Some Social Commentary via the Marvel Universe: Feminists, Values, and “Going Dark”

Marvel Studios Logo
Our entertainment choices and works of fiction can bring out interesting observations on our culture. (Image: Marvel Studios logo; click for source & owners.)

After long absences from the blog like this, I normally start off with some sort of poking-fun-at-myself comment like, “Hey, looks like I forgot about my blog!” Well, this time I can actually say that. With our in-progress move to Charlotte taking up quite a few brain cells, not to mention actual trips to Charlotte for weddings, video work, and Council meetings, I truly did forget I actually had a blog out here.

And I must say that I suspect that the days of this blog are numbered, as much of the content-creation work I will be doing in Charlotte will begin to take the place of one of the things I have informally used this blog to do: keep me writing and create an opportunity for my congregants to stay in touch with me during the week, even if I am just writing about my kids’ innovative chess techniques. (On display here and here, by the way — beware the Power Pope!)

But, today I return to my poor neglected blog to get three things off of my chest — some social commentary born of observations from the growing Marvel Universe onscreen (technically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe). For those who don’t get the geek-speak (though, increasingly normal-speak), that refers to the fictional universe being created to display, and make money from, Marvel comic book properties on the big screen (and the small screen — looking at you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

And I should make a couple of confessions and pre-comment comments here at the beginning. For one, this post is not a recommendation of any of these fictional works. I find that many could have good cause in their conscience not to partake of anything related to any such movies. Still, the films are looming large in the public eye, and if something has the public’s attention and can be used to make helpful, godly observations, I’m going for it. No one actually has to see the movies to appreciate the points I want to make, any more than one needs to actually read Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf to consider someone’s analysis of the book and what it might say about current trends in society.

Secondly, these comments aren’t really going to be about what happens in the movies as opposed to how our culture has interacted with the movies and what that interaction says about us. The characters in the movies are fictional. No one should emotionally invest in something that does not exist. But the people around us? Very much real and alive, and what can be learned, hoped, dreamed, regretted about real people is very important, indeed.

OK, on to the comments I want to make. Not many — just three.

(1) The incredibly stupid and immoral hatred some feminists have expressed concerning the value of motherhood in the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron movie.

The writer and director of the recent Avengers cash cow, Joss Whedon, is normally someone who likes writing tough, tail-kicking parts for women — just one more person in this world who is promoting the terrible idea that women can fight, punch, kick, etc. as hard as men. The recent Avengers flick is no different, with the Black Widow character, portrayed by Scarlett Johannson, being your standard female repentant-super-assassin-turned-good. Nothing really new here.

Except there was something new. (Spoiler alert, by the way.) In the movie, the character is reflecting on what had been done to her when she was young to help make her a government killing machine, and she laments that those who reared and trained her also sterilized her so that she would not be distracted by the possibility of having children and becoming a mother, not unlike ancient kingdoms did with male servants, making them eunuchs. The character admits a sadness that she would never be able to have children.

Bring on the feminist hand-wringing.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Joss Whedon apparently considers himself a feminist, and his constant stream of unrealistic super-tough female characters should establish his pro-feminist “street cred” according to many. Yet, in actually writing about a female character who laments that her ability to conceive and bear children was taken from her, he is perceived as having committed some great crime against the feminist cause. The angry outcry was great (imagine rants to the effect of “How dare he define women by their ability to make babies!”), and by some disputed accounts (included disputed by himself) the backlash drove him off of Twitter.

This is ridiculous on so many levels, but let me just focus on two: For one, it is insane to call oneself a feminist and to complain when a woman — portrayed as being tough-as-steel and an equal to all the men around her — laments that her ability to have children was taken from her against her will. Why in the world would someone complain about such a thing. Would they have preferred that she said, “You know, although they actually robbed me of one of the most gifts and powers a woman has in the world, but I don’t care — in fact, I’m better off”? Or even, “Yeah, they took my ovaries. No big whoop.” How ridiculous. For people who love to protest that the government should stay out of women’s wombs to protest that a female character in a movie objects to having a government ignore that and forcibly curtail a woman’s reproductive rights is completely illogical. I thought it was just that, “reproductive rights,” that they were defending? Apparently, they are only defending them if “reproductive rights” means “the right not to reproduce.” That would certainly explain how so many of them seem to hate large families (calling such mothers “breeders” and such). Crazy.

The second point about this is how utterly ungodly such complaints are. Being the one through whom the entire human race is perpetuated is one of the gifts and privileged burdens God has given women. There is a reason Adam honored his wife by calling her Eve, “the mother of all living.” To wring one’s hands and “sigh and cry” that a fictional character dare to complain that she was sterilized against her will is perverted. It is just one more example of the world being upside down. Really: Absolutely perverted. Let a fictional woman be the epitome of a “super woman” — able to fight with the toughest of men and beat them — and she is praised, but let her lament the loss of one, single, beautiful aspect of being a woman, and suddenly she is anathema and an enemy against all womankind. Really — satanic.

(Side note #1: I know that part of the rancor was also spurred by the very positive image of a pregnant wife and happy family behind the Hawkeye character, setting up the contrast between the wife and mother, who seemed very fulfilled, and the Black Widow character, who was damaged and conflicted. But if I don’t limit my rant a little bit, I will never move on, will I?)

(Side note #2: The irony in all of this — Scarlett Johansson was actually pregnant during the movie’s filming.)

(2) Captain America’s commitment to doing the right thing over success or even survival.

I could go on and on about this one, because I think it reflects one of society’s great faults — infecting even mainstream Christianity at an increasing rate, as evidenced by the growing “Christian” acceptance of homosexual “marriage.”

At one point in the new Avengers movie, Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are debating the virtues of actions Stark had recently taken — which were independent and against the wishes of the rest of the team, though taken with good intention. Rogers takes him to task and says it was wrong for him to do that — that they should work together. Stark counters that if they stick with such a value then they will lose. And Rogers says, We’ll do that together, too.

I’m sorry, but that sort of sentiment is sorely absent from our culture: The idea that right is right and wrong is wrong, and we do the right thing regardless of even extreme consequences. (Well, I shouldn’t say that, I suppose. There are a number of things that today’s new moralists might be willing to sacrifice everything for, but, without going into too much detail, let me say that there is a very different spirit there.) John Quincy Adams is believed to have said, “Duty is ours; results are God’s” and implicit in that statement is the understand that you do your duty, regardless of the results. If it is optional, it isn’t duty.

Rogers’ statement in the flick that even if we lose, we lose together — that it isn’t worth doing the wrong thing, even if it means we lose — is, IMHO, very counter to the culture around us (and, I admit, the examples which come to mind for me are likely not examples that would be celebrated by many of those who made the movie).

Consider the Boy Scouts. I admired their stand against accepting homosexuality as lifestyle to be embraced as opposed to being a perversion to be acknowledged as such — at best, a condition to help people avoid and resist. As an institution standing for values and ethics, they took an unpopular stand on those values and ethics, and they recognized that one cannot repeat the Boy Scout Oath to keep oneself “morally straight” while also practicing homosexuality. (And, of course, any sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral, including heterosexual acts.)

What I saw in the Boy Scouts, as the public disapproval mounted and boycotts ensured, was a willingness to see the Boy Scouts destroyed before there would be any giving in. I saw that they were willing to allow the organization to be disbanded before they gave ground on their moral stand, in a culture that desperately needed such public, moral stands.

And, well, that didn’t last, did it? They took their moral stand until they didn’t.

We currently see individuals and businesses taking such stands — against not only civil lawsuits, but against state governments. Facing the loss of their livelihoods and tens of thousands of dollars in fines for not being willing to violate their consciences and celebrate homosexual “marriages” with their gifts and talents as photographers and artists, they stand and say, “Even if we lose and even if you destroy our businesses and our ability to earn and support our families, we cannot but stand here. We will not move.” Good for them. I see that sort of sentiment in Captain America’s statement (even if the industry that wrote that line wouldn’t agree with the examples I am using), and I wish there were more of it coming out of Hollywood.

