Friday, April 28, 2006

The Inevitable "Da Vinci Code" Posting

Our Pastor has set aside the next six weeks for a series of teachings [spurred by | focused on | countering | you-name-it] the upcoming movie release of The Da Vinci Code.

This means six weeks of apologetics (evidences for faith) rather than the church's usual focus on evangelism (declaring the good news). Of course there is a fuzzy boundry between these two categories. It's always good news to hear how your belief are supported by the historic record; and you can't study the historic record without declaring the good news that the evidence is about. And I, for one, am always delighted by a good apologia.

But I must admit that I have yet to read The Da Vinci Code. Years ago I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail (the book from which Dan Brown cribbed much of Code), and had a tough time keeping a straight face.

Years later I read a great brainy thriller that seemed to anticipate much of the current Code madness: Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. Let me crib from Gene Halliford:
In Foucault's Pendulum, Jacopo Belbo says: "There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools morons, and lunatics." These classifications, he suggests, can be used to understand how any given individual makes sense of the world.

Cretins are those individuals who seem to go through life without any clear understanding of the world or their place in it. They are---as the current expression goes---clueless. Cretins crush beer cans with their foreheads and go up the down escalator, never realizing the inherent inappropriateness or impossibility of these actions.

Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation. In their positive form, they become diplomats. Talking outside the glass when someone else blunders helps to change the subject... Fools don't claim that that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.

Morons generally say and do the right thing. The problem with morons is not with what they do but how they think. "Like the fellow who says all dogs are pets and all dogs bark, and cats are pets, too, and therefore cats bark...Morons will occasionally say something that's right, but they say it for the wrong reason." One must be very careful when dealing with morons because they often sound both reasonable and logical. Deciding how and why their reasoning is flawed often takes close analysis.

Lunatics. While morons proceed cautiously toward false conclusions, lunatics are not concerned with logical paradox or common sense. Their reasoning proceeds by quantum leaps of faith and mystical inspiration. Random chance is replaced with the belief that all occurrences are interrelated and inherently meaningful. For the lunatic, any event or experience can be used to support their internal belief system. And, says Belbo, "sooner or later [the lunatic] brings up the Templars."
And so we come to The Da Vinci Code, a modern thriller that tells you that the entrire Roman Catholic Church is a giant front operation for...wait for it...supressing the Templars!

Let me end with a link to Amy Welborn's great site, "Jesus Decoded"

The Da Vinci Code is a mess, a riot of laughable errors and serious misstatements. Almost every page has at least one of each. It would be easy to get swamped up in the small stuff, to spend hours debating the relationship of Marian imagery to Isis or who’s who in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks The good news is, however, that’s not necessary. When discussing the factuality of The Da Vinci Code, all you really need to do is stick to a few fundamental points...

I sometimes wonder why people are so fascinated with the Jesus of The Da Vinci Code and why they so resolutely ignore the Jesus we meet in the Gospels and through the Church, why people don’t want to take that Jesus seriously. Why they just want to brush him off and focus on esoteric, abstract windy speeches on inner light offered by a stick figure.

But then I go back to the Gospels, and I read…Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor…love your enemies….Feed the hungry…clothe the naked…visit the imprisoned…Blessed are the poor…those who mourn…the peacemakers…what you do to the least of these, you do unto me…the last shall be first…

Of course. No surprise. No wonder we don’t want him to be the real Jesus. No surprise at all.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bush vs. the Erotic Thriller

Are these people even trying? Is there any problem or trend in America (or the world!) today that cannot be traced back to Bush and his dark master, Rove?

Even dirty movies fall before their power:

Paul Verhoeven, director of the first "Basic Instinct" (which scored $353 million world-wide) as well as the widely ridiculed "Showgirls" (now regarded as something of a camp classic), attributes the genre's demise to the current American political climate.

"Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States," said the Dutch native. "Look at the people at the top (of the government). We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends."

Scribe Nicholas Meyer, who was an uncredited writer on 1987's seminal sex-fuelled cautionary tale "Fatal Attraction," agrees, noting that the genre's downfall coincides with the ascent of the conservative political movement.

"We're in a big puritanical mode," he said. "Now, it's like the McCarthy era, except it's not 'Are you a communist?' but 'Have you ever put sex in a movie?'"

It's so annoying when you are watching a good erotic thriller and just when the bisexual serial murderess is pulling the ice pick from under the pillow--the jackbooted minions of Jerry Fallwell kick down the door and frog-march you away to re-education Vacation Bible School.

Oh, that hasn't happened?

You mean that the hyper-rich people are frustrated because they are unable to make even more money on sleazy trash, yet are unable to figure out why?

Well, no.
[Nicholas Meyer] admits that the appetite for the genre has taken a hit, and he blames the international market.

