Saturday, 22 August 2015

Four Films For The Next Four Months

For all you students out there, four movies to see next semester...


Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), one can be sure Sicario will be far from straight-forward. The movie stars Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. It tells a story of a war against drug cartels in Mexico. The movie, apparently, also has a rating of 8.1, 87 and 83 from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively. 

CA Release: September 25, 2015

The Martian

Based on the successful novel by Mike Weir, The Martian continues the realistic science-fiction trend with direction from Ridley Scott. The protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), finds himself stranded on Mars and struggles to survive. Huge casting lineup. A great novel source. Lots of dark humor to weepingly chuckle over. And science!

CA Release: October 2, 2015


2012's Skyfall blew away expectations, hence, more expectations have arisen for Spectre, the next episode of the 007 franchise. Whether it's the inclusion of Cristoph Waltz to play the next villain, the new Aston Martin, or just the fact that Daniel Craig is still kicking the can as James Bond, there's a reason to be stoked.

CA Release: November 6, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars is a title of cinematic legend, thanks to the original trilogy. It is also a title of discouragement and distrust, thanks to the prequels which boasted less awesomeness. However, a new director in J.J. Abrams has assumed the mantle of responsibility to continue the film-making tradition that still draws attention. Harrison Ford is back as well as Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. So far, I'm sold on this project.

CA Release: December 18, 2015

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Lyric Commentary| Ashes Of Eden, by Breaking Benjamin

Song: Ashes Of Eden
Artist: Breaking Benjamin
Album: Dark Before Dawn
Album release date: June 23, 2015


After an official separation of ways in 2010, the hard rock band known as Breaking Benjamin got back together in 2013 and produced their 5th studio album, Dark Before Dawn. With lead singer Benjamin Burnley adding an all-new crew, including Jason Rauch, formerly a guitarist for Red, the band has rejuvenated itself into recording a now top-selling album. Largely, the sounds are familiar, utilizing common riffs and trademark vocal accentuation, while entertaining a little bit of new. A minimal sentiment of disappointment does swell from the thought that the group over-recycled past material. However, the whole is certainly entertaining with parts that are downright awesome. The real golden star however is given for the impressive lyrical strides made by the band, utilizing metaphors relevant to the group's history. In all, this electric, sophisticated album is a success, both in sales and in quality.  

Ashes Of Eden: A Psalm Of Today

In an album that is quicker on its feet than many have expected, a song like this makes sense in so many ways. It has the qualities of an album-changer and an era-definer, at least for the band. Perhaps, this song won't be privileged the attention given to other singles like Failure--to my disappointment--but it could alter the musical direction of the band for future projects. 
     Ashes of Eden is truly a song about lead singer-guitarist Benjamin Burnley. Perhaps it carries some meaningful overlap with the story of the band, too, but this song is about Burnley. And it's extremely relevant to the audience. It carries significance for those who respect, admire and criticize the band and especially its leading man since 1998. This is why it's an important track off the record to dissect.
     Taking a step back, for a brief moment, the musical aspect of the song is quite different from the norm. It paces to a near halt by comparison to the rest of Dark Before Dawn and the vocals are completely detached of the usual sand-paper we typically get from BB's lead. With subtle synth undertones, a strumming guitar and a chilling string accompaniment, the song is as tranquil and eloquent as the band has ever been.

Will the faithful be rewarded
When we come to the end
Will I miss the final warning
From the lie that I have lived
Is there anybody calling
I can see the soul within
And I am not worthy of this.  

