Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hell Everywhere

Hell is not a Christian invention, though ignorant Atheists might try to say so. Religions from around the world have imagined a realm of divine punishment, and the representations of these ultimate scenes of judgment/punishment speak to a deep need for the Law to be carried out. C. S. Lewis, following the Apostle Paul and the rest of the Great Tradition of Christian thought, points out in Mere Christianity that all people know the Law (and Lewis provides support with the Appendix to The Abolition of Man, in which he lists the varieties of cultures that universally say things like don't steal, don't cheat on your wife). But Lewis goes on to say that no one keeps the Law. And then Lewis takes the next step, the one that we don't like taking because of our fallen nature--we habitually make excuses for why we didn't keep a law. We refuse to repent, in other words. 

The Law is engraved on our hearts, but our clouded brains and occluded inward vision keep us from knowing clearly how we have failed, and we--sinful brats that we are--pretend that we didn't do anything that bad or that we didn't do anything bad at all. But we can never escape our guilt and our dodges, so we suppress them. But these suppressions inevitably rise to the surface in mutated ways--hence the visions of Hell in so many cultures. 

We know something is wrong with us, but we cannot bring ourselves to see just how bad it is outside of the grace of God that comes to us in the fullness of the Law (Jesus, for instance, on the Sermon on the Mount says, yes you did commit adultery. Yes, you did lie. Yes, you did murder. Every single one of you. Balderdash, we reply. Jesus is just using Semitic exaggeration. He doesn't really mean what he said. We dodge). 

Depictions of Hell arise in distorted ways, though, because we want to minimize our own culpability and heighten that of others, so, like the Chinese hell, horrible people--people unlike decent folk--like ourselves--get boiled alive again and again, or torn apart by demons, or are grilled forever. Or mostly forever. One aspect of Buddhist hells is that the torment ends after a certain number of eons, and the sinner is reborn into a new life of destiny. Reincarnation in Eastern religions sometimes is preceded by a billion years in hell with demons who are actually purgative forces of Karma. Though hell still hurts.  You can even tour Chinese hell with the kids if you are looking for something to do on a weekend.

So, Muslim hell, Buddhist hell, Shinto hell, Zoroastrian hell--humans with a religious bent build hells because we know deep down that humans deserve judgment. But also deep down, we screen ourselves from judgment, finessing the hard words of Jesus by imagining hell might have a termination of some kind or that we ourselves won't be there, only the really, really wicked people will. 

How might this play out in popular culture? One way is that depictions of hell are horribly, horribly wrong, for the most part. Whether it is hell in Constantine, or hell in What Dreams may Come or hell in Jacob's Ladder, the reality of final separation from God, that Love that moves the heavens and the stars as Dante puts it, is deflated by poor theology and the need for entertainment. In some ways, there isn't really a problem with this on one level--movies are fantasy machines that allow us to escape our humdrum lives. The problem comes when someone watches something like Beetlejuice, where hell is obviously a joke, a prop for some Tim Burton-esque fun and so gets reinforcement that separation from the Maker is a residue of primitive belief, something fit only for movie fun; or someone watches something like the sci-fi/horror crossover Event Horizon and thinks that Christians really believe hell is a place of torture and thus cannot in any form or shape be taken seriously.  



What might be an antidote to false religious understandings of hell and false pop culture representations? You know the answer to that. The best Christian theology, the best art, and the best literature on the subject. Augustine. Dante. Milton. Lewis. Enjoy watching Homer Simpson in hell. It's just entertainment. Visit the Chinese hell parks. It's interesting culture stuff. But if you want the inside straight dope on what it means, turn to the real experts. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Helpful Lists

The number of lists on the internet of good movies or novels is, er, numberless. Top 100 films of every kind exist, and many of these are helpful-- depending on what you are looking for. 

For the more specific lists of  good faith and film/literature, one can also find a rich assortment, possibly too rich. And these lists are also hit and miss--depending on what you are looking for. Greatest Catholic novels of all time, films that show pastors/clergy in a fair light, atheists authors who have written books that Christians should read, lists of Christian sci-fi writers . . . too much, too little time.

And then when you hit the jackpot, you unfortunately end up with so much to read or watch that it almost gets disheartening since you'll never have the time to plow through all the goodness. Here are two examples.

This PDF is a list of films and novels put together by, believe it or not, "The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family." The nice thing about this list is that you don't have to be a Roman Catholic to appreciate the selections. As it states at the beginning of the list, the criteria for choosing has to do with a kind of Mere Christianity approach to faith and culture, and it really is a good list, full of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Agnostic, and Other authors and directors. 

Here is another list, this one of Christian poets in the 20th Century. The same big net approach is taken here also. The variety of poets is remarkable. If you are not up on your poetry, you will find some real treasures here.

Monday, August 18, 2014



  "The short space of threescore years can never content the imagination of man; nor can the imperfect joys of this world satisfy his heart. . . .  Religion, then, is simply another form of hope, and it is no less natural to the human heart than hope itself.  Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration of intellect and a sort of violent distortion of their true nature; they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments.  Unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind."