It’s the sort of stand that the rest of us had better gear up for. Some values really are worth losing over.

(3) Marvel vs. DC — “Going dark”

There is quite a bit of pop culture buzz out there about the clear difference being seen in Marvel movies (in particular, the Disney-owned Marvel movies) and DC movies.

[Aside: For the uninitiated, Marvel and DC are the two major comic book publishers. Marvel makes the Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. and DC makes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. They have been considered rival publishers for decades. As a pre-teen, while I was aware of DC publications, I was very much a Marvel fan. I actually read Stan Lee’s letters in the comics, proclaimed “Make Mine Marvel,” and totally get it when someone exclaims “Excelsior!” (Please read all of that in the context I am about to provide, below.) The old comic book rivalry is turning into a movie rivalry, as Marvel movies featuring Marvel superheroes are doing box-office battle with DC movies featuring DC superheroes. This part of the post refers to this “conflict.”]

I freely admit that I wasted a sadly vast part of my youth on comic books, understanding enough about how immersive that world can be to decide I do not want my children to be a part of it. My old Marvel Godzilla comic books are all they have read of that industry, and we’ve talked about why I’d rather they never take up the comic book habit. Don’t get me wrong — my children aren’t perfect in the media-feeding department, and neither is their dad. But that particular vice — comic books — is one we have successfully avoided in their youth.

And my revulsion toward allowing them to get into comic books was based on my own youth and experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, that revulsion is only enhanced by what comic books became not too long after I stopped participating, and what they became could be summarized in one word: Dark.

Some people trace the beginning of the dark trend now seemingly everywhere in comics to the 1986 publication of Frank Miller’s Batman story “The Dark Knight Returns.” I don’t know that that is true — I can see the beginnings even in my day earlier in the decade, but, regardless, comic books became, on the whole, nastier, grittier, uglier places to be. Again: Darker.

Gone was the “Boy Scout” hero (will we lose that adjective? ) who refuses to kill his foe — essentially, a Lone Ranger with super powers. In came the gritty, dark anti-heroes of questionable morals and ethics. Bad guys became more sadistic and horrifically cruel. Grotesquely violent. Gone were heroes like young Peter Parker, who struggled to understand the right thing to do on occasion, while still understanding that there was a right thing to do. (As a teenage boy struggling to understand how to do the right thing, myself, I got that.) In came the “heroes” who observe with jaded and cynical eye that there is no real “right” thing, and that sometimes we have to be bad, go to dark places in ourselves, etc., etc. ad nauseam.

Now, we have movies. Marvel has become known for bright, humorous fantasies, in which characters are still inherently virtuous — difficult pasts, yes, but overcoming those to do the right thing and stand for right things. Their characters make jokes and inhabit a world that is a pretty pleasant place to be in when the universe isn’t being threatened by aliens or whatever.

DC, on the other hand, has become known for darker visions, in which even the heroes have a dark edge to them. Batman seems always on the edge of darkness. Even “Boy Scout” Superman (there’s that adjective again) gains such an edge in the new movies. When young Superman’s dad actually suggests that perhaps the young lad should have refused to save a school bus full of children from drowning rather than risk revealing his powers, the movies declared their dedication to a different sort of moralizing. A darker moralizing. Some will claim that such discussions and comments simply reflect and admit the existence of hard questions, but the problem is that it has lumped easy questions into the hard question category. That doesn’t reflect great moral maturing; it reflects a great moral confusion.

There was quite a bit of chatter on the Internet when the rumor spread that DC had made a rule across its productions that there was to be no joking at all. After all, these are “serious” movies. And someone showed me recently how the recent Superman had been artificially processed before being released so as to remove all bright colors, making even the very color palette of the flick a tool for enhancing the dark, monotone, moody feel.

Many have wondered when the Marvel movies, too, would follow suit. After all, dark is “the thing.” Most figured that the plan for Marvel was to start their movies nice, happy, and bright, but — eventually — once you have reeled everyone in, “go dark.”

To their credit, they say there are no plans to do that. Marvel head honcho, Kevin Feige, is reported on Reddit to have said that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will never “go dark” in the movies:

“There is no dark turn in the MCU. He says every year fans come up to him and ask him if this movie is when the MCU goes ‘dark’ or takes a ‘dark’ turn. He said while the trailers may seem ominous or have a sense of impending doom, the movies do not have that feel, and will not. He said he ‘Hoped people would catch on by now’ – there will be no giant dark turns in the MCU where it then continues to head in that direction. The humor is in the DNA of the movies, there are no plans to change that.”

Movies aside, what I care about is what it says about the culture. And I think that the dark/not dark DC/Marvel difference here is interesting.

On one hand, people these days seem to want “dark.” There is a reason that people keep asking Feige when the “dark turn” is going to happen. It’s expected, and many people want that sort of darker, edgier content. We see similar desires seeking to be satisfied in television programming such as the CSI shows and crime dramas, where the perpetrators are increasingly terrible and sadistic. (I saw enough of one episode of “Criminal Minds” to realize I never want to see another one, ever.)

On the other hand, an encouraging other hand, there is still something in people — at least some people — who don’t want “dark.” Even putting aside the insane amount of money the first Avengers movie made, it was a comment in one of the reviews that got my attention. I can’t find it, otherwise I would link to it, but the reviewer commented about the consistent applause scene in that movie: When all of the heroes are gathered together for the first time in a circle to battle their overwhelming foes. The camera circles, the music swells, and the audience is treated to a moment they have been cinematically manipulated to appreciate for the previous hour-or-so. But the fact that the audience actually applauded and cheered at that moment grabbed the reviewers attention. Actually, it grabbed many reviewers’ attentions. As one noted, everyone was applauding a scene that most all of them had already seen in the trailer for the movie.

Actual applause seems rare in movies these days — at least to me. (Admittedly, I don’t actually see too many movies.) I remember as a kid seeing one of the Star Wars movies and hearing my mother applauding in the theater — the only one applauding and, of course, totally embarrassing me. (Of course, now I wish she were still here to embarrass me in the movie theater. Thank you, Father, that no one is gone from us forever.) Yet here were these normally jaded, cynical moviegoers, unabashedly applauding this scene in the first Avengers movie.

The reviewer who grabbed my attention explained his own opinion about the matter. He said that in a world full of darkness that has taken over even the heroes of our fantasies, there was something wonderful about seeing the good guys assemble together, overcome their differences, and act like good guys.

I think he was right. At last, I hope he was right.

Some say art should reflect reality back at us and cause is to meditate on it. Whatever. I’m not saying that there can’t be benefit to that, but the idea that movie blockbusters are there to do that is pretty ridiculous on the surface. History seems to show, at least to me, that art does less reflecting on reality and more shaping of it. Rather than becoming a mirror in which we can reflect and change, it becomes an amplifier, magnifying those qualities it depicts and reducing those it ignores. Boys N the Hood may have sought to make parts of gang life seem terrible and inglorious, but there was a reason, as police told me and some assembled teachers back in the 90s, that whenever they raided gang homes that they always–always–found that movie in the home, often playing in the VCR at the time. It caused fewer to reflect on the dangers of such a life than it caused to see it as something glamorized and something worthy of being glamorized, which is different, however subtly.

The world is dark, to be sure. But there is a reason that Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” What we reflect on tends to be what we become.

