Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

The Ubiquity of Kitsch

Scruton

In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:

Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.

Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:

This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.

Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:

Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”

He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.

This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here:

Superheroes And Virtue

There’s at least one way in which I’m a total nerd: I love comic book movies. Superheroes were a staple of my childhood, and while my tastes have matured (at least, arguably so) since those days, I have retained my enjoyment of the genre.

Of course, everyone can appreciate the spectacle of superheroes. And even moreso today, with comic book movies utilizing the cutting edge of special effects technology (both CGI and otherwise).

But, while I can’t say I don’t love the rush of adrenaline such action scenes can create, that’s honestly not the only reason I continue to watch them. In truth (try not to laugh), I enjoy these movies because of their messages.

There are few other types of movies where the central themes of the narratives involve a sincere praise of old fashioned virtues. To show what I mean, here are a series of a quotes from a series of some more recent superhero films:

  • Batman Begins
    • Rachel Dawes: Wait! You could die. At least tell me your name. Bruce Wayne: It’s not who I am underneath, but what I *do* that defines me.
    • Bruce Wayne: Rachel I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about… Rachel Dawes: No I’m sorry, the day Chill died I said some terrible things Bruce Wayne: But true things. I was a coward with a gun, justice is about more than revenge. So thank you
    • Henri Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share .Bruce Wayne: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.
    • Bruce Wayne: What have I done, Alfred? Everything my family… my father built… Alfred Pennyworth: The Wayne legacy is more than bricks and mortar, sir. Bruce Wayne: I wanted to save Gotham, I failed Alfred Pennyworth: Why do we fall sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up Bruce Wayne: You still haven’t given up on me? Alfred Pennyworth: Never
  • The Dark Knight
    • James Gordon Jr.: Why’s he running, Dad? Lt. James Gordon: Because we have to chase him. James Gordon Jr.: He didn’t do anything wrong. Lt. James Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.
    • The Joker: We really should stop this fighting, otherwise we’ll miss the fireworks! Batman: There won’t *be* any fireworks! The Joker: And here… we… go![Silence. Nothing happens. Confused, Joker turns to look at the clock, which shows that it's past midnight and neither ferry has blown the other up] Batman: [triumphantly] What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone!
    • Two-Face: You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time! But you were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased, unprejudiced… fair. His son’s got the same chance she had. Fifty-fifty. Batman: What happened to Rachel wasn’t chance. We decided to act. We three. Two-Face: Then why was it me who was the only one who lost everything? Batman: [grieved] It wasn’t…
  • The Dark Knight Rises
    • Catwoman: I blow that tunnel open, I’m gone. Batman: There’s more to you than that. Catwoman: Sorry I keep letting you down.[pause] Catwoman: Come with me. Save yourself. You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything. Batman: Not everything. Not yet.
    • Bane: So, you came back to die with your city. Batman: No. I came back to stop you.
    • Catwoman: You could have gone anywhere, but you came back. Batman: So did you. Catwoman: Well then I guess we’re both suckers.
    • Blind Prisoner: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
      Blind Prisoner: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
      Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
  • Spiderman
    • Peter Parker: [voiceover] Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-man.
  • Spiderman 3
    • Peter Parker: Flint Marko. The man who killed Uncle Ben, he was killed last night. Aunt May: Oh, my. What happened? Peter Parker: Spider-Man killed him. Aunt May: Spider-Man? I don’t understand, Spider-Man doesn’t kill people. What happened? Peter Parker: I, uh… He… he was… I thought that – That you’d feel… He deserved it, didn’t he? Aunt May: I don’t think it’s for us to say whether a person deserves to live or die. Peter Parker: But, Aunt May, he killed Uncle Ben. Aunt May: Uncle Ben meant the world to us. But he wouldn’t want us living one second with revenge in our hearts. It’s like a poison. It can – It can take you over. Before you know it, turn us into something ugly.
    • Flint Marko: [looks down at the crowd below] I didn’t want this. But I had no choice… Peter Parker: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you killed my uncle. Flint Marko: My daughter was dying, I needed money.[flashback: Flint knocks on the car window with a gun] Flint Marko: I was scared. I told your uncle all I wanted was the car. He said to me “Why don’t you just put down the gun and go home?” I realise now he was just trying to help me.[Uncle Ben tells Flint to put down the gun and go home, just when Flint's partner exits a nearby building with the money] Flint Marko: Then I saw my partner running over with the cash… and the gun was in my hand…[he shakes Flint's arm - causing him to shoot Uncle Ben. Flint realizes this] Flint Marko: I did a terrible thing to you, I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back.[Flint's partner drives off with the car, but Flint stays by Uncle Ben's side] Flint Marko: [to Peter] I’m not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand. Peter Parker: I’ve done terrible things too. Flint Marko: I didn’t choose to be this. The only thing left of me now… is my daughter. Peter Parker: [after a pause] I forgive you.
