Once again, August Burns Red has a new Christmas song. This came out a few weeks ago, but I just stumbled across it. That works out because over at Christ and Pop Culture, they are doing a series this week Stations of Home Alone. Rock out here and then head over to read Wade Bearden’s Can a Filthy Animal Have a Soul? and check back throughout the week for more!
As a new Thanksgiving (more or less) tradition, Ali and I went to see the most recent and last installment of The Hunger Games. We were both thankful we had a good meal beforehand and that we don’t live in Panem. I haven’t read the books but Ali said Mockingjay Part 1 was the best book to movie adaptation she has seen and that this one was even better than the book. If you want to argue that, I guess you’ll have to figure out how to take that up with her. Also, I realize that only the first movies is “The Hunger Games” and that the second was “Catching Fire.” But, much like Game of Thrones, the title of the first book gets imposed on the series (which is maybe more intentional in this case).
I’ve written about The Hunger Games before, but that was three years ago and in reference to the first installment. Having seen them all now, here some random thoughts.
First, I tend to really hate the middle of each movie. Even knowing how the whole series ended before watching the first movie, I really didn’t like the intensity of the “fight for life” segment that takes up the main part of each movie. The “arena” where this fight takes place shifts in each movie, coming ever closer and closer to the heart of The Capitol. In each case though, Katniss always seems to be up against a severe and brutal assault engineered by The Capitol. Since you’re identifying with her, you feel the brutality of it, and I just don’t enjoy that as a form of entertainment. However…
Second, while we’re on the subject of identification, D. L. Mayfield makes a fascinating point in her article on the movie at Christ and Pop Culture:
Instead of Katniss, the person I think Suzanne Collins meant for us to truly identify with is Effie Trinket–the preposterous, good-hearted, naive accomplice and benefactor of the Capitol. We love her because she is silly and distracted but ultimately not responsible for the evils of her country. At the end of this film she kisses Katniss and wipes away a tear or two from her flickering blue eyelashes. Life will go on for her, we understand, in a somewhat normal way. Removed from the real violence and cost, Effie never fully understands her participation nor the consequences of the politics of oppression that dictated Panem. She herself had been a consumer of this story of Katniss, the Mockingjay, since the beginning. She sheds a tear and then moves on, a result of living and growing up within the capitol, a result of being on the dominant side of history. If Effie has been permanently affected by the violence and horror of both the Hunger Games and the subsequent casualties of war, we don’t get to see it. And in a way, we hope she doesn’t.
We want life to go on as normal. We want to escape the realities of the world we live in. So we blink back our own few tears, get out of our seats, and leave the theater. We try, just like Effie, to forget all that we have seen and know, because that is the easier way to live.
I think this is right on, at least in terms of The Hunger Games as cultural critique. The majority of people who reads the books or see the movies are not Katnisses. They are not oppressed and in need of some salvation from the horrors of everyday life (at least at the cultural level). They are instead, like Effie: part of the dominant culture and generally not affected by the plight of those less fortunate. We may collide with it here and there, but that’s about it. That is probably part of why I don’t enjoy the fight for life as a form of entertainment. There’s a sense in which is shouldn’t be entertaining because it can too easily map onto real life struggles of people in our current world, not necessarily some future dystopia. For more on that point, you should read the rest of the article.
Lastly, I couldn’t help but think of Katniss as a kind of counterpoint to The Dark Knight’s joker. Think about it from the perspective of The Capitol residents. Here, I’ll put in analogical form:
Katniss : Capitol residents :: Joker : Gotham residents
To the Capitol residents, Katniss is an agent of chaos, eventually upending their way of life and disrupting the status quo. We view this a good thing in The Hunger Games and a bad thing in The Dark Knight. Because we are viewing things from Katniss’ point of view, her actions are a little more understandable (and sometimes predictable) than the Joker. However, she has a consistent pattern of playing by her own rules and asserting her own will to power in the pursuit of liberating the oppressed. I tend to wonder if Nietzsche would be comfortable calling her an Überfrau. For her perpetual assaults on the status quo, she might very well earn that title. She is certainly doing so on her own terms, an important existential prerequisite. She also celebrates life in all its forms, but is not afraid to kill if it suits her. All lives matter, but dictators must die.
