Cocktails with Chopin?

"Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” - Anthony Tommasini

In the December 30, 2007 issue of the NY Times Anthony Tommasini has some interesting comments on whether a patience to listen to classical music is alive and well.

He writes in part: Reports about the diminishing relevance of classical music to new generations of Americans addled by pop culture keep coming. Yet in my experience classical music seems in the midst of an unmistakable rebound. Most of the concerts and operas I attended this year drew large, eager and appreciative audiences. Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time.

Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer. Even a 10-minute Chopin ballade for piano, let alone Messiaen’s 75-minute “Turangalila Symphony,” tries to grapple with, activate and organize a relatively substantial span of time. Once you accept this element of classical music, the reasons for other aspects of the art form — the complexity of its musical language, the protocols of concertgoing — become self-evident.

Structure in classical music is the easiest element to describe yet the hardest to perceive. Too often writers of program notes take the easy way and simply lay out the road map of a piece: first this happens, then that happens, then the first thing returns in a modified form and so on. But perceiving these structures as a listener is another matter. When I was around 13 and enthralled by Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of how sonata form worked or what a rondo was. That I grew so familiar with these big pieces, though, does not mean I grasped how they were organized. Still, I intuitively sensed that they were monumental in some way, for the great classical works seemed to have an inexplicable and inexorable sweep. Years later, I tried to help students hear what seemed to me astounding similarities between, say, a song-and-dance from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “America” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I broke down symphony movements by Beethoven and Shostakovich into constituent parts. Quite a few students were openly resistant, others mildly curious; some were surprisingly engaged.

Once in a while someone would come back from a concert having had an epiphany. More often than not, though, these epiphanies did not turn the students into devotees of classical music. Why not? My guess is that the pieces played were simply too long. Taking in a concert involves a major time commitment. You sit in silence for extended periods and pay attention to live performances that, however viscerally involving and sonically impressive, are visually unremarkable. Operas, of course, tend to be even longer. But opera is a total-immersion experience, with characters and costumes, like going to the theater.

In an essay in The New York Times in June, Professor Kramer called for classical music presenters to follow the lead of enterprising art museums, which have had much success in presenting new and old art in interactive, stimulating and demystifying ways. A concert can offer pre-performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage. But at some point the talking stops, the performance begins, and the audience is asked to be quiet and pay attention.

Even so, the act of communal listening need not be reverential. And classical music has its “wow” factors too. What could be more entertaining than a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s shamelessly theatrical Third Piano Concerto, with its monstrously difficult piano part? And if your mind wanders during “La Mer,” by Debussy, and you start focusing on the kinetic playing style of an attractive young violinist in the orchestra, then, as Professor Kramer suggests, just go with it. Creating an atmosphere conducive to listening does not mean that concert halls have to be stuffy. Dress codes of any kind should disappear. Go ahead and replace some rows of seats at Avery Fisher Hall with rugs and pillows to recline on, if it helps. Much less drastic innovations have proved effective. Lincoln Center’s series A Little Night Music presents 60-minute programs beginning at 10:30 p.m. Only about 160 people can be accommodated. Patrons share small round cocktail tables and have free glasses of wine.

But to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music. One reason “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stunned my generation at its 1967 release was that this Beatles album was not just a collection of songs but a whole composition. I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with friends, listening to the entire album in silence. That was a new experience in rock. “Sgt. Pepper” pointed the way to longer total-concept albums like Radiohead's
In Rainbows,” the big news in pop music today.

No one was better than Leonard Bernstein at drawing new listeners to classical music. When he presented his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he didn’t have music videos or PowerPoint, and didn’t need them. It was just our amazing Uncle Lenny explaining the content of a piece, conveying its character and revealing its secrets. But when the explanations were over, Bernstein would turn to his young listeners and say, “Are you ready?” The time had come to settle down and focus as the orchestra performed the piece in question. Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability — and patience — to listen to something long was crucial to an appreciation of classical music. It still is.

Cocktail bars for classical music?

Posted December 31, 2007

A Need For Atonement?

"Atonement” is an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be" - The New York Times

"Atonement” is one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel the film it deserves." - The Los Angeles Times

An article in Wikipedia discusses how: "the word 'atonement' gained widespread use in the sixteenth century after William Tyndale recognized that there was not a direct translation of the concept into English. In order to explain the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice, which accomplished both the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God, Tyndale invented a word that would encompass both actions. He wanted to overcome the inherent limitations of the word "reconciliation" while incorporating the aspects of "propitiation" and "forgiveness". It is interesting to note that while Tyndale labored to translate the 1526 English Bible, his proposed word comprises two parts, 'at' and 'onement,' which also means reconciliation, but combines it with something more. Although one thinks of the Jewish Fast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Hebrew word is 'kaper' meaning 'a covering', so one can see that 'reconciliation' doesn't precisely contain all the necessary components of the word atonement. Expiation means "to atone for." Reconciliation comes from Latin roots re, meaning "again"; con, meaning "with"; and ultimately, 'sol', a root meaning "seat". Reconciliation, therefore, literally means "to sit again with." While this meaning may appear sufficient, Tyndale thought that if translated as "reconciliation," there would be a pervasive misunderstanding of the word's deeper significance to not just reconcile, but "to cover," so the word, 'atonement' was invented."

The movie “Atonement” is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. The story is a look at the way one childhood lie tragically wrecks several lives.

The Christian Science Monitor in its review said: Set primarily in 1930s and '40s England, it's about the British class caste system and the tragic consequences of a lie. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is the precocious younger sister of Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who is powerfully drawn to Robbie (James McAvoy), the caretaker's son. Thanks to her well-to-do family, Robbie has attended Cambridge and plans on a medical career. Bewildered and angered by the obvious mutual attraction between these two, Briony commits an unspeakable action that eventually annihilates all three lives.

BeliefNet continues: This immature mistake is raised to the level of Shakepearean tragedy as Robbie is sent to jail and then to war, separating him from Cecilia. Cecilia breaks all ties with her family -especially Briony - and waits with longing for Robbie to return to her. As the story cuts back and forth through time, different versions of different events are given, and the audience only finds out the true story of what happens to these three characters at the very end of the film. Problems with “Atonement” lie almost entirely in the second half of the film, when it switches to Robbie’s time at war and to Briony’s search as a young woman for forgiveness for her childish actions. There is the symbolism of Briony working in a hospital as a form of penance, and there is a confession of sorts at the end of the film, it becomes obvious that Briony continued to make cowardly choices in her adult life that only added to the suffering of herself and others. She wants reconciliation with her family and craves for mercy to cover her sins, but she doesn’t seem to grasp that the cost of receiving both will take great courage on her part.

