Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Thoughts About Religious Celebrities On Ashley Madison

This is all over, and I’m not sure too much more needs to be said about Josh Duggar being on a site dedicated to adultery. One thing though that I should like to note is that there has been the tendency to insinuate that the Duggar’s upbringing in the extreme “Quiverfull” movement was somehow the cause of his infidelity. While there’s lots that is frankly disturbing in the materials that the Duggars used to raise their kids, the fact remains that people raised just about any which way can end up cheating on their spouses. Everyone can then ex post facto gather around and say that the cheater’s childhood was too permissive or too strict or too structured or too disorganized or what-have-you. Josh Duggar cheated because he is a human being, and we have pretty good documented evidence that some subset of humans do this from time-to-time across all cultures. There’s no need to reach for an additional cause here. The only way that I can see his upbringing/subculture playing into this was in the fashion that cheated: on a website that promised anonymity, I don’t imagine he would be comfortable with the risk of trying to pick up girls in a more prominent fashion given his profile and the fact that his job was essentially to be a professional heterosexual monogamist.

Where Duggar’s upbringing and subculture do come into play more strongly is in how this will be dealt with. He’s already gone to a sort of “treatment centre” for some kind program. It’s also pretty clear that his wife will be under incredible pressure to stay with him. This might be something she would choose to do anyway, but then it might not be, I have no idea and neither do you. It also concerns me that, yes, he’s the guy with child molestation scandal following him around, and so there remains a question about how safe he is around his own kids, given that it’s clear that he has been hiding some other sexual conduct that is out of line with how he claimed to have been living his life.

The Fault In Ourselves

duggars

If you care about these types of things, then I am sure you already know that one of TV’s famous Duggars has admitted to sexually assaulting a number of underage girls including, apparently, some of his siblings while he was a teenager. There’s a great deal that one can make of this case, including the Duggars’ link to über-creep, Bill Gothard and his disturbing approaches to sexual abuse. There’s also Benjamin Corey’s very salient point that when church leaders encounter sexual abuse, it’s their moral – and sometimes legal –  duty to report it to the police. Apparently the Duggars did this at one point (only to result in a stern talking-to by a man now serving jail time for child pornography), but then actively resisted further investigation when Oprah, of all people, notified the authorities.

I think this scandal demonstrates the futility of believing that one can somehow insulate oneself or one’s family from this or that kind of immorality. This happened to a family that homeschooled their kids in a rural environment hours from a major city with no TV and no and internet while enforcing a strict dress code (particularly on the female members). I don’t know how much further a family can be separated from the wider world, and yet somehow building these types of alleged protections does not keep sexual abuse at bay. It calls to mind the sort of horror film trope where the protagonists do everything to barricade themselves away from the monster, only to realize that in the process, they’ve locked themselves in with the monster.

The fault, dear Duggars is not in our television/social media/education system, but in ourselves, that we are human.

What is Best In Life?

Permit me a bit of amateur psychology. I think we in the Western world would have to try very hard to miss that a lot of us spend time seeking a handful of things. We pursue goods that are easy to reach. Food and alcohol, sex, contest, and music are the most obvious examples.

Food and alcohol do their work immediately, with the taste, and then with the feelings of satiety and/or relaxation.

Assuming one is not starving or dying of thirst, it is fairly common knowledge that the strongest of physical passions is the sexual. Basically everyone thinks sex is good. Just the thought of it can cause people to obsess, and even the lacking of it can satisfy in other ways (e.g., the feelings of having a “crush” can themselves be pleasant). We seek and give sex, broadly considered, in various ways. A good number of regular Western pastimes involve indulging in this, if not always with the intent of actually having sexual intercourse, then at least with the intent of enjoying the sensations that imagination brings. Romance movies generate “crush” feelings; pornography more directly aims at sexual titillation. Advertisements often play on one or both pleasures. The lyrics of much music uses these tropes. The general habits of the clubbing world are obviously all circling around this particular passion.

People also enjoy defeating threats. The hope of victory, the risk of failure, and the adrenaline rush that drives us to seek the first in the face of the second. The two most obvious instruments for creating this sensation are sports events and action films.

Then there’s the good of music. I’ve quoted Richard Hooker before on this blog on the power of music, but here he is again:

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.

Music is so beloved because it has the power to alter our moods in a very direct way. Though we may lack a certain good in reality, music can still make a chimera dance on our mind’s stage.  Pop music is certainly not an exception here. As Roger Scruton notes:

This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop—from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga—is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. … The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. … And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended.

This aspect of pop music might be one of its main attractions: in its common forms, it overwhelms with the passions. It forces people to feel. Of course, a great deal of it aims at producing one or both of the previously mentioned passions: sexual euphoria or something like what the Greeks would have called thumos.

These goods are the easiest to reach, and so become the highest end for many. As Wittgenstein said in another context, people are captured by an image, a picture of something within their grasp, and often lose desire for any others beyond their immediate reach. But there are other kinds of goods, ones that often have more of a slow burn than a quick sizzle. Yet these kinds of goods can provide a more deep and lasting enjoyment of life than the ones above.

Imagine accomplishing a difficult objective. You decide to do something that seems like a good idea,  you eventually face opposition from nature or other people, you persevere and reach the goal. How do you feel? Bored? Of course not. The experience is often more pleasant than it would have been had there been no resistance at all. The victory through struggle gives knowledge of self as adequate to overcome difficulties, and to know this is to know something good. Further, you will have the good you originally sought.