And the idea that, as much as people clamor for “dark and gritty,” they responded, perhaps despite themselves, to a cheesy, hopeful moment where good guys are actually good is encouraging to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blind. I’ve seen ads for Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix and have read the reviews. I’m not even interested. If there is money to be made in grit and guts–in “dark”–then expect companies who want money to follow that money. And I’m also not deluded to think that what qualifies at “not dark” today is still, in many ways, quite dark. Sometimes the “not dark” material stands out against the “dark” material simply because it is “not as dark.” (I know: A lot of repetitious uses of “dark” in those sentences. Forgive me some lazy blogging…)

But, still, in a world of dark clouds (there’s that word again!–expect it a couple of more times, at least…), please don’t begrudge me one silver lining, however thin it may be and however quickly it may be receding. As the world becomes more and more obsessed with the perceived glamor of “evil” and the appeal of dark worlds and dark thoughts, the fact that at least one movie company sees profits in avoiding such a turn, however indirectly, is encouraging. Don’t know that it will last, but it’s still encouraging.

And, to wrap up: Again, none of this is meant to endorse or encourage anyone to actually see these movies, any more than Paul’s use of the “Unknown God” idol was meant to encourage idolatry or his use of gladiatorial imagery in multiple passages was meant to glamorize or approve of being entertained by watching slaves and prisoners fight to the death in the arena.

But as these sorts of flicks loom larger and larger in the culture — and as long as they make money, they will continue to loom large — they become yet another way to reflect on that culture. Sometimes the culture reveals itself best while it is occupied with trying to enjoy itself.

Some thoughts on the Sony hack and canceling “The Interview”

It’s been a while since I posted! Even this one I will keep brief. (Ha! Believe it or not, I do mean that when I say it. “Brief” is just hard for me. Even harder when I’m pressed for time. Ask Blaise Pascal about that.)

I find all of this buzz about the hack of e-mails and assets from Sony Pictures, the threats to movie theaters that might show their movie, The Interview, and the subsequent cancellation of the movie’s premier to be a little fascinating. here are some thoughts, lazily listed in bulleted format…

(By the way: If you have no idea what I am talking about, the BBC summarizes the matter pretty well here: “The Interview: A guide to the cyber attack on Hollywood”)

  • I’ve seen more attention paid to this cyber attack than all the other attacks that are surely made against other targets, including non-Hollywood businesses and the U.S. government. I suspect the fact that the target is Hollywood makes a big difference.
  • Total cave on the part of Sony Pictures and various theaters. I wonder if this is because of the terrorist-style threats concerning showing the movie (surely part of it) or if it is because of the potential that more embarrassing information may be released from the information hack.
  • North Korea is strongly believed to be behind the attack (actually, the U.S. has recently declared that Pyongyang order the attack. Makes you wonder (if you haven’t wondered already) how easy it would be for the sorts of groups some (like perhaps the president) may want to call “JV league” to make a damaging impact on the nation through cyber warfare. If you don’t think we’re terribly vulnerable, you haven’t been paying attention.
  • So, a movie about Muhammed is too intimidating a possibility for any Hollywood studio to touch, knowing how violent elements in the world will react. A movie that paints Kim Jong-un in an unflattering light gets canned at cost in response to a digital attack with promise for more. Yet, movies that make Noah a psychotic weirdo and turn Moses into a fictional tool that serves only to satisfy a director’s personal vision get an easy pass. Not suggesting that anyone attack theaters over Noah or Exodus, mind you! Indeed: turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). Just pointing out the interesting difference.(In other, related news: I have written a commentary about the new Exodus: Gods and Kings movie and have submitted it to editorial. If it is usable, it will hopefully be published on the lcg.org and tomorrowsworld.org websites within a few days.)
  • Given the involvement of Seth Rogen and James Franco, The Interview is probably a vulgar piece of trash. Just saying.
  • Seeing how the media has responded and continues to respond to the leak of private info from Sony is interesting, too. IMHO, it begs to be compared and contrasted with other leaks and violations of privacy, such as WikiLeaks’ publication of confidential government information and the publication of the names and addresses of gun owners in an effort by activists to shame and stigmatize such individuals, whether or not it endangers them.
  • Related to the above, the availability to the media of salacious information about the very individuals the media tends to revere has produced some interesting soul-searching (and naval-gazing) on the part of journalists. Would that such introspection on the media’s part occur in other areas, as well.

And, that’s all for now. Not the deepest topic, I know, but nice for a blogging hit-and-run. 🙂

Is football the worst sport ever?

Football Boy
So, it that a football old-timey boy has, or a watermelon? I think it’s a watermelon.

[Note: Due to the fact that I worked on this from a short draft I began back in November of 2014, the effective “date” of the post here on my blog is 11/28/2014, even though I wrote this on 6/3/2015. Rather than move it to the proper date, seeing how there are already comments and such, I’m just leaving it here it is. I think we’ll all survive, won’t we? — WGS]

So, is football the worst sport ever, and its industry the picture of sin-incarnate? Part of the world is wondering if it is, these days. But which part of the world you are talking about makes a difference.

If by “football” you mean “American football,” then, for all its vices–shared, paralleled, or “one upped” by many other sports–the answer seems to be “no.” The American public seems to be slowly moving past Deflategate and is waiting disinterestedly for the next scandal. But if by “football” you mean the same thing that virtually the entire rest of the world means by “football”–for us Americans, that would be “soccer”–then some are, indeed, wondering if the answer might be “yes.”

[Note for those non-Americans reading today’s post: My apologies for calling football “soccer” for the rest of this post. Since most of my visitors–folks in my congregations, et al.–are Americans, I’m going to go the route that makes the most sense for them. But, for what it’s worth, I do think that “football” is the better description of the sport!]

If you haven’t been keeping up with the scandals of FIFA these days (the international governing body for professional soccer), you’ve been missing out. I won’t try to summarize it all, but it is amazing how corrupt the sport is. The Wall Street Journal just published an interesting op-ed piece comparing FIFA to the Clinton family’s approach to politics. Here is my tweet of that (using the Twitter link below should solve any paywall problems, I think:

If you want to know more specifically about the FIFA scandal, just Google it.

But it brings to mind attacks I have seen on football as the sport somehow most deserving of attack as somehow inherently sinful and immoral that deserves special attention above all other sports. And I continually don’t get it, when there are so many other better targets, as this FIFA news helps to demonstrate. [And, please note: I don’t say this as a fan of football. I didn’t watch a single game last year — not even the Super Bowl. I say it as someone who is an anti-fan of poor logic and of abusing the Bible to try and convince others that one’s personal opinions and convictions are equivalent to God’s own judgment.]

I recognize that Mr. Herbert Armstrong had commented in the past on why he didn’t have football at Ambassador College, and his thoughts are still very instructive. They don’t unarguably lead one to conclude that football, let alone watching it on television, is inherently evil or sinful, though they do lay out important principles, whether one draws similar conclusions or not. And those few I have seen who try to use his words to say so not only abuse his statement but also tend to ignore all other evidence of his opinions on the matter to turn what he said into a much stronger, broader, and far-reaching statement than Mr. Armstrong intended, and one flatly contradicted by Mr. Armstrong’s repeated approval and endorsement of the Church’s energetic participation in the Rose Bowl Parade, which he didn’t see a problem with even in light of Romans 14:22. I’ve blogged about such abuses of Mr. Armstrong and others before (“Zombie ministers: How some abuse the dead”) and on this topic, specifically (actually, I think, in the “Will there be football in the Millennium?” blog post), so I don’t see a need to kick that dead horse any further. The point of whether or not watching football can be biblically established as inherently evil and sinful is unaffected by any of that–neither proven nor disproven. One is simply left to say that some individuals’ time would be better spent on using Scripture to examine themselves instead of trying to publicly canonize their own personal preferences.

The FIFA scandals seem, to me, to simply be a reminder that some perspective is needed. In the past I dug around (digged around? dig dug around?) trying to see if I should think of football as the preeminent example of sin in sports? Is it at some sort of pinnacle deserving of special condemnation above the others? After all, if it were simply the matters that Mr. Armstrong brought out, those are now represented in our day in a vast array of popular sports, and certainly not just professional football. If the focus on hate-ranting about football as a uniquely, inherently evil sport to play or watch were rooted in some sort of justifiable reality and not just some anti-football blogger’s weird personal obsession, then maybe there was something I was missing.

