Going Up: All these sequels might not be such bad news.

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It is not often that I can get through an article on the film industry and only disagree with the very last line. Laurence Caromba’s Studios with a licence to sequel (Published 7 March, I know I’m late to the party) gave me the opportunity to reflect on this fact, because it actually managed it. The article itself deals with Hollywood’s love affair with sequels and adaptations, eloquently laying bare the economic incentives and pressures that caused and propagate this state of affairs. It is a strong piece of writing that loses some momentum when it veers into value judgements. Not that value judgements are wrong. They’re things we’re all allowed to make.

It’s just that last line (and, to be completely honest, the preceding paragraph) that kept niggling at me. Is the new crop of films released by Marvel and Friends truly that “empty and soulless?” They are adaptation, sure. They are sequels, undoubtedly, but to compare them to Jaws and Indiana Jones is not only cherry picking, but missing another important consequence of the big Disney takeover.

When comparing today’s films against the charms of Indiana Jones, it seems that the writer is using quirk as the main criterion to bemoan the state of modern films. To be sure, Indy is chock-full of quirk and I love him for it, but a perceived shortage of the stuff is not exactly reason to bemoan the state of the industry.

It views the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Indiana Jones might be the archetypal adventurous romp, but that doesn’t mean that its peers are necessarily works of genius. There are more than enough examples of “original” drivel making tons of money in the past to seriously question the veracity of the claim that spec scripts are necessarily better.

Adapted material is also not necessarily worse. The Hunger Games franchise is coining it with films that are uncharacteristically nuanced for tentpole films. Would it have been better to rather make two original ideas? Maybe, but it’s doubtful that it would have necessarily resulted in better movies. It would almost definitely have resulted in less money.

Viewers are growing more nuanced. We are disillusioned with simple narratives about the world and expect films to mirror this. The upshot is that big dumb action movies are seemingly becoming less and less stupid. Take Iron Man, for instance. The third instalment in the series was as quirky and self-deprecating as Indiana Jones ever was, but with added nuance. Here we have a film built around giant action set pieces, while still managing to touch on issues like media manipulation, mass hysteria, PTSD, and obsession. Or the new Captain America: drone warfare, the patriot act, government espionage, moral culpability, and preventative violence are a few of the main themes explicitly tackled by the movie. Let’s not even get started on movies like The Dark Knight. 

I lament that wonderful original movies aren’t getting made as much. I wish the ones that are made didn’t often get overshadowed by the studio’s behemoths. Much of what the article says is very true and worrying, but not for the reasons posited. The big, brainless films will probably always be with us. It’s why most people watch movies. I don’t believe, however, that we are on a downward trend. I, like the article’s author, don’t expect these chart-toppers to be great works of cinema, but I do believe that we are getting closer and closer to the point where they actually are. 

Occam’s Dirty Razor.

Long ago in a land far, far away (from mine, at least), there lived a man named William of Ockham. William was a pensive type who would often try to figure out the logic of everything (or so we’re told). He was so good at this that, hundreds of years after his death, another thinker named a well known philosophical tool after him: Ockham’s razor.

Ockham’s razor has, as these things do, slowly changed to Occam’s razor over the years. The point of the idea is simple: when any two explanations for something come into competition with each other, we should favour the one with the least assumptions. The simpler explanation should stay behind after the razor has been wielded.

This is something we do every day, actually. We immediately see that it is better to explain the turning of a water wheel by the obvious explanation rather than the activity of fairies. In a world where there may be an infinity of possible explanations, Occam’s razor frees us to only ponder those that matter.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misused tools in philosophy. Electricity is much more complex than simply saying lights work by magic. The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.

Which is, once again, something that we are confronted with daily. Humans have evolved as categorisers and storytellers. When Terry Pratchett calls us Homo Narrativus, or the storytelling ape, he implies that this is what actually sets us apart from other species we know. People see things happening and immediately make up stories to connect them. It is why we have developed science. It is why we are able to plan for the future and learn from our past. I agree with Mr Pratchett (I usually do), our penchant for stories has been as important to our development as our opposable thumbs. 

