National Champions!

Last weekend the Taylor University Ethics Bowl team, which I coach, won the national championship in Costa Mesa, California.  Ethics Bowl is an intercollegiate moral issues debate competition, in which hundreds of schools participate nationwide. Taylor has been participating since the late 1990s, and our team has won numerous regional championships, and in recent years we’ve been doing increasingly well at nationals. Two years ago we advanced to the finals, only to be edged by one point in the IMG_1313championship match. But last weekend we took that final step, winning our first national championship in a very close match against Whitworth University (a superb team and one of the most consistently strong teams in the country).

Our team won all three qualifying matches (against Duke University, Santa Clara University and Texas Pan American). Then we defeated Villanova University in the quarterfinals and Indiana University in the semi-finals, culminating in the showdown against Whitworth University.

The competition took place at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Mesa, California. As usual, 32 teams participated, all having qualified by finishing among the top teams in their region. There are ten regions nationwide, and ours is the Central States region, which features some of the best teams in the nation, including former national champions Indiana University (2004 and 2009), Wright State University (2002), and DePauw University (2013).

The topics debated at nationals were the following (two cases covered per match):

  • Unpaid internships
  • The use of ancient artifacts (Roman lead ingots) for scientific purposes
  • “Prescriptive planting” farming technology
  • The killing of civilians in war
  • Parental rights of rapists
  • Fracking
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Minimum wage
  • Horse slaughterhouses
  • Stealth (undercover) journalism
  • Media use of “crowdsourcing”
  • Transgendered people and public bathrooms

The Taylor team roster:

  • Jess Biermann (Senior, Philosophy)
  • Nathaniel Cullen (Senior, Philosophy and Environmental Studies)
  • Kasey Leander (Junior, Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics)
  • Davis Meadors (Senior, Philosophy)
  • Caleb Nagle (Senior, Political Science)
  • Mark Taylor (Senior, Philosophy)
  • Veronica Toth (Junior, English)

And non-roster Ethics Bowlers who were on the Fall regionals team and made the trip to nationals, supporting the team in various ways:

  • Kyle Carruthers (Senior, Professional Writing)
  • Lydia Grace Espiritu (Senior, Philosophy)

Katie Duncan is my assistant coach, and she led the team while I was on sabbatical in the Fall when the team qualified for nationals by finishing second at regionals.

We couldn’t be happier for the students, as they worked like crazy for the last two months and performed brilliantly all day during the competition.  It’s an amazing bunch.  For the seniors, they’ve made it to two finals in three years, and now they’ve won a national championship.

Soli Deo Gloria!


Snapshots

Brief comments on film by Amy.
Some old, some new.  Domestic films and foreign too.

Boyhood — I forced Jim to take a break from all his kitchen renovating and watch this one with me. We both considered it time well spent. Jim was so impressed he watched it again the next day. There is patient character development, and then there is Boyhood. Filmed over the course of 12 years using the same actors, Boyhood is a fascinating window into the life of a boy and his family. The viewer not only watches the character of Mason grow and mature but also watches Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, grow and mature as an actor. Written and directed by Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise, etc, Boyhood’s strengths are its weaknesses.

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

Using the same actors over more than a decade not only adds to the realism of the film, it also endears the characters to the viewer in a completely unique way. Additionally, I think the relationships these actors have with one another must have developed over that time, adding to their onscreen chemistry. That being said, it also creates an unevenness to the performances as the actors, especially the children, hone their craft. Boyhood is definitely more successful than Before Sunrise and its sequels in drawing you in. It’s worthy of the award attention it is getting and well worth the watch.

Night at the Museum 3 — I love movies that I can watch with the kids—lighthearted and kid-oriented—but during which I don’t have to fake laugh or fight off the temptation to catch a quick nap. The first two films in the Night at the Museum series were two such movies and #3 did not disappoint. Thank you, Ben Stiller, for not thinking yourself above simply entertaining us.

The Maze Runner — I am up for a good dystopian young adult flick as much as the next gal. The key word being “good.” Don’t think it is worth wasting any more space on this one than I already have.

Neighbors — I have no problem checking out films from the library when I know they will probably be bad. It’s free and, hey, you never know. This one wasn’t worth the effort it took to swipe my library card. Despite fast-forwarding many of the more graphic scenes of this “comedy,” I still felt like I needed a long shower and several hours of soul cleansing viewing to recover from this one. The fact that there are people out there who would find anything about this movie humorous is just plain tragic.