Are you with me after all
Why can't I hear you
Are you with me through it all
Then why can't I hear you
Stay with me, don't let me go
Because there's nothing left at all
Stay with me, don't let me go
Until the ashes of Eden fall
Will the darkness fall upon me
When the air growing thin
Will the light begin to pull me
To its everlasting will
I can hear the voices calling
There is nothing left to fear
And I am still calling
I am still calling to you
(Don't let go)
Why can't I hear you
Stay with me, don't let me go
Because there's nothing left at all
Stay with me, don't let me go
Until the ashes of Eden fall
Heaven above me, take my hand (stay with me, don't let me go)
Shine until there's nothing left but you
Heaven above me, take my hand (stay with me, don't let me go)
Shine until there's nothing left but you

Obviously, Burnley is opening up to a slightly more transparent discussion of ideas surrounding God, the afterlife and redemption than earlier lyricism. BB has always rocked to an emo lyric, with moody themes often leaving tear-inducing afterthoughts. However, I get the sense that, as Burnley is cited to having divulged, the songwriter has sobered. In fact, I'm not sure we can properly make sense of this song without understanding, first of all, the personal issues Burnley has confessed to struggling with (alcoholism, health difficulties). Here, in the opening verse especially, it's apparent he genuinely wants to know his life is taking a turn for the better. And it makes sense to turn to the religious, the metaphysical for the answer to that kind of questioning. How can one cope otherwise? And I might add, for the record, that I highly doubt Burnley is engaging in an eschatological discussion just for an intellectual exercise.
     Just to support my previous point, in the first verse, Burnley contrasts the "faithful being rewarded" and receiving the "final warning from the lie that I have lead" to a spearheading vitality. Eventually, the honest assertion, or rather confession, being made is that he isn't "worthy" of being rewarded, of privileging from warning.
     As we hear Burnley's truly heart-searing voice resonate with the words of the chorus and the second verse, it's increasingly difficult to side-step the notion that Burnley is engaging in genuine conversation with God, about God. He uses metaphors, imagery and motifs that only really make sense in a religious context.
     For example, there's a light and dark dichotomy used to describe what is obviously the afterlife. Darkness as a possible aftermath to death (the "air growing thin") and light bearing one into its "everlasting will" as the possible alternative. There seems to be a connection being drawn, as well, with the contrasting thoughts of the first verse, expressing the ultimate outcomes of faithfulness and delusion. Darkness seems to be tied to the "lie that I have led" while light being the result of faithfulness, particularly underscoring the finality of life as the point of anagnorisis. Connecting these dots creates a picture of redemption in its causal structure as well as its theological application.
     If my conclusions are correct, then what we know is that (a) the songwriter is remorseful over his past life (duh), and (b) seeks to escape this guilt, and find his faith in hopes of redemption to avoid what would be the wrath of God or final separation from the eternal bliss of Heaven.
     From the looks of the pre-chorus and chorus, as well as the outro, the tangible, real, personal effects of God seem to be un-felt by the songwriter. Taking the theoretical, futuristic conceptualization and bringing matters to the present day experience, it seems to be that what the songwriter wants isn't just a pleasant existence. I think Burnley realizes when he says "there's nothing left at all" and "until the ashes of Eden fall" that the present experience is one of a decaying nature. Earthly life is a dying thing so he seeks to realize what's eternally satisfactory, what's everlasting--he wants communion with God, even in the now. That would be why words like "calling", "hearing", and "feeling" are used so repetitively.
     Looking at that particular line, "Until the ashes of Eden fall", there's further significance there worth considering. The symbolism of 'ashes' is that of death, decay, dissipation. The analogy of 'Eden' represents the initial perfection of the human condition (and, in a grander scope, universal order before chaos). I think the complete picture being painted is that of finality. 'At the end of all things', in other words. In context, this language stresses the writer's desire for ultimate joy that endures the long game, a peace that surpasses temporal complication, and a knowledge that permanent salvation is to be found.
     In the end, it's a faith journey. Many rock bands and artists come to this very point and write of their own walk in their own fashion. The songwriter, here, expresses a direct and repeated calling-out to one who ought to be ever present, particularly during hardship, but doesn't seem to be. That's a relational struggle that is almost exclusive to God, and within the context of the two verses, it's near impossible to argue otherwise. This seems to be a way of perhaps understanding the greater significance of his past struggles and the band's internal difficulties, or perhaps he genuinely wants to know whether God's a thing or not. Whether or not the Judeo-Christian God is being sought out is somewhat implicit. Obviously, "Eden" is referred to. And Burnley's relationship to Jason Rauch may be indicative of his religious disposition. However, from my understanding, it is uncertain.
How often can one say they've truly been desperate for God? Or, how often can we say we've genuinely sought the answer to the question of God? In a privileged, western world that uses suffering as an argument against God, can we escape culturally ingrained prejudices and honestly contemplate suffering as an indicator of God? Are there possibly satisfactory narrative and moral reasons for God's allowance of pain? Is pain simply the aftermath of the amalgamation of biochemical phenomena, or does its existence hint at a deeper, subconscious desire for something truly without our grasp but within our meaningful interest?
     These are questions that arise in the wake of a song like Eden, which reads much like a Biblical psalmPensive Christians should take the song as a reminder of how life is full of pain and seeking and is beautiful in its complexity. For the Atheist, it could make for an incentive to reevaluate the problem of pain. Perhaps, also, it can provide bridge for communication between the religious and the non. Or, perhaps, this is just another song written by just another band. But I think otherwise. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

