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Tuesday, August 30th, 2005
I wanted to write a short piece commending JamesBowman.net for its movie reviews. I originally found the site when I was Googling the term "honor culture." I had read someone talking about certain of the Old Testament cultures, as well as the culture of the series "The Sopranos" referred to as honor cultures. I was looking for a good description, and found one by James Bowman. Honor is one of Bowman's specialized interests. What I would like to describe here are his movie reviews, which shared some distinct features.
First, Bowman notes where movies fit in the culture war. He is especially sensitive to how Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, are portrayed in films. Where this shows up particularly is where we are taken to the past for the purpose, not of helping us to learn about the past for its sake, but so that we can learn how superior we have become. An example would be Steven Spielberg in Amistad, where he preaches a self-righteousness "which requires of us no more than that we should resist the temptation to gas any Jews or flog any slaves—or throw them overboard from our ships...But what better kind of righteousness than that which makes us feel so comfortable with the people we have become?" Sometimes it is worse. In Chocolat, Lasse Hallström chooses to question the values of a small Catholic town in France "almost the last moment at which the traditional French Catholic culture could plausibly be represented as having had any social force at all, even in an out-of-the-way rural village." Why, asks Bowman, "does Hallström feel that he has to re-fight this battle which was won so long ago and so decisively by his own side? Are there so many people living lives of hard work, modesty and self-discipline—to say nothing of tranquility—that we must be warned against them and the dangers they pose to our precious pleasures?" Good question.
Second, Bowman laments the lost opportunities to bring an audience to a deeper understanding of or appreciation for reality. It is the reality question which I find so helpful in his reviews. I find myself enjoying many movies in what is probably a despairing way. I know they are not realistic, but I have long given up the hope that many movies will be. This tends to lower my critical faculties a bit, since to be in constant criticism mode would make most movies painful from start to finish. Yet once allowed to sleep, those faculties tend to lie dormant during movies which make some real attempt at realism. Bowman does the tough job of keeping those faculties awake, movie after movie. Small details, like the anachronistic dialog ("Not a problem.") or anachronistic pizza (an exotic delicacy before the 1960's) in A Beautiful Mind are noted. I have the religious and philosophical background to catch 21st century philosophy being placed into the mouths of those of earlier centuries. But catching anachronistic dialog across a greater number of decades takes an older writer. Even expressions that have grown familiar in my own lifetime won't jar me as they might had I been older when they originated. I am thankful that Bowman notices these things.
Some opportunities are missed because what ought to be conveyed is too challenging. As Bowman says of Gibson's The Patriot, "The real enemy here is not so much the British as it is history itself—all that talk about natural law and inalienable rights is so hard to understand that we must drown it out by importing atrocities from the 20th century to explain the spectacle of America's past." Gibson lost the opportunity to look at the real reasons for the Revolution, and so instead had to invent reasons modern people could understand.
Other opportunities are missed for no good reason whatever. Of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Bowman says: "And what opportunities of that kind have been lost here! Gibbon tells us of Commodus that 'his hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of every rank, and of every province; and, wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence. The ancient historians have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty; but it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of modern language.' Just let Hollywood try, Ed! But no, Mr. Scott's Commodus is a troubled case study, a boy who feels that his father never loved him (the historical Marcus loved him only too well) and whose only sensual passion seems to be for his sister." Here, historic truth would allow Hollywood to show unbridled sensuality, but instead a character is shown to have gone bad because he was misunderstood.
This sense of lost opportunity is even expressed in movies which were otherwise promising. Of Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, Bowman says, that while it gave a little lift to his heart to hear his wife say "to Braddock before the big fight: 'Just remember who you are: the Bulldog of Bergen, the Pride of Jersey, your kids’ hero and the champion of my heart'", he was also "disappointed that the film didn’t do more justice to a heroism it leaves unexplained and unaccounted for." Specifically, "a really skilful filmmaker might have portrayed this social milieu, this working-class culture of stoicism and self-reliance, as being almost as interesting as Braddock the celebrity with the Cinderella backstory." Now, some stoicism and self-reliance did come across in the movie, but Bowman's point seems to be that Braddock was portrayed as exemplary on this point where many of his neighbors could actually have been expected to be better. It is that better world that was not portrayed as it may have been.
