Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Inevitable 2014 List: Books, Movies, and TV Shows Worth Noting

As this year wraps up, I offer the following retrospective on entertainment that stood out to me in 2014. It's not necessarily a list of things I recommend (though that is true of some of them). It's simply meant to provide insight into the cultural stories that are reflecting and/or shaping our worldviews, particularly those of a young adult audience. In addition, they all offer some great talking points about some of the most profound questions in life.

FIVE BOOKS (or series) WORTH READING

  • Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series offers one of the best YA stories I have read. Maberry offers great characters, intense story lines, philosophy, ethics, honor, love, and sacrifice embedded in books that will make you reset your alarm. It's pretty grim - it is a zombie apocalypse - but it's saturated with goodness and hope.
  • Neal Shusterman's Unwind series presents a dsytopic world that is uncomfortably connected with ours (he includes actual news clips between many of his chapters). It is a mesmerizing, sobering look at not only what it means to be human, but also what happens when a society agrees to give up on those declared to be unwanted, broken, or simply unnecessary. My students at the Christian school where I teach love this series - and that's a good thing. For an overview, check out my reviews of the first three books in the four-part series: Unwind, UnWholly, and Unsouled.
  • Dean Koontz's Innocence is the latest from perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He's moved more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. Since he’s not published by a Christian publishing house, he flies under the radar in Christian circles. That’s a shame. He is writing about horror, hope, good, evil, nihilism and purpose in a way that is captivating, true, and broadly accessible.
  • Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series has its flaws and the worldview was decidedly more secular than the previous three recommendations, so this recommendation is a qualified one. Still, there was a lot to like about this clever, thought-provoking sci-fi dystopia. It's a good discussion starter for topics involving war, human nature, the importance of the individual  vs. the community, and the pros/cons of consequentialist ethics. And it's on its way to theaters, so you might as well know what's up.
  • All You Need Is Kill/Edge Of Tomorrow is violent, vulgar, epic, mesmerizing, and at times strangely moving. After I finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I spent days thinking about both the cost and necessity of self-sacrifice. The book may be marketed to a YA audience, but it's certainly adult in its content (the manga version both cleans it up and drains it of its power, and Edge of Tomorrow is cleaner but butchers the ending). It's neither the best nor most wholesome book on the list, but it gives a profound view of heroism and nobility from a Japanese perspective. Considering the massive popularity of manga and anime, I suspect we will see similar stories increasingly making their way into mainstream Western storytelling. 

THREE TV SERIES THAT BLEW UP THE RATINGS IN 2014

  • The Walking Dead has taken cable TV by storm. It's one of the most gruesome shows, but it's also one of the most thought-provoking. Who knew a zombie apocalypse could provide so many opportunities to discuss morality, politics, religion, loyalty, evil, hope and love? This link to "Who Are We? Reflections on the Walking Dead, Season 4" will provide an overview of the series as well as links to more articles.
  • George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series is truly epic. Mr. Martin did his homework in the medieval era before writing, and his portrayal of human nature in a world where life, death and thrones are all a game is unrivaled in popular fiction. However, I'm being kind if I say it offers a pretty grim view of the world in which the brutal reality of evil leaves no one unscarred. Rather than reviewing the books (which I have read) or the show (which I have not watched), I posted a series of articles based on the essays found in Game of Thrones and Philosophy. Here's a link to one which will lead to the other articles in the series.
  • HBO's True Detective.  This is one of the most brilliantly acted shows I have seen. It's also one of the most vulgar, so don't read that first comment as a recommendation. In spite of that, True Detective's Season One offered an honest look into the heart of nihilism. If you are a fan of seeing what it looks like to take a philosophy and live it, you will be mesmerized as Rust embraces the void in which he so earnestly believes. How does one fight evil if the world is really that meaningless?  This series offers a great conversation starter between people of different worldviews who want to wrestle with topics of good, evil, morality, and God.

