Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on Chemical Castration (Yikes!)

Big news out of Poland last week: The "center-right" government (and Christian, as described by NPR's All Things Considered) is about to approve chemical castration for offenders convicted of either the rape of a minor or incest. A simple outline of the story can be found here, along with a photo that makes the Polish prime minister look especially evil. The money quote in the story, for our purposes, is this:

"European civil liberties groups have condemned the plans, saying that they violate human rights. However the prime minister has received overwhelming public support for his decision and his popularity has rocketed in opinion polls. Defending his decision, [Polish Prime Minister Donald] Tusk said: "I don't think you can call such individuals – such creatures – human beings. I don't think you can talk about human rights in such a case."

Well, there you have it: A publicly accepted argument for sub-humanity. The "European civil liberties groups" are condemned by Justice Minister Zbigniew Cwiakalski, who says that "Everyone talks about the safety of criminals, but what about the rights of the victims? "Where is the safety and health of our children? We have the right to use measures that will protect the public." Surely Cwiakalski is referring to the reaction to this issue when he says that "everyone talks about the safety of criminals." However, the quote is enlightening. Who gets more consideration? The victim of rape, or the potential victim of chemical castration?

It seems like there are at least two things going on here:

First, what is the point of laws? This has been a long-debated topic. Are laws in place to set up a system for the punishment of violators, or are they there to protect the obedient? Usually, this seems to be more of an issue than it is in this case. How can the electrocution of a murder protect the already-murdered? In this case, the "solution" seems to be an attempt to protect future victims in a way that has only been obliquely attempted in the past. Christianity argues that there are two uses of the Law, the first to "keep the peace" so to speak. The removal of rapists from the general population seems to be in line with this use. Traditionally, society has removed these people by imprisonment and ostracization. Now, Poland would like to remove the rapist from the rapist! It seems, though, that the main problem (of the many) comes when Poland appeals to a twisted view of the other "use of the law" in Christianity.

The "Second Use of the Law" in Christianity is to bring a sinner to his or her knees. It is a mirror held up to the unrighteous, showing them just how unrighteous and "in need" they are. For this use of the law to work, however, it must assume that ALL people are unrighteous, or "law breakers." If some can look in that mirror with head held high, the process falls apart.

The Polish government's argument that these kinds of criminals aren't really human seems flawed on many fronts. Were they human until they committed this heinous act? Or were they merely doing a good job impersonating one? This bring us to our second issue: the quality of human nature.

Are there things that are beneath humans? Are people who engage in rape, genocide, holocaust, and serial murder really human beings at all? We'd love to claim that they aren't. It preserves the dignity of the human race and allows us to point to a group of people, and say with relief, "Well, at least I'm better than them!" I'll suggest that the sum of human history either points to the fact that there's no crime beneath a human being, or that there has never, in fact, been a human race at all.

Did Jesus actually identify with the victim? Of course. He also had mercy on the sinner. His pronouncement of the Law was absolute: "You therefore must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matt 5:48), but he, the perfect man, was made to be sin so that we (the alleged sub-humans) could become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Thus, the people Jesus came, on the one hand, to exclude become the ones he came to die to include. Jesus is the personification of the two words of God: He is the condemnation of the Law (you must be perfect...) and the salvation from it (Rom. 7:24-25). The questions, then, become these: Does profound and disgusting sin put you out of Jesus' reach? Is there a fundamental difference between "the kind of person who would do that" and the rest of us?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on Michael Crichton

Two non-theological thoughts for today:

1) Is Michael Crichton the most underrated author EVER?
2) Why is it impossible to make a good movie from a Crichton novel?

Crichton is often lumped with John Grisham into the "They are super popular and rich s
o their writing must be terrible" caste. While this definitely applies to the atrocious James Patterson, Crichton, and to a lesser extent, Grisham, is able to tell a great yarn while keeping his craft honed. In a sense, this post is a tribute to Crichton (my co-favorite author with John Sandford and John Irving), who died recently, of cancer. Crichton's books, which most will know from their film adaptations, include Jurassic Park, The Lost World, The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Sphere, Eaters of the Dead (filmed as The 13th Warrior), Congo, Disclosure, and Timeline. There are more, but these are just the novels turned into blockbuster films. This guy is the Elvis of popular fiction!

But a more pressing question arises: How is it possible to turn such great stories into such terrible films? (Note: The Terminal Man and The Andromeda Strain were made into movies so long ago that they don't count. Maybe the could be REmade!) His stories have been tackled by directors as talented as Steven Spielberg and Barry Levinson with no luck. Crichton even tried once himself, directing the almost-passable Great Train Robbery. Is it the sci-fi/thriller combination? Maybe. But movies like Minority Report (Spielberg) succeed where Jurassic Park fails. Now, I should note that Jurassic Park made approximately 47 bazillion dollars, making it successful by any objective measure. Luckily, I'm a blogger now, and am free from the weight of appeasing subjective measurements.

