Faith in the Future

I’ve just published an article about a nonprofit organization that assists faith communities on issues such as energy conservation and climate change. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with anxiety about humanity’s impact on the environment, and I believe religious institutions should inspire us to hope that we can reverse the damage that’s been done.

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Storytelling in the Age of the Blockbuster

There was no way I was going to avoid commenting on Avengers: Infinity War, just as there was no way I was going to avoid seeing it during its opening weekend — not after having watched every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film (which is how many, 18? 19?) that lead up to this, and especially not after having been engrossed by the original comic book series as a teenager in the 1970s.

Obligatory Movie Review Rating Statement: If you’re a Marvel movie fan, you’ll have a great time. But if you’re not, take a pass — the references to previous films in the series, and the conversations that presuppose familiarity with their characters, will leave you feeling like a guest at a large party where you don’t know anyone, and everyone knows everyone else.

Obligatory Movie Review Disclaimer: If you’re thinking of seeing the film and hate having significant plot details revealed, you should probably stop reading right… about… now.

The comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back have already begun, but I wish they’d stop. If you hadn’t seen the original Star Wars film (created without the promise of any sequel), any confusion you experienced at the start of “Empire” would have been forgotten by the introduction of new characters and plot elements; “Infinity War,” however, is incomprehensible without prior knowledge of earlier films in the series. Of more significance is that “Empire” was filled with surprises, and left its audience with questions (Who was Luke’s real father? What did Yoda mean by saying, “There is another”? Was Han Solo still alive?) that had no readily apparent answers. “Infinity War,” while certainly entertaining, provided what I consider insincere surprises at its conclusion — audiences may not have expected most of the Guardians, Black Panther, and Spider-Man to disappear at the end of the film, but does anyone who knows anything about the modern film industry believe Disney would cancel the third in a series of successful films, or fail to make a sequel to the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time? Or that Sony would release its newest star from his contract? None of that is going to happen, so these characters will certainly return during next year’s sequel.

Nearly as certain is the fate of those characters who do survive Thanos’ massacre at the end of “Infinity War.” The core group of Avengers have been played by actors who will reach the end of their contractual obligations to Marvel with the subsequent film; many have openly stated they want to move on to new projects, and those who wish to carry on with their roles may demand a salary Disney no longer wishes to pay, especially with the recent success enjoyed by their more affordable colleagues.

The story of the untitled fourth Avengers film is already evident — the original team is going to play the Jesus card, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their comrades. And while it will likely be as enjoyable as “Infinity War,” which never seems to drag despite its length or buckle under the weight of so many characters, it’s still disappointing to know the outcome of a film a year before its release.

But that’s the reality of successful film series in today’s hyper-information world. Movie audiences know more about contracts and films in development than they did during the era of the first Star Wars trilogy, and that’s ruined some of the suspense. Despite our best efforts, we cannot avoid knowing how our favorite stories will end.

History and Faith

For some reason I don’t understand, I don’t often comment on the Great Courses I’ve audited on my commute to and from work. Maybe it’s the knowledge that these are basically survey courses, not providing anything close to in-depth information about their subjects, and the academic snob in me doesn’t want to admit investing as much time, and my monthly Audible subscription, on these teabiscuits of wisdom. But these courses are definitely more interesting than some of the books and movies I’ve reviewed, so I’ve decided to get over my pretentiousness. How Jesus Became God is one of several Great Courses from Bart Ehrman, a professor of early Christian history at Princeton. In these lectures, Ehrman outlines the backward movement of Christology in the first centuries of the common era — in other words, as the distance from Jesus’ life increased, his ascension to divinity was identified at progressively earlier events in that life. The evolution of this belief is a phenomenon I hadn’t picked up before, and this discovery by itself made the course worthwhile.

Hawaii

Prior to downloading this audiobook, I had never read any James Michener novels. After looking at the audiobook’s length, I understood why — 52 flippin’ hours, my friends. If reading a good book is like eating a delicious meal, then reading Michener at times feels like being in an eating contest against a food disposal. Can this story end, so I can do something else with my life? Fortunately I still have a lengthy commute to work, and Hawaii kept me company for a good three months.

The novel consists of six enormous chapters, each focusing on a different historical era. The novel is most famous for its third chapter, a quasi-biographical history of Hawaii’s first missionary families. The missionary legacy in these islands is an embarrassing disgrace; they attempted to eradicate native Hawaiian language and culture, with an arrogant zeal that can only be described as genocidal. And when their toxic ideology and diseases nearly wiped out the native people, the missionaries’ descendants then plundered the wealth of the islands. In Michener’s novel, the missionary families are appropriately monstrous, yet still have qualities of intelligence and compassion (for individual Hawaiians, not the general native population) that make them fully human characters. Historians should pull no punches with the missionaries, but novelists need to make even their worst characters interesting to the reader, and in this regard, Michener’s novel succeeds greatly.

