Friday, 8 July 2016

A Review Of The "DARK KNIGHT" Trilogy [Part 1]: Batman Begins

Starting from a modestly budgeted origin movie, Batman Begins, that reshaped our facile, almost comedic, preconception of the Caped Crusader, to a record-breaking sequel, The Dark Knight, and then to one of the most riveting and acclaimed franchise-closer's, The Dark Knight Rises, the figure of Batman, as imagined by the Nolans, is now something of note: one of the greatest fictional characters penned and inked, and now realized in film. I'm a firm believer that what has been titled The Dark Knight Trilogy (DKT) is the best superhero franchise ever engineered. While the last seems to be hyperbole, I don't believe so. Really, it's only by some blasphemy that the DKT isn't reserved a seat as one of the greatest continuities of the last 10 years (might as well make that 20, 40, 70 years). But, in case the man needeth persuasion, I'd like to make a case by scoping the three individual installments of the DKT, and find that they are given due justice--a well deserved "Because He's Batman!"

Batman Begins

Pain, anxiety and searching are the arcs of this debonair but highly intoxicating film. Everything from what has previously been shot of Batman has been ushered to the door of oblivion. Behold, a re-classed version of something wonderful and violent. Add the grace of a few actors and the genius of a British director to the idea of Bob Kane, plus an advanced musical component, and you have the inception of a great--no, downright redonculous--hero franchise.

Welcome to a prison in Tibet.
     This film decides, from the get-go, that it won't be compared with anything (contrary to what I've done a decent amount of already). So feel free to forget my first paragraph.
     Bruce Wayne, given life by a shredded Christian Bale, steps out into the quieting cold in an introduction to the character that few have appreciated--the privileged inheritor of a ludicrously powerful family brought deep into a life of taking for the sake of knowing his opponent's mind, the criminal mind.
     The day-time coin-flip to Batman, Wayne, struggles to know what it means to be desperate as he has spent nearly seven years in east-Asia as a poor thief. Caught, he passes his time fighting criminals within his captivity until he meets the insightful Henry Ducard, played by Liam Neeson's badassery, who is later discovered to truly be the more devilish and legendary Ra's Al Ghul.
     Trained to fight like a ninja, Ducard teaches his pupil patience, to strike unhesitatingly against those deserving, and that the anger he harbors against his parents' killer is a great asset in fighting injustice. Knowing true justice is distinct from petty retaliation, the ideology of Ra's Al Ghul's League of Shadows turns Wayne away from taking part in their company of vigilante's. He returns to Gotham.
     What can be appreciated about the film, right away, is the world in which we're immersed. From a visual stand-point, everything that is big is great, everything that is small is magnified so that while we are interested in everything we see on screen, the right details come out.
     Atmospherically, realism is the air we breath. From costume design to dialogue to action, the picture is advanced, not whittled down, to the physically comprehensible. This makes sense though not everybody agrees. Some would rather see Batman as the superhuman who vaporizes his foes' strike attempts as per the Arkham games. However, if the heroes and villains we're entertaining are fundamentally human and not magically supercharged, then would the world of Batman not be more Earthly than fantastic? I would think so. Thus, Nolan's rendition seems logical. Throughout the series, the humanness of the Batman universe becomes something to cherish, as opposed to regret.
     A key distinction between the Nolan trilogy and the hazy realm of superhero movies is the involvement of philosophical discussion. Villains that fight 'roided soldiers and telekinetic wizards seem to be just play-mates, or rather school-yard bullies that evoke all the typical messages and bring out all the great qualities you'd hope would be absorbed and exhibited by preteen nerds. They come and go with each passing episode. Here, however, in the universe engineered by Nolan, the villains don't just come to threaten the protagonist. They come to threaten the audience.
     Ra's Al Ghul represents a fear-worthy extreme of fanatic utilitarianism. His concern is the flourishing of humankind (to which we all say "Great!"). His means to achieving this end is to remove the cancer, severe the infected limb, purge the forest grown too wild. Fueled by his own past upset, he channels his anger into revenge and dismantle the system indifferent to evil. It's not just about stopping criminals. It's about stopping the men and women who let criminals be. Apparently, the solution is extermination.
     As we sympathize with Bruce Wayne as he navigates his own upset, we see how much is lost in Ra's Al Ghul's moral framework. While he hopes to achieve an aggregate victory for mankind by removing the stain, he draws upon a number of false assumptions. He trivializes life to a false dichotomy of greedy and strong. The greedy are to be eradicated, while the strong should prosper. He sees himself as immortal (be it bodily or spiritually) and thus seems to boast a godlike command over the truth about human nature. His self-affirming piety is really only a cover-up for his deeper misunderstanding of human value and meaning.
     Batman/Bruce Wayne sees life as equal in each person. Each life is complex in its evil and its beauty and there lives a hope of restoring the formerly corrupted society which makes people worth saving. We clearly see this as the burgeoning motive for Wayne's return to Gotham and his evolution into Batman. There's a salvific presence made by his character which beckons comparisons to Christ (I promise not to promise not to revisit this).
     In a nutshell, the difference in the underpinning for the actions of Wayne and Ra's is that Ra's uses amputation to keep balance while Wayne aims at full human reconciliation and societal restoration. Batman prevails because his insight digs deeper into the truth of human nature and posits intrinsic worth instead of judging people either good or bad, which is a 'bad' in itself.
     Well, to be honest, Batman was just a bit beefier is all.
     In addition to the conflict between Batman and his old mentor, a wealth of characters, familiar and foreign, join the story. A few are worth discussing. Alfred (Michael Caine), Batman's butler, per tradition, is an emotional anchor for the film. He's the father figure in place of Albert Wayne and guides Wayne through many of his personal challenges. Wayne struggles inwardly with guilt over his parents loss, honor, fear (particularly that of loss and failure), personal conviction, hubris and his connection with reality apart from his Batman persona (the implication being his relationship with his budding love interest and life-long friend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes)). Alfred would step in in timely fashion to assist in Batman's journey through the quiet pain while he achieves notoriety and fame.
     The movie sees few downsides. Evidently, the characters are reinterpreted to fit into Chris Nolan's realistic, cinematic picture and this means jettisoning some of the more surreal if not cartoon-ish elements of existing lore (i.e.: the Lazarus Pit, though that would've been awesome to see nonetheless). Other random remarks include that I think this movie excels the other two movies in two ways. The first is that the movie is paced extremely well and has some of the best character arcs and development. The second, is that Batman's voice is best in this movie. After this, it gets more and more gargly. Still not bad though.      