Honorable and not so Honorable Mentions — This is my favorite time of the year for television viewing, when all the good BBC stuff comes out to tide us over till baseball season starts. Here are a few I recommend, or don’t.

Downton Abbey (Season 5): This should have ended it when they had the chance to wrap it up on a high note. The episodes feel crowded with storylines and several of the actors feel like caricatures of themselves, simply going through the motions. I still love to hear Maggie Smith’s flawless one-liners but otherwise its a bit like meeting a high school crush years later only to see he’s got a beer belly and ear hair.

Grantchester — The real star of Masterpiece this season. Love this series thus far. The protagonist, Sydney Chambers, is a delightful combination of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, only most haunted and better looking.

Broadchurch — Watched the first five minutes of the American version of this series and turned it off after having seen more than enough. Watched the British version in its entirety and wished there was more. The finale was disappointing but worth the ride.

The Fall (Series 2) — Gillian Anderson is amazing as always but this season lacked the tension of the first and fell flat for me.

The Honorable Woman — Maggie Gyllenhaal annoys me. Maggie Gyllenhaal with a stuck-up ice queen British accent is almost more than I can take.

Case Histories (Series 2) — Pure guilty pleasure, crime solving goodness.


Why its Hard to Believe Belichick

The NFL scandal known as “Deflategate” is now national news.  If you haven’t heard, during last Sunday’s AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, officials discovered that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots’ offense were underinflated by 2 pounds of air pressure.  That’s a significant amount, and in cold and rainy playing conditions could provide a distinct advantage for the team using them.  (Each team uses its own set of footballs on offense and is responsible to keep the balls inflated to league standards—between 12.5 and 13.5 PSI.)

Photo by David Shankbone
Photo by David Shankbone

Because of a previous Patriots’ cheating scandal involving illicit taping of an opposing teams’ coaches’ signals back in 2007—which resulted in a $500,000 fine and loss of a draft pick—many players and commentators are concluding that the Patriots are again guilty of cheating (and that their coach is living up to his moniker as Bill Belicheat).  In today’s press conference Belichick didn’t offer much to assuage those suspicions.  In fact, his calm reiterations that he has no idea what happened should only cause us to doubt him more.  After all, if he’s telling the truth that he knew nothing about the ball deflation, then someone in the Patriots organization did this without his consent and thus essentially framed Belichick and cast serious aspersion on the integrity of the entire New England franchise.  If you were innocent and had been slandered in this way, would you limit your comments to calmly denying you knew anything about how the balls were deflated?  Of course not.  Wouldn’t you be angry and express how you wanted to get to the bottom of this and bring the perpetrators to justice?  Of course you would.

According to one recent survey, 65% of those polled think Belichick is lying.  His tepid stonewalling in today’s press conference provides another reason not to believe him.

 


The Best and Worst of 2014

It’s been another exciting year, and we want to thank you all for reading and, if applicable, posting comments on our blog. Once again, we would like to close out the year with some summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, and family.

Best and Worst Film Experiences:

  • Jim:  This was a down year for me in terms of watching films. I viewed a lot of “tweeners” that wouldn’t fall anywhere near the “best” or “worst” categories—e.g., Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.  Probably the best film I watched all year was the Israeli drama Fill the Void, a powerful story of a young Haredic Jewish woman who is pressured by her family to marry the widower of her older sister, who died in childbirth. On a lighter note, but just as memorable, is the endearing Jon Favreau comedy Chef. As for my worst film experience of the year, the choice is easy: Gone Girl, which Amy and I reviewed here and here.
  • Amy:  While Jim was in California, I pretty much anesthetized myself with any television series I could get my Netflixed hands on. While there was a great deal of loving or listing it, hunting for houses and cousins with kitchen, I did watch some quality shows, most of them dark and mysterious. I think the new paradigm of shows created directly for streaming and released in their entirety has real potential. Here are a few to which I became hopelessly addicted, with the usual disclaimer that since they are mostly British, they tend to be a wee smutty and anti-religious, but well-written and well-acted: Hinterlands, The Killing, Happy Valley, The Fall. My best experience, however, was watching Mockingjay: Part One with my older boys. I know it isn’t saying much to say it is the best in the series so far, but it was. There was popcorn and bonding, so take that and stuff it in your high culture hat.

