CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

My Question about Dunkirk

 

A few quick thoughts on Dunkirk (no spoilers)

Incredible film–go see it.

In Dunkirk, we see people under stress.

Under this stress, some people respond well, others not so well.

Everyone in the audience agrees when a person does something good, and when a person behaves badly.

When someone is willing to sacrifice another in order to save themselves, we consider this bad behaviour. Conversely, when someone willingly gives up something for the benefit of someone else, we consider this good. It’s like there is an external standard that we all agree on by which we judge the actions of the characters.

But as a culture, we are very uncomfortable with this notion of an external principle, because it must be grounded in something or someone–we’ve been on a trajectory for about 500 years where we slough off any form of external authority–Pope, King, God. We seem to be well on the way to negating the authority of our biology to set any limits on our freedom. We are on a quest for complete individual autonomy.

Yet here we all sit watching Dunkirk, judging this person to be good and this action to be bad. It wasn’t just the papists, or the royalists, or the theists who were judging–everyone was. By what or who’s authority? If we were truly free to create our own morality, wouldn’t we accept someone saying that they thought character A was bad (you know of who I’m talking about)?

Here’s my question: Let’s say we find this current generation in some sort of Dunkirkean crisis–would we see the same proportion of people stepping up–behaving admirably–as in the events faced by “The Greatest Generation.” Or would our passion for individual autonomy translate into the whole lot of us trying to save our individual skin, dooming us to collective, and probably individual, destruction.

The good news is we still seem to know what a hero looks like, but will we be able to be one when the time comes.

[tweetshare tweet=”The good news is we still seem to know what a hero looks like, but will we be able to be one when the time comes.” username=”Dryb0nz”]I don’t really know.

Not unrelated is my post on Wonder Woman.

The Gospel According to Wonder Woman

I like nearly all of the superhero movies that have inundated the summer cinema for the last decade, but Wonder Woman might be my favourite. For one thing, it is set in Europe during the First World War.  I’ve been interested in The Great War since a veteran came to my grade 7 classroom and talked about his experiences in the trenches. My interest continues; since 2014, I’ve read at least 15 books on the First World War–it’s been my way of engaging the centennial.

I also like good writing. When I watch a movie, I don’t focus on the writing and decide if it is good or not. It’s good if I don’t wince or snort during dialogue. I winced once in this movie; more on this later.

The big story is also part of writing and I love this big story because of how it presents the Gospel to a modern audience.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m obviously not much of a comic book fan, because I didn’t know that Wonder Woman is Diana, the daughter of Zeus.

Importantly, in the world of the movie, all the gods (except Diana and her brother, Ares) are dead. By the end of the story, we are down to one diety.  This offers a parallel to the Modern world where all gods are dead; the death of the last one, the Christian God, was declared by Nietzsche’s madman in The Gay Science (1882). This was thought to be a good thing for now we were free.  On a popular level, there was quite a bit of optimism in the late 19th century–we didn’t need God. Human ingenuity seemed limitless; science and technology, the offspring of our new god-incognito, Human Reason, would lead us to a better world.  This optimism was also based on human perfectibility–the idea that human beings are basically good and getting better. This march toward a better world and human perfectibility fit nicely with a popular misinterpretation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; rather than simply adapt, organisms improve. Although many thinkers and artists questioned 19th century optimism, society in general looked forward to the new century with positive anticipation. Then came WWI.

Faith in human goodness continues despite a calamitous 20th century. I recently had a conversation with a friend about basic human nature. He said he believed that people are basically good. Our problems come from the small minority who are bad. The solution? These need to be rounded up and put into prison.   A lot of my other friends identify social conditions (poverty, education, racism, etc.) as the source of our problems, but their faith in human goodness is unfaltering.  They believe that everyone’s natural goodness will shine through with the elimination of poverty, racism and equal access to education.  The battle continues in our culture–more prisons or more social programs, but neither of these solutions will work, because both have a naïve understanding of the problem. The problem is not a few “bad apples” nor is it poverty or racism. It’s us!