  • Iron Man
    • Yinsen: Did you see that? Those are YOUR weapons… in the hands of those murderers! Is this what you want? Is this what you wish the legacy of the great Tony Stark to be? Tony Stark: I shouldn’t do anything. They could kill you, they’re gonna kill me, either way, and even if they don’t, I’ll probably be dead in a week. Yinsen: Then this is a very important week for you, isn’t it? 
    • Tony Stark: I never got to say goodbye to my father. There’s questions I would’ve asked him. I would’ve asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch of man we remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability. Press Reporter #1: Mr. Stark! What happened over there? Tony Stark: I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up.
  • Thor
    • [Thor approaches the Destroyer] Thor: Brother, however I have wronged you, whatever I have done that has led you to do this, I am truly sorry. But these people are innocent, taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine, and end this.
    • Thor: Why have you done this? Loki: To prove to Father that I am a worthy son! When he wakes, I will have saved his life, I will have destroyed that race of monsters, and I will be true heir to the throne! Thor: You can’t kill an entire race! Loki: Why not?… And what is this new found love for the Frost Giants? You, could have killed them all with your bare hands! Thor: I’ve changed.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
    • Red Skull: Arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say, you do it better than anyone. But there are limits to what even you can do, Captain, or did Erskine tell you otherwise? Steve Rogers: He told me you were insane. Red Skull: Ah. He resented my genius and tried to deny me what was rightfully mine, but he gave you everything. So, what made you so special? Steve Rogers: Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.
    • Abraham Erskine: Do you want to kill Nazis? Steve Rogers: Is this a test? Abraham Erskine: Yes. Steve Rogers: I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.
    • Steve Rogers: Can I ask a question? Abraham Erskine: Just one? Steve Rogers: Why me? Abraham Erskine: I suppose that’s the only question that matters. Abraham Erskine: [Displaying a wine bottle] This is from Augsburg, my city. So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own. You know, after the last war, they… My people struggled. They… they felt weak… they felt small. Then Hitler comes along with the marching, and the big show, and the flags, and the, and the… and he… he hears of me, and my work, and he finds me, and he says “You.” He says “You will make us strong.” Well, I am not interested. So he sends the head of Hydra, his research division, a brilliant scientist by the name of Johann Schmidt. Now Schmidt is a member of the inner circle and he is ambitious. He and Hitler share a passion for occult power and Teutonic myth. Hitler uses his fantasies to inspire his followers, but for Schmidt, it is not fantasy. For him, it is real. He has become convinced that there is a great power hidden in the earth, left here by the gods, waiting to be seized by a superior man. So when he hears about my formula and what it can do, he cannot resist. Schmidt must become that superior man. Steve Rogers: Did it make him stronger? Abraham Erskine: Yeah, but… there were other… effects. The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion. Steve Rogers: Thanks. I think. Abraham Erskine: [Gesturing toward the wine] Get it, get it. Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
  • The Avengers
    • Loki: Kneel before me. I said, KNEEL![everyone becomes quiet and kneels before him] Loki: Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.[the crowd is terrified by his ability to appear and disappear] German Old Man: [defiantly rises] Not to men like you! Loki: There are no men like me. German Old Man: There are always ALWAYS men like you!Loki: Look to your elder, people. Let him be an example.[Loki is about to execute him with his scepter when Captain America intervenes] Steve Rogers: You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing. Loki: The soldier. A man out of time. Steve Rogers: I’m not the one who’s out of time.
    • Loki: I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness. I remember you tossing me into an abyss, I who was and should be king! Thor: So you take the world I love as recompense for your imagined slights? No, the Earth is under MY protection, Loki! Loki: [laughs] And you’re doing a marvelous job with that! The humans slaughter each other in droves, while you idly threat. I mean to rule them. And why should I not? Thor: You think yourself above them? Loki: Well, yes. Thor: Then you miss the truth of ruling, brother. A throne would suit you ill.
    • Natasha Romanoff: I’d sit this one out, Cap. Steve Rogers: I don’t see how I can. Natasha Romanoff: These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods. Steve Rogers: There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.