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America I (1835).I.XVII[.6] ("Principal causes which render religion powerful in America")

Wednesday, August 13, 2014



"The Dumbest Generation cares little for history books, civic principles, foreign affairs, comparative religions, and serious media and art, and know it less. Careening through their formative years, they don't catch the knowledge bug, and tradition might as well be a foreign word. Other things monopolize their attention--the allure of screens, peer absorption, career goals. They are latter-day Rip Van Winkles, sleeping through the movements of culture and events of history, preferring the company of peers to great books and powerful ideas and momentous happenings. From their ranks will emerge few minds knowledgeable and interested enough to study, explain, and dispute the place and meaning of our nation. Adolescence is always going to be more or less anti-intellectual, of course, and learning has ever struggled against immaturity, but the battle has never proven so uphill. Youth culture and youth society, fabulously autonomized by digital technology, swamp the intellectual pockets holding on against waves of pop culture and teen mores, and the Boomer mentors have lowered the bulwarks to surmountable heights."






Friday, August 8, 2014

Let's Pretend

Little children begin early with the need to pretend. "I am a princess." "I am a superhero." Watch me, Mommy. I am not me. 

In young kids, this play-acting can become almost incessant, even resulting in pretend friends. For the most part, the play-acting does not worry parents. We can see that the kids typically do not get lost in their roles, and we even take delight in their ingenuity at splicing various roles--a little  girl dressed up in a combination of ballerina tutu, princess crown, cowboy boots, and magic wand develops her individualized script hacked from Disney animations and story-books. We smile, and if we are good parents, we encourage such imaginativity. 

Nearly every culture has some form of theater, though, at various points, some societies reign in the business of theater because of the ancillary immorality it produces--such as the English Puritans shutting down the theaters partly because of the crime, prostitution, and job-skipping that the theater of that time tended to encourage on the side. Even in such circumstances, the deeply human need to act out narratives could not be erased. Humans must play act, and the theaters came roaring back, bigger than ever. 

Indonesian shadow puppetry, a highly developed art form


(Interestingly, in the context of worldwide theater, Islam has seemed to universally frown on theater throughout its history. There have been no great Muslim dramatists compared to, say, those found in  European Renaissance tragedy or classical Japanese Noh.) 

Humans have an in-built, at times obsessive, need to pretend, to act (just look at the thriving cosplay world). We imagine stories, and we act them out. For the vast majority of Americans, we see this ubiquitous need now played out in movies. Someone takes on a role, speaks an invented dialogue, creates the personality of someone else, usually fictitious. 





"I am not me." Drama, theatricality, play-acting, pretending--things become other than what they are, at least for a little while. This is both play and flight. It is Edenic and infernal. Pretending to be someone else or watching someone do it well can delight, but it can also allow us to escape from real life. We can watch a play (or a movie) and enter in the unreal reality of the story and become better for it (Aristotle was getting at something real with his theorizing about catharsis). But we can also become obsessive with irreality and prefer pretense over facing our fallible dailyness with all its unwelcome drabness and failures (some of what the Puritans and Plato objected to, and they were genuinely on to something). 

Humans were created in part to amplify, to unfold God's good creation. Would unfallen people have engaged in pretend, in theater? Probably, but without any of the perturbations that go with our fallen enchantments with pretending. 

"The play is the thing," said Shakespeare. Both play in an Edenic sense, an innocent game of pretend, reflected in children dressing up ("I'm not me!"); and play in a more negative sense--we only play at being ourselves most of our lives, play at being important in the eyes of others, at taking on roles that cover over our unshriven ugliness as the broken children of Eden ("I hate being me"). Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, invoking Greek theater in which actors put on masks. "I am Agamemnon." "I am Hercules." Or, in our daily dramas, we wear the masks of  "I am righteous, I'm a good man." 



Drama, acting out a story, reciting a script--this is a signal of transcendence, of our human condition. It is a God-given art to be cultivated to enhance, and it is simultaneously a strategy for avoiding life.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Box-checking vs. Reading Plato

Diane Ravitch is on the liberal-agnostic end of the spectrum regarding the place and function of education, but recently she has begun to criticize standard left-agnostic statist solutions (primarily Common Core) for fixing education. In this interview (YouTube video below), she identifies poverty as the single most compelling reason for failure in American education, though it is probably parental involvement, which is linked to poverty.  

Aside from the accuracy of her diagnosis about the etiology of failing American education, Ravitch is right on target in her criticism of testing in America. Standardized testing has become a kind of idolatrous goal for many bureaucrats, and standardized testing is now driving American education. 

The Center, in contrast to the narrow, surface-level, informational conception of education, values exploration of the big, beautiful ideas that shaped the Western tradition and values confrontation with a wide variety of perspectives on the meaning of life. This is real education, not box checking or learning to spit back the progressivist-flattering bromides that infest modern media and government. 

Ravitch knows something is wrong with American education, and she rightly says that more and more testing is not the answer. Creativity and exploration have been key features of American learning in the past, even when test scores were low. The Center wants to keep this part of the American, and Western, attitude toward learning alive.