Tag Archives: self-sacrifice

Mothers’ Daze

Washington’s war on women has made this Mother’s Day especially poignant. As hard as it is to believe, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell had mothers. I can’t comprehend any male being anything but grateful and humble in a woman’s presence. Don’t accuse me of idolatry—I know women aren’t perfect. Neither are men. Especially not men. Mother’s Day isn’t an excuse to treat our moms as less-than-special other days of the year. We sometimes forget that life is a gift. And we should always say “thank you” to those who give. Pregnancy isn’t easy on a woman’s body. Indeed, until recent times childbirth was the number one killer of women. At some periods in history female life expectancy was only into the twenties. Giving birth is a self-sacrifice. We would do well to remember that daily.

Social organization outside the home was conveniently male early on, but not necessarily so. Without our mothers none of this would’ve been possible at all. Why do we fail to give back when we’ve been given so much? Yes, our moms are special to us, but women everywhere are mothers, daughters, and sisters to all of the men out there. To be human is to be both female and male. How could we ever forget that? How is it possible to use woman as political bargaining chips as if one person has any kind of right to tell another how to use her body? When we look at mom do we see only a physical body? Do we not see a mind? Emotions? Love? How can we look into the face of all that and claim that men are in any way superior or deserving of more than their share of power and prestige? Mother’s Day should be a revolution.

I don’t mean to be combative, but I’ve been pushed into a corner. From my earliest days I’ve felt women were stronger than men. Being raised by a mother on her own can be a revelatory experience. I emerged with nothing but gratitude for the sacrifices one woman had made to be called a mother. If any men have forgotten that lesson, use this Mother’s Day to repent. If you’re alive to read this, or to share it, you have a mother to thank. And tomorrow’s no excuse to forget that and act as if this one day were enough to show gratitude to those who have taught the human race to love. It’s Mother’s Day, but so should every day be.

Martian Ethics

MartianIf you need a boot of optimism, look to Mars. Or, more specifically, read Andy Weir’s The Martian. Not that it’s the greatest literature ever produced, but it is a story brimming with humanity. Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars. His crew-mates, in the midst of their multi-month-long return journey, adjust their course to go back for him. Naturally, nothing goes as planned. Although much of the story is far beyond the believability scale, Weir has the technical background to make it all sound plausible. As an engineer, Watney fixes most problems with an optimism that would leave many humanities specialists weeping in the dust. Time after time a potentially fatal situation develops that is solved by technological ingenuity. Relying on his will to survive, and good humor, the protagonist makes a remarkable journey across the surface of the Red Planet to a potential means of escape. I shouldn’t throw too many spoilers into this post since the book is fairly new. I will say it left me feeling good about being human.

Part of being human is thinking about larger issues. Often, throughout the book, Watney wonders about belief in God. Not enough to make it a main theme, but enough to merit mention on this blog. In a somewhat humorous moment, one of the mission controllers says that he’s Hindu, so he believes in lots of gods. In contrast, Watney, alone on Mars, has a vastly different perspective. Without divine intervention, or even any aliens, he finds a way to persevere when the Fates (or the author) have stacked the odds against him. Mark Watney believes in himself, and he believes in human goodness.

The decision of his crew-mates to return for him is one of potential self-sacrifice. There are no guarantees that they’ll survive. Nevertheless, there’s no second thoughts. When they learn Watney is alive, they decide to go back, no matter what might happen to them. The story awoke a strange optimism in me. Although people are capable of horrendous acts against each other and the planet, I do believe that we are basically good. The bad ones make it into the news. We could all be better, I’m guessing. Still, we will help others when we can, even if all we get from it is the good feeling that we’ve done the right thing. Unfortunately, the only people, it seems, that don’t have the best interests of others at heart are our politicians. Watching the posturing before the primaries I do have to wonder if one wouldn’t stand a better chance abandoned on Mars than in the land of the free. This may be one of the times, it seems, that trusting in human goodness might well be equated to a prayer.

Divergency

DivergentSelf-denial, no matter what its motivation, is a religious ideal. In its more extreme forms it becomes martyrdom, but most religions agree on the value of taking less for yourself so that others might have more. This has been running through my head since seeing the movie Divergent. I read and posted on the book some time ago, but having recently seen the movie—a fairly faithful adaptation to the novel—I was forcefully reminded that this is a dystopian parable. In the future, society is divided into different factions, based on a person’s predisposition. This is done to keep the peace, and the factions seem to get along until suspicion grows about the group called Abnegation. The Abnegation faction is moved by pity and compassion for others. They are the consummate self-deniers, not thinking of themselves to the point of limiting time they can spend looking in a mirror. Others are the focus. Naturally, those who see the utter selflessness of others wonder what they’re really up to. Suspicion grows that this group is after wealth, in the form of food, secretly stockpiling it for themselves. Nobody would give up for themselves so that others can have more.