Now, of course, one can take a cynical eye towards these stories. Certainly, some executives are making millions off of them, and it’s probably doubtful all those people profiting off these films are living lives of pure virtue. They’re probably, at least many of them, using these themes and their representations opportunistically.

But really, does that matter? The children watching the movies don’t know that. All they know is that Batman and Iron Man and Captain America are good people, and that good people are willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others. And if the kids of today are anything like I was as young boy, they’ll probably watch these movies more than once. Is it really such a bad thing that they repeatedly hear the message, “Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man”?

Two Kingdoms Roundup

From time to time I discuss magisterial Protestant political theology here at CoG, and in that vein I wanted to direct our readers to a series that has just completed. Brad Littlejohn and, in one case, Peter Escalante, have done a helpfully brief series on two kingdom theology, laying out their narrative from Luther (and his context) to the present day, via Calvin, Hooker, and early modern thinkers like Locke.

Here are the six installments

The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 1: Introducing the Antagonists
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 2: From Luther to Calvin
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 3: From Calvin to Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 4: Richard Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 5: From Hooker to Locke
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 6: Why Does it Matter?

Brad nicely summarizes many of the themes within the series (though there is much more in the final installment than the following):

1) It [Protestant two-kingdoms thinking] de-sacralized, or more properly, de-totalized, the State and the exercise of civil authority. Political authority was still ordained by God, accountable to God, and indeed redeemed in Christ, to be sure, and to this extent, could be said to mediate his rule. However, this rule of God’s “left hand” was radically distinct from His proper work of redemption and oversaw matters of temporary and limited significance; civil authorities were responsible to preserve the created order, not to bring in the new creation. This teaching set a decisive limit to the scope of civil authority, or the sorts of demands it could make. Of course, medieval papalism had certainly limited the state as well, but by seeking to make the civil authorities the policemen of the church, it had made rulers tangle with matters of conscience with politics, making heresy a civil crime. Although haltingly and inconsistently, Luther’s heirs worked to disentangle these two.

2) More foundationally, it deprived the church as such of juridical or coercive authority. There could be no spiritual jurisdiction in the full and proper sense of both of these terms. This was in stark contrast to the medieval system, in which the penitential system of the church was conceived in increasingly juridical terms, and the church accordingly tended to take on the characteristics of a civil polity. Worst of all, in the Crusades and in Boniface’s claim to a plenitudo potestatis, it made the sword to be a possession of spiritual rulers, calling for holy violence on behalf of the Church against the Church’s enemies. Luther’s reform, however, radically de-sacralized violence, associating it entirely with temporal rule and very limited temporal ends, and many of his heirs admirably carried forward this legacy.

3) Closely related to these two points, it stood as a bulwark against any attempt to immanentize the eschaton. Since we walk by faith, not by sight, any attempt to attribute eschatological ultimacy to any visible institution or activity was misguided. The two-kingdoms doctrine instilled in the Christian a sense of healthy detachment toward earthly loyalties, a healthy realism about what earthly institutions can accomplish, and offered consolation when they failed to achieve their lofty aims. It discouraged any attempt to make the kingdom of God a complete outward reality here and now by force, whether by holy war or holy law. Neither civil authorities nor church authorities could expect to create a perfectly virtuous people here in the midst of history.