So here we are, 21st century man, master of the universe. What does this have to do with me? Everything. Every day, when you click on a link or open a blog (or consume anything on the internet) you are being given a depiction of reality that says: This is how things really are.

This is where Occam comes in. The more plausible and simple these stories seem, the greater the chance that we’ll take them at face value. Writers are incentivised to work within the dominant frameworks we use to categorise the world. We all know that celebrities do silly things, so why question the newest gossip column? Big corporations are always evil, right? Environmentalists are always noble. Herbal means healthy and the news is always true.

Except it isn’t like that. Reality is almost never as simple as the heuristics we use to filter it, but our bias tends to favour the explanations that fall solidly within the narratives we are comfortable with. The problem is: The people generating the content know this.

They know that if they keep us comfortable, we will keep clicking. No worldview-threatening stories are allowed to shake the reader base, because pageviews equal money. This is why all you ever see on anti-GMO blogs are things that demonise GMO. The pattern holds true for everything from Jezebel to Christianity Today. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The only thing that changes is the different types of hammers.

When they heard about the filter bubble, people were aghast at the implications without realising that they’d been doing the same thing voluntarily for years. We crawl into little internet ghettos where likeminded people pat each other on the back for being likeminded. I get it. It’s comfortable. I do it too.

But the world is too complex for this kind of reduction. We owe it to ourselves to escape our ghetto and see how other people live and think. Your mind is only as broad as the horizon that you paint for it. Smallmindedness is self-perpetuating and comforting. Others will feed this drive towards insignificance. Nobody will help you fight it if you don’t do it yourself first.

If Occam’s razor is dirty, the only thing it’ll give you is tetanus. 

Why I am a Christian 3: Evil

It is difficult finding words for ideas. I think most people know this on some level. Have you ever experienced something so intense and profound that you could find no words to convey what was shivering in your core? It happens to me. Often.

I think it’s why we consume art on such an enormous scale. It is why we flock headlong to the telling of stories, saying: “Yes, that’s it. HE got it. That storyteller understands.”

The most foundational aspects of our lives defy easy categorisation and explanation. We are forced to acknowledge this when we stand speechless in the presence of things like birth, death, love, courage, and evil.

In some of my most intense times of doubt I have returned to my experience of darkness and found God waiting there. There may be many refutations that can be levelled at the experience of evil, but irrefutability was never the point of these posts. It is an exploration of the multiplicity of reasons that I feel drawn to Christianity as the greatest explanation of reality. I have spent some time trying to place the experience of evil in the foundations of my faith and I think I may have found part of the answer.

Evil is a lens. It is one of the most basic human experiences, and it forces a response in a way that almost nothing else does. I think that’s one reason why we all shy away from it. There is something in us that rebels against the worst of humanity, calling us to action: even against our wills.

Which is where I often find God. Evil, and our reaction to it, affirms the existence of true goodness in the wrong that goes against it. You could point to my upbringing as the source of my discomfort and I would concede that you might be right. There are no ironclad philosophies (I have written about this previously).
Evil is something that I cannot deny. It is one of the beliefs that are engraved in my bones: so deeply imbedded that to lose it would be to be fundamentally different.

I believe in objective evil: wrongs that would be despicable even if everyone alive believed them to be moral. I also happen to be in good company about this. My best friend is agnostic, and believes this as strongly as I do. Richard Dawkins agrees, along with the pope. Our lines might lie differently, but in the face of true evil, all are united in revulsion and denunciation.

This in turn points to ultimate, objective good; something I believe to be impossible without the existence of God. For morality to be truly objective, one cannot live in a naturalistic world. The only objective law in a world without God is that might makes right. This is an argument I’ve had with a few non-believers, and it seems like it’s something you either apprehend as a logical conclusion or not (And there are many theists and atheists who have argued for both conclusions, which tends to support this observation). For me, it is obvious. The existence of the Good (God) is necessary for the existence of absolute evil.

