Friday, January 31, 2003

Here is my revised reply to Jonathan Metzger's lengthy reply to my piece against movies.

You rightly note that my real argument against movies in general does not come until the end of the piece. The rest of the it is fairly standard stuff objecting to bad movies. Hence, your refutation of those with examples of good movies work perfectly well. My extremism is intended--the sweeping generalizations are included for shock value in hopes of provoking thought. Myself, I have numerous favorite movies which have helped to mold me into who I am today. I think their effect has been positive.
Incidentally, I should say that my objection to so-called Christian film is opposed precisely to the mere moralizing to which they stoop, indoctrinating instead of inspiring. Very few people need to hear the 10 Commandments rehashed yet again--most of us know them fairly well by now, and they don't much speak to the heart. The law never does. But enough of that. Suffice to say, I think we at least agree on this point.

Your final refutations, however, don't work so well. I don't deny that one could be said to converse with a movie's director and actors while viewing said film--but it is a faceless conversation, in which you see only as much of those people as they put into the movie. As I said earlier in my piece, a movie communicates a man's worldview divorced from the man. There may be a conversation, but it goes on only in your own head--the director has no further part in it once the final cut of the movie is complete. As viewers, we are affected by the movie, but give nothing in return. It's a one-way relationship, or rather, it is no relationship at all, for it does not result in a deeper communion between two human persons.

As far as your charge that hearing a sermon is just as impersonal as watching a movie, I completely disagree. In the course of listening to a priest, or a professor, or anyone for that matter, one does not merely hear facts (or opinions), but sees the whole man, his expressions, his eyes, his mannerisms, and so forth. In such a situation, two psychosomatic persons are present, talking, listening and communicating. All the prerequisites for a human relationship are present, as they are most certainly not in the viewing of movies. I'm certain you agree that there is a fundamental difference even between a live lecture and one recorded on video--it is precisely this potential for relationship.

Your implication that Scripture is not absolutely true is, at least in my case, beside the point. My beef with fiction is not with the absence of historicity, but with the false perspectives and philosophies that creep into most fictional work--the false understandings of the fiction's author that taint the worldview presented. Whether or not Scripture is historically factual, the faith of a Christian trusts that, as its creator is God, it is at least a true myth, accurately representing truths through story. The claim, at least as it would be made by a typical enlightened Protestant, is that the story told in Scripture, whether factually true or not, is true in a loftier sense in that it corresponds perfectly with the higher reality that is God in his relation to His creation. I would have made this point in the piece itself, but it was already a bit long for the Collegian.

For the other matters in which you charged me with inconsistency (or hypocrisy), I might grant you working for the Collegian (though I think an argument could probably be made that such work is not necessarily anti-personal), and will certainly grant you Kipling, but all the rest are the stuff of authentic human life, interaction and relationship. The attending of the Divine Liturgy in particular does not apply in the least, being by its very definition the ultimate experience of communion with others AND with God. Whether or not you accept that definition is beside the point.

Judging from the final portion of your retort, I guess I failed to communicate that, to my mind, true communion with one's fellow man and true communion with God go cannot have one without the other. As Christ said himself, "If you did it not to the least of these my brothers, you did it not to me." (paraphrased from memory) That and that the sum of the law and the prophets is to love God with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength and to love one's neighbor as one's self. I do not deny that I should spend more of my time in caring for the orphans and widows, bandaging the wounded, and in meditation and prayer--all I can say in defense is that there are more ways of caring for those in need than those obvious ones to which you refer, including simple presence and conversation with those whom I encounter in my daily life. Beyond that, I point my plans for the future--the priesthood is nothing if not a life of just such ministry as that to which you refer.

Which is to say, I admit with sorrow that I AM in fact hypocritical, still playing the occasional video game, still watching the rare five minutes of the Simpsons or the not-so-infrequent movie with my housemates--but I utterly deny that my daily interaction with my close friends and girlfriend are a contradiction.

And, for myself, while I can accept your statement that movies do more to encourage you to love of others than any sermon you have ever heard, my own experience with them has been quite the opposite. Which is why I undertook to write what I did in the first place.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

I have seemingly stirred up even more controversy than I intended, before the piece against movies even runs. Jonathan Metzger, a senior philosophy major here at Hillsdale, has posted an exhaustive refutation on his web journal. His examination of the issue is enjoyable reading and rather illuminating as well, as he comes at the subject from the perspective of an avowed lover of fine film. It's helpful to see the matter analyzed from a different angle. We still disagree, of course, but the distance between us is not so great as one might think. I have written a response to his refutation that I will post probably sometime tomorrow, after I edit it a little bit.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Daniel Silliman has posted his defense of movies, not so much a response to my rant as an opposing view. We are thinking that we might co-present on the topic at the Fairfield Society here at Hillsdale College sometime in the future, but for now, our thoughts are limited to cyberspace and print. Do read what Daniel has to say--he makes some good points, though I disagree with his final conclusions.