RE.: Brian Mclaren On Moral Absolutes

Postmodernism, to some, seems to be a thing of the past -- an idea that inflated, then vanished once it outgrew its benefits. [1][2] These considered benefits were, and are, tolerance, the acceptance of ideas and, in turn, the equality of people who carry ideas. It also introduced to the world a new variety of art that made its way into literature and paintings. Postmodernism, from the two above linked articles, seems to have been a thing but no longer is because it will no longer suffice as a sweeping-away of the real problems that reality itself confronts society with. The appealing and paradoxical assertions of post-modernity won't cut it anymore, it seems.
     But the ideas evidently still exist and people are still drawn to the postmodern worldview, from what I can tell. Collin Hansen, editorial director at the Gospel Coalition, wrote in 2011, "Postmodernism is finished, and no one knows what's next. While postmodernism might be dead, it's not completely gone." [3] In the Christian sphere of theological conversation, there is one Brian McLaren whose controversy has apparently become enormous simply because of his adoption of postmodern ideas and assertions as part of his Christian worldview. He's sold many books, garnered a large audience from his blog, spoken frequently and continues with these endeavors. People seem to be interested in his perspective, and I think personally that this is because people want the best of both worlds, them being postmodern philosophy and Christian theology: the tolerance of ideas and the hope of Christ. Not everyone, however, thinks this mixture is viable.
     One of the criticisms of postmodern thought is its seeming moral implications. Modern voices have repeatedly barraged post-modernity with accusations of moral relativism (and relativism in just about every other sense). While postmodernists assert that absolute moral knowledge and certainty is impossible, modernists have questioned whether this means that a universal moral law is non-existent and that any moral laws, codes and duties can only be subjectively predicated.
     The purpose of this article is to take a look at an interesting response from McLaren himself with regards to these accusations. A fan of McLaren asked the question of moral absolutes which he himself responded to on his blog. [4] The question the user asks is stated in the linked article.