Bowman gives two stars to great movies, one stars to watchable movies, and no stars to most movies. There is no grade inflation here. He represents a world that came before that kind of distortion.
1:35 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
Saturday, August 27th, 2005
The London Zoo has created a new exhibit where three male and five female Homo sapiens are on display to make the point that humans are just primates. Of course, as we all know, humans wear bikinis and thongs with leaves sewn on them in their natural environment. If our natural environment is a tropical beach, then I think the zoo forgot to ship in the sand. They could have at least built a pool with a bar. Were the specimens walking around sipping Mai Tais and mojitos, the spectators may have been jealous.
The humans have to be instructed as to what their "natural" behavior is. If they acted as they wished, they would no doubt act socialized rather than "natural". Did it ever occur to the keepers that if the humans acted naturally, they would try to escape? What keeps these humans in their cages is likely the prospect of money, and certainly the prospect of attention. Instinctual motivations to be sure. These humans are just like all the other primates who vie for spots on reality TV. (Oh, wait! Many of those people may be mere primates.)
If someone wishes to call humans primates, that doesn't bother me. To insist that they are only primates is another thing. What does "only" entail? And why do zoos have to strip off distinctively human behavior to make their point? If their point were so obvious, would it require an exhibit to prove it? After all, we're around such mere primates all day. But apparently it is not obvious that humans are just animals when they discuss business at Starbucks or chauffeur their kids around in a minivan. But there is another thing to notice here. If the behavior we do not share with other primates is really to be written off, then that means that the zookeepers' research ought to be trashed. It doesn't make a real difference after all. It doesn't set them apart from a baboon, let alone another colleague.
I think that what is missed is that a classification scheme has a purpose. When we classify humans as primates, we do so because we have found interesting characteristics that humans share with primates. Perhaps useful ones. But classification schemes don't tell you the importance of the differences. It's even a bit of an insult to a member of any other primate species to say, "It's just another primate." I wouldn't say that of a silverback gorilla, let alone a human.
Putting humans on display in a zoo strikes me as a kind of ingenious idea. But I would rather they had left their point more open-ended. Let the viewer draw his or her own conclusion. Even if the conclusion is, "What are those people doing in there?"
9:51 am Pacific Standard Time
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Wednesday, August 24th, 2005
I found the following link at the dissonant bible site:
The site has a preview sample of their graphic novel version of the Book of Esther. What they have done is impressive.
The other material on the site is worthwhile, too. There is a discussion of midrash, a bibliography, and a lot of other material on the subject of Esther to be gleaned.
Now, I have high praise for a site whose bibliography includes both Old Testament scholar Robert Alter and comics expert Scott McCloud. I ran into those names researching different fields. Alter's Genesis: A New Translation has an introduction which made the best case for literal translation I have ever read. McCloud's book Understanding Comics was recommended in at least two of my web design courses at the University of California at Irvine.
Check it out. The amount of Esther included is short, so you're not committing to reading the whole book of Esther when you click the link. (When you get to the site, click on "Preview" to see the graphic novel.)
9:21 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
Monday, August 22nd, 2005
I just found this quote by David Deutsch in an article that came out shortly after September 11th. Deutsch is the physicist whose theories on the nature of reality informed Michael Crichton's book Timeline. For those of you who don't read Crichton yet, an added reason to read him (and perhaps to buy his books in hardback) is his bibliographies, which are typically several pages long and include books that are more worth reading than most you will stumble upon yourselves. Deutsch is one of my favorite gleanings from these bibliographies.