Friday, 5 February 2016

On Euthanasia: Why I Think It's Wrong And Dangerous

It is (or was) winter in Windsor, Ontario and I’m reminded of the beauty of the cold season, as fleeting as it is in this area of Canada. I love the way the whiteness of snow covers up the tragic pavement of the city and reflects the luminosity of streetlights. I love how one can find an open patch of ice and skate on it (add a puck and a stick and you’ve found bliss). It’s a beautiful season few appreciate, but it is well known as a dead season, a time in the Earth’s cycle where things die and hibernate and growth ceases. Winter is known as a time of sleep and darkness from shorter days. The darkness and deathly reality of this time brings into present thought that it was not too long ago, last winter, on February 6th, 2015, that the Canadian Supreme Court removed its ban on Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) nationwide and so yielded to what’s been termed the culture of death [1][2].
                Next to abortion, euthanasia is arguably the bioethical debate of our time. Its popularity is booming. It’s gaining momentum in the headlines. The topic of assisted dying recently received limelight thanks to the emotional conundrum of one Brittany Maynard in the weeks and months preceding her willed death on November 1st, 2014. Some may even remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Fresh fires have since sprung from curious minds with diverse opinions ablaze. I’ve now had to ask myself what my stand is on this issue. Pushed by tall figures, past and present, I’m unable to idly observe.
No matter which religious or philosophical perspective one takes, one should recognize that euthanasia is already taking its toll on lives. Its partial legality in the US, from the Death with Dignity acts in certain states, has led to hundreds of deaths [3]. In 2013 in Belgium, 1800 people died through right-to-die laws (it’s now legal there for terminally ill children and barely restricted to mentally ill adults) [4][5][6]. Over 4000 people opted out in 2013 in the Netherlands alone [7]. The numbers globally, and nearer to home, are stacking. If there is a right or wrong on the matter of euthanasia, it is imperative that today’s culture becomes informed and reformed.