I actually ended up watching this movie in high school because I had a Bible teacher that pointed out some of this imagery. I remember being slightly disturbed and wondering if it was possible that the Matrix was real. But then I remembered if Christianity is true then it’s not possible. The anxiety soon dissipated.
If you’re not familiar with the background of these videos, it is an alien explaining human culture to other aliens, via our movies. I’m sure you picked up that the LEGO movie had some philosophical undertones, but now you can know it for sure.
More often than not, I give books a 4 out 5 star rating after I read them. This is mainly because I’m fairly selective in what I choose to read and have a good idea what I might like. Occasionally, one of these books turns out to be a dud, and then I end up writing a post like this to explain why I thought that. The particular book in question is part of a series that I have otherwise enjoyed. Crossway’s Reclaiming The Christian Intellectual Tradition has offered several useful primers on various subjects from a Christian worldview. Unfortunately, the volume on Art and Music is not one of them. And yes, I made the title of this post intentionally ambiguous.
Before being critical, it’s worth noting that the opening chapter is quite useful. In it, authors Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake explain the difference between modern and postmodern understandings of beauty. When they are set to explain what we mean we say “beauty” the authors guide students well. Likewise, the bulk of chapter two is quite helpful. In it, the authors offer an apologetic for cultural engagement with art and music. As they see it, “There can be little doubt that the leisurely contemplation of general revelation is an essential part of the Christian life and that our capacity for joy depends, in part, on our being good stewards of leisure” (Kindle Loc. 452, emphasis original). Then, they go on to give four reasons why you should enjoy art and music:
- Artists and musicians expound general revelation in much the same way that preachers expound special revelation
- Art and music are communication from our fellow man
- Art and music help us avoid being desensitized
- Failure to enjoy art and music invites folly
So far, so good. Had the book ended there, I would probably commend it to you. However, there is huge exegetical blunder at the end of this chapter, and everything kind of goes downhill from there.
As the authors begin to conclude the chapter, they quote Genesis 1:10 with the word “saw” missing. The point they are trying to make is that most people would assume that the word missing should be “said.” Instead, God looked around and saw what he created was good. The authors then say this:
Notice that God does not look back with fond memory on the formlessness that has now been displaced. He shows no regret for the lost deep over which he once brooded. Instead, he pauses to enjoy the most beautiful physical objects around. We follow his example when we elect to fill our leisure hours with the very best things we can— among which are the best works of art and music. Lamentably , many Christians justify their fondness for things nearly “without form and void” by trying to point out one or two good things in those leisure activities. “Sure, the pop song I like isn’t as good as Beethoven, but there’s more in it than you think.” Yes, and there may have been something poignant about the earth without form and void, so pregnant with potential as it was. But this will be true of all created things, even the ones that humanity has, as far as possible, muted. We are to pursue the best things. (Kindle Loc. 591-598)
The last line is certainly something worth pondering and perhaps debating. But, making that point as an application of Genesis 1:10 is not a sound exegetical move to say the least.
To begin, the word “good” in Genesis 1:10 cannot be synonymous with “most beautiful” which is what the authors here assume. The former is a designation that may have aesthetic overtones, but it is not being used in context to communicate a superlative quality. Here it probably has a functional meaning related to order, which is essentially what God is doing in Genesis. Order is desirable, and both of those connotations connect with the word used, as well as with the way it would have been used in parallel ancient Near East creation accounts. While it is a stretch to base the idea that we should spend our time enjoying good things on Genesis 1:10, it is even more of a stretch to suggest that verse supports the idea that we should “fill our leisure hours with the very best things we can.” This could be true, but this is the wrong text to try to make that point.
