher to an understanding beyond personal experience and theology.

If you can't read fiction, then you can't read the Bible. Click To Tweet

You can’t read the Bible if you can’t read fiction.

These are all great reasons for pastors to read fiction, but there are still more compelling reasons.

The Bible is a collection of all sorts of literary genres, and all of these are ancient expressions of these genres.  Ideally, you’d need to read all sorts of ancient texts, in their original languages, just to begin to get a sense of how to read the biblical text.  There are people who can read these texts this way, and we can read their books and articles, but our access to the original texts is indirect.  We need direct engagement with texts in general in order to understand the role of the reader–a role that involves far more than our mind, but our heart and soul and imagination as well.

The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe.

Russell Moore

The Bible is not simply a text that we mine in order to extract nuggets of truth.

It’s not an encyclopedia, and it shouldn’t be read as one.

The skills one needs to read the Bible are the same skills one develops when one reads good fiction.

The skills one must develop in order to read the Bible are the same skills one develops when one reads good fiction.Click To Tweet

Many North American Christians are still under the influence of Modernism.   We tend to equate truth with fact.  We think that for the Bible to be true, it must be factual.  This gets us into all sorts of problems with our interpretation of the Bible.  We will reject the intended meaning of a text when we reject the very mode in which the text was intended to be read.

Most pastors know that the Bible is not anything like an encyclopedia, but we have been so steeped in Modern thinking for so long that it is sometimes a struggle to step out of a rationalist reading of the Bible, and reading a steady diet of theology reinforces this error.

The pastor who reads theology, but not fiction, is like a biology lecturer, who has dissected a thousand of frogs, and keeps dozens in his lab, but hasn’t studied them in the field.  He knows so much, but his understanding of frogs is incomplete.

How can we reset our default settings–our idolatrous, Modern settings–so we can better read the Bible?

Read good fiction.

Reading fiction will develop the understanding that the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.

The opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.Click To Tweet

Many sermons can be preached effectively by a pastor who doesn’t read fiction, but there certain times when a broader reading list would greatly improve what we hear from the pulpit.  And occasionally, it will protect the speaker from coming off sounding silly.

Recommendations:

What should I read?

Read from the “top 100 books you must read before you die” list.  Read from the best books of 2020, or 2019.  And read old books.  C. S. Lewis explains why.

OK, so here are some recommendations.

My favourite book of all-time is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  It’s funny and profound.  I’ve written about why this book is so essential for Christians to read in a series of posts.  But read the book before you read the posts.  It’s far better, and less propositional.

Any and all of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.  Pick up one of her collections like Everything that Rises Must Converge.  O’Connor takes a hard and critical look at Christianity in a Modern context, and she also reintroduces readers to God’s Grace despite ourselves.

If I were ever stranded on a desert island, and I couldn’t take the Bible, I would take The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It doesn’t replace the Bible, because it isn’t the inspired word of God, but it contains so many of the essential Biblical themes and truths, that it might sustain me until I get rescued.

1984 by George Orwell is one of the best books of the 20th Century.  Everyone should read it.  It’s brilliantly written is is as relevant today as it was in 1984, and 1949 when it when it was published.

Watership Down by Richard Adams is about rabbits, but it’s also about human nature, faith, trust, and leadership.  And another thousand things.  This one is great on Audible, read by Ralph Cosham.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry takes the reader to India in the 1950s.  You might not be interested in India in the 1950s.  It doesn’t matter.  The book is very well written and you become invested very quickly.  If nothing else, it exercises our empathy, helping us to step in the shoes of others who live in very different circumstances.

You’ve heard of the problem of evil, the strongest challenge to the Christian God.  Like all of his work, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about the problem of good.  This is a dark novel, but the distant glimmer of light and hope argues that life must be about more than suffering and death.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  This one is a doozy.  It’s monstrous.  (Read this hilarious article about “How to Read Infinite Jest.“).  This book rivals A Prayer for Owen Meany for my all-time favourite book.    But if you are not a fan of fiction just yet, hold off for a year or 10.

The good news is there are thousands more.  You’d find a lot more recommendations in the comment section if this blog had a huge following, but there might be one or two there as well.

Happy Reading!

Green with Envy

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

Why is envy green?  

Envy eats vipers and the poison of her victuals accumulates and concentrates in her body till her skin erupts in green, festering blisters. 

I was reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses with coffee this morning.  Ovid was a Roman poet and this work is considered his magnum opus.  Anyway, in book 2 there is this incredible description of Envy.  Minerva is super mad at Aglauros, so she goes to Envy to ask her to curse Agrauros with a touch.   

[Minerva] Then sought out Envy in her dark abode,

Defil’d with ropy gore and clots of blood:

Shut from the winds, and from the wholesome skies,

In a deep vale the gloomy dungeon lies,

Dismal and cold, where not a beam of light

Invades the winter, or disturbs the night.

 

Directly to the cave her course she steer’d;

Against the gates her martial lance she rear’d;

The gates flew open, and the fiend appear’d.

 

A pois’nous morsel in her teeth she chew’d,

And gorg’d the flesh of vipers for her food.

Minerva loathing turn’d away her eye;

The hideous monster, rising heavily,

Came stalking forward with a sullen pace,

And left her mangled offals on the place.