Formation of My Anti-Death Thoughts

I, a Christian, believe in the absolute goodness of God – the Moral Argument and the witness of Biblical scripture testify to this – which leads me to some basic but important conclusions. From the belief in God, I believe that there is an absolute, objective morality which exists independently of human will. I also believe that the Judeo-Christian God exists as the referential standard for this morality. Therefore, God decides the rightness of action, not us. Hence, no matter the emotional pull there is towards any position, pro-life or pro-choice, there is a right position which we do not determine but can accept as truth and act out upon (which would be the loving thing to do). Jesus Christ himself was about love and loving others, but asserted that love is predicated on truth and must, by definition, act from truth. We must, as Christ’s followers, remain attentive to the suffering of others while staying consistent with what is true. This calls for theological assertion with similar diligence as one’s empathetic remorse.
To be clear, no easy response to the issue of euthanasia comes to mind. For the Christian, I feel the best place to start is to remind oneself of the Biblical conception of humanity, truths regarding pain, and accepted doctrine relating to life’s purpose. Following this train of thought, one can then proceed into a more philosophical discussion to appeal to the non-religious audience. Delving into each subject, I believe one will come to the realization, as I have, that euthanasia is absolutely immoral and should be criticized in public forums.
We, Christians, understand that human value, Biblically speaking, is intrinsic. It’s not variable. It’s constant. It’s not dependent on the material summation of the person or the net worth of their assets or the subjective quality of their experience. Human value doesn’t shift with the fluctuation of happiness over the time-measure of life and it doesn’t change with the aggregate merit of the person’s actions. Human value is equated quite simply (and beautifully) with human existence. This is understood when one reads Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 139:13-14, Matthew 6:25-34, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9. If we look over such passages of scripture, we read that we are “made in God’s image” (imago Dei), we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that God’s affection for his people is not a conditional one. We matter to Him regardless of circumstance or our behavior. Furthermore, we read a passage like Romans 8 which boasts such powerful clarity in terms of God’s faithfulness to the individual. Paul, the author of this letter, in the text, considers all possible setbacks a person can experience—loss, pain and even death. His conclusion is that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Regardless of these things, hope remains. If we look further into Paul’s teaching, as in his letters to the Philippians and Timothy, he continually exhorts the Church at large as well as the Christian individual to persist in faith through life no matter which battle may arise.
If euthanasia, and PAS by extension, be defined as the killing of a person with motive to end the person’s suffering, then euthanasia is unjustified according to scripture. For suffering is to be expected as a necessary, albeit temporary, aspect of life in today’s age until the return of Christ. Recognizing that pain, from a Christian worldview, does not tarnish the value of the person’s life nor rob them of their purpose, there really can’t be a logically coherent, conscientious scriptural defense of euthanasia.
Now taking another approach to the problem, if we examine the topic from a philosophical perspective, proponents of right-to-die laws, or so-called “Death with Dignity”, are still with questions to answer.
There is foremost the concern over the subjective, relativistic underpinning for pro-euthanasia arguments. Take as an example the argument that a person suffers so much pain that to prolong their life would be undignified; therefore “mercy killing” would be the morally good action. The chronological variant of this argument is that the death of the person is so likely and so near that it would be better to die sooner than to prolong the life in vain, or to at least give this option to the dying person. In response to these statements, I ask, How much pain is required to justify “mercy killing”? What type of pain? At what stage in a person’s life? How imminent and probable must the person’s death be? Questions like these uncover the obvious truth that pain is a spectrum, as is time with respect to death, which makes it quite difficult (rather impossible) to objectively draw a moral line in the sand – How much pain is too much? At what time is suicide appropriate? What it really comes down to is granting people the permission and the means to take their own life, or the life of another, because we want to out of pity. This is called a slippery slope, and the effects of such are already being seen in places like Belgium where people have sought PAS on the basis of depression and mental illness, alone, and not just suffering from physical disease. It’s hard to see what will stop a nation, if they grant PAS to any, from granting PAS to all as a basic human right. It’s then even harder to see right-to-die laws as anything but a Trojan horse erupting from within an army of pathos-injected, bad arguments to the death of many.
Other defenses tend to rely heavily on utilitarian terms. For example, allowing PAS as an option may save on expenses required to futilely keep the patient alive. These types of arguments not only disturb me but only self-evidence the absurdity of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. Can values of good and evil be reduced to actuarial science or mere economics? Can they be founded purely on a naturalistic worldview? If one worshipped the individual, perhaps, or rather the individual’s happiness. (But what or who made happiness the objective pinnacle of existence?) Sure, one can extrapolate the Happiness Principle to the concept of the collective good by maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering for all, but the problematic questions for the utilitarian persist. To me, the utilitarian defenses convey an entirely shallow if not a vacuous understanding of goodness and can offer no true meaning to the suffering individual other than to rid themselves of the illusion of meaning. If good and evil be a scoreboard hanging over the head of the human race, then it becomes clear that morality is but a sport whose rules are mind-dependent, variable, and ironically incalculable.  
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, when I say that ‘dignity’, from a secular utilitarian perspective, is a paradoxical and confusing notion. However, it comes up again and again in the debates I’ve seen, heard and participated in (look again at the argument I begin with two paragraphs up). If God isn’t real (or if we simply just remove God from consideration) in the moral conversation, then the conversation becomes subjective. If no objective morality exists, then, it follows that no true definition of good and evil exists. How then do we define dignity? The dictionary defines dignity as worthy of respect and honor, but what is respectable and honorable in an amoral, or subjectively moral, world? So the question of dignity is without answer and the argument from dignity meaningless. The irony of it all is that to argue that dying in suffering is undignified (pro-euthanasia) is to assert that, yes, there is such a thing as dignity which is to assert there is a real moral fabric to our existence. One can only come to this conclusion within a theistic framework and it’s this framework which argues that human dignity is not in a painless existence but in an existence alone.      
With all of this being said, it is still very much important to remember that those who suffer immensely and approach death are not lost in God’s peripheral. Sometimes an argument against euthanasia can seem like dooming the individual to a cold, lonely termination where God just stands by and watches the unfolding, like a Cosmic Sadist (read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed). The truth is that the experience of suffering is not reducible to abstractions. Where mere theological thought and tangible providence meet is in the Gospel according to the Christian faith. Only in the Gospel can a true remedy for meaninglessness and joylessness be found. If one be a Christian, the effectiveness and love of one’s assertions hinges on whether it all can be brought back to the sufficient provision of Christ in his death and resurrection. To know that a God would suffer for one as absolution for sin, propitiation for God’s wrath is to have a hope that endures pain and death. The Gospel is the knowledge of having life purposefully and eternally.
The reasons for opposing the pro-euthanasia movement seem fairly evident to me. My hope isn’t to bring further pain to those nearing death or having had an experience with euthanasia. The intention of this argument is to convey what I believe to be a relevant truth, unpopular and scarcely considered, that it may prevent further loss of life, meaning and hope.

Declaration On Euthanasia And Assisted Suicide:

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Four Films For The Next Four Months

For all you students out there, four movies to see next semester...


Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), one can be sure Sicario will be far from straight-forward. The movie stars Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. It tells a story of a war against drug cartels in Mexico. The movie, apparently, also has a rating of 8.1, 87 and 83 from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively. 

CA Release: September 25, 2015

The Martian

Based on the successful novel by Mike Weir, The Martian continues the realistic science-fiction trend with direction from Ridley Scott. The protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), finds himself stranded on Mars and struggles to survive. Huge casting lineup. A great novel source. Lots of dark humor to weepingly chuckle over. And science!

