“So which story do you prefer?”

hr_Life_of_Pi_11Life of Pi  is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who survives a shipwreck on a voyage from India to Canada alone on a lifeboat with a tiger for 227 days. In the “author’s note” at the beginning of the 2001 novel by Canadian writer Yann Martel says this is “a story that will make you believe in God”. The 2012 film adaptation by director Ang Lee emphasizes this dimension of the film by using a dramatization of the author’s note as a framing device for the film and repeating the claim that story “will make you believe in God” at least three times at various points in the film. It is tempting, then, to take Life of Pi as a kind of argument for the existence of God. But the film – even more so than the novel – is ambiguous on multiple levels.

As the film progresses, the story gets more and more unbelievable. At one point Pi discovers an island made of carnivorous plants populated by thousands of meerkats! The film ends with Pi finally arriving in Mexico where he is interviewed by a team of Japanese insurance agents investigating the shipwreck. The investigators initially reject Pi’s story as incredible. Here the film skips the important section of the novel where Pi defends his faith by answering the investigators’ objections. Just a hint of this sequence is left in the film when one agent questions Pi’s claim that bananas float.

Despite Pi’s ability to answer their objections, the investigators remain unconvinced, and Pi offers them an alternative story in which the tiger symbolizes his own inner capacity for violence which allowed him to survive at sea but which frightens and shames him in retrospect. In contrast to the first story which implies the existence of a personal God who miraculously answers prayer, the alternate story is the alternate story does not ask us to believe anything supernatural. It is more “realistic” – at least as realism is defined by metaphysical naturalism – but it is also darker and more pessimistic, revealing human beings to be nothing more than animals. After presenting the two stories, Pi asks “Which story do you prefer?” The investigators answer that the miraculous story is “the better story,” and Pi replies, “and so it goes with God.” Here we have the payoff to Pi’s initial claim that his story will “make you believe in God”. Here, too, we have a couple of the film’s most interesting ambiguities.

First, there is the obvious ambiguity of whether Pi was on the lifeboat with a literal tiger or whether the tiger story was an allegory. Viewers may want to debate what really happened on the boat, but the film isn’t interested in that question. Pi doesn’t ask which story is more reasonable or more likely to be true, but which story we prefer. Thus the film seems to imply that objective truth is irrelevant and one can simply choose whichever story is subjectively more attractive. Here it seems significant that when Pi says his story will make you believe in God but he does not say his story will make you believe God exists. So one important interpretive possibility is that the film means to affirm theological fictionalism. On this view God is like a fictional character. Just as Pi’s mother claimed that science tells us objective facts and religion tells us the subjective meaning of those facts, the metanarrative told by religion can be existentially meaningful even if it is ontologically false – spiritual truth simply has nothing to do with historical truth.  Perhaps something like this is what Voltaire meant when he remarked that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.

The fictionalist theme runs through the film. When he first sees the tiger at the zoo, Pi is convinced he can see the animal’s soul when he looks into its eyes. His father sees this as pure anthropomorphic sentimentalism. “When you look into his eyes”, he says, “you are seeing your own emotions reflected back to you.” At the end of the film, after having (allegedly) spent more than half a year on a lifeboat with the tiger, Pi claims the tiger is “my fierce friend, the one who kept me alive”. This line makes no sense literally, since the tiger does nothing but threaten Pi’s life. But, taken as a symbol of Pi’s own inner aggression, the tiger could be said to have saved Pi’s life by giving him the will to survive. Even in the first, fantastical story Pi is forced to eat fish despite being a life-long vegetarian. And in the second, naturalistic story Pi is forced to kill another human being in self-defense.

As a symbol of aggression – one’s sinful or “animal” nature – it makes sense that Pi would say the tiger “can’t be tamed, but with God’s help, he can be trained”. In the Hobbesean state of nature, alone on the sea, Pi’s animal nature is necessary for survival, but back in civilization religion is what allows Pi to control his darker urges, keeping the tiger hidden and contained. In the opening sequence Pi says Christianity taught him love and Islam taught him the brotherhood of all humanity, both things he hadn’t found in Hinduism. More importantly religion – Hinduism in particular, which Pi says taught him the importance of myth – allows us to see ourselves as something other than simply Darwinian animals struggling for survival. After telling his story, Pi says “I have to believe that there was more than my reflection looking back.” Here he has flipped his father’s original warning on its head. Where his father said Pi was projecting humanity onto the animal, Pi worries that, from his father’s “scientific” point of view, humans themselves would just be animals. Religious myth is his way of avoiding that sort of reductionism.

On this reading, the atheistic story is technically the truth. But the fiction of the theistic story allows us to go on living. We need a mythology to give meaning to our lives even if the mythology is false. Religious mythology is necessary for moral inspiration. It is a kind of self-fulfilling deception in which we tell ourselves that human nature is good and it becomes good. The atheistic story alone requires us to be nothing more than animals and, if we believe this, we consequently devolve into mere animals.  A radical form of fictionalism is hard to square with Christianity, which traditionally takes actual historical events as its basis. But perhaps fictionalism can be helpful in showing why atheism isn’t attractive: if atheism were true we would have existential reason to convince ourselves it was false, for atheism is unlivable.

