Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"What should we think about death?" A critique

A friend recently shared this video on facebook from the British Humanist Association and narrated by Stephen Fry entitled "What should we think about death?"

...and I made the mistake of clicking on it.

After watching it, I felt compelled to comment on why I disagreed with it, but before I knew it, the response became way too long for facebook to allow as a comment so I decided to post the response verbatim below. I hope my friend will forgive me for this but it's the only public place I new I could put such a large response. Plus, no one reads my blog anyway :P


Not exactly sure why I clicked the video. I should know better, but perhaps I was feeling subconsciously masochistic? In any case, I think the video is, as the British would say, rubbish. Now, I don't think atheism is rubbish, and I don't think you are stupid for holding that position, but this video fails to deliver any good arguments on why the view contained inside is the right way to think about death. I'll explain why.

For starters, the video contained several jabs at religion that implied we believe something that we do not. I'm sure you've heard of this as a strawman tactic. If not, it's where someone mischaracterizes an opponent's position (creating a "straw man") and then attacks that mischaracterized view. Once that view is sufficiently rebutted, the straw man's creator declares victory over the position as though their oponent's actual view was dealt with fairly.

Toward the beginning, the narrator claims that "wanting something to be true, is not the same as it being true". This is rather insulting, since most (if not all) of those who believe in an afterlife would agree emphatically with that statement. The idea that "believing something hard enough, long enough, and with enough faith, will make it true" is ludicrous and a straw man because the implication is that those with religion believe only out of a refusal to accept death. All of the religious that I know, believe because they have either been convinced by philosophical arguments, (such as those for a first-mover) or because they have experienced life-change as result of, or in relation to, religious teachings and/or practices.

One thing that will be clear to even casual observers of the video, is that the religious symbolism contained within is designed to mark Christianity as the main religious target. This makes it especially embarrassing when the video's first argument against an afterlife is that it wouldn't be enjoyable because the things we enjoy in life can't be enjoyed in a disembodied state. Why is this embarrassing? It's because Christianity is emphatic in teaching that eternity will not consist of existence in a disembodied state. Clearly the authors of the video have a juvenile understanding of Christian doctrine which was probably influenced by pop-media suggesting what heaven would be like. It would probably surprise the authors and others who have not read the bible or studied the teachings of Christianity, that an embodied existence on earth (the current earth or the earth remade) is the ultimate home of the departed. This was another straw man.

The video asks: "If life were eternal, wouldn't it lose much of what gives it shape, structure, meaning, and purpose?" This is an empty, ambiguous, and useless question since the video does not care to define these terms and how they pertain to a life. Instead it dumps these vague and many-faced terms on the viewer to apply (or not apply) how they wish. But how does a life have 'shape'? How does it have 'structure'? These terms are for physical objects, not a life lived. I'm not opposed to their literary use to describe a life, but their application in this context is left intentionally vague. Similarly, meaning and purpose both mean different things to different people and function more as buzzwords here. The statement implies that a life that continues without end cannot have meaning or purpose, even though, a. this is intuitively false and b. no explanation is given for why this would be so.

Arguably, the weakest assertion in the video is that one of the things that makes something pleasureful is that it comes to an end. Huh? Why is this true? For something to be distinguishable as a pleasure, one need only have experience with something that is not a pleasure or something that is pleasureful to a lesser degree. Suppose I were granted wings. Would these only be a pleasure if they were eventually taken away? Hardly. I have lived my entire life grounded and unable to fly unaided. This new state of being winged in no way negates the pleasure I experience from the freedom they bring. The negative examples given in the video rely on many assumptions that cause them to break down as analogies on closer inspection. We want to stop reading a book because they are written with a beginning, middle, and end by the intent of the author. The author presumably has a finite amount of time before he or she dies and a limit to their creativity which would render an infinite-length book impossible to write. But suppose the author had no beginning or end, no limit to their creativity, and suppose we the reader had no finite amount of time to read this endlessly creative and engaging book... Take the infinite cake example. We have a limit to our stomachs which would make an endless consumption of cake pretty uncomfortable. We have taste buds that don't preserve that first-bite feeling throughout a whole meal. But do these limits pertain to the afterlife? Not according to any religion I've ever studied. The silliest part of both examples is that the video authors forget that the examples require the reader and the taster to exist from beginning to middle to end in order to experience all three. How can we appreciate life's end if we don't exist to appreciate anything at all? Death isn't the point where we get to experience the end of life. It's the complete and utter end of all appreciation altogether. There is nothing to appreciate. There is no one to appreciate it.