People wring their hands and say that there must be "better ways of finding solutions" than warfare. Of course there are. We have already found them. The nations and people of the West use them all the time. They are openness, tolerance, reason, respect for human rights — the fundamental institutions of our civilisation. But no way of finding solutions is so effective that it can work when it isn't being used. And when a violent group defines itself by its comprehensive rejection of all the values on which problem-solving and the peaceful resolution of disputes depend, and embarks instead on a campaign of unlimited murder and destruction, it is morally wrong as well as factually inaccurate to represent this as a case of our needing "better ways of finding solutions". That is why we have to insist, by force if necessary, that everyone else in the world also respect, and enforce, the minimum standards of civilisation and human rights. Western standards.
The rest of the article can be found here:
Click here to go to the article.
Deutsch goes on to say that Bush's moral firmness in the early days after 9/11 was due to having the right position in his gut. This is something Deutsch, an unbeliever, says that most other unbelievers are lacking, and need to adopt. (Most likely he is thinking early training in right and wrong is indispensible.)
6:41 pm Pacific Standard Time
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Saturday, August 20th, 2005
A friend just forwarded me this link from the LCMS site. It lists Linda Clawson as a commissioned lay minister:
The "lay" part suggests she is not clergy. The "minister" part may suggest she is. I'm not sure that what she does in her position violates our theology. But the title is not a good one. It invites confusion. At one point, people can defend her saying, "Well, she isn't an ordained minister. So what's wrong?" At another, they can say, "What's the big deal about having women pastors? We already have them as lay ministers."
We need to be very clear on what a woman can do, and then give her a title that fully commits to that. Not a waffly title that says she is and is not something.
Note: At the time the person who sent me the forward read the listing, she was listed as "Rev. Linda Clawson". This was a typo. It had been fixed by the time I saw the site. So the larger controversy was over shortly after it began. Whatever my opinion of the terminology of lay ministry, I'm sorry that Linda Clawson had to be put through the mill by those who thought she had been sneaked onto the clergy roster.
8:09 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 2 comments ]
Monday, August 15th, 2005
I read an article by Dennis Prager recently where Prager distinguished between the concepts of morality and holiness. This article was a longer article in a series on Judeo-Christian values. The basic point was that human “holiness” was the maintenance of the distinction between man and animal, especially in behavior. There are many people who maintain morality apart from God. They have an innate sense of justice in human relationships, and to a greater or lesser extent, act in accordance with it. But without Judeo-Christian values, people usually fail to be “holy” as he defined it. That is, they would not avoid being animalistic, so long as such behavior did not harm others.
This was an interesting distinction. Especially in those cases where Prager argued that certain behaviors were moral (they did not harm others), but not holy (they were animalistic). For example, “There is nothing immoral in eating with one's face inside a bowl. It is unholy to do so, but not immoral or unethical.” That is, you will look like a dog or a pig, but it is not unethical, assuming the bowl is filled with your food and not that of someone else. Likewise, “non-marital sex between consenting adults violates the Judeo-Christian code of holiness, but not necessarily its code of morality.” Hmmm. Most conservative Christians argue that the spouse has some kind of a right to expect their partner come into the relationship “unused.” There may be a violation of the future spouse here. Yet I can still see how the concept of “holiness” supplies a missing piece to the discussion.
Another example is that of speech:
Speech is another example. In our increasingly secular world, fewer and fewer attempts are made by people to elevate their speech. That is why public cursing is now much more prevalent. In most ballparks and stadiums, one hears language shouted out that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Sanctifying speech is another religious value; it is not a secular value.
I think that he is right that sanctifying speech is a religious value. Although as stated, the argument may be open to some questions. Language by itself distinguishes us from animals. Animals do not curse or print bumper stickers. So someone might argue that there is a humanness to these actions. Yet crassness does have a conceptual relationshp to animality. Further, though, I think the public versus private distinction is valuable here. People should be able to “let their hair down” in private. This still means we should be courteous. Not curse around those who would be offended by it (so long as this means real offense). Then again, I may have adopted that distinction from Prager, too, so I cannot really count it against him!