CA Release: October 2, 2015


2012's Skyfall blew away expectations, hence, more expectations have arisen for Spectre, the next episode of the 007 franchise. Whether it's the inclusion of Cristoph Waltz to play the next villain, the new Aston Martin, or just the fact that Daniel Craig is still kicking the can as James Bond, there's a reason to be stoked.

CA Release: November 6, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars is a title of cinematic legend, thanks to the original trilogy. It is also a title of discouragement and distrust, thanks to the prequels which boasted less awesomeness. However, a new director in J.J. Abrams has assumed the mantle of responsibility to continue the film-making tradition that still draws attention. Harrison Ford is back as well as Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. So far, I'm sold on this project.

CA Release: December 18, 2015

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Lyric Commentary| Ashes Of Eden, by Breaking Benjamin

Song: Ashes Of Eden
Artist: Breaking Benjamin
Album: Dark Before Dawn
Album release date: June 23, 2015


After an official separation of ways in 2010, the hard rock band known as Breaking Benjamin got back together in 2013 and produced their 5th studio album, Dark Before Dawn. With lead singer Benjamin Burnley adding an all-new crew, including Jason Rauch, formerly a guitarist for Red, the band has rejuvenated itself into recording a now top-selling album. Largely, the sounds are familiar, utilizing common riffs and trademark vocal accentuation, while entertaining a little bit of new. A minimal sentiment of disappointment does swell from the thought that the group over-recycled past material. However, the whole is certainly entertaining with parts that are downright awesome. The real golden star however is given for the impressive lyrical strides made by the band, utilizing metaphors relevant to the group's history. In all, this electric, sophisticated album is a success, both in sales and in quality.  

Ashes Of Eden: A Psalm Of Today

In an album that is quicker on its feet than many have expected, a song like this makes sense in so many ways. It has the qualities of an album-changer and an era-definer, at least for the band. Perhaps, this song won't be privileged the attention given to other singles like Failure--to my disappointment--but it could alter the musical direction of the band for future projects. 
     Ashes of Eden is truly a song about lead singer-guitarist Benjamin Burnley. Perhaps it carries some meaningful overlap with the story of the band, too, but this song is about Burnley. And it's extremely relevant to the audience. It carries significance for those who respect, admire and criticize the band and especially its leading man since 1998. This is why it's an important track off the record to dissect.
     Taking a step back, for a brief moment, the musical aspect of the song is quite different from the norm. It paces to a near halt by comparison to the rest of Dark Before Dawn and the vocals are completely detached of the usual sand-paper we typically get from BB's lead. With subtle synth undertones, a strumming guitar and a chilling string accompaniment, the song is as tranquil and eloquent as the band has ever been.

Will the faithful be rewarded
When we come to the end
Will I miss the final warning
From the lie that I have lived
Is there anybody calling
I can see the soul within
And I am not worthy of this.  

Are you with me after all
Why can't I hear you
Are you with me through it all
Then why can't I hear you
Stay with me, don't let me go
Because there's nothing left at all
Stay with me, don't let me go
Until the ashes of Eden fall
Will the darkness fall upon me
When the air growing thin
Will the light begin to pull me
To its everlasting will
I can hear the voices calling
There is nothing left to fear
And I am still calling
I am still calling to you
(Don't let go)
Why can't I hear you
Stay with me, don't let me go
Because there's nothing left at all
Stay with me, don't let me go
Until the ashes of Eden fall
Heaven above me, take my hand (stay with me, don't let me go)
Shine until there's nothing left but you
Heaven above me, take my hand (stay with me, don't let me go)
Shine until there's nothing left but you