4) Because of all these things, it treated freedom of conscience as sacrosanct. Because faith was not dependent on any human works, nor could it depend on any human authority, God alone remained master of the conscience, and his word alone, not the commands of either princes or bishops, could bind it. Although of course the realm of this freedom was debated fiercely and at times constricted, the principle was clear, and however much Protestants might quarrel over the scope of “things indifferent,” the fact that civil authority was limited to the regulation of these set the stage for the progressive expansion of civil society and individual freedom.

5) It served as a bulwark against an overextension of the sola Scriptura principle, to which many Protestants were tempted, and safeguarded the continuing value of natural reason and prudence to guide political deliberation. Good two-kingdoms thinkers resisted any idea of a Scripturally-mandated blueprint for politics or jurisprudence. This was one respect in which two-kingdoms thinking, in many other respects hostile to late medieval theology, preserved some of the rich contributions of scholastic Aristotelianism. Richard Hooker is perhaps the most prominent example of this use of the two-kingdoms doctrine, recovering the full resources of Thomism in his account of law in the civil kingdom even while maintaining a staunch Protestantism when it came to the spiritual.

6) In all these ways, the two kingdoms doctrine clearly paves the way for the development of liberal institutions. However, it provides what many Christian defenders of liberalism have lacked—a basis for secularity in the sense of non-ultimacy, but not in the sense of non-religiousness. In Protestant two-kingdoms thinking, the civil kingdom, despite all of the above, remains both informed by and concerned with the exercise of true religion. While natural law was retained and even championed by many of these thinkers, Scripture remained its authoritative interpreter, and the redemption wrought in Christ, although fully realized only in the eschaton, had implications for civil rule inasmuch as it disclosed the proper, restored order of fallen creation. Since grace perfected nature, good religion conduced to civil peace, and hence a good ruler could not be entirely indifferent to the promotion of true religion, although he must never seek to compel belief.

As a bonus, a few other essays by these gentlemen:

In celebration of the upcoming DVD release of The Dark Knight Rises, I want to share again a condensed form of a multi-post discussion Littlejohn wrote on the political themes of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. I include this post here both because I’m a complete Batman nerd, and because TDKR can be plausibly seen, in my humble opinion, as an apology for a 2K order over against the eschaton-immanentizing project of Bane/The League of Shadows.

Escalante (in some cases along with Steven Wedgeworth) has also discussed the themes of the 2K series previously. Here he interacts with Davey Henreckson further on Locke’s period, and here and here Peter and Steven delve into more detail on Calvin.

I commend to you, in general, both The Sword and the Ploughshare, and The Calvinist International.

The Left Behind Reboot You’ve All Been Waiting For!

Apparently there’s going to be a reboot of the Left Behind movie series starring, wait for it, Nicholas Cage! I’m still waiting for this to be shown to be an internet hoax, but yes, that appears to be what’s going to happen. Cage’s agent must be thrilled:

Destroying Gotham

Judging from the trailers, it looks like the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy will engage in a time honored literary and artistic trope:

Why do we fantasize about blowing up New York so much? Andrew Potter writes in his The Authenticity Hoax:

One of the most enduring developments of declinism in popular culture is the ritualized destruction of the great cities of the world in film, literature, and art. Whether it is worries over economic dislocation, fears of urban alienation, or inchoate anxieties over moral and spiritual softness, we like to take it out on cities such as London, Tokyo, Washington, but, above all, New York. Historian of architecture Max Page wrote an entire book about the portrayals of New York’s destruction, on paper, film, or canvas over the past hundred-odd years, showing how each era uses the city’s death as a way of defining its social concerns and exorcizing its specific demons.

There’s a common thread that underlies it all, though: the deadening of experience in advanced society, the banality of everyday life mixed with the precariousness of the capitalist economy. And so we use our art to destroy New York, “to escape the sense of inevitable and incomprehensible economic transformations … to make our world more comprehensible than it has become.” Page goes on: “A disaster, even when mediated through images or words, still retains an authenticity that has been the quest of modern society for two centuries.”

