CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

This is Us, in Space–Star Trek Discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barf.

But I really like Captain Pike (Anson Mount).

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

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

 

The Meaning of Game of Thrones

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

The Game of Thrones

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

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

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

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

“Winter is Coming”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game of Thrones as Allegory

Game of Thrones can be looked at allegorically.

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

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

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

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

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

A Christian Watching After Life by Ricky Gervais

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

Meaninglessness is a Superpower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atheist Apologetics

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

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

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

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

Without Lisa, life is meaningless for Tony.

Tony has stepped into the book of Ecclesiastes.

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

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

Ricky Gervais and the Meaning of Life

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

–Tony

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

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

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

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

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

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

–The Widow

So, a few more questions for our coffee”

What about the bad people?

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

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

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

Who’s to judge?

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

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

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

Yeah, what could go wrong?

After Life: Like a Bad Christian Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be nice to the nice?

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

I was waiting for something a little more poignant.

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

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

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

Gervais believes there is no evidence for God.

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

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

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

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

Dystopian Literature and Film: A Christian Perspective

Trixieliko / Pixabay

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

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

Dystopian Literature in a Christian School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Difficult Material

Hans / Pixabay

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Meaning of Monsters

jplenio / Pixabay

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)

Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay

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)

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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

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