Video Rental Reviews: 400 Days

Welcome back to the feature where I review movies and tv series that are at my local in my local video rental place.  Previously, I have reviewed 10 Cloverfield Lane and the SyFy Series 12 Monkeys.  Today I will be reviewing the indie scifi thriller called 400 Days.

First, I’m going to say this.  After your first watch of this movie you may be a little pissed off to start.  It’s sudden and difficult to understand.  But after thinking about it for a little while, I think this is intentional.  I will get to this after a brief synopsis.

400 Days is set mostly in a mocked-up spacecraft.  We are led to believe that the four astronauts we have just met are being put into the ground as a test of the effects of long-term space travel on the human mind.  There is some drama as the main psychological officer has just dumped Brandon Routh, our main spaceman.

There is some interesting character work in this movie, with Dane Cook, Brandon Routh, and Tom Cavanagh making for some interesting character work.  There is a twist at the end of the first act where something seems to have gone wrong with the experiment.  This generates much of the drama for the rest of the story.  We see various things happen that stretch these individuals to the breaking point through the course of this experiment.  But there is a third act twist that I won’t ruin for you.

I think this is trying to be one of those trippy psychological thrillers which plays with your perception and then leaves you with a question.  Were the events of the movie real or were they all in the character’s minds.  It doesn’t pull it off perfectly, but oddly the last twist of the movie, although it may piss you off, will leave you wanting to watch the movie again very carefully.  Ultimately the last series of twists makes some sense, but there is still some missing in the film.

If you are a fan of the psychological thrillers this movie is worth watching.  I found it quite enjoyable despite the rage-inducing ending.  The rage will wear off and curiosity will set in.  Ultimately the story has some holes, and you’ll be left scratching your head even after the second viewing, but I still think genre (and love story) fans will get enough enjoyment out of this to drop the dollar or two it takes to watch 400 days.

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Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Chapter 3

In this part of my series I will be discussing Chapter 3 of the Divine Names. (First entry here) Chapter 3 of the Divine Names is a bit more disappointing for anyone looking for philosophical content.  In Chapter 3 Pseudo-Dionysius spends most of his time talking and bragging about his teacher Hierotheus.  But there is some interesting reflection on prayer in this chapter that is worth talking about.  Early in the chapter Pseudo-Dionysius reflects on prayer and how to make sense of it having an effect.

He suggests that before any inquiy into the divine should be preceded by “stretch[ing] ouselves prayerfully upward.”  It is here that he gives two interesting analogies to attempt to understand the power of prayer.

The problem is that we are praying to a God that is, for P-D, radically transcendent, but also radically immovable and unchanging.  So then prayer should be thought of, for P-D, as something like the dance that moved the mountain.

Have you heard this story?  A man has a house in the valley, and decides that his house is too close to the mountain.  He goes to a sage and asks him how he can move the mountain.  The sage tells him to pack his entire house up, place it on his back, and do a special dance.  The man follows these instructions and, lo and behold, the mountain is moved far from his house.  The dance: face the mountain, and take two steps backward, the one step forward and repeat.

P-D thinks of prayer much like this special dance:

<blockquote>Picture ourselves aboard a boat.  There are hawsers joining it to soe rock.  We take hold of them and pull on them, and it is as if we were dragging the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward a rock.  And, from another point of view, when someone on the boat pushes away the rock which is on the shore he will have no effect on the rock, which stands immovable, but will make space between it and himself, and the more he pushes the greater will be the space.</blockquote>

<blockquote>That is why we must begin with a prayer before everything we do, but especially when we are about to taalk of God.  We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.</blockquote>

The idea here is that prayer is a thing that draws us nearer to the divine.  This is by God’s power and not by ours.  We don’t harm the independence and unchangeability of God by engaging in prayer.  Instead prayer is a way of pulling ourselves closer to God.

We ought to pray before engaging in reflection on the divine nature, bringing ourselves closer to the divine light which may help us understand.