The New York Times was singularly unimpressed with the movie saying in its review that “Atonement” is fundamentally about guilt and the attempt to overcome it, and about the tricky, tragically imperfect power of art to compensate for real-life crimes and misdemeanors. In sharp contrast, The Los Angeles Times said that as an assured and deeply moving work, "Atonement" is at once one of the most affecting of contemporary love stories and a potent meditation on the power of fiction to destroy and create, to divide and possibly heal. It is the kind of novel that doesn't get written very often or, if it does, rarely gets transferred to the screen with the kind of intensity and fidelity we find here. For this is one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel the film it deserves.

Christianity Today felt that the film raises "important questions about the relationship between honesty and kindness, between truth and grace, between memory and wishful thinking, and it ends on a surprisingly powerful note that asks whether there can ever be true mercy without truth. Can one find redemption in a lie, if it is told with kindness? "Atonement" seems to be about people who cannot let go of the past, and are indeed haunted by the past and their knowledge that it can never be undone. Briony, in particular, is searching for grace and forgiveness, and the fact that she can't quite find it makes Atonement one of the more devastating films in recent memory".

Can there be mercy without truth or redemption in a lie?

Posted December 14, 2007

Essential Reading For Nonbelievers?

"Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes." - Christopher Hitchens

The Publisher of Christopher Hitchens' latest book writes:

From the #1 New York Times best-selling author of God Is Not Great, a provocative and entertaining guided tour of atheist and agnostic thought through the ages—with never-before-published pieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Christopher Hitchens continues to make the case for a splendidly godless universe in this first-ever gathering of the influential voices—past and present—that have shaped his side of the current (and raging) God/no-god debate. With Hitchens as your erudite and witty guide, you'll be led through a wealth of philosophy, literature, and scientific inquiry, including generous portions of the words of Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Albert Einstein, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many others well-known and lesser known. And they're all set in context and commented upon as only Christopher Hitchens—"political and literary journalist extraordinaire" (Los Angeles Times)—can. Atheist? Believer? Uncertain? No matter: The Portable Atheist will speak to you and engage you every step of the way.

Publishers Weekly said:

Hitchens, an avowed atheist and author of the bestseller God Is Not Great, is a formidable intellectual who finds the notion of belief in God to be utter nonsense. The author is clear in his introduction that religion has caused more than its fair share of world problems. "Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes." The readings Hitchens chooses to bolster his atheist argument are indeed engaging and important. Hobbes, Spinoza, Mill and Marx are some of the heavyweights representing a philosophical viewpoint. From the world of literature the author assembles excerpts from Shelley, Twain, Conrad, Orwell and Updike. All are enjoyable to read and will make even religious believers envious of the talent gathered for this anthology. What these dynamic writers are railing against often enough, however, is a strawman: an immature, fundamentalist, outdated, and even embarrassing style of religion that many intelligent believers have long since cast off. It could be that Hitchens and his cast of nonbelievers are preaching to the choir and their message is tired and spent. However, this remains a fascinating collection of readings from some of the West’s greatest thinkers.

A fascinating collection of readings?

Posted December 05, 2007

What's So Great About Christianity?

"Atheists have very clearly said that their goal is to go after our children." - Christian, and Domestic Policy Expert Dinesh D'Souza.
"Theology is not little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed it is ignorance with wings." - Author and atheist Sam Harris
"The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be" - Astronomer and TV personality Carl Sagan

Is Christianity obsolete? Do the atheists have it right? Has Christianity been disproven by science, debunked as a force for good, and discredited as a guide to morality? Dinesh D'Souza looks at Christianity with a questioning eye in his book What's So Great About Christianity? in which he also treats atheists with equal skepticism.

Albert Mohler recently interviewed D'Souza about this book:

Albert Mohler: These are interesting days, the public airwaves and so much of the media context is now taken up with the discussion that has featured a great deal of what can be described as militant atheism. Whether it's Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or others, there is a new sense that a militant atheism is projecting itself into the public square. Dinesh D'Souza ... has written a new book entitled What's So Great About Christianity. Dinesh, why did you write the book, What's So Great About Christianity?

Dinesh D'Souza: Well, I've been, for 15 years, a secular writer. I've written seven books, but I felt that something new is happening today. That is, we're seeing for the first time atheism become a serious option for people and particularly for young people. A generation ago the poster child of atheism was someone like Madeline Murray O'Hare, or some ACLU lawyer-not a very attractive image for atheism worldwide. Now this atheism is coming out of the universities, they have scientific credentials, or like Christopher Hitchens, they're stylish, they're witty, and many young people are attracted to this kind of thing. I felt that it's important to have, if you will, a twenty-first century apologetic that took the atheist argument seriously-that meets it on it's own ground of reason and science and evidence. That's the goal of What's So Great About Christianity-to challenge atheism on its own terms and defeat it.

Mohler: I think one of the things you acknowledge in your book is that this new breed of militant atheists really looks at what they acknowledge to be the Christian foundations of civilization and argues that they are negative, evil, oppressive, intolerant, and as something we should simply repudiate and grow beyond.

D'Souza: Years ago Bertrand Russell, after he wrote his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, somebody asked him, "If you die and you find yourself before God what would you say?" And Russell, very pompously, said, "I would say, 'Sir, you did not give me enough evidence.'"So, this was the old banner of atheism-it claimed intellectual superiority, this sort of search for evidence. The new atheism, however, is also strangely clothed in the garb of morality. It accuses religion, and specifically Christianity, of being behind most violence and evil and war and suffering-and even terrorism in the world. This is atheism that is flying on the wings of 9/11. It demands a new kind of an answer.

Mohler: You talk about the global triumph of Christianity and the twilight of atheism. If atheism represents so few worldwide, why does it get so much attention?

D'Souza: It gets so much attention because it occupies very influential sectors of American and Western life. Atheism is strong in the universities, it is strong in the media, it is, perhaps, not as strong in politics, but because we have this notion of separation of church and government, the political square is dominated by ... secularists. They figured out a very clever con in which the religious people are driven out of the public square and the atheist idea of fairness is to have a monopoly of the public space. So, for all these reasons, we live in a culture that is publicly secular. If someone was to come from Mars and visit America, and walk around our public buildings, watch television, turn on the music, read books, you would have no idea that a majority of Americans are Christians. You would have no idea that you are in a society that is a Christian society.