Jim’s Best and Worst Musical Experiences of the Year:  The highlights for me were Morrissey’s World Peace is None of Your Business (despite the Moz’s increasingly sardonic perspective on life) the Black Keys’ Turn Blue (my review of which is here), and U2’s Songs of Innocence (despite the popular trend of hating this album just because it was simultaneously gifted to millions of people). The low point, as it probably could be most years, was catching “highlights” of the MTV awards. Blecch.

Amy’s Best and Worst Eating Experiences of the Year: Best: Finally got to experience (free range) pork belly and it did not disappoint. Like pork chops wrapped in bacon. Thank you, Barn Brassiere in Muncie, Indiana.  Worst: The hundredth Subway tuna sandwich on flat bread I ate with the kids while traveling back from California. Every woman has her fast food sub-sandwich limit and I reached mine somewhere in Kansas.

Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  It was a thrill to see both the Ole Miss and Mississippi State football teams in the top five, with the latter enjoying the #1 position for several consecutive weeks of the season.  I also enjoyed the Kansas City Royals’ exciting run to the World Series.  And as I write this I’m enjoying the Detroit Lions season culminating in a playoff appearance, though I expect the end of their run will make my “most disappointing sports moments” for 2015.

Amy’ Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Watching all my kids play soccer this fall. I had to step up my spectator skills in order to do play-by-play for Jim while he was in California. I saw Bailey score his first goal in a high school game, Sam play keeper (a position he and his high threshold of stimulation were born for), Maggie deceive many an opponent with her flighty demeanor, and Andrew take charge of his defense. So fun to watch them all, though the rides home were admittedly a little stinky (but only literally).

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  Although I’m not a Kansas City Royals fan, I got caught up enough in their improbable playoff run to be really deflated by their falling just short in game 7 of the World Series.  If Salvador Perez swings just half an inch higher on that final pitch, the Royals win the championship on a walk-off two-run homer rather than losing on a feeble pop-out. It’s a game of inches… And speaking of disappointments related to teams I don’t normally root for, it was also painful to watch Peyton Manning’s Broncos so thoroughly dismantled by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year: Having to tell Jim, who was suffering from amnesia at the time, that Peyton Manning didn’t play for the Colts anymore. He looked so devastatingly baffled. At least he forgot about it five minutes after I told him.

Satisfying Reads of the Year:

  • Jim:  I was delighted to have the time to finally read Melville’s Moby Dick, my reflections on which you can see here.  I also enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead—an achievement that is as subtle as it is profound.  The best work in philosophy I read this year was Jason Baehr’s The Inquiring Mind, a rich and insightful work on virtue epistemology.  Also, I greatly enjoyed—and was happy to do a back-cover endorsement for—the book Rethinking Hell, a compendium of important articles and essays defending the doctrine of hell known as conditional immortalism (the view that the damned are eventually annihilated, as opposed to suffering eternally).
  • Amy:  I read so many good books this year. From contemporary fiction to 19th century memoirs, this was a great reading year for me. Here are just a few of my recommendations: The Warden by Anthony Trollope, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (though I hated Brooks’ March), Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, a couple by P. G. Wodehouse, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Extraordinary, Ordinary People by Condoleezza Rice and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Best 2014 Memories of Our Kids:

Amy:  Our trip out west was the big one. Sitting on the beach with Jim at Big Sur watching the kids playing in the water and looking for creatures was a near perfect moment. Looking at their happy and surprised faces when Jim told them we were getting a dog was priceless. Not being found first every time during Christmas bedtime hide and seek was pretty sweet too.

Jim:  Traveling through Arizona and California with my family in October, experiencing together such sites as the Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, the Pacific coastal highway, and Alcatraz. Our kids have always been good travelers, but they blew us away with their endurance on this extended sojourn.

Best Maggie Quotes of the Year:

In the past we’ve reserved this spot for memorable quotes from all of our kids, but this was such a great year for quotes from our daughter Maggie (who is ten years old), we decided to simply list some of her more memorable ones:

  • “When I grow up, I’m gonna make an exact copy of the earth, then cut it in half with a big knife to see if the center of the earth is really so hot.”
  • “Sometimes being hungry can be satisfying. Unsatisfaction can be satisfying.”
  • “I never talk to myself when I’m alone in my room. I just talk to the Beatles and my stuffed animals.”