Evil points even further. In my most despairing experience of the brokenness of humanity, I have seen glimmers of truth in Christian teachings. We can all agree that we’re broken, but I find it illuminating that we’re broken exactly like Jesus envisioned. This is obviously true because the Bible is largely an account of the specifics of our brokenness, but it is also more. It doesn’t fall into the same shortcomings that other philosophies do on the subject of human depravity. It goes deeper and further than Buddha or Marx or Hume’s characterisations. It encompasses the scope and depth of the raw badness boiling in the human heart.

It speaks to my own evil: the beast in my breast that leaves destruction in its wake whenever it stirs. C.S. Lewis famously said that all men fall short, not of the moralities of other, but of their own rules. We are all party in some small way to the brokenness of the world. In that too, I see Christ’s teachings shine.

In the end, evil is something we are intimately familiar with. Those who are able manage to subdue little bits of it every day. I believe in Christ through the very existence of evil, the experience of His teachings (and the teachings He engages) about it, and the hope that one day evil may be beaten. It is a battle I experience every day in myself. It is a war that I see waged all around me.
Sometimes, when I despair of the victory of Good, I realise again why I am a Christian. To lift a world as dark as ours from the slime we have created we will need help from someone. Someone who is clean in ways that we have never known. Someone like Jesus.

Of beams and splinters: Homosexuality and Christian activism.

World Vision has caved under pressure. I don’t necessarily count this as weakness on their part.  As an explicitly Christian charity, the kinds and amounts of pressure that can be brought to bear against them are unfathomable. Which leads me to my first point: the Gospel is under attack, but not from outside. Rachel Held Evans summarised this so eloquently.

I have been working myself up to this point for a while, thinking about complicity and bigotry and where I stand in the strange maelstrom of where all these things intersect with theology. To those who know the shape of our souls silence does not mean assent, but to the world at large silence is yes. This is true of social organisations too. To outsiders an absent no means you agree. Always.

This is how systemic evil stays alive: when good men stay silent. If nobody speaks out, everyone stays isolated and impotent in their dissent. It’s in the absence of communication that relationships break down, societies calcify, progress is hamstrung.

And I want no part in it.

This is what I believe. I lay it out in public, because that’s where it may be a small crack in the monstrous monolith that outsiders perceive Christianity to be.

The roots of Christianity are set in the hearts of the oppressed. It’s in the history of the Jewish people; it’s in the oppression of the early church. In the Bible we find, over and over again that God is the God of the oppressed, of those on the underside of power, no matter who they happen to be. The gospel is the story of a God who comes down to the powerless and broken, and offers them healing. I believe that it’s our sacred duty as Christians to speak out against oppression, especially when it originates within the church, because silence is complicity.

Jesus calls us to love. Wherever we support, even implicitly, the systematic oppression of others, we have moved away from God and His good news.

Homosexuality isn’t even close to the issue that it is made to be, even if you believe in its inherent sinfulness. In the Bible, homosexuality is outshone by things like greed, hate and oppression to such a degree that we can almost round its score off to zero. That’s the problem here: it’s become a political issue, not a theological one. It’s a hot-button topic used by lazy preachers to create a fictitious enemy that the church can unite against.

But the church doesn’t need to. The gospel is so much more than a set of rules to protect with force. The only people Jesus ever used force against were religious people. Everyone else received an invitation. So the question comes up for each of us: if Jesus were here, would he weave a whip for me?

Creating laws to kill and imprison people for their sexuality is deeply wrong. We cannot legislate our specific morality: down that road lies fascism and all the many inventive evils that flow from it. Jesus didn’t call us to patrol the actions of others, especially not those of people who hold different beliefs. Not even God does that. If the most high respects free will enough to allow me my faults, who the hell are we to withhold our love in some misguided attempt at social engineering? We’re to bring good news, love and healing.

Withholding homosexuals the right to work alongside fellow Christians for the betterment of the world is more than sad, then. It’s misguided, loveless and evil. As long as the church keeps pushing this stupid homosexuality agenda (in all its forms), it will be an empire of oppression. It will be part of the problem that our religion was started to solve.

