In Friday's New York Times, Samuel Friedman asks about the theological dimensions of Katherine Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty. Writing about the way that the discourse has been framed in sometimes unhelpful ways, he notes that the movie may have opened up a thorny but legitimate avenue of discussion:
So, by the first argument, the film is flawed because it does not follow the historical record. By the second, the film is flawed because torture does not work. What neither argument takes up, but what some theologians have been wrestling with throughout the “global war against terror,” is what a civilized society should think about torture even if it does work.
In that respect, “Zero Dark Thirty” may have done an unintended favor to the national discourse by positing that torture, at least sometimes, succeeds. How do we feel about that? The numerous awards for the film already suggest that we feel tolerant, even approving. Polling by the Pew Research Center has shown a swing between 2004 and 2011, from a majority of Americans rejecting the use of torture against terrorist suspects to a majority favoring it.
I find the increasing support of torture in the United States stomach turning, but Freedman notes that it does raise what are in many respects very morally important questions. Freedman goes on to survey some of the debate:
In 2007, as opinion was shifting, Professor Gushee of Mercer University helped write “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.” While condemning Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, and while affirming the nation’s right to self-defense, the declaration stated near its end:
“When torture is employed by a state, that act communicates to the world and to one’s own people that human lives are not sacred, that they are not reflections of the Creator, that they are expendable, exploitable, and disposable, and that their intrinsic value can be overridden by utilitarian arguments that trump that value. These are claims that no one who confesses Christ as Lord can accept.”
At least one such person offered a prominent rebuttal. Keith Pavlischek, who was then a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, faulted the declaration for not adequately distinguishing between captured terrorists and prisoners of war, and for not precisely defining torture.
At a theological level, he argued that the document had “explicitly repudiated Christian just war teaching.”
Pavlischek has a strange reading of the Christian just war tradition if he believes that a document that repudiates torture in any all of its forms, regardless of its effectiveness, in some sense "repudiated" it. The just war tradition has always relied in the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, and defined those who are prisoners, helpless, and represent no threat as being noncombantants. Even enemy soldiers in that circumstance can be restrained, but not harmed, shot, killed, or tortured. It is a wonton perversion of the Christian tradition to suggest anything else.
And once more, it is worth noting the bizzare quality of a debate about the morality of torture among Christians, who at the foundation of their faith, follow a man who was tortured to death. That, if nothing else, should create an instant and innate revultion and opposition toward any form of torture among anyone who would call him or herself a Christian.
Tony Jones wants to know whether people think that "The Life of Brian" is an anti-Christian film. And the answer, from my perspective is "yes, clearly it is" and "no, of course not, don't be stupid."
Tony draws our attention to this converstion between Pythons John Cleese and Micahel Palin and two, presumably Christian, critics of the film.
The Christian critique is, apparently, that no non-Christian viewing the film could walk away from it believing about Christianity what Chrisitans believe about Christianity, which is clearly the case. But then, why should they? The point of the film is obviously not to make Christian converts, and the mistake these critics make is in misunderstanding what the film was intended to lampoon.
Cleese and Palin try to make the point repeatedly that the film is sending up forms of religious hypocrisy and fanaticism that distort and undermine the message of Jesus Christ. Palin gets to the heart of the matter when he notes that he can't comprehend how Christians can go to church every week, listen to the Gospel, and yet continue to support war and vote to cut funding for hospitals. The response of the clergyman in the conversation (who Tony identifies as "the guy in the pink robe with the huge pectoral cross") is beside the point. The fact that there are Christians on the right side of the issue doesn't mean very much when the established church of England and the bulk of its members sit idly by and allow things to happen which are contrary to heart of the Gospel that they claim to follow. The most it might serve to prove is that Christians can be found, against all expectations, even in the Church.
And this leads me back to my point above: Yes, The Life of Brian is anti-Christian if you identify Christianity with the established Christian churches, their leaders and their followers. The movie is mercilessly anti-Chrsitian if that is your benchmark for Christianity.
On the other hand, if Christianity is understood in light of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, then the movie can't be said to be anti-Christian in any regard. Jesus Christ himself is treated with utmost respect throughout the movie. It's those who listen to him and purport to follow him (or his analogue, Brian), that are the butt of every single joke. So in that sense, Christianity isn't even the subject of the movie, never mind something the movie is against. And the movie seems to take no stand whatsoever on the other theological matters of God's existence or Christ's status as the messiah.
