Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dear Celsus,

An Amazon user posted this on the 'christianity forum' on amazon.com. Please take a look at Celsus's argument before going on. The title is "PROOF THAT BIBLE GOD DOES NOT EXIST".

Celsus's argument goes something like this: because the Christian God is traditionally held to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, to prove His lacking of one of these qualities is to destroy the Christian conception of God. I don't think I do any violence to his stance in wording it as such.
His argument proceeds thus: Let us see why the Christian God cannot be omniscient.

1. He allows "erroneous, contradictory, and foolish messages" to "infuse his inspired scriptures". Multiple examples follow.

2. He allows "his perfect Word to be corrupted by forgeries and interpolations." Examples follow.

3. He allows "messianic prophecies presented in the New Testament to be based on misquoted or non-existent Old Testament text." Examples.

4. Jesus makes "false prophecies concerning his second coming." (Lewis's take on this issue makes for irony here.)

5. He (God in general again, not Christ) steals "his main doctrines from pre-existing faiths." An elaboration follows.

Celsus also notes at one point that these arguments are against a literal, Fundamentalist reading of the texts--this is a demographic among which he was apparently once numbered.
Again, I hope you read Celsus's post before this. However, now I go on.

I'm not looking to refute Celsus's examples in the sense that he might think, but I will make a few comments on some of them.

First and with exasperation--at this line of thinking, not at Celsus himself: to look for scientific facts in Old Testament texts is simply to misunderstanding the nature of the text. More on this later.
Matthew 19 does not see Jesus 'recommending self-castration.' The line "let the one who is able to receive this receive it" is harkening back to verses 10 and 11. Please read context. Unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but I hate to see Jesus looking that kind of crazy. 
Target audience must be kept in mind with Mark 16.18. Besides, according to the tradition, the apostles suffer some ridiculous things; St. John is even supposed to have survived being boiled in oil, and that's a Hell of a lot more impressive than surviving some poison. The Emperor Claudius did that much (once). If you want to attack some claims, go for wilder ones that are purported as historical, I say.
I'll refrain from going on in this vein, though I could. That's not the sort of discussion I'd want to have.

The real issue I take with Celsus's thought is not overtly stated, but is underlying: there's a misunderstanding of the concept of inspiration. This does not mean that God himself typed the manuscripts (...levity...), but rather that His Spirit guided fallible men in the writing of the scriptures. This is essential.

This misunderstanding may of course be wholly the result of Celsus's conscious aim towards the fundamentalist reader with these arguments; I don't know. If it is not, then let me say this, though it may be too late in the game for Celsus to care much: there's another, larger Christian tradition out there that can answer these questions.  The fundamentalist tradition, I'm afraid you're right, simply cannot. When faced with contradictions, the fundamentalist will tell you frankly that they don't exist. When faced with science they will tell you that the Word of God knows better than some men in white coats. The ones really torn over this will immediately advocate ID or quietly lose their faith. All the while, the other traditions can simply look back through the centuries for wisdom: people like Origen (and appropriate name for this conversation) and Augustine were dealing with these issues from the earliest centuries of the church. 

Of course the real problem with the literalist's attempts to defend the scripture from this or that 'assailant' is that this is in fact not faith at all. Faith is the "assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Anything more concrete than that is simply the modern-empirical worldview parading itself as the proper way to read the Bible. 
These texts are supposed to be the Word of an all-knowing God, yes. (Once we've established this I wonder if we should even continue to speculate; as if we actually understand the term 'omniscient' and how to properly define it.) But they're a variegated bunch of texts--laws, poetry, epistles, apocalyptic literature, biographies, proverbs, and more. They were all written in different times for different purposes. Maybe some political propaganda; some songs... for singing! some maintaining of oral tradition when societies have been scattered or when the years still, unexpectedly, go by; some admonishments to young leaders. Regardless of what some people think or unconsciously take for granted, the end is not that the scriptures are all somehow the same kind of work, to be read in the same kind of way, that way being the proper, modern way of reading supposedly-objective texts. 
To judge them in this manner is to hold the texts to a false standard. To remove the human element from their composition is to ignore what they are. 

Celsus, in closing I just wanted to say that I'm sorry that you fell victim to a tradition which, for all of its good, reads the scriptures as it does, forcing anyone under its influence to read the scriptures as it does, and which seeks to buoy the claims of the Bible on science and history. These disciplines may be important when the texts make scientific and objective historical claims, but the former I'm not sure ever happens and the latter is done more seldom than most would think. This is all a fine example of why I find the fundamentalist reading so dangerous. Let the text be what it was meant to be; remember what Lewis said a few posts back.

