Friday, December 21, 2012

The Raven Boys

"You're looking for a for the devil. When there's a god, there's always a legion of devils."
      For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review in a series of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.
Blue, her mother Marua, and her aunt Neeve  have a strong affinity for the supernatural, an awareness of the darker forces lurking behind the veil, and a pretty keen desire to explore realms best left hidden. As part of her magical heritage, Blue is under something of a curse: if she ever kisses her true love, he will die.
Gansey, Ronan, Declan and Adam are the Raven boys, students attending an exclusive prep academy during they day while following legend and magic at night. They are dedicated to finding the ley lines, ancient lines of power strapped into the world. The word is that the ancient Celtic heroes such as Llewellyn and Glendower aren't really dead at all. They are impatiently waiting, preserved in the magic of the lines until someone frees them through the power of reciprocity and sacrifice.
This is good news to the one Raven boy who actually is dead already (though nobody else knows). And now that Blue is falling for another one of them, finding the lines really is a matter of life and death.
Welcome to Maggie Steifvater's The Raven Boys.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When Dark Knights Finally Rise

I watched two movies this past weekend that showed a sharp worldview contrast:
  • In  The Dark Knight Rises, Batman returns to a captive Gotham City to save the people from Bane's annihilation.  He didn't have to risk so much; he had already dedicated much of his life to helping Gotham. Catwoman wants him to escape with her. "Save yourself," she advises. "You've given these people everything." Batman refuses. "Not everything," he says."Not yet." In the end, Batman is prepared to give everything as he offers his life to protect those for whom he cares - not because they are innocent or because he is obligated, but because he can not ignore his responsibility to those who need him.
  • In Cabin in the Woods, one man ends up holding the fate of the entire human race in his hand. If he gives his life, everyone lives. If not, everyone dies horribly. He is given a stark contrast: "You can die with them, or you can die for them." He's not about to give his life for them, and so the apocalypse begins. "I'm sorry I ended the world," he apologizes to a friend as they get high and wait for the world to die with them. He's not about to give anything so that others can escape their fate. 
When brought to account for the life of his brother, Cain asked the classic question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, yes, to some degree. It's why we have Good Samaritan laws. As the story of the Good Samaritan points out, we have neighbors both near and far, people whose lives are intertwined with ours by geography, vocation, family ties, or simple human dignity.  In every case, something is required of us that transcends our individual preferences and proclivities.  The fate of the entire world will never rest on our shoulders, but things much smaller than a world also require courage and self-sacrifice on our behalf.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Mortal Instruments

“The descent into Hell is Easy.” 

For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.

Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones (Book One in the Mortal Instruments Series) introduces us to Clary, a child of Shadowhunters. Shadowhunters trace their lineage back to the Nephilim of Genesis – well, if Genesis included humans drinking angel blood from the Mortal Cup so they could fight demons. And fight demons they do, as well as faeries (the offspring of demons and angels) and the once-human vampires and werewolves infected by demonic diseases.  

Most ordinary people (Mundanes) can’t see this reality; even if they could, they would not believe it. But when Clary sees, she believes. It’s in her blood.  She and her close friend Simon meet Jace, Alec, and Isabelle, three Shadowhunters who are young, beatuiful and strong.  Who wouldn't want to live this life? And what teenager doesn’t want to find out she really is special all along?

Unfortunately, she also finds out that her father is Valentine, a former Shadowhunter gone rogue.  He wants the Mortal Cup to raise an army to overthrow the entire Shadowhunter regime, which may not be the noble enterprise it claims to be.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Deconstructing Humans

The horror genre has a long history of terrifying us with distortions of humanity. Some of the monsters are inhuman (Silence of the Lambs, Saw, Hostel).  Some are superhuman (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween).  Others are subhuman (The Descent, The Walking Dead).

The subhuman zombies of AMC’s The Walking Dead have reanimated a hot philosophical topic: What does it mean to be human?  It's one thing to identify deviations from the norm. Clarifying the standard from which we are deviating is a bit more difficult.
The Walking Dead and Philosophy, a companion book to the series, uses the undead to shine a spotlight on one of today's headlines:  Can humans lose their personhood - and thus their moral rights and standings?  I think most of us would immediately say, "Of course not," but  scientists, philosophers and theologians have a hard time agreeing on the answer to this question.  If "human" is merely one type of "person," then clearly a person does not have to be human. This distinction is not too controversial.  The controversial question is this: Can someone be human without being a person? 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Is Frankenstorm a Judgment from God?

“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is, ‘God is crying,’ And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is, ‘Probably because of something you did.’” (Jack Handy, Deep Thoughts, 1992)
As America recovers from yet another massive natural disaster * – or “act of God,” in insurance company lingo - the inevitable question resurfaces in Christian circles: Why is God crying? What is God angry about?  What did we do? 
It’s a popular topic every time a storm hits, especially if it hits where we don't live. Usually, the apparent target of God’s wrath is a particular situation or people group about which the person claiming clarity happens to feel very strongly:

  •  It’s the abortion doctors! 
  • It’s because of international policies! 
  • It’s the Middle East conflict! 
  • It’s liberal, feminist Marxists! 
  • It’s the greedy Wall Street 1%! 
  • It’s evolution in our schools! 
  • It's the President! 
  • It's megachurches (yes, I saw that one online)
  • It's for someone with whom I am displeased!”

