When is a Three Point Shot a Declaration of Independence?

Only one game after controversially benching Kobe Bryant during a key fourth-quarter stretch, Lakers head coach Mike Brown felt forced to do something similar with All-Star center Andrew Bynum on Tuesday.  Bynum, a seven-footer who has taken eight three-pointers in his entire NBA career, took an ill-advised (and let’s be honest…all Bynum outside shots are ill-advised) three point shot during the Lakers 104-101 win over the Golden State Warriors.  It barely touched the rim, missing by a mile.  Incensed, Brown immediately called Bynum to the bench and put in a substitute.  Bynum did go back into the game after a stretch, but the benching was clearly punishment for a shot the sanity of which the play-by-play announcers questioned during its flight.  So far, this is uninteresting.  Anyone who’s ever played basketball has probably been pulled out of a game by a frustrated coach, and moreover, everyone who’s ever played basketball has probably, at one point or another, deserved it.  It’s what Bynum said to reporters after the game that has raised eyebrows.

“I don’t know what was bench-worthy about the shot, to be honest with you,” said the Lakers’ big man. ”I made one [Sunday], and I wanted to make another one. That’s it. I guess he took offense to it, so he put me on the bench.”

“I’m good,” Bynum said. ”I guess it’s ‘Don’t take threes’ is the message, but I’m going to take another one and I’m going to take some more, so I just hope it’s not the same result. Hopefully, I make it.”

So there you have it: message received, and message ignored.  People think that punishment will correct behavior.  Andrew Bynum’s postgame comments illustrate a competing (though more accurate) truth: punishment incites rebellion.  The law (e.g. don’t shoot three-pointers if you don’t have a reasonable expectation of making them) asks for a certain behavior.  Bynum got it right: Don’t take threes.  When it doesn’t get what it’s looking for, the law inflicts punishment, hoping that a program of reeducation will produce better results the next time.  Unfortunately, as Christian theologians have always noted, the law is much better at asking for a result than it is at achieving it.

Martin Luther likened the relationship of the law to results to a lion held down by steel bands.  The lion fights against the bands…and the tighter the bands become, the more viciously the lion fights.  We fear freeing the lion because of the ferocity with which it strains, forgetting that all the while the lion is fighting the bands, not us.  Released, the lion has nothing to struggle against, and will likely cease its struggling.

In the world of competitive basketball, of course, sitting a player on the bench for long enough may well break him of a bad habit.  But so far, it’s having the reverse effect.  Bynum is planning on launching more shots from long range, not fewer.  As our view lengthens, though, and our scope expands, we might well note that even if Bynum is eventually benched enough to force him to stop shooting threes, won’t he consider his coach a ruthless tyrant and undermine him in other ways?  Won’t he be much more likely to find another team in free agency (or at least threaten to do so unless Brown is fired)?  Is the tightening of the bands on Andrew Bynum (though it might work on the surface) worth the damage it will surely cause to his fragile (i.e. human) psyche?  Aren’t we all happier free, and isn’t it true that grace (e.g. the freedom to shoot) can provide the space to realize what it is we’re really good at, and allow us to settle into the behavior, by choice, that the law was asking for in the first place?

Movie Review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jay and Mark Duplass, perhaps best known for the recent comedy Cyrus, are known for their contributions to the sub-genre known as "mumblecore." A cinematic movement characterized by ultra-low production values, tiny-in-scope stories, and amateur actors, most mumblecore films struggle to be accessible to wide audiences. Cyrus may be, in fact, the only mumblecore film you've ever heard of, and that's because it starred "real" actors (John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill). The Duplass brothers have gone the real actors route again in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, casting Jason Segel and Ed Helms as brothers and Susan Sarandon as their mother. Whether they give these actors anything in particular to do, though, is another matter.

