Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blue Like Jazz

So I'll admit, I did not expect to like this book. My mind associated it with books like Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell and The Shack by William Young. I thought it was a postmodern creed full of spiritualist gobblygook and that totally abandoned the gospel. Yet, after having one too many conversations with people that included me saying "well, from what I've heard, the book says...", I decided that enough was enough. It was time for me to suck it up and actually read the book. And the verdict? Well...

First, let's start with the good stuff. Donald Miller is a great writer. The book (which is merely a collection of essays loosely connected by Miller's personal journey through his faith) was absorbing from beginning to end. I really felt like I knew Miller by the end, and I appreciated his many insights into life, human nature, and religion. There were moments when he would wax eloquent that would literally take my breath away.

He also makes many great points. For a book by a guy who doesn't like fundamentalism, he spent a lot of time showing the truth behind many fundamentalist doctrines like human depravity and God's sovereignty. In fact, the book was surprisingly orthodox to me. He also made some valid criticisms of the modern church, especially the lack of humility and the legalism present in many orthodox churches. There were definitely times when I felt like he was blowing a problem out of proportion, or like I wanted to quibble with his focus, but these were mostly minor points.

That is, until his last two chapters. Suddenly he started talking about how to love yourself. And although I think I know what he was trying to say, what really got me was this paragraph right at the end:

All great characters in stories are the ones who give their lives to something bigger than themselves. And in all of the stories I don't find anyone more noble than Jesus. He gave his life for me, in obedience to His Father. I truly love Him for it...I think the difference in my life came when I realized, after reading those Gospels, that Jesus didn't just love me out of principle; He didn't just love me because it was the right thing to do. Rather, there was something inside me that caused Him to love me. (page 238)

Like I said, I think I know what he means by this. However, I think this was the great problem I had with this book: it's all about what Miller thinks, how he feels, how something doesn't feel right, how something feels wrong, etc. And when he's right, he's right. But he never backs anything up with Scripture, so sometimes he misses the mark, and he's okay with that. So long as it feels right to him, it's okay if it's not quite what Scripture says. His Christianity, although it has many orthodox parts, is ultimately a very "spiritualistic" thing, and he makes this point many times, that he doesn't think that doctrine can really be defined or that it's really that important anyways, and that Christianity is all about being in love with Christ.

Now don't hear what I'm not saying. We should be in love with Christ, but the way to get there is not through seeking experiences, it's through studying his Word. And like I said, that's what's glaringly absent from this book: God's Word. I can also predict that many are going to say "you have to remember his target audience, Sam. Look at his subtitle: 'Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality.' The Bible is religious, so he doesn't use it." And that's just my problem. The Bible is the very foundation of everything we believe. I can understand why he wouldn't start with it in a "I'm going to thump this Bible over your head until you agree with me" sort of way, but at some point he should have started coming back to it, and he never did. The closest he got was reading the gospels to find the real Jesus, the one who loves him for something inside of him (which completely contradicts Scripture, by the way. The whole point is that he loves us despite what's inside of us).

So that's my problem with the book. He bases his entire religion on feelings, and in the process manages to pervert certain crucial Christian ideas. This is not to say that this is a bad book; on the contrary, I would actually recommend it highly to friends with some level of spiritual maturity, because I think he has some very helpful insights. But, I would not give it to a non-Christian or a new Christian, because I think it could actually be dangerous. A little wrong doctrine at the start can lead to some major problems down the road.

Final verdict: a pleasure to read, but misguided in several crucial areas.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Wonders of Pop Psychobabble

WARNING: The following post contains elements of Freudian psychobabble related to some of your favorite Pixar films, and could offend/ruin your Pixar-watching experience forever.

So I spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the library reading an article in the Journal of Modern Film and Television entitled "Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar." The article discusses the emasculation of men in recent Pixar films, specifically highlighting Toy Story, Cars, and The Incredibles, and how they move from "alpha male" characteristics of domination and aggressiveness to embracing more of their feminine sides.

