Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

This weekend saw the release of the latest addition to Quentin Tarantino's corpus: Inglourious Basterds.

Much can be foregone in the review if you're familiar with Tarantino's work: Reservoir Dogs, the Kill Bill films, or perhaps his best known film, Pulp Fiction. (The latter is actually on the AFI's '100 Years... 100 Movies' list--it's low, but it's on there.) Probably the first association made when speaking of a Quentin Tarantino film will be "violence". I don't mean violence a la The Godfather... or even violence like that in Saving Private Ryan. Tarantino's violence is hard to describe. "Gratuitous" doesn't quite capture it. The violence in his films is very purposefully extravagent. You should expect going in to be immersed in this really mortifying world.
Inglourious Basterds is certainly no exception to this--in fact I have to say no that if you have any qualms about watching film violence, never see this movie. The violence enters is abruptly and unexpectedly with a man being scalped, and it is not really subdued in what follows.

The violence is so striking, in fact, that it has been able to shape all of my reflections coming out of the theater.
Why? What message is he trying to send? When you use violence the way that Tarantino does, you must be prepared to answer these questions.

The Basterds are a small group of Jewish-American soldiers who have been unleashed on the German forces in France, where they are striking terror in the Nazi military with their brutality and sadism. Early in the film Brad Pitt's character happily tells a Nazi prisoner (soon to be executed): "Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies."
Tarantino certainly understands the depravity of much of modern cinema. One of the glories of Pulp Fiction is its portrayal of the senselessness of this... but I believe the message of Inglorious Basterds is more layered, and more particular than a simply critique of our current gore-drenched movie culture.

The movie's finale revolves around a film premiere in German-occupied France, where the latest piece of Nazi propaganda is being screened. This Nazi film showcases the exploits of a brave Nazi sniper who is single-handedly able to kill nearly 300 Allied troops in three days. This film is extremely violent itself, for the 1940s, and it is received with disturbing glee by the audience (especially by Hitler himself).
Minutes later we, the viewers, find ourselves presented with a similar spectacle, as Allied soldiers fire mercilessly into a crowd of Nazis from a sniper's 'bird's nest' of their own.
The question you are meant to ask yourself: how does your reception of this horror compare to the Nazis' reception of their own film? To Hitler's reception of it?

Once you begin to ask these question, you are only faced with more.
How do we think about the Nazis in our culture? Is that itself really humane? Is watching--and enjoying--a film about killing Nazis any less detestable than those atrocities we accuse them of?

These questions probe deeper than a critique of our film industry. They go to the heart of our existence as social creatures. Tarantino accuses the gleeful observer of, with Brad Pitt and the Basterds, carving a swastika into the foreheads our the Germans in our memories, refusing to let them remove that uniform, and then reveling in the punishment that they deserve... surely they deserve?

This movie is about more than the film industry, it is about revenge.
What are we doing when we take revenge--as the Basterds on the ground or as the viewers vicariously--to ourselves as humans or to our enemies as humans? When we wish to 'settle the score' with Nazis, with terrorists, with whomever, what, in that moment, do we have in common with Tarantino's sadistic Adolf Hitler?

Some of the performances in Basterds are really exceptional. Christoph Waltz is excellent as the Nazi "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa--really stealing the show from the opening scene. I thought, contra some other reviewers whom I've seen, that Brad Pitt did an excellent job as well. He's over-the-top American, and that's precisely what you need for that role. He also offers the funniest performance--unfortunately B. J. Novak isn't given much space to stretch his legs, otherwise perhaps Pitt would have had competition there.

