Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?

Archive for March 2008

I have a habit of opening doors all by myself

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You’ve heard the phrase — Boy, I walked right in to that one. And one of the better retorts I’ve heard runs something like, well I left the door wide open for you. I have a habit of opening doors all by myself. Just ask the guy I carpool with.

Or this guy I know named Andrew.

I left an off-the-cuff comment on Andrew’s blog* comparing the liberal / conservative tension with the tension between Wesleyanism and Calvinism. And Andrew, well, called me out and asked me to elaborate. So here goes… 😉

While there are certain things on which Wesleyans and Calvinists do not agree, the basic precept at the heart of the matter is a love for God and Jesus Christ and the desire to live according to His will. I can see a basic similarity between Democrats and Republicans — members of both are driven by a desire to do some good.

Unfortunately, when a member of one engages a member of the other in conversation, you tend to end up with something resembling Congress — lots of talk and little progress. When the time comes to interact, both behave like something more akin to the asinus side of the Equidae family.

But there are some, like another friend I know who happens to be a Calvinist, with whom I can dialog about our differences, and we can still part as friends.

There’s a moment in an old TV show called M*A*S*H that played near the end of the show’s run. The members of the 4077 are placing items into a time capsule. Father Mulcahy, the troop’s devout and constant padre, contributes a pair of boxing gloves. Here’s hoping future wars can be settled with these, he says.

It’s one of those gestures that almost reeks with cheery, naïve sentimentality, but I always liked it. Because I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with believing that John Wesley and John Calvin, had they known each other, could have sat down at a pub, had a beer, and walked out speaking of only the best about each other.

Congress has few people of such character, though I am sure they exist. They exist in church as well, though they are difficult to find. But, such is the extent of my intended metaphor; I leave to you, reader, to draw any other underlying connections.

*Typically, I would provide a link, but won’t in this case. His site is more of a personal network blog, and I do not want to infringe on his space.

Written by taj

March 31, 2008 at 12:23 am

Smash Cut – Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

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Back in November, I had the opportunity to screen an early cut of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — Ben Stein’s documentary examining the issue of Intelligent Design, its relation to academia, and of the embargoes placed on the careers of educators who raise any questions regarding the strengths of Darwin’s popular theory.

At the time, everyone at the screening was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I put any hope of posting a review out of my head for the time being. In January, I was fortunate enough to see the film again — a new cut this time, albeit still covered under the aforementioned NDA.

The NDA lifted several weeks ago, and by that time, the pages of notes I had taken at the second screening didn’t jive as well as they would have had I bothered to go ahead and write a review then. So, here are my thoughts, many weeks delayed…

Most people familiar with Ben Stein know of his erudite wit and expansive writing and teaching careers. He has, in his vast library of accomplishments, served as a lawyer, professor of economics, and as a presidential speech writer. But one of Stein’s lesser known attributes includes his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. His deep respect and admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to compel him in every manner of his professional acumen, including this documentary, due in theaters this April.

The film’s thesis rests on one of the core foundational aspects of what Dr. King often called the “dream” of America. Part of the glory of America, the film states, is the freedom for anyone to believe anything he or she wishes without fear of reciprocation. Whenever the tenets of Darwinism have faced any significant challenge within the academic community, the film contends, voices of dissent find their mouths duct-taped shut.

Stein begins the film in a lecture hall, his trademark voice setting up the premise, intercut between various statements from personalities you come to know quite well over the next 90 minutes or so. The narrative launch pad picks up the story of Dr. Richard Von Sternberg, who in 2004 endured various kinds of persecution after publishing a paper for the Smithsonian Institution written by noted scientist Stephen Meyer.

Meyer’s paper essentially took a look under the hood of Darwinism, and suggested that the study of Intelligent Design (ID) had raised some very important questions. After its publication, Sternberg, having now earned the moniker of “intellectual terrorist” from some of his peers, eventually resigned his post, stating that he was told the Smithsonian would not seek to renew its relationship with him.

To address the assumption that this story represents a singular incident within scientific academia, the film spends some time with and lists name after name of highly credentialed scholars and scientists whose academic careers have faced significant obstacles for even mentioning that ID raises questions that Darwin’s theory has been unable, or is ill-equipped, to answer.