The only other thing of philosophical interest here is a view of the degree of discomfort Pseud0-Dionysius has with saying anything about God.  He would almost be Wittgensteinian about the whole thing if it weren’t for the fact of his deep confidence that the scriptures are divinely revealed and say true things about God.  This is all that is keeping Dionysius on the task of talking about the divine at all.  If Pseudo-Dionysius were to live in an age without divine revelation, he would simply prefer to pass over such things in silence.  Next time we’ll break the silence with P-D and finally get into the bulk of the theological theorizing.

Tune in every MWF for more content.

Peace be with you.
-JS

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Video Rental Reviews: 12 Monkeys (the syfy series), Season 1

This is a new series of articles where I review movies and tv shows that are in my local Family Video rental store.  In my first post I talked about 10 Cloverfield Lane and the re-emergence of John Goodman on the acting scene.  This week we will be discussing the first season of the recent SyFy series named after the popular Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys.

So I decided to rent the first season of 12 Monkeys the other day.  I am a huge fan of the movie, but didn’t know what to expect with someone other than the brilliant Terry Gilliam running the show.  It also took me until the final episode of season one to be able to figure out the relationship between the movie and the series I was watching.

I’ve concluded that 12 Monkeys is a reboot of the Terry Gilliam movie.  Maybe if I’d remember the character name James Cole from the movie I would have figured this out sooner, but now I know.  12 Monkeys the tv show is simply telling a very similar story to that of Terry Gilliam’s show.

12 Monkeys will touch on a number of beats that seem familiar to those familiar with the movie, and that is a good thing.  The story still centers around the mystery of how the world-ending disease gets spread to the world, and there remains throughout the story a sneaking suspicion that everything the time-travelers are doing is just contributing to the deterministic story of how the disease arose and killed everyone in the first place.  As with any good serial mystery, we are strung along with little clues along the first series.  The series does different things with some of the other characters, but the acting and the characters are really solid.

One highlight of the show is Emily Hampshire playing the series’ version of the Brad Pitt character in the original movie.   She plays the crazy daughter of the billionaire who is suspected of developing the disease, who is our heroes’ on-again off again frenemy throughout the series.  She is compelling and eminently watchable and moves some way toward capturing the intangible magic that Pitt had in the original series, which is an quite a feat.

Despite some small criticisms, such as a couple characters whose arcs are a little sudden and unrealistic, I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the original movie (and to anyone who isn’t, but likes mysteries or race-against-time thrillers).  This is really a compelling series.

Peace be with you.
-JS

Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Summary of Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is probably the most difficult in the whole work (to this point at least).  Chapter 3 discusses Pseudo-Dionysius deference to Hierotheus, after which P-D discusses specific divine attributes.   But we are still at a very high level of abstraction in chapter 2.  We’re trying to make sense of sometimes, with some concepts, applying concepts to God as an undifferentiated whole while sometimes applying concepts to God in a differentiating way.  The most key example of such concepts are the trinitarian aspects of the deity.  God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but these are applied to the deity as a distinction within the Godhead.  This chapter is meant to make sense of these concepts.  The bulk of the argumentative work in this chapter is done by a series of analogies (some of which have become familiar: see this post).

An interesting analogy he uses to make sense of unity and differentiation in this radically unknown and transcendent deity we’ve established already in the work.  An analogy which we didn’t discuss earlier which P-D brings up is the analogy of lights in a house.  Lights in a house are all distinct, but together they can form a single, undifferentiated light.  This is meant to help us see that a similar thing can be true of the deity.  Of course, with the light analogy (as with his other analogies in this chapter) the possibility of unity and distinction depends on the thing in question having parts.  One way of making the analogy work would be to understand that P-D is probably thinking about light in a very different way than we think of it.  Light, for P-D, won’t be a phenomena that results from a bunch of photons gathering or moving in particular direction.  In fact, it’s probably reasonable to think that light isn’t made up of parts but is some kind of irreducible continuous reality.  If this is the analogy, we can think of it as a thought experiment.  If we can make sense of the possibility of this being the way light works, we can make sense (to some extent) of the possibility of the kind of unity and differentiation in the trinity.  There is still theoretical work that hasn’t been done (the analogy still requires the different parts of the distinct lights), but it at least gets us some distance toward the conclusion he wants, that we can (to some very limited extent) make sense of this aspect of a radically inaccessible deity.