However, that third chapter wasn’t the most interesting for me. I actually preferred the second chapter, a mythological tale of Hawaii’s discovery by explorers from Bora Bora. I’ve read several explanations of how Polynesians were able to find the islands, and I still find it incomprehensible. Yes, they navigated by stars, and followed bird flights — but the distance (2600 nautical miles) is enormous even by today’s standards. How the Polynesians from a millennium and a half ago were able to cover this distance, with their technology, has to be one of the great accomplishments in human history. Michener’s narrative captures the difficulty of this task, and the author also pulls off the difficult task of showing the Bora Borans as primitive yet complex and intriguing characters.

The chapters that followed the third weren’t as interesting to me, but that might say more about my waning attention than it does about the strength of the narrative — the fact that I didn’t abandon the novel is testament to its continued strength. Overall, I though Michener’s “Hawaii” was too ambitious in its scope (was it really necessary to start the novel at the dawn of time?), but the storytelling is strong enough to carry the reader along for the lengthy ride. I’m not sure when I’d pick up another Michener novel again… if I begin a cross-country tour, perhaps.

The Roots of Change

I was fortunate enough to travel through Israel last month, and the group I was with attempted to avoid behaving like the oblivious tourists in the Yehuda Amichai poem. One of our many stops was to an organization attempting to overcome the distrust and violence that has plagued this land for centuries.

Roots/Shorashim/Judur (the English/Hebrew/Arabic names for the organization) is a group of Israeli and Palestinian citizens in the West Bank. The organization’s goals include working together on community projects, resolving disputes among their neighbors, and fostering dialog between communities that have had little contact with one another. They don’t have a political agenda, unless you consider peaceful cooperation a policy platform… and if that’s what you choose to believe, you should get over your cynicism and support their cause.

As our group listened to two young men, one Jewish and the other Arab, two realities became apparent:

  • They fully realize that a millenium of fear and hatred will not be easily overcome
  • They are taking responsibility to break the cycle of violence in their land

Here’s how the group’s web site describes their mission:

Based on a mutual recognition of each People’s connection to the Land, we are developing understanding and solidarity despite our ideological differences. Roots is a place where local peoples can take responsibility. Our work is aimed at challenging the assumptions our communities hold about each other, building trust and creating a new discourse around the conflict in our respective societies. This is a grassroots and local model for making change — from the bottom up.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I believe that if peace is ever to come to the Middle East, grassroots efforts such as these will have to be more effective than treaties negotiated by politicians in faraway lands. A century of drawing lines on a map and asking people to remain on either of its sides have left the people in this land in little better shape, and I’ve given up hope that someday we’ll figure out a line that’s juuuust right for peace. The top-down approach simply has not worked, so the bottom-up approach advocated by Roots/Shorashim/Judur should be given a chance.

For more information on this organization, visit their website or Facebook page.

Ready Player One

I think we can all agree that humanity is not likely to be saved by teenagers playing games, but we can also probably agree that a film like Ready Player One shouldn’t be judged on its plausibility. This is escapist fantasy, and when enjoyed as a visual spectacle it is highly entertaining, and as someone who’s invested hundreds of dollars into watching Marvel movies, I feel a little hypocritical in calling out this film for its vacuous message.

But I can’t help it. Salvation stories always have heroes, and those heroes need some quality that not only drives their determination to clean up the mess we’ve made of the world, but also provides the power needed to overcome their obstacles. In the Marvel films, technology is both problem and solution — the message running through the nearly two dozen films in the series is that humanity needs to learn how to use technology responsibly. It’s a hackneyed but enduring trope, and Marvel has delivered it successfully.

“Ready Player One,” on the other hand, has no interest in any deeper meaning. Kids play in the computerized fantasy world of the Oasis to escape the bleak reality of their actual world. Making that world a better place, or objecting to the Oasis as a distraction, is never a consideration. You just turn off your critical thinking skills, and play.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the antagonist, whose motivation is exactly the same as the heroes — to win the game. The baddie is not threatening in any way; he’s just a poor sport, and if he had conquered the Oasis instead of the heroes, I struggle to see how our world’s fate would have been much different.

Seeing the film did remind me of Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s excellent 1992 novel which also revolves around a computerized alternate reality. If this novel ever makes its way into a film, Stephenson’s Metaverse could be just as engaging and visually stunning as the Oasis, but with the benefits of far more complex characters and a much weightier narrative. It would be, unlike “Ready Player One,” a film you could see without having to check your brain at the theater entrance.

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn

Concise might be the most significant word in this book’s title. Anyone looking for a detailed history of Israel will surely be disappointed by Daniel Gordis’ history; monumental events are summarized in a few pages of text (the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, for example, is reviewed in all of eight pages). At times, the almost casual handling of history feels similar to writing about the American Revolutionary War in a haiku.

To his credit, the author begins by admitting he is more interested in telling a story about Israel in the century after the Balfour Declaration than he is on analyzing historical details. And as a story, his book works very well — the narrative is fast-paced, the writing engaging, and the author allows the astounding history of this nation to speak for itself.