I'm sorry to see that this is the sort of 'faith' that you had to adhere to, Celsus, and I understand why it wouldn't work out for you. I hope that one day you'll (as well as a great many others, non-Christian and Christian alike) be able to reconsider Christianity in a different way, and see that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, "the Lordship of Jesus is not deduced but encountered". Christ, is ultimately and despite all of our demands to touch his wounds, not to be touched, but simply to be called "my Lord and my God!" in faith.

post-script:
I also need to apologize to Celsus for my sloth in finishing this post. It's amazing how often 'more important' things, like Indiana Jones day or Seinfeld on DVD, will delay you from a task. Sorry about that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


-SPOILERS-SPOILERS-SPOILERS-

If you've yet to see this film and wouldn't like to know the particulars, then don't read on.
-----------------------------

Wednesday May 21st I and a group of friends decided to bring in Indiana Jones Day (the 22nd, technically) the proper way: we sat down and watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade back to back and in that order (Temple of Doom first, we said, so that it wouldn't matter if you were late). These movies, well the latter two at least, are simply phenomenal, and they do not get old. This was a good decision and made for a wonderful day.

Indiana Jones Day arrived at midnight as all days do, except for the accompanying midnight movie premiere. This was a bad decision.
Not on my part, entirely: it makes perfect sense to close out an Indiana Jones movie marathon with the last Indiana Jones movie. It was more a bad decision on the parts of the trinity of all things Jones-related, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford. It was a dark, sad, two-hour bad decision.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins with an action sequence that does a marvelous job of destroying all of that unique, mysterious aura with which Raiders ended 28 years ago--the ending that secured so many fans for the franchise. We find ourselves beginning the new installment in the very warehouse where the Ark had been stowed (though we are looking for a different piece this time). The Ark, of course, makes an appearance, because George Lucas simply cannot restrain himself from  such 'allusions'--like the Millennium Falcon's cameo in Star Wars Episode III, except this is more obvious and correlatively less tasteful, especially when compared to the witty remarks about the Ark made in Last Crusade. This sequence, when it slows down a bit, seems to introduce extra-terrestrials to the plot, and after 'exciting' action ends with Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion.

Does this beginning seem... forboding? It should. This is the appropriate start to what is one of the worst sequels ever made, and written by the writer of what I consider the best film sequel ever made: The Empire Strikes Back.

What went wrong?
Many, many things.

On a large scale, the filmmakers refuse to commit themselves to a genre with this movie. It's been suggested they were trying to reflect the popular science fiction stories of the 1950s with Crystal Skull, whereas the previous three films reflect the 1930s popular adventure-serial format. Even if this were the intention, there's no definite genre here. There's plenty of science fiction, but the movie's still proliferated with the adventure elements of the original trilogy, and what we're left with is not a very good sci-fi story and not a very good adventure tale. 
In fact, what we're left with is two hours of mindless action, as if some child wanted to play with his Lego Pirates, Knights, City folks, and Space Police all at the same time. A long, boring to the modern audience car chase ends and is immediately followed with an insect chase a la The Mummy which is followed immediately by a waterfall sequence which is followed immediately by a natives-with-primitive-weapons chase which is followed immediately by... you get the picture. And all of this, far from exciting, is simply tiring.

What exactly is this mindless action replacing that the original films had? A good story. You lose the sense that you're in an a quest that has occupied man for thousands of years, a quest that is worth that kind of effort. You lose the slow moments when the film is carried by Harrison Ford and John Williams alone. You also lose, as one commentator noted, the wonder. There's a sense of awe when you see the Ark of the Covenant first rise onto the scene. There's wonder when the camera first holds for that brief second on the 'cup of a carpenter'. There's nothing awe-striking about a room full of silly looking alien skeletons. Where there could have been wonder, when the flying saucer rises into the sky from beneath the ancient temple in the film's end, we're distracted by flying rubble and the roar of water rushing into the area--mindless action. This is what we were given in place of all that made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade so powerful, so memorable. 