The point of this chapter is to so make sense.  We are meant to do our due deference to the radical inaccessiblity of the deity while finding room to say true things about.  In Chapter 3 P-D will discuss his reliance on the work of Hierotheus, after which Chapter 4 will finally get into specifics about the attributes of the divine.

Tune in every MWF for new posts.

Peace be with you.
-JS

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Video Rental Reviews: 10 Cloverfield Lane and the Re-emergence of John Goodman

I finally saw 10 Cloverfield Lane the other day.  It is an amazing film.  The bulk of the film takes place in a doomsday-prepper style bunker, where John Goodman’s character has apparently captured our hero (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  The movie is essentially a three-hander, where we spend most of our time discovering more about three characters who have apparently been thrust together by fate (or perhaps by John Goodman’s evil intentions).

Mary-Elizabeth-Winstead-John-Goodman-10-Cloverfield-Lane

I can’t say enough about this movie.  You should watch it.  And Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing in this film.  But I want to spend some time talking about this most recent phase in John Goodman’s career.  John Goodman is, in my opinion, giving some of the best performances of his life in the last few years.  This phase of his career started, to some extent, with his role in Kevin Smith’s Red State (and I think Red State’s–and the new Kevin Smith’s–influence is fairly apparent in 10 Cloverfield Lane).  The experimental shifts in tone at act changes along with the way these tone shifts work in 10 Cloverfield Lane, I feel, is very similar to Red State if not influenced by it.  But John Goodman, in both works, masterfully plays characters, conveying deep sadness and world-weariness while retaining a sort of ambiguity in intent and attitude that makes the viewer want to delve ever-deeper into the character’s psyche.

John-Goodman-in-Red-State-007

In Red State, John Goodman is an FBI agent that is called out to deal with an out-of-control religious cult who are out killing those that they take to be morally reprehensible.  The cold FBI exterior of his character is clearly tempered by a compassion that is deep and beaten-down, but clearly operative in his work.  The characters are clearly similar in some ways, but the subtle differences that make them very different are beautiful to see.  If you want to see John Goodman’s masterworks, I recommend taking a look at Red State and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Check back every MWF for more content!
Peace be with you.
-JS

An Innocent Victim: How SES’s Response to Evangelical Exodus Caught a Good Man in the Cross-fire.

Back when I was going to protestant seminary (before my conversion to Catholicism), I had a professor named Wayne Detzler.  His honest and academic look at Christian history helped me deeply on my journey toward Catholicism.  I was excited to hear that he endorsed the book and gave a very nice quote about our conversion stories.  But then SES began giving “responses” to our book.

And I understand why one might worry about this work from SES’s perspective.  The evangelical audience who might serve as SES’s student base would be upset if they were to get the picture, from this book, that SES is a Catholicism entrance training school.  This would be very damaging for SES.  So some kind of response seems appropriate.  SES should re-affirm that they don’t teach Catholicism and that they hold to evangelical theology.  But the big groups of converts is a problem.  It may be just as damaging for people to think that students are (relatively independently) reaching Catholicism from SES teaching.  Who would send their loved ones here if this were well known and unaddressed?

There is a tempting, but deeply unethical, route to take in addressing this issue from the perspective of Southern Evangelical Seminary.  Southern Evangelical Seminary could construe the series of converts as a conspiracy by individuals that are no longer with the school who engaged in a sort of bad faith corrupting of the youth.  This is a convenient story because it not only allows the SES representative to calm the worries of prospective students, but it will also allow the SES representative to avoid coming head-on with the issues which have been involved in the conversion of many.