Of course, this requires us to make an uneasy distinction between Christ and his church, and that distinction is difficult to make to the degree that Christ is known and followed by this church. But the church is, like the apostles, a fumbling bunch of ninnies, who are usually incapable of finding their ass with both hands, never mind speaking definitively or authoritatively about the revelation of God among God's people.
I love A Man for All Seasons. It is truly one of my favorite movies and I return to it periodically in order to appreciate once more the fine writing and acting on display. Of course, A Man for All Seasons is also a play with an overtly political point about the need to stand up for one's conscience in the face of political pressure to yeild. This is a theme that Robert Bolt explores in a number of his plays and scripts, but its never more clearly on display than here.
And yet, Bolt is able to make his point about Thomas More only by leaving out some uncomfortable truths about his reign as Lord Chancellor of England, including his torture and execution of alleged heretics. Perhaps most egregious was the role he played in the capture, imprisonment, and execution of William Tyndale as punishment for translating the Bible into English.
All of which is to say that the use of Thomas More as the central figure in the U.S. Conferene of Catholic Bishops' "Fortnight of Freedom" in opposition to the proposed HHS contraception mandate somewhat problematic. Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches explains:
The United States government, unlike Henry's England, is not under the religious authority of Rome, or any religious body, for that matter. (That's in the Constitution, last time I checked.) Through the contraception mandate, or any other duly enacted law or regulation, such as the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the United States government is not flouting religious authority. That's because it doesn't answer to religious authority, like monarchs did in 16th century England. The United States is a democracy, an experiment born of events and ideas that took place long after Henry ordered More beheaded; of events and ideas that explicitly reject the notion of either monarchical or religious absolutism; and which protects Americans of all religious faiths from More's (or Tyndale's) fate. (The Bishops apparently don't like these events, or misapprehend them and their relationship to American democracy. The Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, recently said that "efforts to restrict religious liberty are seemingly founded in a reductive secularism that has more in common with the French Revolution than with America's founding.")
The very idea that providing women with insurance coverage is somehow tantamount to the terror and violence inflicted on both sides in Reformation England—or to the historical cataclysm that was Henry's schism from Rome—is so absurd I'm stunned as my fingers tap across my keyboard. If we're going to spend the next five and half months discussing whether Barack Obama is like Henry VIII, well, God help us.
We seem to live in an age of rhetorical excess. It's not enough for the Bishops to disagree with the Obama adminstration on the contraception mandate. He must be the equivalent of Henry the VII, and their decision to oppose the mandate must be seen as an act of martyrdom on par with the beheading of Thomas More. This is a ridiculous comparison on its face, not least because the mandate as it is currently constructed allows the church to keep its scruples while still allowing for their non-Catholic employees (as well as those Catholics who dissent on the issue of contraception), to continue to have access to contraception.
But as I've written before, the real issue for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not really their rights to keep their own consciences, but their insistance that everyone else, Catholic and non-Catholic, must keep their conscience as well. And it is this point that makes the Thomas More comparison strangely apt.
More died for the sake of his conscience. More also caused others to die for the sake of their consciences. He burned heretics at the stake and he pursued William Tyndale mercilessly (a fact that ought to give the Bishops' Protestant allies some pause). Like the Bishops, what he wanted was not freedom of conscience regarding matters of religion, but for his own view of religious orthodoxy to prevail. And he was willing to make others suffer for the sake of that vision. While one may admire many of his qualities as a Christian and as Henry VII's Lord Chancellor, it would be a mistake to hold him up in an American context as a defender of religious liberty. He was most certainly not, and neither are the Bishops.
Jonnie Epinga at Sojourners interviews Rebecca Barrett-Fox, who has spent years studying, worshiping with, and attending protests with the Westboro Baptist Church. Some of what she learned?
What is the role of empathy in your research?
In the 1980s, feminist ethnographers started saying: We all know that all that stuff about sheer objectivity is not true. We have an emotional connection, and not talking about it is denying a traditional form of women’s language. One of the central tenets of feminist ethnography is that ethnography should be for the use and benefit of the subjects—for example, women survivors of marital abuse.
But what happens when you have some empathy with a person whose goals you can’t share, don’t share, won’t share, whose position you just generally don’t respect? Given my personality, it’s not that easy for me to turn that off. You want to connect, you want to be approved of. It was helpful for me to take new people to church services with me. I didn’t become desensitized because I could see the horror in their faces.