But why New York? A clue is to be found in the way in which, in the years after 9/11, the attack on the Pentagon has almost completely faded from popular remembrance. Washington, D.C., may be the capital of the American empire, but New York is the capital of modernity, or as Oswald Spengler put it, the “monstrous symbol” of the modern world. Whether it is King Kong making his final stand atop the Empire State Building or the lizard in Cloverfield ripping the head off of the Statue of Liberty, it is something significantly more than a tourist attraction that is under assault from these monsters of nature. (70-71)

No Human Quill

It is 11:09PM in Pyongyang, and somewhere a little child is crying—the cold stroke of a fist across her face pens a story of anguish, and no human quill could rise to the occasion of describing the depths of dark despair in her heart. The brutality visited upon her could be for any reason; but in a prison-state where government is god, her crime was most likely being born to a treasonous parent. In any instance, treason could be the mere failure to keep dust off a portrait of the Dear Leader. This image of a little girl or boy being arbitrarily savaged by an official with power to spare may at this point be a mere fiction in my imagination. While the face stamped in my imagination may bear no resemblance to the face of any historical North Korean girl, the ubiquity of this reality is unremarkable in a society that is already dead.

Last night I wept as I sat in Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto. While I’ve wept at films before, tears have likely not flown so consistently down my face as they did before a screen revealing the horrors routinely experience by a North Korean family. This past weekend was the first annual North Korean Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto, and I managed, with friends, to take in the horrible film The Crossing (trailer). I say it was horrible, but do not mistake my meaning. By this I do not mean it was cinematically inferior, or that the acting was bad. It was horrible—O that there was a word that really conveyed what my heart feels!—because its fictionalized family depicted a reality that is all too real in the hermit state that sits between its southern cousin and Chinese enabler. The film is about a man, a former soccer hero, a miner, and a father. It is about his wife, pregnant, faithful, loving, and sick. It is about their son, cute, naïve, with the courage of his old man. It is a story about how a state could own a family and brutalize it for its own sick pleasure. Sadly, it is a story that we in the West are oblivious, to our own shame.

When his wife contracts tuberculosis because of malnutrition, Yang-soo makes a harrowing trek to China to find her medication. He leaves, not to escape, not to defect, but to save his family. His full intention is to return. He is no political dissident, that is, unless putting your family before the Kim dynasty is seditious. As he flees, he represents the experiences of hundreds of North Koreans before him who risked everything for their freedom. But the only freedom in his eyes was to see his wife get well.

I have two children: Jack who is almost three, and Molly who is almost one. About a month after Jack was born, I went to see the film-rendered version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road; a similar story about a father who strives to protect his son in light of horrible deprivation and evil. Watching this film as a recent father hit me a gut level that I didn’t expect. Watching The Crossing last night hit me. However, unlike my experience with The Road, I didn’t see myself as the protective Yang-soon and little Joon as Jack. Rather, I felt the guilt of being a father who parents his son in the freedom of the West, while families like Joon’s are bound. When the father finally made it to China, not realizing that his wife was now dead, and his son in a labour camp, I had the overwhelming desire to hug my son who was sleeping soundly in our Toronto apartment. I wanted to hug him because I could. A political refugee in China cannot hug his son hidden by sinister North Korean mists.

The story does not end well. As I watched, my own emotional state wanted the father and son to unite. But I knew that this would not convey the reality; all too often father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife remain severed; a bullet to the head keeps them ever apart. When The Crossing ended as it did, although it was devastating, it was true—and that is why everyone needs to watch this film. That is why every Westerner needs to watch this film and others like it. We need to be hit with the chilling reality of the destruction caused by Stalin’s prototypical state.

This morning I sit in a favourite coffee house sipping an Americano while my wife and children are at a Vacation Bible Camp learning about a group of heros who stood against a totalitarian regime. A man once stood amongst lions and was not devoured. What freedom we enjoy in the West. My son can learn to love sedition first-hand, and our government does not cart me away. West Toronto Baptist Church can boldly emblazon the name “Daniel” across the front of their building; their pastor can preach about the Apostle Paul—another great anti-totalitarian who stared down a Caesar—without fearing spies in the back pew. We can all worship the true Caesar, the true Lord, the One that brings down rulers and manifests freedom in his very person. Not a killer, but the Saviour of millions. Jesus is beyond political cliché, all adjectives affixed to his name are deserved—he is “dear” in the very dearest sense of the word, and those who are called by his name call him dear freely and with true love.