[tweetshare tweet=”Neither liberal nor conservative solutions will work, because both have a naïve understanding of the problem.” username=”Dryb0nz”]When Diana leaves the Edenic paradise for Europe she is naïve. She thinks that the problem is an evil Ares–the black sheep of the Greek pantheon.  Ares is wiser; he understands the problem, and it’s not him, and it’s not war. Human beings are what’s wrong with the world.  They aren’t made to be evil, by some external force, they choose it.  Evil lives within their hearts–all of them are corrupt. Steve Trevor says, “Maybe we are all to blame.” We are: Paul says in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” For Ares, doesn’t represent Evil, he represents Justice.  It is just that human beings are destroyed; we deserve destruction.

What we deserve is a central theme in the film. At one point our group of heroes offer up the familiar Irish drinking toast: “May we get what we want…and may we get what we need. But may we never get what we deserve.” As a human race, we don’t deserve Wonder Woman; we deserve destruction. This idea is everywhere in the film, and it’s central to the Gospel. Diana sets out to be the saviour of humanity, and both her mother, Hippolyta, and Ares tell her that humanity doesn’t deserve her. Her initial motivation to save us is her naïve assumption that we are good and deserved to be saved. Diana experiences a major crisis when der declared purpose to save humanity from evil, comes into conflict with her realization that Ares is right, the human race deserves destruction.

[tweetshare tweet=”As a human race, we don’t deserve Wonder Woman; we deserve destruction. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]In the movie, this crisis is ultimately resolved in our favour. Thankfully, in the real world this crisis is also resolved in our favour–this is the Good News, or The Gospel.

Like Jesus Christ in the real world, Steve Trevor is our advocate in the world of the movie. He says, “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s what you believe.” I winced at this line, initially considering it hokey, but there’s more to it than I first thought. I missed the pronouns they and you. He says that the motivation of the saviour comes not from the attributes of those who need saving, but from the one who saves. This echoes Paul’s words in Roman’s 5:6-8 where he says,

6 . . .  when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Steve Trevor exemplifies for Diana the characteristic that is necessary for saviours when he gets into the big bad airplane with all that deadly gas. He willingly dies in order to save all the residents of the city of London from Doctor Poison’s gas attack.

The lesson is not lost on Dianna. Trevor’s death is resolves her crisis, and in that resolution we get our cinematic saviour. She summarizes her journey from naïve warrior to wise saviour:

I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. I’ve touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they’ll go to for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world.

To an audience that has been exposed to the Hollywood gospel for their entire life, this line comes as no surprise–true love is always the source of salvation. This is not just the case for romantic comedies, it’s true of almost every film of almost any genre. But this is not what is happening in this story.

She’s not talking about Romantic love, but love of another kind–the love that is manifest in self-sacrifice.

[tweetshare tweet=”Sacrificial love will save the world, especially if it’s the primary quality of the God who made us.” username=”Dryb0nz”]Over and over in the Bible we find that God will save us, because he wants to save us. Not because we deserve it, but because it is his will to do it. Search up “Bible verses, condemnation” and you will find a long list of verses about how we deserve destruction, but the idea of condemnation rarely stands alone. It is almost always accompanied by God’s desire to save us.
Romans 5:8 puts it succinctly:

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

This is what Wonder Woman comes to understand as she resolved to continue as a saviour for mankind.

One final element of the Gospel is present in the movie–the role of ordinary people in the story of redemption–just before Steve Trevor gets onto the airplane where he will die, he tells Diana, “I can save today. You can save the world.” We cannot save ourselves, and we cant save the world, but we can, in small ways, imitate our saviours as we show self-sacrificial love to others, whether they deserve it or not. It’s not going to save the world, that’s already been taken care of, but it could save today.

Not unrelated is my post on the Warsaw Ghetto.

I Still Love Audible Books

I have kept up with my “reading” on Audible Books for another year. Still climbing my local mountain. There is some concern that I won’t hear the bears, but so far I have seen them a long way off so my sense of hearing has not, so far, been necessary.

This year I listened to some books I have read before (some of them multiple times). These include

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl,

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe by Douglas Adams,

Shogun by James Clavell,

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens,

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and

Dracula by Bram Stoker.

I loved these books when I read them, and got even greater pleasure from them this time around with Audible.