There’s quite a list that gets generated in the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy. Apparently, God has lots of options.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Full Dark, No Stars": Stephen King's Worlds of Night

 As a writer with a clear eye for good and evil, Stephen King captures the depravity of the human condition remarkably well.  He writes in the afterward to Full Dark, No Stars“If you’re going into a very dark place…you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything… Bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do.”  

If there were ever a question about whether or not we the people have within us a hidden self capable of doing remarkably foul deeds (as several characters in this collection of short stories do), King resolves it with a resounding, “Yes, there is.”  That light he shines is a revealing one.
The title captures the feel of the stories very well.  This is meant to be a book full of darkness, with no light shining down. One story belies the title – there are glimpses of stars – but by this point the light is small and distant, perhaps seen only because the stars have gone nova.  The bonus story puts out what light remains pretty effectively.
He also writes in the afterward that "people in these stories are not without hope.”  He follows this with the caveat that “our fondest hopes…may sometimes be in vain. Often, even.”  In spite of the evil in most of his characters, he believes “most people are essentially good. I know that I am.”  This seems promising, as he also writes that “the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart.”  If King is essentially good, and his stories come from the truth inside his heart, literary magic should follow.
And in some ways it does.  I suspect he writes so bleakly about evil because the goodness within him is appalled by the badness around him. It does seem incongruous, however, that while most of us are apparently essentially good, King’s literary worlds in this book are inhabited by people who are essentially not good at all.  This review of Full Dark will contrast King’s claims of hope, goodness and truth with the focus of his fiction.  I will try not to give away the plots as I offer some comments.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Incarceron: Escape Is Not Enough

“I spent centuries longing to escape, but who can escape themselves?”

For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.
After the Years of Rage, all the criminals, undesirables, extremists, degenerates, and lunatics of the Realm were banished to Incarceron, a prison the size of a world.  Seventy of the Sapient, the wisest of the wise, entered the prison with them. Incarceron was programmed to provide education, diet, spiritual direction, and work. It would be a Paradise.
When Catherine Fisher's Incarceron begins (and continues in Sapphique), one hundred and fifty years have passed since the banishment. The Prison is a hell. It is is alive and cruel, without mercy or compassion.  Their histories note:
“In ancient statues Justice was always blind. But what if it sees, sees everything, and its Eye is cold and without Mercy? Who would be safe from such a gaze? Year by year Incarceron tightened its grip. It made a hell of what should have been a heaven.”
The Prison turns humans into beasts, then does not forgive them for what it has made of them. Meanwhile, the Realm has found its own dystopia. The appalling destruction of the Years of Rage demand a draconian solution:
We must find a simpler way of life. We must retreat into the past, everyone and everything, in its place, in order. Freedom is a small price to pay for survival… We forbid growth and therefore decay. Ambition, and therefore despair. Above all, Time of forbidden. From now on nothing will change.”
  They called it Era, and it sustained a lie. Lord Evian describes the situation well:
“We are rich…but we are not free. We are chained hand and foot by Protocol, enslaved to a static, empty world…New does not exist. Nothing changes, nothing grows, evolves, develops. Progress is forbidden. We are dying, Claudia. We must break open this cell we have bricked ourselves into, escape from this endless wheel we tread like rats…even death will be a sort of freedom.”
    Two world, two prisons.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Absurd Heroism: Camus and the real Walking Dead

I have been blogging my way through The Walking Dead and Philosophy, a fascinating book that has so far addressed issues of logic (zombies like the Walkers are not possible),  the nature of humanity (but philosophical zombies are, apparently), and issues like justice, rights, and social contracts.  

Ms. Robinson-Greene ("Better Off Undead") raises the next big problem: the existential dilemma of soulless people. A gloomy fact about self-reflective creatures is that they are capable of recognizing what Albert Camus called absurdity, "the confrontation between the longings of humans and an indifferent universe.”
The Walkers in The Walking Dead provide a great example. Not only are they dead and zombified, rotting while cannibalizing the world, but virtually no one exists to grieve who they are or celebrate who they were. There is only blind, pitiless indifference.  Stephen Crane, your universe has arrived.
Camus’ existentialism would claim that our ordinary life is not philosophically that much different from the world after a zombie apocalypse. “We make demands on the universe that it simply doesn’t (and can’t) care about. We want justice out of the world. We want the guilty punished. We want the innocent to be spared suffering. But that isn’t the way the world works.”
 Camus said there are three options for those who see this relentless gloom pressing in from all around: Commit suicide, pretend life is not absurd, or turn to religion. In the face of these absurd choices, Camus recommended we become “absurd heroes.” If nothing else we can shake our fists at gods and men, even while knowing the gesture is meaningless. What is more heroic than fighting in the face of inevitable failure? 
And inevitable failure is what awaits the survivors in The Walking Dead. We found out at the end of Season Two that everyone is infected.  Is there anything meaningful left to do? They can rage at the sky, but who cares?  Despite all their rage they are still just rats in a zombie-filled cage. The hero in this Camus-haunted world is anyone who keeps fighting (and if the premier of Season Three is setting the tone, that's going to be everybody all the time).  If there is a silver lining behind the zombie cloud, it is the solidarity that comes with a shared sense of doom.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fabrications and Forgiveness

In Father of Invention, Kevin Spacey plays a businessman/inventor who spends more time with his career than his family, and ultimately loses them both when one of his criminally negligent “fabrications” results in a 10 year jail sentence.  When he gets out of jail, he moves in with his daughter as he tries to get his life back together.