5 MOVIES FROM 2014 WORTH WATCHING AT LEAST ONE TIME (or three, if it's Guardians of the Galaxy)

  • Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel can seemingly do no wrong right now. I saw this movie three times in the theater, and it got better each time. If you want to know why the superhero genre is flourishing,  Guardians is as good a place to start as any. 
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great film, maybe better than its predecessor. I spent days yelling "Apes!" randomly, which may or may not be a good sign. Entertainment value aside, Dawn offers a serious story that felt ripped from current headlines in the Middle East. 
  • Maleficent. If you think Disney's earlier portrayal of Maleficent should be set in stone, you won't like this movie. If you think fairy tales are a flexible vehicle for insight into the human condition, you will probably like this movie quite a bit. It's not a perfect story, but it offers a surprisingly moving narrative on honor, love and hope that intersects with real life more than you might expect. 
  • Days of Future Past. An older Xavier tells his younger self, “Just because someone stumbles, loses their way, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.” It's easy to believe that the brokenness within us will inevitably result in devastation around us. Days of Future Past reminds us that it's never too late to turn around. Oh, and it's a superhero movie. Surprise.
  • The Equalizer. I never saw the show, so I don't know how the movie compares. If you like Jack Reacher, Liam "Special Set of Skills" Neeson or Joe Ledger, you will probably like The Equalizer. Robert is an honorable man who can't sit by and watch evil unfold when he can do something about it, particularly when the honor and integrity of women is in question. It's interesting that, in a world of increasing moral relativism, you can still find popular stories that declare some things worthy of judgment. (Note: it definitely earned its R rating.) 

Obviously, I am only scratching the surface. For more great insight into worldviews and entertainment, check out Focus on the Family's Plugged In, J.W. Wartick's Always Have a Reason, Austin Gravely's Another Ascending Lark, and James Harleman's Cinemagogue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

50 Shades of Longing

50 Shades of Grey has been been something of a cultural phenomenon recently. If you are unfamiliar with it, here's an excerpt from an insightful piece by Terrell Clemomons at Salvo that establishes both the basic premise of the story and a crucial question that is well worth asking:
Dubbed "Mommy porn" because of all the women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s reading it, 50 Shades of Grey has sold more than 100 million copies after only three years in print, having outpaced Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time. 
The story centers on the bizarre relationship between Ana, a na├»ve 21-year-old virgin, and Christian, an intense, 27-year-old self-made billionaire. They're attracted at first sight, but before getting involved sexually, Christian wants Ana to sign a written consent form for a BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, masochism) arrangement. He presents her with a multi-page document outlining the terms by which he will completely dominate her and she will fully submit. "The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry, or complaint." This is a shocking new concept to Ana, but Christian has had fifteen such contractual relationships before. 
Ana never signs, but she effectively becomes number sixteen anyway. There are multiple trysts in Christian's "playroom," which Ana calls the Red Room of Pain, and Christian's hyper-controlling personality drives the whole affair. Ana would like more of a romance with some conventional boyfriend-girlfriend affection, but Christian says he doesn't know any other way to have a relationship. "Because I'm fifty shades of f***ed up." 
This is no doubt true, but he's not the only one. The question thinking people should be asking is, What is the appeal here? Why are millions of grown women—both independent, modern, and secular ones and married, conservative, and religious ones—reading this, presumably identifying with a timid girl who willingly becomes a controlling sadist's sexual plaything?  -  - "Desperately Disconnected: 50 Shades of Grey & the Longings of the Female Heart"
What, indeed, is the appeal? Clemmons goes on to highlight a study done by Dannah Gresh, a sexuality expert, and Dr. Juli Slattery, a clinical psychologist specializing in women and intimacy. Slattery read the series and, based on her own response as she read, noted five desires of a woman's heart that the books address. Gresh consulted publisher guidelines for erotica and interviewed women who read a lot of popular erotica to create a list of five common characteristics in the genre. Though done independently, their lists matched. Here is what they found (and I am paraphrasing):

Friday, November 28, 2014

Stephen King's 'Revival: A Novel'

Stephen King has never been one to shy away from wrestling with the most important issues of life. He knows how to use the horror genre effectively as a vehicle for sobering reflections on God, good and evil, human nature, love, hope and despair, and the meaning of life.

King is also disturbingly inventive when it comes to portraying evil in all its gory detail. It's been said that we all have a better handle on evil than good because we understand it better. Maybe King's just more honest than most about following that trajectory to its conclusion.

In Revival: A Novel, King has reminded us once again why he is the master in his genre. By blending a number of significant influences in his life (Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan,"  H.P Lovecraft's  Cthulhu, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) as well as his religious upbringing, he has crafted a tale that I can best describe as bleak. To give you an idea of just how bleak, I offer something  Bertrand Russell wrote in A Free Man's Worship as a means of comparison:

"That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Guard Your Heart: Usher, Nicki Minaj and Honey Nut Cheerios

According to Multivu.com, "Eight–time Grammy Award–winning megastar Usher and Buzz the Bee, the iconic Honey Nut Cheerios™character, are using dance to spread the word that being healthy can be fun and delicious. Starting today, the two new friends are asking people to celebrate and share healthy and happy moments, like dancing to Usher’s new single 'She Came to Give it to You' and enjoying a heart–healthy breakfast with Honey Nut Cheerios. With health issues like heart disease on the rise, Buzz wants to get people buzzing about the importance of physical activity and healthy food choices as part of a healthy lifestyle."

