Archive for category Entertainment

Man of Steel, or Man of Flesh?

Ok, so last night I watched this year’s Superman movie by Zack Snyder.  I recognised the high-contrast desaturated look of the movie from 300, and it was mostly a big techno-romp, with a little bit of classy acting. Henry Cavill did ok in a title role that required some angst as well as a lot of heavy hitting.  I liked him better when he was wearing the beard.  Russell Crowe was pretty impassive as superman’s father, Jor-el; I felt he could have been played by a computer simulacrum – which is what he was supposed to be playing a lot of the time, so was that good acting or not? Michael Shannon as the supervillain was sufficiently nasty, while actually managing to look like a man with integrity according to his own lights.  It was great to see Laurence Fishburn doing a sterling job – even in such a cramped role.  Amy Adams as Lois Lane was competent in a forgettable role.  For my money the big awards should go to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents.  Decent script-writing and understated acting made for some touching scenes as they worked out their relationships with a distressed child.  And it was those relationships that gave the action movie a beating heart.

*Spoiler Alert* Don’t read the following if you don’t want to find out what happens in the movie:

Driving the big fisti-cuff/ let’s knock each other through buildings/ throw bombs at one another/ rip planets apart conflict is the decision facing superman as he has to choose between two futures; that offered by his fellow Kryptonians (the exiled leaders of a failed military coup on their now-destroyed home planet) to use the earth (and Superman’s own genetic material) as the foundation for renewing the Kryptonian race – at the expense of our entire planetary ecology.  Or to fight against his own kind in defence of the technologically and physically overmatched humans.  The flash-backs through his childhood and emergence into adulthood through his adoptive father’s death provide a coherent and believable set of motivations for Superman to reject the cruelty of the Kryptonians in favour of those who have given him shelter, understanding, wisdom, and love.  Cool.  There is very little drama in this decision-making.  We know from the outset that he’s on our side; that one of his major motivations is to protect others.  That character development almost manages to make up for the absurdities of superman’s powers (it looks like they tried to give his flying some basis in physics – but utterly failed, sorry) and the continued referencing of 9/11, a bit of LotR (Gandalf leaping from Saruman’s tower onto an eagle), a MASSIVE borrowing from the matrix as machines pluck pods of babies grown in an artificial environment, and even some Harry Potter (a blogger as the combination of Rita Skeeter and the Quibbler).  As my eldest son said, “Don’t pick at it, it makes it worse!”  Let it pass – those are minor issues.

The big issue for me is the central conflict for Superman; which isn’t actually a choice between Kryptonian planetary destruction over defending the helpless little humans, but rather the question does he positively accept his super-powers and use them to make a difference, or does he stay in hiding and lay low, so that humans won’t reject him out of fear of his differences?  Essentially, it’s the reluctant messiah complex.  And it’s framed as such.  In the early moments of the movie, Jor-el predicts that humans would see his infant son ‘as a god’.  At the turning point of the movie, immediately before he offers himself to the invaders as a ransom for the people of earth, Clark Kent seeks counsel from a young priest in a church.  As they talk, you can see over his shoulder a stained glass image of Christ kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, praying “If it is possible let this cup pass me by – but not my will, yours be done.”  The obvious happens; Clark Kent puts on the cape, becomes Superman, and gives himself up to the evil General Zod.  He even submits to a sort of death; losing his superpowers on their spacecraft, and then hallucinating sinking into a landscape of skulls.  But he inevitably recovers, and (with some help from his ghostly Father) knocks the baddies out of existence (eventually).

So what we have here is a clearly contrived Superman-as-Jesus parallel.  I guess it helped the movie to sell well in an America where Jesus is supposed to be something of a military crusader  and his anti-violence message is derided and underplayed.  This is the key discontinuity at the heart of this movie – and perhaps at the heart of modern culture.  We want a messiah; someone to protect us from the evils that we have brought upon ourselves (no matter how much we protest that they are ‘aliens’ from ‘out there’ – we created our own enemies!)  But we want that messiah to be just like us.  Mark Driscoll, in the article linked above, has a point; the Bible is not a comfortable document for modern peace-makers.  But nor is it a comfortable document for modern war-mongers.  And at the heart of the Christian scriptures is a Jesus who most emphatically did not use violence or force against his enemies; instead he prayed for their forgiveness.  He sought their reconciliation.  He gave himself up to death (real death, not just some hallucination of it) on their behalf.  Driscoll reads the pages of Revelation as if he were one of the oppressed minority churches of Asia to whom that book was written, and who were being assured – through powerful visual metaphors – that they are on the winning side, that they will overcome evil “by the word of their testimony and by the blood of the lamb“!!!  Not by boxing their enemies through buildings and then breaking their necks.  For someone living comfortably within the most militaristic society in history, that’s just got to be a bad idea.  Driscoll is acting as an apologist for the modern incarnation of Revelation’s Beast.