Other than the fact that both the characters and situations were shallow and false, I was bothered by the way he constantly asked his adult daughter to forgive him. This doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but the movie presented it as, “You need to get over all the years and years of neglect and emotional abuse and just move on now as if nothing happened.”  When his daughter’s roommate needed some advice about the emotional turmoil she was experiencing because of her parent’s impending divorcing, Spacey’s character told her basically to get over it immediately.

I think that’s bad advice. That’s not forgiveness or compassion; that’s denial - about what happened, about the emotional tumult that comes with the dissolution of relationships, about what the ripple effect has been and will be in their lives.  It's an attempt to craft a world in which people sow what they want - and then reap what they want too!  Life without consequences! It's a win/win for the perpetrators of thoughtless and destructive deeds; meanwhile, everyone who has been victimized must bravely endure the fallout as if nothing at all went wrong.  The ones who can't get over it that quickly are portrayed as immature, hardened, and just a bit mean.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Christians and 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.

As a young adult, I learned more about the holiday from people who had done more than dabble in the occult. Whatever you might think of the legitimacy of their attempts to connect with the dark side, they were pretty serious about what they hoped to accomplish. Halloween was their Christmas and Easter rolled into one. They approached it with a sense of mission and purpose.

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.

Monday, September 17, 2012


“You said you were waiting?” says Caleb. “What were you waiting for, exactly?”
“For the world to fall apart,” Edward says, “And now it has.” 
For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a YA audience (such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Graceling, Bitterblue, The Road, The Wolves of Mercy Falls, Spiderman, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Project X, and The Walking Dead).

My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.
 Veronica Roth’s Divergent introduced us to a utopia gone terribly wrong. Society has been divided into factions, each focusing on a particular character quality or skill that humanity needs to flourish. Instead of bringing stability and unity, it ushered in pride and division. Tris is one of the Divergent, someone with the capacity to thrive in multiple factions. She and the few others like her have been targeted by those who profit from the broken social structures and fragmented families.

Divergent ended with the beginning of a bloody revolution; Insurgent enters fully into a society at war, and not just between the factions. “The battle we are fighting is against human nature itself – or at least what it has become.’

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Leviathans and Zombies: Social Contracts and the Walking Dead

AMC's  The Walking Dead has provided an interesting (and at times gruesome) venue with which to revisit some of the more significant questions about life.  I have been blogging my way through The Walking Dead and Philosophy, a fascinating book that has so far addressed issues of logic (zombies like the Walkers are not possible) and the nature of humanity (but philosophical zombies are, apparently).

Jason Walker (“What’s Yours Still Isn’t Mine”) addresses the issue of society and human rights in a post-apocalyptic world. The Walkers are humans stripped of what political theorists call a “social contract,” an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. The humans who remain have a choice: head off into the woods and make do with whomever they can find, or head for the nearest city and attempt to recreate some form of government. So far the series has predominantly followed Rick Grimes’ motley crew, but Season Three is going to introduce the audience to the Governor’s horrific city.

Beneath this story line lurk several serious questions:  Do people have rights?  If so, where do we get them?  Are they innate or contrived? And even if they exist and are codified, how are they best enforced?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

“You tell me that battling with monsters has made me a monster?  Doing business with devils, what has that made you?”
For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a YA audience (such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Graceling, Bitterblue, The Road, The Wolves of Mercy Falls, Spiderman, Project X, and The Walking Dead).  My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview.

Universal Pictures has already bought the film rights to  Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and no wonder: Laini Taylor's book has received exceptional critical accolades:
  • New York Times Notable Book of the Year
  • Publisher’s Weekly Best Fiction Book of the Year
  • School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
  • Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of the Year
  • Entertainment Weekly Must List Selection
  • ALA Top Ten Books for Young Adults Selection
  • Fiction and Fantasy Booklist Finalist


Seventeen-year-old Karou has been raised by Brimstone, who happens to be a chimaera - or as the average person would say, a monster.  While her life has been relatively stable, there are some oddities - she has odd tattoos on her hands; she feels that something is not quite right with her and the world; she collects teeth for Brimstone without knowing why. In fact, she leads a very carefully managed double life, going to school with her friends while traveling the world through magical portals that take her anywhere.

She eventually meets Akiva, an angel who plans to destroy these doors ( the “devil’s portals into the human world”) before he destroys the chimera.  
Who would have guessed that Karou is a Revenant, a reincarnated version of Akiva's dead lover, Madrigal – who happened to be a chimera? Angelic Romeo met chimeric Juliet once before, and lost her. The good news - Juliet has been resurrected as a chimera/human seventeen-year-old art student.  The bad news - Akiva has already set in motion a plan that will destroy all she loves.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Much Undead Ado About Nothing

As mentioned in an earlier post, the debate about what it means to be human has taken an interesting direction following the recent fixation with zombies. The Walking Dead and Philosophy opened with two essays arguing that the consideration of philosophical zombies (P-Zombies) - theoretical beings identical to human beings but lacking consciousness, qualia, or sentience -  mitigates against a purely materialistic view of the world.  

