Saturday, September 29, 2007

Vonnegut's Last Laugh

Slaughterhouse Five was for me, like many of my generation, a seminal book by a guy I could relate to. Kurt Vonnegut, the "above average" geek who wrote science fiction stories, the sensitive, childlike man who found himself adrift in the very adult activities of World War II, who weathered all those grown-up trials and came through the other side still a child and convinced of the absurdity of life, was a character after my own heart. His Billy Pilgrim placidly observed the horrors of war and Vonnegut's imaginings of a postwar America. One of the things Vonnegut foresaw in late twentieth century America was that it would be balkanized into several smaller nations to reduce its power and hence its threat to world political stability. While his vision was never realized and politically naive (what historical precedence is there for any nation, much less the most powerful nation on Earth, relinquishing any of its power voluntarily?) the balkanization of American Culture continues apace. American intellectuals, among other groups, have moved from imagining themselves a demimonde of like minded spirits spread among the population at large to "the Society" itself, with the rest of the population as phantom observers. How else explain pundits like Daniel Lazare, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Carlin Romano confidently proclaiming the end of faith and scoffing away the last vestiges of our religious trappings in a country where 98% of the populace believe in God? Intellectuals, like celebrities and the very rich have often felt that their reality and/or morality have little to do with the rest of the world. Technological innovation has made it progressively easier to actually create an insular and alternate reality, given sufficient means.

Vonnegut's success as a writer allowed him to remain an outsized misantropic child to the very end (comparisons of Vonnegut to Mark Twain I think focus more on outward resemblances than actual philosophies of life, ignoring Twain's humanitarian core) surrounded by fans who shared his worldview. His balkanized America, while never a political reality, has become a societal one.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Subtle Poison of Gould's NOMA

My kids were watching the film "Facing the Giants" in the car the other day. It's an inspirational sports film with an overtly Christian message shot in Georgia on a budget of $100,000 using mostly amateur talent. Listening to the coach unabashedly use Christian concepts to inspire and motivate his players, I was struck by both the strangeness and rightness of what what was unfolding. The solidity, depth and "rightness" of his Christian viewpoint resonated much more deeply than any standard Hollywood feelgood humanist dialog, but at the same time I thought "in the real world, this coach would be considered a kook and fired on the spot".

Looking into the film online, I discovered that it had done well (eventually grossing $10,000,000 in very limited distribution) while being savaged by the critics. This review from the Austin Chronicle really hit home:

"...its feel-good storyline, shopworn message, and bottomless sermonizing would have played better in Sunday school than on the big screen, which is — let’s face it — Babylon’s turf."

Here is the reality of Life in 21st Century America, the result of the triumph of cultural humanism, as put forward by people like Stephen Jay Gould in his idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA):

"the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

I'm sure for many in this country (sadly, even for many Christians) the above sounds not only temperate but fair and reasonable. The catch, as I'm sure Gould knew, is in the way things are divided. Anything dealing with Reality or Truth is the province of Science. The sly assignation of questions of "ultimate meaning" to religion appears to venerate it while at the same time stripping it of any of its intrinsic value in our life. The result of NOMA's tacit acceptance in our culture is that God is put in a very small box. Any reference to Him outside church is now unwelcome, and any reference in the larger culture must honor "equal time" commitments to any and all competing religious views, further weakening its impact. A film like "Facing the Giants" flies in the face of that, and it produced a visceral and negative reaction from secular critics precisely because it chose to ignore Mr. Gould's rules. Well, I'm all for pissing off the right people. Bravo to director and star Alex Kendrick.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

gotta love British candor

While I have little desire to relocate to The Land of Fried Bread and Lager, their understatement and lack of pretense can be very refreshing. Take these selections from bios on the British Film Institute site:

Julie Andrews:
"It seems a shame that she, quintessentially English, has wasted herself on many feeble American films when she could have found feeble films at home - and 'home' needed her more."

Tom Baker:

Stardom made him proprietorial, and he berated directors, producers and 'ordinary' scripts. He was ill for much of his record-breaking seventh year as the Doctor and, when faced with a new producer, incoming 'juvenile' assistants and a ratings slump, he announced his retirement in October 1980. Before leaving the programme Baker wed his assistant Romana - actress Lalla Ward - although the marriage lasted just 18 months.

Baker's final Doctor Who was shown in March 1981 and he subsequently struggled with typecasting, retreating to the theatre and runs of Treasure Island, Educating Rita, Hedda Gabler and She Stoops to Conquer...

The typecasting receded in the 1990s - he was now physically heavier and the famous curls had begun to grey, while directors who had grown up watching Doctor Who began to cast him...

Compare these to the typical American writing on celebrities, which either treats them as maincured, PR-vetted High Priests of Culture or seedy scandal sheet fodder.

P.S. Eek! The above-mentioned Lalla Ward is now telegenic wife and illustrator to Current Pop Science Atheist Rockstar Richard Dawkins (well, "current" given the death of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and limited mobility of Stephen Hawking) who is perhaps one of the most arrogant people on the planet. Check out his latest offer (sorry no link): damn your soul to Hell and get a free DVD!

Small world.