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.


brien said...

i took my little brother (not my real little brother) to see this and we both really enjoyed it. this is an interesting analysis.

Anonymous said...

Well, unfortunately I believe that the answers to your questions do not exist outside of faith. Without faith the questions are pointless. And with faith you seek your answer within the realm of religion :)

But my philosophy is poor so I probably don't make a good point.

-Benjamin E. Lippmann

Ben Prather said...

Faith does provide a significant improvement in every aspect of our lives.

The problem is what we put our faith in has little measurable significance.

Something must exist for faith to be significant, but as to in what we should have faith science has no answers.

It's almost like God cares about us and not the theological constructs we get all bend out of shape about.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

I'd have to say that following Jesus is something far deeper than merely having a particular "worldview"....

It means having met Christ yourself, and having your world turned upside down, seeing your wretchedness for what it is, and then seeing Christ take that wickedness upon Himself....

When one truly experiences this, one cannot help but live differently...

Here is what the scripture has to say regarding if our faith is nothing more than a myth:

"If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

- Daniel

Ford said...

Like a Mustard Seed-

First, I'd like to say that I have checked out your blog a bit, and I am excited to see what you have to say about Church and the way we should seek to live it out in getting back to biblical roots as much as possible.

As far as your comments here, I see what you mean, and I agree that following Christ is more than a mere religion or philosophy or worldview, so my point really wasn't to make the case that Christianity is just a worldview. I certainly don't agree with the implications of Bolt's Lessons in Metaphysics-that ALL myths are fake stories that may have some good to teach us, but are not true. This post was not meant to be a lesson in systematic theology, but to make us analyze our beliefs to see if they align with their supposed source and to cause people to think twice if they have faith in the wrong source (which I believe would be any source other than Jesus).

I do not agree that we have to be legalistic about the way in which we refer to "Christianity" or whatever people think we must call it. Honestly, I do think we Christians are falling into this fear of terminology in which we refuse to refer to Christianity by any title or category.

I don't see this same concern in the New Testament. Jesus, Paul and the rest used terms that were accepted in the culture and the language and sanctified them. They didn't need to make up some new word for God, or use the Old Testament's Yahweh. They spoke in a way that the culture could understand. This obsession with saying that we have to only call ourselves "Christ-followers" instead of Christians, or refuse to say this is a religion, but rather a "personal relationship" is silly to me.

If you don't want to use the term "worldview" in your presentation of the Gospel that is fine, but in your definition of what it means to follow Christ you use the term 'see' quite a bit. "It means having met Christ yourself, and having your world turned upside down, seeing your wretchedness for what it is, and then seeing Christ take that wickedness upon Himself"

A nonbeliever would still call this a worldview, so in trying to have a dialogue with them, is it a biblical necessity that I tether myself to always defining the faith in a way that will be the most theologically accurate?

Consider Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:27-
"For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS."

Now if you were reading Jesus' words for the first time, you would think that Jesus is advocating works salvation here. He makes no mention of the finer points of the Gospel. He never mentions faith, grace, His atoning work, etc. He is only telling part of the story. He does this elsewhere when He tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has. This does not encapsulate the Christian message, and Jesus did not mean it to do so. He spoke what was needed at that moment. So while I agree with the substance of your reply, I do not think that whenever we enter into a discussion with nonbelievers (or believers, for that matter) that we need to be legalistic about our terms.

As far as the Corinthians quote-I agree that if Christianity is ONLY a myth in the colloquial sense-that it doesn't describe anything real or true-then we have nothing to go on and are wasting our time.

But the term "myth" need not only mean a belief system that is based on something that is not true. Lewis referred to Christianity as the true myth, and that was kind of what I was trying to lead the conversation toward. Obviously it didn't communicate my intent very effectively, but I feel that we define things so neatly in our discussion of the Christian life when Jesus did not. He made statements that made people ask questions, not give platitudes that made the answers easy.

This is my opinion on the matter, and perhaps I have said too much. I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Hey, I think maybe I made a few assumptions in reading this post that weren't very accurate, I apologize for that...

I certainly wouldn't try and say that those who belong to Christ don't also take on an entirely new worldview (because you're right, everyone has a worldview...) I think I was just responding to what I perceive many people to be saying, that in the end it's just a worldview and nothing more. Sorry for thinking that's what you were saying, I obviously didn't read very carefully.

I'm also (since you brought it up) not entirely against using the word Christian, because I know what it's supposed to mean, but I do find myself shying away from it, because to so many out there it's nothig more than a political or religious word.... The word "christian" didn't have any baggage in the first century, but now it has two thousand years of history to muddy the understanding of what it really means to be a "little Christ"...

I think too that hearing you reference C.S. Lewis in regards to a "true myth" helps me understand what you were getting at better....

Thanks for taking the time to explain to me...


Ford said...

Thanks for hearing me out. I think you're right about the term "Christian" being a kind of loaded word at this point, and I do understand why you would shy away from it.

I actually just wrote a post exploring some questions regarding that very subject here:

Faith in the Real World

Just to let you know too-the name of the blog is a bit misleading-it kind of means any number of things I suppose-faith fleshed out in the visible world, or faith placed in Christ and His invisible, but no less real" kingdom. It's kind of designed to be a bit multi-faceted.