I think the problem with Crichton adaptations is that they are NEVER cast well. EVER. Sam Neill and Laura Dern are passable actors, and have done good work elsewhere...but action stars? Come on! Crichton adaptations star the likes of Dustin Hoffman (most overrated actor in history...but that's another post), Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Ernie Hudson, Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney (ok, she's good...usually), Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, Sean Connery, and in the thrilling conclusion, WESLEY SNIPES and PAUL WALKER! It's like they're not even trying! It's a veritable rogue's gallery of either no-talent box office bankables (Snipes, Walker, Stone, Banderas) or horribly miscast talent (Linney, Dern, and Neill).

What do you think? Am I crazy? Is Crichton the no-talent hack? I dare anyone to read Sphere or Airframe and not love them. What can we do to ensure that the remaining un-filmed Crichton novels (Airframe, A Case of Need, Next (in development), and the posthumous Pirate Latitudes (Spielberg is attached)) don't get the same treatment?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pathetic AND Powerful? A "Murderball" Psychology

One of the greatest documentaries of the last several years (and the last several years have been great ones for documentaries) is Murderball, the story of the United States Quad-Rugby team, a Paralympic team of quadriplegics. "Quads," as they call themselves, refers to the fact that they have lost some use of all four limbs. Almost none of the rugby players have any use of their legs, but many have relatively little impairment in their arms. The level of impairment depends on where the neck or back was broken. "Murderball" is the nickname for wheelchair rugby, which teams play in modified chairs that look like something out of Mad Max. I won't tell too much of the story (because I want you to see this movie...I'll lend it to you!) but just one of the subplots is that the greatest player in the history of United States wheelchair rugby, who finally gets too old to make the team, feels rejected by the US and goes to Canada to coach the competition! There is so much juice in this movie to talk about, this post could well be dozens of paragraphs long. However:

The interesting for us, this time, is the interplay between physical disability and mental attitude. As you might imagine, the quadriplegics who play murderball are some of the most competitive, independent, and feisty spirits in the world. They would kill themselves before letting anyone take pity on them. One of the players, Mark Zupan (pictured at the top), says, "I'll go up to people and start talking (expletive). And they'll look at me like they don't know what to do. And I'll say, 'What, you don't want to hit a kid in a chair?' (Expletive) hit me! I'll hit you back!" You can see the unchecked bravado: He is starting altercations to call attention to his self-sufficiency and strength.

Of course, it's overcompensation. Feelings of weakness (the film begins with a painfully long scene of Zupan simply changing his clothes) lead to professions of strength. These professions, though, are offset starkly by another moment in the film. Scott Hogsett, one of Zupan's teammates, is talking about picking up girls: "The more pathetic I seem, the easier it is to get them!" Beyond the obvious disingenuity of Hogsett's strategy, it's interesting to note that he is claiming, in effect, to be pretending to be pathetic. The technical definition of "pathetic" is "evoking a feeling of compassion," which these men most certainly do. By any standard grammatical definition, they are pathetic. Of course, the word has come to mean something far more negative, and it is that connotation that these athletes reject.

It got me thinking, though...what are the times when we play up our patheticisms (as of now, consider this word real)? When does it serve us to allow our pains (our very real pains) to come to the surface? These quadriplegics are suffering; you can see it on their faces. They live their lives in denial of it, in much the same way that we deny much of our suffering. Confronted with something that they want, though, and they are happy (maybe...and only for a time) to play up their need. Are Christians like this, or are we the opposite? How do we handle our deep-seated sufferings? Do we, knowing that Christ came to and for sufferers, wear the thorns in our flesh as badges of honor? Or are we like Quad Rugby players, keeping our needs deep beneath our surface, in the hope that Jesus won't have to come for us at all? If it's true that sufferers will, in Christ, lack nothing (James 1), why do we work so hard to seem just fine?

In a profound sense, I am just like Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett. I'm ready for a fight. Aren't you? To Christianize all of this stuff: We want to be able to stand before Jesus and say, “Lord, you know I’m not perfect! Look, I’ve suffered. My family is broken, my self esteem is low, I'm confined to a wheelchair. It was a long, tough road, and I’m a little woozy.” We might even quote Footprints in the Sand: “You even had to carry me sometimes. But the important thing is, I made it! Here I am.” I made it! Here I am! might as well be the Hymn of the Quad Rugby Player...or of the Human Being.

Unfortunately, the things we’re willing to admit to having lost aren’t the right things! They’re the superficial things, like success or happiness, or the apparently profound things, like legs or love. The thing that Jesus needs us to give up is the thing we hold on to most tightly: our hearts; our very lives. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34).