I forwarded the Prager article to a Theology professor friend and asked his opinion. He said he doesn't focus on ethics. I said that the article wasn't about ethics per se, which is part of what made it so interesting. He looked at it again and spoke with a colleague, who said that at least linguistically, the idea of “setting apart” was in the background of the word “holiness.” Well, I knew that. I was more interested in whether or not the human/animal distinction was a key component in the Biblical idea. It is sound on the face of it. If we were the one earthly creation in the image of God, then it makes sense that descending into crass animality would be an opposite of sanctification. But on the other side, God seems to come to us in earthy ways sometimes in order to clarify that it is not a human ascent that makes it possible for us to enter God's presence.
The distinction between the sacred and the profane is a similar distinction. As someone explained it to me, “To make the distinction is not to say that the profane is bad. It is more to say that to make something sacred, you set it apart from other profane things.” This explains acting different in a church sanctuary from how you would act in your living room. And this is where things get sticky. When people miss the distinction, what usually happens is that they collapse the whole distinction into the moral versus immoral distinction. So the only question they have is whether or not an action is moral. So if it is okay in their living room, it must be okay at church. I'll call such people “profane” people.
They have other arguments on their side, too. If God had to tell his people that even the Temple, for which he had practically prepared blueprints, was not to be understood as a house that he lived in (see Acts 7:48-50), then do we not sometimes think of our own sanctuaries wrongly?
When I was younger, I remember reading something where a “profane” pastor had a zinger to unload on a supposedly superstitious old lady. The old lady complained that the young girls in the church were desecrating the sanctuary by chewing gum. The pastor replied that the “sanctuaries” were chewing the gum. His reasoning was that Scripture says our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). We are not told this of a New Testament church building.
At this point it is always difficult to know what needs to be done. Because you don't always face the same situation. Perhaps your “profane” friend has a profound theological point to make to a superstitious “sacred” church member. Or perhaps the “profane” friend has a reverse superstition going on. He must act as crassly as possible around religious things just to prove he doesn't fall into false religion.
But some distinction seems necessary. If the person won't draw the distinction at the doorway to the sanctuary, might they draw it at the beginning and ending of the service? I think of Paul's admonitions on Communion. He tells people that they are guilty of not discerning the Lord's Body (1 Cor. 11:29). The “not discerning” uses a term for judgment that has to do with making a distinction. The Corinthians are guilty of treating Communion like any other food. Better that the hungy eat at home (1 Cor 11:34) than treat the Lord's Supper as a meal that they gobble down to stifle their cravings. Notice. What is not appropriate at church may be allowable at home. Or, a way of treating some food is inappropriate as a way of treating this food.
The discussion is important. I won't pretend to know exactly where all the lines must be drawn. But I do have a conviction that some of the discussions break down because not all the parties have all the same categories available to them. We have to be a little patient here, as certain good arguments appear a lot like certain bad arguments. One person wants to do away with all distinctions and make everything profane. Another just wants to avoid a superstitious drawing of the line in the wrong place. But they may appear to be members of the same party.
I am for a very thick line being drawn where we have clear warrant to do so. Take how we handle communion. I am all for the high church party having a lot to say here. The promises given warrant our handling this matter unlike other matters. Don't leave leftovers. Clean with care. Don't treat consecrated elements as if they were unconsecrated. Further, I would like to see more reverence in a church sanctuary. But I don't put this at quite the same level.
I think it is helpful in getting people out of their workaday selves. I can see all kinds of reasons to make such a distinction. But I know that it is not directly commanded. And I also know that in such things, a one man fight is probably not helpful. If silence is a good idea before service, a pastor needs to tell the congregation what he expects. If such was never done, and many come from churches where they were not taught (or perhaps taught by a “profane” pastor!), then it just means quiet people glaring at members to no real end. These ways of setting apart the sacred should be a public duty, and there should be public agreement as to how we do these things in a given congregation.
