Monday, December 22, 2008

Bolt's Lessons in Metaphysics

As you may know from a previous post: for Thanksgiving I visited my wife’s family in Deatsville, Alabama. Our time there is always both very refreshing and fun. Melissa’s sister has five children, and the energy level, as you can imagine, is pretty high. Before meeting the Morton family, I was not the biggest fan of kids, but in College, while courting Melissa, we spent a number of weekends in the company of her sister’s family (then with only 3-4 kids), and I realized then that family life did not have to be a risk to be avoided, but could be, when done right, an absolute joy.

On this particular Thanksgiving, the Phillips, Morton and Seeuws clans ventured to see Bolt in 3D. It is probably the first 3D movie I have seen since The Muppets in 3-D at MGM when I was a kid. Were I writing a review right now, I would call Bolt formulaic, but not wholly disappointing. It has its moments-one of them being a phenomenally directed and animated opening action sequence, which along with the Ti-Lung escape scene and the bridge battle from Kung Fu Panda, makes me think that today’s live action directors should start looking to animated films to re-learn how to shoot and direct action sequences. The current verite shooting and Bourne-inspired editing makes action sequences often close to unwatchable or gives the director a way to imply action without ever showing it (maybe it’s cheaper).

The rest of the movie strives to make you care about Bolt’s relationship with his owner, but it gets much too precious and succumbs to numerous cases of insider idea trading (having been directed by Pixar’s John Lasseter): Bolt’s belief that he is a superdog is analogous to Buzz’s assurance that he is a space ranger, Mittens’ emotional damage due to being abandoned runs parallel to Jesse’s in Toy Story 2, and Bolt must make a cross country odyssey akin to Marlin’s in Finding Nemo (the comic-relief that had been supplied by the idiosyncratic Dory is replaced by a Jack Black-inspired hamster named Rhino).

Whether it has merit as a piece of art or entertainment, for me Bolt was worth it for one shot near the film’s end. Let me give a brief summary that sets up that shot. The film’s basic plot is that Bolt believes he is in a world very much like Inspector Gadget’s and must save his girl Penny with his superdog powers. He escapes from the TV studio thinking Penny has been kidnapped, but through an unplanned series of events ends up on the other side of the country, finds a cat he believes to be a villain who has been party to Penny’s kidnapping, and forces her to join him. With all his talk of superpowers, she thinks he is insane until they meet Rhino, a TV-groomed hamster that believes Bolt is a real superdog. When she learns that Rhino has seen Bolt on TV, she realizes Bolt is not crazy, but has been tricked into believing the lie that he has superpowers. She convinces Bolt that he is not super.

The shot that caught my attention happens just before the climax when a fire has broken out in the movie studio, and Penny’s life is in danger. In this shot, Bolt, Mittens and Rhino are rushing towards the burning building to save the day, and it was in that moment that the nature of each character jumped out at me:

1. Rhino-the true believer, who never stops believing the myth that Bolt has powers, but interprets every situation, no matter how contradictory, as proof of the myth.

He runs toward the conflict having been inspired to bravery by Bolt’s TV exploits, his confidence boosted by his belief in Bolt’s powers.

2. Bolt-the ex-believer, jaded by his discovery that his belief is in a fictional myth, but retains optimism that life interpreted through the myth can be worth living.

He runs toward the conflict out of love for Penny, and having been saved earlier by Rhino, has a newfound faith in the possibility of being a hero, even without real, working powers.

3. Mittens-the skeptic, who not only disbelieves the myth, but questions its ability to inform life in any way. Nonetheless, she wants to believe in human love, and having seen evidence of Penny’s love for Bolt and having been rescued by Bolt in real life, has renewed hope that maybe there is more to life than hunger and mere subsistence.

She runs toward the conflict in the hope that human love may, in fact, be real, but has no pretensions that they will succeed because of a TV show’s inspiration.

Okay, so I know that some may be thinking that I am reading way too much into this, but it’s all there, and that one shot made me ask a number of questions (Keep in mind that I consider myself a Christian through and through. These are honest questions, though, that I think we all must wrestle with if we are to seek truth and know what we really believe):

Is faith simply pragmatic?
Is it useful only insofar that it inspires the “Rhinos” of the world to hope in something more than a mundane existence, and when the trial comes, to be able to deal with it, having a rock-solid faith in something bigger than themselves? So Rhino can rush into battle believing all will be well because Bolt is with him, and Christians could face lions because Jesus was with them. Of course, the implication is that there is nothing true about the object of one’s faith. The only truth is that faith, no matter its object, is the real catalyst for hope and the ability to overcome obstacles.