In fact, "having something to do" is a major theme of Jeff. Segel plays the titular Jeff, who does indeed live at home. He's a man who waits for signs from the Universe, and tries to follow them. It's led him, perhaps predictably, to do next to nothing. He's estranged from his brother, but a series of coincidences (or are they?) repeatedly bring them together, while the boys' mother deals with a secret admirer at work. The film is really about how three different people deal with a major life question:  what should I do, and why? The performances are all good, and the writing is excellent. A hallmark of a Duplass brothers script (and most mumblecore writing) is that the people talk like real people talk. It's quite enjoyable to watch these characters talk about life's questions.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home, though, is short on answers...on purpose. The "action," if it can be called that, shambles along, one thing happens and then another, until a huge unexpected crisis arises out of nowhere. Is the universe telling you what to do by inscrutable signs? Are you on your own to figure out your purpose? Jeff, Who Lives at Home isn't telling, but it's a pleasant experience nonetheless. Watching Jeff is like a visit back to the house you grew up in: it's a little ramshackle now, everything seems smaller than you remember it, but it's comfortable, and you wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home:  3.5 stars out of 5

Don't Poke the Bear: The Law of Chastising Boo-Birds


Monday night was "Chris Mullin Night" at the Golden State Warriors/Minnesota Timberwolves game. Mullin, the most popular Warrior ever, had his jersey retired before the game. These sorts of ceremonies are invariably feel-good affairs for fans, and it was going just as expected on Monday night. Then Warriors owner Joe Lacob took the mircophone and things got ugly.

Bill Simmons wrote a scathing article yesterday (3/21/12) on Grantland.com about the sixty ways that the Warriors franchise has antagonized its fans (through bad drafting, terrible trades, and horrific luck) since it last won a championship in 1975. Lacob, though (it should be noted in his defense), is a new owner and not responsible for the bulk of the Warriors woes. However, what he is responsible for is trading Ekpe Udoh and Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut and (via a second trade with the San Antonio Spurs) Richard Jefferson. In short, after decades of losing, Lacob apparently gave up on this season by trading an up-and-coming talent (Udoh) and one of the most exciting scorers in the NBA (Ellis) for a currently injured-for-the-season big man (Bogut) and an uninspiring small forward with an albatross of a contract (Jefferson). So when Lacob took the mic, the fans let him have it.


Mullin gets cheered, as you can see, as he walks out. His cheers fade as he attempts to defend Lacob. As Mullin retreats, Hall-of-Famer and greatest-Warrior-ever Rick Barry grabs the microphone and tries a different tack. He doesn't defend Lacob, he chastises the fans. And that's when the interesting thing happens. The boos reach their zenith as Barry exhorts the fans to have some class.

The biblical explanation of this phenomenon comes from St. Paul, who says both that when he didn't know what coveting was, the law of "thou shalt not covet" came in and awoke in him "all sorts of covetousness" (Rom 7:7-8) and that the law was brought in so that the trespass might increase (Rom 5:20). It is fashionable to think that if you can open someone's eyes (educate them) to their "sin" (or, for instance, their classlessness) they'll realize that they should stop. The Golden State fans illustrate, as Paul supposed, that, in fact, the opposite is often true: chastisement increases sin!

The old sayings stick around because they're true: There's no quicker way to get a kid to stick their hand in the cookie jar than to forbid them, and, apparently, there's no easier way to get a booing crowd to boo harder than to call them out on their classlessness and demand that they stop. 

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street


I remember thinking, several years ago, that it would be hysterically funny if a comedy made a really meta-joke, and referred to one of it's characters looking a lot like the movie star playing the part.  As in, say, "Hey, has anyone told you that you look just like Tom Cruise?" when it IS Tom Cruise.  Get it?  Get it?  But then, Steven Soderbergh did an extended run on this idea in Ocean's 12, wherein Tess (played by Julia Roberts) pretends to be the movie star Julia Roberts in order to get the gang closer to the item they need to steal.  My reaction?  Meh.

In the same vein, I've wanted many of the film "updates" of 80s television properties (Charlie's Angels, Starsky and Hutch, etc.) to be more aware of the fact that they're trying to breathe life into shows that got cancelled for lack of interest over 20 years ago.  The new film 21 Jump Street does just that...and almost does it too much.  At one point, Nick Offerman's Deputy Chief of police tells Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum that their being sent to a program resurrected from the 80s, and that the people in charge are completely out of new ideas, and that they think that we're all too stupid to notice.  It's just a little...on the nose.