There is a clear difference between P-Zombies (who are biologically identical to humans) and actual humans.  Something besides biology seems to be necessary to explain consciousness, mind, thoughts, ideas, and emotions.  

I find the intellectual speculation to be both insightful and entertaining.  The zombie analogy provides a way to decipher the nature of humanity, at least at a theoretical level.
 Robert Delfino and Kyle Taylor (“Walking Contradictions”)  take the discussion in The Walking Dead and Philosophy a step further. Is the idea of real zombies even coherent, or are we just making a lot of undead ado about nothing? 

Their argument builds from two key laws in logic - the Law of Identity and the Law of Non-Contradiction -  to argue that a thing cannot exist in such a way that is incompatible with its nature. A thing with mutually exclusive properties cannot exist (like a square circle, or a sane University of Michigan fan). In the same way, a being with mutually exclusive properties cannot exist either. Since the Walkers try to hold two mutually exclusive properties in tension (both physically alive and physically dead), they would seem to be impossible.  
 But not so fast!  Some quasi-living beings (such as viruses and viroids) appear to do just that. One type of fungi can take over carpenter ants and make them act like, well, zombie ants.  And if you’ve seen Twilight, you know that zombie actors can even carry commercially successful films. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Zombie?

Even before The Walking Dead and Jersey Shore became popular, the world had been introduced to the notion of philosophical zombies, theoretical creatures identical to human beings with one tiny distinction - they have no consciousness, qualia, or sentience. Imagine a twin who is identical to you in every possible material way but lacks any type of inner subjective experience.  Clearly something is different between the two of you, but how and why?   

Many would simply cite the existence of rationality and self-awareness - things we associate with the mind.  But what exactly is the mind, and how is it distinct from or similar to the brain?  For that matter, how important to our humanity are the immaterial aspects of our nature - our consciousness, our mind, our thoughts, ideas, and emotions? And is there a philosophical system sufficient to explain them?

In The Walking Dead and Philosophy, two introductory essays (“Are You Brains or Something More?” by Gordon Hawkes, and “Can You Survive a Walker Bite? “ by Greg Littmann) attempt to tackle these important questions.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Superpowers and Sins

 Question: When is it acceptable for a young man to pretend to respect authority but not actually do so; get revenge on people who embarrass him; break promises just because he doesn't like them; believe himself to be smarter than everyone else; act as a vigilante instead of working within the system; sneak his girlfriend out against her parents' wishes; and steal from other people so he can get what he wants.

Answer: When he is the new version of the Amazing Spider-Man.  Being a superhero, it seems, covers a multitude of sins.
There was a time in which superheroes put their true personality on display.  Who they were when they put the mask on matched who they were when they took the mask off.  The recent movie Chronicle did a great job showing how power magnifies who we already are, and for that reason must be used with caution. The ordinary moments matter.  Not so with the new and improved Amazing Spider-Man.

Here's the thing about Peter Parker in all the other tellings of his of origin:  Peter is a really good guy. He is smart, hard working and devoted to his aunt and uncle.  He usually makes the right choice.  His defining moment is when he dosen't stop the thief who eventually kills Uncle Ben.  Peter realizes that a lifetime of good choices can be wiped out by one lapse of judgement, and he spends the rest of his life making up for it. Whereas Batman was driven by vengance, Spiderman was driven by guilt.  In the Ultimate Spiderman arc, Peter is killed while saving everyone on his block.  As he dies he tells his aunt May, "It's ok, I couldn't save uncle Ben, but I could save you."

The Peter Parker in this movie gets his powers by breaking the rules. He takes no personal responsibility. The famous "With great power comes great responsibility" does not even make an appearance.  He goes after his uncle's killer for vengance.  He breaks a promise to Captain Stacey - who the comic book arc shows to be prescient about the danger Spidey poses to his daughter. This Peter is a mix of Twilight's Edward and Bruce Wayne.  He is brooding, mean-spirited, and full of anger.  Even his quips feel angry.

The first Spiderman ended with Peter saying it was his curse to be alone.  This Spiderman ends with Peter saying that he doesn't care about promises or the risk that Gwen is taking.  He just cares about himself. The new breed of superhero can apparently be self-absorbed, arrogant and dishonest when the mask is off, then transform into someone awesome when the mask is on.

Two scenes stood out to me. In one scene, Spider-Man stands framed in front of the American flag.  It was a great movie shot, but I wonder: what did Spider-Man stand for that mirrors the American Dream?  Arrogance?  Self-aggrandizing? Dishonesty?  Revenge? In the second scene, Aunt May says, "If there's one thing you are, it's good."  Really?  Good how? And at what, exactly?  In order for that statement to even make sense, I had to draw from the older version of Spider-Man, a hero who was kind, honest, empathetic, and sincere.

