Sunday, April 29, 2012

THE SWELL SEASON - FILM REVIEW (2011 - Directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, & Carlo Mirabella-Davis)

The Swell Season is a melancholy and meditative documentary on romance, music and fame. The Swell Season is also the actual name for the folk rock duo, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Their story is a unique one and in telling it, this film allows for both the joyful and the painful. It's bittersweet in a way that is still entrancing. The directors August-Perna, Dapkins and Mirabella-Davis started filming what would turn into the documentary in 2007. When they began filming, they didn't know that Hansard and Irglová's romance was going to die by the time they finished filming in 2010. This makes the film much more personal than you would expect for a documentary about musicians, but it is still respectful and leaves you feeling that both Hansard and Irglová walk out of it wiser and even more capable than before of adding increased depth to their music.

The differences are immediately obvious. He's from Ireland. She's from the Czech Republic. He usually plays an old broken guitar. She usually plays the piano. He enjoys large crowds of fans. She's repulsed by people treating her like a celebrity. His personality is aggressive, passionate and hard-drinking. Her personality is quiet, introspective, and bluntly honest.

They collaborated together to produce the album, Swell Season in 2006. Then, later that year, they starred in a musical film together called Once. It was during the filming that their romance together started, gaining the world spotlight with their song "Falling Slowly" winning the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Song. Their soundtrack for Once was essentially their second album together. Finally, they released their third album, Strict Joy , in 2009. This documentary follows the two of them as they spend most of 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 on tour around the world.

The film is full of evocative and haunting little moments: the two of them sitting around a table full of Hansard's aged drinking buddies while they each take turns singing old traditional Irish folk-ballads ... Irglová reducing an auditorium of thousands to deafening silence by putting her whole heart into a single simple little song with very little accompaniment ... Hansard wandering out into the Irish countryside with his guitar and settling underneath the broken roof of the ruins of an old church during a torrential downpour ... these moments and others quickly win your heart over so that you can't help but be charmed by them both.

It's almost as if Hansard and Irglová are from another time period. Their focus on folk music (even occasionally Hansard's focus on folk-rock music) results in their performances harkening back to the days of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and even to an earlier time where pop celebrity did not drive the appeal of music itself. Not surprisingly, they did a cover song - Dylan's "You Aint Goin' Nowhere" - for the film I'm Not There.

It is a distinctly human trait to love melody and to enjoy listening to song. Music is one of the mysterious blessings that has somehow been bestowed on mankind. And it is difficult to describe the beauty of the voice of someone like Markéta Irglová or the pathos of one of Glen Hansard's street ballads. These two people have created, and are creating, music that expresses their feelings and ideas about the world around them and their experiences in it. And the thing about music is that it's not just the lyrics that express meaning to us, it's the melodies, the little inflections, the heart and spirit behind the songs themselves. Hansard may not be the greatest of songwriters or performers, but the heart that he puts behind his songs is full and strong. Somehow their music has been speaking to countless other people.

But, therein lies the trouble. The fascinating thing about this film is its reflection upon the effects that fame and celebrity have upon Hansard and Irglová's romance, as well as upon their music. One could almost venture the conclusion that the greatest curse that this couple finds itself under is that of living and performing in the modern age - an age where pop culture is supposed to determine the success of a musician. A musician is considered successful if he can obtain celebrity status. This sort of thinking has almost obsessed Glen Hansard. With his poor background and his dropping out of school, he speculates on the idea of being able to escape the soul-crushing life that you're stuck with, begin anew and start a whole other life. He later admits that this is sort of what he actually did.

He and Irglová are suddenly propelled into fame and pop celebrity status with a suddenness that American Idol fans can only dream of. The amazing thing about this couple is they don't really want to be celebrities. While Hansard is able to rest more comfortably within the practical realities of living as a celebrity, he argues with his friends and family that fame doesn't really matter. "Who cares if we won an Oscar?!" he demands when his mother tells him how valuable it is for him to be famous. In the meantime, it quickly becomes evident that the very idea of being a celebrity is revolting to Markéta Irglová. For some reason, one of the things that upsets her the most of all is what she calls "celebrity bullshit." Problems arise when she quickly gets sick of fawning fans constantly acting like her very physical presence is somehow of almost religious import.


"Popular songs grew from a tradition of ballad and folk music, in which an expanding repertoire of favourite tunes and devices formed the foundation of music-making. Until recently the song has been detachable from the performer - a musical entity which makes sense in itself, and which can be internalised and repeated by the listeners, should they have the skill. Of course, there is a whole branch of popular music which is improvisatory. But modern pop songs are not improvised as jazz is improvised, and do not owe their appeal to the kind of spectacular musicianship that we witness in Art Tatum, Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. Modern pop songs are meticulously put together, often by artificial means, so as to be indelibly marked with the trade mark of the group ... The lead singer projects himself and not the melody, emphasising his particular tone, sentiment and gesture. The melodic paucity is partly explained by this. By subtracting the melody, or reducing it to stock phrases that can be reapplied in any context, the singer draws attention to the song's one distinguishing feature, namely himself ...

Hence pop fans find themselves deprived of one of the most important gifts of folk music - the gift of song. It is almost impossible to sing the typical pop-song unaccompanied and still make musical sense. The best you can do is to impersonate the idol during karaoke night at the local pub, when you have the benefit of full instrumental backing, amplification and audience, and can briefly fit yourself into the empty groove where the sacred presence lay ... In effect, we witness a reversal of the old order of performance. Instead of the performer being the means to present the music, which exists independently in the tradition of song, the music has become the means to present the performer."

- Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 109-110

As the film continues, you get the bad feeling that the public spotlight is putting Hansard and Irglová in danger. They won an Oscar for a song they created together out of a sheer shared love for musical creativity. They both love old folk songs and are genuinely writing new songs in the folk tradition - creating, in a sense, modern day folk songs. But then, to their initial amazement and apparent good fortune, they are discovered by the rest of the world. Their romance and their story is now idolized by millions. Instead of a passionate street performer, Hansard finds himself to be a celebrity. Instead of seeing her as girl who reveals lovely music to the listener, Irglová finds that perhaps people care less about her music and more about her pop-stardom. The question looms like a dark cloud over them, now that they are famous and now that the media spotlight is focused intently upon them, is their music and their personal relationship with each other going to change?