Most Satisfying Shared Experiences of the Year: 

  • Amy:  There were quite a few this year: Kayaking through the beautiful mangrove forest and onto the open ocean while in the Bahamas. Seeing so many beautiful places on our trip out west. The night Jim surprised me for my 40th birthday by driving me around to collect lovely, encouraging notes from my friends. However, number one has to be picking him up from the airport in December, knowing he was home to stay.
  • Jim:  Dittos on all of that.

New Year’s Resolutions:

  • Amy:  Somehow managing to maintain the new perspective Jim’s being gone gave me. Appreciate him more, worry about the little things less. Enjoy and encourage my kids more, criticize and hide from them less. Accomplish the fitness goals I set but didn’t quite reach for 2014. Watch more quality films with Jim. Put more time and energy into plans for my professional future and of course, read lots and lots of books.
  • Jim:  To read half as much as my wife did this year, which would mean reading twenty-six books next year. Good luck to me on that.

Happy 2015 everyone!


The Big Deal About the Beatles

Recently a friend of mine shared with me his frustration over how some younger folks scoff at his love for the music of the Beatles. They dismiss them as an overrated boy band. So, he asked me, “When someone asks you ‘What’s the big deal about the Beatles?’ what do you say?”

The way I deal with that is to begin by giving the questioner some historical context—explaining to them the kind of musical world it was just before the Beatles changed everything. Then, if they are still interested, I add a few points about the Beatles’ legacy, influence, and critical acclaim. So there are many ways to show why the Beatles are indeed a big deal. Below I count ten of the ways:

  • Before the Beatles, popular bands didn’t write their own songs. Professional songwriters did that. This changed because of the Beatles.
  • Before the Beatles, “guitar groups [were] on the way out” (as Decca executive Dick Rowe put it, when turning down the Beatles in 1962). The Beatles reversed that trend permanently.
  • www.mirror.co.uk
    www.mirror.co.uk

    Before the Beatles, popular music was not considered a genuine art form. The Beatles (especially the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) changed that.

  • Before the Beatles, popular music wasn’t culturally significant enough to warrant newspapers having journalists devoted to covering rock music. The Beatles changed that. In fact, they were a major musical force inspiring the first rock music periodicals—Crawdaddy, Creem, and Rolling Stone.
  • The Beatles weren’t just a rock band. They were a masterful cabaret band, able to make excellent original music in about ten different categories: 50’s style doo-wop, surfer rock, blues, rhythm & blues, acoustic balladry, show tunes, folk rock, orchestral rock, hard rock, string quartet chamber music, Indian music, and (perhaps inventing) psychedelic rock.  Name another band to do this before or since. You can’t. The Clash mastered five or six, which is as close as any band gets. Bands like Phish could convincingly play more genres, but they didn’t write great songs in more than a couple categories.
  • The Beatles were among the first bands to make significant (and impactful) socio-political commentary in their music (thanks to Bob Dylan’s influence, of course).
  • The Beatles revolutionized the art of studio recording. Contemporary producers and sound engineers still consult the Beatles and producer George Martin “like we’re consulting a manual,” as one current record producer puts it.

    www.rollingstone.com
    www.rollingstone.com
  • You can draw major lines of influence from every great band since the 1960s (e.g., Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2, Radiohead, etc.) directly to the Beatles.
  • The Beatles made countless musical innovations and firsts, including use of the sitar (“Norwegian Wood”), tape loops (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), backward guitar and vocal tracks (“I’m Only Sleeping” and “Rain”), the use of guitar feedback (“I Feel Fine”), and the Moog synthesizer (several songs on Abbey Road).
  • The Beatles’ music has stood the test of time, which is the ultimate filter for greatness. Nearly half a century after their break-up, their music still outsells most popular acts in any given year. They’ve sold over one BILLION records to date. And on all major “greatest album lists,” the Beatles have multiple albums featured, usually several in the top ten. This Rolling Stone list includes five Beatles’ albums in the top 15, four in the top 10, and three in the top 5, including Sgt. Pepper at #1. Even the prog- and alt-rock tilted NME top 100 albums list includes four Beatles’ albums and places their Revolver album at #2. Thus, by far, the Beatles enjoy the greatest critical and popular acclaim among rock bands. So in dismissing the Beatles, one must thumb one’s nose at two of the most significant criteria for evaluating artists of any kind—the historical test and the test of critical acclaim. To do so usually reveals arrogance or ignorance. Or both.