For instance, is football (remember, American football) the Most Sinful Sport Ever™ because of its attitude toward player concussions?

 

Frankly, that would be highly debatable. Actions and recent lawsuits have pressed the case so that actual studies are being done. There are some very good arguments that soccer needs similar studies as the anecdotal evidence keeps piling up that the sport may be just as a injurious in this regard. However, while football treats a possible concussion during the game as a big deal (game paused, doctors brought out, players evaluated and possibly removed), soccer is known for blowing it off, as displayed in hoopla during the last World Cup. As one article said, “[Q]uite frankly, soccer doesn’t really care about concussions.” (Though, hopefully, recent actions may mean that will finally change for soccer. Bring on the actuaries!)

Still, perhaps football might be the Most Sinful Sport Ever™ because of fatalities and injuries, overall.

Well, no, not there, either.

If we were to ban the most deadly sport in America for young people, that would be softball. Actually, we should ban boys’ gymnastics and water polo, as well, each of which have higher rates of mortality per participant among high school students than football does. But, really, softball is the killer—more than double the rates of mortality per player than even second-place water polo according to statistics gathered from 1982 through 2011.

And if we move from mortality to simply injuries, there are other competitors looking for the title, as well. The high school sport with the greatest rate of injury is cheerleading. And by the way, that’s not cheerleading in support of sports teams, such as football and basketball, but competitive cheerleading—that is, competitive cheerleading against other teams of cheerleaders.

Really, when you look at the stats, injuries are sort of all over the place. But at least in America, competitive cheerleading blows them all away. (Texas Aggies are smart enough not to have cheerleaders. We’d rather have our gals in the stands with us than on the field getting injured. Gig’em!)

Where there is a lot of money to be made, there is lack of regard for human health and safety. To claim that football has a lock on this vice would be weird.

So, maybe with all of the money in football, it qualifies as Most Sinful Sport Ever™ because of graft and corruption? After all, it would be foolish to think that Deflategate is the only shady thing that goes down in the NFL.

Still, as the FIFA scandals demonstrate (and have before today’s headlines), football is not only less than unique, it is probably far from the worst. If anyone thinls that football is the worst in this category, they don’t pay attention to news. And if people were to think football were somehow the worst, they aren’t good at  And they didn’t lose money to Pete Rose.

Perhaps attitude makes football stand out? I mean, you have to admit that there is a lot of carnal attitude on the faces of some of those guys after a tackle or a touchdown.

Yet, if that makes football inherently or uniquely evil or sinful, it would apply to—well—pretty much every major sport these days. Haven’t you seen the prideful, “I’m the king of the world and I’m going to bite your face off” look on the faces of other sports figures? Ever watch basketball? Soccer? Actually, ever watched tennis—or even golf?

Fans of football can be truly atrocious in their behavior, true. Maybe the sport uniquely inspires such sinful attitudes in those who follow it?

Well, no, it doesn’t. In America, we have no idea how carnal fans can get relative to some other sports. There is a reason they call them “soccer hooligans” [OK: (Non-American) football hooligans].

Then there are the cheerleaders. No doubt about it: professional football cheerleaders are undeniably inappropriately clad.

But if you think they’re the worst in football, you haven’t seen the cheerleaders they use, for instance, in professional basketball. [No, I’m not linking to pictures…]

The objection some seem to have about football that, perhaps, makes them feel deep down that it truly is the worst of the worst may be that it seems such a violent sport to them.

But is it, really? The hits are sometimes, maybe even often, rougher than they should be, to be sure. We already covered that, and inappropriate aggression is present in a lot of sports. I’ve blogged about illegal, shameful schemes to purposefully hurt other players, and they are just that: illegal and shameful. And, also, not unique to football. (Think Tonya Harding. Or pitchers taking out batters and the subsequent brawls.) But does it seem more “violent” because there is grappling, pushing, and tackling? Do the presence of those items make it somehow inherently, violently evil and sinful? Like wrestling?

(Did you follow the link? I know—that was mean. But fun. If you want to claim that grappling, pushing, and tackling is inherently, violently evil and sinful, take it up with Jacob and Jesus Christ in the resurrection.)

Really, do we have to ban all roughhousing in sport or play? As a father of four boys (and, as rumor has it, I, myself, am a male, as well), I can say that physical play—wrestling each other, etc.—even intensely physical play is rightly natural to being male. And I say “natural” in terms of God’s design, not “natural” as a euphemism for carnal. The fact that a sport includes physical contact simply can’t, in and of itself, make it inherently sinful.

Bad attitudes on display in that contact? Yes! That would be sinful! But then, it would be sinful in any sport, right? In fact, it would be sinful even if there were no physical contact, right? So, where does that leave us? Right! With football still not being inherently sinful and certainly not uniquely “more evil” than other sports.

The idea that rough-and-tumble play among friends will not be allowed in the Kingdom has no basis in Scripture. To quote verses about “violence” to say otherwise is to assume what one desires to prove and is a logical error of the novice. You would first have to prove that all such play is violence. Have fun with that. And, even if you were to succeed against all odds and rationality, far more sports and play would be condemned than football—once again not making it unique in some way as the sinniest sinful sport in civilization.

Actually, someone who is truly offended by real violence in sports has so many other targets to choose from, and worse offenders, indeed. Consider ice hockey. Who hasn’t heard this joke: “I went to a fight once, and a hockey game broke out”? There’s a reason for that joke. In fact, even if it is a matter of just picking on America, in North America the rules concerning actual, literal player-on-player violence in hockey are looser than just about everywhere else in the world. Fights are actually expected, and are part of what the fans want.

Really, it’s hard to justify picking on football as the pinnacle of “sports evil” in the area of violence. (And, again, simply quoting verses about “violence” assumes what one wants to prove.)

Finally, perhaps football qualifies as Most Sinful Sport Ever™, at least as a public symbol, because it is so popular. Consider the TV ratings for the Super Bowl–they are huge. Maybe that should make football a special “punching bag” above all other sports.

Well, that just doesn’t cut it, either.

It took until 2010 for the number of Super Bowl viewers in America to get past 100M, climbing to a record 112.2 million in 2014. In 2015, that record was bested, bringing in 114.4 million.

Being a truly international sport, it is hard to aggregate the viewing figures for soccer’s World Cup, but even conservative measures of World Cup viewing put the totals for the final game at more than double that of the Super Bowl, such as the estimated 260,000,000 in 2006. And that doesn’t even count the number of people without access to television who obsessively follow the World Cup’s games through other means (print, public announcement, etc.). In fact, over the course of the entire World Cup tournament, total viewership of some of the action is estimated in the billions.

Actually, all of these things said… considering the often prideful and combative attitudes of its players, the corruption of the governing bodies, the lack of compassion for its players’ head injuries (including among children), the “hooliganism” and violent and riotous criminal activity associated with its fans, the vast, vast viewing audience—with some fans virtually addicted to the sport and its “heroes”—and its central role in the culture of Israelitish nations, I would say that someone sincere about tackling sin in sports would pick soccer over football any day. (Of course, I mean real football over American football.) And that’s even true if one is seeking to focus on the vices of Israelite nations, for which soccer is far more popular when one remembers that America is only one star in that constellation.

So, we don’t really watch much football at all around our house, but it isn’t because we see it as some sort of “super-sinfullestly sinful” sport. We see it as most other professional and college sports—something that isn’t inherently sinful, but which money, fame, and attitude corrupt, like they do with most things. Even international chess. I’m glad that my boys play flag football at camp, which is certainly less likely to cause injury than tackle football. (Though still with its risks, which is not a bad thing, especially when bringing up boys.) But if they ever play a game of tackle on a future Thanksgiving afternoon, or watch a game on TV that day? I don’t see any good, biblical argument that tells me I would have to condemn them as engaging in an inherently sinful activity by doing so. (Actually, since 75% of the Smith boys are fencers, I think a friendly post-Thanksgiving duel is more likely in the future, but that’s beside the point.)