One thing the video loves to engage in is what I call sappy, sentimental, bs (or ssbs for short). Anytime an atheist wants to lessen the sting of death, ssbs is always close by. Have you ever heard the claim that "we're all made of stardust"? That's a prime example of ssbs. It stems from the speaker's own fear of death and refusal to accept the indignity and the ignobility of it (not to mention the meaninglessness and purposelessness). The remainder of the video is comprised of approximately 10% british accent and 90% ssbs.

"Death is a natural part of life". If there was ever an example of an empty platitude, this is it. Death is by no means a natural part of life. A natural part of the universe maybe, perhaps a natural part of nature... But death is literally the opposite of life. Life has no mixing with death. Where life begins, death ends; where life ends, death begins. It's oil and water. Life is movement and experience and reproduction and consumption and stimuli. Death is stillness; it is nothingness; it lacks any tangible reality. Not only is it not life, it is not-life.

"We need to come to terms with death so we can find meaning and purpose in the here and now". More ssbs, and there're those 'meaning' and 'purpose' buzzwords again. Can we ascribe ultimate meaning or ultimate purpose to ourselves? Can a screwdriver decide that it is a hammer? But that implies an original designer... let's use an amorphous blob. Can an amorphous blob decide that it's purpose is to write patriotic songs? or build purple skyscrapers? Perhaps it could think that, and after many billions of years perhaps it could functionally do that, but is that's its meaning? or purpose? I think that's a tough case to make. Any purpose ascribed to the blob by the blob itself dies with it.

"We need to make the most of the one life we know we have and help others to do the same". Why? Sounds nice, but is there an argument for why I should accept this guy's purpose for me over my own purpose for me? Who decides what "making the most of this life" looks like? Who's the judge of a life well lived? What do we do when our ideas of such a life conflict?

"Choosing good over evil without the expectation of reward in some other place". WOOP WOOP (That's my ssbs alarm sounding). Who defines good? Who defines evil? What if our definitions conflict? Or put the relativism question aside for a moment.. The head-scratching implication here is that atheists do good (and theists should do good) not because of reward/punishment, but because it is simply the right thing to do. But change the wording around and you see the problem. "One should be good becuase it is the right thing to do". Or, "One should do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do". Ah, a tautology, and a question-begging one at that. We're back to relativism. What makes "the right thing to do", the right thing to do? Without an eternal and unchanging standard, right and wrong are defined by the whims of society, namely the society with the biggest stick.

"When we die, we will live on in the work we have done, and in the memories of other people whose lives we have been a part of". Sagan have mercy. This is the most disingenuous type of ssbs because it's being used to appease the desire for immortality in the same video where religion is mocked for doing the same. The worse part is, the mechanics don't work. Not only is being remembered not analogous to life in any way shape or form, but this is not immortality. Everyone is forgotten eventually and even if someone wasn't, they will be in the eventual heat-death of the universe, where all energy will be unusable and all life ceases to be. How can I take comfort in the knowledge that my work helped someone else if I no longer exist? How does my memory benefit me when I cannot think, reason, appreciate or sense anything at all? If one wants to be atheist, fine. But let's take it to its logical conclusion and stop insulting people's intelligence by claiming one can 'live on'.