Being a superhero is a burden and a privilege. Since it magnifies sins, weaknesses and failures along with strengths, the truly heroic seek to become better people in the ordinary moments of life.  There is no better marker for learning who you will be when the great moments arise.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Wolves of Mercy Falls

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.
Maggie Stiefvater has written a a trilogy entitled The Wolves of Mercy Falls.  While her latest, The Scorpio Races, has her on the front pages of literary news, this trilogy has excelled as well. 


Grace lives in Mercy Falls.  As a child, she was bitten by what she now knows to be werewolves.  She never turned, but the connection between herself and one wolf in particular is undeniable.  That wolf saved her from the rest of the pack’s ferocity, and now he lingers at the periphery of Boundary Woods, watching and protecting her still.
When her guardian werewolf reverts to human form and introduces himself, the unobtainable becomes real.  Sam and Grace can finally love each other.  Unfortunately, Sam has this bad habit of reverting to the wolf, and Grace can feel the inevitable rise of the animal within her as well. 
Can two people so badly damaged find true love?  Can Sam and Grace find a way to put the monster behind them and become fully human? And will they live long enough to find out? 
Based on interviews, Mrs. Stiefvater wanted to capture (among other things) the war inside between the human and animal parts of our nature, and as such the story starkly addresses moral dilemmas and murky lines between truth and lies. She noted in an interview with Teen Ink, “I wish teens would step outside themselves and see how their actions are really affecting themselves and others — and then do their best to be heroes in their own lives.” 
That’s not a bad goal. The question is whether or not she achieved it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Melancholia: Life as a Wicked Idea

"The human race is just chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies."  
- Stephen Hawking, 1995, in "Reality on the Rocks: Beyond our Ken."

 Melancholia, a highly praised film from Lars Von Trier, follows the imploding lives of the characters as the earth awaits imminent destruction from the planet Melancholia. While stunningly beautiful in its cinematography, it is hauntingly hopeless in its depiction of a life without meaning.
Perhaps appropriately, none of the main characters are compelling. Justine is the melancholic whose longing for nothingness ushers in the rogue planet that will destroy earth.  She cares for no one but herself: she dumps her groom on the night of their wedding; she is casually cruel to everything around her; she can't stand the rituals of normal life.  Since nothing matters, the arrival of the doomsday planet  is not something she fears at all.  One of Cormac McCarthy's characters in the Sunset Limited could have been her spokesperson:
 “The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, lost, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness... and all of it with a single conclusion. For you and everyone and everything you have ever chosen to care for… And there's no going back, there's no setting things right, there's only the hope of nothingness.”
Her sister, Claire, is perhaps as unstable as Justine though their personalities could not be more different. "I hate you so much," she says more than once to Justine.  Claire is married and has a child; she cares too much what others think, and follows convention with a commitment that threatens to wind her so tight she seems always to be on the verge of breaking.  Justine rejects the apparent shallowness of every social convention; Claire embraces them all to infuse them with a level of meaning they were not meant to bear.
Claire and Justine's parents are morally and socially vacuous. Claire's husband is a man of science and convention who places all his trust in order and predictability, with tragic results. Their friends are shallow; their servants are pawns; her boss is an ogre. In this story, there is no one for whom to cheer.

The director intended to ask a particular kind of question with this film: Is everything hollow?  Does anything matter?  Money, possessions, science, family, careers, friends, and tradition all fail in the end. Justine muses that "life is a wicked idea," a sentiment the director seems to share.  In this kind of reality, the hero (if there is one) is the person who recognizes that Macbeth was right: all is but toys.  Since our end is despair and destruction, the less we value, the less we stand to lose.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lapsing into Chaos

     German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen talked about two parts of society: the foreground and the background. The foreground is the area of life in which people willingly and freely make choices.  The background is the area in which people automatically fulfill certain societal or communal expectations.
  • When Kobe Bryant shoots, his form is background – he’s practiced that shot release ten thousand times, so he doesn’t have to figure out each time where his elbow should be.  His decision when to shoot, however, is foreground.
  • When I leave my house, I wear clothes (background), but I choose to wear Ohio State colors (foreground).
  • I buy presents at Christmas (background), but choose gifts to match the recipients (foreground).
  • At a blinking red light, I stop (background), and I choose to go when there is an appropriate break in traffic (foreground).  

Modernity moves the background to the foreground.  In other words, it takes what we accept as normative and makes it subjective. Before, people went about their daily routine without too much reflection (self-aware choice) on particular issues, as the background institutions in society brought predictability and normalized structure to their lives. Not any more.

Modernity has given the power and heightened the desire of choice.  People have increasingly rejected the power of tradition and institutions and have begun to find their own way through life.

Since modernity has brought about an increasing amount of foreground reflection, we increasingly reject the power of institutions and embrace what Gehlen called secondary institutions, which “offer entire packages of beliefs, norms, and identities to individuals.”

If this is true, it would explain the rise of radical environmentalist and animal rights movements, the increasing polarization in politics, the increased belief in the sacredness of artistic expression, and the monomaniacal fixation on sports among middle and high school families (ever spent a weekend at a travel league soccer tournament?).

All of these things have their place, of course, but not as replacement background institutions which guide and shape every area of life. Based on my past 15 years of working with youth as a pastor and teacher, I believe there are three huge background shifts effecting American culture.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bitterblue: Fighting for Truth in a Kingdom of Lies

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.