Once the authors have concluded this chapter with the conviction that we must pursue the best in our leisure time, they have to have a criteria for establishing what that is. They thankfully shy away from making the high/low culture divide a way of determining what is best. The distinction has racist and imperialist roots and makes anyone who employs it seem like an elitist. Instead, they rely on C. S. Lewis in the following chapter to parse out the difference between use and reception of culture. If the art or music can be received, rather than merely used, it is an acceptable pursuit.
As the rest of the book unfolds, it seems like this was just a roundabout way for establishing a distinction between high and low culture and then arguing that only high culture is worthy of a Christian’s time. One sees this in the conclusion to chapter 3:
The reason partakers of popular culture and high culture are mystified by each other’s tastes is that they apply entirely different criteria for judging culture, according to whether they are accustomed to using it or receiving it. There are many appropriate uses for art and music, which need not be denigrated. But for the leisurely contemplation of general revelation, for what we do when we listen to (as opposed to “put on”) music and look at (as opposed to “put up”) art, the best works will be those that, like the Grünewald and the Raphael, reward reception. (Kindle Loc. 800-805, emphasis original)
While I would agree that we should aim for reception in our leisurely contemplation, I don’t think pop culture is excluded. The reason for that is that I don’t make the mistake the authors make in chapters 4 and 5. There, they apply criteria for evaluating a work of art to a scene from a movie (chapter 4) and criteria for classical music to a pop song (chapter 5). This is a slight oversimplification, but the point is that once you set up the evaluating criteria in a way favorable to high culture, folk and pop culture come out looking unworthy of your time (especially in the latter case).
Much of this could have been avoided if the foundational exegetical mistakes didn’t set the tone in chapter 2. By seeing a call to only enjoy the best in leisurely cultural contemplation, the authors would not have had to come up with criteria for determining the best. This is the wrong category to employ when deciding on cultural pursuits. For one, it doesn’t actually work in practice other than to decide that some genres of music are better than others. Also, it doesn’t work within a given genre of music. If Rachmaninoff is the best when it comes to piano concertos, should you bypass Chopin? If Bach is the best, does that mean downplaying Beethoven?
A better conviction is to enjoy everything to the glory of God. This entails actually figuring out how to do that with whatever cultural pursuits you have. At bare minimum it would mean reflecting on them well instead of passively consuming them. Another post would be need to sketch out what I think that looks like, and motivated by the lack of helpful direction in this book, I might just do that.
As is our tradition, we’re finishing out the year with a Christopher Nolan film. Part of what I like to do in Bible class is teach cultural criticism, and appreciation of good storytelling and cinematography. So, two years ago it was Inception. Last year it was The Prestige. And now Interstellar.
I was perhaps over-hyped by it last fall but thoroughly enjoyed seeing it in theaters. It begged for further analysis, but I had other things to focus on. With summer coming and now the fact that I’ll watch it three times in the next week, I’ve collected some articles from around the web for further reading. I also picked up The Science of Interstellar because I really wanna know how plausible it all is (spoiler: it’s at least plausible, it not yet possible)
If humanistic pop science is a religion, then Christopher Nolan is its high priest and “Interstellar” its rapture story. This ambitious film with magnificent scope and epic images is less an adventure story and more an exposition of a frothy, inch-deep, godless faith that science alone can save and yet that love conquers all, even science.
My films are always held to a weirdly high standard for those issues that isn’t applied to everybody else’s films—which I’m fine with. People are always accusing my films of having plot holes, and I’m very aware of the plot holes in my films and very aware of when people spot them, but they generally don’t.
To me it seems that Interstellar, perhaps more than any of Nolan’s films to date, positively resounds with religious—even Christian—stuff that might not ring as loudly if you weren’t steeped in it to begin with.
To wit: Cooper promises Murph he’ll return to earth, and she despairs of his return, then realizes he’s been talking to her and guiding her all along, which rings awfully sharply of the early Christian church’s assumption that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. And Cooper communicates with Murph through books (hello). He has “become” one of those beings who exists on more than three planes—you know, for a while at least, he’s omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent. There’s the somewhat unavoidable new-Adam-and-Eve imagery near the end. And did anyone hear echoes of Lewis’s Space Trilogy?