As for me and my house? We’re going to begin a relentless public crusade against thumb wrestling. Well, at least I am. I’m tired of my wife always winning. It’s not my fault I have short thumbs.

[I said I would provide links, but I’m feeling lazy. Still, I will instead offer a search of the blog on the word “football”–it should have them in there, somewhere. 🙂 ]

Alan Turing, flawed heroes, and the nature of reality

You know, I look at the title I just wrote and it makes it seem as though this will be a monster post of amazing depth and insight. Don’t get your hopes up. 🙂 I am busy working on a couple of Tomorrow’s World scripts for taping next week (one on the biblical “Man of Sin” and one about the observance of Easter), but it helps to unknot the brain every few moments by doing something else. This post will be one of those “something elses” and a nice brain stretch — a standing up, stretching the legs, and walking around before sitting down to hammer away at the task at hand some more.

The Alan Turin biopic coming out — “The Imitation Game” — got my attention when I first saw the initial trailer. It comes across like a WWII intellectual thriller and character study, where viewers will watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the role of Alan Turning as he and others crack the Enigma code. Turing was an interesting figure, one which current movie tastes certainly makes attractive for cinema (more on that in a moment), and the idea of seeing a movie depicting the man who laid the foundation for modern computing and, truly, so much more (as I will also get to in a moment) is appealing.

And yet it isn’t. Alan Turing was also an unrepentant and publicly professed homosexual in a time when such activity was illegal. The talk I hear concerning the movie, which premiers November 28, is that it is an “important story for our times” (or something like that), and such language, given its subject matter, suggests to me that much will be made of Turing’s sexuality and how someone so crucial to victory in the war–someone so gifted, etc.–was persecuted for simply “loving differently.” Whatever. Hollywood is very good at crafting stories influencing us to admire the heroes it presents us with in such a manner that our actively cultivated admiration may cause us to overlook whatever chosen element of immorality they are trying to change our minds on. It would be as if the Bible were rewritten by an author hoping to use David’s virtues to get us to think less critically of adultery, as opposed to the Bible’s actual approach, which is to present its flawed heroes as just that: flawed heroes. And recognizing someone as a flawed hero requires one to recognize flaws for what they are: flaws.

Alan Turing’s immoral sexual behavior was a flaw of character. It does not diminish the greatness of his intellect or insight. However, neither does the greatness of his intellect or insight diminish the immorality of his sexual behavior. I suspect that Hollywood is hoping that we will ignore the second of these facts.

So, I’m not as interested in seeing the movie as I otherwise would be. And why would I be interested in seeing the movie? Because I think Turing’s work, like Kurt Gödel’s and, more recently, Gregory Chaitan’s, has played a significant role in changing not only how mathematics is seen, but how reality is seen.

I’ve mentioned Gödel before — actually, not on the blog, I think, but in a telecast: “What Is Truth?” Don’t have 28 minutes to watch? We also made a TW Short version of “What Is Truth?” that is only 3 minutes long and an article of the same title. Actually, Kurt Gödel is mentioned in all three incarnations of that work, and including a mention of his “logical nuclear bomb” is one of my all time “feel good moments” concerning my work in our media. (And kudos to our video editors, who also allowed me to get images of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus in there.)

That “logical nuclear bomb” was his work on the incompleteness of mathematics, demonstrating mathematically that not all mathematical statements can be proven, nor can the consistency of mathematics be proven mathematically. (That’s my own summary–forgive me for washing over details for those who are nitpickers.) I’ve long thought it fascinating since I first saw the result mentioned in a PBS program as a child (probably a NOVA episode, but I am not sure). However, an old OMNI magazine article (anyone remember OMNI?) pressed me to consider what the result might be saying about reality, given the intimate connection between reality and mathematics — an intimacy deeper than that of the physical sciences, since it is the relationship on which the sciences depend.

I’m currently enjoying Chaitan’s popular book Meta Maths: The Quest for Omega, which talks about the author’s own fascination with Gödel’s work and his extension of Turing’s discoveries concerning the halting problem (i.e., the question of whether or not there would ever be a way to predict which programs, out of all possible programs, a computer could run that would come to a stopping point versus running forever without stopping; turns out there is no way to do this for all programs). The point of the book is to discuss the implications of the number omega, defined to be the probability of a randomly constructed program of halting. It is a well-defined number that surely exists, and yet no computer will ever be able to calculate it — not because of limits to memory, computing power, programming language, etc., but because it is actually, in its existence, impossible to compute. Its every digit, in a sense, represents a mathematical truth that mathematics cannot determine, though the existence of the number is well established.

Among the things I am enjoying about the book is that Chaitan discusses thoughts that have been rattling around in my noggin for a few years, now (though he does so with intelligence, experience, and insight, where as my thoughts have been characterized by more of a dull hum…). For instance, do what we call the “real numbers” exist in the world? I don’t mean that in the sense of Platonism (i.e., is there some sort of abstract “reality” where these things exist in a non-physical sense), but, rather, is there any real physical representation of them anywhere? We can take a square that is exactly 1 meter by 1 meter in dimension, and its diagonal would be the square root of 2 meters. And we can take a circle that is exactly 1 meter in diameter and its circumference would be π (pi) meters. So, surely, the square root of 2 and π are things that exist in reality… except that there is no square in existence where the sides are exactly 1 meter each, nor is there a circle in existence with a diameter of exactly 1 meter. Can such numbers still be said to exist?

OK, just imagine the points invisibly in space, without a physical object assigned. Can’t we define such numbers by these invisible distances between these infinitely small points, which, though conceptual, surely do exist as locations in real space? No, not necessarily. Evidence, by some accounts, continues to mount that our physical reality is not continuous like what we imagine the line of a perfect circle to be but discrete and made up of “bits” like a circle on a computer screen looks when you look close enough to notice the pixels making up the image. Life (and reality) would not be a continuous flow, but a passing from frame to frame, like a strip of film showing in a movie theater–an illusion of continuous movement but actually a series of stills shown in rapid succession.

If there is no true continuity to existence, if all is discrete, then there is no room for infinite strings of digits in reality. And without infinite strings of digits, the vast majority of real numbers on the number line disappear into nothingness — including our favorites, like π and e. They remain only as “useful fictions” that allow us to use an imaginary continuity to model a very discrete reality.

Leaving earth behind, might there be a perfect circle in heaven, or a perfect square? Since the word “perfect” here reflects not an actual perfection of morality or existence but, rather, conformity to an idea than man has defined, I’m not so sure there are.

My old Platonism is looking pretty tattered these days. 🙂 As much as I love Cantor’s work and believe there is real value to it, more and more I am beginning to think of Leopold Kronecker’s famous statement “God made the natural numbers; all else is the work of man” as being possibly true at more levels than I had ever given it credit for.

Anyway, that sort of stuff, among other things, is what comes to mind when I hear of Alan Turing. And I look forward to the general resurrection when, if I can be so indulged at that time, maybe I can see Gödel, Turing, Cantor, and Kronecker at tea together not only discussing such insights but comparing and contrasting their thoughts with a revealed view of reality, all while having the privilege of helping them to get to truly know the Author of all they had been studying.

Wow — I really wandered around in this one, huh? Probably fell into a few ditches, too. Looking back, I read some of what I wrote and think, “Just what was in this salted caramel mocha, anyway?” If you read this far without falling asleep or getting a headache, congratulations! This probably hasn’t been the best expression of my thoughts on these things, but it still feels good to get it into writing in some way. I might try and write about these things again in the future — I’ve been wanting to write about how I first began to lean toward the belief that zero might not actually be a number in a very real sense, and if some of you out there have been having a hard time falling asleep, let me know and I will go there for you. 🙂 And the break has been nice — now, back to the scripts!