Such are the points I make to young Beatles skeptics. Some are moved. Others aren’t…to their own loss.


Why are Atheist Athletes Rare?

Last year, NFL punter Chris Kluwe made headlines because of his atheism.  The reason for his newsworthiness, as the writer of this Psychology Today report on Kluwe notes, is that “open secularity is rare in pro sports.”  This is something that has puzzled me since writing my atheism book several years ago.  Why are atheist athletes rare?

You can find all sorts of atheist lists on the Internet.  These include such categories as famous atheists, celebrity atheists, and top atheists in the world.  And it isn’t just atheist apologists that provide these lists.  There are also prodigious Wikipedia lists of atheists in various fields, including politics and law, science and technology, and arts and entertainment.

But try finding a similarly expansive list of atheist athletes.  Here’s the best I could do: 19 Famous Athletes Who are Atheist.  This is a classic case of exceptions proving the rule.  Pretty slim pickings.  I found it interesting, for starters, that they couldn’t even find one more to make it an even twenty.  (They should add Kluwe, since he’s not included.)  And it is supposedly a list of “famous” athletes.  Yet, as an avid sports buff, I only recognized five people on the list.  Moreover, some of these reach way back, such as to an Italian cyclist from 70 years ago.  And another is a WWE wrestler—isn’t that better categorized as acting?  After reading through this disappointing list, I discovered the Top 15 Athletes Who are Atheist.  But it largely overlaps with the list of 19 “famous” atheists above.

So why are atheists so rare in professional sports?  I have a theory, but to explain it I’ll need to start by discussing the primary rationale that atheists and religious skeptics give for not believing in God.  This is the problem of evil.  Lance Armstrong has been quoted as saying, “If there was a God, I’d still have both nuts.”  This statement encapsulates a common intuition about human suffering and religious belief, which essentially constitutes an atheistic argument:  God would not want humans to suffer significantly.  However, there is a lot of suffering in the world.  Therefore, God must not exist.  If you were to interview all of the atheists listed in the sites above and ask them why they reject theism, most if not all of them would cite suffering as a major reason.  But these men and women are not unique in their awareness of suffering.  All serious athletes are well acquainted with pain.  And here may lie the clue to understanding why atheist athletes are rare.

To do intense athletic training is to welcome a degree of suffering.  Athletes understand the usefulness of pain as a means to physical conditioning and mental toughness, which ultimately means success.  No pain no gain, as the saying goes.  Consequently, we should expect athletes to be less inclined to see suffering as antithetical to good ends.  And to become accustomed to linking these two things—pain and gain—is to gain a deeper existential awareness of how suffering is essential for growth in all of life, not just athletics.

This in turn will enable the athlete to recognize that God can work through painful experiences generally to bring about greater goods in people’s lives.  So he or she will be more ready to affirm with the prophet Isaiah that it is good how God gives us “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction” (Isa. 30:20).  And just as the difficulties and challenges one faces on the court, diamond or gridiron make one better, the athlete will be likely to affirm with the apostle James that our trials in life have a constructive end, namely to make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:4).  Such an attitude might not create a perfect immunity to atheism or religious skepticism, but it certainly could prevent one’s faith from being undermined by the problem of evil.  And this might explain why atheist athletes are so rare.


A Buster Keaton Starter Kit

I’m a huge Buster Keaton fan.  He’s one of the three “B” cultural loves of my life, the others being baseball and the Beatles.  I consider Keaton to be the greatest talent in film history (since he was a superb director, producer, cinematographer, screenwriter, actor, set engineer, and stuntman—no other Hollywood auteurs were great in so many critical categories).  Keaton makes you 220px-Busterkeaton_editlaugh and makes you think.  Without the benefit of special effects, he will make you scratch your head in wonder, perhaps even saying out loud, “Wow, how did he do that?”  But his films can be poignant as well.  Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece The General—widely considered one of the greatest films of all time—does all of these things.  Somehow it manages to be an engaging narrative, rollicking adventure, hysterical comedy, and emotionally compelling.