But the rest of the film is pretty darn fun.  Tatum exhibits surprisingly good comic timing, and Jonah Hill does the schtick that made Jonah Hill Jonah Hill.  He's Seth from Superbad with a handgun.  The film suffers, as all action-comedies are apparently required to, when it's time to get the plot to the finish line (see: Tropic Thunder).  Jokes are jettisoned in favor of car chases and explosions.  21 Jump Street sticks more jokes in that most, but it's still a pretty drastic shift (for the worse) from the first two thirds of the film.

And, as long as we're complaining, can we please be finished with the one-friend-overhears-something-bad-the-other-friend-says-about-him-and-overreacts-threatening-the-friendship trope?  It's dead, and a time-waster.  We know everything's going to be okay.

Those two complaints do little to take away from the overall joy of the experience, though...just watching Hill, Tatum, and the rest of the cast (notably Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, and Dave Franco) trade profane verbal barbs will plaster a smile on your face (if you like that sort of thing...which I do) for the perfectly tight 109 minute runtime.  21 Jump Street is like a friend you love to hang out with, you might not want to introduce it to mom, but it'll keep you laughing.

21 Jump Street: 3.5 stars out of 5

Why the NBA Playoffs Are Better (Though Less Theologically Profound) Than March Madness

There was a time when I was just like you. I would have read the headline of this post and been outraged. "But," I'd sputter, "No one plays defense in the NBA!" "College kids care more and try harder!" (Argument #1) "Anyone can win the NCAA Tournament; that's the beauty of it!" (Argument #2) I submit to you, though, that people who currently use these retorts (at least #1) probably haven't watched the NBA game in a while.

With diffused talent (there are 345 Division 1 basketball programs spread across 32 conferences, whereas there are only 30 total NBA teams), and with its best players going to the NBA before they've matured, the college game has gotten worse. Put another way, a vast majority of college players aren't good enough to play in the NBA. Coincidentally, the NBA game has gotten better. My own theory is that, in 2005, the playoff race in the Western Conference became neck and neck from very early in the season. The last team to earn a playoff spot, the Memphis Grizzlies, went 45-37, the second-best record for a #8 seed since the NBA began using its current playoff format in 1984. All of a sudden, everyone had to try hard for pretty much the whole season just to try to make the playoffs. And it was catching. Defense picked up, Defensive Player of the Year was suddenly an award that everyone wanted to win, and teams started playing hard every night.

So, my argument is that, post-2004-05, one could no longer effectively argue that the quality of play (whether by talent or by effort) was inferior in the NBA product. For a simple example, check out the difference in shooting percentages between the NCAA Championship Game last year and the NBA Finals. In the NCAA game, Connecticut shot a paltry 36% from the field. You'd expect a team that shot so poorly to lose. Butler, however, made only 12 baskets in the entire game, shooting a heinous 19% and losing by 12. By contrast, over the course of the six game NBA Finals, both the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks shot 45%. Let's all face it together: the quality of play in the NBA is better. So that takes care of Argument #1.

On to Argument #2, that the beauty of the NCAA tournament is in the fact that anything can happen. It is, in fact, very rare for all four #1 seeds to make it to the Final Four. In essence, then, proponents of Argument #2 are saying that they prefer a situation which reduces the chances of the best team to win the championship. I don't. NCAA teams play over 30 regular season games (depending on conference and invitational tournaments), honing chemistry and strategy. A team that has a bad shooting night can comfort itself that it could still go 33-1, 32-2, 31-3, and so on. But you can't win the NCAA tournament going 5-1. You lose, you're out. This is exciting, no doubt, but it's not a true representation of the state of the basketball season. Regular season champions are not celebrated, on the NCAA level or the NBA level. Yet it's much harder, in college, to go 32-2 (like Kentucky did this year) than to win the six consecutive games required for an NCAA tournament championship. It's a much more difficult challenge to win the 16 games over four series that an NBA champion must.

In last year's NBA Finals, the Miami Heat won Game 1. However, over the course of the series, Dallas proved that they were the better team, and won the championship. The better team on a given night is not necessarily the better team, other than on that particular night. I'd much rather have the best team (overall) win than submit myself to the vagaries, however exciting, of a single elimination tournament, especially one in which the quality of play is so low.