“Noah” and “Clash of the Titans”

I actually saw the “Noah” movie when it came out and wrote a commentary about it for the Tomorrow’s World website (“Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’: Pro-Satan Propoganda”). I won’t repeat much of what I said there, though I will add that if you are desperate to see Russell Crowe in a boat, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is more historically accurate, more educational, more moving, more inspirational, and less depressing.

But I had a number of thoughts related to the movie, and I have planned for sometime to mention them briefly in a blog post. Now that I finally am, I think I will just stick with one. Seeing how my thoughts ran away with me in my last post, I’d like to keep this one more focused.

On reflecting on the junk pile that was Aronofsky’s “Noah” in the days after seeing it, I was struck by the thought that the movie reflected a certain approach to the Bible that reminded me of how Hollywood treats myths and legends.

"Release the Scandinavian Sea Monster from Norway!" cried the Greek Deity (image from MGM's (Warner Bros') "Clash of the Titans")
“Release the Scandinavian Sea Monster from Norway!” cried the Greek Deity (image from MGM’s (now Warner Bros’) 1981 “Clash of the Titans”)

For instance, consider the movie “Clash of the Titans.” I can’t speak to the modern incarnation, let alone its sequel “Wrath of the Titans,” as I have seen neither and didn’t feel to motivated to do so. The 1981 Harry Hamlin-headed (ha! aliteration) “Clash of the Titans” — that I have seen. It was a state-of-the-art stop motion animation fest, the last work of the stop motion master, Ray Harryhausen, and I ate it up as a kid. (Note: Not an endorsement, just an admission. My judgment wasn’t the best in my late pre-teens. It is sad that many of my generation may hear “Laurence Olivier” and think of his role in this flick as “Zeus” instead of — oh, I don’t know — maybe almost anything else Laurence Olivier has ever done.)

But it wasn’t exactly the most accurate representation of classical Greek mythology, right? After all, the “Titans” don’t even show up in the flick. And, “Release the Kraken”? Really? Greek god Zeus is going to release a Scandanavian sea monster? Was the Scylla not available? Surely the Kraken’s trip from Norway all the way to Joppa would have given Perseus a little extra time, now? But I digress…

My point is that Hollywood feels no obligation to honor the “spirit” of old Greek myths. They are all fictions, and writers certainly feel free to do anything they want with them. They are not like actual biographies — not that some writers feel any obligations to accuracy in those, either, I suppose. Unlike biographies or actual historical events, myths — Greek, Roman, whatever — are simply collections of names and ideas for writers, into which they can insert whatever meaning they want. Make bad guys into good guys, good guys into bad guys, borrow a creature from a different part of the world — no harm no foul. It’s not like Perseus is going to send lawyers demanding that the truth be told accurately, when there is, in reality, no truth.

Just look at the versions of Hercules Hollywood has out out over the years. (I still haven’t scrubbed the 1983 Lou Ferrigno debacle from my neurons.) It’s about what the writer wants to say, not any need to stay faithful to a “reality” since there is no reality in the myth to which one owes any faithfulness. I get it. The story isn’t actually history, and it is freely available to the writer to use to say whatever he wants, whether he wants to make a popcorn flick or something preachier.

While it’s not the first of its kind in this way, Aronofsky’s “Noah” helped me to find words to the thought that the Bible is, now, just the same as Greek myth to the entertainment industry. It’s a potential source of stories (regarded by them as) detached from reality — detached from real people or real events or real history — that can be used at whim to say whatever the writer wants to say.

There is no need, for instance, to worry about communicating the events of Noah’s life accurately if you truly believe that there was no “Noah” to begin with. He’s just another Perseus — a character for your Dramatis Personæ. Flesh him out however you will. Put whatever words you’d like in his mouth. Give him whatever motivations your heart fancies. After all: He isn’t real.

And, of course, these being biblical stories, the same goes with God. After all, if the story is not a historical account of God’s actions in the world and if God, Himself, isn’t real, then we can treat Him just as another character, another vehicle for our own message, ideas, and entertaining concepts. He might as well be Zeus or Athena. Have him punish angels for being too sympathetic to humanity? Sure, why not!

Some would say that Cecil B. DeMille did the same with “The Ten Commandments” — not to mention scores of other “biblical” movies — and to some extent I could agree. But not completely. If you watched “The Ten Commandments,” you saw the disclaimer at the beginning. And while the movie that followed that disclaimer took its liberties (did it ever!), there was an air of respect for the source material running through the movie. Enough respect? No, probably not. But compared to what Aronofsky brought to Noah’s story, DeMille can come across like a fundamentalist theologian.

While the creative types in Hollywood may have decided that the Bible is myth — as available to them to preach their own messages and entertain according to their own values as anything made up by the Greeks or Romans — they are still constrained by two forces: (1) the need to make money off of the public, and (2) the public’s tolerance of the abusing the Bible.

Because while the public’s tolerance for Bible abuse is broadening, there is still some resistance. There is still some unease. It may be virtually microscopic, but it still exists.

It is, though, on the way out. The elite of the entertainment industry are already there and have been there for quite some time. To recast a biblical story in your own image is considered “brave” and “bold” filmmaking, especially if that image is far from the actual message of the Bible. (Applying such adjectives to such works, by the way, is ridiculous. There is nothing “brave” or “bold” about mocking the Bible in our society today. It’s practically fashionable. Let’s see a filmmaker in a major movie studio reinterpret a story from the Quran — that might earn the adjectives “brave” or “bold.” But don’t hold your breath.)

And the public is on its way there, too. Tolerance for the Bible-as-myth is higher than ever, with no signs of shrinking any time soon. Perhaps Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton will pleasantly surprise in December. The teaser trailer looks interesting, yet, at the same time, most promotional material for such a flick will almost certainly focus on those things appealing to the pro-Bible crowd, while hiding the sure-to-offend qualities to be revealed after the ticket is paid for. Concerning Exodus, I am, perhaps irrationally, allowing myself to be hopeful, but guarded.

Regardless, if the Red Sea parts to reveal a stop motion Scandinavian sea monster and Moses rushes in to battle it in the Batmobile, I’m requesting a refund.

AWOL on “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”

Meh.
Meh.

Well, I feel I am somehow doing a disservice and failing at my “job” by not writing much about the new series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. I love science, and I love writing about it (hence the Works of His Hands articles for the Tomorrow’s World magazine–the newest of which I am currently late in delivering!) and its place and impact in our culture and our faith. Viewing the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan was a watershed experience in my own life as a child. Though it shows its age, the original Cosmos book, a companion to the original series, is still one of the most treasured books in my personal library. I eat this stuff up. The new show is currently a hot topic, and I like it when we have comments and writings on our websites about current, hot topics.

And yet about this whole Cosmos reboot I’ve just been sort of… I don’t know… meh.

Actually, I think that sums it up pretty well: meh.

It isn’t the stink that some Creationists are apparently trying to raise (see the Puffington Host article here — and, as always, caveat navita stans). It isn’t that it will almost surely be presented with an virtually aggressively atheistic, irrational, religion-hating point of view. I’ve come to expect that from some science works and have learned to pick around the garbage for the good stuff.

And, fleshing out that last point, it isn’t that I would be disappointed by Neil deGrasse Tyson expressing extreme ignorance about matters related to God and religious belief. Again, I’ve come to expect that and have become somewhat callused to it. Tyson is clearly an intelligent guy. A worthy successor to the Church of Naturalism’s “Saint Sagan”? He is called that by some, though I’m not sure I would give him that. (Maybe the new series would convince me otherwise.) Still, a very educated guy and, apparently, recognized as a popularizer of science for the masses. But, when it comes to matters related to God, faith, and how it relates to science? He’s an uneducated moron. (And I mean that in the most respectful way possible. I’m an uneducated moron on a number of things. If you’ve read this blog for long, you probably already know that.) He gives criticisms that most philosophers and believing scientists can refute in their sleep. But it sounds good to those of the Church of Naturalism: it plays to the crowd, and, like too many on both sides of issues like this, perhaps that’s all that really matters to him. He can point to the amazing things we see in the discoveries of science, but when it comes to comprehending the implications and interpretations beyond the equations — concerning meaning, philosophy, intent, purpose, and value — he isn’t even mature enough to enter the playground, let alone play in the sandbox.