Although I originally started reading the article because I was interested in what they would say about Pixar and wanted to see how they defended their thesis, I was soon drawn into the article, my reading only broken by helpless fits of mirth at the sheer absurdity of many of their claims. The first bit that really made me start laughing was this:

“Emasculated” is not too strong a term for what happens to these male protagonists; the decline of the alpha-male model is gender coded in all the films. For his community service punishment, Lightning is chained to the giant, snorting, tar-spitting “Bessie” and ordered to repair the damage he has wrought. His own “horsepower” (as Sally cheerfully points out) is used against him when literally put in the service of a nominally feminized figure valued for more “feminine” orientation of service to the community. If being under the thumb of this humongous “woman” is not emasculating enough, Mater, who sees such subordination to Bessie as a potentially pleasurable thing, saying “I’d give my left two lug nuts for something like that.”

Seriously? Bessie is a symbol of being put under the thumb of a woman? Only women serve the community? Mater thinks such subordination would be "pleasurable"? But this is only the beginning. Only a few paragraphs later comes this gem:

From the beginning power is constructed in terms conspicuously gender-coded, at least for adult viewers: as they watch the incoming birthday presents, the toys agonize at their sheer size, the longest and most phallic-shaped one striking true fear (and admiration?) into the hearts of the spectators. When Buzz threatens Woody, one toy explains to another that he has "laser envy."

Wait, why does everything come down to phallic symbols? Oh, that's right, this is Freud talking (or maybe Jung). And things only get better (or worse):

The “mistress” tempting Mr. Incredible away from his wife and family is not Mirage at all but Buddy, the boy he jilted in the opening scenes of the film (whose last name, Pine, further conveys the unrequited nature of their relationship). Privileging his alpha-male emotional isolation, but adored by his wannabe sidekick, Mr. Incredible vehemently protects his desire to “work alone.” After spending the next years nursing his rejection and refining his arsenal, Buddy eventually retaliates against Mr. Incredible for rebuffing his advances. (bold added)

Now this is just getting ridiculous. Were the authors never kids themselves? Did they never idolize someone for their own sake, and not in a warped homosexual way? But this next section, right here, is the pinnacle of the ridiculousness. Read closely, because there's a lot of psycho-jargon in this bit, but it's worth the time you take to read:

Sedgwick further describes the ways in which the homosocial bond is negotiated through a triangulation of desire; that is, the intimacy emerging “between men” is constructed through an overt and shared desire for a feminized object. Unlike homosocial relationships between women—that is, “the continuum between ‘women loving women’ and ‘women promoting the interests of women’”—male homosocial identity is necessarily homophobic in patriarchal systems, which are structurally homophobic. This means the same-sex relationship demands social opportunities for a man to insist on, or prove, his heterosexuality. Citing Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Sedgwick argues that “in any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved”; women are ultimately symbolically exchangeable “for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men.”

This triangulation of male desire can be seen in…Toy Story particularly, where the homosocial relationship obviously shares a desire for a feminized third. Buzz and Woody compete first, momentarily, for the affection of Bo Peep, who is surprisingly sexualized for a children’s movie….More importantly, they battle for the affection of Andy—a male child alternately depicted as maternal (it is his responsibility to get his baby sister out of her crib) and in need of male protection (Woody exhorts Buzz to “take care of Andy for me!”).

Did you catch that? Not only is Andy apparently a female archetype, and the primary purpose of women in a patriarchal society is to allow men to show their non-homosexuality by pursuing heterosexual relationships. Wow. . .

The article does make the valid point that the men in all of these Pixar films go from being domineering alpha-males to more gracious leaders, more appreciative of their families and friends, and much less arrogant. But unfortunately they put all this in terms of their "emasculation" and "acceptance of [their] more traditionally 'feminine' aspects," when in reality this is an embrace of biblical masculinity. No one said that just because alpha males exist, that's the definition of masculinity. In reality, that's the perversion.

But of course, it's not worth thinking too hard about this article, which has far too much nonsense in it to be taken seriously. Just enjoy it for what it is: a microcosm of modern feminist Freudian psychobabble.