Another good difficult to reach, but which provides much deeper and lasting satisfaction, is friendship. Knowing and loving another human being in a significant way. Human beings are the height of creation. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, creativity, beauty, humour, quirkiness, majesty, and piety, both in combination and separately, when deeply appreciated, can bring much joy to the people who experience them. But these are things that can only be discovered with time and effort; one must decide to sacrifice time and comfort and, instead of seeking directly pleasurable pursuits, to endure boredom, awkward moments, moral flaws and injuries, weaknesses and insecurities, and any number of other things that make people unattractive. Yet when another person is deeply known and loved, the happiness is almost incomparable.

Then there are intellectual goods. The human capacity to understand reality abstractly, as a coherent whole, to ask and answer the question “why?”, is arguably what distinguishes us most from the kingdom of nature. And curious people fulfill this potential when they encounter an intriguing but difficult question, and then pursue the answer with determination. When they reach their destination, a deeper understanding of the “why?” produces a sensation that artists and poets have long compared to elemental forces of nature: fire, light, electricity, and even a kind of intoxication. To seek and to find wisdom is one of the most exquisite pleasures human beings know.

But the highest good is not any of these things in themselves. It is nothing other than God. The most pleasurable good that human beings can pursue is understanding of the Creator, the ultimate answer to “why?”, and friendship with this being, the one who contains every good quality in its most perfect form. But of all pleasures, this is the hardest one to reach, and it cannot initially be reached through the kind of effort to accomplish that I mentioned above. Indeed, Jesus taught that it was impossible unless God gave us a taste for it first: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” God rescues the soul by giving an experience of God’s goodness: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Once this gift has been given, effort to see it more clearly is also given, and when increased clarity is achieved, the root of joy sinks ever deeper. But that gift is laid on a foundation of the first one; to want to pursue God further one must first have seen why he is indeed worth pursuing. The darkened character of our intellects will prevent us from seeing this until God opens our eyes to do so. When he does, we will forever want to see things in the aura of his light.

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:

Walter White as the (Anti)Christ

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Holy spoilers batman! Don’t go below the fold if you haven’t watched the series finale of Breaking Bad (and still want to).

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Why Christian Filmmakers Are Not Breaking Bad

I came across this article via Brooks and it pained me because it came so agonizingly close to *getting* why Breaking Bad matters and why Christians shy away from doing similar kinds of work in the arts.

“Unfortunately, (and for a reason beyond my comprehension) Christians have decided that all movies and stories must have happy endings. Perhaps the Christian retail market helped promote that. The Joel Osteen, Oprah, and Chicken Soup books have only helped to perpetuate this false cliché.

The home team doesn’t always win. The husband doesn’t always return to his wife. The person with cancer doesn’t always get healed and sometimes the bad guy gets away. But you wouldn’t know this by watching Christian films, who appear to tell stories which lie about reality and present a world that is just as untrue as it is corny.”

Wow. Dead on. This is why so many Christians have zero interest in Christian fiction, television, movies and so on. Christians are missing the boat, especially now that television seems set to become a new sort of literary canon to replace what poems (ahem, Ozymandias), novels and plays were for the 18th, 19th and early-20th Centuries. But why would Christians tell such bad, unrealistic stories about life? I think the author of the article, Marcus Pittman gives us a substantial clue in the very second paragraph of his own text:

“Walter White, your average Government school Chemistry teacher has a good job, an intact family, and a happy life. Until that is, he finds out that he has cancer.

Desperate for a way to provide for his family and pay the medical bills, Walter White seeks out the help of a former student— now drug dealer and addict Jesse Pinkman—and together they develop a drug empire.”

Did you catch it? Government school. Heh. Posting on a site that is clearly appealing to conservative evangelicals Pittman somehow decides it’s necessary to make it clear that Walter White is not teaching a private Christian institution or homeschooling or whatever The American Vision thinks is better than “government” schools (and let’s be clear, the word “government” is lingering as a slur here). So here’s the subtle little moralizing message, don’t worry, this might happen in those depraved government schools, but it could never happen in a private Christian setting.

Bullshit.

Working at a Christian school is not a way to guarantee someone’s faith or their good behaviour or that tragic life events might lead them down a terrible path where they are consumed by their own monstrosity. To be fair I reckon that Marcus Pittman realizes this, yet he still needs to differentiate Walter White and make him other from those who are held up as the ideal educators for The American Vision’s readership. This is the thin edge of the wedge for sentimentality and so I propose that Marcus Pittman has done some young Christian author or screenwriter a favour and unwittingly given them a great idea for a story. Let’s badly break a Christian school teacher. Here’s your story young Christian writer: Respected, oh let’s say… religion teacher at reputable classical Christian school loses faith after a personal tragedy and starts becoming a rising luminary in the New Atheist movement. How do his former students and colleagues react? Let’s not make his former colleagues saintly either, let them get jealous of him, try for petty vengeances. Go.

Don’t chicken out.

The Resurrection Of Dick Whitman?

Don Draper Season 6

From time to time I have talked about Mad Men in this space. This is going to be the most pixels that I’ve dedicated to the show thus far. If you haven’t watched right up to last night’s season finale, skip this post. (Likewise, if you find Mad Men dull or slow or otherwise uninteresting, you may not like it in here, or you might, just saying.) (more…)

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)

Is Mad Men Ecclesiastes?

It’s a jump, but doesn’t Don Draper sound like he’s channeling the Old Testament wisdom book here?

To followers of the show, does it not seem like Don has had some kind of continual search for meaning in his life (happy family, financial success, recognition, sexual fulfillment and so on), all while announcing that everything is meaningless?

One More Gift Under The Tree…

For those of you who know about the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, I need say no more, for the rest of you, here’s the first five minutes or so to get a taste. The consensus in the broader sci-fi fan community is that Lucas must have pulled a gun on Harrison Ford to get him to do this. If you want to see the rest it’s all up on YouTube somewhere.

The Holiday Special was the first warning we had the Lucas did not care at all about the universe that he had created other than as a vehicle to make him fantastically rich.