Are these myths necessary to live a full life?
Without faith in something bigger, and having been burned by life, Mittens settles for a nihilistic view of the world, content at one point to accept a box for a home and a lifetime supply of Las Vegas garbage for food. Obviously, a skeptic would have every right to feel offended by such a portrayal of their worldview just as much as a Christian would of the above. But again, I’m not worried so much about hurting either or both of our feelings, but I’m interested in taking these questions and their implications seriously.

Is some element of skepticism in our myths necessary to live a full life?
While Mittens is guilty of staving off hope of the higher levels of Maslowe’s hierarchy, Bolt is guilty of treating the little things with contempt. He spurns his chew toy so he can zealously guard Penny with his every waking breath. He never learns the simple pleasures of playing the cute puppy or hanging his head out of a moving vehicle. His certainty in the myth’s validity and dedication to its message robs him of a full life. In this way he possibly could be likened to any number of movements ranging from monasticism to Platonic dualism.

Is faith unquestioned dangerous?
When the trio arrives at the movie studio, Rhino sees an actor dressed as a henchman and proceeds to attack him. He spews forth the most violent content in the film, saying that he is going to rip out the guy’s pancreas and beat his spleen with it (or something to that effect). It’s funny, not just because of Mark Walton’s voice-acting, but because from the perspective of the human he’s attacking, the hamster is just chirping sweetly. Now this would not be funny if Rhino were a real person because in that case he would be a terrorist-blindly attacking amother person based on a misconception because he has bought into his myth without questioning the effects of that decision.

Okay, I realize that we’ve already covered a mammoth amount of philosophical ground in a matter of a page and a half, being that we started with a kids’ 3d movie, and now we are talking about the nature of faith and its effect on life, and that being the case, I’m probably threatening some readers’ suspension of disbelief in my premise more than the film did when it asked us to believe a hamster in a ball could keep up with a truck traveling full speed for hours on an empty country road, but please bear with me.

So where do we go from here in this discussion on myths? We can take the skeptics’ route of the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, who would most likely take the pre-doubt Bolt and the crusading terrorist hamster as enough proof to discredit the value of myths in toto, or we could take the route of a believer in one particular myth who would not let the fact that Bolt’s myth is proved false place a death knell on the possibility that there is another myth out there that is real, or we could take the route of the pluralist who would assume that all myths, like Bolt’s, are not accurate depictions of reality (whether physical or metaphysical), but in moderation can teach life lessons.

So where do you find yourself?

Being a Christian, of course, I would be in the second category, but these are some big questions demanding some serious thought, and I, for one, plan on thinking through these questions honestly. I’m afraid that too often, we do not analyze the sources of our behavior very honestly. I sometimes wonder if I am doing certain things because I profess Christ or for some other reason entirely. I am sure that some atheists are guilty of the same thing. My question is this: is the worldview we espouse really the ground for the way we live? Or are we drawing from other philosophical wells without realizing it? I am not advocating a pragmatism, but honesty. The question for Bolt or any of us should not just be, “Does this myth, even if it is a lie, help me live life better?” but “If this myth I believe is a lie, then is what it deems ‘good’ actually ‘good,’ and if it is, how can I determine the true source of this good, so I can be sure that my worldview and my practice align?”

Chew on that for a while, and get back to me. I’ve got some ruminating to do myself.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stirring up the Pot

A friend of mine referred me to a talk that Kate Lynch gave from a church in Orlando. He said it made some people walk out, so my interest was piqued.

She definitely threw some instigating statements out there. I'll need to do a bit more research myself, but I'm afraid that she succumbs to quite a few historical glosses, and the entire message is rife with generalizations. However, if you are a Christian who is involved in politics in any way at all (e.g., voting), you need to listen to this podcast and weigh her words carefully. It gets pretty incendiary, not because she is bombastic in her presentation, but because she, like many in our day, is calling for a radical reformation of the Christian's interaction with the broader culture.

Once again I will cite D. A. Carson's book Christ and Culture Revisited, a gift given to me by Mr. Brian Metz, which I just now finished, because Carson is able to deal with these issues with much more precision than Lynch was in her short talk.

I wouldn't say I'd agree with all of her conclusions, but here are some points she makes that bear some consideration...

She points out that while Rome was not foreign to such atrocities as slavery and child molestation, you never find Paul writing letters to the editor about these rank injustices. In fact, she quotes 1 Cor. 5:12, which gives a quite different perspective on a Christian's role in confronting culture.