Taking careful field notes was helpful too. I was counting, How many times did they say “fag” today? Putting my own names to the types of people church members were sending to hell—Catholics, queer people, soldiers—was helpful: That person he’s talking about, that’s my friend Karen, my friend Alicia. We’ve learned that if you know someone who is gay or lesbian, you’re less likely to be homophobic. When you put a face to this hatred, you just can’t do it anymore.
That’s probably also true of your relationship with the Westboro members.
Yes, it is. You just can’t say these people are just awful anymore. What they do is awful, but it also illuminates how many other awful things are done under the guise of conservative Christianity. I don’t want to make a blanket statement about all conservative Christian churches—what I’m really talking about is the homophobic/political branch. You can have conservative theology that doesn’t end up here, proclaiming God’s hate. ...
What was the most valuable thing you learned from your research?
I was able to see church members more as complete people and people in a process, and that made me feel hopeful. I think about St. Paul. Look where he started: stoning people, doing more damage than Westboro Baptists have done. There’s hope here for transformation. Westboro Baptists are fond of saying that “the arm of God cannot be shortened.” That is, you can do nothing to make God do less than God will do; you cannot lessen God’s ability to save. I try to apply that concept to how I see others—that I cannot limit them, that I cannot “shorten” their potential to be loved by God, to be people of love.
The entire interview is worth reading, but registration is required.
Chi-Pa Amshe, speaking as a spokesperson for the Jedi council (Falkna Kar, Anzai Kooji Cutpa and Daqian Xiong), believes that Jediism can merge with other belief systems, rather like a bolt-on accessory.
"Many of our members are in fact both Christian and Jedi," he says. "We can no more understand the Force and our place within it than a gear in a clock could comprehend its function in moving the hands across the face. I'd like to point out that each of our members interprets their beliefs through the prison of their own lives and although we offer guidance and support, ultimately like with the Qur'an, it is up to them to find what they need and choose their own path."
Lucas can screw with the movies as much as he wants, but Star Wars belongs to the world.
At Stuff Christians Like, guest blogger Paul Angone discusses the tendency among many Christians to attempt to claim "secular" musicians as belonging to the Christian fold:
Jon Acuff already wrote about arguing about the faith of U2, but the list of Secular-Christian, Christian musicians is longer than the Levitical laws. Such reputable artists include Collective Soul, OneRepublic, Justin Bieber, Jessica Simpson, Regina Spektor, The Fray, Miley Cyrus, Jewel – the list holds no prejudice to genre or style. If Google says they’re Christian, then it must be so.
Creed was driving the train for years with star-struck Christians climbing aboard — Five Iron Frenzy t-shirts quickly being replaced by Scott Stapp looking pensively towards the sky with arms wide open.
Mumford and Sons was the main addition to the list from 2011. Songs like “Awake My Soul” and “Sigh No More” leading countless people to the Lord, of this we are sure. Sure “Little Lion Man” and its chorus of F-bombs confused the equation a bit. But those F-bombs were nothing more than explosions of authentic-emotional-truth. Nothing more. And when in doubt, we’ll just turn that song down in the office. Problem solved.
He offers several reasons why this is done, partly to aid in evangelism, partly to offer a guilt free listening experience, and partly to be able to come across to the world at large as "cool."
Although I don't relate to music or society the way many evangelicals do, I have to admit that there is a part of me that likes to discover that my favorite bands and I share a religious worldview. It's never really bothered me if they don't. I mean, I listen to some of the most profane, vulgar, and anti-religious music without batting an eyelash or thinking that it matters much in terms of my faith. But when I discover that a band or a musician is "Christian" without belonging to the "Christian music" genre, I feel both glad to have that connection and pleased that my sense of good taste doesn't create a conflict between my religious beliefs and my preferred music. Given much of the dreck that passes for Christian music, I'm always happy to know that there is music that I can connect to thematically that doesn't require me to suffer through the horror of CCM.
Since I have the Mountain Goats in regular rotation in iTunes, I'm always struck by the Biblical and theological literacy of John Darnielle's writing, but from everything I've been able to gather, his relationship with religion is deeply ambivalent. At times he has identified himself as an atheist, and at other times a Christian, but always in either case with a foot in the other camp. I find this comforting, insofar as I often feel like I too have a foot in both camps, even though I am quite clearly by default and by intention a Christian.