Kristin Cashore's recently released Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling, premiered at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List. If early reviews and previous successes are any indication, the list of accolades will be impressive – and deservedly so. Ms. Kashore is a gifted writer who spends years honing her books, and it shows.


The story takes place approximately 10 years after Graceling ends. Bitterblue, once rescued from certain doom by Katsa and Po, now rules a kingdom still reeling from what Bitterlblue calls “the rape of her mind” by her maniacal father, the former king. He had subjected the realm to unspeakable cruelty with a Grace (a gift) that made people believe the lies he told to cover up his fixation with torture and murder. Many people disappeared when he was alive; many more still hide very dark secrets even though he is long gone.

Though the people are beginning to recover emotionally, physically, and economically, the new queen faces a daunting task. Overwhelmed by responsibilities and immersed in paperwork, Bitterblue passes her days isolated from not only her kingdom but also the servants in the castle. When she finally realizes that this isolation is orchestrated rather than incidental, and that her father’s legacy still rules from the grave, she determines to find out the truth of her father’s lingering influence for herself.

Bitterblue begins to leave the castle, slipping at night “ into a world of stories and lies.” A series of furtive campaigns into the city giver her an unfiltered view of the kingdom. The underground rebellion she finds slowly reveals what she must do to break the nation free from her father’s lingering horrors.

But her father was not the only one with a capacity for deceit, and Bitterblue has a lot to learn about what it means to rule – and live - with truth, justice, and integrity. Secretive advisors and lying friends may surround her, but some secrets are best kept hidden, and the deception of friends may sometimes be a gift. Bitterblue has no Graces, but she has heart, determination, and a longing for truth. Will that be enough?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Slouching Toward "Project X"

"I think that people should really say what they feel... 
everybody has the right to speak their mind."
- Lenny Kravitz
That's a fascinating idea.  People should say what they feel.  In other words, people have the right to speak their mind and say exactly what they want to say.

If I understand how human rights work, an identified right brings with it an imposed obligation on others.  According to the United Nations, "Human rights entail both rights and obligations...The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others."

People have a responsibility - an obligation - to uphold the rights of other people.  

So if people truly have a right to say what they feel - without exception -  and I hinder or stifle their ability to speak their mind,  am I automatically a human rights violator?  I stifled my 16-year-old's speech just last week; am I a moral monster?  When people violate human rights, we put them on trial and punish them. I'm not sure that "Shut it! Don't talk to your brother that way!" is really that risable of an action. But, perhaps it is.  I decided to put this egregious error into the context of other well-known human rights violators:
  • Slobodan Milošević -  human rights violator.
  • Pol Pot - human rights violator.
  • Saddam Hussein - human rights violator.
  • Slave owners - human rights violators.
  • Father telling his son to "shut it" - human rights violator.
As much as we (rightly) defend the ideal of free speech, I just don't think all speech (or all speakers) are inherently endowed with a level of freedom of expression that rises to the level of a fundamental human right.  Libraries don't stock every published work; bookstores hide certain adult books behind locked glass; TV and radio stations edit bad language; theater owners won't let you yell "fire" in a crowded room; you can't slander or defame others; you can't incite a riot unless you are at an international soccer game; and the Secret Service won't let you threaten the president, even if you are a hunter/gatherer/rock star.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Graceling: Monsters and Grace

In my attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at why a particular story resonates, and how it is shaping its fans.

Oh, and one other thing: There will be spoilers.
Publishers Weekly listed Graceling, the debut novel from Kristin Cashore, in its Best Book of the Year list in 2008. Since then, Cashore has published a sort-of prequel called Fire and a sequel titled Bitterblue. Here's Wikipedia's list of awards:
Graceling was shortlisted for the ALA's William C. Morris YA Award, is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, was a Cybils finalist (Fantasy/SF category), and was a finalist for both the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (the SFWA's award for YA given concurrently with the Nebulas) and the Indies Choice Book Awards (Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book category). Graceling won the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance 2009 Young Adult SIBA Book Award. 
The book also was awarded: Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year 2008 ; School Library Journal Best Books of 2008; Booklist 2008 Top Ten First Novels for Youth; A Booklist's Editor's Choice for 2008-2009; Amelia Bloomer List 2009; Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Finalist; Won Mythopoeic Fantasy Award For Children's literature in 2009; Nominated for 2010 Washington Evergreen Award; Nominated for 2010-2011 Eliot Rosewater Award; On the Bulletin's Center for Children's Books 2009; Blue Ribbon List; 2012 California Young Reader Medal.
For what it's worth, Graceling probably deserves them all.

