Wednesday, December 19, 2012

SOUL DETOX: CLEAN LIVING IN A CONTAMINATED WORLD (2012) - by Craig Groeschel (book review) - Part One of Two

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Even when I know it’s irrational, I still find myself riding a bullet train of worry all the way to the last stop at High Anxiety.
- page 44

Just say no and don’t feel pressure to give an explanation. No - that one word is a complete sentence. If the person you’re dating pushes you sexually, tell them with an attitude, “No ring, no thing, can’t touch this!” Then stand up, start dancing and singing, “If you like it and you want it, put a ring on it!” Seriously, no music video is necessary.
- page 205 _________________________________________________________________________________________

Occasionally, if one ventures to plumb the depths of Christian pop psychology, it is not unfathomable why so many people cultivate a healthy dislike for the reading of books. There are many who only read books that were written in the last decade or so. If you belong to this majority, and, unless you have taught yourself the use of discriminating taste, the odds are that everything you’ve recently read has been poorly written. But, the degradation of quality writing doesn’t stop there. There is poor quality writing and then there is the imitation of poor quality writing. Pastor Craig Groeschel’s Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World is of the latter variety. Such second-hand derivations of secular pop psychology currently fills the bestseller lists of the Christian bookseller. If you are unfortunate enough to be reading bestsellers written within the insular American Christian subculture, then the quality of what you read is going to be improbably bad.

I read this book out of curiosity. The image on the cover, consisting of two rubber gloves squeezing chemicals out of a sponge, ought to have given me pause. When you begin reading the English prose of Pastor Craig Groeschel, the air positively begins to reek of bleach. His metaphors alluding to germs and toxins and poisons and “poop” fly around in this book, at first ceaselessly, but that is before his metaphorical exuberance begins to get rather embarrassing. The images of cleanliness in Soul Detox do not give one the impression of health so much as they give one the impression of the cold, white, sterile, antiseptic padded walls and floors of an asylum that Groeschel firmly believes is in sore need of a generous dose of spiritual Pine-Sol.

Perhaps that wasn’t quite correct. Due to prior exposure, I knew in advance that reading the book was going to be a chore. But, while I have criticized popular modern day Christian books frequently in the past, it has been years since I read one. While I have spoken out against what can only be called a “Christianized” version of pop psychology, I have not made it through an entire book consisting of such rubbish for ages. After this experience, I may never read another one ever again. But it was time that I read at least one of them. And, it was also time that I made at least one thorough and systematic attempt to explain why I strongly believe the teaching of modern popular pastors like Craig Groeschel to be fundamentally false and contrary to the truths of Scripture.

As William F. Buckley would say, really, Pastor Groeschel, who is a very nice man, should do a little theological reading “before continuing his contributions to a myth already lapidary” in the history of the Christian church. This myth is of the desirability of a separation between culture and Christianity. Anyone wanting to read some of the best thinking upon the orthodox Christian view of culture would find it profitable to obtain, oh say, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948) by T.S. Eliot, literary critic, social critic, and poet. Or you could, for that matter, read The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), by Carl F.H. Henry, theologian; Christ & Culture (1951) by H. Richard Niebuhr, theological-ethicist; The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus, theologian and apologist; The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (2008), by David F. Wells, distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; or even Beauty Will Save the World (2011) by Gregory Wolfe, literary editor and professed Christian humanist. After reading Soul Detox, I can only conclude that Groeschel has read and reflected upon the thinking and questions raised by none of the above.

Now, a note of caution. I have been warned by friends, whose opinions I hold in high regard, that it is unprofitable to criticize fellow believers. I want to respectfully acknowledge this admonition. But, I believe it ought to be rightly qualified in the case of pastors who, while they may technically offer lip-service to the Christian gospel, also mix outright falsehoods into their teaching. C.H. Spurgeon once made the observation that discernment “is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” I am going to beg the reader to not throw away his or her powers to distinguish. In this review I merely intend to parade by the reader a series of assertions made by Pastor Groeschel in his book, Soul Detox. I propose to do this by quoting Pastor Groeschel.

In his masterful 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is, by the way, that there is no longer an evangelical mind), church historian Mark A. Noll wrote that for “a theological conservative, it is in fact intensely painful to catalog the intellectual vacuity of twentieth-century evangelicalism, precisely because of how faithfully fundamentalists, pentecostals, Holiness advocates, and conservative evangelicals passed on essential elements of the Christian faith.” Throughout the entirety of this review, I am not suggesting that Groeschel does not comprehend the basics of the Christian gospel when he sticks to Scripture rather than to Christian pop psychology. Neither am I suggesting that he is dishonest or that he has not, in fact, done good work that helps and ministers to people in need. It is rather his work and teaching, of the sort that is evidenced in his new book, that we will focus upon here.

I have found that the first challenge to writing a book review of something like this is not to appear to be nitpicking over unimportant minor details. I must admit that, while reading the declarations of Pastor Groeschel, I found a hundred little things that initially seemed a shame not to address. Therefore, know in advance that I am not addressing everything that ought to be addressed and, by an exercise of self-restraint, this review is only half as long as it could be. Finally, I refuse to condescend to the reader by writing to the lowest common denominator. Instead, I prefer to presume that most readers can follow important distinctions of a hermenuetical order if asked to do so.

On Hermenuetical and Historical Carelessness

Let us begin our substantive discussion with two telling little details from Pastor Groeschel’s writing. There are times when it is the little details that provide clues about the nature of thought engaged in. Throughout his book, Pastor Groeschel offers various explanations of the meaning of different words which he chooses to use. Here is one example:

“Repentance is the word used in the Bible for sincere confession. Re means ‘to turn back.’ Pent means ‘that which is highest,’ like a penthouse. When someone repents, he turns back to God’s highest way of living instead of the lower ways of sin.” (pg. 82.)

Now, if you have any experience in the evangelical world, you will know that this type of flippant definition is now quite common from the modern pulpit. That does not excuse it. First, Groeschel utterly ignores the original Greek word from which the English word is translated. The Greek word, metanoia, signifies a change of mind. It appears, for example, in Thucydides, when he writes that the Athenian council first decided to put all the men in the city of Mytilene to death, but then had a change of heart on the matter. The word metanoia also appears in Plutarch, when he describes the change in the minds of the kidnappers regarding their intentions toward the babe, Cypselus. In the New Testament, William Tyndale was the first to translate metanoia to the English word “repentance” in 1526. Thus, in the New Testament, the word repentance appears to signify (a) eternal salvation in II Peter 3:9: “The Lord is ... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to metanoia;” (b) a change of mind regarding sinful behavior in Luke 17:3-4, where Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive one another when someone “repents” of their sins; (c) a change of mind regarding Christ in Acts 2:38 where St. Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, tells his listeners to “repent” and be baptized; and (d) a change of mind regarding idols in Acts 17:29-31, where St. Paul tells the philosophers at Athens to “repent” of their thinking that the divine “is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (For a more extensive look at the Greek word, metanoia, see Bible Scholar Robert N. Wilkin’s excellent concise discussion in his essay, New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations.)

Second, Groeschel utterly ignores the fact that the English word “repentance” derives from the Lain word, paenitentia, which means penitence or regret. To assert, as Groeschel does, that repentance means “to turn back to that which is highest” based upon the groundless coincidence that the letters forming “pent” appear in the word “penthouse” is both absurd and allusive to Gnostic heretical teachings that repentance had to do with turning back to the secret higher ways of “the Spirit.”