On the whole, though, it's hard to call the film enjoyable. It's certainly disturbing. It's also though-provoking... but while I enjoy having my mind provoked, I appreciate it when the provocation is dealt by a lighter hand. And I'm being pretty liberal here: most people will not enjoy the film at all (I'd like to think, at any rate). I can't overstate the sheer gruesomeness of it. If you are already a fan of Tarantino, you will probably enjoy it thoroughly without a hitch. Most people, however, ought to sit this one out. If you'd like to think deeply about how we characterize Nazis, perhaps you'd be better off watching Tom Cruise's recent Valkyrie, the only other film in the last few years which I'm aware of that give a human face to the Nazi uniform, and this in a much more direct (and by means of a much less graphic) way.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jesus in the work of Josephus

When it comes to the history of 1st Century Judaism, one of the most important sources available to researchers is Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the second half of that century. The writings of Josephus notoriously contain a passage referring to Jesus--a passage which sounds a bit fishy and is commonly said to be 'corrupt', that is, it has been tampered with, edited, by Christian scribes of later centuries. This is an important topic because the mention in Josephus represents one of the earliest extra-Biblical references to the life of Jesus anywhere. For people interested in the historical life of Christ--proponents or nay-sayers--Josephus has to be taken into consideration.

All that to say: here's a good, short video on the topic. This should be a painless introduction for those of you who are interested, but totally unfamiliar with the issue. Check it out!

Friday, August 14, 2009

what "works of the law"? pt. 2

What then are 'works of the law'?
Works of the law in Romans are "those things which distinguish you as Jewish."

That is why, in Paul's logic, to say that we are justified by "works of the law" is the same as suggesting that "God is the God of Jews only" (:27-29).
Maybe a good paraphrase of 3:28 would be "people are justified by faith, not by simply being Jewish."
(from part 1)

This interpretation has some interesting and, I think, helpful, implications.
What I'm suggesting means that, as one theologian put it, "Paul was not against the law as such - far less against 'good works'! What he aimed his arguments against was the law understood and practiced in such a way as to limit the grace of God, to prevent Gentiles as Gentiles enjoying it in full measure."

This implication shines a lot of light on the book of Acts.
In Acts, Paul does many things that are hard to swallow held next to a traditional Protestant/Lutheran reading of Romans--one which (and I welcome any correction from within those traditions on this point; this has just been my understanding of the popular views) sees Paul as attacking the observance of the law in favor of 'salvation by grace through faith.'

As James remarks to Paul in Acts 21:24, "you yourself also live in observance of the law." This comes in the middle of James's sending Paul to purify himself in the Temple, in hopes of refuting claims in Jerusalem that Paul "teaches all the the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs." (21:21) This is a scandalous accusation that James and apparently Paul both want to discredit.

More striking, I think, is the conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This chapter is crucial for understanding the Biblical teachings on Jewish-Gentile relations in Christ.
The council is called to address the situation of Gentiles converting to "the Way". Some, Pharisees in particular, believe that these Gentiles ought to be circumcised (:5)--receive the sign of covenant membership. The apostles conclude that the Gentiles need not be circumcised, but, in their Apostolic Decree, they write that Gentiles ought to follow four commands: "abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." (:20)
These commands might seem kind of random at first, but they are actually pulled from the book of Leviticus. These are commands given to foreigners 'sojourning in the midst' of Israel. They aren't required to become Jews, as Gentile converts traditionally were, but they remained Gentiles and adhered to these precepts.
The men carrying this letter then traveled with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch.

A Paul who was totally opposed to Old Testament law, whom many like to suppose wrote Romans, simply doesn't mesh with this Paul in Acts.
However, a Paul arguing against, not law observance, but an attitude of exclusivism--'God is for the Jews!'--does fit here.
In fact, the Council of Jerusalem decides precisely in favor of what Paul is arguing for in Romans: salvation is available to the Gentiles as Gentiles. There's no need for them to convert to 'outward' Judaism: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter." (2:28-29)

In Romans 4, Paul goes on to draw out how it is that the promise to Abraham may apply to the uncircumcised. (Again, Paul is here arguing against an 'ethnocentric exclusivism': 'Abraham and the promise are not merely for the Jews!')
If we want to understand 'works of the law' in the sort of 'standard' way, where it refers merely to 'works that are supposed to earn salvation', this passage seems to be merely an interesting aside.
But if the 'works of the law' that Paul is attacking is instead 'that which distinguishes one as a Jew', his exposition of Genesis 15 makes perfect sense--indeed, it's critical--right where it is.
'You may have thought that justification comes through Jewishness,' he begins, 'but I'm telling you that justification comes through the promise, and the promise is realized through faith.' Abraham's faith, not his circumcision, is what marks him out as the forefather of the people of God, Jewish or otherwise.