The Crossing has a subtext of theodicy that was never answered in the film. The father screams at a South Korean pastor, and throws his bible to the floor in anguish. Young Joon has heard about life after death and hopes that heaven has cool rain, thus far his only refreshing to come to a pallid landscape, but does not live to experience redemption. I am glad that theodicy was not answered; the pastor merely wept at the table. Why? Because most in the West, if the statistics are true, aren’t even asking the question “Why God?” about North Korea. This film is not for North Koreans, it is for those of us who care too much about our favourite café’s that serve good Americanos. May the plight—again, to search for a word that really conveys what my heart feels!—of the North Koreans become a burden for all of us.

After the film, a young man named Jake stood in front of the screen with rolling credits, mic in hand. He read, in chopped, but sonorous English of his life story, all twenty-odd years of it. He and his sister escaped from North Korea to China where his mother had gone before them. His father is still there, and Jake has not heard from him in four years. We applauded Jake when he finished his last word and took his seat at the front of the theatre. And I thought, what can be done? My only response, as I trekked across the lush Toronto landscape, to sleeping children, and my own faithful, loving wife, was to cry out to the One who brings down governments. “Jesus, bring about the miracle of providence, that Jake and his father would one day be reunited.” Prayer is a most, indeed the most, potent weapon. And yet I fear I must do more. We all must do more. Please, take the time to familiarize yourself with the atrocity that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—a misnomer of the grossest degree. Pray for them. And freely offer your services, in whatever way you can, to work toward freedom for a people who do not know the true definition of the word.

The Liberal Arts And Poverty

The late Earl Shorris writes in Harper’s magazine of an interview he had with a female inmate in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York City:

It is considered bad form in prison to speak of a person’s crime, and I will follow that precise etiquette here. I can tell you that Viniece Walker came to Bedford Hills when she was twenty years old, a high school dropout who read at the level of a college sophomore, a graduate of crackhouses, the streets of Harlem, and a long alliance with a brutal man. On the surface Viniece has remained as tough as she was on the street. She speaks bluntly, and even though she is HIV positive and the virus has progressed during her time in prison, she still swaggers as she walks down the long prison corridors. While in prison, Niecie, as she is known to her friends, completed her high school requirements and began to pursue a college degree (psychology is the only major offered at Bedford Hills, but Niecie also took a special interest in philosophy). She became a counselor to women with a history of family violence and a comforter to those with AIDS. (more…)

Patrick’s Day

In honour of the day, I wanted to post an old essay I wrote about Saint Patrick’s confession, but I couldn’t find it. So, in lieu of that, here are some links relevant in some way to the day:

Patrick’s Confession — this is thought to be an authentic document written by Patrick. It is interesting how little has changed in terms of “church politics” since his day. I guess that just proves we’re all sinners after all. And his renowned trinitarianism shows through very clearly as well. There’s also a detectable typology throughout: he continually depicts himself as a new apostle Paul. An interesting read.

An assortment of legends about Saint Patrick — these are basically discounted by critical scholars. This is perhaps with good reason. I have not studied them closely. However, I would note that critical scholars often approach such stories with naturalistic assumptions. In recent days Craig Keener has published two massive volumes defending the historicity and reality of New Testament miracles, including providing many examples throughout history of testimony to miraculous events. Thus, as always, interested readers should keep their own critical faculties intact.

The biology behind getting drunk.

Shepherds we shall be… — just because.

 

In Blackest Night… Hope?

In a previous post, I excerpted an author who suggested a reason for the rise of pulp superheroes in the era of the depression. Grant Morrison, in his recent non-fiction work Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun god from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, provides a similar narrative for the more recent rise in popularity of larger than life heroes:

Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Why have superheroes become so popular? Why now?