Keaton’s deep influence on entertainers from Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, and Red Skelton to Richard Lewis and Jackie Chan is a testament to the power of his art.  Actor Jim Carrey, also a huge fan, has said about Keaton, “What a creative genius—what an inventor…  A guy like that, you just sit back and say, okay, I’ll never get there.”  So if you’re into film history at all, that should be motivation enough to look into his work.  And if you’re not into film history but just like to be entertained, then Keaton’s comic ingenuity will more than do the trick.

I recommend starting with a few early Keaton shorts:

  • Neighbors — That’s Keaton’s real dad playing his father.  Keaton’s parents were Vaudevillians, and they got him into the act at age three.  When Keaton turned to film in his 20s, his dad was skeptical.  But as the film industry took off, he was persuaded.
  • Cops — An early Keaton classic depicting how small turns of events can mount into cataclysmic disasters.
  • The Boat — The boat in the film is named “Damfino,” which is where the International Buster Keaton Society gets its name.
  • Electric House — Even a century later this little film remains a powerful commentary on modern technology.

And here are some features:

  • Our Hospitality — Check out the famous waterfall scene at the end—you’ll replay this several times, I’m sure.220px-The_General_poster
  • Sherlock Junior — The “special effects” in this one were revolutionary.
  • The General — Here is the AFI’s top 100 films list with The General listed at #18.
  • Steamboat Bill Jr. — Note the famous, life-risking falling façade scene at the 59.00 minute mark.  How many Hollywood stars literally risk their lives for the sake of their art these days?  Not that I’m recommending this, of course.

The shorts are only 10-20 minutes each, which is not a serious time commitment.  And the features are, by today’s standards, also pretty short—usually 60-70 minutes.  So it’s not too time-consuming to dig deeply into the Keaton catalogue.  I should add that all my kids love Keaton films.  So that’s something to keep in mind as well—it makes for good family entertainment and a great way to build your kids’ understanding of film and its history.

Further Reading:

  • Also, some of the Wikiquotes on Keaton are interesting.

Gone Girl: A Film Review

As Amy mentioned in the previous post, the Gone Girl novel was a gripping ride, even if it wasn’t high quality literature.  I would say something similar about the film—gripping but, on the whole, not a strong film.  Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (also the author of the book) follow the novel’s plot line pretty closely, but the adaptation to film brings a few surprises.  (For a plot summary see Amy’s previous post.)

As for the acting, Rosamund Pike turns in a superb performance as Amy (who bears no moral resemblance to my wife of the same name).  But Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick seemed flat to me, lacking the emotional dimension needed for a character under such an immense amount of stress.  This was just one aspect of the film that prevented me from fully entering into Flynn’s otherwise intriguing action mystery.  A marginal script and numerous flaws in terms of realism were other features that pulled me out of Flynn’s world.  220px-Gone_Girl_PosterBut the most distracting thing of all was the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  In many scenes, the music was jarringly mood inappropriate.  I liken film score composers to umpires in baseball.  When they’re doing their job well, you don’t consciously notice them.  It’s only when they fail somehow that their work intrudes on the viewer’s experience.  For me, the Reznor-Ross Gone Girl soundtrack was definitely intrusive.

As for other flaws, in referring to them I cannot avoid giving away key aspects of the plot.  So if you haven’t seen the film and would like to do so . . . SPOILER ALERT.  The flaws range from a lack of plausible motivations for the characters (for example, what would motivate Amy to go to all the trouble to frame Nick for murdering her?  She had nothing to gain—and much to lose!—in doing this rather than simply divorcing him) to the emotionally unbelievable (Affleck’s Dunne is not sufficiently angry with Amy after she returns home) to random unrealistic oversights (after killing her ex-boyfriend, which she made to look like self-defense, Amy goes to the hospital and is examined, but she leaves the hospital still covered in the blood of the man she murdered.  In real life, don’t you think she and/or the hospital staff would ensure that she got cleaned up before she was dismissed?)

In thinking about all of these flaws of realism in Gone Girl, I was struck by the directorial inconsistency of failing in these ways and yet being so meticulously realistic with regard to the portrayal of sexual content and brutal violence.  One pivotal scene at the film’s climax is so grotesquely graphic that even I found it appalling (and I’m not one to shrink at violence in films—Quentin Tarantino is my favorite director, so ‘nuff said there).  I would like to ask Fincher, why be so excruciatingly graphic (I would say gratuitous) with the violence, especially when you maintain such a low standard for realism in other aspects of the film, some of which are central to the narrative?  I don’t get it.