Saturday, January 25, 2003

Having been challenged by my good friend Seraphim Danckaert to post something substantial, I submit below a rewriting of last month's post against movies. Originally written in one sitting between the hours of 1 and 5 in the morning, I reworked it and included it on the Editorial page of the latest issue of the Hillsdale Collegian. With Daniel Silliman's opposing view and a nifty cartoon, courtesy of Jordan Irish, the spread was rather nice. Do check it out.

I think movies are destroying humanity.

Not just bad movies. The cinema itself is the worst offender in the slow poisoning of the human soul by a myriad of entertainment media.

Think about it�a good movie stands or falls on its ability to draw us into the world it creates, a world that is a work of fiction. It is a man�s view of the world divorced from the man himself, a world predicated on certain assumptions which insinuate themselves, often unnoticed, into our own view of the world.

This is fine, so long as those assumptions are true to reality--but this is very seldom the case. Consider, for example, the vast number of romantic movies produced every year, and examine how many of those stories portray with any truth the joy, the sorrow, the sacrifice and companionship of the relationship between a man and a woman. To depict such a thing with the ring of truth is incredibly difficult. A rare few dare to try, but most present a picture of starry eyes and happily ever after that is eaten up by the desperate masses longing to escape the daily drudgery of their lives. Whether tripe or art, the people will come�the only distinction is which makes more money. And so the movie theatre has become the hiding place of a generation, the bar and opium den of the common man.

You may say, �Of course escapism and addiction are bad, but not all are addicted, not all seek escape.� Yet all are still affected. For movies speak to our hearts, not our minds, shaping and molding us according to the vision of the filmmaker, speaking in a veiled and insidious language things that we would never tolerate in our own minds were they spoken in plain words in the light of day.

It is strange that we place so much important in rationally subscribing to the proper doctrine and in saying the right thing, yet pay so little heed to the state of our souls beneath those superficial statements of belief. A man may swear that he loves unconditionally and forever, but that love will die when emotions fade if he expects love to always bring him happiness�and this is what movies tell our souls. A man may say that he trusts God to work out his life for good, but that trust will fail when suffering comes if he expects that good to never hurt�and this is what movies tell us. A man may claim that he seeks beauty of the heart, not of the body, but when his eyes are drawn to a woman, he will assume that her outer beauty implies inner goodness�for this is what movies tell us. Movies have the power to look as real as life, and are unconsciously added to our corpus of experience, creating expectations and assumptions of how things are.

This power, I do not deny, has much potential for good�but far more for evil. We humans have enough difficulty assuring ourselves that we ascribe to the right creed, free of error and heresy. How much more difficult is to create an apparently living, organic cross section of life and ensure that it is completely true? The sorry attempts of the Christian media to create anything that really speaks to the heart of mankind testifies to the difficulty.

So instead, we watch what are often admittedly high quality, artistic films, those which best portray the greatest hopes, the darkest fears and the deepest yearnings of the human spirit�but the human spirit is fallen, and the films are full of lies, and who among us is capable of sifting the chaff out unaffected? Is it really worth the risk?

You may say, �Of course it is! The human spirit must be allowed to express itself, whatever the risk.� With which statement I do not quibble. Such artistic expression of the human longing for we-know-not-what�whether on film, paper or canvas�shows forth our very nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God. But that very statement implies something else which leads to the ultimate reason to avoid movies and, indeed, all entertainment.

If we are created to be like God, then the loftiest canvas for human endeavor is not celluloid, paper or canvas, but the human person himself�the only thing capable of truly reflecting the Eternal. And, as God�s nature is Love, then man becomes like God by loving. Love being not a matter of emotion, nor of even choice, but of unity, of communion. And this is found only through prayer. For through prayer we may enter into communion with God�and through prayer we may learn to see our fellow men as unique persons like us, created to love. Through prayer we may begin to empty ourselves in love for others.