Yet, again, there is an alternate way of reading the film. While the fictionalist interpretation fits the text very well, one could also read the film as being compatible with theological realism – the view that God is not a fictional character but is an ontologically real being. It is important to keep in mind that, according to the film, we can’t know whether Pi’s story is literally true or not. Pi proclaims explicitly, “No one can prove which is the true story.” Recall Pi’s ability to answer the investigators’ objections to his story. So it is not that we can simply ignore the evidence and believe whatever we want. Instead, our subjective preference of one belief over the other is only justified in those cases where the objective evidence is inconclusive. In this way, we can read the argument of Life of Pi as a “pragmatic argument” for belief in God along the lines of Pascal’s “Wager” or William James’s “Will to Believe”.

On this way of thinking, the film is about two possible worldviews – theism and atheism – that equally account for the evidence, but one of which is more imaginatively attractive. Which one is a “better story”, Pi asks. Which one would you rather be true? The argument is that, if theism and atheism were equally coherent, we would be justified in believing theism is true, because it is more beautiful and more deeply satisfying to our innate human longing for meaning.

“Neither one of you sees your natural boundaries.”

Disney’s The Fox and the Hound (Berman, Rich, and Stevens, 1981) is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with animals.  Uncharacteristically for a Disney cartoon, it ends tragically – not with the heroes’ death, but with their recognition that they can never really be friends.  But why can’t they be friends?  Is it because human beings teach them to be enemies, or is it just who they are, their species being natural enemies.  In other words, is The Fox and Hound about genetics or society, Nature or Nurture?

Supporting the Nature reading, there are signs of predation through the film.  Consider the recurring subplot of the birds who try to catch the caterpillar, not to mention the carnivorous bear who shows up to threaten the heroes at the film’s climax.  And Tod (the fox) instinctively chases butterflies and chicks.  It is not clear that he is trying to eat them, but he is trying to catch them, which if successful would likely result in their death.  Likewise, Copper (the hound) instinctively tracks Tod from his first smell.  As pups, Tod and Copper play hide and seek, which is innocent fun, but darkly pre-figures a hunter-prey relationship.

On the other hand, there is plenty to support the Nurture reading.  The Widow who adopts Tod is able to teach fox not to hunt chickens.  And the Hunter who owns Copper has to teach him to hunt.  Big Mama (the owl) warns Tod that Copper will become “a trained hunting dog – a real killer … time has a way of changing things”.

In fact, the songs sung by Big Mama play both sides of the Nature/Nurture hermeneutic.  When the pups first meet she sings, “Neither one of you sees your natural boundaries”, suggesting there is something in the nature of foxes and hounds that separates them (the Nature reading), but then she adds wistfully, “If only the world wouldn’t get in the way”, suggesting society is the real problem (the Nurture reading).

Later she sings a song warning Tod about his impending “elimination” at the hands of the Hunter.  This song also leans toward the Nurture reading.  The problem is society: the hound is with the hunter “and the hunter’s got the gun,” she sings.  So the solution is Nurture (“education”, as she puts it in the song).

Tod, of course, rejects the idea that his friend will grow up to be his enemy, but Big Mama insists “Tod is going to do what he’s been told.”  And she’s right. When Copper returns from a long hunting trip, he is reluctant to rekindle the friendship.  “Those days are over,” he says.  He does, however, still have friendly feelings for Tod. When he corners Tod during a hunt, he tells his old friend, “I don’t want to see you killed,”  and lets him go “just this once”.  But when Copper’s mentor Chief is injured in the hunt, Copper vows vengeance.  The point seems to be that Copper would be willing to be friends but, because of those around him (the Hunter and Chief) and the social convention of fox hunting, this is impossible.  (There is even an economic reading to be found here, since the Hunter makes his living selling furs, and hence Tod and Copper are separated by their roles in the economy.)

So there is strong evidence for the Nurture reading.  Except for the film’s ending.   Check it out:

Now, I suppose one could read the ending as a happy ending.  The film is ambiguous enough for us to think that Tod and Copper might remain friends.  All we see is Tod and Copper save each other’s lives and then smile and walk away.  We then see Copper happy on the farm and Tod looking down on the farm from a hill at the edge of the forest.  Most importantly, we hear a line repeated from early in the film when the pups say, “We’ll always be friends forever.”  All of this is compatible with an optimistic reading.  But there is something bittersweet about the tone of the ending.  It feels like Tod and Copper know they will never see each other again.

On my reading, in the end, Tod and Copper realize they can’t really be friends. Even though they can overcome their socialization, they still can’t be together.  Maybe the message is that society can’t be changed.  It is common to read the film as an allegory of racial segregation: some groups just shouldn’t mix.  This would lend itself to the Nurture reading.  But what about the vixen that Tod meets in the forest?

After falling out with Copper, Tod leaves the farm for the forest.  Initially he doesn’t know how to survive in the wild (the Nurture theme), but he meets Vixie, a female fox who helps him.  Is this just a new society for him, or is there something in his nature that requires this relationship?  (Even the segregation reading requires us to think race is a “natural boundary”.)  Big Mama sings a whole song about their “natural attraction”.  And it is protection of Vixie that finally leads Tod to turn on his friend Copper.

Tod does go back at the end to save Copper’s life from the bear, and in return Copper refuses to let the Hunter kill Tod, but even so the friends realize they must go their separate ways.  Ironically, the Hunter and the Widow become friends in the end (like the families of Romeo and Juliet whose feud is ended by their children’s death).  But in the film’s final shot, Tod remains outside of the society with his vixen in the natural world.