And try not to let it ruin Pixar for you, too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Odds and Ends Continued

Some of you who have been reading for a while probably remember my Odds and Ends posts where I would link to funny or interesting articles that I read throughout the week. Those posts were time-consuming to create, and so when time got tight, they were the first thing to go. I do have a semi-replacement, though, that I thought I would let you guys know about:

Sam's Shared Items on Google Reader

Even if you don't use Google Reader (and come on, why don't you?), you can still view everything that I share via Reader on this page. I typically share one or two articles a day, so this is a good way to see a lot of good articles. Check it out!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Story of a Film...and Its Critics

So a movie comes out that becomes an instant hit. It's not an especially well-made film, but it has a couple of things going for it: exciting action sequences, a charismatic lead, and (most importantly) a killer MacGuffin, a filmmaking term for "an object or goal that kicks the film into the third act" (Jim Windolf, "Keys to the Kingdom"). The film instantly achieves a certain classic status. Two popular sequels are released, which combine the same ingredients together into cinematic gold.

However, over the course of the next few decades, the movies become idealized in the American mind. People who had originally been drawn in by the key ingredients begin to see the trilogy of films as something more, as truly great works of art. They raise their children watching them, who, with the innocence of childhood, enjoy the action and the funny lines and the MacGuffin and exalt it possibly higher in their imagination. It achieves true legendary status, unassailable with traditional cinematic critical objections such as believability or good acting.

Then come rumors that one more film is to be made. People are shocked that anyone would even consider adding to perfection, but are curious to see what will happen. And so a fourth film comes out, and is met with...hatred. People despise it. "It fails to live up to the originals," they claim. "It's completely unbelievable. It's stupid. And the MacGuffin makes no sense." Yet the very things they complain about are drawn directly from the first three films. The action is no less absurd, the MacGuffin no more outlandish, the plot no more unrealistic than the first three. But the difference is that the first three are accepted on their own terms, whereas the fourth is being compared to the legendary, inviolable images which most people held in their minds of the originals.

The films, of course, are the Indiana Jones films. The actor, Harrison Ford, mostly carries all four films by himself, only helped by the outrageous action scenes (come on people, is the journey into the "inner sanctum" of the grail any less outlandish than surviving a nuclear blast?) and the supernatural MacGuffins: i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and El Dorado. People claim that the the fourth film is much worse than the original three (or at least, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, since Temple of Doom gets a bad rep from just about everyone). But they fail to see that, in terms of MacGuffins, the angel of God coming out of the Ark is no less outlandish than El Dorado having been built by space aliens. The only difference is that Raiders was accepted on its own terms for what it was, and then elevated to unassailable mythical status, whereas Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has been compared to that mythical symbol and then despised for the very things that made people love Raiders in the first place.

This may just be a rant, but I hate to see people put down a film like Crystal Skull for such irrational reasons as a hatred of something new that dares to try and live up to something old. When people try to make a film more than it actually is, the film fails miserably. The Indiana Jones films were never meant to be more than a combination of the best elements of 1930's B-action flicks, and they succeeded in that. The new one, since it had been pushed up 20 years into the 1950's, decided to combine that original feel with the best elements of 1950's B-sci-fi flicks, and despite its success at doing so, people hated it for that.

If people could somehow take the original films off the pedestal where they have placed them and compare them rationally to the fourth film, I think they would see that Crystal Skull follows in the Indiana Jones tradition very well. No, it's not a great film, but then, neither were any of the original trilogy. What the films do is capture that little child inside us who wants to be out saving the world, kicking butt, taking names, and finding out what really happened to the Ark, the Grail, and the City of Gold.

So instead of criticizing, sit back and enjoy The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It has everything you loved about the originals, if only viewed from the right perspective.

EDIT: Well, it turns out that George Lucas has already said it, and better than I did: "The fans are all upset. They’re always going to be upset. ‘Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this?’ They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it. So you just have to stand by for the bricks and the custard pies, because they’re going to come flying your way." ("Keys to the Kingdom")