The stance taken by most Christians on this topic is so disgustingly toxic that it beggars belief. It is so ‘far-sighted’ that it needs glasses to see its own sin. As long as we remain sinners, we have no right to even pick up stones, no less cast them. I am staggered by the amount of damage done by the rejection of homosexuals. It is possible only because the Christians doing so reduce these people to a single characteristic. These are people who love, fear, feel, cry, dream, and laugh. They are flesh and blood, with lives like ours, full of beauty and complexity. Just like us.

We are meant to be a force of love in the world. The body of Christ. Christ who loved and accepted whores and killers and you and me. We are in good company, no?

Personally, I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, but “allowing it” (if we assume that it’s sinful) will never be able to live up to the destruction that is being sown all over the world by those who oppose it. Don’t we ‘allow’ so many other sins too, anyway? Isn’t that the point of forgiveness, of tolerance and love?

Christians must start speaking up against wrongs. If we don’t, nobody’s going to change it for us. So this is my start. I denounce Uganda’s gay bill, Russia’s legislation, every Christian’s clamour against a charity allowing homosexuals into its ranks. We must speak out against anybody who treads on those who are different from them.

This madness needs to stop. It’s small-minded and unworthy of people who claim that God is love.

Why I Am A Christian 2: The Person of Jesus

This follows on Why I Am A Christian Part 1.

As a child, the stories of Jesus’ life had already become monuments early on. These engraved stones stood arranged next to my life’s road, so that I would pass them by often. Sunday school, Church, School, home: the stories were relayed to us on a regular basis.

It is an odd quirk of humanity that the more we know something, the less we think about it. In time, the monuments because moss-covered and comforting. Each time I passed, I’d afford them less and less attention. After years of hearing the stories, there was nothing more to learn.

Years later, I found my conception of Jesus to be strangely bland, so, armed with some historical context, (aided by more learned men than I) I set out to rediscover Jesus.

This man from Galilee is the point around which all of Christianity turns. He is considered the full revelation of the Law of God, the one true man, the messiah who came to release all mankind from bondage. But who do we find in the gospels?

Jesus is an enigma. He confounded everyone in his time. The religious elite of his day was shocked by his wisdom and knowledge as much as by his lifestyle. He upended ingrained tradition and theology with a smile and a story. He challenged centuries-old Jewish legalism while exhorting his followers to “sin no more.” Faced with barbed theological questions, he would answer with seemingly nebulous stories which forced the questioner to re-evaluate everything about himself. He advocated a strict moral life, while discouraging judgement. And Jesus mixed with all types.

The apostles were an odd lot. Gleaned mostly from rough folk, his band included fishermen and a hated tax-collector. The very fact that a Rabbi would choose these unworthy people as his closest followers was controversial at best in the 1st century world. It defied centuries of status quo and and showed one of the greatest facets of Jesus’ life: The underside of power.

Jesus showed an intense passion for the marginalised and oppressed. He touched lepers, flouted society’s censure of prostitutes and ate with “unclean” non-jews. He advocated some of the most brilliant forms of non-violent resistance ever devised. When talking about him, the scandalised elite called Jesus a “Glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

Jesus urged the rich to care for the poor. He branded the haughty as hypocrites, and respected women in a time when misogyny wasn’t even considered as anything other than natural. At the time of the last supper, he even took on the lowliest task in a Jew’s eyes: washing the feet of his followers, entreating them to do the same.

Then there was the God-thing. Jesus lived with an unshakeable conviction that he was God incarnate. The statements he made were, to ancient Jewish ears, incontrovertible proof of this. Elders tore their clothes at the blasphemy, Theologians scoffed at the audacity, people bowed in worship, but all were sure what he implied.

Jesus is rough and dusty. He wields a whip like Indiana Jones and plays with children. He weeps often at the state of the world. He is passionate and eloquent and humble. Walter Wink said that if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.

I agree. If Jesus is a fiction, he’s the greatest character ever written.

P.S. Notes on historicity of accounts of Jesus’ life. This is full of links to articles which are by scholars who meticulously reference their academic sources. The articles in question are popularisations of their work, though. I would seriously encourage reading them.

