Sunday, October 12, 2014

On the Intrusion of the Religious
into Secular Storytelling

One of the reasons prayer and religion integrate so poorly into otherwise secular media is that God doesn't make very good set dressing.  You can try to neuter religious practice by sentimentalizing it (formerly the most common approach -- the young child offering innocent prayers), or by limiting its presence to moments of high drama and human bafflement (also common -- the protagonist crying out to God), or by demonizing it (now most common -- the psychotic zealot, the clerical predator), but seriousness about things divine logically demands a reorientation of interest away from the mundane concerns of the typical secular narrative and toward God.  (When there is eternity to be gained or lost, the passions of the flesh and the pursuit of worldly peace seem rather thin.)

This demand for reorientation is jarring to the secular storyteller on two levels: (1) it threatens the integrity of the plot and the intelligibility of secular character arcs; (2) it forces the narrative into a conversion pattern, which cannot (by the lights of the secular writer) be done in a gratifying way without yielding to moralistic cliches.

One of the normal features of realist narrative is the absence of a clean resolution to the driving conflict in the plot.  In secular realism, this lack of resolution is undergirded by a tacit nihilism or absurdism: there is no happy ending because life itself is an unresolvable series of tensions.  But this lack of resolution seems to belong more properly to religious narratives, because the "locus refrigerii, lucis et pacis" which provides satisfaction for our struggles is not visible in this vale of tears, to which all our stories must be confined.  Like the life of St. Francis, the best religious stories end in a place of suffering and decay, with an ellipsis pointing to eternal life.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

One Line Movie Summaries

Since I have just finished eating a box of chocolates given to me for my birthday, it seems time to write up a few random movie summaries.  One line each, chosen based on random flipping through an old master-list of my Netflix ratings.


Primer -- Two tech professionals accidentally invent a time machine—or wait, they already invented the time machine, and now they're just reliving the past in order to change things. (3)

Princess Mononoke -- Young man is poisoned by a crazed forest spirit, ends up entangled in a plot to decapitate nature, falls in love with a girl raised by wolves. (4)

Prometheus -- Alien prequel that basically amounts to a really really high-budget X-Files episode: in search of our alien creators, scientists end up uncovering an ever-mutating virus which was meant to destroy humanity. (3)

Proof -- The daughter of a recently-deceased famous insane math prof proves the Goldbach Conjecture or Riemann or something, and no one is sure whether it's her work or her dad's.

Proof of Life -- Meg Ryan's husband is kidnapped by a Columbian drug cartel, and she falls for Russell Crowe, who plays the military guy responsible for negotiating his release. (3)

Psycho -- Woman steals a bunch of money and runs away from work, only to be murdered by a crazy hotel manager who dresses up like his dead mother. (3)

Pulp Fiction -- A bunch of random stuff happens to some hit guys who work for Marcellus Wallace. (2)

Pygmalion -- The original film version of G.B. Shaw's awful play about an arrogant professor re-creating a woman in his own image.

Rachel Getting Married -- Anne Hathaway plays a disturbed alcoholic whose sister is getting married in the midst of a lot of emotional drama and dysfunction. (4)

Radio Flyer -- Elijah Wood plays one of two little boys who escape from an abusive step father by building an airplane out of a wagon. (2)

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Indiana Jones chases the Ark of the Covenant while Nazis try to use its power to guarantee military success. (3)

Rain Man -- Tom Cruise discovers his long-lost autistic brother and kidnaps him. (3)

Rango -- Johnny Depp plays a lizard whose desert hallucinations play out something like the plot of Chinatown. (2)

Ransom -- Mel Gibson tries to get his son back from kidnappers, but I don't think he does. (2)

Rashomon -- Different witnesses to a murder-suicide recount the event in totally contradictory ways. (3)

Rat Race -- A group of millionaires watch a bunch of ordinary Vegas vacationers race to win a large cash prize.  (2)

Ratatouille  -- A rat with culinary talent helps a famous chef's oafish son demonstrate that great cooks can come from any part of the population. (5)

Ratcatcher -- A young Glasgow boy sees his friend drown and, after struggling with this for a while, commits suicide. (3)

Ready to Rumble -- Two wrestling superfans go in search of their favorite wrestler in order to help him overcome something.  (1)

Rear Window -- Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart uncover a murder from the window of his studio apartment. (4)

Rebecca -- Something about a new wife and a crazy housekeeper too attached to her former mistress... fire.  (4)

Reds -- Diane Keaton is a liberated woman who ends up with Communist labor organizer Warren Beatty, who wrote this interminable mess of a film, and ends up sticking with him through thick and thin as they make their way to Soviet Russia to help the revolutionary cause. (2)

Renaissance Man -- Danny Devito teaches remedial english to soldiers, and gets caught up in their personal dramas. (2)

Return to Oz -- Horrifying sequel to The Wizard of Oz, involving a weird headless witch, rollerskate monsters, an evil mountain king and an insane asylum. (3)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

But everyone else is raised to believe
their religion, too...

A former student wrote to me recently with the following concern.  It happens to be a common one—one that has occurred to me in the past, so I thought I'd post it with my reply.

The reason I am Catholic is that I was born into a particular family, who brought me up a certain way, and now I believe in something called Faith and God. But people born in any other place (India or Iran) believe their religions are true, and their faith in their gods are correct. Where we were born had a drastic influence on our perceptions of things. So how do we know our faith is the one we should be believing?

There are a few approaches to answering this question.

— First, we could do a rational investigation of the facts, and what are called "reasons of credibility".  If you look at other religions, and you investigate their teachings and history, you should try to be sensitive to problems of consistency and signs of constructed-ness.  E.g. with Islam, there are certain claims made about the Quran—very strong claims.  If the Quran is the sort of thing that Islam claims it to be, when you look at the Quran, does the nature of the text correspond credibly with its claims about itself?  You can do this not just with Islam but with a variety of religions.

— Second, we should be aware of the different roles that different religions play in different cultures.  E.g. most world religions are not centered on claims to truth, but on local cultic ritual practices.  A Hindu does not have any interest in propagating his beliefs, because his beliefs aren't really about believing things so much as fulfilling a set of cultic expectations in the context of his community.  It's not really true to say that Hindus or Shamanists or Animists or Buddhists have "faith" the way Christians have "faith", because they don't, in general, make the sorts of claims that Christians make in the first place.

— Third, there is the question of the supernatural character of faith.  Ultimately, you cannot prove by merely rational means that Christianity is to believed, though you might have good evidence that a variety of non-Christian religions don't meet criteria for credibility.  The evidence of Christian faith comes from the illumination of someone who is ready to receive faith.  Faith is "blind" but only in terms of our external senses.  The deeper you enter into the Christian Faith, the less blind it becomes, because the gift of understanding works in you, and things become intelligible in an extraordinary way.  This is not something you can prove or deduce, it's a grace.

— Ok, now about where you're born.  It's true that people are educated by their parents and formed by their local culture, but there's a temptation to take that truth to an extreme, and assume that because culture and parents form us and teach us, everything about how we think and see the world is dependent on the contingencies of where we're born, and to which parents.  But that's really not true.  Parents and culture give a slant to the development of human nature, but nature remains.  A sign of this is the striking community of ideas, morals, and philosophical tendencies across all the major world civilizations.  These common features of human society aren't just a result of shared influences, they're a result of a common human nature.  And so you have to ask, given the common ground between all humans, which cultures and beliefs tend to perfect humanity.  Some investigation of the different approaches is beneficial here, but there is a totally unique grace to Christianity, which surpasses the other religions of the world.  Basically: it's true that you have prejudices, but not all prejudices are bad.