This is where the documentary's genius shows. While it’s a common theme among celebrity life, the effect that fame and fortune has on the health of romantic relationships is rarely looked at in a light where two people like Hansard and Irglová are this honest. To some people, getting their fifteen minutes of fame is everything. The way you "succeed" today is by becoming popular and famous. While Hansard has worked hard all his life for success, when he is finally given what everyone else around him calls success, he can't help but suspect that something is wrong. Other band members and friends are interviewed and all give their opinion about how hard it is for a young Irglová to have to handle such a heavy public spotlight. But her objections to the spotlight have grounds that go further than her own mere physical discomfort.

You see the difference between the two in even the way the directors are forced to tell this story. Hansard is almost always willing to talk and ruminate about himself to the camera. Irglová's presence on the camera seems to be at a further emotional distance. Her reflections captured on film are more rare. She remains more mysterious than Hansard because the simple fact that they are being followed around, nonstop, by cameras in order to make the documentary in the first place causes her to withdraw. You get the impression that she was never asked if they ought to have made a documentary about them. And while she's flattered by all the attention, she's not going to philosophize to the camera like Hansard does.

"... The music [of a celebrity pop star] is part of the process whereby a human individual or group is totemised. In consequence it has a tendency to lose all musical character. For music, properly constructed, has a life of its own, and is always more interesting than the person who performs it. Much as we may love Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald, we love them for their music - not their music for them.

... The transformation of the pop star into an icon is assisted by the music video. This is perhaps the most important innovation in the sphere of pop since the electric guitar. The video sublimates the star, re-cycles him as image, more effectively than any painted icon of a saint. It is expressly designed for home consumption and brings the sacred presence into the living room. And it completes the demotion of music, which now becomes background, with the pop-star, transfigured into the divine status of the TV advert, occupying the foreground."

- Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 110-112

Even as you watch the film you feel the conflict between art and pop culture. You find yourself enchanted by the songs you hear, and you find yourself enchanted by the two stars of the film. But the question arises whether you enjoy the music because of who is playing the music and whether you would still like their music if you didn't know anything about the performers. What makes the film even more interesting is that I found that the answer is yes. I would still love their music even without knowing their story. The music that they make is sort of wonderful all by itself. And this fact rests in a time where mass media culture promotes and popularizes bad music. There are legitimate musical critics today who ask us to make a distinction between good music and pure musical kitsch.

One of these critics is Roger Scruton. In his books, The Aesthetics of Music and Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, Scruton looks at the idea of other musical philosophers who criticize pop culture for fostering a music industry that "exploits the tastes of the simple-minded" and misleads the general public into liking bad music.

In the book, Understanding Music, Scruton posits the idea that "The great days of American popular music may now be past: rock ‘n’ roll changed the Blues from a lyrical confession to a Dionysian display, and the long-term effects are now being felt, not only in America, but all across the world." (pgs. 216-217) In this film, you watch as Hansard and Irglová perform in front of increasingly hysterical crowds. You cringe as different people tell them how incredibly lucky they are. They are, supposedly, living the modern day version of a fairy tale. The songs that they so loved writing have now become overshadowed by their own fame. Their fans are obsessing over everything about them, and their romantic relationship is suddenly a model for thousands of people to fantasize over. The filmmakers can now show us teenagers who pretend to be this couple. Countless fans talk about how much they want to be like them.

But, in the meantime, Hansard and Irglová thought they had something to say. They were expressing themselves with old traditional forms of music that used to speak to people at a deeper level than pop culture. They are artists who suddenly are finding their art transformed into something they never meant it to be. Scruton writes that art "matters because it puts us in touch with what we really are, and enables us to live on that higher plane where freedom and fulfillment are given. But we are surrounded on every side by pseudo-art - by sentimentality, cliche and kitsch. And this psuedo-art ties us to the world of ‘reifications’, in which things with a value are replaced by things with a price, and in which human life loses its worth, to become a thing of repetitive appetite." (pg. 212)

The crushing realization emerges that perhaps Hansard and Irglová are performing their music in a world where they don't belong. Is their pop stardom going to start affecting the very content and style of their music now? Isn't the focus on winning Oscars and making top ranks in the music pop charts going to pressure them into suddenly becoming producers of musical kitsch? Roger Scruton mentions the idea of kitsch quite frequently, and it's for good reason. I don't think the Swell Season's music is musical kitsch, but isn't that just my own personal taste? Scruton explains:

"Hermann Broch has argued that the kitsch object comes about because of the ‘Kitschmensch’ who chooses it. A new human type has emerged, for whom commitment, responsibility, heroism and heartfelt love are all to be avoided, on account of the suffering that they entail. The world of the Kitschmensch is a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting him to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them ... the world of kitsch is a world of trinkets, which we cling to as proof that we can be good without effort and loved without pain. By contrast, every true artistic gesture constitutes an appeal to our higher nature, an attempt to affirm the other realm in which moral and spiritual order prevails." (pgs. 213-214)

Fake and shallow emotions, the cultivation of fantasized dreams that do not reflect reality, the idolization of that which is of no real value ... these are all temptations and pressures that Hansard and Irglová now find themselves facing in the glare of the celebrity spotlight. They still insist on their commitment to their music, but they are also pressured to put on an act. Irglová, especially, finds herself pretending in public to be someone who she really isn't in order to please their fans. How do you still write and sing good music when you are suddenly expected to play an act? How do you distinguish between when your own music is good or bad when everyone else is interested in you as a celebrity and less in the actual quality of the music that you create? They praise and buy your music even if it's bad.

"Distinctions which are forced on us by art, between true sentiment and false, between reality and fantasy, between sincerity and pretence, are down-played in the world of the Kitschmensch." (pg. 214)

"It is only by making discriminations within the realm of popular music that we can encourage young people to recognize the difference between genuine musical sentiment and kitsch, between beauty and ugliness, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, the inspired and the routine ... And once the habit of judgment begins it will amplify its bounds until those who have known nothing but current pop music will be led by critical inquiry to the bright uplands of classical music ..." (pg. 220-221)


Saturday, April 28, 2012


Be always quick to take offense at the slightest misperception;
But you really also mustn't use any form of contraception.
Be sure to rail against those who don't copy you exactly,
But thus, your behavior must be regulated (to put it matter of factly).

