If you believe that popular depictions of Heaven reflect actual beliefs of Heaven, then Stephen Hawking might have point.
If you ask the average person what Heaven is, will they describe a metaphysical, spiritual state of union with an all-powerful Deity, or will they describe the setting for an ice cream commercial or a backdrop to a Bugs Bunny cartoon?
Because of its transcendent nature, artists must depict Heaven in allegorical, analogous, or fanciful imagery. Pop culture Heaven generally consists of people walking on clouds, a throwback to an earlier literary tradition of Heaven literally being in the sky. But if we start taking that imagery literally ourselves, then maybe we do risk buying into a fairy tale.
Our imagery of Heaven is supposed to represent an ethereal, lofty state of being. Clouds can signify majesty, beauty, and even a numinous fear. They look cool in certain lights. And, frankly, they are probably the most effective expression of bigness and enormity we can imagine. Sure, the sun and moon are big...but we can't really grasp just how big they are by looking at them...especially since they are so easily obscured by that massive thunderhead that rolled in and swallowed up the sky.
So it's not hard to imagine why early poets chose the heavens to represent something as enormously huge as God's glory.
It's also hard for us to imagine precisely what we'll be doing in Heaven. We know it will be glorifying God, so we come up with images of praise--like singing in choir robes. We have to imagine something, after all.
But, again, if we get wrapped up in our pet theories, or buy too much into the external signifiers and forget the spiritual concepts they are supposed to signify, then, maybe we have gone too far astray into our own myths and forgotten the Truth.
And maybe we, like Stephen Hawking, get so distracted by the clouds that we aren't seeing the exponentially larger Sun that exists behind them.
If you were "born this way," then you must have been this way at some point before birth. Very few of us have our character traits through the process of birth itself (or so I assume--infant psychologists should be free to leave comments regarding which of Laday Gaga's ways were generated by her actual birth).
Were you "conceived this way" or did you develop this way while still developing in the womb?
So at what point did Embryo Gaga become the way she was?
Isabel and I just finished watching Tron: Legacy, the spectacular art-adventure movie about life inside a computer.
It wasn't the best movie we've ever seen, but it was better than a Star Wars prequel. Take that as you will.
What I found most compelling about the movie, however, was it's surprisingly and most likely accidental anti-Leftist theme. Maybe it wasn't accidental. I just assume it was since Disney made it.
The main plot of the movie follows a young absentee CEO who gets sucked into a computer where his father (living Jeff Bridges) has been living for twenty years. Once trapped in the computer, he spends the rest of the movie trying to escape with his dad and a hot program chick, while also trying to prevent an evil program (computer-generated Jeff Bridges) from teleporting a clone army into the real world. Whatevs.
For me, what was most compelling was (spoiler) when living Jeff Bridges admits that he programmed computer-generated Jeff Bridges to engineer the perfect society within the fantasy computer world. In the process of admitting that this mght have been a bad idea, living Jeff Bridges also admits that people are incapable of designing a perfect world and that it was a mistake to even try. In fact, he comes to realize that it is better to just let the system play itself out.
This is most overtly expressed through a race of living creatures that exist with the cyberspace called the "Isos" (no idea how to spell that). The Isos apparently spontaneously generated within the cyberspace. They were not designed by any programmer, and yet they turn out to be a race of hyper-wise, beautiful, and seemingly immortal innocents. However, when CG Jeff Bridges sets out to create his "perfect society," he can find no place for the wild card Isos and has them all exterminated.
Pretty much seems like a tidy allegory against social engineering to me.
When man doesn't try to control the system, the system produces something greater than the sum of its parts. When man tries to impose too many rules to control the direction of the system, the system invariably becomes too powerful, becomes entirely self-serving, and ends up destroying the very things that it was originally supposed to protect.
Now, the movie is bookended by a seemingly anti-corporate message. A software company called Encom runs suspiciously like Apple and Microsoft. They keep updating their OS and charging exorbitant fees for upgrades that do little to improve utility. However, the company is ruthlessly protective of its source code -- which the absentee CEO secretly releases to the public during an opening sequence. I guess he's a linux user. (The first thing he does when he logs onto the computer that will zap him into Tron-land is type in "whoami"--perhaps the most metaphorical use of that piece of Linux code I have ever scene in a movie.)
And yet this seemingly anti-corporate sequence is actually sound business advice. It's essentially the argument that the Linux prophet Neal Stephenson makes in "In the Beginning Was the Commandline." Major corporations go through all this effort to keep their OSes secret, updated, glitzy, and complex, but the whole thing is a financial dead end. Eventually enough people will realize that there is a cheaper competitor (cheap as in free), and the coporate model of operating systems will be rendered obsolete.