"Our bodies will break up and become part again of the cycle of nature..." uh oh..[cue inspiring music and hubble telescope images in the background]

"... The atoms that form us will go on to form other things: trees, birds, flowers, butterflies." This is where the ssbs reaches its climax. Here's another short list of things your atoms can go on to form: sphincters, cancer cells, viruses, mucus, pus, sh**, mud, bacteria, HIV, meth, napalm, gunpowder...

Not quite as inspiring.

Sorry for the overlong rant.. I really shouldn't have even clicked the video. I hope you understand I'm not attacking you personally and that this wall of text is directed specifically toward the video and the views of the authors expressed therein. I'm sure you can understand that it gets tiring to have atheist/humanist organizations berate you for believing things because they "feel good" (which we don't) all while simultaneously selling a butchered version of their own views in a package designed to make us "feel good".

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

NOAH: Why Hollywood's latest adaptation should make us uncomfortable

The last thing I wanted to do, was to write this post. I'm not kidding. What I wanted, was for Noah to come out in theaters, for the movie to be judged on its merits, and for the world to go on spinning. This is what happens for every single film ever made except for one special category of movie: those that are adaptations of Bible stories. It's a category of movie that is not judged by the regular criteria of what makes a movie 'good' or not, but I'll get into that later.

This post was born after watching the movie myself, and then witnessing review after review slam this film as the worst, most offensive, and most anti-Christian motion picture to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. At first, I was incredulous. "Was I watching the same thing these other people were? I don't understand." That wasn't the truth though. The truth is, I did understand. I know exactly where these reviews are coming from, and what prompted them. Before I go any further, know that the main point of this post is to get you to see the movie (if you were planning to before the reviews came out) and to beg you: please don't outsource your opinions on subjective matters such as these.

Noah contains a side story involving the Watchers, who were fallen angels responsible for teaching Human beings things they were not ready for and which contributed to the world being so wicked.

Whoa, wait, that's a huge spoiler! Why would I reveal that without warning you first? The reason is important and is one of the main contributing factors to a lot of the negative reviews.

Watchers
If you go into Noah expecting a movie like 'King of Kings', 'The 10 Commandments', or 'Son of God', which portray biblical stories that don't appear to deviate much the Canonical Biblical accounts, then things are going to get real awkward as soon as the Watchers are mentioned (which is very early on).

One thing we need to keep in mind is that the story of Noah in the Christian Bible is told in 4 incredibly short chapters (6-10) in Genesis. Is Genesis the only account of Noah from our Jewish heritage? Not at all. The Jews had an ancient religious work called the Book of Enoch (or 1 Enoch) which functions as a greater exposition of Noah and the story of the flood. In it, fallen angels, know as the Watchers, teach human beings things they were not ready for and which contributed to the world being so wicked. There are details that differ between the movie and the story in 1 Enoch, but it should now be clear why they are included in the film. In short, they are an ancient part of the Noah tradition, even if we don't recognize 1 Enoch as inspired today.

Before you completely write off the movie after hearing this, consider the following points.
  • 1 Enoch is directly quoted in the Biblical New Testament book of Jude (namely in Jude 1:14-15)
  • 1 Enoch material is referenced in the Biblical New Testament books of 1st and 2nd Peter (1 Peter 3:19-20, 2 Peter 2:4-5)
  • 1 Enoch was accepted as scripture by many early Christian saints and Church fathers. Among them, were Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Athenagoras. Tertullian wrote that 1 Enoch was rejected by the Jews because it contained prophecies pertaining to Christ.
  • Copies of 1 Enoch were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, proving its acceptance among many in the 2nd Temple era.
I'm not advocating that the book of Enoch should be included in the Biblical cannon. There are many good arguments for its exclusion which are not the subject of this post, but suffice it to say, that accusations against the director, that he strayed too far from the ancient material on Noah, are groundless.

One thing I really don't want to do, is answer every accusation of inaccuracy lodged against this film. There are many embellishments in it. But I question the sincerity behind such accusations for one simple reason.

Every single Hollywood adaptation of a Biblical story contains embellishments of some form or another.