If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives of those atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.
It could be argued that Interstellar is a product of how far humanity has come. In his ninth feature film, Christopher Nolan stretches technology to a near breaking point, producing a visceral absorption of sight and awe-producing sound (and silence). Narratively speaking, Interstellar also presents human technology at its highest heights, it’s outermost point of human evolution. Man can go farther than they have ever gone before, reaching the ends of the galaxy, and more. Just like technological advancement isn’t what keeps its characters scratching and crawling for life, Interstellar is a humanistic film grasping for something more. It pushes us to look to the stars. And when we do, we’ll find something bigger than ourselves.
One of the taglines, and most memorable lines in the film, is that ‘mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.’ In Interstellar, the world is broken, and mankind’s solution is to find a new earth. Their journey between the stars (hence the title) is guided by a mysterious force, which they guess to be some kind of multidimensional being, a force that wants to save humans from their fate and provide them with a new earth and a second chance. Where many films are concerned with our own personal mortality, this makes the picture a whole lot bigger: what is humanity’s purpose, and where will it go when it all ends here on earth? The existence of God and the book of Revelation make sci-fis like this somewhat redundant, as Christians have a hope of a new earth that will replace this current broken planet, but it’s refreshing to see mainstream blockbuster cinema grappling with such weighty themes. The astronauts in this film aim to find a new planet somewhere light years away from this earth, but the hope of those who read Revelation 21 is that instead of finding us a new home, this one we currently live on will be perfected and made new, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more for the former things have passed away.” Instead of vague multidimensional beings who will provide a new home for us, it’s the God who created us in the first place, making all things right. Yet what both the film and Revelation agree on is that this earth isn’t going to last forever, and that something is fundamentally broken that needs to be fixed. It’s important to work out what, then, is mankind’s next step.
Lastly, Christopher Nolan was a guest editor of Wired, leading to these posts:
By the time Christopher Nolan signed up to direct Interstellar and started rewriting its script, astrophysicist Kip Thorne had been working with Nolan’s brother, Jonathan (who goes by Jonah), on getting his ideas onto film for years. When Chris and Thorne met, they quickly found common ground: Thorne wanted science in the story, and Nolan wanted the story to emerge from science. So in Interstellar, time dilation—the passing of time at different rates for different observers—became an emotional obstacle between a father and his daughter. Quantum gravity, the reconciliation of relativity and quantum mechanics, became the plot’s central mystery. The visual effects team even collaborated with Thorne to make sure their depictions of a black hole were accurate as well as elegant.
To get ahead in life, spend some time on the International Space Station. Why? Well, according to the theory of relativity, astronauts on the ISS age more slowly due to the spacecraft’s high orbital speed. It’s called time dilation, and it means that when they return they’re a bit younger than they would have been—as if they’ve traveled into the future. (The effect is very small—it would take more than 100 years on the ISS to warp ahead by just one second.) But not all space travel will keep you young. Like speed, gravity also slows time, so your clock revs up as you get farther from a large mass like Earth. As a result, satellites in higher orbits age more quickly. Got your heart set on space travel but want to age at a normal, earthly pace? Good news! There’s a sweet spot, 3,174 kilometers above Earth’s surface, where the effects of increased speed and reduced gravity cancel each other out. You can hang out there as long as you like without fear of relativistic shenanigans.
Before Cooper left his daughter to find humanity a new home in space, there were the Lazarus missions. Led by Dr. Mann, this was NASA’s first attempt to locate a hospitable exoplanet. So what happened to Mann on the other side of the wormhole? We teamed Christopher Nolan with award-winning comic-book artist Sean Gordon Murphy to tell Mann’s story.
Given the earlier celebration of May the 4th this week, I thought we’d get back to film Friday with these videos from Earthling Cinema. In case you’re curious, the premise of these videos is that human culture no longer exists and an alien is explaining it to other aliens using the cultural artifacts of our movies.