It’s funny but the official response from SES held to this very predictable line.  First, in his ‘review’ of the book, JT Bridges alleges that the conversion stories are falsely representing how “independent” they are.  In fact, JT Bridges informs us, nearly all of these conversions are as a result of the evil influence of Jason Reed and Douglas Beaumont.  Doug and Jason “sort of illicitly peddled their proto-Roman Catholic theology under the guise of their teaching position” (see link in Doug’s blog if you want to hear the direct quote).  The idea is that these individuals moved toward Catholicism and brought the whole gaggle with them.

But never mind the fact that many of these people converted before them, and that some of the people in the book were even instrumental in converting these two individuals.  I want to acknowledge what might be the truth behind these accusations, while calling attention to an unjust situation that my former professor Wayne Detzler has been put in.

Where the official story (it’s weird when a ridiculous conspiracy theory is the official story) goes wrong is in giving the reason Doug and Jason has something to do with some of these conversions.  It’s true that I had discussions (in confidence) with Jason and Doug over the space of my conversion, but it is categorically false that they were proto-Catholics out to peddle their proto-Catholic theology.  But follow the link to Doug’s blog above for more on this.

What Doug and Jason had in common in the evangelical exodus is that they are intellectuals, they are generous, they are honest, and they were willing to discuss these issues without starting a witch hunt.  They never held onto the deep anti-Catholic prejudice that some others had, and they were the sort of person that you could feel comfortable discussing the issues relating to these doubts you were having about evangelicalism and protestantism without having to fear being brought before a quasi-inquisition or treated like a crazy person who needs to be cured or saved from these thoughts and concerns.  Doug and Jason had some effect merely by being professionals and good friends.

But the problem with this story is that we should implicate others if we’re implicating Jason and Doug.  Wayne Detzler (categorically not a Catholic, and there is no doubt that he at no point endorsed Catholic theology in his courses at SES) is also a professional.  He is also and intellectual who was interested in hearing and talking about the interesting questions that come up (even ones involving Catholicism).  He engaged with these questions with the most refreshing academic honesty.  I cannot say enough good things about this class.  And the honest discussion in this class was probably one of the most important parts of my conversion.  The warm inviting intellectual atmosphere of his class allowed me to really ask and think about my remaining questions regarding Catholicism.

It is because of this that I feel deeply sorry for the predicament that I feel I’ve put Dr. Detzler in.  Dr. Detzler said some beautiful and nice things about the book.  But clearly the people of SES were deeply unhappy with Detzler’s positive comments with the book.  The fact that someone on the SES team thought the book was good or interesting could not be tolerated.  Obviously the comments Detzler gave needed revising.  So SES eventually put Detzler’s “revised” comments on their response page.

Here they are:

wayneupdatedcomment

The tenor of these comments, if I were SES, would make me think twice before posting them as something that favors SES.  Detzler has remained consistent while attempting to build back the bridges that apparently were burned by the simple endorsement of a set of conversion stories.  In fact, a reasonable reading of these comments will see them as an indictment of the ridiculous paranoid anti-intellectualism of SES’s consideration of this case.

Who misconstrued Detzler’s comments?  Was it the authors of the book?  Well, they just put his endorsement on the back of the book.  No, his accusations of misconstrual fall squarely at the feet of SES.  SES panicked at the thought of one of their own endorsing this very personal work, and read the whole thing unreasonably.  If you read my chapter in the book, you will get no inkling that Detzler gave carte blanche approval of any doctrine other than evangelical.  In fact all you’ll get is that Detzler was an honest and generous teacher.  It is SES and those that, being pissed off about this book, that misconstrued the comments on Detzler’s work in the book and on Detzler’s approval of the book.  Detzler’s comments should give those at SES who reacted to his approval of the work something to think about.