And it isn’t that I would be shocked to find that the new Cosmos is, in many ways, a chance to selectively choose elements of human history and — whether told straight or perverted here and there with misleading twists — turn them into a winding tale supporting Naturalism as the One True Faith™. Carl Sagan was a master of this in the original Cosmos, and his tales could be woven together into a veritable new book of Acts for the Naturalism Bible. I would expect no less from a Cosmos produced by a new generation in which the attitudes have gotten nastier and the minds of many secularists all the more closed and bitter. I expect the religious sentiment of our greatest scientists to be treated ultimately as hinderances to the true faith of Naturalism instead of any sort of force for good, just as Sagan implied about Johannes Kepler and many atheists imply today (or outrightly state) about Isaac Newton and others. The tapestry woven will undoubtedly be crafted to serve the faith, and tales that disagree will not be welcome or even permitted — banned with the sort of passion and zeal for censorship that such individuals condemn when they believe they perceive such sentiment in religious works but apparently embrace when it serves their own interests.

All of this should be expected seeing that the series is being produced by Seth MacFarlane (as I thought during his Oscars stint: the perfectly reflective representative our culture deserves), who has declared that there is no political motive behind the show (all while explicitly blaming one political party for the country’s scientific ignorance, by the way) and who has praised what the show ostensibly represents: what Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow & one of the people behind the original Cosmos) has indicated should be a proper marriage of wonder and skepticism. And given the show’s backers, one would be deluded to expect that the romanticized “skepticism” on display will be anything but a narrow, favored “skepticism” wedded to an ironic and complete lack of skepticism as needed to maintain a fundamentally unsupported ideology.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in an image from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on FOX (who owns this image). Can't deny it: The images look fantastic.
Neil deGrasse Tyson in an image from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on FOX (who owns this image). Can’t deny it: The images look fantastic.

And, finally, it isn’t that I don’t expect the new Cosmos to be anything less than impressive in its explanations, wondrous in its graphics and special effects, and moving and grand in its portrayal of our remarkable universe. Though I find its thumbnail of choice to look a little gross (a human eye surrounded by a reddish nebula that, to me, seems weird and fleshy due to the presence of the eye in the center), I expect that the series will seek to outdo its predecessor in every way, taking advantage of the remarkable abilities we now have to produce CGI images of startling realism and impact. The original Cosmos was a groundbreaker in this area, and if the new one is to stand out, it will have to compete with the seemingly thousands of digital images and video clips that are standard fare now on television programs featured by the Science Channel, the Discovery Channel, etc. The graphics and images seen on a regular basis by the very audience that will be the new Cosmos‘ bread and butter already surpass much of what was seen in the original Cosmos by several orders of magnitude (though, not in the original show’s imaginatively creativity and subtlety, at times). To be a worthy successor, the creators of Cosmos will need to step things up, and I expect them to do so. I am normally a complete sucker for such stuff. And, I admit, the images I have seen (bloody eye mentioned above, excepted) — such as the one of Tyson standing before a window (or whatever) gazing upon a star, perhaps the sun, at an uncomfortably close distance — look fantastic. I expect the best of such things from the series.

So, why am I non-plussed? Why am I so meh?

I don’t know. Meh.

Let me know what you think. Have you seen any episodes so far? What do you think? How does it compare to the original with Carl Sagan? How is Tyson doing? Why do you think I am so meh? Is my mehness justified? I do plan on seeing the series eventually. From what you’ve seen so far, what do you think I should expect?

Positive or negative, your comments below are welcome.

What I liked about “The Sound of Music Live!”

Wow! I haven’t written since Thanksgiving? Long time no write! Times have definitely been busy, and even now my wife and I are traveling around enjoying the blessing of getting to counsel and visit with folks here in the area. But in our travels, we ended up seeing the rearing of “The Sound of Music Live!” last night. Well, part of it. A few parts of it. (I am a notorious channel changer. It’s not about what’s on, after all, it’s about what you might be missing!)

I’m fond of commenting on news items that everyone else is already bored with, so I thought this would be a nice topic, and I definitely do have some thoughts.

I know leading up to the first broadcast of the musical, there was a lot of grumbling about casting Carrie Underwood. Perhaps there was grumbling about her costar, Stephen Moyer, I don’t know. I’ve been unplugged a bit as of late. And, frankly, I thought their acting was a bit subpar (Ms. Underwood a little less than dynamic and Mr. Moyer a bit overwrought. If their performances could have been mathematically averaged together, I think the result would be about right.) At the same time, I only saw some selected scenes, and probably not the scenes that played to their strengths. I still enjoyed what I saw, and they didn’t change that.

Actually, that’s what I’d like to focus on: What I liked about “The Sound of Music Live!”

First, it was great to see something so wholesome and wonderful on television. I am a fan of “The Sound of Music,” and a number of other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, and the idea of such a production being given such a prominent spot on national television and its performance being considered such a large event is so encouraging. I am aware that Mr. Moyer is associated with another television product that falls into a much more negative spiritual category, so it was nice to see him getting this work. And it was nice to see Ms. Underwood doing something so worthwhile and taking a risk. (More on risk later.)

Also, it was great to see live theater being given such a huge audience. Those who lamented the choice of Ms. Underwood who also love musical theater should be happy she was willing to do it. Like I said, it was a risk–even ignoring the fact that you are playing one of the most beloved musical characters of all time and your viewers will be comparing you and your performance to one of the most beloved performances and performers of all time–yet it is undeniable, I believe, that her presence in the production is a big part of what gave it a huge audience. Some may have come to it with excitement about her casting, some out of morbid curiosity, but regardless the effect was the same. A lot of people were exposed to what it means to watch a live musical performance, including a new generation’s being introduced to one of the best musicals out there, and I think that is a good thing.

In particular, I enjoyed it because it was risky — the risk that is always there with live performances and musicals in particular. Even with my sub-par singing voice, I have been in many musicals thanks to my days in high school theater, and the experience was a wonderful blessing. Starring in our high school production of the King and I was one of the greatest formative experiences of my life. There is such a rush to performing on stage like that — it is a pressure-filled, exhilerating experience to performing without a safety net like that and succeeding. And there is something exciting about watching a live performance. I really don’t believe that it is morbid anticipation of seeing someone make a mistake, although that is probably an appeal for some. There is just an excitement, knowing that what you are seeing is happening “now” (or, a re-aired “now” as in my case) that connects you to the performance in a way that pre-recorded performances just don’t capture.

It was a risk — both for the performers and for the network. But it paid off great.

Just two more things, then I need to skedaddle. (Does anyone say “skedaddle” anymore?)

The performances of the supporting actors and actresses, children included, were excellent. I only saw a few: the children, Max (Christian Borle), Elsa (Laura Benanti), and the Climb Every Mountain Nun (Audra MacDonald). On the last three, as Tony Award winners, no one should be surprised they did so well, but it should still be mentioned. I really enjoyed their performances.

And finally, the production, itself. The camera angles, movements, and timing, the beautiful sets, the lighting — it was a great example of how live theater can be done successfully on live television, and the team that planned all of that deserve kudos. I believe they did a remarkable job that impressed me from moment to moment.

Gotta go! And, yes, even though I have just critiqued a musical, I am still a man. Thanks for asking. 🙂

What song or piece of music inspires & motivates you?

So, name one that moves and inspires you.
So, name one that moves and inspires you.