Mohler: So when you look at that picture what would you suggest that Christians should do? Simply sit back and make observations about the growing secularism of the elites, or engage the issues?

D'Souza: I think we have a clear biblical mandate to be "not of the world, but in it." We are all told to love God not just with our hearts, but with our minds, and we are told to give the reasons for the hope that is within us. So, I think as Christians we should be in the culture, fully engaged. Not, if you will, conceding all this territory to the atheist because, let's remember, this is not just a debate about putting a monument in a public building. The atheists have very clearly said that their goal is to go after our children. In other words, they know that they have not won the battle for the current generation, but they are hoping that through the schools, and through the universities, as young Christians come into school, come into college-and remember, as in my case, when I went to college I was a Christian, but the Christianity I learned was very juvenile. You could call it Crayon Christianity, and so it was very vulnerable to skeptical assault. So, as Christians we are sending our children off and they are going to get a withering attack on their faith. We've got to prepare ourselves-even more important-we have to prepare them [our children]. We can't just prepare them with, ultimately, scriptural truth, we also have to prepare them with intellectual and moral defenses, so that they can fend off the attacks that will surely come.

Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine said:

“As an unbeliever, I passionately disagree with Dinesh D’Souza on some of his positions. But he is a first-rate scholar whom I feel absolutely compelled to read. His thorough research and elegant prose have elevated him into the top ranks of those who champion liberty and individual responsibility. Now he adds Christianity to his formula for the good society, and although non-Christians and non-theists may disagree with some of his arguments, we ignore him at our peril. D’Souza’s book takes the debate to a new level. Read it.”

On October 22, 2007 at The Kings College Dinesh D'Souza debated Christopher Hitchens under the question “Is Christianity the Problem?”

Dinesh D'Souza, a former White House domestic policy analyst, is currently the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the bestselling author of What's So Great About America, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, and many other books.

Is Christianity A Problem?

Posted November 24, 2007

The Death Penalty Saves Lives?

"Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.” - Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago and Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard.

In the November 18, 2007 issue of the NY Times Adam Liptak raises the question: Does The Death Penalty Save Lives? This is a particularly timely question in view of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has in essence suspended all executions in the United States until the question of death by lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment can be decided.

Paraphrasing Adam’s article he writes:

According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death 3 to 18 murders are prevented. The studies, performed by economists, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise. “I personally am opposed to the death penalty,” said H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University and an author of a study finding that each execution saves five lives. “But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”

The studies have been the subject of sharp criticism, much of it from legal scholars who say that the theories of economists do not apply to the violent world of crime and punishment. The death penalty “is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors,” John J. Donohue III, a law professor at Yale with a doctorate in economics, and Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Stanford Law Review in 2005. “The existing evidence for deterrence,” they concluded, “is surprisingly fragile.”

“The evidence on whether it has a significant deterrent effect seems sufficiently plausible that the moral issue becomes a difficult one,” said
Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has frequently taken liberal positions. “I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it’s probably justified.” Professor Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard, wrote in their own Stanford Law Review article that “the recent evidence of a deterrent effect from capital punishment seems impressive, especially in light of its ‘apparent power and unanimity,’ ” quoting a conclusion of a separate overview of the evidence in 2005 by Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford, in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. “Capital punishment may well save lives,” the two professors continued. “Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.”

To a large extent, the participants in the debate talk past one another because they work in different disciplines. “You have two parallel universes — economists and others,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment.” To economists, it is obvious that if the cost of an activity rises, the amount of the activity will drop. To many economists, then, it follows inexorably that there will be fewer murders as the likelihood of execution rises. “I am definitely against the death penalty on lots of different grounds,” said Joanna M. Shepherd, a law professor at Emory with a doctorate in economics who wrote or contributed to several studies. “But I do believe that people respond to incentives.”

But not everyone agrees that potential murderers know enough or can think clearly enough to make rational calculations. And the chances of being caught, convicted, sentenced to death and executed are in any event quite remote. Only about one in 300 homicides results in an execution. “I honestly think it’s a distraction,” Professor Wolfers said. “The debate here is over whether we kill 60 guys or not. The food stamps program is much more important.” There is also a classic economics question lurking in the background, Professor Wolfers said. “Capital punishment is very expensive,” he said, “so if you choose to spend money on capital punishment you are choosing not to spend it somewhere else, like policing.” A single capital litigation can cost more than $1 million. It is at least possible that devoting that money to crime prevention would prevent more murders than whatever number, if any, an execution would deter.

The available data is thin, mostly because there are so few executions. It seems unlikely,” Professor Donohue and Professor Wolfers concluded in their Stanford article, “that any study based only on recent U.S. data can find a reliable link between homicide and execution rates.” The two professors offered one particularly compelling comparison. Canada has executed no one since 1962. Yet the murder rates in the United States and Canada have moved in close parallel since then, including before, during and after the four-year death penalty moratorium in the United States in the 1970s.

“Deterrence cannot be achieved with a half-hearted execution program,” Professor Shepherd of Emory wrote in the
Michigan Law Review in 2005. She found a deterrent effect in only those states that executed at least nine people between 1977 and 1996. Professor Wolfers said the answer to the question of whether the death penalty deterred was “not unknowable in the abstract,” given enough data. “If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way,” he said, “I could probably give you an answer.”

Is the death penalty a deterrent?

Posted November 18, 2007

God Is A Fundamentalist?

"The Mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society" - Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is the author of nearly twenty books, including The Great Transformation, and The Spiral Staircase, a spiritual memoir. An internationally renowned expert on religion, Armstrong is a powerful voice for interfaith understanding.

Armstrong's latest 'bestseller' The Battle For God - A History of Fundamentalism is a highly readable account of how the world today faces a clash between religious fundamentalism and secularism.

Library Journal's review of the book said: Armstrong, author of A History of God and other books on the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions, writes very perceptively about the intense fear of modernity that has stimulated various fundamentalisms: Protestant, in the United States; Jewish, in Israel; Sunni Muslim, in Egypt; and Shii Muslim, in Iran. Each is ultimately modern in its attempts at converting mythic thinking into logical thinking and in its use of widespread literacy and the democratic ideas about individual importance that modernity fostered, but each is also at war with its liberal co-religionists and with secularists who "have entirely different conceptions of the sacred." Armstrong concludes that both sides--fundamentalists and secularists (including governments)--need compassion in order to be true to their own religious or humanistic values. The historical range and depth of this work, which transcends other treatments of the subject, make this highly recommended for all libraries.