Sounds great, doesn't it? After seeing the commercial, and I couldn't help but wonder how Usher's song helped to get people buzzing about healthy lifestyle choices. Maybe the "she" in the title was coming to give me heart-healthy cereal? 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Zombie Bible: Hungers That Devour and Hopes That Preserve

 "Nothing is broken that cannot be remade. Nothing is ill that cannot be healed, nothing captive that cannot be freed. That is what he taught us."  

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I first heard of Stant Litore while looking up the most popular zombie fiction. His books kept showing up on list after list, so I decided to give them a shot.

Of the four books in the Zombie Bible series, I have read two: What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, and Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows. I wasn’t sure what to expect. "Zombie" and "Bible" were two words I did not think I would see sharing a title. "The Zombie Bible series is surprisingly good" is not a sentence I anticipated writing either. Nevertheless, there it is.

According to his website, Mr. Litore's first book, Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, reached the #2 horror bestseller on Kindle in December 2011 before being translated into several languages. While he has continued to write, he has been a guest on numerous Comic Con panels, appeared in podcast interviews for ReelNerds and The Geek Port, and been featured in “The Year’s Best New Sci-Fi” at NPR (March 2014). He has also received coverage in multiple magazines, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Huffington Post, SF Signal, and Weird Fiction Review (check out the link here for more media coverage). 

Stant Litore takes both zombies and the Bible seriously. He writes, “My first real encounter with the stories of the Old Testament occurred when I was a second-grader. Someone at school gave me a Bible and I took it home and (because I was an insanely fast reader) I plowed through Genesis before going to sleep that night. Those stories were compelling; they had me riveted. And they had me asking all kinds of questions. I wanted my readers to have that experience.”  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

UnSouled (The Unwind Dystology)

“You should never apologize for existing, Lev. Not even to all those people out there who wish you didn't.” 
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To help us better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story. This review will feature UnSouled, the third book in an unfolding series by Neal Shusterman that has earned a tremendous amount of critical acclaim

I believe Shusterman is doing an excellent job writing a YA series about a profound subject: what it means to be human. Unsouled hints in its title that the series is moving into even deeper (and murkier) ethical waters.

Since my reviews of Unwind and UnWholly established the basic premise of the series, this review will simply offer a series of quotes from UnSouled to give you an idea of the worldview that shows up in the course of the story. Shusterman has some strong opinions about societies that are “a mill of commerce, trafficking in flesh, working outside the realm of ethics yet within the law and with the complete consent of society.” And he's not afraid to give 'em.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding The 'Hallow' in Halloween

As a child, I was raised in a Mennonite community that did not observe Halloween. From its roots to its current form, we saw nothing compelling or good about it. We gave treats to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and did our best not to support the holiday financially or emotionally. I didn't really care; my mom didn't let us kids eat much candy anyway.

I later moved out of that community and for the first time came in contact with a lot of sincere Christians who viewed Halloween as just another holiday. They experienced it as an exercise of imagination, a sort of exorcism of the spirits of fear from which we Christians have been freed. God had not redeemed us so that we would cringe in the face of evil, so they boldly subverted Halloween with a freedom foreign to my upbringing.

These very different experiences have given me plenty to ponder over the years. Though I have more to understand, I have several observations that I hope contain wisdom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When Humans Lose Their Humanity: "No Sanctuary" and the Real Horror of Terminus

The Walking Dead has been one of the most thought-provoking shows on TV in the past 5 years, and the Season Five premier showed that the writers haven’t missed a step. However, I'm not sure that every step deserves to be taken. Let me explain.

I’ve been thinking about the profoundly disturbing Episode 5.1, “No Sanctuary.” Something was bothering me on a deeper level than just the visceral reaction to the horror in the story. I finally realized that The Walking Dead is (perhaps accidentally) revealing a troubling aspect of how human nature works: We have a tremendous capacity for dehumanization.
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Dehumanization: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit (Merriam-Webster)
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The Walking Dead features human beings who have been dehumanized by a virus that has shut down almost everything except basic minimal brain function. Rationality, emotion, and morality are absent from this animated corpse. The Walkers are now just a thing that looks human, with none of the dignity or rights a human being deserves. If zombies like these were real, that would seem to be solid reasoning.
   
However, the dehumanization does not stop there. In The Walking Dead, people who treat the Walkers as if they are merely things increasingly treat the fully human beings around them as if they, too, are things. Pick any character in the show. They more they enjoy taunting, toying around with, or killing the dehumanized around them, the more cruel and indifferent they become to the human beings around them. They inevitably dehumanize the living in some fashion as well.