Don't drink a single drop of any alcoholic connotation;
And here's a list of uncouth Saxon words forbidden any articulation.
Do not listen to throbbing rhythmic notes, nor sway your body to them;
And any use of old tobacco leaves make sure to swifty condemn.

In fact, there are also other green leaves that you must simply never breathe;
Any friendly house offering devil's draughts, you must be quick to leave.
To the other sex, not even the slightest physical contact is to be tolerated.
If male, your eyes, to avoid her curves, must be precisely calibrated.

If female, you shall not wear attire that exposes undue amounts of skin.
And all forswear dice, cards, TV, magazines, and movies about sin.
In summary, anything in Christendom that might give earthly pleasure
Is BANNED, since we must not give old Mani's god displeasure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


(Review originally written on July 25, 2010)

Moving Out of Mainstream Conservatism and Into the Fringe

Mr. Woods effectively sums up his respect for the U.S. Constitution by quoting famous American anarchist, Lysander Spooner, in the conclusion of his book on Nullification: "Lysander Spooner, abolitionist and anarchist, once said that the Constitution has either authorized the government we have now or has been helpless to prevent it. `In either case,' he starkly concluded, the Constitution `is unfit to exist.'" (pg 142)

With this book, Woods has finally just violently hurled himself out of mainstream conservatism and into the fringe. As a conservative with tea party sympathies myself, I have to warn everyone that if they follow Woods' suggestions, they are going to send the Tea Party movement down the abyss, along the way of the "birthers" and other "outside of conservatism" dingbats. It is no coincidence that Spooner was a profound influence on libertarian Murray Rothbard (who was famous for (a) arguing that the government shouldn't be allowed the power of taxation, or actually the right to exist at all, and (b) being kicked out of conservative circles by William F. Buckley, Jr., National Review, and Co.). It should come as no surprise that Woods finds it useful to quote from Rothbard in order to make the arguments in his book.

This book is based on selective and shoddily thrown together history, ignoring obvious historical facts that are inconvenient to Woods' arguments. For example, it was only Jefferson, not Madison, who supported the idea of nullification. (Madison, not Jefferson, helped write the Constitution.) The power of the states to nullify and ignore federal law was one of the huge problems under the Articles of Confederation which caused the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in the first place. In other words, the Constitution was written so that the states couldn't ignore or nullify federal law.

Woods is actually making some of this stuff up completely out of thin air. Nullification is a "right" that is contained in the 10th Amendment? That idea is so laughable that I am still surprised I'd even have to address it. First, the federal government has no power unless the people, through the Constitution, grant it power; thus, all power of the federal government is stated in the Constitution. Second, this made the Bill of Rights (10th Amendment included) simply a restatement of the obvious, that it was declaring that the federal government didn't have power to do things that it already didn't have power to do. Third, the power of the federal government, given by the Constitution, includes the power to enforce its own laws over the states (unlike in the Articles of Confederation). Trying to then say that the 10th Amendment gives the states a power it was the purpose of the Constitution to avoid is simply foolish.

Woods is actually making some of this stuff up completely out of thin air. Nullification is a "right" that is contained in the 10th Amendment? That idea is so laughable that I am still surprised I'd even have to address it. First, the federal government has no power unless the people, through the Constitution, grant it power; thus, all power of the federal government is stated in the Constitution. Second, this made the Bill of Rights (10th Amendment included) simply a restatement of the obvious, that it was declaring the federal government didn't have power to do things that it already didn't have power to do. Third, the power of the federal government, given by the Constitution, includes the power to enforce its own laws over the states (unlike in the Articles of Confederation). Trying to then say that the 10th Amendment gives the states a power it was the purpose of the Constitution to avoid is simply foolish.

"For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?"
- Alexander Hamilton on the Bill of Rights

Biggest Problem: Woods is essentially giving up on the United States Constitution. He is saying that we've lost, that the Constitution is now meaningless, and that it can no longer be used to restrain government power. While I, and most other conservatives, agree that the Constitution is being misinterpreted to give the federal government too much power, I do not believe the Constitution is worthless and that it can no longer be used to restrain power. The checks and balances and elections all still exist. We simply have to use them, instead of adopting the corrupt rhetoric of Senator John C. Calhoun (of the "great sovereign state" of South Carolina).

Any political philosopher or historian would have a hard time taking seriously anyone who resorts to making the sorts of arguments that Mr. Woods gives us. He argues: "A constitution is, after all, only a piece of paper. It cannot enforce itself." (pg. 4) "Proposing nullification around such people is like holding a crucifix before Dracula." (pg. 16) "If political representation ever really meant anything, it surely doesn't today." (pg. 17) "Would the world not have been better off had Germany remained a decentralized collection of states?" (pg. 18) "The merits of South Carolina's constitutional argument are not our concern here." (pg. 77) "If I say the sky is blue and you say it is brown and green, and then you throw a brick at my head, does that make the sky brown and green?" (pg. 84) and of course, who else can we say that, just like President Andrew Jackson, would have been against Nullification? Oh (slaps forehead) I know, Adolf Hitler - "No nullification for him" Mr. Woods propounds solemnly as he quotes from Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' to prove that Hitler was also against any federal republic of states.

Mr. Woods is essentially putting his case together by quoting from the bitter and discontented losers of American History (most of whom are from the South). Thus, all the quoting from Senator John C. Calhoun (really, with all due respect, if you read about him he was a crazy person; he also kept trying to promote the idea that, under the Constitution, the states were still individual sovereign nations and the Federal Government was really just a U.N.), Judge Abel P. Upshur (who? a guy who tried to critique Joseph Story's 'Commentaries on the Constitution' because, as he explained later, Story's interpretation threatened the existence of slavery), and Littleton Waller Tazewell (a devoted crony of Calhoun) - are not going to convince anyone. These are all guys the likes of whom Senator Daniel Webster tore to shreds in public debates on the floors of the U.S. Senate. These are the guys who Democrat President Andrew Jackson seriously considered hanging from the nearest tree for treason. These are the guys who, and I'm not saying their ideas shouldn't be considered rationally mind you, but whose ideas the minds of Madison, Hamilton, Webster, Jackson and Lincoln crushed.