A lot of my enjoyment of Audible Books is the performances–Especially good performances were :

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, was performed by Anthony Bourdain himself.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre was read by John Lee

Excellent Woman by Barbara Pym was read by Jayne Entwistle

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was performed by Joe Morton

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens was read by Simon Prebble

The books I would most strongly recommend are:

William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, II: 1932-1940. I own all three volumes in book form and read and loved reading volume 1. Volume 2 on Audible was very, very good. Volune3 was fine.  The issue here is Manchester passed away before he could write volume 3. Using Manchester’s material, Paul Reid wrote volume 3.  He’s good, but his prose isn’t as engaging as that of Manchester.

Ready Player One by Earnest Clone is pure entertainment. Great story and you will especially love it if you grew up playing video games in the late 70s early 80s. Apparently this book is being made into a movie and I can’t wait to see it.

The list below rounds out the books I listened to since my last post about Audible Books I have “read.”  I enjoyed all of them.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

The Innocent: A Novel by David Baldacci

The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, III: 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reframe: From the God We’ve Made to God With Us by Brian Hardin

Battle by John Toland

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser

The Sea Wolves by Lars Brownworth

If you regularly drive or walk for any significant amount of time, you must consider an Audible Books account.  I love it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 — The Tale of Two Daddys

 

SPOILER ALERT

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter Quill finds his father.  He actually finds two.

These fathers embody contrary philosophies.[tweetshare tweet=”In The Guardians Vol. 2 two fathers embody contrary philosophies, that of heaven and of hell. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]

The philosophy of heaven and the philosophy of hell.

Ego, played by Kurt Russell is the representative of the philosophy of hell.  This perspective is described by senior tempter Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

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.”

This is also the vampiric approach–to take from the other (to their detriment) for the benefit of the self.  It is selfishness to the extreme.

The philosophy of heaven is, I suppose, the reverse.  It is extreme selflessness.  To give up ones life for the other.

In John 15, Jesus commands his followers to

love one another as I loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus follows this up by doing it, for us, on the cross.

Yondu Udonta is not Peter’s biological father, but by the end of the movie, Peter realizes that he is his “Daddy.” He embodies the philosophy of heaven.  He gives up his life so that Peter could live.

 

Why read 1984?

1984 may be the most important novel for our time.

I feel vindicated.

I have been asked countless times, “Do you still teach that?  I read it when I was in school.”  This past week George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, topped Amazon’s bestseller list.  There is so much that recommends it.  One of the reasons everyone should read Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it is a relevant warning.  It is so masterfully articulated that the terms Orwellian, Big Brother and double-think evoke and almost visceral response in those who’ve read it.  Consequently, these terms are powerful weapons against the abuse of power.

This week, Kellyanne Conway was accused of double-think when she used the phrase “alternative facts” in defence of President Trump’s press secretary’s assertion that 500 000 is greater than 1.8 million.

[tweetshare tweet=”We have entered an age where doublethink is possible #Orwell #1984 #alternativefacts” username=”Dryb0nz”]One of the reasons I am so committed to teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four every year, is to explore with students the necessary conditions that make double-think possible.  These conditions are, apparently, present in our “post truth” culture right now–as is evidenced by the phrase, “alternative fact.”

What are these conditions?

[Spoiler Alert]

One of the main ones is articulated by O’Brian in Part 3 of the novel.  O’Brian’s task is to “cure” Winston from his mistaken view of reality.  Winston’s error?  A belief in objective reality.  In a very early session, Winston objects to O’Brian’s assertion that “we, The Party, control . . . all memories.”  Winston challenges, “It is outside oneself.  How can you control memory?”  Winston is appealing to the existence of an external reality.  O’Brian counters,

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external.  Reality exists in the human mind and no where else.  Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes . . . only in the mind of the Party.  . . .  Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is the truth.”

(Sound familiar?)

Winston has a hard time understanding this; he argues that the Party doesn’t control the climate or gravity.  O’Brian’s response:

We control matter, because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull. . . .  There is nothing we could not do.  Invisibility, levitation–anything.  I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to.  . . .   You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature.  We make the laws of Nature.

O’Brian is simply saying that reality or truth is defined by human minds, it is not a thing in itself.   Consequently, if one controls human minds, then one controls reality.