Last time, we looked the core part of Mike Cosper’s The Stories We Tell. Now, we’ll go back and hit chapters 3-4 before finishing up with the last chapter. From what I can tell, you can still get the eBook of this for free as a Christ and Pop Culture member. That probably won’t be true forever, so better join and take advantage while you still can!
Chapter 3 in Mike Cosper’s The Stories We Tell covers three interconnected themes. First, Cosper examines stories that look back to an idyllic time now lost. Second, Cosper looks at stories that take place in what seems like an idyllic environment but in reality have a darker underbelly (the Truman Show for instance). Lastly, Cosper looks at stories where humanity tries to play God and it invariably goes wrong. The chapter is aptly titled “The Ghosts of Eden.”
Chapter 4 looks at the search for love through the lens of shows like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock. the former of which would have been more interesting had Cosper written his analysis in light of the show’s series finale. Cosper also examines reality dating shows, specifically, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?
While his analysis is thought provoking, I came away feeling like much more could have been done with the topic of both of these chapters. Specifically in chapter 4, the point could be made that the Gospel itself is a romantic comedy and our desire to watch essentially the same story over and over again shows an innate longing within us. Cosper examines this longing well, and in the end does foreshadow the Gospel (90), but he could have taken his analysis deeper by pointing out all these stories teach us ultimate fulfillment is found in another person and from the Christian point of view, that person is Christ. Romantic comedies aren’t wrong in the essence of their story, just the object of their affections.
When it comes to final chapter, provocatively titled “Honey Boo Boo and The Weight of Glory,” Cosper offers some keen cultural analysis. Especially now in the wake of the show’s cancellation, his insights are worthy of our attention. Before getting to Honey Boo Boo, Cosper examines the connection between reality TV and narcissism. Predictably, Kim Kardashian figures prominently. At the opposite end of the Kardashian family sits Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a show which “thrives on featuring the saddest elements of this family’s life” (202). What Cosper picks up in his analysis is savagely satirized in a recent Onion article. We have a “vulture-like attitude” in consuming and ridiculing the life of this backward family from the Deep South. We look. We laugh. We move on.
Cosper then shifts the discussion by connecting our fascination with reality TV to our obsession with social media. We’re fascinated with self-broadcasting and the rise of reality TV stars is just one way that facet of our culture manifests itself. We have the opportunity to glory in ourselves and bring an audience along for the ride. Cosper then notes that “Christian and non-Christian alike feel the dull ache of faded glory” (209). Our drive for glory isn’t wrong, merely misplaced, as C. S. Lewis has helped many understand.
This provides, I think, a fitting conclusion to the book. Cosper does offer a brief epilogue that includes a word to aspiring Christian filmmakers. But, by closing on a topic that other books on TV and movies might overlook, I think he shows that something that seems banal and not worthy of a second thought can be a pointer to deeper spiritual truth. In essence, Cosper’s book throughout is taking the everyday stories we encounter and probing their foundations to see what they provide evidence that the world we live in is the kind of world we would expect with Christian presuppositions. It provides a powerful case for what we believe but also models a way to open conversations with the wider culture about things that count.
I know we usually do philosophy on Fridays, but the Wisecrack channel that brought us 8-Bit Philosophy have a new show. Earthling Cinema is, in brief, film criticism done by an alien after humanity has been wiped out in a galactic civil war. The first film under consideration is Fight Club. If you haven’t seen the movie, this has a key spoiler in it. But, if you don’t plan to ever watch the movie, I guess that’s not a problem. If you have seen the movie, this is a good introduction to some of the issues and concepts the movie is offering commentary on.
Beginning in chapter 3, Cosper surveys many of the types of stories we tell in our cinematic arts. We have stories of paradise lost and playing God (chapter 3), of the search for love (chapter 4), of original sin and falls from grace (chapter 5), of the frustration and futility in a post-fall world (chapter 6), of fear and mystery (chapter 7), of violence vengeance and judgment (chapter 8), and finally of heroes (chapter 9). As you can see, Anchorman references do not figure prominently.