Ray Olsen writing for Booklist commented: Combining synoptic and interpretive historical manners, Armstrong, author of the widely read and well-received History of God (1993), produces another splendid book that, for the considerable readership interested in religion, may prove to be a page-turner. The subject is fundamentalism in the world's great monotheisms--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Armstrong represents the dissimilar movements called fundamentalist as fearful reactions to modernity, especially the modernist predispositions for materialist reason and empirical evidence, which have increasingly encouraged denying the validity, or even the possibility, of truths expressed by the symbolic systems of religion. But, she maintains, these fundamentalisms are themselves typical products of modernity, for they tacitly accept the modern scientific devaluation of religious mythos by insisting on the literal truth of sacred writings, as in Christian fundamentalists' use of the New Testament Book of Revelation as a set of predictions of particular historical events and persons. Armstrong works out her interpretation by historically tracing the challenge of modernity and the fundamentalist reaction in the three monotheisms as parallel developments that span some 1,500 years. The typically modern pressure of politics upon religion began in the Middle Ages (Islam has never been free of it). A crucial date is 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the first rational modern state, their united kingdom of Spain, even as they dispatched Columbus, probably a Christianized Jew, in the opening salvo of modern imperialism. Intriguingly, Armstrong says the modernizing process had been launched earlier in the century by the Inquisition--a statement provocative enough to current ideas of what's modern to hook many readers, none of whom will later be the least bit dismayed about having taken the bait.

At the end of the book are a series of fourteen discussion topics which arise from the book's theme and which should aid readers in formulating comments for discussion in this thread.

Is there a battle for God?

Posted November 10, 2007

To Regret Religion Is To Regret Western Civilization?

"If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency" - Theodore Dalrymple

There has been a recent spate of books by atheists Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens condemning religion. Books by the Christian authors Alister McGrath and John C. Lennox have been written in reply as have several excellent reviews notably that by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books.

Theodore Dalrymple, who describes himself as a non-believer, has found the attack on religion to be somewhat blind and makes this case in his article What the New Atheists Don’t See which appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of City Journal, Volume 17, No. 4. Dalrymple wrote in part:

The British parliament’s first avowedly atheist member, Charles Bradlaugh, would stride into public meetings in the 1880s, take out his pocket watch, and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. God bided his time, but got Bradlaugh in the end. Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever. In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.

The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence, continues, however; and recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion. The philosophers Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books roundly condemning religion and its works. Evidently, there is a tide in the affairs, if not of men, at least of authors.

The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

One striking aspect of Dennett’s book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence: the coyote’s “methods of locomotion have been ruthlessly optimized for efficiency.” Or: “The stinginess of Nature can be seen everywhere we look.” Or again: “This is a good example of Mother Nature’s stinginess in the final accounting combined with absurd profligacy in the methods.” No doubt Dennett would reply that he is writing in metaphors for the layman and that he could translate all his statements into a language without either moral evaluation or purpose included in it.

Dennett is not the only new atheist to employ religious language. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him. The last of the atheist’s Ten Commandments ends with the following: “Question everything.” Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum? Not to belabor the point, but if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove. Metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns. What is confounded here is surely the abstract right to question everything with the actual exercise of that right on all possible occasions. Anyone who did exercise his right on all possible occasions would wind up a short-lived fool.

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.” In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization … To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it … of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting (Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602), by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window. Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life…..

I recently had occasion to compare the writings of the neo-atheists with those of Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In my own neo-atheist days, I would have scorned these works as pertaining to a nonexistent entity and containing nothing of value. But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists. Hall was bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich; though a moderate Puritan, he took the Royalist side in the English civil war and lost his see, dying in 1656 while Cromwell was still Lord Protector. Except by specialists, Hall remains almost entirely forgotten today. I opened one of the volumes at random, his Contemplations Upon the Principal Passages of the Holy Story. Here was the contemplation on the sickness of Hezekiah:

Hezekiah was freed from the siege of the Assyrians, but he is surprised with a disease. He, that delivered him from the hand of his enemies, smites him with sickness. God doth not let us loose from all afflictions, when he redeems us from one. To think that Hezekiah was either not thankful enough for his deliverance, or too much lifted up with the glory of so miraculous a favour, were an injurious misconstruction of the hand of God, and an uncharitable censure of a holy prince; for, though no flesh and blood can avoid the just desert of bodily punishment, yet God doth not always strike with an intuition of sin: sometimes he regards the benefit of our trial; sometimes, the glory of his mercy in our cure.

Hall surely means us to infer that whatever happens to us, however unpleasant, has a meaning and purpose; and this enables us to bear our sorrows with greater dignity and less suffering. And it is part of the existential reality of human life that we shall always need consolation, no matter what progress we make. This is the language not of rights and entitlements, but of something much deeper—a universal respect for the condition of being human. For Hall, life is instinct with meaning: a meaning capable of controlling man’s pride at his good fortune and consoling him for his ill fortune.

In his 'Occasional Meditations', Hall takes perfectly ordinary scenes—ordinary, of course, for his times—and derives meaning from them. Here is his meditation “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse”:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin! Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Surely Hall is not suggesting (unlike Dennett in his unguarded moments) that the biological purpose of flies is to feed off injured horses, but rather that a sight in nature can be the occasion for us to reflect imaginatively on our morality. He is not raising a biological theory about flies, in contradistinction to the theory of evolution, but thinking morally about human existence. It is true that he would say that everything is part of God’s providence, but, again, this is no more (and no less) a metaphysical belief than the belief in natural selection as an all-explanatory principle.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

What don't atheists see?

Posted October 31, 2007

God’s Baseball Team - Batting For Jesus?

"I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those." - Colorado Rockies CEO Charlie Monfort

BP Sports and USA Today have published articles describing the role of Christianity in the ethos of the Colorado Rockies baseball team and their trip to play the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 World Series which starts this week. BP Sports commenting on the USA Today article said that “the (USA Today) story examines the influence of Christianity on the entire team -- from manager Clint Hurdle, to players like Matt Holliday and Todd Helton, to general manager Dan O'Dowd, to team CEO Charlie Monfort".

According to USA Today: No copies of Playboy or Penthouse are in the clubhouse of baseball's Colorado Rockies. There's not even a Maxim. The only reading materials are daily newspapers, sports and car magazines and the Bible. Music filled with obscenities is not played. Quotes from Scripture are posted in the weight room. Chapel service is packed on Sundays. Prayer and fellowship groups each Tuesday are well-attended. It's not unusual for the front office executives to pray together. Behind the scenes, they quietly have become an organization guided by Christianity — open to other religious beliefs but embracing a Christian-based code of conduct they believe will bring them focus and success.