As I watched the movie I thought about religious groups that preach self-denial. Granted, I’m only one person, but growing up that was the message I continually heard loud and clear in the teachings of Jesus, according to the Gospels. Deny yourself so that others might have more. The deeper I became involved with the church, however, the rarer I found such behavior. By the time I reached college, I still hadn’t figured out that religion had become an industry, like any other. A service industry, to be sure, but it still had CEOs and treasurers and, increasingly, political power. The political seduction of religion already had a history by the time I became aware of it, but I still believed that self-denial was at the core of true religion. Perhaps the factions I heard whispering around me were right. Perhaps there was something more driving all this.

In Divergent, the belief in selflessness leads to self-sacrifice. In many feel-good movies, this leads to an expected resurrection. Here the future is bleak, and the dead remain dead. There is a kind of resurrection as the Dauntless faction comes out of its stupor, but the movie leaves the viewer wondering if there is a future after all. Is there a place in the world for those who legitimately want everyone to share? I think that every time I find myself driving. Behind the wheel, selfish maneuvers that lead to little, if any, ultimate gain seem to be deeply embedded in those who want to get there first. Abnegation, it seems, is a danger on the road. Driving, it seems to me, is a real test of someone’s religious convictions. Perhaps it is that one has to realize that the vehicle in front of you contains another human soul. Or perhaps it is that the fragmentation of society has already gone too far and those who don’t take for themselves are not emulated, but consumed.

Two Roads Divergent

DivergentOne of the most hopeful signs for culture is the quality of young adult fiction on the market. Since I’m now in the book industry, Publisher’s Weekly is required reading. I always take a look over the fiction lists as well as the non, and over the past several months a couple of “teen fiction” books have been near the top for regular bestseller lists as well as for demographic-specific ones. (That is, adults seem to be reading them too.) One of those books is Divergent by Veronica Roth. While movie tie-ins certainly don’t hurt, as many of us opine, it is difficult to do justice to a complex story on screen. Divergent is one of those books that stays with you after you’ve closed the cover, and that suggests to me that something deeply meaningful is going on. What about dystopias is so compelling?

I’m not indulging in any spoilers to say that Divergent is a dystopia. Set at an indeterminate time in the future, civilization still exists—at least in Chicago—as society has fallen into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation. Each group has its own beliefs as to why civilization collapsed, based on philosophical dispositions. Abnegation, the self-deniers, are the leaders of government. And clearly, the idea of Abnegation is a form of quasi-monastic Christianity. In fact, among the factions, Abnegation is the only one that seems to mention God. The other groups, stressing bravery, intellect, honesty, and peacefulness, don’t really have much need for the divine. To deny oneself, however, requires a powerful motivation. Even the protagonist’s name, Beatrice, is taken from its favored status among early Christians. I know little of Veronica Roth, but I have to wonder whether Dante is in the background here.

In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roth first gives thanks to God. As a high school convert to Bible-based Christianity, I suppose that’s only natural for a writer who is, at the moment, only twenty-five. Writers for young adults often have their religion close to the skin. Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism translates into moral vampires. Orson Scott Card provides Ender Wiggin with values from the same faith tradition. People are, despite the logical implications, inherently religious. That doesn’t prevent Divergent from being a page-turner. Full of action and personal development, the first book of Roth’s trilogy bristles with self-sacrifice and belief in something better to come. Even if it’s a world we have to make ourselves. And like most human enterprises, it comes out as a well-meaning dystopia that underscores the value of reading for us all.

Flash Freeze

Frozen_(2013_film)_poster

One industry has, in this era of leisure, proven itself powerfully recession-proof. Entertainment, conceived broadly enough to include the sellers of strong drink, always seems to do well when the bread-and-butter parts of the economy tank. Among the entertainment giants is Disney, making it an easy target for curmudgeons like yours truly. Every once in a while, however, the cynicism has to melt. Frozen induced one of those experiences. I left the theater feeling that this may have been the best Disney movie of all time. You see, I grew up largely without Disney. We didn’t vacation in fantasy-lands like Disney World (when we could afford to vacation at all), and watching a movie was a rare treat. We did see some of the old style animations that came to our small town, such as Bambi and Dumbo, and we did watch the television program, I want to say on Sunday night. My real experience of Disney, however, came with parenthood where VHS and then CD then online versions of the movies made them accessible any time, in nearly any place. In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed, Disney has been putting considerable money behind the crafting of story, something many movie moguls fail to attempt. Frozen, however, stunned me.

The visual beauty of the Scandinavian world is no doubt part of it. I don’t often mention C. S. Lewis on this blog—he has been so thoroughly appropriated by the evangelical crowd that it is often difficult to admit how influential his work was to my college-age self. Lewis was unashamed of his Christianity, but in his fiction it isn’t always in your face. When I read Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, a scene—just a sentence really—lodged in my head. Joy, he noted, could be brought on by visions of the grandeur of the frozen far north. Lewis noted that not everyone has that perception, but I certainly share it with him. Elsa’s icy world impales with its beauty. Although I’m sensitive to cold, a deep desire stirred in the construction of that isolated ice castle. Elsa could, as an appropriately messianic figure, walk on water and ascend to heaven.