We would expect Disney to press the Nurture explanation.  Bambi, for example, portrays a natural world that is a perfect Garden of Eden where natural predators and prey like Owls and Rabbits can be friends.  The only danger in Bambi comes from human hunters.  In the Fox and the Hound, Disney seems to follow this same pattern, but there is enough alternative material to allow for the more complicated Nature explanation.  Foxes and hounds are natural enemies and simply cannot be friends.  This message doesn’t have to be a defense of segregation.  Maybe this isn’t an allegory at all.  Maybe we should just read it as a realistic statement about the violence inherent in nature.  The world is not as cute and cuddly as Bambi made it seem.

This question of predation has theological implications.  The Bible has a similar sort of ambiguity that The Fox and the Hound has.  If we read the Genesis creation narrative and the Isaiah 11 vision of a redeemed creation as literal descriptions, then it looks like the typical Disneyfied view of nature (as in Bambi) would be correct.   Nature would be perfect if not for human sin, and some day violence in nature will end and the lion will literally lay down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6).  So all violence is a result of human influence, what I called the Nurture reading of The Fox and the Hound.

The Nature reading, on the other hand, implies that God created animals to eat one another.  If evolution is true, then Genesis is a symbolic story and animals killed each other for millions of years before there were any human beings to screw up creation.  Isaiah 11:6 would not be saying anything about literal lions and lambs, but only making a point about the peace that the Messiah will bring and how humans won’t have anything to fear.  On this view, foxes and hounds, like lions and lambs, are natural enemies – and there is nothing wrong with that.  Any lion that could lay down with a lamb wouldn’t really be a lion at all, because the violence of a lion is in its God-given nature.

This view of natural predation is not just a rejection of Biblical literalism.  In fact it fits with a literal reading of some Biblical passages such as Psalm 104:21 which suggests that we should see the lions’ prey as a gift from God, not a result of the Fall.  And Job 41 which portrays the terrible sea monster Leviathan as something God created.  But the primary motivation for the Nature reading of The Fox and the Hound would be to fit with the theory of evolution and the millennia of violence that seems to be built into the world God created.

Then again, who says evolution is finished?  If God used evolution to bring about human beings, then why couldn’t God use human beings to further evolve lions into domesticated animals that could lie down with lambs, just as the Widow in The Fox and the Hound taught Tod to be friendly with her chickens?

“A soft, moist, shapeless mass or matter.”

Pulp_Fiction_cover

One of the most interesting and influential elements of Quentin Tarantino’s work has been his nonlinear plot structure.  And one of the most often cited examples of his nonlinear narrative is Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994).  But, beyond just being cool, what significance does Pulp Fiction’s unique plot structure have for the meaning of the film? I think a good way to approach this problem is to ask, How many narratives are there in Pulp Fiction? The title page of the published script says the film is “Three stories about one story”. But whether you emphasize the “three” part or the “one” part, changes the overall meaning of the movie.

If there is only one narrative, that narrative looks jumbled up and meaningless. It looks incoherent and not like a single set of events aimed at a single conclusion. This is the typical reading of those film critics who see postmodernism as nihilistic. On this reading, the point would be that the world is meaningless “pulp” – “a soft, moist, shapeless mass or matter”, as the film’s opening title defines it – and any apparent narrative structure you see in your life is merely “fiction” imposed on the chaos. So by editing and arranging the story this way Tarantino can ironically give the illusion of meaning while simultaneously deconstructing that artificial meaning through its disjointed structure and making sure we keep in mind that the un-interpreted events are meaningless.

But the nonlinear reading is not the only way to read the structure of the film.  Pulp Fiction can just as easily be read as three perfectly linear short stories. It is only if you take the whole movie as “one story” that you feel disjointed. But the film opens with two definitions of “pulp.”  If you emphasize the second definition (“A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.”), you can recognize that the film is three short stories, an homage to the pulp anthology magazines popular in the early 20th Century.

From this point of view there is nothing unusual about these narrative structures except that there are three of them in a row. Indeed, the film clearly marks off the three stories with separate titles, and frames them all with the diner scene. On this anthology reading the film’s structure seems like an attempt to point out the fact that each of us is really the hero of our own life narrative. In other words, it is an attempt to reflect the necessity that we each find ourselves living in a story. The point of the movie, then, would be that despite seeming like meaningless pulp, the world is actually meaningful and ordered, though the larger narrative context that connects the small narratives of our individual lives can be hard to discern. Thus, by editing the movie the way he does, Tarantino is not making up an artificial narrative structure; he’s helping us see what was there all along.

Take for example the story of Butch Coolidge, Bruce Willis’s character who is the hero of the story titled “The Gold Watch”. The story begins with the formative event of Butch’s receiving an heirloom gold watch that his father Major Coolidge had smuggled through a concentration camp.  The watch seems to drop out of the story, and the focus turns to Butch and Marcellus Wallace being tortured in the pawn shop basement. But the watch is essential for understanding the meaning of the story.

The watch represents a family history of pride and honor for Butch.  It is a symbol of manhood for Butch and the toughness that allowed Major Coolidge to pass on this “birthright” to his son.  A watch is something that keeps time and orients us to the past and future, thus a symbol of heritage.  Dreaming of the watch inspired Butch to win the fight.  His masculine sense of honor wouldn’t let him intentionally throw the fight.  And, obviously the reason Butch gets caught by Marcellus is that he goes back to his apartment to recover the forgotten watch.  More importantly, when Butch unexpectedly risks his life to save Marcellus at the end of the story, his actions are unintelligible unless seen within the narrative of the gold watch.  Again, Butch’s sense of honor and manhood won’t let him leave Marcellus behind.  In his life story, he sees himself playing the role of hero.