The Rockies are having their best season since 1995 with a payroll of $44 million, the lowest in the National League's West Division. Their season ticketholders and fans are, for the most part, unaware of the significance the Rockies place on Christian values. "I had no idea they were a Christian team. ... I would love for them to talk about their Christianity publicly," says Tim Boettcher, 42, a season ticketholder for 12 years and an elder at the Hosanna Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colo. "It makes sense because of the way they conduct themselves. You don't see the showboating and the trash talking. ... They look like a team and act like a team." "We had to go to hell and back to know where the Holy Grail is. We went through a tough time and took a lot of arrows," says Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort, one of the original owners.

We started to go after character six or seven years ago, but we didn't follow that like we should have," he says. "I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those." "We try to do the best job we can to get people with the right sense of moral values, but we certainly don't poll our players or our organization to find out who is Christian and who isn't," says O'Dowd, who says he has had prayer sessions on the telephone with club President Keli McGregor and manager Clint Hurdle. "I know some of the guys who are Christians, but I can't tell you who is and who isn't."

Is it possible that some Rockies are playing the role of good Christians just to stay in the team's good graces? Yes, former Rockies say. "They have a great group of guys over there, but I've never been in a clubhouse where Christianity is the main purpose," says San Francisco Giants first baseman-outfielder
Mark Sweeney, a veteran of seven organizations who spent 2003 and 2004 with the Rockies. "You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs. "Look, I pray every day," Sweeney says. "I have faith. It's always been part of my life. But I don't want something forced on me. Do they really have to check to see whether I have a Playboy in my locker?"

While praising their players, Rockies executives make clear they believe God has had a hand in the team's improvement. "You look at things that have happened to us this year," O'Dowd says. "You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make. You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this."

God is betting on the Colorado Rockies?

Posted October 23, 2007

Who is John Galt?

""I swear by my life and my love of it I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." - John Galt in Atlas Shrugged.

First Things in an October 11, 2007 article by Brian Murray entitled “Who is John Galt? And Does Anyone Care Anymore?” discusses the influence of Ayn Rand on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Murray writes:

Atlas Shrugged was a huge, hotly debated bestseller in its day, and its sales have held steady ever since. Its author, certainly, retains a certain mystique as the exacting thinker still revered by many Americans as a great intellectual and seer. All of us, surely, know someone who has passed through an Ayn Rand phrase, mild or severe. At some point we’ve all heard the words: “Atlas Shrugged changed my life.”

Ayn Rand took herself very seriously indeed. She was a born iconoclast and provocateur: one of those restless souls forever seeking to bend the world to her will. She was not easily impressed, deciding early on that nearly all philosophy after Aristotle was a waste of time. One day, Rand famously assured her university professors, she would produce timeless philosophical writings of her own. She had very little humor but plenty of push.

First, however, she would write movies and plays. Alicia Rosenbaum—as her family knew Ayn Rand—spent much of her childhood reading far-fetched novels featuring square-jawed adventurers in exotic locales. Besides Aristotle, Rand’s heroes were all fictional he-men—late Victorian versions of Indiana Jones. When, in 1926, Rand left her native Russia for the United States, she headed straight for Hollywood, where in short order she found a husband, took an extra’s part in Cecil B. De Mille’s The King of Kings, and started cranking out scripts. Alicia Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand, the headstrong heroine of a decidedly American story.

Rand’s educated, prosperous family suffered terribly under the Soviets, and her hatred of communism burned on like a hard, gemlike flame. But she loved the United States in her own, highly stylized way: She loved its skyscrapers, its technology, its machinery, its energy. Rand’s first big bestseller, The Fountainhead (1940), is in part a long hymn to this America of her imagination, and its hero, Howard Roark, is her first extended portrait of the consummate American—a world-class architect based loosely on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rand’s Ideal Man could never be a schoolteacher, say, or a physical therapist, or a claims clerk in the Social Security Administration. He must not be short-winded or fat. He must be perfection in action—gifted and brave, uniquely talented, and utterly free of irrationality and fear. He must, like Roark, defend the premise that no man should ever compromise his individual will or submit to pathetic notions of “sacrifice”; he must recognize that men of genius like himself will forever fight the lazy, inferior parasites who seek to take what superior minds have made. He must, in short, look like Gary Cooper and think exactly like Ayn Rand. As The Fountainhead showed, Rand’s beliefs were well-suited for the big screen, where outsize heroes, defiant acts, and stirring speeches have always been the order of the day.

Rand hated religion as much as she hated communism; for her Christianity was, of course, the religion of fools and slaves. Rand’s “marginalia,” culled from the books in her library and published in 1998, are particularly revealing: The woman who despised emotionalism and valued reason above all became, when faced with C.S. Lewis, like one of those “literary guys” faced with Mickey Spillane. Lewis, Rand averred, was a “driveling non-entity,” a “mediocrity,” and “scum.”

Still, Atlas Shrugged, you’ve heard countless times, is a classic, and apparently it’s soon to be a major motion picture starring Angelina Jolie. And so, finally, you’re ready to give it a go—all 1,168 pages. It is full of rich characters: They own steel mills and railroads. Otherwise they’re ponderous and flat. It’s possible, then, that early on your eyes might start to glaze a bit, and you’ll find yourself thinking “Really, I couldn’t care less” each time the novel demands: “Who is John Galt?” It’s very possible, actually, because fifty years after its publication Atlas Shrugged is much better as a doorstop than a novel.

Atlas Shrugged – Good novel or good doorstop?.

Posted October 17, 2007

Has Science Buried God?

"What is the meaning of it all?" Richard Feynman - American physicist known for expanding the theory of quantum electrodynamics.
"The universe is just there, and that's all." Bertrand Russell - English philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, pacifist, and prominent Rationalist.
"It is the very nature of science that leads me to belief in God," John C Lennox - a popular Christian apologist and scientist.

Adam Kirsch wrote a review of a new book on Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin for The New Yorker magazine entitled 'God’s Undertaker: How Thomas Hardy became everyone’s favorite misanthrope' and in it Kirsch writes:

“One Sunday morning in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a church in the Dorset village of Stinsford, a boy named Thomas Hardy had an experience that, more than sixty years later, he remembered as causing him “much mental distress.” As the boy watched the priest deliver the sermon, Hardy recalled in his autobiography, “some mischievous movement of his mind set him imagining that the vicar was preaching mockingly, and he began trying to trace a humorous twitch in the corners of Mr. S—’s mouth, as if he could hardly keep a serious countenance. Once having imagined this the impish boy found to his consternation that he could not dismiss the idea.”