Third, Groeschel here utterly ignores some of the most elementary rules of hermeneutics. In his book, Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson lists the “Common Fallacies in Semantics” at the very beginning of chapter one. The very first fallacy is, according to Carson, “the root fallacy.” Carson explains:

“One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word ... We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words.” For example, “... deriving the meaning of “butterfly” from “butter” and “fly,” or the meaning of ‘pineapple’ from ‘pine’ and ‘apple’ ... The search for hidden meanings bound up with etymologies becomes even more ludicrous when two words with entirely different meanings share the same etymology.”

But then, Carson immediately next describes a second fallacy, called the “semantic anachronism”:

“This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature. At the simplest level, it occurs within the same language .. But the problem has a second face when we also add a change of language ... This is not just the old root fallacy revisited. It is worse: it is an appeal to a kind of reverse etymology, the root fallacy compounded by anachronism.”

Pastor Groeschel here, has engaged in both fallacies in his method of interpretation. It is better, I believe in these matters, to view flagrant errors of this sort as charitably as possible. Thus, I will choose to give Groeschel the benefit of the doubt and assume he is an honest man and therefore was simply badly taught that he could explain the meaning of the English word “repentance” by looking at the English word “penthouse.” Otherwise, the only other explanation is that he is just making it up as he goes along.

Another minor detail painfully noticeable was that Groeschel produces a common quote from Socrates on the subject of “envy” that commonly appears in books of topical quotations. On pages 115-116, Groeschel introduces this quote: “The philosopher Socrates elaborates on this truth. He wrote ...”  This at first appears to be merely a small historical discrepancy until one remembers that the Greek Socrates, in the history of all the philosophers in the world, is uniquely famous for being the one philosopher who didn’t write anything. Plato, in fact, was the one writing. This is the characteristic of Socrates that presumably elementary school children are told when they go to schools who even bother with teaching history at all. The problem is as follows. Just as a Christian, upon finding an atheist referring to what Jesus wrote, is going to have great difficulty in taking said atheist’s theological literacy seriously, so any educated person, upon finding Groeschel referring to what Socrates wrote, is going to have great difficulty in taking Groeschel’s historical and philosophical literacy seriously. This only matters because of the ideas that Groeschel is explaining and arguing for in his book. However that may be, once again, I prefer making the effort to view such an error as charitably as possible. Pastor Groeschel, after all, gives us evidence that he knows that Socrates was a philosopher, so I naturally assume he knows who Socrates was. So perhaps Groeschel was merely the victim of a momentary lapse of illiteracy on the part of some lowly subaltern editor over at Zondervan publishing.

There were many more small matters of annoyance like these two examples in the book, but I give only these two because they provide rather important clues as to the mode in which the thought contained in the book is expressed. I won’t deny that, in moments of carelessness in the past, I may have allowed similar errors to slip into my own writing. Such are the responsibilities of care belonging to any writer who desires to be taken seriously.

On the Art of the Unpleasant Analogy

Moving along to matters of content, the next problem that I have with Groeschel’s writing is stylistic in nature. It is, quite simply, bad. Even within the limited subject of theology, there are still more masterfully written works of theological literature out there than one person can read in his or her lifetime. Therefore, the question arises why one should ever read the poorly written books on the same subject matter that other great theological minds have better explored. Granted, we must occasionally acquaint ourselves with the temper of the time, but that sort of thing is a most often a chore best left to as minimum a portion of your reading as possible.

I must take the time to object to Pastor Groeschel’s writing style, but not upon grounds of personal taste. That would be pretentious. No, one ought to object to style only in those cases where it is indicative of content. There are precise theological reasons for adopting specific styles. Ultimately my objection to the style of Soul Detox is, as you will see, a theological objection. To begin with, I object to Groeschel’s intoxication with the words, and the idea of the words, “toxic”and “toxin.” His enthusiasm for using both noun and adjective throughout the book is interminable. I could fill multiple pages of quotations merely in demonstration of this semantic misfortune. But I believe the following will give the reader a sense of the book’s flavor. Groeschel writes:

“Why can’t we see our self-generated toxins?” (pg. 25.) “As he flattered himself, Peter was unaware of his toxic self-deception.” (pg. 29.) “For so long, I had been blind to my toxic words and risque humor.” (pg. 32.) “When God reveals spiritual toxins that need to be cleansed, I pray you will have the courage to act swiftly and decisively” “... you can take the toxic influences to Jesus ...” (pg. 35.) “.. reject the toxic thoughts that keep us from God’s best.” (pg. 40.) “Toxic self-talk flowed like sewage through a busted dam.” (pg. 66.) “When we do something wrong and hurtful, we hope to bury our toxic actions so no one will know.” (pg. 73.) “If you’re serious about wanting to detoxify your soul ...” (pg. 75.) “You’ve been hiding toxic behavior ...” (pg. 82.) “The toxic trap lures us to worship and serve created things ...” (pg. 170.) “Let’s wade through the toxic trash and unearth the truth ... Feel the pain of the toxic trap of materialism.” (pg. 170.) “It’s tempting to think you can help, or even rescue, those playing in the gutter of their toxic lifestyles.” (pg. 198.) “... toxic people will make us sick too ...” (pg. 198.) “Contrast toxic religion with the pure gospel.” (pg. 226.)

At first, I assumed that Groeschel was simply using “toxic” and “toxin” as an analogy for “sinful” and “sin.” But my assumption quickly became problematic. He applies the adjective to words themselves:

“Since toxic words can destroy our souls, we’ve got to passionately guard our hearts against them.” (pg. 60.) “Call them what they are - toxic waste. Reject those words.” (pg. 62.) “If you show me a struggling relationship, I’ll show you one filled with toxic words.” (pg. 64.)

A little more tenuous to make “toxic” words the equivalent of “sinful” words, but I could still imagine how he could think it. Nevertheless, I eventually lost the analogy completely:

“Is your well polluted by all the cultural toxins seeping in?” (pg. 17.) “Look within for toxic emotions ... The closer you get to uncovering a toxic killer in your life, the harder your enemy will fight to keep his grip.” (pg. 28.) “The world is full of spiritual toxins, but your mind will not be overcome.” (pg. 51.) “As we move ahead, we’ll look in depth at toxic emotions and how to transform them.” (pg. 75.) “... confession that cleanses you from the toxic residues of sin.” (pg. 84.) “Bitterness is a nonproductive, toxic emotion, usually resulting from resentment over unmet needs.” (pg. 93.) “Our culture oozes with toxic materialism ... Like a smoker enjoying his cigarette, knowing that each puff damages his lungs, many people willingly inhale the toxic lies of materialism ...” (pg. 164.) “When you grow closer to Christ, the toxic temptations of wordly possessions loosen their grip on you.” (pg. 174.) “If you are having a tough time in your marriage, don’t run into the bedroom shouting, ‘You’re toxic so I’m leaving you!’” (pg. 207.)