[tweetshare tweet=”If truth and reality are defined by human minds, then one need only control human minds to determine truth and control reality. #1984 #Orwell” username=”Dryb0nz”]For this conclusion to be true, O’Brian’s first premise must be true.  Is reality defined by human minds or is Winston right, does reality or truth exist outside the skull?

Human beings have always believed that reality or truth exist outside the human–the Ancient Greeks called it the kosmos, Taoists and Buddhists think of it as a transcendent truth, the Jews and Muslims understand it to be in a transcendent God, Christians find it in the person of Jesus Christ  (this is another majority view held by all religions).

Recently, within the last 150 years or so, something changed in our culture–in the West.  We broke with the rest of humanity and began to consider the possibility that the universe might be made up of just material.  This meant that there is no God or gods or transcendent truth.  Objective reality had not place to live but in matter.

All this has lead to a different way of talking about truth.  Truth and fact used to mean different things.  You used to be able to call all sorts of things true, not just things like,

  • water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom
  • the Battle of Hastings was in 1066
  • 2+2=4

but sentiments could also fall under the heading of “truth”:

  • the waterfall is sublime
  • the Parthenon is beautiful
  • courage is better than cowardice

In a world of only matter, truth is reduced to fact.  The rest of what used to be truth has to find a different place to live–it did.  It took up residence in individual human minds.  The truths in the second list are now “just” opinions–or are said to be merely subjective.

We’ve been going along quite happily so far with our separation of fact and opinion, but it couldn’t last.  As Orwell warned, without an external objective reality, rational facts will eventually go the way of rational sentiments.  If the truth is in the mind, then the, so called, facts have no more chance than did true sentiments.  This is how O’Brian can state with confidence that 2+2=5 if Big Brother says it does.

This is what happened this past week on Meet The Press.  It was officially declared by a representative of the President of the United States of America that 500 000 was greater than 1.8 million.

When we separated the mind from the world outside the mind, the first casualty was the loss of true sentiments, but it was only a matter of time till the facts themselves fell victim to the denial of objective reality.

The only way to get back to reality is to recover the pre-modern idea of objective truth. Objective truth, not only links reason to reality, but grounds sentiment as well. This is expressed in The Abolition of Man, where C. S. Lewis argues that emotions are not “in themselves contrary to reason” (19).   Some sentiments are reasonable or unreasonable only as they conform, or fail to conform, to something else–to some external standard.  He said that “a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can only lead to ruin” for it “has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship” (“Poison” 80-81).

It is appropriate to be alarmed by the “double-speak” coming from the White House this past week, but we oughtn’t be surprised–Orwell warned us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that this was coming.  It has apparently arrived.

Abraham, Issac and The Walking Dead Season Premiere

lucilleOf course I watched the season 7 premier of The Walking Dead to find out whose head got smashed with Lucille, in last season’s finale.  I expected Abraham because he’s too much of a soldier; Rick and company need to be vulnerable in the face of Negan.  I was also prepared for Glen because he gets it in the comic books.  However, I was not ready to lose both.  It was intense emotionally, and gory visually.  My twitter feed was full of indignant fans who said, “This time they went too far!”

Maybe they did, but that’s not what I was thinking about as the credits ran.

I was thinking about the event that actually broke Rick, the event that broke the viewing audience.  It’s the central event of the episode that will “change everything”–I was thinking about the near-amputation of Carl’s arm by his own father, called off by Negan at the last second.

This is an obvious allusion to Genesis 22 where God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and . . .  sacrifice him . . . as a burnt offering.”  Abraham obediently took Isaac to the place designated for the sacrifice. Isaac, ignorant of the plan,  asked his father where the lamb was for the sacrifice.  Abraham was evasive and answered that the Lord would provide the lamb. Once they arrived at the site, Abraham bound Isaac with ropes and put him on the stone altar.

Negan makes the same demand on Rick–“Sacrifice your son!” or at least, permanently maim him.  We are clearly expected to interpret this scene in, in the light of Genesis 22, so here’s some background.

In Hebrew  culture, the first born belongs to God; Yaweh (the Hebrew name for God) has a claim on the first born as representative of the family (Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8) — the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

A foundational premise in The Walking Dead, the ancient Hebrews also understood that people were generally guilty of evil, either overtly or in their heart–usually both.  The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family and belonged to God as payment for this moral debt.  God’s demand of the sacrifice of Isaac was simply a calling in of the debt.  That’s how Abraham took it anyway.