So, returning to the anthology reading of the film as a whole, we see that Tarantino isn’t mixing up the plot to impose artificial meanings on an otherwise meaningless series of events.  Rather, Butch’s life really was organized around his relationship with his father (symbolized by the gold watch), but, apart from the narrative of “The Gold Watch”, we might not have noticed that.

So the film’s structure, like the real world, turns out to be ambiguous. Pulp Fiction can be interpreted in two very different ways, depending on how one thinks about its narrative structure, but this is true for any set of events in our lives. So Pulp Fiction actually serves to draw our attention to an inescapable feature of our world. In fact, the ambiguity of the world is actually the subject of the debate between Vincent and Jules in the Diner at the end of the movie.

JULES: I just been sittin’ here thinkin‘.
VINCENT: About what?
JULES: The miracle we witnessed.
VINCENT: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.

Jules takes the theistic viewpoint that there is a meaning and order to the things that happen, while the atheistic Vincent thinks the world is just random events. The two characters locate the same event in different cosmic narrative contexts. The film doesn’t resolve this ambiguity for us. We all have to choose how we will interpret the narrative. Has the film been a miraculous revelation of joy that even the most inane gangster movie clichés can bring? Or has the film been a cynical exercise in nihilism?

“God Loves Nerds”

Every year over 130,000 self-proclaimed geeks from all over the country pack into the San Diego Convention Center to celebrate comic books, video games, and other “nerdy” expressions of popular culture.  But as they arrive at Comic Con, attendees must pass through a gauntlet of fundamentalist Christian street evangelists with signs telling them they’re going to hell.   Some are just there to respectfully share their understanding of the gospel.  Others are there to spew megaphoned hate against gays, atheists, or – inexplicably – those they accuse of belonging to the “false religion” of comic books.

Maggie and Shay at Comic Con 2013This year a small group of missionaries from St. Andrews by-the-Sea Episcopal Church witnessed to a different kind of Christianity.  Calling themselves the “Light on a Hill Welcoming Committee”, these local Episcopalians proclaimed a God who loves everyone – even comic book fans.

The Welcoming Committee was initiated by Bruce Pastor, Jr. and Shay Lynn Harrison during last year’s Comic-Con.  “Bruce and I have watched how much the people with good intentions really turn off others,” said Shay.  “These kinds of evangelism efforts turn me off, and I actually believe that Jesus Christ is my savior!  I saw the need for people to share joy with God in ways that don’t turn people away.”

To counter-balance the hateful signs, Bruce and Shay decided to hold up friendly, welcoming signs.  Shay’s sign read “Your Costume is Awesome!” and Bruce’s proclaimed, “God likes you, even if God doesn’t exist” – a paradoxical statement that couldn’t help but be true if God’s nature is to love.  “Comic Con loves cognitive dissonance”, he explained, adding that his sign is “one effective way to communicate the possibility of God to people who do not believe.”

Sarah and KathyThis year Bruce and Shay were joined by a half dozen of their friends to help tell people that “God loves nerds”, as one popular sign put it. “It was really fun to demonstrate God’s love by offering greetings and smiles, holding intriguing signs that honored the event and those who attended it,” said Deann Ayer. “It was all about welcoming, enjoying and blessing people, which is always a good thing!”

The Welcoming Committee was also a way to witness to the integration of faith into all aspects of life. “I’ve been coming to Comic Con for several years,” explained Sarah Schulz,  “and I was tired of feeling like I couldn’t claim my faith in Christ because that label had already been taken by the obnoxious haters protesting outside. I decided it was time to let my fannishness and my faith stand together.”  She held a sign reminding us that “Jesus Told Stories, Too”.

Stasi McAteer echoed this sentiment.  “I think Jesus is about the same things that people come to the Con for: great stories and a sense of belonging,” she said. “I am so proud to be part of a faith community that celebrates creativity,” she added.  “It pains me that people would claim that faith and entertainment must be separated – that somehow a person who loves Comic Con can’t also love – or be loved by – God. I wanted to get out the message that God is about love, and acceptance, and definitely has a great sense of humor!”

The message was well received, and the mission was a success.  The Welcoming Committee garnered many smiles, hugs, high fives, and even a few tears. According to Stasi, “More than anything else, people would say ‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m glad you’re here.’”  Many people wanted their pictures taken with the friendly signs. Shay and Stasi were even interviewed by Wired magazine for an online piece called “A Field Guide to the Street Preachers of Comic Con”.

Bruce had some good extended conversations with onlookers.  “One man walked up and said he had been looking for people like me all his life,” said Bruce.  “I told him there are more people who agree than he realizes.  We talked theology for about 20 minutes before he said he was moving on to let me show my sign some more. “

The experience was a blessing to Committee members, too.  “It always brings joy to reach people who would normally be turned off to the idea of God”, said Shay.  “It was a great reminder that going out of my way to greet people, smile and share a compliment is an easy way to bless others and share God’s love,” added Deann.

The Light on a Hill Welcoming Committee plans to continue the tradition again at next year’s Comic Con.  Anyone who wants to welcome comic book nerds to San Diego is encouraged to join in, no RSVP necessary.  “We always meet on Saturday afternoon during the Convention near the Gaslamp sign,” said Shay.  “Look for the brightly colored hand written signs!”

Bruce and Stasi

“Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.”

Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) has a lot in common with Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005).  Not only were they both written by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, and not only do they both tell the origin story of a superhero, culminating in a final scene in which all the hero is finally established in his iconic role, the two films also share important themes.  Kal-El (Superman) and Bruce Wane (Batman) are both young men who must find a way to carry on their father’s legacy; they are both men who attempt to create a symbolic persona to inspire others with the hope that good can defeat evil; they are both superheroes whose power comes from an ambiguous source and must make a choice about what kind of hero they will be; and they both face enemies who want to destroy the world to make way for a new utopian civilization.

man-of-steel-poster4So both Man of Steel and Batman Begins are anti-utopian films about the hard work of bringing about justice in a broken world.  “Justice” is one of the key terms in Batman Begins.  The nature of justice is debated explicitly in that earlier film.  But discussions of justice are conspicuous by their absence in Man of Steel.  Isn’t the whole point of Superman supposed to be “truth, justice, and the American way”?  Instead we get a discussion of “hope”.

And yet, justice turns out to be everywhere beneath the surface of Man of Steel, because the movie makes repeated reference to Plato’s Republic , the main theme of which is the nature of justice.  The best overall discussion of the Platonic subtext of Man of Steel is here. Some of the most important Plato references are these:

  • Clark Kent is shown reading Plato as a teenager.
  • Just like Plato’s ideal republic, Krypton is divided into three classes: “worker, warrior, and leader”
  • Just like Plato’s myth of “the Ring of Gyges” (also an inspiration for The Lord of the Rings), Superman is a man with power to do anything he wants and must decide whether he will act with justice or selfishness.  More here.
  • Superman is the man who returns to Plato’s Cave.  Just as Plato predicted, such a person must re-learn how to see, and people revile him for being different.  But, as Jor-El says, eventually “they will join you in the sun.” More here.
  • In fact, Superman’s power comes from the sun, just as Plato used the sun as a symbol of the source of all goodness. More here.

So it is pretty clear that Man of Steel is about Plato, but it also seems clear that Man of Steel is rejects the utopian design of Plato’s Republic.

Zod charges the lawmakers of Krypton with “endless debates” that fail to solve the planet’s energy crisis.  He argues that Krypton needs to dissolve its government and start anew with “pure bloodlines”.  He is appealing to genetic control, complete with baby pods straight out of The Matrix.  His friend’s son Kal-El is the “hope” for his people’s survival, because has been infused with the “The Codex” which has the genetic type for every child yet to be born.  With it, each person can live again.

But, unlike Zod’s vision of a new people genetically determined to be perfect, Kal-El is the first natural birth, “free to forge his own destiny”, something Zod’s followers call “heresy”.  Krypton is designed as a perfect society, but as in most utopias all the way back to Plato’s Republic, people have no choice “to aspire to something greater”.

As his adoptive father Jonathan Kent tells Kal-El, “you have to decide what kind of man you want to be.”  This is true for anyone born free – but it is even more true of Kal-El.  Kent continues, “Because who that man is – good character or bad – he’s going to change the world.”

Here we see the second philosophical theme of the movie – Nietzscheanism.  When Jor-El says Kal-El “will be a god to” the people of Earth, this is not initially a religious statement.  In context, his point is that they won’t be able to kill him.  Kal-El will be what Nietzsche called an übermensch – literally, a super-man, someone who can surpass everyone that has come before and give humanity a new goal to strive for. This is exactly what Jor-El tells his son: “Give the people of earth an ideal to strive for.”

But whereas Nietzsche’s original concept is intentionally elitist, Kal-El is the egalitarian subversion of Nietsche’s anti-Christ übermensch.  Superman may not be Christ – but he is the anti-anti-Christ. Kal-El’s superman is a symbol of the hope that the world can be better.  Jor-El believes in “the potential for every person to be a force for good”, not just the aristocratically powerful.  “In time they will join you in the sun,” he tells his son. “You will help them accomplish wonders.”

Now, while the übermensch idea isn’t really a religious concept, the film does play on the religious interpretation of a god-like only begotten son coming from another world to save his people. When Kal-El saves some children from a bus, one parent says “it was an act of God”.  Jonathan Kent strikes a more nuanced note.  He says, when people find out about Superman, it “will change everything. Our beliefs, our notions of what it means to be human. … You’re the answer to are we alone in the universe. … You were sent here for a reason.”

Like most of the other versions of the Superman story, Man of Steel inserts Christ-figure symbolism.  (Here’s a classic discussion of the 1978 Superman movie.)  In Man of Steel:

  • We first see Kal-El as a fisherman (okay, Jesus was a carpenter, but his first disciples were fishermen) who sacrifices himself to save others; he lies apparently dead in a cruciform shape before coming back to life.
  • Kal-El loves his enemies (saving the bully from the bus)
  • He turns the other cheek (not fighting back in the bar, though he does smash the truck)
  • He “surrenders to mankind” (just as Jesus willingly surrendered and went “as a lamb to the slaughter”)
  • He’s 33 years old.
  • He tells Lois “Thank you for believing in me.”
  • He contains he people in his body through the Codex (just as Christians become united to the body of Christ in the Eucharist).
  • He’s the bridge between two peoples, humans and kryptons (like bridge between God and man)

But, while Superman is a kind of Christ-figure, you could almost interpret the film as anti-Christian.  At minimum it is safe to say that Man of Steel is anti-fundamentalist.

The villain character General Zod is portrayed as a fundamentalist. Zod is fanatical.  He “has a duty” to Krypton and will not allow anything to stop him.  (He’s also a utilitarian: “I exist only to protect Krypton. … Every action I take, no matter how violent or cruel is for the greater good of my people.” )  His elitism also smacks of social Darwinism, a view Zod’s follower Faora-Ul comes close to explicitly endorsing: “The fact that you posses a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. – and evolution always wins.”