Obviously, Burnley is opening up to a slightly more transparent discussion of ideas surrounding God, the afterlife and redemption than earlier lyricism. BB has always rocked to an emo lyric, with moody themes often leaving tear-inducing afterthoughts. However, I get the sense that, as Burnley is cited to having divulged, the songwriter has sobered. In fact, I'm not sure we can properly make sense of this song without understanding, first of all, the personal issues Burnley has confessed to struggling with (alcoholism, health difficulties). Here, in the opening verse especially, it's apparent he genuinely wants to know his life is taking a turn for the better. And it makes sense to turn to the religious, the metaphysical for the answer to that kind of questioning. How can one cope otherwise? And I might add, for the record, that I highly doubt Burnley is engaging in an eschatological discussion just for an intellectual exercise.
     Just to support my previous point, in the first verse, Burnley contrasts the "faithful being rewarded" and receiving the "final warning from the lie that I have lead" to a spearheading vitality. Eventually, the honest assertion, or rather confession, being made is that he isn't "worthy" of being rewarded, of privileging from warning.
     As we hear Burnley's truly heart-searing voice resonate with the words of the chorus and the second verse, it's increasingly difficult to side-step the notion that Burnley is engaging in genuine conversation with God, about God. He uses metaphors, imagery and motifs that only really make sense in a religious context.
     For example, there's a light and dark dichotomy used to describe what is obviously the afterlife. Darkness as a possible aftermath to death (the "air growing thin") and light bearing one into its "everlasting will" as the possible alternative. There seems to be a connection being drawn, as well, with the contrasting thoughts of the first verse, expressing the ultimate outcomes of faithfulness and delusion. Darkness seems to be tied to the "lie that I have led" while light being the result of faithfulness, particularly underscoring the finality of life as the point of anagnorisis. Connecting these dots creates a picture of redemption in its causal structure as well as its theological application.
     If my conclusions are correct, then what we know is that (a) the songwriter is remorseful over his past life (duh), and (b) seeks to escape this guilt, and find his faith in hopes of redemption to avoid what would be the wrath of God or final separation from the eternal bliss of Heaven.
     From the looks of the pre-chorus and chorus, as well as the outro, the tangible, real, personal effects of God seem to be un-felt by the songwriter. Taking the theoretical, futuristic conceptualization and bringing matters to the present day experience, it seems to be that what the songwriter wants isn't just a pleasant existence. I think Burnley realizes when he says "there's nothing left at all" and "until the ashes of Eden fall" that the present experience is one of a decaying nature. Earthly life is a dying thing so he seeks to realize what's eternally satisfactory, what's everlasting--he wants communion with God, even in the now. That would be why words like "calling", "hearing", and "feeling" are used so repetitively.
     Looking at that particular line, "Until the ashes of Eden fall", there's further significance there worth considering. The symbolism of 'ashes' is that of death, decay, dissipation. The analogy of 'Eden' represents the initial perfection of the human condition (and, in a grander scope, universal order before chaos). I think the complete picture being painted is that of finality. 'At the end of all things', in other words. In context, this language stresses the writer's desire for ultimate joy that endures the long game, a peace that surpasses temporal complication, and a knowledge that permanent salvation is to be found.
     In the end, it's a faith journey. Many rock bands and artists come to this very point and write of their own walk in their own fashion. The songwriter, here, expresses a direct and repeated calling-out to one who ought to be ever present, particularly during hardship, but doesn't seem to be. That's a relational struggle that is almost exclusive to God, and within the context of the two verses, it's near impossible to argue otherwise. This seems to be a way of perhaps understanding the greater significance of his past struggles and the band's internal difficulties, or perhaps he genuinely wants to know whether God's a thing or not. Whether or not the Judeo-Christian God is being sought out is somewhat implicit. Obviously, "Eden" is referred to. And Burnley's relationship to Jason Rauch may be indicative of his religious disposition. However, from my understanding, it is uncertain.
How often can one say they've truly been desperate for God? Or, how often can we say we've genuinely sought the answer to the question of God? In a privileged, western world that uses suffering as an argument against God, can we escape culturally ingrained prejudices and honestly contemplate suffering as an indicator of God? Are there possibly satisfactory narrative and moral reasons for God's allowance of pain? Is pain simply the aftermath of the amalgamation of biochemical phenomena, or does its existence hint at a deeper, subconscious desire for something truly without our grasp but within our meaningful interest?
     These are questions that arise in the wake of a song like Eden, which reads much like a Biblical psalmPensive Christians should take the song as a reminder of how life is full of pain and seeking and is beautiful in its complexity. For the Atheist, it could make for an incentive to reevaluate the problem of pain. Perhaps, also, it can provide bridge for communication between the religious and the non. Or, perhaps, this is just another song written by just another band. But I think otherwise. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

RE.: Brian Mclaren On Moral Absolutes

Postmodernism, to some, seems to be a thing of the past -- an idea that inflated, then vanished once it outgrew its benefits. [1][2] These considered benefits were, and are, tolerance, the acceptance of ideas and, in turn, the equality of people who carry ideas. It also introduced to the world a new variety of art that made its way into literature and paintings. Postmodernism, from the two above linked articles, seems to have been a thing but no longer is because it will no longer suffice as a sweeping-away of the real problems that reality itself confronts society with. The appealing and paradoxical assertions of post-modernity won't cut it anymore, it seems.
     But the ideas evidently still exist and people are still drawn to the postmodern worldview, from what I can tell. Collin Hansen, editorial director at the Gospel Coalition, wrote in 2011, "Postmodernism is finished, and no one knows what's next. While postmodernism might be dead, it's not completely gone." [3] In the Christian sphere of theological conversation, there is one Brian McLaren whose controversy has apparently become enormous simply because of his adoption of postmodern ideas and assertions as part of his Christian worldview. He's sold many books, garnered a large audience from his blog, spoken frequently and continues with these endeavors. People seem to be interested in his perspective, and I think personally that this is because people want the best of both worlds, them being postmodern philosophy and Christian theology: the tolerance of ideas and the hope of Christ. Not everyone, however, thinks this mixture is viable.
     One of the criticisms of postmodern thought is its seeming moral implications. Modern voices have repeatedly barraged post-modernity with accusations of moral relativism (and relativism in just about every other sense). While postmodernists assert that absolute moral knowledge and certainty is impossible, modernists have questioned whether this means that a universal moral law is non-existent and that any moral laws, codes and duties can only be subjectively predicated.
     The purpose of this article is to take a look at an interesting response from McLaren himself with regards to these accusations. A fan of McLaren asked the question of moral absolutes which he himself responded to on his blog. [4] The question the user asks is stated in the linked article.