Isabel and I just finished watching the first season of Sherlock, the BBC modernization of, obviously, Sherlock Holmes. This isn't so much of an accomplishment for us since the first season consists of all of three episodes. Anyway, we love this show. The murder mysteries allude to the original stories without playing them out exactly. If you know the original texts, you can anticipate moves in the plot, but the resolutions are never the same. Really, though, you watch the show for the character dynamics between Watson and Holmes. Like most good drama, the show centers itself on conflict of character which produces a sense of theme and story, rather than on over-the-top narrative. The murders or potential murders become secondary to the character interactions -- and the third episode even seems to be aware that there is something unsettling about forgetting that this is a murder mystery that we are watching. Highly recommended. The only thing that might put some A&D readers off are repeated gay jokes -- but these are almost necessary in today's climate. Watson and Sherlock -- two somewhat eccentric men who have started cohabitating on a virtual whim -- are constantly being mistaken for a romantically-inclined couple, and Watson is constantly working to dispel the conjectures...and always having to add a Seinfeldian qualification that there would be nothing wrong if they were. The pilot even has to throw in a reference to an actual gay couple just so that the audience knows the writers aren't homophobic.
This particular recurring joke reminds me of the initial meeting between the main characters in the original Ben Edlund comic book series, The Tick. I've quoted it before here, I'm sure, but it always makes me chuckle. When the sidekick Arthur invites the Tick to move into his aparment, the Tick asks him if he's "funny."
The awkwardness of close male relationships in the late 20th, early 20th Centuries due to Western societies openness to homosexuality is something that we should be thinking more about.
Really, I think there is far less actual homophobia -- if you define that as fear of homosexuals and their behavior -- than there is fear of being perceived as gay.
Isabel and I watched this on Netflix. It's the movie about the retired international secret agents who inadvertantly end up having one last go of it. (It's one of those movies that is based on a comic book that only comic book fans have even heard of.) All of the agents are famous actors -- which means I don't think we ever see the entire team assembled on screen at one time. The premise was okay -- Bruce Willis plays a lonely retired agent who has been flirting with a pension services girl over the phone, until assassins try to eliminate him and he has to rescue the girl before the assassins can get to her as a means of getting to him. (I'm not quite sure how that works, but I guess it's a generic convention.) The movie suffered from three main problems. The first was a very fast, clipped, and not entirely logical plot. I know I just said good drama is based on character interaction, not plot, but plot's one of those things that works best when you don't have to think to hard about it. This movie anticipated that the actors interacting and playing off of each other would carry the day, and this led, perhaps, to an overall weakness in narrative and dialogue. Second, and related, the movie never quite figured out whether it was set in a cartoon world or a mimetic world. Most of the cinematography was generally bland and uninteresting -- like just about any standard action flick. Occasionally, however, a sequence would crop up in which characters would do highly implausible things -- like shoot RPGs down with bullets. These sequences had all of the plausibility of a Road Runner cartoon, and seemed rather jarring. Scott Pilgrim got away with these kinds of moments because Edgar Wright is a brilliant director, so even his utterly mundane moments are filmed with just quirky enough direction that they leave us ready to experience the implausible at any moment...but yet don't feel as though they let us down if nothing more exciting than buttering toast happens. Modern directors should all be studying him. Kid knows what he's doin'. The biggest problem, however, requires a spoiler. So...[Spoiler]. The big reveal in the movie is that the secret agents have all been marked for death by a balding weapons manufacturer who has been manipulating the Vice-President of the United States. Yawn. The weapons dealer (Richard Dreyfuss) has been forcing the Vice-President to send out government assassins to take out retired agents in order to cover up some war crimes in Guatemala.
Now, I'm perfectly willing to admit that there are corporations exerting undue influence on American government. I'm also perfectly willing to admit that we occasionally do bad things in wartime.
But during wartime and in the midst of all of the anti-Bush, anti-Cheney media that was produced in the last ten years, was this really the reveal that we needed or wanted to see?
Granted, the movie never directly ties it's characters to Republicans or Cheney, as such. But still. The second the movie started insinuating that the Vice President had been orchestrating hits against our own people to cover up war crimes, Isabel and I let out a simultaneous groan. From that moment on, we were just waiting for the movie to be over.
In other pop culture news...