If the Reverend Arthur Shirley, whose name Hardy courteously omitted, had noticed his young parishioner’s amusement, he would not have recognized it for what it was: the first scratching of the seismograph that, within the boy’s lifetime, would register the death of God. Hardy’s “merriment,” as he quietly but unmistakably shows, was the product of his dawning sense that nobody, not even the priest, could possibly take the church service seriously. There seems to be a straight line, if not a short one, from Hardy’s “consternation” to the madness of the stranger who, in Nietzsche’s famous parable, barges into churches to sing a requiem: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

John C. Lennox in his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God offers a response to the claims of more modern atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, that science has finally killed the idea of God. Lennox argues that indeed the reverse is more likely to have validity and based on the evaluation of modern scientific evidence he argues that theism is more in tune with science than atheism. The book’s publisher writes:

“If we believe many modern commentators, science has squeezed God into a corner, killed and then buried Him with its all-embracing explanations. Atheism, we are told, is the only intellectually tenable position, and any attempt to reintroduce God is likely to impede the progress of science. John Lennox invites us to consider such claims very carefully. Is it really true, he asks, that everything in science points towards atheism? Could it be possible that theism sits more comfortably with science than atheism?”

Fixed Point hosted a debate between Dawkins and Lennox on the positions taken by their respective books. Copies of the debate can be obtained on the Fixed Point website.

John Lennox has published over 70 articles in Algebra (Group Theory) and co-authored two research monographs in the Oxford Mathematical Monographs series - "The Theory of Subnormal Subgroups" (with S.E. Stonehower) 1987 and "The Theory of Infinite Soluble Groups" (with D.J.S. Robinson) 2004. He is currently particularly interested in the interface between science, philosophy and theology and lectures in Science and Religion at Oxford University.

Science is God's Undertaker?

Posted October 07, 2007

Planting Trees As Penance For Sin?

"I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate we have today is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take." Michael Griffin NASA Administrator.

Robert Royal in First Things examines the position of various religious leaders on the current discussion surrounding global warming. Paraphrasing what he writes we read:

Religious fervor for curbing global warming and protecting the environment reached a confusing peak this week when a member of the Council for Culture at the Vatican announced that offsetting carbon emissions, which the Holy See will be able to do almost completely in the future thanks to a donation of land in Hungary to be planted with trees, is roughly parallel to doing penance for your sins. There’s nothing wrong and a good deal right with contemporary religious leaders pointing out our responsibilities to care for the Earth. But with all due respect to the good monsignor, it’s a very bad idea to suggest that steps to deal with environmental questions are like doing penance for sins.

Carbon emissions are not intrinsically wrong. All animals that inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide do so by natural design all the time. Even cars, electricity generating plants, and mechanical appliances do much good in addition to adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. Deciding when and how to use them is not like deciding to cheat on your wife, an intrinsic wrong that requires confession and penance. It’s more like deciding how much of the family income to allot for a better gas-mileage car, and how much for food, housing, healthcare, or education for the children. In other words, it’s always a choice among competing goods, not between good and evil, within limited resources.

In addition, though the potential negative consequences of global warming are worthy of serious consideration, they need to be put in the proper perspective of the actual nature of the world that God created. Temperatures on the earth have changed drastically without benefit of human intervention. In the multiple Ice Ages that have regularly occurred over geological time, glaciers miles thick covered Northern Europe and much of North America. At their retreat, they scraped the earth cleaner than any logging company would dare, but enabled the growth of the lovely boreal forests we prize today.

In historical times, the changes have been less drastic but still quite striking. Leif Eriksson found grapes growing in Newfoundland, which is why he called it Vineland. Other explorers seem to have had similar reasons for giving the frozen expanses of today’s Greenland its name. From just before 1000 A.D. and continuing for a few centuries, the earth experienced what is sometimes called a Medieval Climate Optimum, a period of significant warming that may have helped in the cultural recovery of Europe, followed by a cooler period called the Little Ice Age beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting until around 1850. Since then, the earth has generally warmed but with another cooling dip from around 1950 to 1975. These simple facts of geology are much cited by both sides in the debates about global warming. But it’s rare to find any religious figure who shows any familiarity with the fact that God did not create a world of stable climate where species and habitats are forever fixed and or that change represents anything other than a violation of, and perhaps a sin against, the created order.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin was vilified when he called it “rather arrogant” to assume that the present climate was optimal for human beings. Contrary to the claims of his critics, Griffin was not saying that global warming should not be examined carefully. What he was saying - that we need to calm down and examine evidence more fully - is so outside the generalized hysteria among the media and the political class that his opponents could not fathom it. A similar fate has befallen Bjorn Lomborg, whose just-released book Cool It looks to be a worthy sequel to his controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist. This statistician has tried to weigh the various potential harms and benefits of global warming, which he not only believes is occurring but concedes is significantly owing to anthropogenic causes. There are two unforgivable sins among the most fervid environmentalists. As Al Gore has taught us, one is being a global-warming denier, which is on a moral level with the Holocaust deniers. Deniers at least can be summarily excommunicated. But it is precisely the Lomborgs and his like who are more infuriating to a certain type of true believer. To acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and to believe it may be effectively handled through anything but curtailing global capitalism through reducing carbon emissions, or, even worse, that we ought to add some of global warming’s benefits to our deliberations seems, to some, on a par with calling evil good.

But the facts are the facts. In Cool It, for example, Lomborg analyzes the conditions that produced the thirty-five thousand deaths in Europe during the infamous and much reported on heat wave of August 2003. That was a great tragedy, but every year, in Europe and around the world, far more people die of cold. In August 2003, some two thousand Britons died from the heat; on average, twenty-five thousand Britons a year die of cold and in some years more than twice that figure. If you turn to any ordinary media outlet, you will hear the usual litany of impending catastrophes: twenty-foot sea rises owing to Greenland melting that will submerge Florida and Bangladesh; widespread famine and death because of changes in precipitation patterns; the spread of tropical diseases to warmer environments; and of course the disappearance of charismatic flora and fauna. This, we are told, is the scientific consensus that should tug at our heart strings, and only reduced carbon emissions can prevent such an apocalypse.

This is a mixture of truth and misapprehension. If the Greenland ice pack melts, for example, it will take one thousand years and over the next century will produce a sea-level rise of about one foot. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that this Greenland, which was naturally green around 1000 A.D., is being ravaged by human activity. Glaciation naturally varies a great deal in the Northern Hemisphere and similar doomsday scenarios were common in the 1930s, a naturally occurring warm period that preceded emissions of large quantities of greenhouse gases.