I think it is worth noting, first of all, something of a confusion in the actual question posed to McLaren. The user writes:
The following criticism is what I hear as an attack towards postmodernism, "they believe that there are [no] moral absolutes." Is this true? I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances. Also, I do not get this when I read your books.
The key phrase of interest to me is where the user says that "I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances." This is interesting because it seems to put belief in absolutes and taking moral stances under the same umbrella, as if relativists don't take moral stances. So let's first make the distinction that whether or not McLaren takes moral positions on certain issues is not a directly related issue to whether he believes in an absolute moral law.
McLaren begins his response:
Thanks for your question. The discussion in your class sounds like a classic case of how a postmodern viewpoint looks to sincere modern-minded people. To modern-minded folk, postmodern people seem to be moral nihilists, relativists, compromisers, with no moral compass. No wonder they get so upset!
And you can't blame your fellow students for seeing things this way. This is how they've been taught by most of their pastors, youth leaders, and other authority figures - who were in turn taught this way of thinking by their authority figures. 
As I've written elsewhere on this blog (just search on "postmodern"), the term "postmodern" is often defined in the worst possible light by modern-minded folk, so defending it will make you look like a kook (or worse) to them. So, I won't try to speak for "postmodernism," but let me speak for myself. 
As a modern-minded person, I can only agree in part with McLaren's generalization in his opening remarks. While I believe that many, if not most, postmodernists are nihilists, to some extent, and that most, to a similar degree, are relativists, I don't make that general evaluation only because the assertions of one professing postmodernist to another can change. There is a spectrum of hard-line and soft-line postmodernism and what postmodernism actually is, I think, can be different from one independent thinker to another. For example, one might assert that there is no absolute truth yet another might assert that there is, just that we cannot know it. Or one may be a postmodernist in the artistic domain. In this regard, I think it makes sense for the author to approach the question the way that he did, by speaking only for himself.
Of course I believe that some things are morally good and others are morally evil. Of course! 
But I do not believe that Christian fundamentalism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or secular fundamentalism, etc., etc.) has a superior record of identifying what is moral and what isn't moral in contested situations. For example, in my lifetime Christian fundamentalists have been among the last to release racism, sexism, a careless attitude toward the environment, a careless attitude toward the rights of Palestinians, a fear of science, and a fusion between the gospel and American nationalism. 
Go back farther in history, and there were a majority of Bible-believing Christians in the South who were pro-slavery - and held that as an "absolute truth" or "absolute moral principle" that they could quote chapter and verse to defend. (I'll explore this in some detail in my upcoming book.) 
Go back still farther, and our Christian ancestors refused to believe Copernicus and Galileo - again, based on their conception of moral absolutes based on their readings of the Bible. The same was true regarding the age of the earth, Darwin, etc.
McLaren next reaffirms his skeptical audience that he does, in fact, believe that "some things are morally good and others are morally evil". This is somewhat of a relief, though a given, but it doesn't give an actual answer to the question at hand because of the distinction that I made between taking moral stances and believing in an absolute morality. This doesn't tell me whether his theology posits an absolute set of moral values or a relative one. It is a little disheartening though that he would continue his response by turning the attention towards "Christian fundamentalism". While his argument is against fundamentalism of any kind, he uses the history of the Church as an example. Unfortunately, this heads into ad hominem territory and meanwhile strays from the actual question of debate.
     For the record, a handful of the abolitionists, social activists and scientists out there were and are conservative, Bible-believing Christians contesting for absolute moral values. Need I mention folks like Pascal, MLK, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer? No, I am not ignoring or justifying the previous and future violence of the Church, but neither should anyone dismiss then the good that conservative Christians have enacted. Let's also be careful not to judge a philosophy by its abuse.
So here's my concern: If a person or group pushes the "we've got moral absolutes absolutely figured out" button too fast or too often, they run an increased risk of behaving in immoral ways, and they are the last to know it because of their excessive self-confidence. If conservative Christians would acknowledge this pattern at work in their own history more openly, and if they would show how they have taken corrective action to avoid similar patterns of misjudgment in the future, a lot of us would feel more confident in their moral judgment.
With respect to the first sentence, I think that's fair enough. However, it would be erroneous (especially from someone I think I'm safe in assuming is in the theologically liberal camp) to say that by and large conservatives are in denial over previous mishaps and have not taken any correctional action, for reasons previously elaborated upon.
     If a person is confident in his moral understanding, that does not make their moral understanding necessarily more likely to be wrong. And if that person behaves immorally, is it because he was too confident or was it that he was simply errant epistemologically or debased ontologically? The basic issue of (im)morality is not one of confidence. With respect to the latter statements in the paragraph, the contradiction I'm sensing is that McLaren straightforwardly criticizes conservatives for an oft reoccurring excessive confidence in its moral assertions, supposedly leading to recurring immorality. Yet, to argue that the church has behaved immorally, you necessarily have to be confident in your moral understanding. This will come up again.
I'd also add that I do think moral standards change - but not in the direction of going down - just the opposite. That's why Jesus said, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you..." in the Sermon on the Mount. Over time, I believe God calls us to higher and higher standards of morality. Let me state this very clearly: the goal isn't to lower moral standards, but to raise them as we grow more morally mature. So - before it was don't murder. Now it's don't hate. Before it was only one eye for an eye. Now it's seek reconciliation, not revenge. Before it was love your neighbor, hate your enemy. Now it's love everyone - including enemies.
I'm pretty sure God's standard of morality has always been perfection, in deed and motive. I don't recall a time or an instance in scripture where God permitted the hatred of people or vengeance as a moral law. And from what I understand of Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount, when he says "you have heard it said...", I believe he is clarifying the spirit of the Old Testament law, which many of the Jewish people lost sight of, apparently. For example, in Matthew 5 where Jesus discusses murder and the hatred of one's brother, Jesus isn't saying 'well before all you had to do was not murder; now you can't hate your brother.' What I believe Jesus was saying was that the whole point of the law not murdering another person is that we should not act out of hatred. So I honestly don't see this as a change of standard, just a clarifying of the preexisting law, which Christ affirmed we continue to follow. This goes to support my earlier claim that God's moral standard has always been perfection.
So - perhaps we can put this question to rest for good: the issue isn't morality - with some "fer it" and others "agin it." We're all for morality, as we understand it. The issue is two-fold. Postmodern-leaning folks are concerned whether this or that preacher's claims to have "absolute certainty" about this or that moral viewpoint of his are "absolutely justified," and whether his confidence will increase the chances of behaving immorally. Modern-leaning folks are concerned whether leaving the door open to the possibility that "we" have been or are wrong will lead to moral collapse. If you let an absolutist system go, there will be nothing left, they fear. 
I'd say there are dangers on both sides - the danger of excessive moral confidence on the one side and the danger of insufficient moral confidence on the other. I'm seeking a proper confidence ... one that is aware of both dangers on both sides.
In my view, only God has absolute moral knowledge. Human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to misinterpret God, all the while claiming to speak for God on morality, which (sadly) often degenerates into speaking as if they were God. I hope that helps! (Feel free to share this with your class.)
Why does McLaren feel that while moderns can't adequately define postmodernism, he feels he can define modernism?
     If the issue is absolute certainty and knowledge, well, yeah, then I would agree that only God has absolute knowledge. Because He's God. But it's a different question if we're asking if people can have knowledge of absolutes, and have certainty in them. This I don't think we can deny, especially if we're going to accuse conservative, excessively-confident, absolutist Christians of immorality. This can only be done if we're certain in our own understanding of moral absolutes. If we're not certain of or, worse, denying any possible knowledge of moral absolutes, then why are we accusing anybody of anything? So, for me, I think McLaren would have do be a believer in moral absolutes in order for his previous assessments (especially when he discusses the likelihood of immorality from excessive confidence) to hold.
     If we want to tackle immorality in society, why are we trying to assess the confidence of a person?
If morality is absolute, then we should be assessing who/what people are referring to for moral guidance. If morality is absolute, then a person's confidence means nothing if their definition of morality is debased. Confidence is only at the surface of the issue. If, however, morality is relative, then what are we talking about?
     Therefore, McLaren has not answered the question of postmodern relativism and has instead deviated, in his response, towards a discussion over the supposed dangers of excessive confidence in ones moral understanding. He assumes that a modern thinker's primary fear is that of a society without an absolute moral system (which, let's be honest, who isn't afraid of moral subjectivity) while denying that moderns can adequately define postmodernism. He presents God as one who's moral standards changes over time and personal/societal evolution. If this, McLaren's, were the response that were given to a class of modern-thinking Christians, they would be left with more questions and less answers, I'm afraid, including the original question of debate.
     As I conclude, I'd like to state that I don't know McLaren, I have not read all of his literature and I do not know his current stance on the issue is. I can't speak for him. I don't think he's necessarily wrong in motive but this response which he gives does leave doubt over what philosophical route he has chosen over the topic of morality. For all he's written, here, at least, he could very well be a relativist, denying the possibility of the existence of moral absolutes, or the possible knowledge thereof. I'd be interested in hearing more from McLaren on this topic.
[1] Kirby, Alan. "The death of postmodernism and beyond". Philosophy Now magazine. 2006. Web.
[2] Docx, Edward. "Postmodernism is dead". Prospect magazine. June 20, 2011. Web.
[3] Hansen, Collin. "Postmodernism: dead but not gone." Gospel Coalition. August 23, 2011. Web. 
[4] McLaren, Brian. "Q and r: Postmodernism and moral absolutes". Brian McLaren. Web.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Christianity: Deeper Humanism?