I think Isabel might be addicted to these new Lego blindpacked mini-figs. I think blindpacking toys is horribly un-American. I like to see what I'm going to buy before I buy it...especially at three bucks a pop. Fortunately, we keep finding sales and coupons, which are American, so we keep wasting out money on them. We jumped in during the second series and managed to snag ourselves two Lego Spartan warriors and a Pharoah. This whet Isabel's appetite. Although we never acquired the Samurai from the third series, Isabel was quite tickled with her Lego Mummy, native American chieftain, and elven archer. Now they are up to the fourth series and Isabel is desperate to snag the Lego geisha and Viking. She's already bought seven packs -- and managed to get seven different lego people without finding the ones she wanted. She was particularly disappointed by Lego soccer man and Lego figure skater. She's moderately satisfied with Lego skater-hipster, but only because we decided we could use his head as a little lego version of me. I am neither a skater nor a hipster, but I do wear glasses.
Isabel and I just started playing Portal 2 together. I think this is the first time we've ever played an online multiplayer game with each other. I convinced Isabel that it was worth the extra $30 to buy a copy for her so that I wouldn't be forced to spend my summer night's with random strangers. Valve recently announced that Portal 2 has taught them to no longer make exclusively single player games. I think this is a mistake. For lonely men like me, the idea of finding one other person to consistently play co-op caused me tremendous anxiety. Granted, this worked in convincing me to buy Isabel a second copy...but my original plan was to hold off on buying the game at all precisely because I didn't know with whom I would play. I only ended up with the game because Isabel gave me a copy in lieu of mass quantities of calories at Easter.
Mass multiplayer games like Warcraft or Team Fortress 2 work because there is a wider social net that the games cast. You can wander into a game with lots of people and no one will care that much (unless you cheat, annoy, or are really, really bad). Small co-op games, though, require too much of the players to comfortably play with other people. It's an awkward experience, especially in a puzzle game -- and especially if you are playing with someone who has already figured out the puzzle. But I'm not the guy running the game company, so what do I know.
Portal 2, by the way, is a great game, and I recommend it if you can find it at the $30 price point. You will beat it pretty quick, but it has a pretty compelling story, and it makes you feel smart if you can clear the game without a hint guide. Actually, it has one of the smartest scripts you will find in gaming. The writers definitely understood passive-aggressive relationships...and psychopathic computers.
For Easter, my local parish participated in the recent push to distribute Matthew Kelly's Rediscover Catholicism. The copies of the book were given out free thanks to generous donations from parishoners.
I'm chipping away at it, so I think I'll be posting some mini-responses in the next few weeks.
The chipping is not due to the density of the book. It isn't exactly Benedict's Introduction to Christianity, which gets very deep into modern philosophy very quickly. Pretty much anyone reading this blog could zip through Kelly's text in a few days, if not sooner.
I applaud what Kelly is attempting to do -- nothing less than recharging a Catholic populace at a time when we feel pretty low about ourselves. He's very forthcoming and timely about anxiety over the abuse of children and its cover-up--and it that regard, he's much more direct and head-on regarding the issues that the average Catholic is dealing with. It might even be persuasive to someone who is teetering on the edge of their faith or who has even fallen.
I have to admit, though, that I don't think I'm the target audience. Some of his analogies and examples are a little sentimental for my tastes.
Worse, however, is the sloppy copy-editing.
Now, I know I really shouldn't point that finger. I've probably as many typos in this blog post as Rediscover Catholicism has in the whole book. It's just a shame and a little embarassing that the book has such errors. It makes the whole project seems hasty and cheap...like a blog post rather than a book. (I post these things pretty much as first drafts and wait for the readers to copy edit in the comment boxes...)
Anyway, that's a minor point...although it should be a word of warning to anyone about to invest significant warning in gratis apologetics.
The book starts out with a prologue in which Kelly allegorizes Catholic theology in the form of an apocalyptic disaster movie -- essentially cribbing off of the Charlton Heston movie Omega Man and throwing in a dash of Saving Private Ryan. The point, however, is to make you see the Crucifixion from the Father's perspective rather than ours. It's a bit sensational, but it's attention grabbing. I think I might have been too cynical reading it because I kept wanting to deconstruct the allegory. Again, not the target audience.
In the first section of the book, Kelly makes a strong solid case for reasons why we should be proud of our Catholic heritage - universal education, institutionalized medicine, widespread food for the hungry - almost all of the social justice issues that Western Civilization tries to address have been undeniably advanced by the Catholic Church. Kelly notes, however, that we never remind ourselves of this narrative; we allow ourselves to be weighed down and blinded by the secular narratives of corruption and abuse.