Like Plato (or any utopian) Zod wants to build heaven on earth. And he is willing to destroy earth to make heaven happen.  Like End-Times Christians, he waits for the day when the old earth will be destroyed and then rebuilt as an eternal home for a minority of “chosen” people.  (Christians aren’t likely to recognize themselves in Zod, but just stop and think about what it sounds like to say the world will be destroyed and only certain people – Christians – will be saved.)

Its no wonder Superman is concerned about earth. When he’s deciding whether to save humanity, he worries that “they can’t be trusted”.  The priest responds, “Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first – the trust part comes later.”  In other words, if Superman can be the better person and treat us as trustworthy, then maybe we will be inspired to live up to his expectations.

This is Man of Steel’s vision of “truth, justice, and the American way”.  This Superman represents a post 9/11 America – an America that must make up its mind what kind of nation it wants to be, because whoever it is will change the world.  Man of Steel urges America to decide to be an inspiration of goodness for all nations and to resist the temptations of Christian fundamentalism, social Darwinism, and Nietzschean elitism in favor of a vision of hope (yes, there’s a anti-Tea Party, pro-Obama message there) – hope that every person has the potential to be a force for good if they are given the right role models to emulate.

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

The excellent TV series Hannibal (Fuller, 2013-  ) has got me thinking about the charcter of Hannibal Lecter.

Part of what makes Hannibal such a horrifying character is his combination of aesthetic sensitivity and moral insensitivity.  Yet, philosophers Heidi Maibom and James Harold have argued that Hannibal Lecter is an unrealistic character, claiming that “there is no evidence that psychopaths are capable of real aesthetic appreciation, and some evidence that they are not”.

Other philosophers have shared their intuitions about the implausibility of the “psychotic aesthete” character. Yet it seems to me that these philosophers base their reasoning on a misunderstanding of aesthetic judgment. While there may in fact be no psychotic aesthetes in real life, there is, in principle no reason why Hannibal Lecter could not exist.

It is sometimes argued that psychopaths lack empathy.  But psychological case studies of real-life psychopaths suggest that psychopaths only lack what psychologists call “affective empathy”, not “cognitive empathy”. This actually fits nicely with Hannibal. Far from lacking empathy, Hannibal he is quite sensitive to the feelings and perspectives of others. He understands what others are thinking and feeling – he simply doesn’t care.

Instead of an empathy deficit, the true mark of a psychopath seems to be “their inability to take an interest in anything that does not serve, directly or indirectly, to satisfy some desire”.  Maibom and Harold hypothesize that this will yield an inability to achieve aesthetic distance.  Psychopaths treat everything as a means, and so can engage neither persons nor artworks as ends in themselves.

What this hypothesis fails to take into account is that it is compatible with aesthetic distance for a viewer to engage with an artwork instrumentally as a means to her own aesthetic pleasure.  Qua aesthetic pleasure, such instrumental aesthetic engagement would require a certain kind of psychic distancing (setting aside such practical interests as desire for money or sex), but aesthetic distancing does not require setting aside the desire for the pleasure that can result from the contemplation of art itself.

Therefore, since the psychopath doesn’t necessarily lack any cognitive skill, and since aesthetic distancing doesn’t necessarily require abstracting from egoistic desire, then the psychopath should, in principle, be capable of aesthetic appreciation.

On the other hand, this account does entail that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing the value of an object for its own sake.  While they can be sensitive to the object’s aesthetic properties, they cannot judge that it is good the object exists apart from their own experience of it.

This explains why psychopaths would lack ethical sensitivity, since ethics does require non-instrumental valuing of persons.  Furthermore, this account means that psychopaths treat art like food – something to be consumed for pleasure – which in turn suggests that if a psychopath took an aesthetic interest in people, he would treat them, too, as objects to be consumed for pleasure.  “Hannibal the Cannibal” is simply the logical extreme of this line of thought: the aesthete as gourmand as psychopath.

“We climbed the steps to the Wonder.”

To the Wonder (Malick, 2012) can be seen as a sequel in many ways to The Tree of Life. Both films are shot in the same visual style; both are autobiographical, with The Tree of Life reflecting on Malick’s childhood and To the Wonder exploring the relationships Malick had in early adulthood; and both films deal with theological issues and the search for meaning in life. In fact, both films have a scene in a church where the sermon is taken directly from 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

To the Wonder is a movie about love. It deals with all types of love – friendship, romance, marriage, family, charity, and love of God. It is no accident that there are three sex scenes in the film, covering all varieties of erotic love. One scene is pre-marital, one is marital, and one is adulterous. Likewise, what’s the point of giving a main character a daughter if not to introduce the idea of parental love? Malick is systematically depicting all forms of love and revealing them all to be temporary and unsustainable apart from God.

The film is a meditation on “the ladder of love”, a medieval Christian metaphor for the process of sanctification by which we ascend towards God in Christ-likeness by learning to love as Christ loved – or, as Malick puts it, “climbing to the wonder” where “the love that loves us” is found.