Why isn't the idea of Nullification unconstitutional? Well, let's think for a second. Wouldn't it violate, oh say, the "supremacy clause" or the jurisprudence of Justice John Marshall (and Marbury v. Madison)? Not according to Woods, thanks to Senator Calhoun's pal, William Harper (of the "great sovereign state" of South Carolina, and author of the book 'Memoir on Slavery'). You see, according to Harper, Nullification is supposed to protect the Constitution, because it's only used when states have to declare the federal governments' violations of the Constitution unconstitutional. What Woods fails to understanding is that destruction of the Constitution for purposes of fighting against destruction of the Constitution is ... well, it's an exercise in the act of shooting oneself repeatedly in the foot. I have an army buddy who did that and, according to his story, it is a needlessly unpleasant exercise.

Thomas Jefferson's ideas on this subject are Wood's favorite life-line. Jefferson was, for years, open about the fact that he preferred the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. Jefferson was an extreme states-rights proponent who was often reasonably ridiculed for his utopian dreams of an agricultural paradise full of citizen farmers who would make up agrarian states unhampered by little to no government at all. Jefferson also had a little trouble with his pro-French Revolution sympathies - yet another idealistic view that kept getting him into trouble back in the context of political reality. But Woods likes Jefferson's eccentric bits of political philosophy better than that of Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Marshall or most of the other founders who actually wrote the Constitution in the first place. This is because, as Woods is careful to point out, "Jefferson took the opposite view" of Britney Spears who exclaimed that we just ought to "trust our president in every decision he makes." (pg. 39) If Jefferson disagrees with Britney Spears about our government, well, he must be better than James Madison, who, like Spears said that the president's power should be ... oh, wait, he didn't agree with that nonsense either.

Essentially, Woods would have an interesting point if America was really still a Confederacy of sovereign little nation-states who are just joined together for convenience. If this was true, then "nullification amounts to the legitimate exercise of sovereignty by sovereign bodies in defense of their liberties against a federal government that was supposed to be the agent, not the master, of the states." (pg. 89). This nostalgia for an old confederacy may be touching for some. But it is not reality. We are one sovereign nation, and we have been for the last 200 years. Sovereignty is legally defined as ultimate power that does not, by definition, depend upon anything else for its existence. The federal government is not sovereign. The state governments are not sovereign. The American people are sovereign as a nation - one Nation, Under God. We are not a confederacy of small sovereign peoples called "Georgia" and "Rhode Island" and "Ohio" and "Oregon." Woods, in all his quoting from the dust-heaps of the old anti-federalists (who lost by the way, the Constitution was ratified) and the old Southern Confederacy (who lost by the way, Abraham Lincoln didn't let any little "great sovereign states" leave the Union so that they could keep their slavery or anything else), is only going to make himself a laughingstock. Anyone else who joins him can kiss any chance they have of being taken seriously in the public square goodbye.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Trailer for Digitally Remastered Chariots of Fire

As the 2012 Olympics near, the classic, Chariots of Fire, has been digitally remastered for a re-release in the theaters.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS - FILM REVIEW (2012 - Directed by Drew Goddard)


"After the prize-giving the valedictions;
after the phone call a brief sense
of what happiness would be like; after
the forgiveness a struggle to forgive.
Some discourse is expansive, but some
composed of opposing blocks ...
She gives herself
to the right man. Their painless composure.

But, to my purpose, the other, the choice
that is arbitrary, of the free will,
moving the unkeyed sections until they lock.
Not to deflect the wildest things; acceptance
a distinct willing; a reach for truth
like sentences from Tacitus at worst.
Delirium of order. Nor is this easy ..."

- Geoffrey Hill, without title, pg. 21

“Sunk in their pneumatic stalls, Lenina and the Savage sniffed and listened. It was now the turn also for the eyes and skin. The house lights went down; fiery letters stood out solid and as though self-supported in the darkness ...

‘Take hold of those metal knobs on the arms of your chair,’ whispered Lenina. ‘Otherwise you won’t get any of the feely effects.’

The Savage did as he was told ...”

- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

WARNING: If you have not seen this film yet, then when I tell you to stop reading this review, stop. I will echo the other more conscientious film reviewers and advise you to avoid watching trailers or previews for The Cabin in the Woods. Avoid reading about it (except for the first portion of this review, of course). Get the movie ticket and just go see it.

How to begin? Let's try this. There is something tragic about lost irony. One gets a sense of melancholy when one realizes how much irony is lost on, oh say, nine out of ten moviegoers who go see The Cabin in the Woods. There is something overpoweringly ironic about going to see this film in a theater full of horror movie fans. There is something almost ludicrously ironic about watching all the horror movie trailers that the theaters insist on putting in front of this film. And the thing is, I'm not sure how to actually explain the irony before getting to the portion of this review where I'll have to advise you to stop reading and see the film first.

I can only say that the filmmakers, director Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and producer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse), do something more interesting and more intelligent with a horror film than has been done for decades. It starts with the familiar clichés. A group of young friends decide to spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods reminiscent of Evil Dead. Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek, Thor) plays the athletic, masculine jock character, Curt. Anna Hutchinson plays the wild partying girl, Jules. Kristen Connolly plays the more modest nice girl, Dana. Jesse Williams plays the nice guy, Holden. And Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) plays the eccentric philosophical stoner friend, Marty. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Burn After Reading, The Visitor), Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse), and Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest) all play more mysterious characters who are one of the reasons the film is such a nice surprise.

This is a film that turns the genre upside down. It is quite possible for you to watch this and enjoy it for the same reasons that people watch and enjoy all the other mindless shallow bilge that passes for a modern horror movie these days. Or, you could see it because it's different.