It would border on theological error to call a temptation sinful. It would be semantically ridiculous to refer to the sinful residues of sin. Sinful materialism? Perhaps, but certainly not sinful emotions since we do not, of our own free will, choose how we feel. And sin, by it’s nature, demands an exercise of the free will. The problem here is that Groeschel, in a book entitled Soul Detox in which he literally goes to the trouble of defining words occasionally erroneously, does not once in the entire book give a straightforward definition of what he means by the word “toxic.” On page 214, he even refers to a “toxic religion.” Stylistically, this is intentionally vague. But then, with a little reflection upon my experience in the church, I suspect what he is unclearly hinting at. Groeschel writes: “But consuming spiritually toxic material from our culture without discernment can kill you.” And then, on the very same page, he writes: “However, we rarely recognize the negative impact of the cultural diet we consume daily. Like a dieter with a new bag of potato chips, we start with one or two and suddenly find ourselves thirsty with an empty bag in our hands.” (pg. 181.) The best educated guess any reasonable person with evangelical church experience could make as to Groeschel’s meaning is that by “toxic” he means what most Christians mean by the word “worldly.”

The manner in which Christians use the term “worldly” is quite clever. Raised in an evangelical background, I grew up with the impression that there is a verse in the Bible that instructs us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” It was only later, when I began questioning what I had been taught, that I discovered to my surprise that this Bible verse does not, in fact, exist. The closest thing to it appears in one of Christ’s last recorded prayers in the Gospel of John. Jesus prays: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world ... They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14-16.) There is a very important distinction here between what Scripture actually says and what I was taught that it said. Christ is merely describing a fact that is true about the disciples - they are, in a sense, because of their allegiance to Him, otherwordly. He is not instructing them that they are to attempt to be “not of the world.” If one is actually trying to be “not of the world,” one will think and act quite differently than if such a fact is merely true about oneself.

Now, here is the trick. Contrary to St. Paul’s explicit teaching (see Colossians 2:20-23 for one example), many modern day evangelicals find that there are many things out there that cause them differing levels of discomfort. The difficulty lies in the fact that many of these uncomfortable things are not declared to be sin by Scripture. So instead of calling many of these things sinful, evangelicals have resorted to calling them worldly. Then, with the minor adjustment of treating John 17:14-16 as if it were a command rather than a descriptive statement, the modern Church teaches that Christians are forbidden from being worldly. The veritable genius of this adjustment in Christian teaching is that Scripture does use the worldly to mean sin. But now, Christians can call things that Scripture does not declare to be sin to be “wordly” and therefore prohibited. The result of this sleight of hand is that there is now a large amount of Church teaching against engagement within culture that declares such engagement “worldly” verboten.

I reject this underhanded misuse of Christ’s and St. Paul’s straightforward declarations. Thus, I reject Groeschel’s use of the word “toxic” to accomplish precisely the same effect. Further evidence that this is exactly what Groeschel is doing in Soul Detox can be demonstrated by how rarely he ever refers to the words “sin” or “sinful.” Sin is a fact about human nature that is at the very heart of the teaching of Christianity. Groeschel cheapens this doctrine by using vaguer terms like “toxin,” or “poison,” or, lamentably, even “poop.”

Groeschel even becomes rather excited about using his “poison” analogy, and it still is specifically designed to discuss “wordly” aspects of culture that he desires the Christian to avoid at all costs:

“... many parents were unknowingly poisoning their kids with secondhand smoke.” (pg. 11.) “Once you acquire a taste for wholesome thoughts and godly thinking, your mental palate becomes more sensitive to the taste of poison.” (pg. 48.) “Do whatever it takes to keep the poison out of your heart.” (pg. 60.) “Because the root of bitterness defiles and poisons ... No one can see the poison coursing through your veins ... Over time, our bitterness poisons our hearts.” (pg. 95.) “And the more its flagrant poison infiltrated my soul.” (pg. 96.) “We must learn to recognize envy in all its forms and have the antidote for its deadly poison close at hand ... Like poisonous mushrooms or toxic mold spores, envy takes on a variety of forms.” (pg. 111.) “Fear poisons us a little each day ...” (pg. 143.) “... focusing negatively ... can lead you down a poison path to worry rather than leading you to positive action.” (pg. 147.) “We dive into the pool of poison with a ‘play now, pay later’ mindset.” (pg. 165.) “When it comes to anything we consume, a little bit poison goes a long way.” (pg. 183.) “Sadly, the purity of the gospel is often tainted by poisonous people.” (pg. 214.)

He continues in this vein ad nauseam. We will take a look at his unpleasant “poop” analogy later. As a matter of style, however, this allows Groeschel to inveigh against culture in ways that never appear in Scripture. Another consequence of this stylistic choice leads not only to the substitution of atrocious analogies in the place of passages of Scripture for the support of his assertions, but also to writing of the most abominable and oppressive sort. The English language simply withers under Pastor Groeschel’s abuse of it.

Consider the forced smoking analogy: “If you’re aware of the truth, then you should be upset, because you’ve been breathing some-polluted thoughts.” (pg. 18.) “Why? Because you’ve smoked the culture’s cigarette and inhaled the lie.” (pg. 168.) I’ll grant him that breathing polluted thoughts does sound rather irksome to the nostrils. But this sort of thing begins to pile up very quickly:

“Like a firewall protecting your computer, you need to remain vigilant against Satan’s lies that threaten to corrupt the hard drive of your mind.” (pg. 41.) “We hold the key in our minds but lose sight of it in the junk drawer of our negative thoughts.” (pg. 41.) “If you let weeds grow in your garden too long, they will choke out the truth and smother your joy. You’ll be forced to eat weed salad ...” (pg. 43.) “Amid the bounty of blessings we experience daily, thoughts of dissatisfaction pop up like pimples on a teenager.” (pg. 45.) “Think about the difference between two birds: a vulture and a hummingbird ... The ugly oversized bird doesn’t stop until he finds lifeless, rotting road kill. Contrast the vulture to the tiny hummingbird ... what does this small bird find? Not dead things and disgusting rancid meat, but instead, sweet, life-giving nectar.” (pg. 50.) “I envision an old, termite-infested house being transformed by a good exterminator and a construction crew from HGTV. Think of it as ‘Mind Makeover: God Edition’!” (pg. 52.) “Delete toxic words and insert the truth.” (pg. 62.) “If you show me any marriage that is limping along, I’ll show you a marriage filled with word darts flying recklessly through the air.” (pg. 64.) “But the desires of his body shut down his brain and stamped DENIED across the application of his willpower.” (pg. 78.)

The words lumber along shamefully in front of the embarrassed eyes of the reader, protesting their servitude to meaningless platitude. One feels sorry for them immediately, but their bondage yields to moments of forgetfulness, where one suddenly loses the ability to fathom how exactly it is that the author’s mind really works. What, on God’s green earth, does a writer have to be thinking, for example, when he writes a sentence like the following: “We would do well to remember that envy is clearly the flint that ignites evil in our hearts. It apparently signals ‘I’m available’ to demons searching for a cheap date.” (pg. 115.) What images have come to his mind when he feels impelled to write: “When was the last time you invited the devil into your heart for a sleepover? Strange question? Not if you consider Ephesians 4:26-27 ... If you open the door to the devil through your anger, you’re offering him a guest room inside your heart. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!” (pg. 130.) Ah, I just read it again to make sure, and that is not what St. Paul was alluding to in the Epistle to the Ephesians.

I’ll spare the reader by only exhibiting a few more disconsolate members of the analogy gallery of shame:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM - FILM REVIEW (2012 - Directed by Wes Anderson)

_________________________________________________________________________________________

I many times thought peace had come
When peace was far away,
As wrecked men deem they sight the land
When far at sea they stay.

And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
That many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.