Of course, as I’ve observed before, the central trope of cinema is resurrection. Anna takes on the self-sacrificial role for her sister, marking Disney’s move away from the magic of the heterosexual kiss as the cure to all female ills. No, here are women who thrive not only without, but in spite of strong male characters. This is a world where not one, but two female protagonists are needed to carry the plot to fulfillment. Self-sacrifice, in fantasy worlds, often leads to resurrection. With Anna’s act of love for her sister, the cinematic world has reached an important pinnacle in its lesson to children: love comes in many forms, and if it is really love it is never bad. Elsa ends up satisfied without a king to guide her, a woman who reigns as she is, not as society says she should be. If only the ice of our patriarchal world could be melted so easily.

Longer Nights

Nothing accompanies the slow decent into winter like scary movies. Now that autumn is officially here, it is time to look for the religious motifs in frightening movies again. Perhaps it is time to join Netflicks, because when it comes to my own movies I have mainly choices among bargain basement films I’ve picked up over the years. Over the weekend I watched one of them. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is the second of his apocalyptic-themed movies, following on the remarkably creepy The Thing. (This is one of the few remakes that manages to outdo the original in just about every way.) Prince of Darkness, however falters almost from the beginning. I do appreciate a movie that is straightforward about using religion as the source of fear, and one that even has a character who is a graduate student in theology! Apart from the priest and street people, all the ill-fated characters are academics—professors and grad students of theoretical physics, the sciences, and our one, lone theologian. The plot revolves, literally, around a swirling green liquid in a decrepit church, which is the Anti-Christ.

Although the trappings are all here for a truly frightening experience, Christianity doesn’t really lend itself to a frightening mythology. To get to something truly tremendous, Prince of Darkness posits a kind of gnostic anti-God who is the father of Satan. The persona is evil writ so large that it is simply not believable that a corroded screw-top jar is able to contain him. For anyone who’s studied history or anthropology, placing the date of the Ball Mason jar back seven million years ago sounds like random guesswork. Homo sapiens sapiens weren’t even around then, making one wonder why God thought of a jar to trap the viscous Anti-Christ millions of years before the “fall” necessitated a regular Christ. The Bible appears, in transmogrified form, as an ancient book of spells that when translated sound suspiciously like the good old King James.

The movie does have its creepy moments—abandoned churches are scary; even fully functional ones can be remarkably spooky at night. It is difficult to accept that a priest would go to a physics professor before consulting his bishop, but then we have to prevent this movie from becoming just a watered-down Exorcist flick. Having Alice Cooper appear as the leader of the homeless minions was a nice touch, in any case. Since we are all still here, the movie ends predictably enough, with Satan’s Dad being stopped before entering the world. It does, in a de rigueur metanarrative, involve a self-sacrifice, albeit not a virginal one. And for the surviving handful of academics, life goes on as normal the morning after. Perhaps evil was blown too large to be believable here. Enough human-sized diabolism exists to frighten any reasonable person. And autumn is only just starting.

All Saints

The movies of Guillermo del Toro, despite their success, must be watched with an astutely analytical eye. Although my movie watching runs a few years behind at best, a recent viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth left me feeling a little hollow and very reflective. The gruesome story is well told, and the fantasy world, even at the end, is hardly believable. Like most films that deal with disturbing issues, religious concepts are not far from the surface, or sometimes, the depths. In this case, the distinctly Christian trope of self-sacrifice opens a portal to a mystical world where a God-like father sits on a shining throne. But is it real? We are warned from the very first scene that this will not end well for young Ofelia, that “heaven” is but a fantasy seen through the hopeful eyes of a dying child. Even the faun (“Pan” of the English title) wears horns that suggest to modern minds the slightly diabolical, although he is in the service of the mystical king. I was so conflicted by end that I was glad the next day was a workday.

It is not difficult to notice that the heroes of the film are the female characters. Even the good men are generally ineffectual, but the strength of Ofelia and Mercedes bear the weight of showing any hope at all. Captain Vidal betrays his name of “life giver” time and again unless life is understood as unremitting pain and torture. Even the end of the film is set up as someone having to pay the price; the king demands innocent blood—will it be Ofelia or her baby brother? Of course, the girl must pay the price. In an interesting interpretation of the sacrifice of the only child, the daughter here becomes the savior.

Fantasy often has the power to heal. This is a key aspect that it shares with religion. Scientists have sought in vain a mechanism that would explain the brain’s remarkable ability to heal the body under conditions of belief. At times we’re reduced to name-calling, suggesting that somebody’s got something up their sleeve. After all, could a disreputable character like Rasputin really hold the key to physical wholesomeness (to say nothing of moral rectitude)? And yet, there are those who are made well by the most unlikely means.

The peoples of northern Europe believed that the veil between this world and the next was severely effaced at this time of year. Darkness is more prevalent than light. Pan’s Labyrinth begins and ends in darkness, and even the daylight—when it briefly occurs—is subdued. With Halloween behind us, the most veracious season of the year
lies ahead. Let us hope that this labyrinth contains fantasy.