So Negan is in the position of God, Rick in that of Abraham and Carl, Isaac.  It might be said that Rick and his “family” of survivors, owes Negan.  In season 6, Rick and a number of Alexandrians carried out a pre-emptive attack on Negan’s people, the Saviors.  The reason for the attack is that the Saviors were extorting supplies from the peaceful Hilltop community and Rick expects them to eventually do the same to his Alexandria community, so he proposes the attack.  Morgan, assuming the role of moral conscience, opposes the idea.

As evil as the Saviors are, we ought to have been a little disturbed by the nocturnal attack.  Rick walks into a room and finds a guy sleeping, and he silently presses a knife into his head. The guy never wakes up. This silent execution is repeated by Glenn and Heath.  They admit to each other that they have never killed a living human being. Heath can’t do it, so Glenn murders both in their sleep.  The entire Savior outpost is whipped out in two episodes.  And we see our heroes do some very questionable things.  They aren’t comfortable with them.  Carol even leaves the community because she can no longer handle the guilt of these events.

Negan has been wronged and, like the Hebrew God, is simply calling in the debt.  In the ancient, eye-for-an-eye legal code, he has a right to an arm and a life–this is his declared purpose for killing one of Rick’s people–which turns out to be two.  Both Glen and Abraham were a part of this clandestine first strike on the Saviors.

Although the Abraham of the Bible would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due, but Abraham’s blow never falls on his son.  Before he can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”

The demand for Carl’s arm, and the sudden and unexpected revocation of that demand solidly correlates Negan to Yaweh.  So what is the point of this allusion?

Is it meant to draw a comparison between the harsh demands of the God of the Old Testament?  If this is the case, the writers missed some pretty important elements of the story.  Immediately after the biblical Abraham is commanded to stop the sacrifice,

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

In Genesis 22, God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a substitute for Abraham’s family.  Christians draw a parallel between the ram and Christ who dies on the Roman cross as a replacement for sinners.  It’s a story where Grace is at the centre. The God of the Bible transfers the punishment for humanity’s moral failings upon himself.  It seems to me, in order to understand this pivotal scene in TWD, we need to look for the substitute, after all, Carl doesn’t lose his arm.   What is sacrificed in it’s place?  Rick’s strength or defiance is destroyed.  Negan can see it in his eyes; Rick is broken.

Negan’s method to achieve Rick’s submission to his will is coercion. Negan threatens to destroy Rick’s whole “family” if he doesn’t comply.  God, as represented in both the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, does not use force.  Although many elements of The Walking Dead’s season premiere and the story in Genesis 22, and the Gospels is similar, this difference is absolutely key.

To illustrate:  Imagine Negan making that whole season 6 finale speech that somebody must die.  And he does the “eeny meeny miny moe” thing, and then stops and says,

You are guilty and all deserve death for what you did to my people and what you’ve done to others since the dead began to walk.  Rick, don’t you know that human beings were made to do wonderful things in the world.  Yeah I know, the zombies complicate things, but they are no excuse.  You got distracted from that purpose, Rick.  And then you killed people.  And I am pissed about that Rick, and someone is going to die because of all the bad stuff you’ve done.

And then he nods and they bring a ram into the circle and smashes its head with Lucille, and they all sit down to a dinner of roast lamb.

A New Testament version would end with:

Remember Rick.  You and your people, all people actually, you were made to thrive, not just to survive.  I want you to get back on track Rick, start thriving.–because I love you Rick.

But that’s another episode.

The allusion breaks down because Negan isn’t comparable to God regarding righteousness.  Negan is far from righteous.  Rick has paid for his sins against Negan with the deaths of Abraham and Glen, but, to use biblical language, Negan is still piling condemnation upon himself.

I don’ think the writers of the show are trying to make some statement on the Old Testament God.  I think they are making a statement on guilt–Rick’s guilt, and that of his band of survivors.  In the world of The Walking Dead, our group of would be survivors might just be a new chosen people, who are called to return to humanity’s purpose.  To thrive in the world despite the zombies.  I am hoping that the allusion to the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac plays out with a form of redemption for Rick and the rest of the “family” as they seek their lost humanity.