This sort of reading of Romans can have some serious ramifications for our reading of the rest of the New Testament (not least of James). It's also got me convinced that "the fundamental problem with which Paul is wrestling in Romans is not how a person may find acceptance with God; the problem is to work out an understanding of the relationship in Christ between Jews and Gentiles." This is what much of the post-gospels New Testament is about, once we start understanding it in context.

This sort of reading of Romans is also exactly the sort of responsible, informed reading that I think Christians have to be doing of our scriptures. Paul wasn't writing in a vacuum--we need to get to know his context. Jesus wasn't a 21st century westerner--we need to know what environment he was in and speaking to, what his terminology meant to his audiences.

There are a lot of great resources out there to help us along the way. Heck, I can think of five theologians off the top of my head who have lead me by the hand in my (this) understanding of Paul. As much as you can, dig into these studies.

More than anything else, though, and before anything else all of us have here to face our call to read and know the scriptures, and to pray for God the Spirit's leadership and guidance. Study the word, and do it as often as you can. Allow God's Spirit--and whatever tools he has placed at your disposal--to direct you in your interpretation and understanding.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

what "works of the law"? pt. 1

Last summer I had a pretty intense (and, I thought, fun!) debate with a fellow whom I had heard preach on James chapter 2--the 'faith without works is dead' passage. I thought that his message totally misrepresented James's own, essentially contradicting the apostle's words.
The message came out this way, of course, because in the Protestant tradition we tend to hold up Paul and James as these two sort of opposing voices on the matter of justification. 'Paul says we're justified by faith, not works; James says we're justified by works, not faith.' This is a gross distortion of both views, but it's also a good summary of the popular take on it all. With this on the table, we're left no choice but to do some 'creative interpretations' of the view that we think is off, and that's usually James. 'He can't mean what he said; you have to read this in light of Paul...'

Romans is usually what they mean by 'Paul'. I had Romans 3:28 quoted at me more than once last summer: "For we know that a man is justified by faith and not by works of the law."
This response always left me unsatisfied. Not because I'm not willing to let scripture lead me--I hope that's not what this is all about. It's because I knew that "works of the law" in Romans and "works" in James are not the same thing. This is indisputable. Read the contexts for the two. Paul is talking about something specifically Jewish with a very particular meaning. James is talking about good works in general, like visiting orphans and widows in their distress or taming the tongue.

Lately I've found myself returning to this issue. Not by studying James this time, but by studying Romans. I wanted to read this wonderful letter one more time, slowly and thoroughly, before heading to seminary. Along with it I've been reading a lot of secondary literature: studies on the letter's context, suggestions of alternative translations at points, etc.
All of this has brought to my attention once again this really crucial phrase in the letter: 'works of the law.'
How are we to understand this phrase?

The traditional Protestant view (coming from Luther) of 'works of the law' can be best explained with an illustration: "works of the law" are akin to the things Roman Catholics do--going to mass, receiving the sacraments--to try and ensure their salvation. They are works meant to impart the saving grace of God to an individual. The Jews were doing works that they felt earned, merited salvation for them. These were works prescribed in the law.

This is the traditional Protestant/Lutheran view. For *many* reasons, I do not share it.

Before anything else, a misunderstanding of ancient Judaism has to be exposed here.
Ancient Jews did not understand themselves as doing works, say following the laws in the Pentateuch, to merit salvation from God. Instead, they hoped for salvation simply on the basis of their being Jews. They were the covenant people of God, and God would be faithful to them. Salvation didn't follow any particular actions, but it followed a state of being: being Jewish. This is why proselytes, converts to ancient Judaism, had to receive the mark of circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of your membership in God's covenant community, your place as a child of Abraham, a Jew.
This is also the reason behind the activities of different Jewish factions in the 1st century. Pharisees didn't meticulously follow the law to try and earn salvation. They meticulously followed the law to set themselves apart, to prove themselves to really be God's chosen nation, up and against all of those who didn't meet the standards.
The same is true of the Zealots and the Essenes, waging war with the pagans and living in isolation from a corrupt world (respectively) to set themselves apart as clearly as they could. The distinctions between themselves and the Gentiles--or between themselves and other Israelites not living up to their part of the covenant with God--proved that they were really the people of YHWH.