- Emily Dickinson
_________________________________________________________________________________________

I've never been too fond of the films of Wes Anderson. They've always struck me as a bit pretentious and unnecessarily angsty. Being pretentious is affecting an unwarranted or exaggerated importance, and I've always felt that Anderson treats his stories as if they were about far more than they really are. What are they about? Well, angst consists of feelings of anxiety, apprehension or insecurity; and, angst is what the characters in a Wes Anderson film are usually full of. Arguably, the idea of feeling anxious and insecure as a permanent part of your every day life is a wholly modern phenomenon. It used to be that anxious and insecure feelings were those unique emotions that one experienced while (a) getting shot at with bullets on a battlefield, or (b) at the beginning of your own wedding.

I can't understand how angst became cool, but if there's a film director who is guilty for making it cool, that director would be Wes Anderson. I've always refused to applaud hipster quirkiness merely because it's different from the mainstream. Being strange only for the sake of being strange is quite dull. Irony ought not to be something you engage in to achieve social status (which is how our culture now views irony). That makes it no fun at all. Irony used to be a tool used by the good-humored for the sake of genuine laughter. Now it's used for the sake of the smirk.

I found Bottle Rocket (1996) dull because it was a story about tired middle- class white young men looking for stupid ways to cure their boredom with their own selves. There was no good reason for Luke Wilson's character to be tired in the first place (other than the fact that he was stuck inside an Anderson film). There was nothing inspired or redemptive about the story or even its ending. Owen Wilson is occasionally a funny guy, but alone, he's not enough to save the artless script he helped Anderson write. Rushmore (1998) next was more of the same. Bill Murray was given a few charming moments, but why would you make a film where those moments are the exception to the rule? And why is it supposed to be funny to watch Murray have to compete with a 15-year-old Jason Schwartzman for the attentions of a grown woman? Why are we supposed to enjoy the idea of a teenager who learns how to cheat and manipulate like an adult? A marriage is summarily dumped. The old-world schoolmaster is portrayed as stuffy and irrelevant. The plot is driven by twists and gimmicks that ring hollow.

But, let's not spend much more space here criticizing. Suffice to say, I disliked how The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) used problems that cause many people pain and suffering in real life for the purpose of ironic humor. I found The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) the most watchable of Anderson's films, but there was still something downright inhuman and inconsistent about its characters. And, having two brothers of my own, I thought The Darjeeling Limited (2007) just didn't get brotherly relationships at all.  Instead Anderson seemed too busy substituting quirkiness for heart. I couldn't even summon the motivation to see Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and I may be wrong about it, but the snarkiness of the trailers was just not the sort of humor I would ever want to encourage in any child. In summation, it may be unsatisfactory to force myself to lay a finger upon a substantive reason why I've found these films to be lacking.  But, there's been a persistent emptiness about them that I can't shake off.

So why all the grumbling?

I've explained my aversion to Wes Anderson's trendiness because now, for the very first time, he has finally won me over. I didn't find this one empty. In fact, even more than that, Anderson has put together, in Moonrise Kingdom, what is arguably the best and most enjoyable film of the first half of 2012. In my opinion, this one is different from everything else he's ever done.

For one thing, it has actual spiritual depth to it. It has characters with believably human failures and triumphs. Angst is not the point of the film. It has heroes, consciences, and genuine moral dilemmas that are more than stylistic tropes for the sake of winking irony. Unlike in The Royal Tenenbaums or in the The Darjeeling Limited, the thing the characters in this story are searching for is something more substantive than just some rote existential self-actualization.

There is something different here.  This time the style does not overcome the substance.

A good way to describe many a Wes Anderson character would be as a lost soul. His films are full of lost souls. Self-obsessed, self-centered, self-reflecting and self-referential, in spite of all their strangeness they often represented the modern man or woman quite well. But try as hard as I could, I wasn't able to find any moments of grace or redemption for any of them - at least, not until now.

All of a sudden, we are given something special.

Meet Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman).

First, he's in a Wes Anderson film. Second, he's an orphan who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. Third, he's an outsider who doesn't fit in with the other guys. He's interested in things wiser and deeper than his fellows and they just don't understand him. Because they don't understand him, they don't like him. Because they don't like him, they bully him. So, if there's a single main character in this film who's supposed to be filled with modern angst and anxiety, it's Sam. But ... he isn't.

Sam is the type of twelve-year-old who would encounter anxiety, poke it with a stick, and perhaps stuff it in a jar as an odd curiosity (to be shelved in a corner along with other collected jars of popular 1960s values like pacifism or self-expression). For all his background, he's the single most self-confident character in the film. Bullying is an obstacle he shrugs off. Narcissistic adults bore him rather than influence him. And real life problems, for Sam, are questions to be considered philosophically, preferable with a lit pipe of tobacco. Sam is essentially twelve-year-old Daniel Boone meets Huckleberry Finn meets Frank Morris. (New to the movie screen, Jared Gilman studied Clint Eastwood's character in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) to help inspire himself to play Sam.)

The American rugged individualist is not a character you’d think you would be likely to see in a Wes Anderson film. Such a character has too many old-world values that are out of place in our modern therapeutic age, much less in a film about angst and trendiness. But Sam is that character. And he IS out of place.

And yet, as the film opens and you begin to learn a few things about Sam, you realize that he is still missing something. He's still just a child and is therefore not supposed to be in the position he's in, surrounded by a suffocating adult world of hopelessness and futility.

The thing about forcing children to grow up faster than they ought to is that they often begin to desire grownup things. Granted there are desires that are natural for man, woman and child. Most of us, however, will agree that there are desires unique to being a child and there are other desires unique to being an adult. It follows that there are things adults ought to desire. (The grownups in Moonrise Kingdom - Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, Mr. & Mrs. Bishop - all want things that they do not have.) And there are things that it is healthy and good for children, as children, to desire. Many of our desires are left unsatisfied. That does not mean they are still not worth desiring. So then, what we ought to find most interesting of all are those things that all of us, no matter what age, ought to desire.

A question that naturally arises when watching Moonrise Kingdom is whether Sam is trying, much too early, to be an adult. Is he asking for things he is too young to ask for? Given that we are looking at a story about children, to answer this question and to try to consider this film in the unique light that it deserves, let’s turn for a moment to the essay written by C.S. Lewis entitled “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” (most recently published by Harvest Books in the collection, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).

It's not that this film is made for children. In fact, I'm not sure how old my own children someday would have to be before I ever let them see this film. But I'd be conflicted, because it's an adventure film that would probably highly appeal to children. Now that I am completely absorbed in the world of grownups, I cannot approve of many of the choices that Sam makes in Moonrise Kingdom. The problem, as Lewis points it out, is that the world of grownups often thinks of children in a rather condescending manner. He writes:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” (pg. 25)

The great thing about Sam is that neither does he desire to be grown-up, nor does he worry about appearing too childish. Due to his circumstances, he is pursuing responsibilities and a relationship that we would consider him to be too young for. When he admits to one particularly disconcerting childish inadequacy, he comments on it philosophically - “Some people frown on these problems.” He doesn't worry about his own age. He doesn't condescend to adults any more than he would look down his nose at his fellow Khaki Scouts. Instead, he focuses intently on finding what he wants and the person that interests him most in the world is a girl.

Meet Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward).