I Love Audio Books

Audible-Audiobooks-883_l_96e7ae5d2c81e2af

This past year I’ve been listening to audio books. I like listening to audio when I climb up my local mountain. I looked into Audible Books, but at $14.95USD it was too expensive. They did offer a free book if you gave them a try. Being a cheap Dutchman, I went for the grandfather of all books–War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. That’s 61 hours and 8 minutes of listening for nothing. Audible Books just got pwned! The problem is, I loved this book, seriously–I thought this book was infamous only because it was the longest book. It’s long, but it’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read (listened to). I loved listening to a great reader read it to me. It was very immersive; I hardly felt that I was climbing.

This was such a delight that I thought I would keep my membership for just a few months. Just to knock off some other biggies. Books that I had started, but for one reason or other had not been able to finish: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.

Just one more. I had seen the trailer for the movie, so I decided I’d listen to the book The Martian by Andy Weir before the movie came out.

I had always meant to read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, but I’d need more than a summer to read it, so I never picked it up. Wow, what a book, and a great performance by John Lee. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is in the top ten of almost every list of must read books, so I checked that one off.

I did some listening directly related to my work: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor and two collections of her short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge. Also, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.

I have already read Tolkien’s trilogy four times, and the Hobbit at least a dozen times, but the last time was a while back, so I listened to them.

Then I listened to some religious books: The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns, The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan and Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Most recently I finished Watership Down by Richard Adams, and I am just finishing Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

I purchased a bunch of books on a few very good sales, so i am set for a while. I look forward to another year of listening and hiking.

If you are interested in my recommendations for listening or reading, here is my list in order of awesomeness. I’ve separated Tolkien out because with Tolkien I have no objectivity.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien

So here’s my list in order:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Martian by Andy Weir

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

Microwave Chicken Teriyaki Jesus

I really liked Bryan F. Hurlbutt’s book Tasty Jesus. In it he asserts that Western Christianity holds to various cameos of Christ that aren’t accurate. This is because we tend to reconfigure Jesus to suit our personal preferences. In order to make complex cultural and philosophical ideas accessible, Hurlbutt uses food analogies to illustrate the shortcomings of five most significant “christological malformations” in the Western church. His analysis of these is thorough and nuanced.  But I’m wondering if, perhaps, there is not a configuration that might be added to his list, and a food analogy that would challenge the view of Christ held by many of the readers of this book: Modern evangelicals.

Hurlbutt’s 5 Predilections

First, here are Hurlbutt’s five predilections that wield a lot of power in the Christian West:

  1. Theological liberalism has largely naturalistic roots and, consequently, has stripped Jesus of his deity. This is the “creampuff Jesus,” tasty, but of no nutritional value at all.
  2. Fundamentalism is a response to theological liberalism. It tosses out the creampuff, but keeps crossing things off the menu–out with the potatoes, pasta and bread. This no-carb approach eliminates important parts of a balanced diet.  Ultimately, this approach is  spiritually toxic.
  3. More recently, postmodern ideas have influenced ideas of Christ–the core of this stance is relativism. Like a meal at a smorgasbord, this version of Christ can appeal to many diners because it makes no absolute claims. Have some pork chops, top them with ice cream and vegetable soup–whatever.
  4. Gourmet Jesus is the Christ of those who believe in the prosperity gospel–God wants you to be rich. The Biblical promises of spiritual or eternal flourishing are understood to mean material prosperity–God’s wants you to eat lobster thermidor. He clearly says so in the Bible, if you take a few verses out of context.
  5. Pop-culture Jesus–this is a “shallow and spurious” Jesus. Gastronomically, this is the homogenized Jesus, heated to the point where anything dangerous or confusing has been eradicated.  It’s the opposite of the delicious unpasteurized cheese you can buy in Europe.

These are Hurlbutt’s five. There might be a sixth cameo of Christ that is significant enough to be added to this list. It is the view toward which many of the readers of this book might lean.

My Sixth Cameo of Christ

I called this group Modern Evangelicals.  That’s Modern, with a capital ‘M’–it’s the church that is highly influenced by Modernism.