12:22 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 3 comments ]
Friday, August 12th, 2005
There is a buzz in the media about the existence of South Park Conservatives, following the publication of Brian C. Anderson's book by the same title. In a sense, the title is brilliant. Many conservative media people have gained attention through adopting a rough-edged persona. The message seems to be, these aren't your grandparents' conservatives. And it's a good thing, too. If they were, we would have no coverage at all.
I personally don't like how media conservatives all seem to have cartoon personae. This seems to be less a tribute to the collective simple-mindedness of conservatives and more the outworking of a media law. A spectacle gets all the attention. So the Christianity that we see in the media will usually be of an outlandish variety. What other kind would garner ratings? No. It must be lavish, loud, over-the-top. Likewise with conservatives.
It's funny how the label "Southpark" comes from a cartoon. What distinguishes cartoons from other kinds of drawings is usually a thick black line so that borders can be seen. Or large areas filled with flat colors. When the drawing becomes more subtle, we call it animation. Today's conservative talking heads are like cartoon characters. There is no subtlety. The liberal media seize onto this and suggest that conservativism itself is a cartoon-like form of ideation. No. But it may be that the conservative media creates impression and then wonders why nobody wants to consider its ideas.
Whatever happened to gravitas ? Which of the Fox News commentators even approaches the gravitas of a Walter Cronkite? I'm not surprised if Fox has not had the time to develop or good fortune to discover one of those. But their choices suggest that they didn't even have it in mind to try and perhaps fail at doing so. The major networks at least attempted to keep that persona alive, whatever the quality of the results. This is not a complaint about poor quality as such. It is a recognition that certain personae are vanishing, signaling a cultural shift.
This would not be so troubling if it did not have broader implications. When the debunker is liked as a persona, then debunking itself requires no argument. After all, what we really wanted was just a person whose presence would make the other side look silly. The right tone. A sneer. A knowing raise of the eyebrow. A guffaw. We showed them.
Marvin Olasky is right. If "Southpark" is our future, there will be little left to conserve.
4:16 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 7 comments ]
Thursday, August 11th, 2005
John Halton's article on vegetarianism reminded me of a subject I had wanted to blog on before. Some Christians have been so New-Agey that the New Agers should be fined for plagiarism. For instance, long ago I watched a movie called My Dinner with Andre in which Andre describes to Wally the New Age community of Findhorn. There, instead of using insecticide, people could talk to insects and work out deals where the insects could stay away from their crops.
My assumption when I first saw this movie was that Findhorn was the first place to claim something like this. However, there are earlier descriptions like this. In That Hideous Strength for example, the Director says to Jane Studdock, "Humans want crumbs removed; mice are anxious to remove them. It ought never to have been a cause for war. But you see that obedience and rule are more like dance than a drill--specially between man and woman where the rules are always changing." A truce between man and animals was not a New Age invention. But Lewis may have been inspired by a much earlier source. In The Little Flowers of St. Francis, St. Francis tames the fierce wolf of Gubbio with a talk where he makes a deal with the wolf that if the wolf repents, the men and dogs will forgive him and not pursue him. (No. I have not read the whole book. I found it on the Internet and read the one chapter because it was intriguing. I'm a sucker for canines.)
Such stories do tell us that the idea of "taking dominion" over the earth has been imagined in more subtle ways than we now hold. In My Dinner with Andre and The Little Flowers, it appears that in order to do this, talking is effective. In That Hideous Strength, that is unnecessary. Lewis has us imagine man and beast making more natural adjustments to each other.
I would at least like to know how far some of this could go. Our domestication of the dog is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Dogs recognize people by face. Wolves do not. Some say the domestic history of the dog goes back over 100,000 years. I say we're behind with the rest. Let's start catching up.