Before the Christmas break, I came across an interesting article* where the author posited that Christianity, essentially and almost naturally, outflows a better and more appealing brand of humanism. In effect, what the author was suggesting was that Christian humanism outdoes secular humanism in that it gives the individual a more compelling incentive to treat others right, to fight for social equality and to stand guard against the sociopolitical vultures of society. Christianity simply provides the winning formula that atheism couldn't.
     It was an interesting article. My attention was reserved, at least, for the six minutes it took me to read the whole thing. Yet, the more I think, I grow skeptical that humanism could ever sit next to such a tall philosophical neighbor in Christianity, and the reasons for me saying this, cynical as they may be (though I think not), I find both apt and necessary for the mind to at least ruminate, however disposed that mind is.
     That humanism and Christianity be mentioned in the same phrase sounds as though both a 'b' and the semitone below are simultaneously scratching my ear-drum. It simply doesn't sound right. And that's because both sounds are out of tune with each other. They don't match. There's no real harmony.
     The human psyche, I suppose since forever, has craved for something that probably can't ever be realized. One could call it global harmony or world peace or economic equilibrium or environmental sustainability or a perfect earthly moment. Maybe this is where humanism came from. The over-intellectualized ambition of a psychologically evolving society impulsed that, since we are without God, therefore we must have Man. Or maybe it's that the radicalized trumpeters of rights and free love, altogether, figured that Man must be God. God must reside within human ambition subjective, relentless and young.
     Religion, though, existed long before the humanistic worldview became the luxurious and popular commodity it's become today. And Christianity, during the tyrannic rule of Roman greatness, was born when men (generic men) realized that who they were was mad and crippled, and that what they could ever dream to be is futile, vain and deprived. Christianity was born when men knew of only one human who was inherently good and was ever worthy of service. Christianity was born when the inward light of disgustingly self-impregnating egoism was outward shone towards the moral and glorious infinitude of the one and only God--that humble Jesus of Nazareth.
     Alright, let's take a step back. The demands of humanism is that people of all stripes be treated equitably. Isn't this, also, the demand of Christian religion? Ethical conduct and equitable behavior are in fact parts of the Biblical tradition of the Church. The institution and its faithful populace have long upheld the words of Christ that we must be defenders of the weak and providers for the poor, carers of creation and dispensers of human generosity all around. But, do these things necessarily equate to humanism? Do Christians love humans for the sake of loving humans alone? Do they desire harmony for the sake of a better earthly future?
     God has called his people towards a humble life of goodness and intimacy with the rest of humanity. It is in His nature that He love that which He has created, and that is why humans are given this command--that we might do like God does, what is good, moral and pure. Christians do not predicate the goodness of activity on the subjective appeal of their ends. Biblical theology points to an ontological basis for moral action and this is, perhaps, what may be the distinguishing, philosophical factor between the utilitarian morality of humanism and Biblically informed Christianity which foremost asserts two laws: that you shall love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and that you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).
     In conclusion, Christianity is not a deeper form of humanism. It goes deeper still. The faith of Peter and Paul presents instead the very threat to human goodness--not to be mistaken with human value and meaning which Christianity, not atheism, will assert--that few can appreciate without a foreknowledge of who God is. Humanism trusts that humans have all that is required within them (reasoning, imagination, innovation) to resolve the unanswered dilemmas preventing the evolutionary flourishing of our race. Christianity trusts only in God to accomplish the greatest conceivable good, which goes beyond petty earthly achievement. The hopes of the Christian faith go beyond what physical promise can bring and strive forward for something that ultimately humans haven't the right nor the capability to acquire, that which God alone promises: redemption amid depravity, salvation borne from surrender, and a New Earth at the end of our chaotic earthen disorder.      