It is possible that I'm just not reading the right people, but I have yet to see a satisfactory comprehensive critique of the majority of modern day horror movies that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis. Chernobyl Diaries and 7500, two of the trailers you’ll likely see in front of this film, come out in the next couple months and are prime examples. In early 2012 alone, we’ve had The Devil Inside, The Darkest Hour, The Divide, Don’t Go in the Woods, The Wicker Tree, Kill List, The Innkeepers, Intruders, Playback, Silent House, The Moth Diaries, and ATM. All of which are, as far as I can tell, mindless, cliched, unimaginative, copycat garbage. But it is in a society where these films are popular that we live, and it is in acknowledging the current popularity of these films that makes The Cabin in the Woods worthwhile.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Friday the 13th (1980), Friday the 13th Part 2, Friday the 13th Part III, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, The Blair Witch Project, Jason X, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), House of 1000 Corpses, Freddy vs. Jason, Saw, The Grudge, Saw II, Hostel, The Devil’s Rejects, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Saw III, Pulse, The Grudge 2, Saw IV, Paranormal Activity, Hostel: Part II, Halloween, Diary of the Dead, Saw V, Quarantine, Cloverfield, Saw VI, Halloween II, The Grudge 3, Friday the 13th (2009), Saw 3D, Paranormal Activity 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Lords of Salem, Paranormal Activity 3 ... among countless others. It’s a relentless, nonstop, practically infinite onslaught of blood, gore, jump scenes, dismemberments, sexual violence, rape, torture, cannibalism, sadism, masochism, bad acting, bad script writing, stupid storylines, and brain cell killing desensitization.

Hollywood can't stop making these things. A film like Final Destination (2000) turns into Final Destination 2 (2003) which turns into Final Destination 3 (2006) and then to The Final Destination (2009) and Final Destination 5 (2011). The betting odds are good that Final Destination 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and more are all on the way. The utter stupidity that we, as consumers, keep paying money for seems to be infinite.

There is much to despise in the horror movie genre. This isn't to say that the genre itself is bad. I don't blame "horror" as a type of story or film. Instead, I blame the lazy money-grubbing filmmakers who cater to and sell graphic repulsive gratuitous titillation aimed at the lowest common denominator and at the corruptness imbedded within human nature itself. And I blame anyone who pays money to see this trash (and this includes me).

In case I haven't yet made myself clear, I am proposing that there are moral implications here to personal taste. Not all entertainment is innocent. There are cheap thrills that we indulge ourselves in that are morally reprehensible. There are some things that we ought not to enjoy. There are ways of amusing ourselves that are damaging to the soul. Just because we like feeling something doesn't mean that it is what we ought to feel.

"Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it - believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime ... was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more 'just' or 'ordinate' or 'appropriate' to it than others ...

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in 'ordinate affections' or 'just sentiments' will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one 'who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart."

- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In ancient Rome, regular citizens amused themselves by watching their fellow human beings torn apart limb-from-limb by wild beasts and gladiatorial serial killers. The blood and gore and death was considered to be good entertainment. With examples like this in history, how can anyone say that some personal tastes for some types of entertainment are not morally abhorrent?

Again, I am NOT saying that the horror film itself is immoral. One of the best new films I've seen over the last couple years was the horror film, Let Me In (also with Richard Jenkins). Talented director, Scott Derrickson, recently directed one of the best horror films in years, the thought-provoking and captivating The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Last year, I even participated in putting together a list of the Top 25 Horror Films from a spiritual perspective. The horror film genre can have incredible value. It can explore and contemplate the difference between good and evil. It can inspire and teach. It can engage in philosophical discussion. It can provide worthwhile cultural commentary. And it can even innocently entertain. And thus, as a moviegoer who hates most horror films, I was pleasantly surprised upon watching The Cabin in the Woods.

As the film progresses, you will find that these characters, while they are playing the cliches of the horror genre, are still different from what you’d expect. None of them are stupid. They all legitimately care about each other. The girls, even Jules, are not going to just dimwittedly wander off so that they can get killed by the monsters/serial killers/whatever. The guys are not emasculate cowards who scream and run just like their effeminate equivalents in the genre. The “jock” character is an intelligent sociology major, with an academic scholarship, who is willing to put himself at risk in order to save the lives of his friends. He angrily punches the monsters in the face like it’s second nature and he runs when running is simply the best tactical decision, not because he’s a coward.

As the story continues, the pothead character, Marty, begins to almost represent the moviegoer. One of the cliches of the horror genre is the audience wanting to tell the stupid characters not to walk down those stairs, not to take a random walk in the dark woods at midnight, not to go around that dark corner without looking first. Marty is the character actually saying these things to his friends. He recognizes the cliches and has no intention of either himself or his friends succumbing to them. When some impossibly stupid gas of some kind exerts mind control over one of his normally intelligent friends (this mind control gas is used by Hollywood constantly, it’s called “lazy script writing plot device”), Marty is the one to question it. He is the character to rebel against the tropes in the story. He sees no reason to follow the rules that he and his friends are expected to follow.

“No ... you think I’m a puppet, huh? You want me to do a fucking puppet dance! I’m not a puppet! I’m the boss of my own brain!”
- Marty

But, even more importantly, he also actually voices the conscience that ought to be in our own heads whenever we watch a film like Saw or Hostel. When his friends start exploring through a cellar full of the abnormal and the twisted, he is the one to tell them to stop. When his friends start reading through the gruesome, salacious and sensational details of a perverted horror story, Marty is the one to swear (ironically in Christ’s name) and insist that there is no worthwhile reason to be interested in such a story. When his friends are about to read something evil sounding in Latin, Marty declares he’s drawing a line the sand. Why even be interested in it? What is the point? Aren’t there better things to do?

It is, of course, no coincidence that free will is discussed multiple times during the film. With a self-aware character like Marty, the question of free will naturally arises. In fact, one of the most enjoyable discussions to be had on this film is concerning which, of every single character, any actually have a free will of their own at all. This film is deeper than it at first appears. There are characters in the story who begin, mysteriously and then alarmingly, to mirror the audience sitting in the theater.

How many of us go the theater to experience a deluge of emotional highs - what is essentially cheap titillation and thrills? What does the experience of watching an average Hollywood horror film do to us? Does the experience do nothing to us? Perhaps it's just a way to pass the time. Perhaps all the jump scenes, all the stripped, sliced and diced human beings, all the increasingly realistically portrayed violent and bloody deaths in these films are all things we can simply put aside once we're finished having fun watching them and walk out of the movie theater.

Or, perhaps not.