The majority of the narrative follows the news magazine/feature approach. Stein works fast through the material with enough good humor to make all of the science accessible to a general audience. The film’s use of metaphor and juxtaposition paint a clever presentation. Old archival footage of the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall sets up some of the more ominous pay offs later on. But Stein keeps the tone light at first, punctuating his points with quick anecdotes, old film clips and cheap animation. The effect works — one assertive visual involves popular scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins, and several million slot machines — and friends, Vegas never looked so good.

As the film throttles into its second act, the cultural implications of Darwin’s theory come under Stein’s radar, and the film takes a sharp turn toward the realm of the truly serious. The connection between Darwinism and Nazism — of particular interest to Stein, an orthodox Jew — brings this issue out from the walls of high science and into the pages of humanity’s recent photo albums.

The switch in tone here might turn some away; the implications presented are certainly worth exploring, and only a piece of a gargantuan puzzle. The segment, however, sets up an intentional reveal, demonstrated in the later comments of noted biologist P.Z. Myers. Here, Stein renders a haunting rhetorical correlation between the dark pasts of Germany’s Nazism, America’s own eugenics movement in the 1920s, and the ideological wall that separates the study of ID and Darwinism today.

In the closing acts, we’re led to a meeting between Stein, and one man who would personify the intensity, passion and determination of the scientific community’s assertion that Darwin’s theory marks the scientific and cultural benchmark for the belief of life’s origins: Richard Dawkins. And the resultant conversation becomes one of those rare remarkable moments that makes going to the movies special. I can’t give it away — it’s just best to let Dawkins explain it to you himself.

Stein’s film covers a wide breadth of scientific and cultural anthropology, centered on its central thesis that an ideological wall prevents scientists from questioning the status quo. The questioning of popular authority, the film concludes, finds allowance in every other sector of American dialog and exchange, except in the realm of science and academia.

To quote Stein, “people that are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism.” If Stein’s objective is merely to cast a light on a frightening facet of freedom’s suppression, then his success may have preceded the film’s release. Judging by the enormous, vitriolic response the film has already received — and demonstrated well in the comments of this post over at Looking Closer — the prospect of cracking this wall appears to riddle some with terrible dread. And that’s really too bad. Because the implications involved in denying freedom have only ever led to one end. Revolution.

(photo (c) Premise Media Group)

Written by taj

March 25, 2008 at 5:39 pm

I just finished watching “Pan’s Labyrinth”…

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…or, correctly translated, “The Labyrinth of the Faun.”  And I do not know quite what to do with it now.

I’m not going to attempt a review of this one — to do so requires literary prowess that far surpasses my own, so I’ll point you toward Jeffrey Overstreet’s review and let him walk you through it.

Over the last year, “myth” has taken up more and more space in my head.  Not the grade school variety that teaches of Zeus and Olympus, but myth as Lewis and Tolkien understood it.  Every time I read their thoughts on it, or the writings of those dissecting their thoughts, I feel like I can see it but I cannot entirely grasp it.  And then I find myself regretful of the theology degree I earned, because I feel like it only taps the surface of deeper waters.  It feels like there’s something there that I cannot touch, just a hair out of my reach.

Maybe it has to do with the place I’m at now.  I might come back to this film years from now and feel much differently.  For now, I am confused how such a story, like El Laberinto del fauno, could ever illustrate hope.   It echoes hope, it captures some of its essence.  But it fails, in my mind, to capture the whole picture.

Is the film any good?  I would say yes, but your enjoyment will depend largely on your tastes.  This is a dark film, one that broaches heavy transcendent material — futility, evil, patient courage.  As fairy tales go, this one makes you squirm.  Much like Alice in Wonderland first made me squirm.

Ah, I can taste it, right there, that slow feeling of dread that I ran away from as a child.  I remember hiding behind my father’s chair when it struck me then.  Perhaps, I am not so unlike Ofelia in the film, that she would wish to hide from the terrors of her world in a place so far removed from reality.  I find myself taking trips there in my own mind, much like we’re told J.M. Barrie did in Finding Neverland.  Perhaps my feelings about this movie rest here, in this place: the remembrance of dread, and that pressing urge to escape.