I think it is worth noting, first of all, something of a confusion in the actual question posed to McLaren. The user writes:
The following criticism is what I hear as an attack towards postmodernism, "they believe that there are [no] moral absolutes." Is this true? I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances. Also, I do not get this when I read your books.
The key phrase of interest to me is where the user says that "I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances." This is interesting because it seems to put belief in absolutes and taking moral stances under the same umbrella, as if relativists don't take moral stances. So let's first make the distinction that whether or not McLaren takes moral positions on certain issues is not a directly related issue to whether he believes in an absolute moral law.
McLaren begins his response:
Thanks for your question. The discussion in your class sounds like a classic case of how a postmodern viewpoint looks to sincere modern-minded people. To modern-minded folk, postmodern people seem to be moral nihilists, relativists, compromisers, with no moral compass. No wonder they get so upset!
And you can't blame your fellow students for seeing things this way. This is how they've been taught by most of their pastors, youth leaders, and other authority figures - who were in turn taught this way of thinking by their authority figures. 
As I've written elsewhere on this blog (just search on "postmodern"), the term "postmodern" is often defined in the worst possible light by modern-minded folk, so defending it will make you look like a kook (or worse) to them. So, I won't try to speak for "postmodernism," but let me speak for myself. 
As a modern-minded person, I can only agree in part with McLaren's generalization in his opening remarks. While I believe that many, if not most, postmodernists are nihilists, to some extent, and that most, to a similar degree, are relativists, I don't make that general evaluation only because the assertions of one professing postmodernist to another can change. There is a spectrum of hard-line and soft-line postmodernism and what postmodernism actually is, I think, can be different from one independent thinker to another. For example, one might assert that there is no absolute truth yet another might assert that there is, just that we cannot know it. Or one may be a postmodernist in the artistic domain. In this regard, I think it makes sense for the author to approach the question the way that he did, by speaking only for himself.
Of course I believe that some things are morally good and others are morally evil. Of course! 
But I do not believe that Christian fundamentalism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or secular fundamentalism, etc., etc.) has a superior record of identifying what is moral and what isn't moral in contested situations. For example, in my lifetime Christian fundamentalists have been among the last to release racism, sexism, a careless attitude toward the environment, a careless attitude toward the rights of Palestinians, a fear of science, and a fusion between the gospel and American nationalism. 
Go back farther in history, and there were a majority of Bible-believing Christians in the South who were pro-slavery - and held that as an "absolute truth" or "absolute moral principle" that they could quote chapter and verse to defend. (I'll explore this in some detail in my upcoming book.) 
Go back still farther, and our Christian ancestors refused to believe Copernicus and Galileo - again, based on their conception of moral absolutes based on their readings of the Bible. The same was true regarding the age of the earth, Darwin, etc.
McLaren next reaffirms his skeptical audience that he does, in fact, believe that "some things are morally good and others are morally evil". This is somewhat of a relief, though a given, but it doesn't give an actual answer to the question at hand because of the distinction that I made between taking moral stances and believing in an absolute morality. This doesn't tell me whether his theology posits an absolute set of moral values or a relative one. It is a little disheartening though that he would continue his response by turning the attention towards "Christian fundamentalism". While his argument is against fundamentalism of any kind, he uses the history of the Church as an example. Unfortunately, this heads into ad hominem territory and meanwhile strays from the actual question of debate.
     For the record, a handful of the abolitionists, social activists and scientists out there were and are conservative, Bible-believing Christians contesting for absolute moral values. Need I mention folks like Pascal, MLK, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer? No, I am not ignoring or justifying the previous and future violence of the Church, but neither should anyone dismiss then the good that conservative Christians have enacted. Let's also be careful not to judge a philosophy by its abuse.
So here's my concern: If a person or group pushes the "we've got moral absolutes absolutely figured out" button too fast or too often, they run an increased risk of behaving in immoral ways, and they are the last to know it because of their excessive self-confidence. If conservative Christians would acknowledge this pattern at work in their own history more openly, and if they would show how they have taken corrective action to avoid similar patterns of misjudgment in the future, a lot of us would feel more confident in their moral judgment.
With respect to the first sentence, I think that's fair enough. However, it would be erroneous (especially from someone I think I'm safe in assuming is in the theologically liberal camp) to say that by and large conservatives are in denial over previous mishaps and have not taken any correctional action, for reasons previously elaborated upon.
     If a person is confident in his moral understanding, that does not make their moral understanding necessarily more likely to be wrong. And if that person behaves immorally, is it because he was too confident or was it that he was simply errant epistemologically or debased ontologically? The basic issue of (im)morality is not one of confidence. With respect to the latter statements in the paragraph, the contradiction I'm sensing is that McLaren straightforwardly criticizes conservatives for an oft reoccurring excessive confidence in its moral assertions, supposedly leading to recurring immorality. Yet, to argue that the church has behaved immorally, you necessarily have to be confident in your moral understanding. This will come up again.