First, she takes being an introvert deadly seriously. Second, she comes from a dysfunctional family. Both her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are, unfortunately, lawyers, and there are a whole collection of good reasons why their relationship is going poorly. Third, she's a voracious reader of fairy tales and science fiction. When she undertakes the twelve-year-old equivalent of an elopement with Sam, she brings a suitcase that she has mostly filled with books. She explains to Sam, quite matter-of-factly: “These are my books. I like stories with magic powers in them. Either in kingdoms on earth or on foreign planets. Also, time travel, if they make it realistic. Usually, I prefer a girl hero, but not always.” Her views on life are shaped by these books and she willingly reads them aloud to anyone willing to listen.

Is this escapism? It could be. But let's finish considering C.S. Lewis's thoughts on the subject. He writes that fairy tales are “accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.

Almost the same answer serves for the popular charge of escapism, though here the question is not so simple. Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfilment - ‘fantasy’ in the technical psychological sense of the world - instead of facing the problems of the real world? Now it is here that the problem becomes subtle. Let us again lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story or any other story which is labeled a ‘Boy’s Book’ or a ‘Girl’s Book,’ as distinct from a ‘Children’s Book.’ There is no doubt that both arouse, and imaginatively satisfy, wishes. We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl ...

But the two longings are very different. The second, especially when directed on something so close to school life, is ravenous and deadly serious. Its fulfilment on the level of imagination is in very truth compensatory: we run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: It sends us back to the real world undivinely discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego. The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration. The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of the fairy tale? - really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise the real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind had not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.




I do not mean that school stories for boys and girls ought not to be written. I am only saying that they are far more liable to become ‘fantasies’ in the clinical sense than fantastic stories are. And this distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires , irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes - things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is askesis, a spiritual exercise, the other is a disease.”  (pgs. 28-30.)

I would argue that Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom both exhibit the right sort of longing. They both have the longing that is cultivated by a reading of fairy tales. They are not old enough yet to make the wisest of choices. The problem-ridden adults in this story still know a number of things from far more experience than they do. But they are looking for the right things. And in their looking for them, they impress and disabuse the adult characters of a few fantasies of their own.

Mr. and Mrs. Bishop have been living in their own fantasy. They've been pretending that everything was alright when it wasn't. When the events of the story first astonish them, they simply project their own ideas and failings onto the kids. Mrs. Bishop tries to comfort Suzy by telling her that she knows how she feels. She's made dumb decisions in the past too. She's questioned her own decisions and wondered why she's stuck with a miserable life of her own. But her thinking of her daughter in the same way that she thinks about herself doesn't help. Suzy quickly disabuses her mother of this kind of thinking, and the end result is that Mrs. Bishop realizes that she ought to change, that she still can change and start doing the right thing.

Mr. Bishop also recognizes that he has been failing as a father.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"IS THERE A CONSERVATIVE IDEOLOGY?" - FIRING LINE (April 11, 1985)

Today we often use the term ideology synonymously with philosophy or worldview. In this fascinating Firing Line episode, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Joseph Sobran question Kenneth Minogue, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, on the older sense of what an ideology means on April 11, 1985. Minogue had just published his book, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, that same year.


This was back when public discourse used to have some level of substantive content.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Trailer for Samsara

I suppose that if one even pretends to have any appreciation for art & beauty, then one should probably get around to seeing this film.


Its U.S. limited release date is set for August 24, 2012.

Monday, August 6, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - FILM REVIEW (2012 - Directed by Christopher Nolen)

_________________________________________________________________________________________

“It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem in arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second; to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many, and their interest, must differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice."
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

“Much read in history and much practiced in the conduct of political affairs, Burke knew that men are not naturally good, but are beings of mingled good and evil, kept in obedience to a moral law chiefly by the force of custom and habit, which the revolutionaries would discard as so much antiquated rubbish. He knew that all the advantages of society are the product of intricate human experience over many centuries, not to be amended overnight by some coffee-house philosopher. He knew religion to be man's greatest good, and established order to be the principal necessity of civilization, and hereditary possessions to be the prop of liberty and justice, and the mass of beliefs we often call 'prejudices' to be the moral sense of humanity. He set his face against the revolutionaries like a man who finds himself suddenly beset by robbers ... Unlike the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, the French Revolution was intended to uproot the delicate growth that is human society; if not impeded, this revolutionary passion would end by subjecting all men first to anarchy and then to a ruthless master."
- Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
_________________________________________________________________________________________

While Christopher Nolan's films are bestowed with generous quantities of hype, one quickly tires of hearing summations of Bruce Wayne's alter ego as merely a masked super-vigilante. A vigilante is one who undertakes the punishment and suppression of crimes that he believes the government has failed to punish or suppress. He exercises violent force outside of the law for these ends. Furthermore, the line between deciding to be a vigilante and fighting a vendetta is historically blurry. The punishment of “criminals” by secret societies of vigilante gangs is a phenomenon arising from ancient and medieval times. The Vigiles Urbani, “Courts of the Vehm,” the Gamurra, the Barracelli, the Vendicatori, and the Beati Paoli all involved acts of violence against perceived criminals. San Francisco’s “Committee of Vigilance,” started in 1851, beat the hell out of a number immigrants. The Montana Vigilantes in the 1860s hung (or lynched) a whole number of alleged bandits (including the local sheriff).

The most famous group of real life American vigilantes (with ghostly masks) are known as ... well, the Ku Klux Klan. The most popular fictional vigilante in modern day pop culture is a bloody razor and scalpel wielding lunatic (with his own Showtime TV Show) by the name of Dexter.

The vigilante is a symbol of the failure of the law.

But director Christopher Nolan wasn't just interested in making a film about a vigilante. In Nolan's Gotham universe, “the League of Shadows" are the vigilantes in the story and Bruce Wayne calls them out for what they are early in Batman Begins. Alfred, ever the conscience of Batman, cautions Bruce that “what you're doing has to be beyond that. It can't be personal, or you're just a vigilante." “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification," ironically says Henri Ducard. And Bruce Wayne, with everything he has, fights the vigilantes just as much as he fights the criminals. If Batman can be said to be a vigilante, then he is a strange one. Instead of suppressing crimes he doesn't believe the government can suppress, he purposefully exercises restraint and delivers criminals to the doorsteps of the police station. Instead of acting as if he could decide society's own laws, he acts for the existing laws of his city. Instead of acting the rogue who believes his government has failed, he acts the guardian who fights to preserve the tenuous grip that his city's government has left in preserving the established order.

Nolan is also intelligent enough to know that there was another famous group of vigilantes back in history. They were called Jacobins and they rose to power in 1790s France. The resulting French Revolution was a bloody lesson in the nature of man. And it is the nature of man that informs one's conclusions about the nature of power, government and justice. Nolan has already said that he helped write the script of The Dark Knight Rises intentionally informed by A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Political thinkers like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton distinguished the American Revolution from the French Revolution based upon philosophical differences on the nature of man. If you believe that human nature is fallen and corrupt, then you are going to make specific conclusions. I have repeatedly heard Nolan's films criticized for their bleak and dismal view of human nature. But, I have heard less reflection on whether Nolan's view of human nature is, in fact, actually correct.

One of my favorite film critics, Steven D. Greydanus finds Nolan's films unsatisfactory for leaving unanswered the question of whether, due to the corruptness of the people of Gotham, they are worth saving:

“... Yet something crucial is missing — a major omission that lingers over the whole trilogy, a question raised ever more insistently in all three films, and at best left unanswered, if not answered negatively. That question is: Is Gotham City worth saving? Are its citizens fundamentally selfish and ruthless, or is there good in them? Offered a choice between darkness and light, which will they choose?"