I wish I had not watched it alone.   Not for protection or security, but for debriefing.  See, art is never meant to reach out in solitary experience alone.  Art draws us together.  And this film, an artful work to be sure, deserves time among friends, and a good cup of coffee.

Written by taj

March 24, 2008 at 11:43 pm

Posted in Movies, Questions, stories

How I got the wife to watch The Doctor

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I’ve been trying to get Charis to sit down and watch Doctor Who ever since a friend loaned me Series Three.  She’s been less than enthusiastic.  So, building on the idea that marriage is compromise, when she asked me to watch the premiere of The Bachelor last night, I saw an opening.  And I took it.

I promised her I’d watch The Bachelor if she’d give the Doctor a chance. 

She screwed her face up in that look that says she knows she’s been defeated, and she caved a few moments later. 

Last night, I endured all 90 minutes of that shallow and insipid vision of romance, and by the end of the ordeal, Charis was just as disgusted as I was.  So you could say that two good things came out of this—Charis will have to watch Doctor Who (a deal’s a deal, after all), and I’ll never have to watch The Bachelor again. 


Written by taj

March 18, 2008 at 8:50 am

A Project in 12-point Courier

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It’s probably time to let you all know why there haven’t been very many posts lately.  So…

The short of it: A while ago, a friend of mine and I started toying around with the idea of entering one of the screenplay competitions this summer, and we decided to go for it.  I’ve spent the last six weeks hammering out a first draft.

The long of it: Last summer, after a largely uninspiring season of television, we just sort of asked the question to each other, “Well, if we could do a show, what we create?”  We’re both writers, so the dots aren’t that hard to connect.  We started developing characters in July and let the plot grow around them.

We ended up with was an ambitious little idea that, after finishing the draft last week, has started giving me cold sweats.  I’ll write a little more about that as things develop – lots can change between the first and second drafts of a story, and I really want to give this the kind of attention it needs.

All of that to say two things.  One: blogging may be very sporadic over the next several weeks. Lots of reading to do before I start cracking on the second draft.  Two: I’ve added the link to John August’s web site in the sidebar.  John August has written for film (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and television for years, and is gracious enough to share some tips and techniques, as well as a few of his scripts, via his site.

Now, I have to go and endure an hour of The Bachelor.  More on that later.

Written by taj

March 17, 2008 at 7:11 pm

After six great weeks, “Lost” loses some momentum

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I know a handful of readers here follow Lost, so, here are a handful of thoughts on last night’s episode:  

A few moments piqued some interest, particularly the further revelation that Charles Widmore has more to do with the island than despising Desmond for breaking his daughter’s heart. The “Tempest” station and the whole thing about the nerve gas, however, really could have used some more exposition.

For a show that has recovered a lot of lost ground (no pun intended) in the last several weeks, last night was an unfortunate throwback to some of the same storytelling mistakes that tripped them up last season. A modest plea to the writers: stop trying to create drama by repeatedly resorting to having people receive a blow to the head from the butt of a gun. We can all see it coming. And as for Juliet, well…

When Juliet first appeared last season, her troubled-divorcee-turned-manipulative-thug persona made her at least seem compelling. Her constant double-crossing added some complexity for a little while, but as we learned more about her, she quickly turned tiresome. Now she’s little more than a contrived element in the island love quadrangle that just gets in the way of the story.

My mother-in-law did pull out one observation last night that I hadn’t considered. Juliet’s tangled (and sophomoric) character motivations illustrate the “each one did what was right in his own eyes” philosophy quite well. And we can see how those choices have made her broken and easily manipulated. I just wish the writers could handle it with a little more subtlety and care, and maybe move her character forward with something a bit more substantial than a kiss.

Written by taj

March 7, 2008 at 11:03 am

Obligatory space-filler post

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Just finished writing one of those posts you write to vent your frustration and then never post.  Oh, I’ll put those thoughts up here one day, but not while I’m so…enthused.

Working on finishing a project, details on which I will provide as soon as its finished.

Later, homes.

Written by taj

March 4, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Posted in General