 

Soon as she saw the goddess gay and bright,

She fetch’d a groan at such a chearful sight.

 

Livid and meagre were her looks, her eye

In foul distorted glances turn’d awry;

A hoard of gall her inward parts possess’d,

And spread a greenness o’er her canker’d breast;

Her teeth were brown with rust, and from her tongue,

In dangling drops, the stringy poison hung.

 

She never smiles but when the wretched weep,

Nor lulls her malice with a moment’s sleep,

Restless in spite: while watchful to destroy,

She pines and sickens at another’s joy;

Foe to her self, distressing and distrest,

She bears her own tormentor in her breast.

                                                                    –2.760-782

The Greeks and the Romans had a penchant for personifying emotions and ideas.  Personification is a figure of speech were objects and ideas are given human qualities or are represented in human form.  Ovid takes the human emotion, envy, and makes it into a person–Envy.

What attracted me to this representation of Envy is that it struck me as true.  I’ve seen this creature before, not only in others but in myself as well.  It will do us well to look take a careful look at her in order to know the effects of her touch.  

The Deep Cover of Envy

Envy’s dwelling is hidden in a “deep vale.”  

The vice, envy, is also hidden.  Envy is different than the other deadly sins.  It is fairly easy to see Wrath and Gluttony, and we aren’t all that embarrassed by them.  Some, like Greed and Pride, are even celebrated in our culture–even Lust is celebrated today.  But not Envy.  We don’t want any one to see our envy.  To show envy we’d be admitting that we feel inferior.  Envy is so petty.  We know it’s petty, and we are embarrassed by it. 

Envy personified in hidden away in a dark and “gloomy dungeon” where the air is stagnant; it is “dismal and cold.” 

The Envy is Poison

Envy gorges on “the flesh of vipers.”  Her appetites are both glutenous and foul.  Her heavy rising suggests she is not wasting away, but this is poisoned food.  The toxins from the vipers feeds her malice which bubbles in “greenness o’er her canker’d breast.”    

As with the diet of Envy personified, the emotion of envy is nourishing as well–we take a small comfort in the misery of others.  But this comfort is toxic.  The one who envies is in the hideous state of being eaten while eating.

Shakespeare and Ovid are on the same page here:

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;

It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

                                                             Othello–Shakespeare

Envy is Different

All the other seven-deadly-sins involve some element of pleasure for the sinner.  Not so with envy.  Not only do you not enjoy the sin, but the very nature of envy also makes you unable to enjoy the good things you do have.  You can’t enjoy your beauty, wealth, strength, intelligence because someone else is more beautiful, richer, stronger, or smarter.  

Envy enjoys nothing–she doesn’t enjoy her food; she doesn’t enjoy the beauty of her visitor; she never even enjoys the pleasure of taking a little nap once in a while.

All the other seven-deadly-sins involve some element of pleasure for the sinner. Not so with envy. Not only do you not enjoy the sin, but the very nature of envy also makes you unable to enjoy the good things you do have.Click To Tweet

Minerva’s Commission

Envy is immortal, but what happens when she touches you?

Minerva commands Envy to destroy Aglauros, and she does so with a touch.  Here’s what happens:

To execute Minerva’s dire command,
She stroak’d the virgin with her canker’d hand,
Then prickly thorns into her breast convey’d,
That stung to madness the devoted maid:
Her subtle venom still improves the smart,
Frets in the blood, and festers in the heart.

To make the work more sure, a scene she drew,
And plac’d before the dreaming virgin’s view
Her sister’s marriage, and her glorious fate:
Th’ imaginary bride appears in state;
The bride-groom with unwonted beauty glows:

For envy magnifies what-e’er she shows.
Full of the dream, Aglauros pin’d away
In tears all night, in darkness all the day;
Consum’d like ice, that just begins to run,
When feebly smitten by the distant sun;
Or like unwholsome weeds, that set on fire
Are slowly wasted, and in smoke expire.

Argros is destroyed by envy of her sister’s marriage–something one would hope would make her happy.  Instead, because of envy, she pines away. Melts like ice on a sunny day.  Burns up like dry grass in a fire.

Dealing With Envy

Worship of God takes care of envy.  By this, I do not necessarily mean singing praise and worship songs in church.

Experience of God’s love and grace erases envy.   Where do you experience these things?  Songs?  Maybe you do.  I don’t.  

I get it from Word and Sacrament. 

But let me focus briefly on the sacrament of communion.  In The Lord’s Supper, Christ extends his hand to us and gives us the sacrifice of his body and blood.  His death erases my sin and brings me into the family of the Heavenly Father.  Nothing is required of me except to accept the offer of this incredible gift.  I get so much, for so little.   

In the light of the overwhelming Grace of God, how can I be harbour resentment for someone is smarter, or more beautiful, or more wealthy than I am?

Why Are the Best Books the Banned Books?

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

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 attempting 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.

Most of the banned books are the best books.Click To Tweet

 

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.

What should we read in school, bland books or banned books?Click To Tweet

 

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

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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 my favorite dystopian fiction novels. Did I miss any? Click To Tweet

 

Come From Away and The Book of Mormon

Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

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?

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

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

xusenru / Pixabay

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 Ice and Fire.

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

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