In Nolan's trilogy, we are given no evidence that the people of Gotham city are ever worth saving (other than the fact that they are, in fact, people), that their nature isn't inherently corrupt, selfish and/or evil, or that they are capable of finding redemption on their own. How both Batman and the villains in each film view this question is important. I don't think I've read a better summary of this than that of Lauren Wilford's, in her impressive essay on Christopher Nolan's films:

“... There are two types of evil people in Batman Begins: corrupt crooks (like drug lord Falcone) and merciless justice hounds (like Ra’s al Ghul). Their common weakness is a reductive view of human nature. Falcone sees people as pathetic and exploitable. Ra’s al Ghul sees them as depraved and irredeemable. Both characters see themselves as part of an elite that knows better. Batman’s mission is, then, populist: he fights for the sake of humanity at large, fallen Gotham a stand-in for a fallen world.

The question stands, then: Is Gotham worth saving? And if so, for whose sake? ... It’s implied that the people of Gotham, in their weakness, have let their city become corrupt; they have allowed evil into their world, a kind of original sin. But Nolan never ascribes malevolence to the whole. Gotham is fallen in a more Dostoevskian sense: people are, in general, weak, and desperation can push them into evil.


In The Dark Knight, the Joker also expresses this belief in human depravity: ‘Their morals, their code . . . it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.’ He spends the film bringing chaos to Gotham in an effort to break the city’s spirit ...”

That Ra’s al Ghul's brand of justice was without mercy was demonstrated in what finally broke his alliance with Bruce Wayne. “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share," Ducard tells Wayne after he refuses the role of executioner. Wayne's response? “That's why it's so important. It separates us from them." Bruce Wayne insists on upholding a difference between himself and the criminal and between himself and the vigilante. “Justice. Crime cannot be tolerated," declares al Ghul, “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding." But understanding the criminal is one of the most important things about Batman. It is by understanding them that he can learn how best to stop them. But Ra's al Ghul and the “League of Shadows" are willing to destroy civilization itself in order to stop crime, and as such, they are the perfect personification of the vigilante.

This is why Batman distinguishes himself from the vigilante by making himself an ally to law enforcement. He works outside the positive law by aiding those in government who are fighting for what's right all in order to enforce a higher law. It is this higher law that the Joker denies. “You have these rules. And you think they’ll save you ... The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” The Joker considers Batman weak because of the rules he lives by. The Joker is the worst sort of criminal (and threat to civilization) because he doesn't act for reasons of self-gratification, instead he just wants to see civilization fall. “Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? ... It’s fair.”

The “League of Shadows" vigilante solution to evil is the end of ordered civilization deduced from the observation that law cannot solve the problem of the corruptness of mankind. The Joker's solution is the end of ordered civilization deduced from the proposition that the distinctions between good and evil are arbitrary and meaningless to begin with. For the Joker then, there IS something he believes in - anarchy and chaos. This necessitates getting rid of any structure or regulation foisted upon us by oppressive institutions. His criticism of Batman's or civilization's rules are not new. They are criticisms that have been voiced by a whole collection of heavily influential real life philosophers. French philosophers, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, questioned the morality that they said was imposed by civilization. To these men, the perfection of society was to be achieved by the destruction of tradition and civilized norms. Combine these French philosophers with Friedrich Nietzsche, and you've got the Joker.

As a result of all this, the next interesting question that Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises gives us is - whether the film's new villain, Bane, is the logical conclusion or consequence of both Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker?

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane's rhetoric to the people of Gotham city is, shall we say, somewhat disingenuous. “Take control. Take control. Take control of your city," he demands of the people. “We come as liberators to return control of the government to the people ... Tomorrow you claim what is rightfully yours," he insists. He smacks of Maximilien Robespierre or, even, Napoleon. He alludes to the brokers at the Gotham stock-market as thieves. He encourages the masses to revolt against the upper class. If you read Robespierre, he took his rhetoric straight from Rousseau, but used it for purposes that Rousseau himself never intended.

The fact remains, however, that Rousseau did write that the “first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Civilization “bound new fetters on the poor and gave new powers to the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed eternally the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.” (He could be describing the state of Gotham city.) According to Rousseau, “Usurpations by the rich, robbery by the poor, and the unbridled passions of both ... filled men with avarice, ambition and vice ... The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war.” (from Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy, Volume VI.)

Combine Robespierre's use of Rousseau's philosophy with Napoleon's use of Voltaire's philosophy and the end result, according to thinkers like Edmund Burke, is anarchy leading into despotism. Burke was one of the first to argue that the French Revolution was the natural consequence of Rousseau. Rousseau may never have intended what happened in the French Revolution, but it still logically followed from his philosophical assumptions. These ideas - centered on inherent corruptness of civilization and the evils of private property - are the same ideas that Bane uses as the justification for taking over the city of Gotham. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan shows us a collection of images that Dickens described in A Tale of Two Cities, from the storming of the Blackgate Prison (the Bastille) to the carting off of the rich (aristocracy) by the plundering mob. This is the last and final evil that Bruce Wayne has to take on his identity of Batman again in order to fight. It is anarchy that directly leads to tyranny. The lines between where the despotism starts and the anarchy begins (and vice versa) are difficult to define, but this is not the justice that Wayne believes in. In fact, it is the destruction of everything that he does believe in.

So, thanks to Nolan, we now have a story where Batman, the superhero who everyone views as a vigilante devoted to working outside the constraints of the law, finds himself allied with law and order in defense of civilization. It is this paradox that makes The Dark Knight Rises so interesting.

I won't suggest that Nolan's exploration of this theme is perfect or completely coherent. The difference between Bane's objectives, and those of the Joker, and those of the League of Shadows, are ill-defined. One of the most intellectual and thoughtful film reviewers that I read, Kenneth R. Morefield, has legitimately criticized the philosophical coherence of the film.

Morefield writes:

“I’ve been using the word ‘incoherent’ quite a bit this week in reference to both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. That word can connote to some ‘incomprehensible,’ or ‘impossible to make out.’ I’m using that term in a more narrow sense. The ideas that are touched at in these two films are ones that can be made out; Nolan and company are not merely speaking in gobbledygook. But the ideas, which are many, never cohere. I said to another critic after the media screening that the problem is not that Nolan has no ideas but that he has too many. It is also not the case that I find these ideas uninteresting, or even inherently less interesting than ideas prevalent in previous incarnations of the Batman. But as interesting as some of them are (and there are invocations of 9/11, the Patriot Act, well intentioned lies [the Iraq War?], post-Katrina tribalism, Occupy Wall Street as filtered through the quick descent to mob rule of the French Revolution, nature versus nurture, love versus fear, grief, friendship, ultimatums vs. service, etc. etc. etc.), Nolan is just too much of an intellectual and philosophical tease for my taste. Every time he would shine a light down some path or argument, I would settle in and my mind would race ahead, willing, nay anxious, to explore those big ideas, only to find myself brought up short by another argument, another equally big idea. Nolan, for me, became the philosophical equivalent of the tour bus driver whose job it is to make sure you don’t spend more than thirty minutes at the Sistine Chapel because there are still three more stops to make before we head back to the hotel ...