Superman is the messiah as we want him; a messiah who conforms to our violence-fetish culture.  He overcomes evil through bravery, yes.  But mostly, just because he’s stronger and smarter than the other guy.  And actually, that’s just a little bit unbelievable.  What Christmas was all about was God becoming flesh, not steel.  God joining us in our suffering, so that we can join him in his perfection.  If I had to choose between messiahs, I know I’d be tempted to pick superman, oh yes!  But I hope I would choose Jesus, instead.  Because beating ourselves up all the time doesn’t actually work.  We need grace and forgiveness, not pyrotechnics.  Jesus Christ, not Clark Kent.

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The Golden Compass

The article that follows was sent to me from a mailing list we’re on.  Having read the books, I agree with most of what it says.  I’d like to add, too, that there is an essential flaw in the books; the vision of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the books relies heavily upon Christian morality for its coherence.  So the heroes are heroes partly because they demonstrate recognisably Christian virtues.  And yet their heroism is directed against morality.  Pullman is having his cake and eating it too.  He has the same problem as every humanist; without religion there is no adequate basis for morality.  Note his rather inadequate response to that challenge in this interview with him at Third Way.
In addition, the god he ‘overthrows’ is a long remove from the Christian God.  It is a straw man argument.  Significantly he steers well clear of Christ.  He wants to reinforce all the worst stereotypes about God and attempts to ignore out of existence the most basic data we have about who God is: the man Jesus Christ. 
These facts make a very well-written series into an exercise in deceit; a malicious slander and an abuse of the power of literature. 
 
 
A gargantuan polar bear bounds through snow dunes. A well-coifed gentleman whispers to the snow leopard at his side. A golden-hued beauty gives her ferocious monkey a furtive glance. And a young girl traces her fingers over symbols on a device vaguely reminiscent of … a compass.

If you’ve been to the movies lately (or watched much TV), these images from the Dec. 7 film The Golden Compass (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) may have caught your attention … and perhaps even whetted your appetite for fantasy and adventure.

Which is, of course, exactly what New Line Cinema is hoping.

To stoke the fires of imagination further, the studio’s early promotional material went so far as to equate this adaptation of author Philip Pullman’s work with The Lord of the Rings. "In 2001, New Line Cinema opened the door to Middle-earth," says one trailer, "This December, they take you on another epic journey." It’s a safe bet, however, that J.R.R. Tolkien wouldn’t be amused by the comparison of his story to that of Pullman (who, coincidentally, also hails from Oxford).

The 1995 book The Golden Compass is the entry point to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—a series of fantasy novels aimed at children that loosely draws inspiration from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. This time around, however, "God" gets overthrown and the "Fall" becomes the source of humankind’s redemption, not failure.

These three books, along with at least one (and presumably two more) movies, constitute British agnostic Philip Pullman’s deliberate attempt to foist his viciously anti-God beliefs upon his audience.

A Different Kind of Wardrobe
The Golden Compass begins with a precocious 12-year-old girl named Lyra clambering into a wardrobe to avoid detection … a choice that unwittingly launches her into a universe-altering adventure. (Sound familiar?) Lurking in the wardrobe, she hears her uncle, an iconoclastic explorer named Lord Asriel, describe a mysterious substance called Dust to a group of scholars.

Several events then occur almost simultaneously: Lyra is given a truth-telling device called an alethiometer (the golden compass) and told to keep it secret; she begins to hear rumors of children disappearing without a trace; and she’s whisked into the care of a glamorous but ruthless agent of the church named Mrs. Coulter. Lyra soon discovers that the church is also desperate to learn about Dust—a substance they believe is somehow connected to original sin—and that Mrs. Coulter is spearheading chilling experiments on children in her pursuit of "truth." Specifically, she’s separating children from their dæmons (pronounced demon), animal spirits that physically embody each person’s soul and accompany them throughout life.

As The Golden Compass draws to a close, the forces of good (represented by the church-rejecting Lord Asriel) have begun to array themselves against the forces of tyranny and wickedness (represented by Mrs. Coulter and churchmen who blend the worst of, say, the Spanish Inquisition and Adolf Hiter’s dreaded SS). The battle will span not only Lyra’s world, but many other alternate worlds. In Vol. 2, The Subtle Knife, Lyra meets 12-year-old Will, who comes into possession of a potent blade with the power to slice portals between those worlds. The Amber Spyglass concludes the series, with angels, armored bears, witches, a shaman, a lapsed nun-turned-physicist and other fantastical creatures marshalling their resources against the hated Authority—the "god" whose reign they can tolerate no longer—even as the mystery of Dust is finally resolved.