The difference is sometimes hard to keep clear, but it's important: salvation did not rest in the works of the people, following the law, but it rested instead in God's faithfulness to his covenant with Israel ... so make sure that you are Israel!

This attitude, that we're talking about Israel's God, the God of the Jews, is what Paul is setting out to attack in Romans.

"Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? But a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith." (Romans 3:27-30)

Right here Paul is drawing some connections and one grand dichotomy.
The opposition, however, is not between what you might expect. Paul's not putting 'works, Jews, and circumcision' against 'faith, Gentiles, and uncircumcision.'
Instead, Paul places 'justification by works of the law' and "the Jews only" up against 'justification by faith', "the Gentiles also", and "the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith."
He is countering claims of exclusivism from the Jews with the vision of God justifying all peoples, Jewish or not, by faith.

What then are 'works of the law'?
Works of the law in Romans are "those things which distinguish you as Jewish."

That is why, in Paul's logic, to say that we are justified by "works of the law" is the same as suggesting that "God is the God of Jews only" (:27-29).
Maybe a good paraphrase of 3:28 would be "people are justified by faith, not by simply being Jewish."

Friday, August 07, 2009

Review: G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra

G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra hits theaters today. No doubt it will bring in a lot of money. Unfortunately, it's probably not as good a film as the 1987 animated JOE movie... the one starring Don Johnson and Sgt. Slaughter.
Yes, G.I.JOE is pretty bad.

Maybe that's a bit harsh. "Silly" is a much better word.
The action is over-the-top and silly. The dialogue is stock and silly. Many of the characters turn out to be silly as well. Yes, that's a good word for it. Any enjoyment of the film is going to require quite a bit of 'suspension of belief'--which is fine. This is a G.I.JOE movie that we're talking about. The difficulty arises when you understand precisely how much suspension is asked of you: the action and technology in this movie are more outlandish than anything from the JOE cartoon series... and that was a cartoon. For whatever reasons, this translation was handled much better by the filmmakers behind Transformers.

The plot is hardly immune to the silliness. If you ask too many questions about characters' motives or their various histories (with each other), your head might explode. Avoid this; just don't ask questions. Sit back and let the action and the silliness take you for a ride.

A quick note on the characters.
I'm not yet sure why exactly this movie features the particular Joes that it does. This is especially true of Heavy Duty and Ripcord. Anyone with a background in ARAH will know what I mean. (If it's simply a matter of having proper diversity in the team, then, please, give us Roadblock and Stalker.)
I actually did like Channing Tatum's Duke, which is much more than I expected going in. Snake Eyes was well done, as was Stormshadow, I felt. Unfortunately, the Scarlett/Snake Eyes relation was totally removed from the story. Scarlett was too busy being noticed for apparently the first time by a male on the team. This is a great loss, though I have to admit that the Scarlett/Ripcord tension is great fun.
Baroness looked great... beyond that we have some troubles. Dennis Quaid was perfect.
I can only hope that, if and when a (totally unnecessary and creatively unwarranted) sequel is produced, we will see some of the great characters absent in this first outing: Flint and Lady Jaye, Stalker, Xamot and Tomax, Mercer. Time will tell.

I think that, in some respects, Rise of Cobra is a bit like the first Fantastic Four movie. You can have fun with it if you want to. And I wanted to.
What I don't want is to ever see this movie again... or at least probably not for a long time.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

BW3 weighing in on sexuality issues in the church

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III has made some remarks about the 'sexuality crisis' in the U.S. Episcopal Church--with reference to N. T. Wright's own thoughts on the situation--as well as on the issues in general. I tend to agree with everything Witherington's said here; check it out for yourself.