These terms are so overused that their meaning has become unclear, so let me explain who I’m talking about.

They aren’t like the traditional mainline churches for they have left behind traditional liturgies and no longer hold strictly to their traditional theologies.

They are, like Hurlbutt, critical of the Emergent church because it adopts post-Modern idolatries.

But they are conservative, meaning they resist change.  But in their resistance to post-Modern idolatries, they hold on to Modern idols.

4 ways which Evangelicals Worshiping Modern Idols:

  1. Rationalism: They take a rational approach to reading the Bible.  They tend to talk about the Bible in terms of inerrancy rather than inspiration.  They have a tendency to think of truth in the narrow sense, of fact, rather than in broader terms.
  2. Materialism:  They think of Communion as a meal of literal bread and juice through which we remember the sacrifice of Christ.  There is no supernatural encounter through the physical materials.  There is no mystery.  Jesus does not interact with his people through communion.
  3. Individualism: There is a strong emphasis in the role of the individual.  It is the individual who decides to follow Jesus.  This decision is celebrated in believer baptism.  This emphasis places the role of the community and that of God in the background.
  4. Secularism: They do not deny the transcendent, of course, but they tend to see a radical separation between the transcendent and the immanent.  For example, they will emphasize the the divine authorship of the Bible at the expense of the  human authorship.

They will be quite happy with Hurlbutt’s five cameos because they are not particularly guilty of any of these. Just as it’s easy for Canadians to see peculiarities in the American view of the world (and vice versa), to which they are themselves blind, so too Modern evangelicals can easily see problems in the Liberal or Fundamentalists stance, but fail to see the plank in their own eye.

What is the gastronomic analogy that might get at some of the limitations of the Modern evangelical take on Jesus?

A microwave Teriyaki Chicken dinner.

It is an individual serving, efficiently prepared with the modern convenience of a microwave. It’s slightly exotic–it’s teriyaki, after all–but it’s largely Westernized. The ingredients are theoretically tasty and nutritious, but the effects of mass production and microwaving have removed most of their structure, taste and probably nutrients. It’s convenient, only requiring a few minutes to prepare and eat–ideal for busy people on the run. Even if you ate it every day, you could do worse–it’s probably healthier than any of the other five diets.

Now, I know plenty of evangelicals that do not have the microwave teriyaki chicken image of Christ. For these, the analogy would be more like a healthy, well-balanced dinner–an herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus and a  small, sweet dainty for dessert. But I think even this more robust and balanced picture, as compared to the microwave meal, reveals the limitations of the evangelical Christ.

The best gastric analogy for the Real Jesus

I think it would be a family meal, something Middle Eastern. My daughter told me about the meals she ate in Israel. These were family meals. They ate fresh pita and hummus, tzatziki, olives of course, lentils, roasted vegetables, lamb on skewers, lamb in grape leaves. Importantly, this is a balanced meal. But the contents, especially the spices–cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, thyme–were strange to her western palate. She had to humbly look to her hosts, even the children, for some indication of how to eat it and what to put with what. She was not confident,  uncertain. She was repeatedly surprised–sometimes delightfully, at other times, unpleasantly by the flavour combinations. This meal was full of grace and love–the family that prepared it, pulled out all the stops because there were guests at the table. My daughter felt so blessed that such a sacrifice would be made for her.

No analogy can ever begin to capture the true Jesus, but I do think that even evangelicals need to think, not only about other, clearly problematic predilections, but also their own reconfigurations of Christ.

Time and Despair

Bru-nO / Pixabay

We modern folks have a very modern view of time.

Having emptied time of transcendence, we think of it as mere chronology or sequence. Still, this sequence can be viewed optimistically; in our culture we tend to find meaning in time in terms of human progress. But there is a darker view of time in the absence of higher things. If God doesn’t exist, are Goodness, Truth, Beauty possible? Some say no, and despair.

Despair in A Fine Balance

This is the case of Maneck in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Time and its relationship to meaning is woven through the novel, most often through the words and musings of this young man.

For instance, there is the idea that life is essentially tragic because it is embedded in sequential time:

Our lives are but a sequence of accidents–a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call LIFE.

Why does Maneck see life as tragic and time as meaningless?