Our religious leaders cannot be expected to be experts in environmental sciences or policies. But it would be a great help toward a better climate debate if they made greater allowance for the complexities of creation and the inevitable trade-offs in policy decisions while calling us all to responsible action. Our technological developments have brought great benefits to the whole of humanity in the past century. Failure to spread those benefits further may be the greatest harm we can do to the poor and marginalized. And it is beyond question a mistaken application of a crucial religious notion to suggest that the costs of those benefits are, even metaphorically, like sins.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates

Global Warming - Curse or Blessing?

Posted September 26, 2007

Proverbs As The Motif In '3:10 To Yuma'?

"You're so sure that your crew's comin' to get you?" - Dan Evans
"Sure as God's vengeance, they're comin" - Ben Wade

"All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart" - Ben Wade quoting Proverbs 21:2.

Christianity Today recently reviewed the religious and moral aspects of James Mangold's new movie '3:10 to Yuma'. The review states in part:

'3:10 To Yuma' is a very modern western. This is a film that strives for and achieves a deeper inquiry into moral psychology. On one level it's about gunfights, spurs, and saloon showdowns, but on another it's a film about the fuzzy lines between right, wrong, and the law in an altogether lawless frontier land.

Director James Mangold deals with the personal quest for honor and redemption. Dan Evans is down on his luck, about to lose his ranch to the Southern Pacific suits who are bringing the railroad to the tiny town of Bisbee. Seeking to redeem himself financially and in the eyes of his adolescent son Will Evans stumbles upon a major chance to prove himself. The notorious outlaw, Ben Wade has just been captured. Hoping to rid the region once and for all of this infamous scourge to the railroad's safety, a Southern Pacific businessman offers to handsomely reward any man who will join the posse to safely transport Wade to prison. Evans jumps at the opportunity, but the task is easier said than done. It's a three-day journey to the town of Contention, where Wade is to be put on the 3:10 train to the Federal Court in Yuma. And it promises to be a perilous journey fraught with hostile Indians, railroad ruffians, as well as the violent gang of outlaws determined to free their leader, Wade, before he is put on the train to Yuma.

As the fateful journey plays out, bullets fly and blood is spilt. The posse finds Wade to be deadly even when bound and gun-less. As the body count grows Evans becomes determined to be the last man standing with Wade—the man who successfully delivers the criminal to the law in Yuma.

Wade seems to respect Evans as a morally upright family man driven only by a desire to protect his land and dignity. Likewise, Evans seems uninterested in destroying Wade. If not for the circumstances of their meeting, they might have been friends. Ben Wade is a self-described rotten-to-the-core villain who is as enchanted with his own mythology as everyone else is fearful of it. He is a holster-bearing Hannibal Lecter—minus the cannibalism. Like Lecter, Wade works on his victims primarily psychologically. He's deadly with his gun ("the hand of God"), but his words are even deadlier.

Like many of cinema's most psychologically toxic antagonists, Wade is well read and adroit at quoting Bible verses to tease his foes. Apparently he read the Bible cover to cover only once but he quotes it like a preacher. His motto seems to be Proverbs 21:2: "All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart." Wade takes from this verse a twisted justification for his own wayward actions—apparently believing that since God is ultimately the only judge of right and wrong, man has no mandate but to do what is right in his own eyes.

Wade's odd brand of moral relativism makes him an interesting character—especially in the film's final moments, when his mythologized shell begins to crack. Evans' motivations become more ambiguous as the film goes on. Is it really about the reward money or serving justice? Or is it a pride issue? Some deeper psychological drive that makes him in the end not all that different from Wade? As he is forced to kill dozens of people and put his own family in grave danger, these questions become ever more pertinent. At what point does proving your honor become secondary to protecting yourself and the lives of your loved ones?

Much of the tension of the film comes from what we know is coming at 3:10. As the train's arrival becomes imminent, so too does the dread of an unavoidably nasty fight. Wade's gang catches up to Evans's posse in Contention and their second-in-command leader, Charlie Prince, unleashes a ruthless wrath. Prince, who is really the worst scoundrel in the bunch is a deliciously wicked character who steals most of the scenes he's in. Foster really captures the soulless, unruly spirit of the western outlaw.

Yuma portrays a West that is stark, barren, and morally ambiguous … very few characters are all good or all bad … everyone is a mixture (just as Evans and Wade are, in a way, two sides of the same coin) and everyone has an opportunity to change, to redeem whatever rotten past they came from.

Was Proverbs used as the motif in '3:10 To Yuma'?

Posted September 15, 2007

God's Attorney Met The Atheistic Jew?

"There are also two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite is impossible; those of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible" - Gottfried Leibniz

"Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many” - Baruch Spinoza.

We have had interesting discussions recently on a couple of books in which two philosophers had come into some intellectual or philosophical conflict - Rousseau's Dog involving Hume/Rousseau and Wittgenstein's Poker involving Popper/Wittgenstein.

The next book in this series, The Courtier and the Heretic, involves the opposing world views of Leibniz and Spinoza. The book publisher writes that "philosophy in the late seventeenth century was a dangerous business. No careerist could afford to know the reclusive, controversial philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. Yet the wildly ambitious genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who denounced Spinoza in public, became privately obsessed with Spinoza’s ideas, wrote him clandestine letters, and ultimately met him in secret".

Writing in The New York Times Liesl Schillinger said: - With The Courtier and the Heretic, Stewart has achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas that casts the hallowed, hoary thinkers as warriors in a heated ideological battle. He reveals early on that he believes the battle was one-sided, and that both men fought for the same cause. Even so, the conflict, as he paints it, is no less compelling for ending in a draw. This is a harder trick to pull off than it may sound because Stewart's rivals are both relatively unknown to modern nonspecialists. In other words, he has to acquaint his readers with both his main characters before he can unspool his take on their story.