At the end of the day, I think the desire to share a link of this kind with people we respect or admire is probably at least partly rooted in a degree of insecurity -- the suspicion that we really aren't as plugged into something real or meaningful as we think we are. Or perhaps its the feeling of being validated by the connection, the idea that despite our doubts, our shared worldview testifies that we are on to something true. And again, perhaps its the desire to feel like we have something worthwhile, and its recognition by "the world" enables us to continue to insist on its worth.
Whether the people we want to insist on including in our club actually want to be included of course, is another matter.
David Brooks, striking some familiar Brooksian themes, offers some constructive criticism for what he sees as a new generation of activists, while invoking the spirit of noir fiction:
Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.
In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on. So if I could, presumptuously, recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos, I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least the movies based on them.
The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.
A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.
He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.
On the one hand, there are a lot of times when Brooks sounds like your stuffy uncle, lecturing you at Thanksgiving about the need to come down to earth and stop chasing moonbeams. I also get a little bit nervous at what seems to be some lurking authoritarianism in Brooks' social vision. That said, I do think, on the other hand, that he points to some important dimensions of creating lasting and effective movements for social change, although I don't think he wants them to change in quite the same way that I do. He's sort of classic Burkean conservative in many ways, wanting to preserve tradition while being open to the new. This makes him a radical leftist from the perspective of the modern Republican party.
So where Brooks and I see eye to eye is on the need for politically realistic movements for social change in order to create a just and stable society. Thus Brooks and I also see eye to eye on the continuing importance of Reinhold Niebuhr to political discussions in the United States. With that in mind, I was gratified to see that we're not the only ones thinking along these lines:
If EVER there was a moral realist who understood the place of sin and grace in the human soul ~ as well as in politics - it was Niebuhr. He made it clear that human sin has to do with our ability to see and name the common good, but the inability to do it consistently. He articulated an understanding of politics that grasped the difference between how grace works in the individual human heart and the body politic. And he offered people of good will a way to advance the cause of compassion and justice that was always grounded in humility.
In fact, Niebuhr saw naivete and moral utopianism as an ally of hubris - sometime to be challenged as clearly as possible - knowing, of course, that "now we see as through a glass darkly... only later shall we see face to face."
The relevance of Niebuhr was so evident I'm surprised Brooks didn't make the link explicit himself. Nevertheless, it is always good to see Reinie invoked in these conversations.
Tea party darling Rep. Allen West (R-FL) on Tuesday warned that as many as 80 Democratic lawmakers are members of the Communist Party. Speaking to about 100 supporters and 15 protesters in Jensen Beach, the freshman congressman refused to name names after saying that that he had "heard" that 80 Democrats serving in the House of Representatives were secretly Communist Party members, according to the The Palm Beach Post News.
When pressed, West's office said he was referring to the entire membership of the House Progressive caucus. Sure, Alan. Sure.
As I watched Katniss Everdeen fight to the death, I became aware that I could just as well have been a citizen of Panem, watching the Hunger Games on a giant screen, rooting for favorites, desensitized from the film’s artfully-orchestrated-so-as-to-maintain-a-PG-13-rating-but-still-incredibly-disturbing violence.
She goes on to connect the themes of the novel, and to a lesser extent the movie, to some of the overarching themes of Christianity:
As in Christianity, violence in "The Hunger Games" also serves a purpose: It is not gratuitous. It is not voyeuristic. But there’s a difference as well: We the viewers are not witnessing a past event. We feel like we are seeing the Games in real time, that we are part of Panem and, by virtue of sitting in the audience, part of its dysfunction.
That powerful revelation encourages us to contemplate the ways that we are complicit in violence in our own world and the ways in which we do not object.
So perhaps the great irony revealed by the film is that we are not meant to see it. We’re not intended to watch its violence, because this story, as Gale says, is meant to be protested. Which means that, ironically, "The Hunger Games’ " greatest triumph would be an empty theater and streets full of people demanding the kinds of changes needed in Katniss’ world and in our own.
I'm still working my way through the first novel, and I'm unlikely to get to the movie any time soon, but this does cause me to reflect a bit on my own media violence consumption: From The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Mass Effect, I consume and (via video and role-playing games) participate in a lot of simulated violence. It's never really bothered me on a moral level because I do recognize a distinction between real and simulated violence. And I always go back to the Aristotelian concept of catharsis when all else fails.
But underneath all of that is the very real question: Not "is simulated violence anesthetizing me to real violence," for which the answer is clearly no. But "is reveling in fantastic worlds and narratives anesthetizing me to the real needs and problems of the world I'm living in. And all too often I fear the answer to that is yes.