... the Joker is very postmodern in his open mockery of the belief in traditional notions of certainty and rules. Note that the Joker doesn’t assault or deny the particular rules but the notion of rules themselves. He doesn’t say that Batman has picked the wrong principles or rules and that other rules or principles would save him, he claims that the very notion of rules/concepts/or principles is suspect. This questioning of all terms and definitions continues on into Rises. When Batman opines to one character that the people of Gotham City are ‘innocent’ the response is neither an affirmation or a denial, it is ‘Innocence is a strong word to throw around Gotham…’ I don’t mean to parrot some of my more conservative colleagues’ critiques of postmodernism (though I suspect this part will make some of them very happy) but the film (rightly I must acknowledge) demonstrates that when indeterminacy is the rule, all that really remains is rhetoric, and Bane’s character shows how easily rhetoric can be coopted, used, abused ...”


Mr. Morefield is right that these films could have been better. I do see how a number of questions could have been explored with more depth. More connections could have been made satisfactory to a political science professor. The grand scope that Nolan attempts here alludes to so many different ideas that any thinking person is not going to be able to watch this film without feeling, to a certain extent, unsatisfied. But let's take two thoughts under consideration.

First, leaving the viewer unsatisfied with a lack of answers is not necessarily always a bad thing. It can at times be a very good thing. Whatever is lacking in coherence in this film could have been aligned better by the director, but now, instead, such intellectual alignment is left to the viewer. While I may not like it, I'll admit it that might be a good exercise in which to indulge.

Second, what Christopher Nolan is doing here is, when you look at the short-lived history of film as an art-form, manifestly something new.

While movies inspired by comic book superheroes are currently all the rage, here we have a director less interested in celebrating a superhero and more interested in the ideas behind his existence. Batman Begins was something of a revelation in film-making, not because it was a good film but because it changed our idea of what you can do with such a story. Nolan takes these ideas very seriously and then plunges them into an entertainment medium in a way no one has ever quite dreamed of before. It may not be as good as it could be, but it's still an innovation that thinking people ought to support.


_________________________________________________________________________________________

“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows ...”

- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

“Hang them where the world can see.”
- Bane
_________________________________________________________________________________________

Bane, played with an immense muscle-bound physical presence by Tom Hardy (Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is precisely the sort of villain that would rise to the top of any collectivist style revolution or philosophically motivated terrorist gang. If Ra's al Ghul was vigilante justice personified and if the Joker was nihilism personified, then Bane is pure power personified. He has the strength to kill or crush anyone. If might makes right, then Bane is might. But he's not just unreasoning and unthinking might. He is power taken to its logical extreme. And, according to thinkers like Burke, power unchecked and unrestrained is precisely the sort of power that means the end of ordered society. Bane literally and happily invites those he has overpowered to “experience the next era of Western Civilization." Whatever financial power that capitalism or Ayn Rand may extol is no match for the all-consuming might of the mob that Bane (for whatever reasons are explained later) takes upon himself to appear to represent.

CEO: “I’m in charge."
Bane: “Do you feel in charge?"
CEO: “I paid you a small fortune."
Bane: “Does that give you power over me?"

The scenes in this film of the people rising up and plundering the rich (at Bane's suggestion) are scenes that have been repeated so many times throughout history that they are countless. The upper classes, as Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) declares, have “been living off the blood and sweat of others for years." Now, while economic exploitation does happen, this is how people, who neglected Economics 101, popularly view the nature of wealth. But, more importantly, this is how educated manipulators orchestrate the decline of civilization. According to the democratic purist, wealth is limited in nature and economic inequality is always a sign of injustice. Revolt from such domination is always the answer. The end result is a large number of passionately problematic ideologues. “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," whispers the gleeful thief, Selina Kyle, “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

Nolan's film does not deny that there is ever such a thing as economic injustice. But, since it is written while thinking in terms of the French Revolution (and therefore includes Rosseau's view of private property), it is a cinematic demonstration of the consequences of certain ideas.

If the destruction of Western Civilization happened to be one of your goals, then the abnegation of private property would be (a) a necessary step towards such a goal, or (b) a natural consequence of it. In the midst of revolution, when Ms. Kyle begins to realize that something important has been lost, she looks at a shattered picture of a family. She then lingers over the idea that the mansion she’s in “used to be” theirs. Her friend’s reflexive “it’s everyone’s now” rings hollow. This is one of the paradoxes within political philosophy - attempting to take individualism and egalitarianism to their extreme leads, instead, to utilitarian collectivism. You can tell that Bane has collectivist streaks from his very first few scenes. He has inspired a fanatical devotion in his men that leads to their willing deaths at his slightest whim. He calls just about everyone “brother” in precisely the same way a KGB agent would call his prisoner, “comrade,” or a Jacobin assassin would call his victim, “citizen.” Every living person becomes simply a means to the end and the cause. “It doesn’t matter who we are. All that matters is our plan,” Bane confidently declares.

So Nolan takes all these ideas, linked, connected and even jumbled together as some of them may be, and uses Bane to represent them.

Bane is the end of civilization.

Bane is death to law and order, corrupt as it may be.

And then Nolan pits his hero, the Batman, against these vigilante/terrorist/Jacobin/modern/anarchist/ultimately despotic forces of destruction.

How can that not excite you, at least just a little? Bruce Wayne created Batman because of the principles that he believed in. Just like Bane represents certain ideas about us, Batman represents certain ideas about us also. Just like Bane says that “It doesn’t matter who we are. All that matters is our plan,” Bruce Wayne says that “Batman could be anybody. That was the point.” He means something by that quite different than Bane does.

So it is only a film director like Christopher Nolan who allows us to ask a question like this seriously - What ideas does Batman stand for?

In the first film of the trilogy, Batman Begins, it was established that he believed in justice AND mercy. The problem with the “League of Shadows," as he saw it, was its adamant refusal to distinguish the guilty from the innocent and its absolute refusal to allow for any possibility of redemption. Mr. Wayne found that his city was run by criminals, and by judges and policemen who worked on the payroll of criminals. But his solution was not to overthrow the city's government or destroy the city. Instead, he believed both the city and its government were worth saving from the likes of even those who understood what was wrong with it. So he worked “from within," allying himself to the remnant in the city who still believed in justice. The Batman didn't overthrow institutions like the Gotham City Police Department. Instead, he helped force the police department to do its job while putting a stop to other vigilantes who would have completely destroyed it along with everything else.

In the second film of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is confronted with a different sort of evil that he doesn't understand. “Some men just want to see the world burn," Alfred tells him. Chaos and anarchy are the inevitable results of tearing down the mores and rules of society. Without morality, people will, like the Joker says, simply eat each other. In order for civilization to exist, people must have principles or symbols or something that they believe in (upholding the moral law) that makes it worth living together as a community. Destroy law, destroy rules, customs, traditions, and authority, and you will foment the fall of any society into darkness.

Harvey Dent: “When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor. It was considered a public service."
Rachel Dawes: “And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up that power."
Harvey Dent: “Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, whoever the Batman is, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing this. How could he? Batman’s looking for someone to take up his mantle."

In the second film, it is made clear that Batman believes in rules and law (hence, no guns, no killing for him). He believes that his fight for the preservation of society can be taken up by another who always acts within the law. And, he believes in careful restraint in the exercise of power. The consideration of these ideas has been further promoted by the discussion and criticism that Bruce Wayne's methods provoke.