Neil Postman argued that modern day society failed to heed the warning of Aldous Huxley in his novel, Brave New World. In Brave New World, the populace is essentially enslaved by increasingly advanced forms of entertainment and the chemically charged feelings and emotional highs given to them by such entertainment. Huxley's novel shows us a society where everyone is shaped by blindly accepting trite platitudes, chemically induced states of mindless lethargy by a drug called soma, addiction to and an obsession with constant sex (encouraged in early childhood), abhorrence to being alone with your thoughts or ever meditating or reflecting upon anything, and constantly indulging in a technologically advanced form of entertainment called "feelies."

“Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’”
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

If you think about it when you watch this film, there is a legitimate question in The Cabin in the Woods as to whether the horror movie itself is not just an equivalent of Huxley's "feelies" for someone or for something. Other than the emotional highs that we experience while watching one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, what do we get out of it? Increased desensitization. Increased boredom. Increased desire for something even more lurid or more graphic than before. Why not show the cliched characters get slaughtered in even more graphically detailed and imaginatively horrendous ways? That will be fun, won't it? Why not create even more perverted and depraved murderers or monsters than before? Use your imagination, why not?

So, on a final note, when you begin watching this film, here are a few questions to take with you into the movie theater.

1 - Which characters are playing the voice you hear in your own head when you watch a horror film?

2 - Which characters in the film essentially walk out of the film and sit next to you in the movie theater?

3 - What have you been trained and conditioned to expect from a film like The Cabin in the Woods?

4 - At what points in the film do your fellow audience members start tittering?

This is a film to watch very carefully and to listen to very closely. If you do, the results will be highly rewarding. Now, the question is, have you seen it yet?

If your answer is "no" then ...




Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Trailer for HBO's Hemingway & Gellhorn

After Corey Stoll's aggressive performance in Midnight in Paris , Clive Owen gives us his own combative version of Hemingway. It also looks like Kidman is trying to channel a little Lauren Bacall. Forget whatever films Hollywood's been releasing for the months of January, February, March and April, this looks much more interesting. (Also, for those of you who care, there might be 0.1 of a second's worth of NSFW material in this preview.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS (2012) - by Marilynne Robinson (book review)

Modern Ciceronian Musical English Prose

“At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as a condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today - television - video games - diminished things. This is always the pretext.” (pg. 5)

Marilynne Robinson is, by far, one of the most formidible intellectual heavyweights when it comes to modern day American thinkers. But, and this is why you ought to start reading her work if you haven't already, she's not some scholar who only writes for fellow scholars. Instead, she's an engaging novelist and essayist who writes for the layman. She holds her readers to high standards, expecting them to pursue lines of thought with considerable depth to them, but she writes to the ordinary, every day sort of person - the person, at least, who is not sunk in scholarly tomes but who is still willing to ask questions.

Robinson entered the literary scene with her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. Her second, and probably most acclaimed novel, Gilead in 2004, actually rightly won the Pulitizer prize for fiction in 2005. Her third novel, Home, was published in 2008, and has only made those of us who read it disappointed that, now, we have to ponderously wait for whenever she takes to fiction again. Not soon enough.

Before this year, Robinson also had three books of essays published: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self (2010). All of her essays could be said to be devoted to challenging conventional ways of thinking.

Now, the collection of ten essays, Robinson brings to us this year in When I Was a Child I Read Books are a joy to read. With them, she continues her habit of asking you, as the reader, to reconsider ideas that you have been taught and just accepted without question. Conventional thought never fares well when Ms. Robinson writes her own thought down for our benefit, and the results are always to our benefit. All in all, Marilynne Robinson has now given us a sum total of seven books. All of them are easily obtained and it's not that difficult to begin reading her and then to find that, less than a year later, you've finished and joined the ranks of readers who now enthusiastically await her next publication.

It's not just Robinson's asking you to rethink your assumptions that makes her so engaging to read. It's that her writing is a pleasure to read because of the pure turns of phrase, the pure coherence and music of her English prose. There are plenty of novelists and essayists out there, there are not many who are as good writers as Robinson. Not many books that you open up will reward you with comments like "... in changing, our vocabulary has not always advanced." (pg. xiii) or "To put it another way, we have entered into a period of rationalist purgation." (pg. 56) or the phrase “... the habit of mutual condescension, tending always toward mutual impoverishment ...” (pg. 161) You will be reading a passage from her book, then you'll suddenly stop, go back and spend a good amount of time thinking and reveling over one single thought. For example, when she writes - "There is an old saying: Act in haste and repent at leisure. Perhaps we understand this in an inverse and diabolical sense." (pg. 56) - you can't help but reread those two sentences carefully and then find what she just said means far more than you thought it did.

Robinson comes from a classical education. She writes how her own writing style was shaped in her early years learning Latin where "... Cicero’s vast sentences, clause depending from clause, the whole cantilevered with subjunctives and weighted with a culminating irony. It was all over our heads. We were bored but dogged. And at the end of it all, I think anyone can see that my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway." (pg. 87) And it's true. Whole arguments, logical deductions and rhetorical biting flourishes in Robinson's writing are or almost of pure Ciceronian composition.

When she is critiquing another scholar's historical interpretation, she'll easily give us statements like:

"This analytical method is so perfectly suited to conforming the text to the critic’s assumptions about it that it establishes nothing." (pg. 118)


"In my Bible, Jesus does not say ‘I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.’" (pg. 139)

As you read her, you imagine that her writing could occasionally be the final winning thrashing notes in a debate in an old ancient Senate or public forum:

"When I praise anything, I proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse." (pg. 89-90)


"To put the matter another way, to begin with the assertion that we are primates after all, and on that basis to discount the vast differences between us and other primates, and to conclude on that basis that we are, when all is said and done, simply primates with a great many epiphenomenal qualities is circular reasoning to say the least." (pg. 148)

At other times you will be reading her appraisal of another line of thinking, and it's not till you get through half of it that you realize she has been sort of gently making fun the whole way through. Sentences like - "I have never heard anyone speculate on the origins and function of irony, but I can say with confidence that it is only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon." (pg. 189) - suddenly clue those of us who are slower than she is to what she is actually doing.