The metaphor of a ladder was originally used in the Symposium in which Plato describes a gradual ascent from erotic love towards knowledge of the divine, an idea that greatly influenced Christian neo-Platonists like Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius.  In the medieval era, the Platonic image was combined with the Eastern Orthodox idea of the “ladder of divine ascent” depicted in the writings of 6th Century monastic author John Climacus.  Climacus described the process of sanctification as ascending a ladder towards God as we grow in Christ-likeness.  In the 12 Century, French mystic Bernard of Clairvaux combined Climacus’s ladder of divine ascent with the Platonic ladder of love to produce the image of sanctification as the process of learning to love God properly.  The metaphor of a ladder was important to Kierkegaard, too.  He drew from this tradition for his central concept of the “stages on life’s way”, even adopting the pseudonym Johannes Climacus for his most important philosophical works.

So Malick is ruminating on the Christian ascent “to the wonder” of love.  But Malick’s symbol for the wonder is the abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel, a strip of land that becomes an island at high tide.  Just as the wonder is an island that is often inaccessible to those of us who dwell on earth, so the path to the eternal is often obscured by the waters of time and change – Heraclitus’s river of becoming.

For Malick, as for Kierkegaard, human love doesn’t last.  Lust doesn’t last, but neither does true spiritual love – even the priest in To the Wonder struggles with spiritual dryness.  We are commanded to love, notes the priest in his sermon, quoting Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, and so love must be a choice.  But love is an infinite commitment.  And, as infinite, it can never be completed in time.  The choice must be constantly made anew in each moment.  Thus we inevitably fail.  And yet love never fails us.  It is “love that loves us”.  We are caught up in it beyond our control and beyond our deserving.  Love is always ready to take us back if we choose again.

Interestingly, this line of thought illuminates the need to constantly repeat the Eucharist.  I don’t think Kierkegaard talks about the Eucharist in these terms, but repetition is a key term of his.  Malick, however, hints at it in his use of St. Patrick’s Breastplate at the Eucharistic climax of To the Wonder, when the priest learns to see the body of Christ in his parishioners.  For Kierkegaard, love only escapes despair if the other is loved in God as a reflection of God loving through us, consciously chosen.   In other words, love only works if the lovers are journeying together to the wonder.  But even then it must be infinitely chosen at every moment and constantly renewed, hence the necessary repetition of the Eucharist. Christ’s work of love is finished, but we have to continually reconnect ourselves to it. Our climb to the Wonder of God’s love is never finished.

“I am that one n—- in ten thousand.”

Ultimately Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012) is the same movie as Inglourius Basterds.  Regardless of their surface subject matter, all of Tarantino’s films are actually about movies.  And both of his two most recent films are about how movies have been used to enact symbolic cultural revenge.  (See my earlier post about Inglourious Basterds here.)

Django Unchained returns to an explicit discussion of acting roles first explored in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Think about the Commode Story in Reservoir Dogs: “An undercover cop’s gotta be Brando” and the build up to the initial confrontation in Pulp Fiction: “Let’s get into character”. Likewise, in Django Unchained, the main character goes undercover in the persona of a black slaver.

But Django creates a character that is more than just a necessity. His character allows him to act out his deepest fantasies and he gradually becomes that character – not the slaver part, but the baadasssss part. (Don’t miss the fact that his character allows modern audiences to vicariously act out their fantasies.  Candie is speaking for the modern audience when he says “I would have cut his throat…”)

There is also the point that he is a black Siegfried (just as they also mention the Black Hercules).  Tarantino is exploring the importance of mythic narratives to inspire heroic action.  Consider the ways the black characters gaze at Django, especially in the scene where he kills the Australians.  If the exceptional figure, 1 in 10,000 can arise, the hero can inspire others to follow.

Of course, there is a level here beyond what the characters are aware of.  The movie follows the conventions of spaghetti westerns but also blaxpoitation films, films that presented black characters doing things on screen that no audience had ever seen before, symbolized in the film by a black man riding a horse.  (See this nice overview.)  These films inspired black power movement the way Django inspires those in the film.

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.”

The Wachowski’s ambitious film Cloud Atlas (2012) doesn’t achieve everything it aims for, but it does achieve a lot of what it wants.  At least I think it does.  Having read the novel by David Mitchell, I’m a little concerned that the film would make no sense to those who don’t know the source material.

For example, the title is never explained in the movie, but comes from this passage in the book.  Zachery (the post-apocalyptic Tom Hanks character in the film) says the Abbess taught him that,

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ’morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass and’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds (p. 308).

This is the clearest hint in the novel to the intention behind the device of telling six stories.  Note that, while it initially sounds like reincarnation – a soul can stay the same while returning under a different appearance later in history – the point is really about epistemic uncertainty (“Who can say…”) in that, whenever we are encounter someone in life, we don’t know who they were before or who they will be later.  The enemy I’m tempted to kill now might have been my grandmother in a past life or could return as my grandson in the next life. And the point here is not metaphysical – the author doesn’t really believe in reincarnation.  The point is that we are all connected by a map only God knows.  So a “cloud atlas”, is a map of souls’ movements across history.

But “atlas” is something else, too.  It is the Greek titan who holds up the earth, the metaphor Ayn Rand used in her novel Atlas Shrugged to describe those “titans” of industry, job creators who prop up the economy while the rest of us lazily take from them.  Rand imagines the titans “shrugging” the world off their shoulders, going on “strike” and refusing to let others take from them any more.  Many newspaper editors used clever titles for their negative reviews of the film, playing on the phrase “Cloud Atlas Shrugged”.  But this is more true than they realized. The parallel is intentional.