Although it is a bit overgeneralized, this is a strogn opening and will most likely reinvigorate a concerned or doubting Catholic.
The second section tackles "personal philosophy." While I agree with the overall thrust of this section, I'm a little nervous about it. Kelly argues there are three widespread "personal philosophies" in our society that hinder our ability to appreciate and live our Catholicism: individualism, hedonism, and minimalism. I'm completely onboard with his description and critique of hedonism. Guilty as charged there, anyway. His analysis of individualism and minimalism, I'm a little less convinced by.
By individualism, I think Kelly means a complete and total preoccupation with self -- egocentrism is perhaps a better word. As part of a general definition, he argues that individualism asks the question: "What's in it for me?" He describes this question as if it is a bad thing. Four hundred years ago, I'd probably agree with him. Medieval and Renaissance political theories were rooted in ideas opposed to individualism. The subject was supposed to always submit himself to the greater good -- for country, God, and king. The assumption was that if people started asking, "What's in it for me?" society would collapse into chaos; mankind would devolve into a primitive state where life was brutish and short. The outrageousness of the American experiment has been that it proved just the opposite. Individual self-interest, rather than being a breeding ground for chaos, turned out to be a pretty good foundation for a country -- it's the principle behind our right to pursue happiness. "What's in it for me?" is a pretty good life philosophy since it forces one to perform a constant cost-benefit analysis before making decisions. For the most part, the personal cost of evil generally outweighs the benefits; the personal benefits of doing good outweigh the costs. Thus, self-interested parties generally work together or at least stay out of each other's ways.
Individualism is also a philosophy that preserves us from becoming a socialist collective that forces individuals to make choices in the name of greater goods. Individualism is supposed to respect the individual's ability to make rational choices on their own; and most people seem to have figured out that what benefits the whole benefits themselves.
I'm not trying to sound like a squishy liberal here. People are fallen by nature. We'll do evil things and abuse power when we get it. My point is that we are more prone to abuse power when we see others as collectives to be exploited rather than individuals deserving equality. I think Kelly shares this view, but the prose of his text (at least in the section on individualism) does not quite acknowledge the benefits of an individualist society. What Kelly is describing is a selfishness that only seeks immediate gratification for the self regardless of costs to others or even future cost to the self. Perhaps that's why he follows it up with hedonism.
Really, perhaps excessive "entitlement" would have been a better term -- the idea that we are entitled to rights that might not actually exist and that we can demand others surrender their freedoms because our rights trump theirs. One example he gives is of a school that banned religious language because of an individual atheist. He said the individual's rights were outweighing those of the others.
I'm not sure that's really a problem, as such. My individual right to property should outweigh the claims of others to take my property--especially others who have formed a collective.
The problem is not with individual's having rights, but with particular rights that we allow individuals to have. Individuals do not have a right to silence other individuals.
And, of course, one of the pillars of Christianity is ultimately self-interested. We desire Christ because we know he is our ultimate happiness. We do this for the promise of experiencing the infinite beauty of God, no? If we didn't hope in the rewards of Heaven (rewards that we do not deserve), then why even bother doing this at all? Why help others to get to Heaven if it is impossibly barred to you? A person who obeyed a god without any possibility of personal reward would be even more foolish than someone who obeyed a god that didn't exist. At least the latter has some sense of self-dignity; the former is just a disposable chattel slave.
And we certainly don't desire to be with God for God's sake.
Heaven is the ultimate answer to the question, "What's in it for me?"
As for minimalism, he describes it as a philosophy of "how little do I have to do to get by." It's obvious how this philosophy is lethal from a religious standpoint, but I still question whether minimalism is in and of itself a dangerous philosophy. Perhaps he is using it in some philosophical sense that escapes me.
Perhaps what makes me nervous about this approach is More's Utopia. Granted, More can be very satirical in Utopia, so I tread on thin ice, but what is most attractive about More's vision is its minimalism. Utopian society is entirely based on the principle of figuring out how little work can one do to get by. The sparrows do not reap nor sow...
Here, I think Kelly's gripe is less with minimalism than cowardice and sloth...possibly even a weakness of surrendering ourselves completely to something or an excessive guardedness. Perhaps passivity is a better word. Our tax-heavy emerging welfare state encourages us to let the government take care of social justice issues. We should just sit back and watch more TV.