* (... Yes, the Guardian again.)

Saturday, 22 November 2014

How I Was Shaped By The Pentecostal Church

Catch the Fire Church logo

     Church has always been a part of my life and a consistent influence for my faith. Church has challenged and altered my fundamental beliefs and has altered the way that I follow Christ. It's safe to say, as cliche as it is, that I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the Church and I wouldn't be who I am now without it. As an institution, I owe much to it.
     For most of my upbringing, I have attended Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (the title only mentions Pentecostal, but in reality I am discussing the Charismatic denomination as well). There, in these churches, my younger and more untouched Christianity was forged. My inception as a believer was in the Pentecostal assembly.
     As I grow older and learn more and more to critically examine my beliefs, faith and those who profess it, I realize that, in retrospect, the churches in which I was raised were not what I thought they were. In retrospect, there was as much to question about this denomination as there was to respect. In reality, there is as much falsehood as there is truth, if not at times more. As a youth, I saw firsthand the positive, glistening side of the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (from now on referred to collectively as the PaC's) as well as its stranger face where we do not always know what's going on, but something is.
     I realize, at this point, that the PaC's have earned somewhat of a reputation for some of its ritualistic behavior and seeming sensationalism. Not that the PaC's have become apostates, but that they have become the weirdos of the Church--the D&D club of the University, in other words. There is such a heightened attention towards the movemental activities of the Holy Spirit that the congregation feels drawn to intently study its mobility. Here, in this context, situations are set where the people in the pews are made to physically wait upon the Lord, or rather his Spirit, as if the day of Pentecost were a regular occasion.
     Some of the stranger things I've seen include repetitive, formulaic prayers and songs, often meant to prelude faith healings and/or exorcisms, where the whole congregation, whoever they may be, participates. Strange things include humans teaching humans, usually involving children, to speak in tongues. Strange things including declaring God's promises and expecting God to respond by fulfilling them, exactly the way the congregation intends--"By His stripes, I am healed". These are abbreviated versions, believe me.
     On the other hand, I have seen the positive dimension of the Pentecostal church. In some settings, there is actually a greater focus on Christ than on the Holy Spirit, which very often isn't the case. In some PaC's, the name of Jesus isn't just an insertion in a chant or a code-word for mystic empowerment. In some PaC's, the gospel is the centerpiece of their ministry. In some of these churches, there is more emphasis on Biblical study than there is on emotional experience, or at least an equal emphasis. In my personal experience with some PaC's, I was regularly taught about the reality of Christ, the devil, sin and spiritual warfare which has enabled me better discern where God desires me to go and what He desires me to do.    
     These things have shaped the way that I walk with Christ as my Lord. The strange events I've participated in and the greatly respectable service I've received from the PaC's have challenged what I believe, my theology, my behavior and my balance between solitary God-searching and interaction with others who share the same burden. The purpose of this brief article is not to condemn or exalt the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, but to simply show that some of its actions need questioning, like most denominations, and perhaps even some reform needs to take place.