She also has some pretty pointed objections towards our stance on abortion: why should we be saying anything about it UNLESS we are willing to adopt the baby? While even this argument might not stand to reason, the real question is, does it stand to Scripture? This is where Carson's assessment comes in real handy. If, as Christians, individually, we want to fight abortion politically, and we have a rational, moral and reasonable reason for doing so, then great. The problem comes when the Church as Church starts heralding from the mountaintops and radio waves that this is the Biblical way to deal with abortion. The Church as Church needs to be sure that ALL we do is lining up with a biblical approach. If God so wills, I will be starting a whole debate and dialogue on this very subject, but for now, suffice it to say, we Christians must let the Bible inform this hot-button issue, and while I believe we are right to question abortion as a fundamental human right, we may be wrong in some of our attempts to fight it.

That being said, I find it ironic that Lynch does not seem to recognize that in her hastening to distance Christianity from politics, she makes the oh-so-trendy oversight that the lack of politics she espouses sometimes sounds quite a bit like liberal politics. Remember when she pointed out that Paul never questioned Rome's treatment of slavery? In her critique of the Church's handling of the gay marriage issue (while I agree with her to some degree), she says that while she can't see Christ picketing gay marriage, she states (this may be a word or two off-I was scribbling on a receipt in my car-don't drive near me when I'm listening to controversial topics while driving), "I can see Christ saying, 'Why is the government telling you what marriage is?" I can see Christ fighting for the basic rights of people as human beings-to visit someone in the hospital or to get health care coverage."

So Christ and Paul aren't political enough to fight for the fundamental freedom of slaves or the human rights of children being raped, but Jesus would have no problem fighting for the rights of gays to get married? I'm afraid you'd be pretty hard-pressed to make that point scripturally. Sure we have the story of Jesus letting the woman caught adultery get away with her life, but that's a far cry for fighting for someone-anyone-gay, straight, hermaphroditic, or abused-who is not getting visitation rights or health care. It's not that Jesus doesn't care; it's that He knew that this world's systems would always devolve into gross inequalities, no matter how good the initial intent was. He stated quite explicitly that His kingdom was not of this world. Now, allow me to clarify that I do not think this means that Christians should refuse to engage in confronting social injustices, but we do so out of a love for the people that is informed by God's Spirit, not out of the belief that we can form a utopia here-whether that be a liberal utopia (Brave New World) or a conservative one (1984). So I agree with Lynch when she says that Jesus refused political power, but that refusal cuts both ways (for a more in-depth understanding of my thoughts of Jesus' relationship to politics check here).

If you are interested in dialoguing on any of the above, I would love to hear your thoughts...provided you take the time to listen to the podcast below. I'm kind of tired of people, even smart people, commenting without having dealt with the source material. So please refrain from commenting until you've listened. If any of the above debate seems important than carve out a few minutes of your morning drive from music or talk radio and get back to me. I would like to hear your informed thoughts.

The talk can be heard here(The message is the Kate Lynch podcast from 11/30/08)

Also available at Itunes-just search Status Podcast, and look for message 8 by Kate Lynch from 11/30/08.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Homeschool Logic

I just returned from visiting one of my favorite places, Deatsville, AL. Sounds odd, I guess, but my wife's sister Candi lives there, and we have so much fun visiting with them and the rest of her family.

Candi and her husband Kevin have five kids who are all home-schooled (hence the video above). Rachael, their oldest daughter just went through a book called The Fallacy Detective, which goes through a list of the most prominent logical fallacies. Though it is not perfect, it is very approachable since it was written for kids. I must admit that I have never taken a course in logic, so this book was a good refresher on the fallacies with which I was familiar, and a good intro to those I had never encountered or had forgotten.

It was written by former home-schooled Christians, so if you are not of that persuasion then you obviously won't agree with some of their motivations, but hopefully we can all agree that fallacies, no matter the creed, color or stripe of those that wield them, are annoying and distracting at best and dangerous at worst.

After getting through the first half of the book I decided to start analyzing news sources, opinion pieces, etc. with an eye to discover the fallacies to which the various sources succumb.

The writers of the Fallacy Detective began doing the same thing during the campaign, analyzing the claims of political ads run by both the McCain and Obama camps. Check it out: Fallacies From Obama and McCain

With this in mind, I will be posting a series of blogs in which I cover a specific logical fallacy and provide examples of the fallacy as they are used in contemporary sources.

Another good fallacy primer from someone on the other end of the philosophical spectrum can be found in a 2 part podcast series entitled "A Magical Journey thrhough the Land of Logical Fallacies" from Brian Dunning's Skeptoid Podcast available here:

Part 1
Part 2

Dunning also includes a short synopsis of each of the fallacies in text form in the above links if you don't have time to listen to the podcasts.

So brush up on your fallacy familiarity and get ready to hunt for some manipulative rhetoric!