I'd also add that I do think moral standards change - but not in the direction of going down - just the opposite. That's why Jesus said, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you..." in the Sermon on the Mount. Over time, I believe God calls us to higher and higher standards of morality. Let me state this very clearly: the goal isn't to lower moral standards, but to raise them as we grow more morally mature. So - before it was don't murder. Now it's don't hate. Before it was only one eye for an eye. Now it's seek reconciliation, not revenge. Before it was love your neighbor, hate your enemy. Now it's love everyone - including enemies.
I'm pretty sure God's standard of morality has always been perfection, in deed and motive. I don't recall a time or an instance in scripture where God permitted the hatred of people or vengeance as a moral law. And from what I understand of Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount, when he says "you have heard it said...", I believe he is clarifying the spirit of the Old Testament law, which many of the Jewish people lost sight of, apparently. For example, in Matthew 5 where Jesus discusses murder and the hatred of one's brother, Jesus isn't saying 'well before all you had to do was not murder; now you can't hate your brother.' What I believe Jesus was saying was that the whole point of the law not murdering another person is that we should not act out of hatred. So I honestly don't see this as a change of standard, just a clarifying of the preexisting law, which Christ affirmed we continue to follow. This goes to support my earlier claim that God's moral standard has always been perfection.
So - perhaps we can put this question to rest for good: the issue isn't morality - with some "fer it" and others "agin it." We're all for morality, as we understand it. The issue is two-fold. Postmodern-leaning folks are concerned whether this or that preacher's claims to have "absolute certainty" about this or that moral viewpoint of his are "absolutely justified," and whether his confidence will increase the chances of behaving immorally. Modern-leaning folks are concerned whether leaving the door open to the possibility that "we" have been or are wrong will lead to moral collapse. If you let an absolutist system go, there will be nothing left, they fear. 
I'd say there are dangers on both sides - the danger of excessive moral confidence on the one side and the danger of insufficient moral confidence on the other. I'm seeking a proper confidence ... one that is aware of both dangers on both sides.
In my view, only God has absolute moral knowledge. Human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to misinterpret God, all the while claiming to speak for God on morality, which (sadly) often degenerates into speaking as if they were God. I hope that helps! (Feel free to share this with your class.)
Why does McLaren feel that while moderns can't adequately define postmodernism, he feels he can define modernism?
     If the issue is absolute certainty and knowledge, well, yeah, then I would agree that only God has absolute knowledge. Because He's God. But it's a different question if we're asking if people can have knowledge of absolutes, and have certainty in them. This I don't think we can deny, especially if we're going to accuse conservative, excessively-confident, absolutist Christians of immorality. This can only be done if we're certain in our own understanding of moral absolutes. If we're not certain of or, worse, denying any possible knowledge of moral absolutes, then why are we accusing anybody of anything? So, for me, I think McLaren would have do be a believer in moral absolutes in order for his previous assessments (especially when he discusses the likelihood of immorality from excessive confidence) to hold.
     If we want to tackle immorality in society, why are we trying to assess the confidence of a person?
If morality is absolute, then we should be assessing who/what people are referring to for moral guidance. If morality is absolute, then a person's confidence means nothing if their definition of morality is debased. Confidence is only at the surface of the issue. If, however, morality is relative, then what are we talking about?
     Therefore, McLaren has not answered the question of postmodern relativism and has instead deviated, in his response, towards a discussion over the supposed dangers of excessive confidence in ones moral understanding. He assumes that a modern thinker's primary fear is that of a society without an absolute moral system (which, let's be honest, who isn't afraid of moral subjectivity) while denying that moderns can adequately define postmodernism. He presents God as one who's moral standards changes over time and personal/societal evolution. If this, McLaren's, were the response that were given to a class of modern-thinking Christians, they would be left with more questions and less answers, I'm afraid, including the original question of debate.
     As I conclude, I'd like to state that I don't know McLaren, I have not read all of his literature and I do not know his current stance on the issue is. I can't speak for him. I don't think he's necessarily wrong in motive but this response which he gives does leave doubt over what philosophical route he has chosen over the topic of morality. For all he's written, here, at least, he could very well be a relativist, denying the possibility of the existence of moral absolutes, or the possible knowledge thereof. I'd be interested in hearing more from McLaren on this topic.
[1] Kirby, Alan. "The death of postmodernism and beyond". Philosophy Now magazine. 2006. Web.
[2] Docx, Edward. "Postmodernism is dead". Prospect magazine. June 20, 2011. Web.
[3] Hansen, Collin. "Postmodernism: dead but not gone." Gospel Coalition. August 23, 2011. Web. 
[4] McLaren, Brian. "Q and r: Postmodernism and moral absolutes". Brian McLaren. Web.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Christianity: Deeper Humanism?