Rather than some of the things I had considered writing about recently (the country is going down the toilet, strategies of non-prophets, how crazy good pistachios taste), I thought this might be a nice post. I was negative about music recently, and perhaps this will help to make up for it.

Is there a song or piece of music that really inspires you or motivates you? If you are like me, there may be many such songs. Today in the car on the way to the Post Office, I played “The Impossible Dream (the Quest)” from the musical “Man of La Mancha” about Don Quixote. The words of that song really move me and I have found much motivation and inspiration in them for many years. They stir me to dedicate myself to a higher calling, and I find in them many things that parallel the commitment I’ve made to Christ and to the Kingdom of God. I find it a beautiful song that has brought me to tears at times, and its context of being a “knight errant” on a mission only enhances it in my affections.

What song or piece of music really does that for you? Let me know below — and keep it to one piece of music. I know that is an arbitrary rule, but I thought it would be a fun restriction that would force us to think. If you have lots of others, perhaps I will ask this question again. After all, there are lots of pieces of music that do this for me, and I can use that future post as a chance to talk about them! But for this time, I am sticking to one: so you do the same! 🙂

So, of the songs or musical pieces that inspire you and motivate you, name one below and explain why it is so moving and stirring for you.

Apparently, the Super Bowl cometh…

Look, on the table! It's a dish! It's a wok! No, it's Super Bowl!
Look, on the table! It’s a dish! It’s a wok! No, it’s Super Bowl!

So, Super Bowl XLVII is this weekend! Believe it or not, I truly had no idea until today, though I did know it was coming up. (A theme of my life, apparently. Is it always the first Sunday in February, now?) And, believe it or not, I don’t know who’s playing, other than that I know it is not the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cleveland Browns, the Dallas Stars, the Texas Rangers, or the Flying Wallendas. I will, however, look it up in the newspaper or Google shortly after this post so that my citizenship as an American is not suddenly revoked.

(In other news, the Wallendas had the adjective “Flying” attached to their name after an incident in Akron, Ohio. Yes, I knew that you always wanted to know that.)

Every year when it comes around, I discuss whether or not we will watch it, and this year I suspect we will still be on the road coming home from Pittsburgh, so if it makes the driving less congested, all the better! We’ve had several posts here on the blog about football–whether it’s a sin to watch it, will there be football in the millennium, the crime of putting bounties on opposing teammates where thugs are paid to hurt others, how it provides lively Spokesman Club table topics fare, how elderly ladies can wrongly be made to feel guilty for enjoying it, and how local communities should be warned when nerds throw footballs–and rather than make (yet) another post, I thought I would simply list previous discussions for those who might be interested. And while I think I have addressed it before in at least one of the previous posts, I am sympathetic to the argument that the football players should go back to wearing leather hats instead of the helmets they use today, or even outer-padded helmets. There are a number of sports which could probably be made safer in a number of ways–professional pencil sharpening, for instance–and American football is clearly one of them. (As discussed, below, though: does that make the sport inherently sinful? Not at all. If something done unwisely made it inherently sinful, we’d all be in a lot more trouble than we are.)

On to the posts…

That’s all for today. Have a wonderful Sabbath!

Les Misérables and Musical Éponine versus Book Éponine

I admit it: I’m excited about the “coming soon” movie adaption of the musical play adaption of the book Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

Here’s the teaser trailer, for those who might be interested (and I should say for the sake of those very interested that this post will contain some spoiler-ish comments for those completely ignorant of the tale):

I had read the book in high school (bit of a story there, but it will wait for another time) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Much later, I took my Beautiful Wife to see the hit musical play, which is as about “epic” as such things get, and, frankly, not my wife’s cup of tea, as she is ready to tell anyone who asks. It is definitely filled with sad endings for various ones. (If I go to see the movie, I will be taking my mother-in-law, who is quite into such fare). And, as an adaption of Hugo’s book–as Wikipedia will tell you, a book “widely considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century”–the musical can hardly do justice to its richness, and it succeeds by focusing on core themes to move the story along. Particularly grating to me are the handful of vulgarities and profanities that make their way into certain portions of, for instance, the “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” songs. I understand that the songs are meant to convey the vulgar and profane nature of their topics, but the same sentiments and characterizations could have been communicated without such things.

Emile Bayard’s iconic engraving picturing Cosette from the original edition of Les Misérables

And those things aside, one of the worst elements of adaption, in my opinion, is the character of Éponine. She’s a great character in the musical, to be sure, but Musical Éponine lacks the key characteristic Book Éponine has that helps make Hugo’s point: She isn’t ugly. Every picture I have seen of a Musical Éponine from the play’s many, many performances, she is essentially a “pretty girl” with Hollywood mud smeared on her cheeks, to indicate to us viewers that she’s among the downtrodden and poor. But Hugo went so much further in his book, penning one of my favorite lines in all of literature. (Well, OK: All the literature I have ever read.)

Éponine was to be the anti-Cosette in Les Misérables. Rescued by the grace of God (which is what the actions of Jean Valjean come to symbolize) from a life from which she could never have freed herself, Cosette grows into a beautiful young lady. Éponine, on the other hand, continues living the life that Cosette would have had, and the result is symbolized by the fact that, as Hugo so wonderfully describes, Éponine is clearly a young lady who should have been beautiful but was absolutely not. She was not to be a pretty “diamond in the rough” type, a standard entertainment trope–not the sort that when you look at her you would think that a few days at the local spa, just the right beauty tips, just the right 80’s song and–voila!–she’s ready to be prom queen in another John Hughes smash hit. Rather, she was to be the control to Cosette’s experiment, if you will: a living, breathing example of what the world of mankind can do to someone who, by all rights, should have been so much more. And it isn’t pretty. Not just “pretty covered up by grime” but not pretty.

Here’s the line that grabbed me so when I read the book in high school:

Never, even among animals, does the creature born to be a dove change into an osprey. That is only to be seen among men.

This line really struck me hard when I was in school, reading the book. I’ve never escaped it, and out of the 1500-or-so pages of the book, it is the one line that has stayed with me ever since. (Read the whole chapter from which it comes, including the description of Éponine that, I guarantee you, will not be matched by the movie’s Éponine.)

The question I’ve asked myself before is why? Why break from Hugo’s description in this particular way? Is it because the musical’s creators felt that the unrequited love that Musical Éponine holds for Marius wouldn’t grab us in the same way if Éponine were not inherently attractive? Is it because the musical’s creators felt that we simply wouldn’t sympathize with Musical Éponine, in general, if she weren’t, deep down, an obviously pretty girl?

And, perhaps more significantly: If these are the reasons, are they correct?

I must say that I still enjoy the musical (and immensely so) for its power to beat you over the head repeatedly and effectively with its themes (a big fan of unsubtlety and epicly epic epicness, I am), and I do not resent it for simplifying Hugo’s work for the sake of creating what is truly a spectacularly moving musical production. Music has a way of hitting us harder and cutting us more deeply than mere words (one of the reasons I believe God uses music and song, as He did in Deuteronomy 31:19), and the picture painted contrasting divine grace and intervention against choosing to make one’s own way in man’s world through man’s means is one I appreciate. Hearing Valjean’s words in “Who Am I?” always inspires me to take the noble path, and hearing Fantine’s pain in “I Dreamed a Dream” always reminds me of the lies that underlie this world’s paths to “happiness”–that for those who choose such paths, the tigers always come at night.

And, again, I am excited about the idea of seeing Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway bring characters of “Les Mis” to life on the screen–talented actors brought to bear on roles and performances that deserve and require a great deal of talent. But I will remember that they aren’t really Victor Hugo’s characters. They will have been prettied up a bit for easier public consumption. Fantine, I am sure, will not be selling her front teeth. And Éponine, I am sure, will be played by a pretty girl in dirty makeup–a dove made up to look a bit like an osprey, but a dove all the same.

If only Hugo had been wrong, and the world of men really were so merciful as that.