Consider The 10 Commandments. Was it written in the Bible that Moses was a successful general who defeated the Ethiopians? Was it written in the bible that Moses was in love with Nefretiri (the princess)? Was it written in the bible that Nefretiri was in love with him? Was it written in the bible that Moses saved his mother from being crushed to death under a stone slab before knowing who she was?

Pictured: NOT the Bible
Or consider The Passion of the Christ. Was Mary Magdalene named as the adulterous woman from John 8? Was Judas tormented by demons in the biblical account? Did Jesus crush the head of a literal serpent in Gethsemane? What about the scenes where Jesus introduces modern-day table and chairs to his mother? Or splashes water in his mother's face? Or how about that creepy demon-baby scene?

Pictured: NOT the Bible
There are so many more that I could list here that people conveniently forget when railing against the embellishments of Noah. So if these embellishments are OK and the ones in Noah are not OK... what is the real differentiating criteria?

I mentioned before that a special criteria is used when this category of films is judged by us and here it is.

Bible-based movies are 'good' when they align with my personal theological positions and are 'bad' when they do not.

The premise of the flood is first and foremost about the wickedness of man becoming so great that God kills everyone that is not Noah and his family. Literally everyone else. Men and Women? Dead. Boys and Girls? Dead. Infants? Dead. Most of us grew up hearing about Noah's Ark in Sunday school where we color in pictures of cute animals with their over sized heads sticking out of the Ark's windows, with a rainbow in the sky, and with the sun shining bright. What you don't see in those coloring pages and children's books, are the multitude of rotting and bloated corpses floating just beneath the water's surface.

Not shown: The watery holocaust below
Seeing this event played out on screen without any punches being pulled makes your average church goer very nervous and uncomfortable. This is a good thing. The moral issues in Noah are difficult and worthy of good discussion. It's too easy in such a situation to point out that the director is a non-believer and accuse him of having an anti-Christian agenda instead of realizing that this is as accurate as you can get when describing the deluge itself.

Another accusation that caught me off guard was that the Noah film shoehorns in a hippy message of vegetarianism. This one is frankly embarrassing because it is yet another example of the movie being accurate to the text, but contrary to the views subconsciously held by many of us. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived off the fruit and produce of the Garden. That's what a garden is and does. Everything was provided for them and they did not have to toil to survive. After the fall, mankind and the earth are left under a curse. Check out Genesis 3:17-19 [emphasis, mine]

17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”
God placed Adam and Eve in the garden where they were intended to be vegetarian. This was not revoked at the fall. See verse 23 from the same chapter.

23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.
We can see later that this curse on the ground and expectation of vegetarianism was extended all the way through to Noah. Noah's father, Lamech, gives the following prophecy about his son in Genesis 5:28-29

28 When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son 29 and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”
Finally, as the flood recedes and the Ark rests upon the mountain, God gives the Noahide blessing which lifts the vegetarian restrictions. See Genesis 9:1-3 [emphasis, mine]

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
In the last sentence, we see that this is a new gift, where "as I gave you the green plants" is the current allowance, and "I give you everything", is the new allowance. How embarrassing that there are people out there who accuse Darren Aronofsky of forcing in an ad hoc vegetarian message when really they're exposing the sad fact that the director knows more about the bible text than they do.

We give embellished stories like The 10 Commandments a pass because the embellishments make Moses more special and more heroic. We give The Passion of the Christ a pass because it generates more sympathy and makes Judas and the Pharisees look even more evil. These embellishments reinforce what we already believe. Then this movie comes along to pose the tough moral questions raised in the Flood such as why mothers and babies were wiped out and how that decision could have plagued Noah's mind. Suddenly embellishments are unacceptable. We need to ask ourselves why that is.