Before the Christmas break, I came across an interesting article* where the author posited that Christianity, essentially and almost naturally, outflows a better and more appealing brand of humanism. In effect, what the author was suggesting was that Christian humanism outdoes secular humanism in that it gives the individual a more compelling incentive to treat others right, to fight for social equality and to stand guard against the sociopolitical vultures of society. Christianity simply provides the winning formula that atheism couldn't.
     It was an interesting article. My attention was reserved, at least, for the six minutes it took me to read the whole thing. Yet, the more I think, I grow skeptical that humanism could ever sit next to such a tall philosophical neighbor in Christianity, and the reasons for me saying this, cynical as they may be (though I think not), I find both apt and necessary for the mind to at least ruminate, however disposed that mind is.
     That humanism and Christianity be mentioned in the same phrase sounds as though both a 'b' and the semitone below are simultaneously scratching my ear-drum. It simply doesn't sound right. And that's because both sounds are out of tune with each other. They don't match. There's no real harmony.
     The human psyche, I suppose since forever, has craved for something that probably can't ever be realized. One could call it global harmony or world peace or economic equilibrium or environmental sustainability or a perfect earthly moment. Maybe this is where humanism came from. The over-intellectualized ambition of a psychologically evolving society impulsed that, since we are without God, therefore we must have Man. Or maybe it's that the radicalized trumpeters of rights and free love, altogether, figured that Man must be God. God must reside within human ambition subjective, relentless and young.
     Religion, though, existed long before the humanistic worldview became the luxurious and popular commodity it's become today. And Christianity, during the tyrannic rule of Roman greatness, was born when men (generic men) realized that who they were was mad and crippled, and that what they could ever dream to be is futile, vain and deprived. Christianity was born when men knew of only one human who was inherently good and was ever worthy of service. Christianity was born when the inward light of disgustingly self-impregnating egoism was outward shone towards the moral and glorious infinitude of the one and only God--that humble Jesus of Nazareth.
     Alright, let's take a step back. The demands of humanism is that people of all stripes be treated equitably. Isn't this, also, the demand of Christian religion? Ethical conduct and equitable behavior are in fact parts of the Biblical tradition of the Church. The institution and its faithful populace have long upheld the words of Christ that we must be defenders of the weak and providers for the poor, carers of creation and dispensers of human generosity all around. But, do these things necessarily equate to humanism? Do Christians love humans for the sake of loving humans alone? Do they desire harmony for the sake of a better earthly future?
     God has called his people towards a humble life of goodness and intimacy with the rest of humanity. It is in His nature that He love that which He has created, and that is why humans are given this command--that we might do like God does, what is good, moral and pure. Christians do not predicate the goodness of activity on the subjective appeal of their ends. Biblical theology points to an ontological basis for moral action and this is, perhaps, what may be the distinguishing, philosophical factor between the utilitarian morality of humanism and Biblically informed Christianity which foremost asserts two laws: that you shall love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and that you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).
     In conclusion, Christianity is not a deeper form of humanism. It goes deeper still. The faith of Peter and Paul presents instead the very threat to human goodness--not to be mistaken with human value and meaning which Christianity, not atheism, will assert--that few can appreciate without a foreknowledge of who God is. Humanism trusts that humans have all that is required within them (reasoning, imagination, innovation) to resolve the unanswered dilemmas preventing the evolutionary flourishing of our race. Christianity trusts only in God to accomplish the greatest conceivable good, which goes beyond petty earthly achievement. The hopes of the Christian faith go beyond what physical promise can bring and strive forward for something that ultimately humans haven't the right nor the capability to acquire, that which God alone promises: redemption amid depravity, salvation borne from surrender, and a New Earth at the end of our chaotic earthen disorder.      

* (... Yes, the Guardian again.)