It’s because for him there is no God who is active in his creation.  He has this conversation with landlady, Dina:

‘God is dead,’ said Maneck. ‘That’s what a German philosopher wrote.’

She was shocked. ‘Trust the Germans to say such things,’ she frowned. ‘And do you believe it?’

‘I used to. But now I prefer to think that God is a giant quilt maker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.’

In the novel, we find reflections on the nature of time as we experience it–no minute is like another minute. Where I find this an an argument for meaning, Maneck ends up using the same phenomenon as evidence against meaning:

What an unreliable thing is time–when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl’s hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair. …. But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly.

On his return home after the spreading of his father’s ashes, Maneck sits on the porch and begins

escorting a hose of memories through his troubled mind.” His mother’s interruption of his thoughts irritated him “as though he could have recaptured, reconstructed, redeemed those happy times if only he had been given long enough.” While he sits in the deepening dusk he spies a lizard. “He hated its shape, its colour, its ugly snout. The manner in which it flicked its evil tongue. Its ruthless way of swallowing flies. The way time swallowed human efforts and joy. Time, the ultimate grandmaster that could never be checkmated. There was no way out of its distended belly. He wanted to destroy the loathsome creature.

In a world where God does not exist, or has gone far away, if we are to find meaning in time we must first find it someplace else.  Some will find all attempts to find meaning under these conditions impossible. They, like Maneck, may despair.

Why I am not a Conservative

jarmoluk / Pixabay

I am not a conservative because of three books.

I’m not liberal either, but that’s another post and another set of books.

The Three Books that Make it Impossible to be Conservative

I am not a Conservative because of three books.

The first book is the Bible.

I believe that the Bible is the world of God.  When I read the Bible, Old and New Testaments, I see a pretty clear and consistent message that He wants all people, but especially his chosen ones, to think more about how they can bless other people rather than to grab for money and power so as to gratify their own needs.  There are regular injunctions to take care of the poor and, for those in power, to make sure there is justice for the poor.  It is also apparent from the Holy Scriptures that God is an environmentalist and that He wishes, in some respects, Americans were more like the French.  The Conservative seems to be against these things.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This book changed my life.  It’s about people who are poor.  They are poor to begin with, but things get a lot worse when the big banks and big business turn them off the land, leaving them with no means to feed themselves or their families.  Beginning with the used-car salesmen who sell them junk vehicles, their journey from Oklahoma to California is filled with people abusing them, ignoring their desperation or taking advantage of their plight.

It’s been a long time since I read it so I might have the details wrong, but in one rare act of kindness the family on whose journey the narrative is focused received a bit of beef fat.  The mother mixed the rendered fat with flour and made some dumplings.  In the context of their desperate condition, this meager meal was a feast.

Ever since, I have never looked at discarded fat, bone and gristle the same way.  Importantly, these people were not in this condition because they were lazy, they were in this condition because of vast forces like government policies, climate, geography, economics, and (not insignificantly) human greed and corruption.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

If I hadn’t read The Grapes of Wrath, this novel would have saved me from conservatism (it also saved me from becoming a liberal). The setting of A Fine Balance is India, and it too explores the life of the poor which is not really all that different than that of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel.  It’s frustrating at times to experience vicariously what it is like to live between hope and despair–with despair usually in the ascendant.  Here again, the Conservatyve myth that the poor are poor because they are lazy is shown as the lie that it is.

People are usually poor, for the same reason people are rich–not because they did or didn’t work hard, not because they made good decisions or not, not because they had initiative or not.  People are rich or poor because of government policies, climate, geography, economics, and human greed.  The only difference between the rich and the poor is into which circumstance one was born.

I found myself responding to these novels in two ways–compassion and gratitude.  Conservatives aren’t very compassionate and that’s because they aren’t very grateful.

A Function of Art

These two novels are great works of literature.  One of the functions of literature is to broaden and deepen our understanding–I am a Canadian in 2016–I don’t know what it’s like to be poor; I didn’t live in the 1930s, or in India.  I get enough of a glimpse of what it might be like through these novels–and they changed me.  They move me toward an understanding of others and their lives and, consequently, bring me closer to dialogue.

I don’t think conservatives read these books.

Please read these books.

 

 

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