The story unfolds in a world where certain people are born with Graces. These graces can be anything from cooking awesome pancakes to controlling the weather.  The kings claim those with the greatest Graces  and forces them into servitude. Those whose Graces are too ordinary to be of use are sent back home to live on the margins of society.  Every Grace is a mixed blessing; the recipients 'unique strength becomes their undoing.
Unfortunately, Katsa has a killing Grace.
When she was eight, an unfortunate incident involving her fist and and leering man's nose revealed her ability.  Her mother had died of a fever and her father had been killed in battle, so her uncle, King Randa, quickly forces her into his service.  His brainwashing and  iron control turn her into a brutal enforcer and assassin by the time she is a teen. When the story opens, she is feared by all in the realm - and for good reason.  Katsa knows how to kill.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

       Because of the nature of the entertainment industry, my friends and I consume entertainment produced primarily by non-Christians, which means it will contain chaff that needs to be separated from wheat.  Not surprisingly, the three of us disagree on what is chaff, and how much is acceptable. The Walking Dead of Modern FamilyBreaking Bad or The Office?  Mad Men or Men of a Certain Age?   
     What follows in a discussion as "iron sharpens iron." It is not the end of the matter.  Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

A. Weber: When it comes to entertainment, I like John Stonestreet's template:
  • Is it true (does it show the world honestly)?
  • Is it good (is it of high quality)?
  • Is it noble (does it make us want to be better people)?
    There are some other questions that follow from those three questions: With whom/what does the story want us to identify? What is the source of redemption? Does the sin tempt us, distract us, or appall us?What are the assumed messages about the world? A couple examples:
  • Though I am drawn to Game of Thrones, it doesn't fit this template.  The writing was good (high quality), and the story was true (actions have appropriate consequences), but even though I  wanted to be Ned Stark, I felt in some way dirtied by the amount of evil in the book, like I had wallowed in a world from which I emerged a little more hardened, a little more disillusioned, a little more broken than before. That's not noble.
  •  The first two seasons of The Walking Dead mostly fit.  Though the quality of the writing has dropped, the series has been mostly good (especially Season 1), true (it shows how the evil and the good wrestle within all of us) and noble (I can clearly see good and bad characters and their actions, and I cheer or jeer appropriately).  Based on how Season Two ended, I'm not sure my opinion will hold.
  • I'm almost done with Season Two of Men of Certain Age.  It is very good; it is largely true, but it's "hit and miss" handling sin in a way that always enobles me.  The characters played by Ray Ramano and Scott Bakula sleep around and gamble, but if I see real world consequences, and I'm not seduced into their weaknesses with them, I'm okay with those situations being portrayed.  As Season Two winds down, I would say the show overall contrasts the emptiness and pointlessness of sin with the reward of commitment, faithfulness, and character.
K. Meszaros: Those criteria are fine, but you are picking and choosing your examples.  Saw, Boogie Nights and Show Girls could be made to fit the above criteria depending on how you define your terms.  I suppose they were all done well to some degree; each one said something true about the world, and I don't think anybody walked away wanting to be a serial killer, porn star, or stripper. They even be more determined not to be any of those things than before.  I would go with some criteria like this:
  • Does the writer intend for us to root for the bad guy or for evil to prevail?  (The Oceans movies, Pirates, or The Godfather)
  • Are there consequences for evil actions?  (Ben on Lost)
  • Is there a lot of nudity? (Basic Instinct, Show Girls, or Boogie Nights)
  • What is the trajectory of the main characters? (Do they get worse or better?  See The Shield or Sopranos)
  • Is redemption a key part of the show? (Lost or Star Wars)
  • Is sin viewed as desirable? (The American Pie movies or any daytime soap)
  • Is evil an unbeatable force? (Constantine or just about any slasher film vs. Stephen King's Desperation)
  • Given that we have almost limitless entertainment choices, if something is iffy, can I find a cleaner substitute?  (Why watch Transformers when I could watch Thor?)
S. Smith:  I'm not sure how you conclude that movies that entertain with torture, porn, and stripping can be in any way noble.  Do you really think people walked away better people for having seen it? Sure, they can claim they do, but I think simply viewing the subject matter undermines whatever decision they make to not be like that or treat people that way. I think Stonestreet's criteria does exactly what you want it to.

KM: Okay, take the question, "Does it make me want to be a better person?"  In Saw, the killer is torturing people because he is dying of cancer and they are taking life for granted.  It’s actually a pretty in-depth story, just with bloody torture.  One could easily say, “Saw makes me appreciate the blessings God has given me - including life.” Sure, the presentation is pretty awful, but doesn't AW's  criteria of nobility only ask about the end result?  And I don't think his view automatically excludes nudity.  That would, for example, exclude Schindler's List.

SS:  Is it possible that some people could take something positive from Saw?  Maybe, as long as Saw doesn't provide a justification or create sympathy for torture and violence.  But what about just the idea that it uses torture as entertainment?  Perhaps "nobility" should not be measured just what you do when you leave (the end result), but by what's happening to you while you watch (the process).
    Same for Showgirls and Boogie Nights.  There might be a story arc with a form of redemption, but let's be honest: they make us want to see more naked women. This does not promote truth or nobility, no matter how good I may think it is, or how hard the filmmaker is trying to send a positive message.

AW:  Here's a different example (and a little less extreme).  I don't like Pretty Woman because it does not make me want to be a better person. It makes me want to find a stunning hooker in need of rescuing and rescue her, and I don't mean with the help of Jesus.  I don't think the movie is true on two key points: assuming all I have read is true, prostitues are not as happy as Julia Roberts; and relationships that start like theirs do not work in the real world.   Pretty Woman may have been "good," but it was not true or noble.