5:57 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 2 comments ]
Wednesday, August 10th, 2005
The cover story in the current issue of Logia is very worth reading. It is available here in pdf form. In this article, Jon D. Vieker offers an account of the hymns and hymn writers of early LCMS hymnals. This is very helpful and interesting. I always like to know where our music comes from. And I'm often puzzled at the rationale behind why certain Protestant hymnody does or does not get included in our Lutheran hymnals. (Though I'm feeling less perturbed, seeing that some key omissions are being addressed in the Lutheran Service Book.)
In addition to providing us an outline of the major sources of English hymnody from which we borrowed (e.g. "The Wesleys and the First Great Awakening", "Hymns Ancient and Modern", "English Speaking Lutherans in America") and some background of writers from these periods (e.g. Samson Occom, a converted Mohican; Matthias Loy, an English-speaking Lutheran), Vieker offers some description both of how the content differed from one era to another and what characterized a given writer's content. For example, hymns written during the period of the Great Awakening were written for revivals, not church meetings, so there was little congregational sense to them. Or, even when imagery had a Biblical origin, William Cowper could expand it to where it went over the edge (Where Revelation 7:14 tells us that the saints washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, Cowper speaks, according to Vieker, of "an actual fountain filled with blood." Perhaps Vieker is right here. But maybe he is reading Cowper too literally rather than Cowper reading Revelation too literally. Perhaps.).
In any case, this article is well worth the read. Just some of the suggestions of hymn structures, such as Newton's three part sermon hymn pattern, may inspire readers to write their own hymns. And offer them alternatives they had not thought of for how to do so.
2:32 pm Pacific Standard Time
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Monday, August 8th, 2005
On this day in 1877, Walter Bauer was born in Koenigsberg, Germany. He compiled the Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchrislichen Literatur, which Arndt and Gingrich translated and adapted into the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. The English translation, completed in 1957, was funded by part of a thank offering given in honor of the centennial of the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod.
For those who didn't study this in school, a lexicon is a dictionary. But it is a dictionary where the words are from a foreign language, and arranged alphabetically according to the foreign language. But what makes Bauer's Lexicon different from being just a Greek-English dictionary is the number and quality of examples of word usage in the foreign language than you would otherwise find.
Bauer's Lexicon involved Walter Bauer reading a massive amount of early Christian literature to find examples of words used in the New Testament. This way, when he offered a New Testament word, he could show how other early Christians used the word. And how it was used in other standard works read at the time, such as the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament).
What I especially like about this kind of work (where they "show their work") is that you the reader can follow the scholar's process by which he arrived at his understanding. You don't have to take his word for it. You can test whether or not his usages fit the contexts. And if you find better examples, you will know what you are comparing them against. Being less of a scholar than Walter Bauer, I am inclined to take his word for it in the majority of cases. But if I have a case to make and am putting all my weight on a single word, I know how to do the work to get at that word myself, yet with Bauer's help.
Bauer's work was compiled before the time of computers. A reviewer said of it that such a work "when considered as the performance of one man, strikes one as almost fabulous." The translation into English was itself quite an undertaking.
Click here for a page with information on the third edition of the English translation, which has some pictures of the scholars. I like the one of editors Arndt and Gingrich at work at the University of Chicago Press.
[Also, Happy Birthday, Brett, who was born a day too early (to share it with Bauer), and would appreciate an entry like this.]
10:18 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 2 comments ]
Monday, August 1st, 2005
My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous. There was present that night at Henley's, by right of propinquity or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dullness, who interrupted from time to time, and always to check or disorder thought....The first night [Wilde] praised Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance: 'It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trump should have sounded the moment it was written.' 'But', said the dull man, 'would you not have given us the time to read it?' 'Oh, no,' was the retort, 'there would have been plenty of time afterwardsin either world.'
(The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, p. 300.)
Here, Oscar Wilde is impressive. But the recorder of this anecdote is quite a writer, himself. I especially like the part about the man with the secret spite of dullness, interrupting to check or disorder thought.
10:15 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 7 comments ]