Woe to any shoddy thinking or to arguments that take short-cuts when they fall under Robinson's withering (and yet still generous) analysis. There are a number of scholarly books that Robinson's little collection of essays actually, well, sort of destroys. She turns her mind to consider:

- The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible (1996) - by Gerd Ludemann
- God: A Biography (1995) - by Jack Miles
- Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1997) - by Jan Assmann
- The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (1997) - by Regina M. Schwartz
- The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) - by Jeff Sharlet
- Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God (1990) - by Adolf Harnack

By the time she's finished with them, you get the impression that Messrs. Assmann, Harnack, Ludemann, Miles, Sharlet and Schwartz are, if not crackpots, examples of the product of a very poor education system that never bothered to teach even a rudimentary level of logical reasoning.

But don't let me give you the impression that Robinson's essays are only literary or historical criticism. The above mentioned authors are dispensed with in groups in only a couple essays. Each of the ten essays in this book have something special to offer. For example, in her ninth essay, "Who Was Oberlin?" - she somehow combines the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Charles G. Finney, J.F. Oberlin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Dwight Weld, and Arthur and Lewis Tappan to thoughtfully tell a rip-roaring historical tale that inspires you, and makes you look differently at a couple historical characters, by the end

If you have not read Robinson before, then you have probably guessed by this point. Yes, Marilynne Robinson is a Christian. And, in fact, there is a considerable argument to be made that she is one of the greatest published Christian writers alive today. I would take it as Exhibit A in the case alleging the utter worthlessness of the "Christian" bookstore that Robinson is not to be found in any of their stores. Searching the largest "Christian" book publishers in the world - go ahead, try for yourself, it won't take long - you will find them completely ignorant and oblivious to her existence. Instead, like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and Frederick Buechner before her, Marilynne Robinson writes for and to everyone. And when Robinson writes, The New York Review of Books on the left and The Claremont Review of Books on the right both take notice. NPR, The New Yorker, The New Criterion and National Review all take pleasure in reading her works and speaking to her. Her writing is not aimed for only one little sub-group of people, neither does it only criticize one side or preach to any subculture. No matter what your beliefs are, you will find her writing refreshing and educating.

And you can tell, she loves writing. She teaches it:

"I tell my students, language is music. Written words are musical notation. The music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense, what it means. It is essential to remember that characters have a music as well, a pitch and tempo, just as real people do. To make them believable, you must always be aware of what they would or would not say, where stresses would or would not fall." (pg. 130)

Not only does she clearly love the use of language itself, but, after expressing her love for it, she takes this a step further and considers what a beautiful language means.

“Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for this present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate.” (pg. 21-22)

Not only is the joy Robinson takes in the use of words evident as you read her, but she'll occasionally even criticize her own use of them. Yet another proof of a great writer is when she humorously acknowledges when she falls short of the standard she sets for her own writing.

"A man in Alabama asked me how I felt the West was different from the East and the South, and I replied that in the West 'lonesome' is a word with strongly positive connotations. I must have phrased my answer better at the time, because both he and I were struck by the aptness of the remark, and people in Alabama are far too sensitive to language to be pleased with a phrase such as ‘strongly positive connotations.’" (pg. 88)

Just buy the book and wait till you get to the passages where she explains why she loves reading the prose and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.

Now I said earlier that this book is enjoyable to read because it asks you to reconsider some of your prior assumptions about things. The reason the book is able to do this is because this is the sort of thing Robinson has done herself.

"For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them." (pg. 3)

Therefore, we ought to consider and rid ourselves of the embarrassing ones as soon as possible. Robinson has a sense of humor about this habit of thinking of hers, and with another more humorless writer, a book about challenging your assumptions would probably not have been as good of a read. For example:

"Over the years I have done an archaeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt to escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins. In the course of this reeducation I have become suspiciously articulate and opinionated about things no doubt best left to the unself-conscious regions of the mind." (pg. 93)

How can you read something like that and not smile?

In her second essay, "Imagination and Community", we are given further evidence for why she writes as well as she does. She loves, and all her life has loved, books. Reading is one of her favorite things, and she credits all that she has read for giving her the imagination and critical skills that have made her into the author that she is.

“First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service - and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice - a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my window, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my could of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.” (pgs. 22-23)

There is something about reading that changes you. The greatest of writers are the greatest of readers. In our modern society with the short-attention spans that it encourages, a well-read writer is becoming more and more rare. Out of all the great books that are out there that I have yet to read, I spend and waste so much time that would be better spent with books of whose contents my limited imagination has not yet begun to fathom. I was thinking the other day that, with the short amount of time that I have, I do not read nearly as much as I ought. Hell, I'm lucky if I read a single book in a week. That's 4 books a month, less than 50 books a year. At that rate, I am going to end up reading practically nothing at all. And one single book a week - when I mention this to other friends - is viewed by them as a daunting and, perhaps, even impossible goal. How have we call become like this? - especially, when, as Robinson describes, the benefits to spending time with good books are so incredibly valuable?

“The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened to me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers ... I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.” (pg. 20-21)

I enjoy watching television. But, when I think about it, usually I can read most books in six hours or less. This is slower than people used to read, but it's still not very much time, particularly spread out over the seven days of a week. So for every three films that I watch, I could have read a book instead. There are a large number of great and nourishing films out there, but not every film I watch is worth the riches I lose by not reading something better. And this is just films - when you start taking TV shows or merely surfing the web into consideration, you start to realize how much time you are really chucking into the dust-bin.

Robinson herself is so worth reading because of her sense of the treasures that literature, history, the arts, religion and philosophy have given us. When you consciously work on disciplining your reading and thus, your thinking, habits, your perspective on a number of other things in the world is deepened. I'm still thinking over, for example, the critiques Robinson is able to make of the American evangelical church and the religious right's involvement in politics. It's amazing what results you get when you apply a generous sense of history and literature to modern day problems.


In her seventh essay, “Wondrous Love" for example, she writes:

“There are interpreters who insist on finding simplicity in just those matters where complexity is both great and salient. It is my feeling that reverence for the text obliges a respectful interest in its origins, and respect too for all its origins seem to imply about the kind of interpretation the text permits, as well as the kind it seems to preclude. I would say, for example, that the work of the group called the Jesus Seminar proceeded on assumptions that grossly simplify these questions and, in effect, impugn the authenticity of the text, as many writers have done over the last few centuries.” (pg. 131)

In the modern age, history, religion and Scripture are discussed and debated without any coherent or objective standard or system by which to judge the very questions that are up for discussion. Increasingly partisan and ideological goals end up predisposing participants to use Scriptural texts, works of literature or facts of history in support of their own prejudices, rather than looking at these things to see what can actually be learned from them. Robinson is willing to criticize both sides for this error.