My assumption is that Kelly wanted to use terms like "individualism" and "minimalism" because they are philosophical terms and he wanted to write a section on "personal philosophy." He was trying to find philosophical terms to describe the way Catholics have begun to cower in the corners of their houses instead of taking arms against a sea of troubles.
But is it really that Catholics simply have an aversion to interacting with other people and don't want to get more involved than they have to?
Or are their more insidious philosophies afoot -- things like political correctness? If we are individualists and minimalists in the sense that Kelly describes, it seems more likely to me that it is because society has made us embarassed to act as Catholics. It's not that we value individualism; it's that social pressures alienate us. It's not that we value minimalism; it's that society has made it very clear that it doesn't want us sticking around any longer than we have to.
We are passively reacting to society's complaints that our faith breaches its etiquette, rather than saying to heck with society and taking action on our own.
Oh, jeez, now I sound like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People...which tells me that it's time to wrap up this post.
I think I stumbled upon another reason why bin Laden's death is sitting a little uneasy with me.
It comes from Hamlet.
At one point, our reluctant avenger stumbles upon the usurping, incestuous, murderous king Claudius alone and unprotected. There would be no witnesses, and Claudius has all but confessed to murdering Hamlet's father after watching the Mousetrap (or has he just expressed alarm at watching a play about a nephew who assassinates a king? -- it's unclear). Claudius is even in the acting of begging Heaven for forgiveness for his murder -- a forgiveness he feels he cannot win because his attachment to the sin is still too great.
Anyway (SPOILER!), Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius at this moment...instead professing a desire to kill Claudius in the middle of some foul deed, gluttonous act, or otherwise shameful debauchery. He wants to kill Claudius when the king is doing something really bad so he can be sure of sending him to Hell.
That's what he says, at least. What if Hamlet has other reservations, though? What if it just doesn't feel like justice or revenge or what have you when the murderer isn't in the middle of doing anything spectacularly evil? What if Hamlet is worried that it will look less heroic to kill a murderer when he least expects it?
It's a very safe assumption bin Laden was scheming more horrific evils. I'm sure he was.
But I would have felt more comfortable if we caught him in the middle of something spectacularly evil.
If the SEALs had charged on his compound just as he was about to release some horrible nerve gas on a population of innocent civilians, then I'd feel more closure. If he had been in the middle of torturing someone, or training a kid how to build an IED, then there would at least be a meaningful juxtaposition between his evil and our justice.
Now, what our forces did was very dangerous -- I'm in no way intending to diminish that -- but what was bin Laden up to when it all went down. Was he snuggled in his jammies in bed? Did he just watch an episode of the Apprentice?
Taking him out in a domestic setting hopefully sends a powerful message to his would-be successors -- we'll get you when you are least expecting it and in a way that is completely not ennobling for you.
On the other hand, it could make the bad guy look like a victim, and make the good guys look a little less heroic in the eyes of those who should be intimidated. I guess in the end, though, we don't necessarily want to look heroic.
We want to scare the heck out of the people who try to scare us.
To start off, congratulations to the US military for its daring, bravery, and successful completion of its mission. Those guys were the real deal, and I can't imagine what they go through as part of their "day job." So thanks to them for risking their lives to make us all safer!
On a more philosophical and spiritual note, though, I have to admit that I'm a little ambivalent about bin Laden's death. Sure, he deserved it. Sure, he was an awful man.
But his death really is not the best ending -- that's what our faith teaches us.
Bin Laden's evil -- and he truly was evil -- was an opportunity for God's grace. As Christians, we have to believe in the ability for evil to be transformed into good, and for human capacity to be converted.
What a story that would have made! Imagine if his heart could have been remade. Imagine if he could have been struck by the same spirit that reconfigured Saul the persecutor of Christians into Paul, their apologist.
This is, of course, an irrational daydream. If I were in a position of political authority, I surely would opt for the more Machievellian approach as well. Government and military do not have the luxury of hoping for our enemies to undergo epiphanies. Real life special forces do not have the luxury to play Batman or Superman, sparing the evil villain's life on the grounds of such niceties as personal codes of conduct.
Still, there is something unsettling about our failure to capture him alive, and the idea of jubilation over the possible perdition of a soul.
On the one hand, we are called to love our enemies...so we ought to pity bin Laden's destruction.
On the other hand, the call to love one's enemy still (linguistically speaking at least) acknowledges them as one's enemy. It's not like Christ said "There are no such things as enemies, just people whose motivations you don't fully understand." Yet, if we believe what we believe, Christ laid down his life for bin Laden as well as us. Bin Laden just refused to take Christ up on his offer, as far as we know.