Now, HAVING SAID ALL THAT...the NCAA tournament is a theologically profound in a way that the NBA playoffs can never hope to be.

Imagine, for a moment, the Christian life in a way that we've all imagined it at one time or another: as the process of climbing a ladder. I remember, at one point my my life, being challenged to climb that ladder; i.e. to get closer to God. To improve. And, in a sense, we do feel like our Christian lives are like this: understanding more, relating better, perhaps even struggling less with things that were once a terrible burden. Consider, though, how easily such progress can be lost. Like the recovering alcoholic just one drink away from total oblivion, the Christian seemingly always finds him- or herself on the bottom rung of the ladder, just about to fall off. We're climbing, to be sure, but the rungs we've climbed seem to be disappearing beneath us.

Remember the great Beatles song "Getting Better?"  The chorus goes "I've got to admit, it's getting better/A little better all the time/it can't get no worse." (ht PZ) This is the Christian life in a nutshell, and the NCAA tournament experience.  As a team wins, they progress: Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four. But it can blow at any seam! A team is always one bad shooting night (or defensive night, etc) away from total elimination and obscurity. To the extent that we can say that we "advance" in the Christian life, it's sobering to note that "[our] sin is always before [us]" (Psalm 51:3) and we're mere moments away from needing that saving help again, having never really progressed beyond the last rung of that ladder.

The Rundown: The Farrelly Brothers

The Rundown will be a regular feature on My Series of Tubes, chronicling the highlights (and occasional lowlights) of a certain artist or artists.  Our first subjects are Bobby and Peter Farrelly, godfathers of the modern gross-out comedy and patron saints of Providence, Rhode Island.  Let's start The Rundown.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)
What an opening salvo!  If casting Jim Carrey before he was the biggest comedy star in the world wasn't coup enough, releasing Dumb and Dumber at the tail end of Carrey's domination of 1994 (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask) put it over the top.  A wildly entertaining farce, Dumb and Dumber thrusts two idiot friends not only into a kidnapping scheme gone awry, but into a road picture at the same time. Jeff Daniels' general stiffness makes Carrey look all the more outrageous.



Kingpin (1996)
An underrated film (and probably the grossest of the gross-out comedies), Kingpin stars Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid as a former professional bowler and Amish farmer, respectively.  The real star of the show, though, is Bill Murary.  You've never seen a comb-over until you've seen THIS comb-over.


There's Something About Mary (1998)
The Farrelly Brothers hit the big time with There's Something About Mary.  Starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz, Mary was a huge hit.  The large supporting cast really makes the story go, though, with great additions from Matt Dillon, Lee Evans, Keith David, Chris Elliott, and Jeffrey Tambor.  And then, of course, there's the dog.  

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Me, Myself, and Irene (2000)
Potentially the flop of the bunch, Irene stars Carrey again (this time opposite Renee Zellweger), playing the dual roles of a man suffering from multiple personality disorder.  A conscientious Rhode Island State Trooper (all Farrelly Brothers movies take place at least partially in Rhode Island), Carrey must transport convict Zellweger to a hearing.  Hijinks, as they must, ensue along the way, the pair not only having to deal with enemies from without but also with Hank, Carrey's Mr. Hyde-type alter ego.  Less funny than the others, I walked out of the theater thinking that I didn't like it very much.  But then I felt the pain in my face...the result of carrying a broad smile for 90 minutes.

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Stuck on You (2003)
This one is a Farrelly Brothers' magic trick.  The premise is so stupid, it must have seemed like an incredible long shot to pull off.  Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear (you have to hand it to the Farrellys...they get good talent to be in their movies) play small-town conjoined twins.  Kinnear is an actor who wants to move to Hollywood, but Damon gets panic attacks when he gets stressed.  Amazingly, Damon and Kinnear bring the film off.  It boasts a hilariously self-deprecating cameo by Cher (playing herself) and a great supporting turn by Eva Mendes.