I was personally blown away by how seriously Aronofsky took the idea of Noah and the Genesis creation story. Flashback scenes to the creation of the world are told through a beautiful sequence that capture God's majesty and power. Adam and Eve are depicted as real people, and the artistic representation of the serpent and the fruit of the Tree are breathtaking and pregnant with orthodox symbolism. The wickedness of man is not shied away from and perhaps the most powerful scene in the whole movie is one where Noah sneaks into a camp of men and witnesses their evil for himself. It's hard to watch, but effectively communicates just how depraved and awful humanity had become.

Noah is a good film. It has great acting, a challenging story, incredible special effects, a thoughtful script, tear-jerking moments, and even some humor, literally everything that we look for in a good movie. Most importantly, it treats its characters as real people. Noah is depicted as having genuine internal struggles as he wrestles with the morality of what he thinks he's being called to do. That's why it's so painful to read Christian blogs slandering the movie as not deserving the critical praise it is receiving as if there is some conspiracy to create anti-Christian biblical epics and promote them despite being of sub-par quality. This is simply not the case and is really symptomatic of the saddest lesson of all in this whole Noah debacle.

Sometime in the last 100 years or so, Christians stopped making art, and started making "Christian art".

Bach, Michelangelo, Mozart, Bosch, Raphael, Bellini, etc were not famous and praised because they made Christian art. The reason we know their names is because they were geniuses and incredible artists who also happened to use their skills to glorify God. Arguably the greatest artwork and musical pieces of the last 2000 years came from Christians but now we are content with elevating work of no artistic merit simply because we agree with its message. We're also content with slandering and viciously rejecting any work of a Biblical theme if it doesn't reinforce our own presuppositions.

Why do we buy out theaters to show people movies like 'Son of God' which show Jesus as the sexiest man alive (contrary to the Bible), and which artistically possesses few merits to separate it from the numerous Jesus films that predate it? Why do we then inundate the Internet with blog posts telling people to boycott a good movie like Noah which, in my opinion, should be nominated for best picture? Put another way, why do we Christians nowadays tend to shrink away from culture and live insulated in our bubble instead of engaging and leading culture like we used to? It's all too easy to brush off the critical reviews of our movies and accuse the world of being against us because of our message when really it's because we've been making really crappy art.

What happened to us? I think making "Christian art" is akin to making an airbrushed portrait. We want to see our best selves reflected back at us when we look at it. We don't want to see anything uncomfortable or challenging. Not to go on a tangent, but do you know what the difference is between the Psalms and many contemporary Christian songs on the radio? The Psalms are songs about how we feel. Our contemporary songs are about how we think we're supposed to feel. Psalms are art. Many contemporary Christian songs are Christian art. A good rule of thumb is if you take a normal category of art and append "Christian" to the front of it (i.e. "Christian fiction", or "Christian rock", or "Christian rap", etc), there's a good chance you are making "Christian art" and not real art. If our work can't stand on its own in the regular categories like it used to, why do we think it's worthy of our God?

If Noah angers us in any way, it should be because the best biblically inspired artwork being created today is being created by non-believers, with films like Noah, and not by the faithful.

There's a very simple solution to this problem. Make. Better. Art. If we want biblically-inspired movies to be completely accurate and also to be great movies, we need to earn the positions in Hollywood where we can make that happen. We need to be better directors, we need to write better scripts, better screenplays, etc. We also need to be honest about the current quality of our artistic output and stop whining as though our stuff were really good but is being intentionally suppressed by non-Christians. We need to trash our current criteria for what makes a good biblically-inspired movie and we need to apply honest standards of art to ourselves.

If you were talked out of seeing Noah by a fellow Christian (no matter how well-meaning), please go see it. If you hate it, at least you can say your opinion is your own. Don't let other people form your opinions for you.

Resist the urge to join the misguided witch-hunt against this movie and instead, use the opportunity of a high-visibility bible movie to open discussion with non-believers who only saw the movie because of its critical acclaim. As of right now, Noah is sitting safely atop the box office. Let's not squander this opportunity to show grace and to inform. Rather than talking about how wrong everyone else gets it, let's be better about effectively communicating the message we believe to be right.