"Korea used to be a big erotic thriller market (in the '80s and '90s). Japan, too. You used to be able to cobble deals together based on those markets, but it has become more difficult," said King, who also produced "9 1/2 Weeks" alongside Damon. "There used to be a way to finance erotic thrillers if you had the right cast based on the foreign market. The foreign market doesn't support it in the way that it used to. They are now embracing more mainstream fare."

Part of the problem, King said, is that agents are loath to put their actors and actresses in titillating fare despite the fact that Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone rocketed to fame thanks to memorable R-rated performances.

But in recent years, some high-profile actors have tackled the genre with mixed results. Meg Ryan, who made her career cultivating a girl-next-door persona, teamed with Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion in 2003 for the titillating "In the Cut." Ryan's performance was widely panned, and the Screen Gems film was a box office dud, earning less than $19 million world-wide.

So everything they said before? About puritanical Americans? Never mind.

But there is something creepy and disgusting on tap in the erotic thriller calendar:

Nevertheless, the studios have only a handful of erotic thrillers in development. They include the Jim Carrey starrer "The Number 23" at New Line Cinema, the Jennifer Garner starrer "Sabbatical" at Disney's Touchstone Pictures and the "Basic Instinct"/Hitchcock homage "Need," which revolves around a psychiatrist, a patient and an extramarital affair.

An erotic thriller starring Jim Carrey. Uuuhghghghghhh....{shudder}....

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Bizzaro World

Tivo has really changed my television viewing habits.

I don’t idly flip through channels to see what’s on. What I do is check out my “Tivo Suggestions” folder. Because my “To Do” list has several of the news magazines in it, Tivo catches other public-interest programming. After several weeks of telling Tivo I really didn’t want news programming in Cantonese, Korean, or Cambodian, the selections have settled down to Charlie Rose, Face the Nation, Ben Wattenberg's Think Tank, and a few others.

Last night I was flipping through the Tivo suggestions folder and saw that Tivo had captured The Tavis Smiley Show, and that Tavis’s guest was former Colorado Senator Gary Hart. I checked the listing and saw that Senator Hart was going to be promoting his book, God and Caesar in America. Gary Hart was a real contender for the Democratic presidential nomination to run against Ronald Reagan's pick, George H. W. Bush. Hart was a very smart guy, who said the kinds of interesting things that someone who is not up for office can and will say. I pushed “Play.”

Have you ever felt as if you have woken up in some alternate, bizzaro, reality? That was my reaction to this program. There was Gary Hart, Senator “Monkey Business” himself, telling me why what I believed wasn't authentic Christianity.

Now, Senator Hart did attend Bethany Nazarene College, then went to Yale Divinity. And I think that we need to make large distinctions between the message and the messenger. And yet...

In the interview Senator Hart displayed a real lack of seriousness about issues addressed by Christianity, and I don't mean necessarily political issues.
Hart: I indicate in the essay, I was heavily motivated, and still am, by the teachings of Jesus.

Almost all of which are contrary to the current religious right, which is very judgmental, very divisive. Jesus was non-judgmental, and very inclusive. And in the famous, famous, I guess that's the wrong word. The well-known Sermon on the Mount, those he blessed were the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, those who hungered and thirst after righteousness. The merciful.

I guess that this Oprah-ized gospel plays well with people who are, at best, casual readers of the Bible. But Holy Hanna!

First let's go to the tape: Matthew 5: 29-30, part of that "famous" "Sermon on the Mount"
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
Yeow! Hellfire! But maybe Jesus is ill represented by a single quote. Let's look a little later in Matthew, chapter 25, where Jesus addresses the concept of "judgement."
"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...

...Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Now, we may debate the terms of this judgement, but I think that in this passage Jesus shows that He is indeed, judgemental.

Next Senator Hart takes on the issue of popular revivalism in American history:

Tavis: I wonder how that you think it is - how do I wanna phrase this? That we got off track? How did we get off track? That is to say, how did we end up, do we now live in a nation where the people, to your point, at least, the way you see it, the people who are talking to us every day about Jesus. So many of these televangelists on the right are not true to what Jesus taught with regard to how we ought to live our lives?

Hart: Well, it's the central question of our time, at least politically, I think. First of all, I think you have to go back to the sixties. The infamous age of sex, drugs and rock and roll. And a lot of people concluded then that America was losing its soul. And as you know, starting with Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening in the 1600s, America goes through cycles of reform and renewal and evangelical reformation and revival.

And this is one of those. What distinguishes this one from the Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and Jonathan Edwards revivals is it's very political. And I think it became political over issues like abortion. And that's what triggered people on the religious right to think the country really was on the path to Hell, and they had to do something about it. And they did it through the Republican Party.

Senator Hart seems to miss the great religious revival of the early 1800s that led great numbers of Christians to get very political--in the Abolitionist movement. That particular revival led to the Civil War and many Americans joining the brand-new Republican Party.