I have been sensitive to the criticism of Batman as a hero ever since, years ago, I first read a review by Kevin Miller of Batman Begins. Miller identified what he believed to be a fundamental flaw with the character. He wrote:

“... [W]e need to jump ahead to one of the final scenes in the film when Lieutenant Gordon raises the question of escalation. He notes that the stronger Gotham’s forces of justice become, the more determined their enemies will become in response. ‘If we use Kevlar, they’ll use armor-piercing rounds.’ Batman isn’t too fazed by this, confident that no matter what the villains come up with, he can create something even more powerful to defeat them. This may be true, but it also points to an inevitable clash between ideology and methodology, ‘between goals and means’ a problem that plagues not just Batman but all superheroes ...

Let’s set the question of entertainment value aside for a moment though and pretend that the world of Gotham were real. If so, the evolution of supervillains would be a natural response to the presence of superheroes. For instance, in Batman Begins, it isn’t long before the criminals of Gotham realize they need to make some drastic changes to their tactics if they hope to remain in business. It’s a simple market reality: The more powerful Batman becomes, the more powerful they must become. If Batman is stealthy, they must become even stealthier. If he develops technology to help him in his crime-fighting efforts, they must develop even better technology. If he responds to their actions with violence, they must respond with even more violence. If Batman becomes, in effect, super-powered; they must also become super-powerful. Thus, the escalation Gordon predicted will come true."


Putting aside the reductionism in Mr. Miller's logic, what he says about escalation has to be true about any use of military force in the history of mankind. The use of the sword against evil motivates evil to come up with something that can defeat the sword. Technological innovation has always been applied to violence. This is the world that we live in. So it comes as no surprise that Mr. Miller next applies what he believes to be a flaw in Batman to American military intervention:

“In this sense, Batman becomes his own worst enemy, because his very presence in Gotham assures that more and stronger villains will continue to arise. Rather than serve to stabilize society then, Batman actually becomes a destabilizing force instead. This is the clash between ideology and methodology I mentioned earlier: Batman thinks he can adopt the criminals’ methodology (except for murder) and yet still remain true to his ideology. But, as Gordon foresees, the best such a schema can do is forestall the inevitable mutually assured destruction of hero, villain, and society as a whole. Thus, we can finally see how the limit Wayne has placed on compassion truly does become his greatest weakness: By refusing to extend compassion to include his enemies, he doesn’t weaken them; he actually makes them stronger, thus compounding the very social problems he set out to solve.

Just think about the real world implications of this fact: Today, our primary response to something like terrorism is to hunt down and kill the terrorists. And why not? Surely a motley band of insurgents is no match for the technological and military might of the West. And yet, despite a global effort to defeat terrorism, the terrorists still manage to strike ever more frequent and devastating blows. Unthinkable. Or is it? Could it be that, like Batman in Gotham, the mere presence of such an overwhelming military superpower in our world is giving rise to the very thing that superpower was created to stand against? Like Batman, could the willingness of the West to adopt the methodologies of its enemies - war, terror, torture, etc. - actually be forcing our enemies to become more creative, more desperate, more willing to attempt bolder and more terrifying schemes because they see no other way of achieving their goals? ...”


One of the premises of Mr. Miller's complaint is that, even if Batman defeats one villain, another villain will always rise again from somewhere else. But such is the nature of evil. It is never-ending. “Now there’s evil rising from where we tried to bury it," Gordon tells Bruce in the third film. In other words, there is a sense in which the use of violent force to stop crime, to stop exploitation, to stop the use of power for evil, is a battle that will not end. There is a sense in which law and order are always going to be threatened. There is a sense in which civilization is fragile and always teetering over the brink. This is one of the fundamental problems with human nature. So you could, of course, refuse to exercise force to stop the designs of evil men for the reason that there will always be evil men. I wonder what the consequences of that would be?
_________________________________________________________________________________________

“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons.”
- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15
_________________________________________________________________________________________

The fact that the use of violence cannot solve the theological problem of evil is still not a coherent logical argument against the use of violence. This is where I part ways with Mr. Miller. There are still forms of evil that cannot be fought in our world without the use of violence. There are villains in Gotham City that will not be stopped without the force of Batman's fist or Police Commissioner Gordon's gun. There are terrorist groups that will not be stopped without the force of an accurate missile or a special forces take-down. There will be times when well-intentioned sanctions or diplomacy are going to have zero effect upon Scarecrow or the Joker or Bane. There will be times when violence is an ever temporary solution to a very specific and practical problem.

It is a dangerous and risky proposition to resort to violence. But it is the resort of a long historical line of men who have believed that evil must be stopped and that human beings are worth saving from temporal destruction. This is why the use of violence is a power that we want only in the hands of men who understand the dangers and consequences of exercising it - or even better, in the hands of people who don't want to exercise it. Another illustration of this principle is when Nolan's Batman took significant criticism from film critics for his use of a satellite Big Brother-like surveillance system to find the Joker in The Dark Knight. But Nolan made sure to show us that Bruce Wayne understood the implications of what he was doing:

Wayne: Beautiful. Isn’t it?
Fox: Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous. You’ve turned every phone in the city into a microphone.
Wayne: And high frequency generator/receiver.
Fox: Like the phone I gave you in Hong Kong. You took my sonar concept and applied it to everybody’s phone in the city. With half the city feeding you sonar you can image all of Gotham ... This is wrong.
Wayne: I’ve got to find this man, Lucius.
Fox: But at what cost?
Wayne: The database is null-key encrypted. It can only be accessed by one person.
Fox: No one should have that kind of power.
Wayne: That’s why I gave it to you. Only you can use it.
Fox: Spying on thirty million people wasn’t in my job description.
Wayne: When you’ve finished, type your name to switch it off.
Fox: I’ll help you this one time, but consider this my resignation. As long as this machine is at Wayne Industries, I won’t be.

Bruce Wayne is willing to wield tremendous power to fight evil. But he recognizes its danger. He insists upon rules, limitations and restraint in its use.

We've all probably heard that the reason Bruce Wayne has been called the “Dark Knight” was because, to become Batman, he takes on what is essentially a suit of armor. But it’s about far more than just the armor. If we think back to the age of knights, we naturally think of King Arthur. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Arthur understood that armor was a personification and symbol of might. What Arthur decided to put a stop to was the natural state of man where might makes right.

The answer that Arthur built his chivalrous civilization upon, reached under the guidance of Merlin, is that might can be harnessed for right. Instead of allowing power to determine, by amoral natural selection, what is right, Arthur believed in a higher moral law that might ought to be used in order to uphold.

So really, we can look at Bruce Wayne as a modern day type of Arthur. He even has his own version of Merlin (between the wisdom and advice of both Alfred and Lucius Fox). He specifically looks at the tools of terror used by criminals - fear, darkness, violence - and harnesses them in order to use them for right. This is why he is called the “Dark Knight.” Darkness and fear are both forms of power or might.

And ...

This is also why, in this third film, Bane is the next and greatest threat that may just be the end of Batman. Bane is the villain who understands exactly what Bruce Wayne has done. “You think darkness is your ally; but you have merely adopted it,” Bane tells Batman, “but I was born in it ... molded by it ... The shadows betray you because they belong to me.” Bruce Wayne has tried to harness darkness to use it for good. Bane has been created by darkness. Consequently, Bane represents pure unadulterated power without restraint. Batman is one of the very few who stands to preserve the very restraints that Bane intends to demolish.