SES, when accusing former professors of wrong-doing, should at long last realize that they are in fact only accusing former professors of being honest intellectuals who will give views contrary to their own an honest hearing.  In turn SES is guilty of reactionary, anti-intellectual, and unethical accusations of former professors.  I had hoped better for my alma mater.

If you want to hear the real story of some really widely different conversions, then I suggest you take a peak at the book Evangelical Exodus, to which I have contributed.  After this, I hope to put any unpleasantness behind me and go back to my regularly scheduled eclectic pop culture/Catholicism/philosophy blog.  Join me every MWF for new content!

Peace be with you.
-JS

Why do I Love WWE Wrestling?

I’ve recently returned to watching WWE wrestling after 15 years away.  I really enjoy it.  But why do I love it?  It’s something of a mystery to me.  Why do people like Wrestling Entertainment?  Perhaps you could understand why a person would like WWE before finding out that “it’s fake.”  But interest in WWE doesn’t always go away when a person finds out that the individuals on the show are stunt-fighting.  How can you like a show that is just pretending to be real?  Well, it better be similar to the reasons people give for liking other pretend things.  That is, it should turn out that the reason I like WWE is like the reason I like magic shows or the reason I like certain works of fiction or television shows.

Luckily, the reasons that people show like WWE are similar to the reasons they should like these other things.  But first we should talk about how to categorize WWE wrestling.  WWE wrestling is a weird thing.  It’s like a cross between a soap opera, the muppet show, and live theater, but it’s in the action genre.  Suppose you were watching a TV show like 24.  But now suppose that they made this show live, and retained all the action and stunts.  This would be a rad show.  Now, the stories in WWE are not quite like the stories in shows like 24, but they are dramatic arcs nonetheless.  In fact, they are often versions of the heroes journey (or redemption stories, or a host of other kinds of stories).  In fact, there is a great youtube video by a respected hollywood writer illustrating what wrestling is (spoiler alert: wrestling isn’t wrestling):

Wrestling is a lot of things, but it’s not wrestling.  It’s a drama.  It’s performance art.  It’s the muppet show (a show about the drama behind putting on a show).  It can be a place for really great story-telling.  It’s also an art that has been devoted to developing the best and most convincing stage-combat that you have ever seen.  In a way like magic, it’s devoted to creating a certain contrary-to-reality perception which makes it easier for the viewer to engage in the suspension of disbelief.

Professional wrestling, though it might suck from time to time, gives the real opportunity for amazing story-telling over the course of years and years.  You should check out professional wrestling again.  It’s worth watching.

 

Check back WMF for more content.

Peace be with you.
-JS

P.S. If you’d like to watch a great podcast which discusses wrestling from a storyline perspective, check out sidewalk slam:

Southern Evangelical Seminary’s Disappointing Response

I hoped this kind of misconstrual by SES wouldn’t happen. But this response is sadly necessary.  If you’d like to hear the true story from the horse’s mouth, check out the book Evangelical Exodus.  Don’t believe the conspiracy theories.  Here is my friend Doug taking a quizzical look at the response. I will have some more to say on this issue friday.

Evangelical Exodus

Southern Evangelical Seminary Response to Evangelical Exodus

Southern Evangelical Seminary Response to Evangelical Exodus

Introduction

I knew that sooner or later Southern Evangelical Seminary would respond to Evangelical Exodus. While disagreement and perhaps even opposition was expected (albeit unnecessary), SES’s reaction was disappointing in numerous ways. I had hoped that a school claiming to be committed to teaching people to “think clearly, critically, and rationally while engaging people in meaningful dialogue” would have done so in their response to the book. However, rather than carefully and considerately interacting with its content  (or even getting its two-word title correct), SES’s response amounted to little more than a couple links to general articles on Catholicism and to a course that was recorded before the book was even written.