The Anti-Lewis
There are no shortage of parallels between His Dark Materials and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Lyra instead of Lucy. A wardrobe. Alternate worlds. Talking animals. Cosmic consequences linked to a final battle. Oh, and witches—this time on the side of so-called good rather than evil.

But beyond those superficial similarities, Pullman represents the polar opposite of Lewis. Pullman has repeatedly—and with apparent glee—lashed out at both Lewis and the faith he represents. "I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion," he told one interviewer, "with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling-away."

Such venom isn’t the exception when it comes to Pullman’s stance on all things Christian. He told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, "Atheism suggests a degree of certainty that I’m not quite willing to accede. I suppose technically, you’d have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against. As you look back over the history of the Christian church, it’s a record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny. How they have the bloody nerve to go on Thought for the Day and tell us all to be good when, given the slightest chance, they’d be hanging the rest of us and flogging the homosexuals and persecuting the witches."

Given such ferocious antipathy for Christianity, it’s only a matter of time before those beliefs sneak into heavy-handed sermonettes, delivered by the story’s protagonists, such as this one from a witch: "There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did—not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Without exception, Pullman characterizes churches and anyone connected to them as agents of wickedness, oppression, torture, murder and malevolence.

A Tale of Two Insights
Still, Pullman wants his readers to believe he’s more interested in telling a good story (and his is engaging at points) than delivering a particular message. On his personal Web site, he writes, "The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the ‘Once upon a time’ business."

Don’t believe him.

Not the least because Pullman contradicts himself when he talks about his understanding of how stories naturally influence people’s beliefs. "All stories teach," he’s said, "whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions. … We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: We need books, time and silence. ‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten."

That is a more honest and insightful statement than the first one.

Therefore, it’s a fair question for those curious about this story to ask what it is teaching. At the most basic level, His Dark Materials is an attempted refutation of the Christian faith: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all," says an influential character named Mary Malone, who then goes on to relate her own "testimony" of why she abandoned her calling as a nun.

Other messages woven into this story exalt witchcraft, evolution, divination, homosexuality and premarital sex. Accompanying them are smoking, drinking, occasional mild profanity and moments of visceral violence.

That Pullman’s message is blasphemous and heretical goes without saying. What’s more diabolical—a word carrying with it an original Greek meaning that literally means to separate into two pieces—is the fact that he’s aimed his well-written tale and its messages directly at children. "I wanted to reach everyone," he says, "and the best way I could hope to do that was to write for children." Pullman’s strategy for inculcating his beliefs involves planting these bad seeds in the minds of those who may not have the discernment to understand what he’s doing.

Beliefnet‘s Rod Dreher writes that that’s exactly why he intends to protect his children from Pullman’s poisonous influence. "One expects that religious parents will keep their children away from the [Golden Compass] film. ‘But why?’ the question arises from liberals. ‘What are you afraid of?’ My children losing God, especially before they have a firm hold on Him, that’s what. At some point they will question the existence of God. I did. It’s normal to do so. I want more than anything else I want for my children, even their own happiness in this life, for them to believe in God, who is their salvation. If you believe in God, and that the loss of God is the worst thing that can happen to a person, then you would sooner give your child a rattlesnake to play with than expose him or her at an early age to the work of a man who openly says he wishes to destroy God in the minds of his audience."

Trying to Kill God
Pullman has said unambiguously, "My books are about killing God." But despite a great deal of publicity on this subject, the series never addresses the issue of God’s existence with any real certainty. There is a character who masquerades as God, known as the Authority. But we discover he was simply the first being to evolve—and there’s definitely a heavy emphasis on evolution in this story—out of Dust into conscious existence.

As to whether or not a real Creator is responsible for everything, however, another character says simply, "There may have been a creator, or there may not: We don’t know." Ultimately, then, the story remains agnostic about God’s existence. And with regard to death and the afterlife, Pullman first imagines a dark underworld where all the dead go, regardless of their actions or beliefs. The dead are then released by Lyra, and their molecules are dispersed throughout the world.

Pullman tries desperately to convince us that this vision of annihilation after death is a hopeful one. One of the dead contemplating this fate says, "This child has come offering us a way out, and I’m going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in thousands of blades of grass and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was."

If that doesn’t sound much like happily ever after, that’s because, well, it isn’t. In the final analysis, Pullman has nothing of substance to offer when it comes to concocting an alternative to the Christian faith he detests so venomously. Which is why, perhaps, flowery-but-empty passages and promises like the one above seem to echo those of a well-known serpent.

And lest that comparison sound too harsh, the author himself seems quite comfortable with the association. "[English poet William] Blake said that Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it," Pullman has said. "I am of the Devil’s party and know it."

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