There exists a problematic distance between professional historians and us laypeople. This renders debates between opposing sides of a historical figure like Jesus quite opaque to me. I have often listened to both sides being passionately defended and devolving into arguments about presupposed worldviews.

History is an inexact field. This is necessarily so. The intervening years strip us of detail, corroborating data and the writer’s worldview and identity.

In my exploration of the myriad views around the historicity of New Testament accounts, I have found that the writers’ worldviews are always reflected in the conclusions they reach. So what am I as layperson to do when confronted with two legitimate opposing viewpoints?

I think we need to exercise skepticism for both sides and accept that both sides may be true (insofar as they are plausible. The refutations of the historical data about the resurrection are quite weak).

So here follow some popularisations of the historical data:

If you accept the veracity of what we know about Plato, Julius Caesar and, Homer, you are forced to accept the truth of the New Testament accounts. The alternative is rejecting all ancient historical knowledge we have. The only way to keep one and reject the other is by being academically inconsistent.

Why should we trust the gospel accounts? While it is a game of “How far back can we postulate the Gospels’ origin” for many liberal and secular scholars, there are good historical and textual reasons for at least entertaining the possibility of them being written by people who were there.

Based on the veracity of Luke’s facts, Sir William Ramsay actually went so far as to say:  “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”[15]

This is from a skeptical scholar.

Professor of classics at Auckland University, E.M. Blaiklock, wrote: “For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record… it was the spadework of archaeology which first revealed the truth.”

I doubt whether there will be a definitive answer from history, but rejecting the accounts of the New Testament out of hand only shows bias.

Film Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a mop. No, that’s not a typo, it’s a metaphor.

You see, mops just have loose ends everywhere- so too does the movie. And that is how a metaphor works. Clever, right?

While it has improved on some of the more rage-inducing elements of its predecessor, The Hobbit 2 (as I will furthermore call it) falls short on a couple of levels.

Yes, I’m referring to those loose ends again. The film is rife with subplots which are all illuminated to varying degrees. It feels like the writing team wanted to squash a whole season of HBO into one movie. There are rivalries and political shenanigans, boiler-plate angst, interracial love triangles and dramatic digressions. It’s like Game of Thrones without the sex. Many would wonder, therefore, what the point is? The point, dear frisky reader, is to get you to buy a ticket next year.

It’s one giant open-ended thread-fest to try and beat your apathy so you’ll watch the  next one to see how it ends. Instead of actually focusing on specific subplots, teasing out the complexity that could very well be there, the filmmakers seemed to think that merely telling us very blatantly that they exist is good enough. Not good enough, guys.

This leaves the characters seemingly without motivation for their actions, or at worst motivated by the broadest possible reasons, which is basically the same thing when it comes to making me care about the person on screen. But that’s not all. The ending itself might actually have rivalled that of The Matrix 2 if we didn’t all already know how it’s going to end.

The ending follows on another game of set piece one-up, much like in The Hobbit 1. Because the film is structured like a roller-coaster and not a real story, the filmmakers must keep ramping up the crazy until you have insane dwarven cat-and-mouse with a dragon (Ooh, spoiler, there’s a dragon) that escalates quicker than an internet debate about homosexuality. It keeps building up to insane heights and then ends suddenlt with zero catharsis at the end. I felt cheated.

All of this after us coming along for what felt like an eternity of running and killings stuff; getting caught; getting sprung; lathering; rinsing; repeating.

At least it was properly silly and super serial when it wanted to be. None of those completely innapropriate jokes of the first film. It’s a better film for kids and adults when it’s not trying to be both at the same time. And I mean, what’s better than taking your kid to a movie where there’s no blood at all? Oh no, actually, the one character bleeds a bit as a plot point. Another gets a light nosebleed after a throwdown with a huge orc. But it’s all kid-friendly. Now the fact that several orcs get gleefully, violently decapitated doesn’t change anything, because there’s basically no blood.