We’re willing to let Jesus carry us part of the way. We’re willing to be helped. What we can’t abide is DYING! For us, dying means failure. It means the end. We’re used to hearing that someone “lost the fight” against cancer. We think of dying as losing! This is why we pick fights from our wheelchairs. But Jesus says, “You need to give up on that old heart...that fighting spirit! It’s the source of sin! IT’S the thing that’s holding you back!" But there is good news. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that “if anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” ALL THINGS ARE BECOME NEW! The old heart has been removed. Not rehabilitated...removed and replaced. Death, for us, is not the end, but the beginning, of life. And so we might sing the great chorus of the Third Day song Take My Life:

Please take from me my life
When I don't have the strength
To give it away to You, Jesus

We don't have the strength. We're confined to wheelchairs. But we're full of fight. It's this fight that the Law ultimately kills. Jesus takes the hearts we refuse to give him, and behold, all things are become new.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thoughts on "Darth Federer"

I'm a Roger Federer fan. Usually, this leads to nothing more straining than a few hours spent watching tennis four times a year. Last night, however, went to another level. Federer played Robin Soderling (a Swede) in the quarterfinals of the US Open. When Federer came onto the court (immediately after Melanie Oudin's emotional loss -- more on her later), Arthur Ashe stadium was pumped full of -- you guessed it -- Darth Vader's theme music from The Empire Strikes Back! Patrick McEnroe, in his pre-match set-up, even referred to Federer as "Darth Federer." This, I think is an interesting phenomenon. Federer, a quintessentially sweet Swiss, compared to, and greeted like, the evil Empire?

Federer proceeded to absolutely demolish Soderling in the first two sets (6-0, 6-3). It wasn't even close. The crowd started to cheer on Soderling, it seemed, just hoping for some spine! But then, Soderling began mounting his comeback.

Before we talk about the rest of the Soderling/Federer match, let's go back to Oudin for a moment. This is a 17-year-old American who had ousted three consecutive Russian players seeded more highly than she. It was like the US-USSR 1980 Olympic Hockey game all over again! Dementieva - Done. Sharapova - Done. Petrova - Done. Every time Oudin was introduced, it was with one of two phrases, and sometimes both together: "the giant-killer Melanie Oudin" or "Melanie Oudin, the unknown 5'6" American out of Marietta, Georgia."

You could almost hear the announcers say, "Can anything good come out of Marietta?" Oudin finally lost last night, to Caroline Wozniacki, but the crowd was pulling for her the whole time. When her match ended, Federer, the evil empire, came onto the court.

The third set of the Federer/Soderling match was close, and went into a tiebreaker. Magically, Soderling, spurred on by the crowd, won. The turn of the crowd from "in awe of Federer" during the first set to "frantically pulling for Soderling" during the fourth was palpable. They were simply continuing to root for Marietta, Georgia.

Nathanael, one of Jesus' disciples, famously said, when told about Jesus for the first time, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" We WANT our good things to come out of Nazareth. We root for the Melanie Oudins of the world, we play evil marches when Roger Federer steps onto the court, we root for Bud Fox to take down Gordon Gekko. We need a savior that comes from Nazareth. Despite who we find ourselves rooting for in tennis matches and movies, this is counterintuitive. We are still enticed by riches and good looks. We remember Gordon Gekko and Roger Federer. Eventually, we forget Robin Soderling and Bud Fox. Bud Fox? Who remembered THAT name? But for people like us, who so often come from Nazareth ourselves, who feel that we are up against the evil empire and are taken advantage of by Gordon Gekko, it feels awfully good to have a savior from our hometown, be it Nazareth, Marietta, Jersey City, Depression, Loss, Loneliness, or wherever you call home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Thoughts on Remy Martin's Ad Campaign

"Things are getting interesting..." This ad campaign FASCINATES me. The image to the right graces a billboard in Jersey City that I see all the time. Commuters from Jersey to NYC see it just before they get to the Holland Tunnel. The first time I saw it, the message blew my mind. It seems to be saying, "These girls might kiss...or at least touch each other. You know why? They're DRUNK!" The message is clarified (and made weirder) by the ad that plays, animation style, on the wall of the PATH on the way into the city. Two women get closer and closer, grabbing each other's necklaces, and generally acting like they're about to tear each other's clothes off. This ad features a creepy guy, hanging in the background, watching the proceedings. "Things are getting interesting...because these girls are DRUNK!"

So what is going on here? Are there theological ramifications here? Does it have human nature implications? I had a friend in college who suggested to me that drunkenness brings out the true nature of the drinker. I argued, at the time, that one's self-control, one's ability to censor oneself, is integral to one's "self." I've changed my mind about that.

Michael Richards and Mel Gibson, who both went on racist rants while drunk, claimed that they're "not really like that." They don't really have those feelings, etc. However, the rest of us suspect differently: we suspect that Richards and Gibson are actually racists, or at least harbor some racist feelings, and that the drunkenness lowered their ordinary defenses against the "real" them.

So this begs the question: who is the real you? Is the real you the one that you hide from the world? Billy Joel's Stranger? Or is the hiding process, the self-censorship, an important part of the real you? As a minister, and a Christian, I feel compelled to ask about the theological implications. It goes a long way to showing you my mania that I begin thinking theologically about a billboard on the highway. Christian theology suggests that the real you is the stranger that you keep hidden from the rest of the world.

Romans 3:10-12 says, "As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."
Jesus talks about this, too: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matt 23:27).
As stringent as this sounds, all it's really saying (for our pithy purposes) is that the drunk you might be the real you. There are good reasons to cover it up, but Remy Martin seems to be encouraging you to let it out. Remy Martin is appealing to Freud's id, to the basest part of all of us, the one who wants to see what two attractive people will do to each other when too drunk to stop themselves.

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