A potential downside, depending on your viewing habits is that chapters 5 and 6 are off-limits unless you watch Mad Men and The Wire respectively. If you don’t plan to watch either, you can read through the spoilers (Cosper is kind enough to warn), but if you’re not that familiar with either show, those chapters won’t be as familiar. I haven’t started Mad Men yet, but I plan to, and when I do, I’ll come back to these chapters.
I generally avoid horror movies, but I had seen enough X-Files to read chapter 7 with interest. The money chapters for me though were chapters 8 and 9, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. I’ll circle back to chapters 2-3 and in the next post.
Chapter 8 split time between Dexter and the films of Quentin Tarrantino, mostly Pulp Fiction. I’m not a fan of Dexter, but Ali was and so I saw enough episodes to follow Cosper’s analysis. On the other hand, I enjoy a good Tarrantino film, so I was more engaged with what Cosper had to say. Cosper points out that Tarrantino’s films “have a strong moral thread that unites them: sin, judgment, wrath, and resurrection” (167). He is also a playful filmmaker who wants to have fun with his audience, blend genres, and generate discussion. His films, because of their often over-the-top character, help to present a story where vengeance on wrong-doing is executed and the happy ending is acheived, but in a way that isn’t sappy or corny. Our enjoyment of films like this points to our hope that one day all wrongs will be made right, a hope that only Christians legitimately have.
Chapter 9 is still kind of working in this vein by tackling hero stories. Cosper draws connection between the archtypal hero stories and the story of Jesus in the Gospels. The archetype was developed by Joseph Campbell, building on the work of Carl Jung. In comparing ancient hero myths, the stories were strikingly similar, and so Campbell worked out a kind of blueprint for these sorts of stories. Specifically, it looks like this (Jesus’ action in parenthesis):
- Called Away (Incarnation)
- Tried and Tested (his temptations and ministry)
- Into the darkness (crucifixion)
- Out of the darkness (resurrection)
- Home again (ascension)
He then compares it to Frodo’s journey in Lord of The Rings, and Superman’s journey. He also charts how this journey is reflected in the stories of Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter (189):
Now one of the reasons for these similarities is that it just makes for good storytelling. Beyond that though, screenwriters are actually taught to do this explicitly. Building even further on the work of Campbell, Christopher Vogler spells out a more detailed hero’s journey in The Writer’s Journey (a book for screenwriters). As I previously pointed out, here are the stages in the first act, called Separation:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
In the second act, which can be split into two parts itself, Descent and Initiation, there is the single stage:
- Central Ordeal.
In the last act, called Return, the stages are:
- The Road Back
- Return with Elixir
Though I won’t elaborate on it here, you could use this grid as well for Katniss, Luke, and Harry. With a little help from Vern Poythress here is you can apply the above grid to Christ’s life and ministry. In the initial act (Challenge), Christ is in heaven (his Ordinary World) and is sent by the Father to redeem the world, which is a Call to Adventure that lacks a Refusal of the Call (Galatians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:14). At the outset of Christ’s public ministry there is a Crossing of the Threshold (Matthew 4:1-11). From there Christ makes Allies (the disciples) and Enemies (Satan, the Pharisees) and amidst the many Tests (challenges from Pharisees and demons) he breaks away often to meet with his Mentor (God the Father). All the while, Christ has set his face to Approach Jerusalem (for this emphasis, see Luke’s Gospel). In the second act, it is not a stretch at all to see Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the Central Ordeal of the gospel story (Matthew 26-27). In his death which is the start of the final act, Jesus was vindicated and received the Reward, completed the Road Back and was Resurrected from the dead. He then returned to his Ordinary World (heaven) having accomplished redemption and made the Elixir available to all who would believe (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:8-11; Romans 4:24-25).
As I see it, even though it happened in the middle of history, the Gospel is the archetype for all stories with a redemptive trajectory. Film is no exception, and Cosper makes that case as well in his writing. He wraps up the book with one more chapter, which along with chapters 3-4, will be the focus of my next post.