Hart also dodged the political questions of faith. Though he was able to trace the swing of many Christians from neutral/Democratic to the Republicans to 1972's Roe v. Wade decision, he seemed unable to make that connection to the $64,000 question of today's Democratic Party: "Why did it lose the Evangelical and mainstream Catholic vote?" He attributed that loss of support to the mean old Republicans hijacking the terms "faith" and "values," then emptying them of meaning.

When questioned about the popularity of the Republican Party’s message, Hart posits that the Republican Party has been captured by three distinct groups. The Christian Right has taken over domestic social policy, neo-conservatives have taken over foreign policy, and libertarians have taken over tax policy. All three groups are “out of the mainstream.” How does that answer the question of the dominance of Republicans in the recent election cycles was unanswered.

(In my view, all three of those groups feel that they are receiving short shrift from the Bush administration, not to mention discontent by secular groups such as the deficit hawks.)

In all, Senator Hart displays the same deafness to what is happening in current culture as many of the rest of his Democratic comrades, and that's too bad. Hart has the background, the education, and the pulpit, if you will, to engage the Evangelical Right in a real dialog about the role of God in American public life and Ceasar in the American church. I'm going to read his book.

But I'm not expecting much.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Is What's Bad, Good?

Conservatives such as myself complained for years about a dysfunctional welfare system that encouraged poor women to have children to increase their government stipend. But could what once was seen as a bug, be a feature?

Michael O'Hare comments on the long-term depopulation of Europe due to Europeans declining to have children:
...fertility rates in Europe are at levels never observed in countries not at war or the grip of psychotic dictatorships. Even in France, which has had aggressive pro-natalist policies in place since the thirties, the population pyramid has very broad shoulders and fashionably slim legs...

The phenomenon is creepy, but what's like a science fiction movie about zombies is the pervasive lack of concern. Good studies are commissioned and filed away, governments have started some tentative child-subsidy tax programs, especially generous in France, but there's no conversation about it, nothing in the newspapers, an election in a week in Italy and I can't find a word about this impending catastrophe from a candidate in the newspapers or on TV. The current administration seems to have spent its entire term in office keeping the prime minister out of jail, not attending to this (or anything else, as far as I can tell).

What could possibly be more important to Italy than the looming extinction of Italians? And even if the society had decided it's time to roll up the enterprise and pass the peninsula to someone else, or just turn out the lights and close the door, what do the twenties and thirties of today expect to have for dinner when they're old, having paid taxes to support their (more numerous) parents most of their working lives? Why is everyone acting as if this isn't happening??!!

As an italophile on many dimensions, sitting in a comfortable train [this is shorthand for a competent system of public services that provide a high quality of life] between Rome and Milan where life is very good in so many ways, in the land of Giotto, da Vinci, Fermi [supply your own pages of really smart Italians who think outside the box], I find myself suppressing a tendency to grab people at random by the collar and yell at them, "forse queste cose non mi riguardono, ma siete pazzi, voi? ciecchi?" (si, amici miei, questo è per voi) [maybe this is none of my business, but are you people nuts? blind?]

Megan McArdle speculates that the rise in incomes generally, and of women specifically may have raised the opportunity cost of raising a child too high. Yet the United States has a booming economy and we have a birthrate above the replacement level:
...we still need to come up with an explanation of why America, which is still getting richer and putting women into the workforce, isn't below replacement rate. But much of our fertility comes from poor women and immigrants, who have a much lower opportunity cost for childrearing than overeducated professionals like me. Our welfare policy may be inadvertently pro-natalist--since, unlike Europe, the only way for a healthy woman to collect benefit is to have children.
There are two objections that I would make to Ms McArdle's reasoning. First, are there enough children of poor or single parents that can rise high enough in economic class to replace the "missing" children of wealthy non-parents? If not, then the children born to a lower economic strata may be unable to provide the economic base from which future benefits should be paid. (A complaint against the old welfare system was that it made its clients net consumers, not net creators of wealth.)

My second objection is that the question of natalism in the United States is not completely reducible to economics. The US has an Evangelical religious culture largely not found in Europe. That culture is very pro-natal, pro-child. For all the demonization of anti-abortion protesters by the political Left, these people are the expression os a demographic component that my be providing the managers, craftsmen, and artisans that pay for all our Social Security benefits!

UPDATE: Rich Lowrey over in NRO, says this about immigrants that lack a high-school diploma:
The National Research Council reports that an immigrant to the U.S. without a high-school diploma — whether legal or illegal — consumes $89,000 more in governmental services than he pays in taxes during his lifetime. An immigrant with only a high-school diploma is a net cost of $31,000. Eighty percent of illegal immigrants have no more than a high-school degree, and 60 percent have less than a high-school degree.
This may be comparable to native-born children without a high-school diploma. In that case the economic case for the pro-natal consequences of our welfare policy is even weaker than I thought.

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