There's also an abundance of weak CG effects throughout the film. Lucas, based on interviews some months back, seemed disappointed with the lack of effects in the film, but I can't see why. Even Indy's whip is computerized at times, and not very well. Why? I really don't know. I suppose George Lucas just has more faith in pixels and lights than in reality. He needs to be tied to a chair and forced to watch movies like Braveheart or Gettysburg, so that he can recall what real people, props, and locations look like on film. 

There was only one scene in the whole film that I honestly, without reservation, liked: the first conversation between Indy and Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). I have to admit also that Mutt's character did not bother me at all; LaBeouf adds here to the list of movies that I was afraid he would ruin but did not. Thank you.

On the whole, this is the most disappointing movie that I've seen since Spider-Man 3 and one of the most disappointing films that I've ever seen. 
If I'm going to watch a movie about robots that turn into cars, based on an 80s toy line, then I'm perfectly content with the tried and true summer movie formula--that's what so much of modern Tinseltown is. But when I watch a movie with the name Indiana Jones in the title, from the creator of E. T., Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and on down the list, I expect something a Hell of a lot better than this.

If only Revenge of the Sith had been as weak as its two predecessors, then perhaps I could have avoided this movie altogether. Instead I trusted Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas, and of course I trusted Harrison Ford, and that trust was very poorly placed. I honestly think that GL and company did more with this one film to hurt the Indiana Jones franchise than he has done in the last decade, with three films and endless tinkering with the originals, to hurt the Star Wars saga. More than I'm annoyed by all of this, I'm really just saddened. Indiana Jones should have retired after his last crusade.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Review: Iron Man


The summer blockbuster season has officially begun. Last night I sat through commercials for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Dark Knight, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Summer time.
And with summer time will come the return of the wardrobe summer movie reviews! So, without further ado, let's take a look at the film that has kicked off the summer: Iron Man.

Iron Man, being the first film on the character, is, like all of its predecessors, an origin story. As you can tell already from the commercials, we find the brilliant weapons developer Tony Stark(Robert Downey Jr.) kidnapped by terrorists and coerced into building a weapons system for them... only what he builds is not quite what they expect. Armored technological carnage follows throughout the movie. There are also lots of fine cars and beautiful women. Make no mistake: Iron Man is a superhero movie on steroids.
Does that mean that there's nothing behind the shallow facade of gold-titanium alloy and hotrod red paint? That's hard to say.
There is certainly a lot going on in Tony Stark's character. He begins the film as an incredibly vain, carefree Casanova; he ends a vain Casanova (?) with a "heart". After seeing what use the weapons that his company manufactures have been put to, Stark's conscience--and his familiar suit--appears for the first time. There's all sorts of talk at this point about Tony's heart, Tony's purpose, his mission. He's accused by one man, a family man, of 'having everything but having nothing.'
Now, with the first Spider-Man film, as fun and action-packed as it is, we are left with the impression that the tale is ultimately one of responsibility; "with great power comes great responsibility" is Spidey's mantra. When the credits rolled on Iron Man, however, I was left feeling that the story of Tony Stark finding himself, while certainly there and intentionally, was there out of convenience and propriety. It is, I think, ultimately not what the movie is about. The movie is about weapons manufacturing, explosions, and speed. The real story was there, but in the end I don't think it formed the heart of the movie that the film-makers perhaps hoped for it to.

As far as the movie as a production goes, it's really well done. The score by Hans Zimmer was surprisingly weak until the film's credits. Other than that, the movie has plenty of room to shine. The effects are handled by ILM, which means they're top-notch. The Iron Man armor itself, such a critical aspect of the film, was designed by Stan Winston Studios (Predator, Terminator, etc.), so rest easy there.
Last and most impressive to me was actually the performances. Not all of them are phenomenal: Gwyneth Paltrow has done better work and I'm certain that Terrance Howard has as well. Still, Jeff Bridges offered a very solid performance and Downey Jr. simply stole the show. I couldn't help comparing the drawn-out origins beginning of the movie to those in Spider-Man or Hulk, but Spider-Man and Hulk didn't have Robert Downey Jr. I've never been terribly impressed by him before, but the man made every scene in Iron Man enjoyable and really alleviated the humdrum of an origin story.

So, on the whole, Iron Man was just a lot of fun. We shouldn't expect much more from these movies anyways (I made that mistake with Spider-Man 3...). If you need a few hours off--especially you college students going into finals--go check it out. This is no Oscar winner (except perhaps for effects), but it'll be a good time.

And remember, true believers, this is a Marvel comic movie... so make sure you sit tight until after the credits.