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Hall Pass (2011)
A comedy about two horny men given a "hall pass" (a week "off" from marriage) by their wives seems, at first blush, even harder to pull off than a comedy about conjoined twins trying to make it in Hollywood.  Ripe for risible exploitation of women and lowest-common-denominator comedy, Hall Pass is actually rather winning.  The best part of the film is that, when given their "hall passes," friends Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis discover that they're not the playboys that their witty banter allows them to pretend to be...and maybe, they don't want to be.  The guys learn something about themselves, perhaps even strengthen their marriages, and we can all have some pretty hearty laughs along the way.

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Book Review: Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston


The second posthumously-published Crichton novel, Micro is a classic Crichton tale in a way that Pirate Latitudes (the first) wasn't.  It's a techno-thriller, pitting a group of graduate students against both a power-mad and money-hungry corporate boss in a fantastical setting.  It's Timeline, if you were to subtract the knights and add giant bugs.

Despite having a fairly distinctive voice, it's tough to tell where Crichton ends and Preston begins.  That's to Preston's credit.  There are a couple of tin-eared phrases that jump off the page as not possibly coming from Crichton's pen, but these are few and far between.  The book was allegedly discovered about a third complete in Crichton's files.  Certainly, then, the story is Crichton's, and it's a hummer.

The protagonists find themselves shrunk, Osmosis Jones-style, to heights of less than an inch.  They're in a forested area in Hawaii (trying to get out) that may as well be another planet.  Enormous hummingbirds scream overhead and gargantuan millipedes threaten lives.  The theme (and Crichton novels, at least recent ones, are never without themes) is one that resonates, sort of a "nature, red in tooth and claw" idea.  It seems a more accurate way of viewing the world than the prevailing "nature equals peace and harmony" view.  

Crichton and Preston make all the characters expendable, heightening the tension of the experience.  It's a world we've been in before, even if just in elementary school film strips, but it's brought to life in Crichton's signature thrilling style.  Though not among his best work (Jurassic Park, The Great Train Robbery, Airframe), Micro is nonetheless far better than this worst (Prey), and a middling Crichton novel is always a darn good read.

Micro:  3 stars out of 5

Hit 'Em For Money, Hurt 'Em For A Little More

The recent revelations about the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" program have rocked the talking-head world at ESPN. The Saints, apparently,  had a program, administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who ran similar programs at previous teams), wherein players received cash bonuses for inflicting injuries on opposing players. For instance, knocking a quarterback out of the game might get you $10,000, and getting him carted off on a stretcher might earn you $20,000. No one seems to be particularly surprised that this kind of thing was going on; many have suggested that this occurs on every team, and that the Saints mistake was writing it all down and keeping track.

I don't want to get into the morality of paying players to intentionally injure other players, although I will say that it seems an awful lot like criminal activity (aggravated assault) to me. When Tonya Harding paid her boyfriend to take out Nancy Kerrigan, people went to prison. It has been notoriously difficult to prove "intent" on the athletic field, but with documented records of who got what for hurting whom, intent seems a bit easier to prove. Alternatively, I want to use these revelations (and especially the response of several former players) as an opportunity to talk about a theological idea: casuistry.

Over the last couple of days, I've heard both Mike Golic and Marcellus Wiley (former players) say that everyone is overreacting to this story. They say that they "went after the quarterback" as hard as they could on every play, and couldn't have done more if they'd been paid to. Their argument was, in effect, that the devastation of a hit would be the same, whatever the motivation of the player delivering it. Put another way, they said something like: "Football is a violent game, and people are going to get hurt playing it. We all know that going in. Paying people a little extra to put a little extra on some hits isn't going to change anything."

Casuistry might well be defined as "an attempt, via nit-picking, to appear to obey a rule whilst breaking it." It seems that it would be clear to the most uneducated observer that while a player might not be able to hit a quarterback harder  to earn their little bonus, they might well be able to hit them in the knee or in the head. And since when is "I play a game that is inherently violent" an acceptable excuse for attempting to injure another person? The best example of casuistry of all time is this 2005 story in The Telegraph, the first line of which is, "Machines will perform euthanasia on terminally ill patients in Israel under legislation devised not to offend Jewish law, which forbids people taking human life." Yowza.