But movies, and all entertainment, are the antithesis of love. They are self-centered, not self-emptying, impersonal, not communal, passive, not active. One cannot watch a movie, read a book or hear a song with another�only be present in the same room as another while experiencing the entertainment. One may talk as a movie plays, but it is impossible to converse while watching.

And most certainly, one cannot pray while engrossed in a movie or a book of fiction. Communion with Him who is the ultimate reality cannot mix with that which does not really exist. Man can truly live to the fullest degree only when he walks with God�insofar as entertainment keeps us from this, it is, in the final analysis, little more than an instrument of death.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Here's something of mine from the latest Hillsdale Collegian. I've wanted to comment on the Korean situation for awhile.

Were I a betting man, I would put money on the prediction that American soldiers will be on the ground in Iraq within a month�s time. This not based particularly on hard facts, inside information or anything save my own gut feel and a lot of wishful thinking. I look forward to the time when my daily dose of news no longer includes the latest in an interminable succession of utterly un-unique updates on U.N inspections, Iraqi intransigence and pseudo-enlightened European appeasement.
Much more, I look forward to the day when I hear the Bush administration�s true feelings on North Korea, the day when I understand what plan drives our dealings with our now-nuclear Asian friends. The daily double dose of official diplomatic smoothing of the crisis balanced with the investigative doomsday mutterings of every great news organ in the country is growing increasingly stressful. North Korea, at all accounts but that of the Bush administration, poses a clear and present danger, possessing perhaps the deadliest trio of attributes in the modern world: nuclear weapons, the means of delivery thereof and, apparently, the insane willingness to use them. And we don�t seem to be doing anything about it.
Admittedly the nutty North Koreans picked a particularly bad time to raise a ruckus. We�re in the middle of the whole Iraq thing, with thousands of troops already in the Middle East and many more on the way; diplomatically, we�re struggling to keep our ducks in a row with our allies and the United Nations�we simply don�t have the time, energy or resources to deal with a nuclear-equipped Communist anachronism with a nation-sized Napoleon complex.
I understand and support the game plan that puts North Korea on the back burner until Iraq is dealt with�the whole point of removing Saddam Hussein from power and transplanting Iraq from the �hostile� column to the list of American-friendly nations in the Middle East is to prevent her from ever posing the threat we now face from North Korea. I can even support a certain degree of diplomatic double-talk from the Bush administration to keep North Korea on the sidelines until such a time as we can deal with her. But my support depends on a certain degree of trust that George W. Bush and his advisors are sufficiently well-informed and competent not only to eliminate the threat when the time comes, but to ensure that the situation does not escalate beyond their control while they go about their business in Iraq. And that trust is being seriously tested.
Discerning any real plan from the official statements of the Bush administration has been all but impossible. Its policy has been first and foremost simply not to negotiate with Pyongyang until its nuclear development ends�but it was that very ultimatum that precipitated the current crisis back in October, when Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly informed North Korean officials that the United States was aware of its violations of former agreements and demanded that those violations stop. Intelligence insiders had predicted that North Korea would cooperate when confronted. Obviously, they were wrong.
North Korea is making a bid for recognition as a legitimate nuclear power�which Bush of course cannot give without destroying his credibility. Hence the current impasse, in which the administration is anything but consistent.
The only discernible pattern is one of delay: Bush does not want to deal with North Korea until Iraq is out of the way. And, almost as obviously, he wants to keep his options open for the future while maintaining at least some degree of consistency with his own articulated policies for terrorists and the nations that support them. Which is well and good, so long as the crisis doesn�t spiral out of control.
But one is forced to fear that it already has. North Korea effectively holds South Korea hostage, particularly now that it possesses nuclear weapons. A purely military solution to the problem seems out of the question. And the current haphazard policy does not seem well considered to give America the diplomatic upper hand in future negotiations. In all the analyses I have read of the crisis, I have yet to read any suggestions for how to deal with it; journalists are contenting themselves with fear-mongering. Criticism is all too easy, especially when solutions seem so elusive.
Keeping in mind Bush�s past triumphs with the United Nations, the Democratic Senate and the elections themselves, I hesitate to predict failure in this matter�others have underestimated his leadership abilities and political savvy before, to their own humiliation. And even if he does mess up with North Korea, as he is merely human, we must cut him at least some slack, right?
The unfortunate truth, however, is that when the game involves nutty Communist recluses with nukes, the permissible margin of error is very small, while the stakes are higher than ever. Let us all hope and pray that the President is on the ball�because if he messes up here, the consequences may well be greater than any of us can imagine.