KM: So what do you do with sitcoms?  As much as Joey should come down with HIV on "Friends," he can’t because it ruins the situation which makes the sitcom work.  And in order to be funny, the characters have to warped.  You’re not going to find many role models on sitcoms, because by nature they are not trying to be real people; they are creating stereotypes to satirize both good and bad things. This may bother you, but it doesn’t me because I know they are not trying to show real life.  So, it's not "true" at all, but can't it still be good and noble?

AW:  The fact the sitcoms reset is one thingI dislike about them. People start to think they can live episodic lives, and their real world lives are becoming disastrously fragmented as a result.  This does not mean individual episodes do not contain good things, but the medium sends a message.  When life is broken down into unconnected episodes, that is part of a worldview that people absorb. Sure, they can be noble and good, but it's tough for them to be true (though that's probably the case for everything on television simply because of the medium).
    My bigger concern with today's comedies is that they make me laugh at things I shouldn't. The Office is funny, but should I really be laughing at Oscar and Dwight?  Good, true, noble entertainment should make my emotions match the real world. I want to laugh or cry at the right things, otherwise life gets very confusing.

KM: So what funny things can Christians watch?   Tommy Boy makes fun of drug addicted gluttons.  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles makes fun of another overweight dude.  Jim Carrey spends Dumb and Dumber trying to get laid.  Every comedy purposely distorts the world and makes fun of sin.  I don’t know how you get around it.  Sometimes, laughing at serious issues helps to change our perspective in a good way while our guard is down - it's the spoonful of sugar.  Isn't that why God gave us a sense of humor?

AW:  If the Bible were a long-running TV show, would it be acomedy, tragedy, or both? Perhaps you are right about comedies; I can see  Ecclesiastes working great as an Old Testament version of Men of a Certain Age.  On the other hand, I'm pretty certain King Saul would star in an early version of Breaking Bad. Either way, the genres would have to capture how honest, deep, whimsical, dark, light, beautiful, true, noble, good, and hopeful the Bible.  I'm trying not to settle for less from my TV.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


In an effort to keep up with an increasingly influential entertainment culture, I recently walked into Horizon Bookstore in Traverse City and asked the manager, “What’s the next Hunger Games?” Though the HG trilogy was not ideal, there was a lot to like, especially in comparison to other recent series (I'm talking to you, Twilight).
The answer? Divergent.

This is the beginning of what I hope will be a long list of reviews of trending YA books.  It is my attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth.  I hope you find the reviews helpful.
Oh, and one other thing: There will be spoilers.

 Divergent is the first book in a trilogy (the second book, Insurgent, has been released) for which the movie rights have already been optioned. 


The story is set in a dystopian future where a decision has been made to separate people into five key factions, each representing a key virtue needed to make society work. 
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world.  Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality – of mankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is.  They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray….     
Those who blamed aggression formed Amity (peace). Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite (knowledge). Those who blamed duplicity created Candor (truth). Those who blamed selfishness became Abnegation (selflessness). Those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless (fearless)."
In this world, faction is everything. “Without a faction,” we read more than once, “we have no purpose and reason to live.”  In some ways, the story reads like a commentary on the polarization of political, economic and religious factions within America. As far as introducing a YA audience to the dangers of this disconnection, Divergent does a great job.  There’s even a study guide at the back with questions to help readers (and book groups) wrestle with some of the deeper issues raised.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bumper Sticker Logic

 While driving through town today, I pulled up behind a car sporting the following bumper sticker: "My sh**** attitude is none of your f****** business."  Except there were no asterisks, and now it was my business.  In fact, it was the business of everybody who pulled up behind that particular car.  It immediately became my business because it's the kind of publicly displayed message that makes my 12-year-old look away with embarrassment as he reads it, and makes me hope my 6-year-old in the back seat doesn't use that sentence to work on his phonics.

 My initial annoyance at the lack of social grace was momentary, but I became increasingly bothered by the bad thinking.  The bumper sticker makes no sense. The slogan is just a condensed way of saying, "I am going to make you pay attention to something that is none of your business, and then get angry and swear at you because you don't ignore my passive aggressive obnoxiousness."

I am convinced we have become a society that ponders serious issues without much more than bumper sticker depth. Unfortunately, the supporting evidence is everywhere.

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."  This one tops my list, because so many other equally foolish statements find confirmation here.  Does this mean the expense tabs, the debt, the compromises of morality, the memories, and the hotel towels all actually, truly stay there?  The Hangover was a morally bankrupt movie, but even Hollywood had the decency to show a little bit of a ripple effect.

 The Vegas slogan is a brilliant ad campaign - who wouldn't want a free pass on anything they do for a couple days?  The problem is, it's just not true.  What would happen if a plaintiff said to the judge, "You know, what happened in my car while I was driving drunk should stay in the car."  Or if a skydiver kept muttering, "What happens in the air stays in the air."  Uh, no.  What happens anywhere happens in real life; it matters. There are no free passes.

"What happens in the privacy of my bedroom is nobody's business," and its close cousin, "Keep the government out of my bedroom." 
Let's be honest. What we are really saying is this: "I want to live in a nation where everybody agrees that any sexual action in which we (specifically 'I') engage in privately is okay, and won't have any effect outside of the moment."  But that's not true.