As humans, we answer "thou shalt not kill" with "I'm not killing. This machine that I invented, put in place, and turned on is!" Apparently, as football players, we turn "don't intentionally injure another person" into "don't intentionally injure another person unless they signed up to play a game in which they might get injured anyway." Casuistry is the human occupation. It's what we must do when faced with a rule that we cannot follow. We mold the rule to fit our behavior, because we find that we cannot improve our behavior to match the requirement of the rule. When Jesus gives us the ultimate rule, that to be in a relationship with God, we must be as perfect as He is (Matthew 5:48), we turn to casuistry for an escape hatch. Usually, though, we're caught out, and look, like these former NFLers, pretty ridiculous.

Charge it to the NBA

"Taking a charge" has gone crazy.  "Flopping" has gone crazy.  There are two competing realities in the NBA that seem to have made interior defense next to impossible.

First of all, everyone hates flopping.  Whether it's the relationship to soccer (and the fact that, at least at first, it was primarily foreign-born players, i.e. those players from soccer-playing countries, who were doing most of the flopping) or some other factor (such as impeding the flow of the game or some inherent un-manliness), flopping draws the ire of the American basketball fan like almost nothing else.


Like the guy in your local pick-up game who calls for passes from the opposing team (and then laughs during his uncontested lay-ups), floppers are unpopular, but only to the opposition.  They are, in a strictly strategic sense, good plays.  They are low risk (there's usually help defense around) and high reward (if they work, it's a turnover and a foul on the opposing player).  They are also the bane of physical players.  When no one could figure out how to defend Shaquille O'Neal, they decided to start falling down around him, hoping that offensive fouls would be called.  They were rewarded.  This practice of rewarding the falling down led to the second reality, which is, in some ways, more frustrating.

In the current NBA officiating climate, you can't take a charge without falling down.  This is hyperbole, of course, but there's a (large) kernel of truth in there.  Officials are so used to people falling all over the floor that they assume that if someone doesn't fall down, they haven't been fouled.  Defenders who take a dropped shoulder to the chest but hold their ground (i.e. "play good defense") are almost never rewarded with charge calls.  This, of course, trains defenders to fall down when trying to draw an actual charge and also encourages more flopping.

It's a vicious cycle with relatives on the offensive end:  watch Tony Parker play, and he spends as much time lying on the court as he does standing on his two feet.  Every time he drives the lane, he ends up on his back, hoping to draw a foul.  Offensive flopping has not reached the point of defensive flopping, because officials don't yet believe that one has to fall down (or jerk one's head back as though shot with a deer rifle...ahem, Dwyane Wade) to have been fouled.  But it's on the horizon.

The NeverEnding Story of Being Human

There is a great crossroads in life, a place described by two verses from the Bible.  The first comes from Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount, where he describes what righteousness looks like:  "Therefore you must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).  Crossing this road is another thoroughfare, this one described by St. Paul:  "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10).  We all find ourselves at this crossroads, desiring to be righteous but prevented by our humanity from getting there.  Consider this clip from the 1984 classic The NeverEnding Story:

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Though the scientist phrases it differently ("aware of your own worth"), clearly it is righteousness that will allow a person to pass through the sphinx gate.  There's even a little shot at the "white-washed tombs" of pharisaism (Matthew 23:27) when the "fancy" looking knight gets his.

It is a staple of fantasy books and movies for there to be a "chosen one," who is pure, even though those around him don't know it.  Arthur is able to pull Excalibur out of the stone, Aladdin is a "diamond in the rough," and so on.  Atreyu, at first, seems to follow that mold...but then the Sphinx's eyes start to open!  Even Atreyu is revealed to be impure, and it's only his cat-like reflexes (and some pretty severe limitations on the eye-shooting abilities of the sphinxes) that allow him to escape with his life.

For the sphinxes, nothing less than perfection will do.  This is true of God.  The sphinxes can see right through a shiny (righteous-looking) exterior and see into your heart.  This is true of God.  No one is worthy, not one.  Not even Atreyu.  This is true of all of us.  Finding ourselves at this crossroads, where requirement meets ability, and lacking the quickness of Atreyu, we must rely on a savior from outside ourselves who, as St. Paul says, "at just the right time, while we were still powerless, died for the ungodly."
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