“Simple faiths tend to be driven to distraction by anomalies, and to bring an especially acerbic moralism to bear on whatever their belief systems cannot account for.” (pg. 152)

Legalism takes many forms. But the result is that both sides consider honest disagreement with their positions as morally wrong. This is not conducive to discussion or persuasion, and it is a narrow kind of thinking that a better educated sense of history and literature would frown upon. Robinson finds another example of this kind of thinking among those who believe there to be a conflict between faith and science.

“We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it.” (pg. 11)

It's not just atheists who think modern science contradicts religion. Many Christians believe this as well. But the belief is assuming that one's religion is going to conflict with scientific truths. This does not have to be so.

“It would seem that Americans have internalized a great prejudice against Christianity, assuming that it could not withstand the scrutiny of what they take to be a more intellectually sophisticated culture. How much anti-intellectualism, how much resentment of Europe and its influence, can be traced back to this prejudice? And how is it consistent with the belief that the church is the body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a more vigorous body, that of the nation? As I have said, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to be drawn in light of the many examples of nationalized and officialized religion that persist in the modern world. In general, this posture, this preemptive assault on secularism with all it entails, strikes me as frightened and antagonistic. Neither of these are emotions becoming in Christians or in the least degree likely to inspire thinking or action of a kind that deserves to be called Christian.” (pg. 136)

Robinson speaks with the authority that she does because she believes Christianity is really true. If you really find that you believe Christianity is true, then this ought to free you to consider and engage with other truths no matter from where they derive. This enables her to confront new scientific discoveries and theories without being intimidated by them (a quality she very well may have cultivated from reading St. Thomas Aquinas). For example, Quantum Mechanics has been advancing by leaps and bounds over the years and atheists use some of its new theories as arguments against religion. Robinson almost casually brushes these problems aside:

“While the new atheists are ready to embrace the hypothetical multiverse, the idea that being has presented itself over and over again in infinite iterations of which our universe is one, in general the cosmos does not interest them. The multiverse hypothesis is attractive to them because it answers, potentially, the questions raised by the apparent fine-tuning of this universe to suit it to supporting life. If there are any number of universes, odds are that one of them will have these properties. One of them will be of a kind to produce and sustain creatures like us, so it is no coincidence that that is the very universe in which we find ourselves.

If a positivist test were brought to bear on this idea, the multiverse, it would be discarded as meaningless because it can never be falsified. But in fact the idea is interesting and relevant for just this reason. Given what we think we know about the origins of the universe, there is nothing implausible in the idea that like phenomena of creation might have occurred any number of times. Biblical and traditional conceptions of God have enough grandeur in them to accommodate the theory without difficulty, so there are no religious grounds for rejecting it. Its importance to the new atheist argument lies precisely in the fact that, true or not, falsifiable or not, it amounts to a statement of the fact that our experience of being is special and parochial.”
(pg. 196)

But if you follow Robinson's reasoning, even the proposition that the existence of mankind is unique and limited does not have to be challenged by adherents to Christianity. There are many traditional Christian theologians who would argue for this exact point. Modern science has been making incredible discoveries over the years and there is no good reason for Christians to reject most of what a reasonable person would view as scientific progress. But science reveals truths to us without addressing other questions. A purely scientific viewpoint provides no means for interpreting some of the facts about ourselves upon which we now have an increased understanding.

In her first essay in the book, "Freedom of Thought," Robinson writes:

"... there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul. Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word 'soul,' and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes 'soul' would do nicely.”
(pg. 8)

But while the traditions contained within literature and philosophy speak in terms of the human soul, today we "do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone." (pg. 5) While modern secularism discounts the idea of the soul by explaining it away as merely the process of firing neurons and chemical reactions in the brain, modern evangelicalism discounts the idea of the soul by looking at it as a means of distinguishing those who are and those who aren't on their side. To the evolutionary behaviorist, the human soul's mysteries are easily explained by pure biological needs and urges. To the average evangelical, the human soul is a prize to be captured from the enemy. Neither viewpoint allows for the expression and the glories that arise when one learns to be sensitive to the yearnings of the soul. Why bother with any interest at all in the arts and humanities if the idea of the soul is so cheapened?

“Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not.” (pg. 6)

Robinson expresses concern that the pettiness of the terms in which many within the American church think will turn others away from both Christianity and the rich treasury of literature that religious tradition has given us. When modern Christians act as if they are threatened by humanism, by philosophy, by differing historical traditions, by scientific advances, by universities and learning then they are going to cause others to reject Christianity. Americans make a number of claims about their own Christianity, this, in another sense, even represents modern day Christianity to the rest of the world.

“The world will see what we make of ourselves. These self-induced panics do nothing to enhance the respect the world has for us or for religion or Christianity. And to the extent that we are associated with Christianity we run the risk of defacing it in the world’s eyes. I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks. But just as discredited institutions close the path to Christian faith for many good people, undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many more.” (pg. 137)

As you read Robinson, you get the impression that we've lost some things that used to be very important. Our forsaking of the arts and humanities (for whatever reason) and our insistence on what can often reasonably be called an anti-intellectualism is crippling us. We have, by one way or another, limited our knowledge and understanding of the past. We are not as reading to consider or accept ideas that are outside of our own limited time and place. We have turned into the bad sense of the phrase "close-minded." This type of thinking has not just damaged how Christianity appears to the rest of the world, it also has affected our discourse within the public square.


“We live in a moment in which old conflicts, much altered during their subterraneous years, have boiled up again. The struggle to own the past so that it can be made to serve contemporary interests had led to gross distortions.” (pg. 172)

When you only use history and literature as a mere tool to support your own partisan side of an argument, you are going to inevitably misinterpret and misunderstand what has happened in the past and misconstrue truths about human nature. Public dialogue in the United States has been in a downward spiral for some time.

“... the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.” (pg. xiv)