I saw the movie in 4k (thankfully no 3d or high frame rate though). Holy Crap. Wait, that was actually a typo. Should have said hokey crap. So much of the film is ridiculously pretty. The CG is wonderful (Smaug is so awesome that it’s almost worth watching just for that), the scenery, sets, and costumes are amazing. Except when they aren’t. Then every flaw stands up and does the macarena while I gibber in my seat. There are shots that look like cheap computer game cut scenes, Character animation that doesn’t even look like the people they cut back to. It’s everywhere. Just when you relax a bit something new and horrible jumps out at you.

On the whole, it’s a lot like a 20 minute guitar solo. Technically proficient (Mostly), good in some places, but essentially self-indulgent and boring. It’s a novel in need of a good editor. It’s a tree in need of pruning. It’s a writer that doesn’t know when to stop abusing metaphors.

It’s a vaguely enjoyable way to spend 160 minutes, as long as you don’t concentrate too hard. I’m just waiting for the supercut where they take all 3 movies and make a single 3-hour film. That would be worth it.

My Grandmother’s Shadow: Praising The Departed, Loving Those We Have.

I found a little book in one of the drawers of my old desk. Inside, the pages are filled with scribbled thoughts and poems I wrote so long ago that I have forgotten most of them completely. Which is apt, since what I write now is about forgetting.

My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease. She fought for years, but when she finally died, in my early teens, it left within me a feeling of relief. Relief that her suffering was over, but a darker, selfish kind also. I was thankful that I wouldn’t have to confront her again.

For me it had become intolerable to be around her. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease. It robs the sufferer of dignity long before it takes their mind. I couldn’t bear to look upon her shaking hands as she lay in bed, to lean in close and decipher the whispers she tried to communicate with. In my mind the frustration behind her eyes had become annoyance at me. This was when she could still do things. Her disease stripped her of all humanity and made her a thing of revulsion to me.

Years later, my mother (her daughter) would mention things about her and I would stand amazed. When she spoke of Ouma Ria, there was no hint of the creature I remembered. My mother spoke of a woman I didn’t know. Strong, intelligent, playful, loving. I quested back and could find no such memories of her.

My mother spoke of the time we went on a trip and my dad videotaped Ouma Ria giving us sweets against my mother’s instructions. She was looking around conspiratorially for my mother, a smirk on her face, while handing out the contraband to the eager grandchildren.

My mother told me about time spent on Ouma Ria’s lawn, when she’d play with us and we’d laugh. When she took us on trips to the shops, to the seaside. Always, there’d be a light in my mother’s eyes. Love for a woman of stature. For a person who’d fought for what was right, who loved and lived deeply. A woman who instilled a deep respect in everyone she met, because that was simply who she was. And I had been there. I had known her for years.

When my grandmother was buried, I didn’t cry like the others. I had always been a child who fixated on negative things. The last years of her life had given me so much bad to cling to that it had become my complete reality.

We are all like that to some extent. Every day we have the choice before us to focus on aspects of our lives, building our reality from the bricks of our subconscious. I have shrugged off my annoyance at the ceaseless praise heaped upon Mandela after his death, because I have felt the loss of a person’s life again.

It is not a life cut short, but a life that never existed. I didn’t cry at the funeral, but I cry today. I cry for the loss of my grandmother. For the woman she was. For the shell she became. I cry, because I will never know her as I should have, because I was a child too caught up in my own revulsion to treasure what I had had. There is nothing I can do to get her back. I will never revel in the beauty of her life remembered. It is a loss so enormous that it is unfathomable to me.

And now? I will try to live my life in remeberance of all that is good. I will try to revel in the beauty and the love of the people I treasure while they are still here.

Ouma Ria, I wasn’t loyal to the person I knew before the disease. I took for granted all you did, all I hear about. So in tribute to you I say to those who mourn: Sing! Sing of the life of the dead. Celebrate the light of a laudable existence. There will be time to reflect on mistakes later. Now is the time for songs from tear-streaked faces. To mourn the life that is no longer among us, but also to speak of the life lived while it had been.

Lest we forget.