Publishers Weekly review stated: According to Nietzsche, "Every great philosophy is... a personal confession of its creator and a kind of involuntary and unperceived memoir.". Stewart affirms this maxim in his colorful reinterpretation of the lives and works of 17th-century philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz. In November 1676, the foppish courtier Leibniz, "the ultimate insider... an orthodox Lutheran from conservative Germany," journeyed to The Hague to visit the self-sufficient, freethinking Spinoza, "a double exile... an apostate Jew from licentious Holland." A prodigious polymath, Leibniz understood Spinoza's insight that "science was in the process of rendering the God of revelation obsolete; that it had already undermined the special place of the human individual in nature." Spinoza embraced this new world. Seeing the orthodox God as a "prop for theocratic tyranny," he articulated the basic theory for the modern secular state. Leibniz, on the other hand, spent the rest of his life championing God and theocracy like a defense lawyer defending a client he knows is guilty. He elaborated a metaphysics that was, at bottom, a reaction to Spinoza and collapses into Spinozism, as Stewart deftly shows. For Stewart, Leibniz's reaction to Spinoza and modernity set the tone for "the dominant form of modern philosophy" a category that includes Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger and "the whole `postmodern' project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought." Readers of philosophy may find much to disagree with in these arguments, but Stewart's wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read.

Did Leibniz and Spinoza decide the 'fate of God' in the modern world?

Posted September 05, 2007

What is Painting?

"The answer to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?” - Morgan Meis, an arts collective in New York.

The Smart Set from Drexel University is an online publication covering culture and ideas, arts and sciences, global and national affairs. A recent article by Morgan Meis entitled “A Dilettante's Guide to Art” reviews the book “1001 Paintings You Should See Before You Die” by Stephen Farthing and poses the question "What is Painting?" The answer: "Who cares?"

Meis writes: Sometime in the middle of the 19th century painting started to get a little screwed up. It began to worry. Painters stopped simply doing what they were doing and started spending more and more time trying to figure out what they were doing and why. They got into the "What Is?" question. "What is Painting?", "What is Art?" "What Is…?"

It’s hard to blame them for it. The "What Is?" question was in the air. Chalk it up to the vast and traumatic transformations that ushered in modern times. Everybody was trying to figure out what was different and what was still the same. In painting, the biggest change was in the abandonment of representation as the central task. Nobody was interested in problems of perspective anymore, in figuring out how best to make the world of three dimensions look vaguely like itself on the canvas of two dimensions. And yet, for some reason, people still felt the desire to paint. Who knows why? Maybe it was just the need to hold on to a little tradition even as so much else was being swept away. Maybe it was the hope that an old practice could remake itself in a new world. Whatever the explanation, painting managed to remake itself and painters rushed into the 20th century with purpose. They had discovered a new subject matter, painting itself, and they were hot to show off its possibilities. Painting took on a double task, not just to do what it was doing, but also to make a claim about what it should be doing. Painters started talking about painting within their own paintings.

Malevich’s famous White on White comes to mind. It was, basically, one white square painted on top of another white square. It is a lovely painting in its own right, but it is also a manifesto in pigment. When Malevich painted those white squares he was also asking what painting could be, what it was about, what it should and shouldn’t be. Malevich was obsessed with the idea that art had to be freed from its relationship to the object. He thought that art should go after something more pure, perhaps touching on the realm of purity itself, wherever that is. His paintings thus asked the “What Is?” question and proposed to answer it simultaneously. His answer was that painting ought to be about truth and that truth is a simple and geometrical thing.

The amazing thing about 1001 Paintings is thus the breeziness of it all. It is a dilettante’s book …… the dilettantes are always right, because paintings are for looking at, and because every claim about what painting “should be” gets shriveled and old and academic even before the canvas does. The dilettante doesn’t care much about what painting “should be,” only about what it is and has been. And the thing that keeps this standpoint from being utterly trivial is the hint of melancholy in it. The dilettante is interested in all things equally because in the long eye of time all things are equally transient. Looking can become delightful again from that perspective, but it is tinged with the mark of death. The dilettante acknowledges this mark, and then goes about the business of living.

The answer that the book thus gives to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?”

What painting(s) do you care about? Give the name and I will supply the link.

Posted August 29, 2007

Ask The Almighty?

"I am not a theologian, and I have not turned into a religious mystic, but I am a practical problem solver. So I'm looking at religion from the perspective of how knowledge about what people believe in can be useful in terms of trying to resolve the most serious disputes." - Madeline Albright

Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University, wrote an essay in the NY times entitled “The Politics of God" adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West" in which he suggests that religious passions lie at the heart of world politics and we need to bring religion into their solution.

Lilla writes: Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more.

We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference. Understanding this difference is the most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time.

Madeline Albright makes a similar case both in her book "The Mighty and the Almighty" and also in a recent CNN interview. Albright says that we have ignored the importance of faith in the cultures of other countries and she argues that politics and religion must be brought into our search for political solutions in many of the World’s crisis spots.

CNN: In your book, you argue for a better understanding of religion in the U.S. foreign policy arena. Isn't that a revolutionary idea for this generation of diplomats trained more in the realist school of foreign policy?

Albright: As a practitioner of foreign policy, I certainly come from the generation of people who used to say, "X problem is complicated enough. Let's not bring God and religion into it." But through my being in office, and as I explored the subject much further in writing "The Mighty and the Almighty," I really thought that the opposite is true. In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion. ... My sense is that we don't fully understand, because one, it's pretty complicated, and two, everyone in the U.S. believes in a separation of church and state, so you think, "Well, if we don't believe in the convergence of church and state, then perhaps we shouldn't worry about the role of religion." I think we do that now at our own peril.

Religion is instrumental in shaping ideas and policies. It's an essential part of everyday life in a whole host of countries. And obviously it plays a role in how these countries behave, so we need to know what the religious influence is.

I found the first time I went to Jerusalem, my initial reaction was, people are arguing over all this all the time, it made me think, well, there can't be a God, why would God put up with this? And then I had the total opposite reaction. One that stays with me, which is that there are so many holy places and symbols there, and all anybody talks about is their relationship to those symbols and to God, and therefore the power of God must be so strong there. I just think that it would be much better if people could figure out ... how to agree about it.

CNN: So, therefore, how to figure out the fate Jerusalem is the perfect example of why we need to include religious understanding in our foreign policy.

Albright: Definitely. I am not a theologian, and I have not turned into a religious mystic, but I am a practical problem solver. So I'm looking at religion from the perspective of how knowledge about what people believe in can be useful in terms of trying to resolve the most serious disputes. I think one of the major problems is that here in the United States, particularly, there is very little understanding of Islam. We all act as if Islam is a monolithic religion and that all Muslims live in the Middle East. The bottom line is most Muslims in the world don't live in the Middle East. They live in Indonesia, or Malaysia, or India, um, Pakistan. Second, there are a number of different sects within Islam. Now I think more people understand the difference between Shia and Sunni, but that is just the beginning. We really do not know anything about it

Does the U.S.A need more 'religion' in its foreign policy ?

Posted August 21, 2007