Worse, however, were the few items that related to the book. Instead of engaging actual arguments made in the book, SES has responded with misleading implications, red herrings, and personal attacks that border on libel. My requests to remove these latter statements were rebuffed, but…

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Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Divine Names: Summary to end of Chapter 1

He was a neo-platonist. Get it?

The end of chapter 1 leading into chapter 2 of the divine names spends some still hasn’t begun the bulk of the inquiry.  Really, most of chapters 1 and 2 are devoted to a defense of the project in general.  Pseudo-Dionysius is grappling with a problem that all Neo-Platonists have to grapple with.  The Neo-Platonists had a view of God that deeply raises the question of whether God-talk can even be coherent or meaningful.

The crux of this problem is the extreme transcendence that the Neo-Platonists attribute to God.  God, for the classical neoPlatonist view, is the One beyond all being or differentiation.  He transcends everything, except perhaps unity.  He even transcends being, which brings up its own host of issues.  So, understandably, our author feels the desire to justify attributing things to a God that seems so beyond human comprehension.

In the beginning of Chapter 1 he primarily appeals to the need, for Christians, to reconcile this view of God with the fact that scripture attributes all sorts of things to God.  Scripture makes all sorts of claims about God, so we should figure out how to understand these claims as true without giving up this incredibly trascendent view of God that we hold.

But starting toward the end of chapter 1 there is a bit of a shift in tone and a different line of defense.  He argues that there are things we can attribute to God in virtue of God’s having caused all created things.  This is a natural way to go, and is deeply influential in the history of theological thought.  Attributing things to God in virtue of His having created the world allows one to attribute things to God in terms of how things are related to Him.  This will allow us to avoid attributing anything intrinsically to God, and thus will be easy to square some true God-talk with a God which is fairly radically unknowable.

P.S. The pic above is Plato in matrix-code.  Because Pseudo-Dionysius was a Neo Platonist?  Get it? Neo?  Platonist?  I’ll just end this article now so as not to get in the way of your guffaws.

Tune in every MWF for more interesting stuff on Catholicism, philosophy, society, and pop culture.

Peace be with you.
-JS

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Thoughts on Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names Part 2: Theological Analogies

So I’m working my way through Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names, posting my summaries and various thoughts about the work here.  Today I will be briefly discussing some examples and analogies that Pseudo-Dionysius uses for aspects of the divine reality.

What surprised me when reading The Divine Names was the down to earth and familiar sounding nature of his examples.  If you’ve ever been given the circle analogy in explanation of how God can have different properties, that analogy is in The Divine Names.  There are other analogies that you probably haven’t heard which are deeply familiar seeming.  Let’s go over a couple and try to understand their upshot.

First, the circle analogy.  In the context it appears in the work it’s difficult to see it’s upshot.  But it goes as follows:

It is according to these gifts that the [supreme] things which are participated in, but which do not themselves participate [in anything higher], are praised  though the participations and those who participate.  Now this is unified and one and common to the whole divinity, that the entire wholeness is participated in by each of those who participate in it; none participates in only a part.  It is rather like the case of a circle.  The center point of the circle is shared by the surrounding radii.  Or take the example of a seal.  There are numerous impressions of the seal and these all have a share in the original prototype; it is the same whole seal in each of the impressions and none participates in only a part.

As best I can tell, the circle and the seal analogy are here to help explain one thing  .  Perhaps we are explaining the fact that a trinitarian deity may have each of the attributes off the divine while not being melded into one divine person.  The idea is that two different things (like a circle and the radii) can share the same numerically identical property(a center point) without being turned into one.  But his point is stronger.  He wants his examples to show that a reality can be accurately described as having certain properties despite being differentiated.  The circle remains an undifferentiated whole despite being accurately described as having a center point and accurately described as having radii which share that center point.  This is meant to help us be able to see how we might be able to accurately affirm things of a perfectly simple deity.

In the next installation I’ll summarize this second portion I’ve read.

Come back every MWF for more discussion of philosophy, pop culture, society and their interaction!

Peace be with you.
-JS

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