On one level, it’s simple: Someone, somewhere figured out that, like chimpanzees, superheroes make everything more entertaining. Boring tea party? Add a few chimps and it’s unforgettable comedy mayhem. Conventional murder mystery? Add superheroes and a startling and provocative new genre springs to live. Urban crime thriller? Seen it all before… until Batman gets involved. Superheroes can spice up any dish.

But there’s even more going on beneath the surface of our appetite for the antics of outlandishly dressed characters who will never let us down. Look away from the page or the screen and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived into mass consciousness, as they tend to arrive everywhere else, in response to a desperate SOS from a world in crisis.

We’ve come to accept that most of our politicians will be exposed, in the end, as sex-mad liars or imbeciles, just as we’ve come to expect gorgeous supermodels to be bulimic, neurotic wretches. We’ve seen through the illusions that once sustained our fantasies and know from bitter experience that beloved comedians will stand unmasked, sooner o later, as alcoholic perverts or suicidal depressives. We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.

Traumatized by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual. Towering, cadaverous Death-Angels, like the ones on the covers of Dad’s antinuke rags, seem to overshadow the gleaming spires of our collective imagination.

Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human psyche? [xvi-xvii]

I disagree profoundly with Morrison on the source of hope, but it’s hard not to see the rise in popularity for superheroes as linked to a need for it. And perhaps, too, one could see the cause of this popularity rooted even more deeply in human nature. Perhaps it is not just our current political climate, but that as an expression of our more fundamental human condition: when we are at our most honest, we human beings admit we are broken and weak, and we are looking for a saviour.

Protestant Art And Literature

Continuing with our off-and-on discussion about Christianity and art, I felt like sharing some remarks Peter Escalante made in a private setting on the relation between Protestantism (and Catholicism) and art. When I asked him permission to post these thoughts, he added that he might like to be more nuanced in some places, but that he stands by what he wrote here. In that spirit I share them with you. Also, n.b.: I will add some links to help fill in the background for those who are not familiar with the concepts he mentions off-hand in the course of his discussion. I’d love to hear what some of our readers think of this perspective. I posted it partly because I’ve never heard this opinion, at least not stated so clearly, before.

There are certain blunders of mind which, like the quasi-supernatural serial killers of American slasher films, reappear just when you were sure they were dead for good.

The “Catholic aesthetic” question is a complicated one, but in short, the problem as posed here is founded on a mistake. Catholics do not produce better art- they do, however, commission religious art more than we do, and have more reason, when doing so, to stick to certain traditional lines when doing so.

But art is not exclusively or even primarily religious in the Catholic sense. Catholics like to think so, because such a view mirrors, in the poetic realm, the Catholic construction of a fantasy “supernatural” over and above the created order. Hence they would rather paint faux-angels or conjectural images of saints than landscapes. But the iconoclasm of Protestantism actually freed art. Having broken the “iconic”, the fake-representation of the non-representable or not-to-be-represented, liberated the God-given human instinct of mimetic poiesis to turn to the real, God-given theater of His glory: the creation. Thus, all modern “secular” art, from the Reformation on, is really Protestant art- though you have to be able to think in two-kingdoms to be able to see that.

Modern art, which departs from mimetic representation, is actually an attempt at a secular iconic: supposedly venerable or transfigurative representation of the non-representable.

In reply to the above comment, I asked this question: “I guess my question is: Mark Twain might have been a great American artist, but can we really say he produced Protestant art, being an explicit atheist? For example.”

Escalante replied:

Yes, because the personal disposition of the artist has little to do with the templates with which he works, and also, because one need not be a believer to rationally/imaginatively observe natural and social realities. But the frames and templates, the tools and habits he presupposes, are religious in origin. Twain, in fact, is Protestant art not only in the general way I just outlined, but even specifically- the tone of incisive critique is distinctively Protestant. … I’d go so far as to say that historically, *all* humorous critique of monastic or clerical folly was proto-Protestant, and moreover, that the RCC at the time of the Reformation thought just that- as Luther said to Erasmus: hey, if you weren’t so useful against me, they’d kill you first, Mr Humanist. There are some uncharacteristic 20th c semi-exceptions, but almost exclusively in the Anglophone world.