Both novels end in apocalypse.  But, for Rand, the problem is that the government won’t leave self-made businessmen alone to pursue profit in their own way, and our only hope for salvation is unbridled self-interested competition and survival of the economically fittest individual.  For Mitchell, on the other hand, the problem is that the government has left businesses alone, and their endless pursuit of profit has cannibalized itself, so only altruistic suppression of self-will though a recognition of humanity’s interconnectedness can save us.

In short, Cloud Atlas is the anti- Atlas Shrugged.  Whereas Atlas Shrugged promotes egoistic individualism in pursuit of capitalistic greed, Cloud Atlas argues that the logic of corporate capitalism is self-destructive because individualism is an illusion.  According to Cloud Atlas, we are all connected and therefore altruism is the only appropriate way of life, even if individuals’ greed and egoism makes altruism a dangerous creed to hold.

Thus, despite is apparent affirmation of reincarnation, Cloud Atlas is actually close to Christianity.  Christ’s call to love our enemies is certainly incompatible with Atlas Shrugged.  So is Paul’s statement that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another”, not to mention John Donne’s sermon in which he argues that “no man is an island entire of itself; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.  Collectivism, not individualism, is the Christian heritage.

So what about that reincarnation stuff?  That the film isn’t really about reincarnation should be indicated by the fact that the two symbols of reincarnation – the use of the same actor to play multiple roles and the use of the same birthmark showing up on different characters – don’t line up.  The birthmark doesn’t follow the actor.  Also, when Tom Hanks tells Halley Berry he thinks he knew her in a past life, he’s wrong – he won’t meet her again for 200 years.  (Here is the best discussion of the birthmark stuff I’ve read.)  The point in the novel is much clearer:  we all share the same universal human nature.

So we shouldn’t read the end of the gay character’s storyline as an affirmation that his particular soul will be reunited with his lover’s particular soul; instead, it is the recognition that, because we are all one, then the two of them will be eternally united anywhere anyone is in love. This is what he means when he says,

“All boundaries are conventions. One can transcend a convention if only one can conceive of doing so. … Separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond me.”

This is not about overcoming all rules, only boundaries between people, those hierarchical distinctions between people that oppress them.  We’re all connected, and no one, however weak, is simply “meat” for the “strong to eat”.

“Your kids are your legacy.”

I’m tempted to interpret Sinister (Derrickson, 2012) as Scott Derrickson’s confession about his family life.  (And I’m not the only one to notice the similarities between Derrickson’s life and the film.)  Sinister is a horror movie about a writer named Elliot Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) who tells stories about horrific events, the memories of which haunt him into drinking too much and eventually spill over into his children’s souls. Oswalt fools himself into believing that telling the horrific stories can right the wrongs that have been done and that he’s motivated by justice, but really he just wants to write a bestseller.  And he tells himself he wants to sell books to make money to provide for his family, but he could easily make more than enough money by writing journalism textbooks instead. Oswalt is ultimately motivated by fame.  He has sold out his family, trading in a healthy relationship with them in search of “meaningful” life’s work and an important “legacy”. In a key scene, his wife reminds him that, “Your marriage is the meaning of your life.  Your kids are your legacy.”

I’m tempted to think this is Derrickson’s apology to his wife for making the same mistakes in his own life.  But really it’s the story of my life.  Like Oswalt, I too often let my work – even the “good” and “important” work I would characterize as furthering “the kingdom of God” – come before my family.  Sinister prophetically exhorts me to stop pursuing my own work at the expense of my children and to move my family back “home”.

I want to think of myself as helping make the world a better place – as helping teach my students how to be good and avoid the evil influences of non-Christian culture.  But how exactly are goodness and evil transmitted?  In the film, Oswalt finds a box of old home movies with images of horrific murders on them.  Eventually he realizes that the murders have something to do with a demonic figure who shows up in the shadows of each of the movies.  An occult historian tells Oswalt of a demon associated with similar imagery.  He claims that “ancient Christians” believed the demon lived “in the images themselves” and that children who saw these images would have their souls devoured by the demon.  When I first saw the trailer of for Sinister, I thought Derrickson was critiquing the horror genre itself.  This is basically what fundamentalist Christians claim about horror movies: if you watch them, demons will swallow your soul.

But that’s not quite what happens in the film.  As far as I could tell, the children never see the film itself.  Like a good fundamentalist, Oswalt keeps his horrific images locked up and eventually destroys them.  But it doesn’t prevent the spread of evil.  The problem isn’t the horror films hidden in the attic.  Instead, the evil seems to be transmitted from the father to his children. Oswalt tries to shelter his children from the evil by, for example, keeping his office door locked.  But this doesn’t work. It is interesting that all the other families that are killed by the demon are first seen having family fun:  having a pool party or a barbecue, watching TV together or just hanging out.  We never see Oswalt do anything with his family.  He’s too busy doing his “good work”.

Instead of literally locking himself away from his children so he can focus on fighting evil, he should have been spending more time with his family.  Likewise, neither is goodness transmitted through movies and books. Oswalt wants to find justice and make the world a better place through his writing.  Yet the film argues that this doesn’t happen through writing or filmmaking but through raising a good family.

In the past, Derrickson has taken great Christian films and remade them as horror films.  This time, he’s taken a great horror film –The Shining and remade it as a Christian film.  Yet it is his most subtle Christian film yet.  Many viewers won’t even notice the “message” about the importance of family.  In fact, the ending of the film could easily seem nihilistic.  Nevertheless, beneath the blood spatter, Sinister is an interesting metafictional contribution to the theology of culture.  It is a rebuke to those of us who think culture is transformed primarily through art and philosophy.  Instead, we should be looking to our children as our legacy.