No single book about Israel could adequately represent all sides of the many controversies that have surrounded the country even before it was founded. Once again to his credit, Gordis openly admits his perspective — he views Israel as an imperfect but in the end honest and self-reflective nation, plagued by a seemingly endless struggle against its disingenuous and dangerous neighbors. In his Acknowledgments (well worth reading), the author states that many of his peer reviewers told him he had “given Israel a ‘pass’ in areas where much sterner critique was in order;” I’m no expert on this subject, but I agree with this sentiment. If you’re comfortable with a moderate yet partisan Israeli perspective, you’ll find Gordis’ book very readable — but if you’re looking for insights into the Palestinian or Arab perspectives, and particularly if you’ll be upset at their absence, you might want to look elsewhere.

The Handmaid’s Tale

After a lackluster 1990 film adaptation, this 1985 novel appeared destined for the backroom shelves of the dystopian literary canon. Then a certain someone got himself elected president, and with him came a second-in-command with social and cultural beliefs even more extreme than his boss. Hulu’s television series, already in development at the time of the 2016 election, seemed less an homage to a literary classic than a warning shout to America.

But in addition to its political relevance, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be recognized for its literary qualities. Offred is an engaging narrator, and the theocratic dictatorship in which she lives is fascinating in its brutal orderliness. It’s not a world we’d ever want, but could certainly become ours if we don’t fight against the darker impulses of our society.

The audiobook performance by Claire Danes is very good; Danes gives Offred a complex voice, one aware of the outrages performed against her but also proud of her own petty indiscretions. The novel’s epilogue is included, and in a wise decision is performed by actors other than Danes. Also included is an brief and informative commentary by Margaret Atwood, as well as a concluding academic essay which is unfortunately the driest and least interesting part of the entire audiobook.

Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life

Sometimes it pays to stick with a book even when it turns you off at the beginning.

The opening paragraph of Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction concludes with a metaphor I found entirely self-indulgent, and as the first chapter continued I read many claims that seemed overly simplistic (“We’re limited by our point of view” — yes, and we’re also enabled by it), over the top (“The hardest part of writing creative nonfiction is that you’re stuck with what really happened” — reality is an opportunity, not a prison!), and just plain wrong (“when we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to rein in our impulse to lie” — anyone who struggles with the truth shouldn’t be writing anything other than political speeches). If I hadn’t purchased the book as part of an online class, I might very well have stopped reading after the first chapter.

Fortunately, subsequent chapters are less egregious, and Gerard has a number of insights into the craft of non-fiction which I found very helpful. I especially like his claim that every story has both an apparent subject (such as the sport of fencing) and a deeper, more meaningful subject (the impact that fencing has on the lives of its competitors). Gerard encourages writers to discover what is meaningful to them, and allow those passions to direct their choice in both apparent and deeper subjects. His advice on interviewing, research, and outlining are also valuable.

Journalists probably won’t like this book, as it contains numerous criticisms (most of which I found appropriate) of mainstream reporting. But writers who believe in the aesthetic qualities of non-fiction writing will appreciate this practical guide to the genre — despite its less than inspiring opening chapter.

Black Panther

Let’s get the obligatory thumbs up/down portion of this review out of the way first: Black Panther is one of the better superhero movies. It’s in my personal top-five list, somewhere in the mix that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Wonder Woman, and Logan. Fans of the genre will enjoy the hero’s journey and outlandish setting (Wakanda is a dazzling blend of Camelot and Star Trek), action/adventure fans who are ambivalent about superheroes will still appreciate the fast-paced narrative and kick-ass battles, and for those who’d rather skip all the explosions and CGI, at least you have other ways to enjoy a night at the show.

The film offers no shortage of topics on which to comment — the hilarious memes its inspired, the lame attempts by racist cowards to sabotage its aggregate audience score or scare caucassians with reports of fake assaults, its cultural significance to black America and black girls especially, even its potential impact on a character who, as I’ve commented before, has had a complicated history in the comics. But for today, I’ll restrict my comments to the decision not to develop the Infinity Stones story arc that’s been sown through most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Background for the curious but uninitiated: the Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power, formed during the Big Bang that started the universe. Five of the stones have appeared in MCU films, as has Thanos, a madman attempting to gather the entire set and cause all kinds of trouble. Since Black Panther is the last MCU film before Thanos completes his collection in this May’s Avengers: Infinity War, many assumed the sixth stone would be in Wakanda, or that T’Challa would somehow stumble across its presence.)

I was glad to see Black Panther make no mention of the sixth stone, as its inclusion would have been an unnecessary distraction. T’Challa’s role within the MCU had already been established by his appearance in Captain America: Civil War (another film that did little to further the saga of the stones), and there was no need to further incorporate his character in this marvelously complex world. Most MCU heroes have been featured in at least one film with only tangential relationships to the MCU; Black Panther deserved an opportunity to shine on his own, and based on the phenomenal box-office receipts, T’Challs needed no assistance from his Avengers buddies or the Infinity Stones storyline to deliver a terrific story.

Some day, the current era of superhero movies will come to an end, most likely when the current generation of charismatic actors decides to move on to other projects. I’m just glad that Black Panther was able to have his moment on the stage before the curtain came down.