One positive thing I can say about this film, however, is that the southern detective, played by Kim Dickens, was not represented as a complete idiot, as southern characters in Hollywood films so often are.  However, in the end, the detective does blow the case, so elements of the Hollywood cliché are indeed there, but at least she wasn’t represented as a thoroughly detestable hypocrite, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been in this regard.  And this is probably my prevailing thought regarding Gone Girl the film as a whole—it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  That’s about as much praise as I can muster for this one.  Good riddance, indeed.


Good Riddance, Gone Girl

It’s funny how things work out. I had seen Gone Girl on the shelves of various bookstores. I think I even checked it out of the library once but never got around to reading it. When the movie came out, I was intrigued and bought the novel to read on our trip to California. The same week, Jim called to say he had just seen the movie. So here is the first of two reviews—of the book and, in the next post, the film.

booksI am not sure how best to describe my experience. If I wanted to be purely subjective, I would say, “I didn’t enjoy it.” Such a dark and hopeless perspective. There is no good guy to cheer for. Only characters with varying degrees of badness. But to say that I didn’t enjoy it would not be to say that I wasn’t drawn in. As Jim Gaffigan would say, this novel was McDonald’s for the soul. You know it is bad for you but somehow you feel compelled to go back for more.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot, I will do my best to summarize without spoiling. After losing their jobs and a substantial portion of Amy’s trust fund, Nick and Amy, a seemingly happily married couple, move from New York City to a small town in Missouri in order to care for Nick’s dying mother. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing and it isn’t long before everyone, including the reader, begins to question whether Nick is responsible. The story shifts from the past to present with Amy’s diary entries filling in the back story while Nick’s perspective moves forward in the present.

From a purely literary standpoint, the writing is okay. The plot is ingenious on paper but I am not sure the characters pull it off. As with any elaborate storyline, believable, well-developed characters are essential to suspending the reader’s disbelief. I personally think first-person narrative, especially first person “Dear Diary” kind of narrative, makes this much more difficult. It is foreign to our experience of life to hear the thoughts and feelings of others first hand. Even our own thoughts don’t come to us in complete, full sentence form. Unless you are a very gifted and skilled writer, the first-person voice actually places distance between the character and the reader rather than creating the realistic intimacy of developing a character in the same way we get to know real people, through dialogue and perceived actions.

For all the patient unfolding of the plot through most of the book, the ending feels unsatisfactorily hurried and the most unrealistic bit to swallow. I also have to throw in my two cents worth of disappointment at the number of f-bombs Flynn throws around. The book is certainly gritty enough without them.

Overall, this was a gripping vacation read, but that’s all—library worthy but not retail price worthy.


Some Thoughts on Moby Dick

This semester I am working as a Templeton Fellow at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.  It has been a wonderful experience so far, as I’ve been spending much time in discussion with the other fellows at the CCT and have had time to do a lot of research and writing (mostly on the virtue of open-mindedness, which is my research focus for the semester).  I’ve also been careful to reserve time for reading fiction, which is something I normally don’t have time for during the school year.  A few weeks ago I finished Melville’s Moby Dick, which was quite a journey.  If you’ve never read the book, then it might sound strange when I say that much of it is non-fiction.  In fact, I’d describe it as equal parts cultural history, marine zoology, maritime encyclopedia, and dramatic narrative.  I now know more about the history and practice of whaling (as practiced in the 19th century) than I ever thought I would.  Not only that, but I actually found Melville’s detailed descriptions of the process of catching whales and harvesting the various components (especially the precious spermaceti oil that made sperm whales such valuable ocean quarry) very interesting.

But for all of the stuff about whaling, what I find most compelling about Moby Dick is what has captured the imaginations of most readers of this classic:  Captain Ahab’s obsession with that great albino sperm whale which cost him one of his legs in a previous expedition.  Ahab is a portrait in monomaniacal vengeance—extreme but believable.  In one of my favorite passages, the first mate Starbuck challenges his captain for being so obsessed, and Ahab’s response is memorable:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!  Madness!  To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer.  All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.  But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.  If man will strike, strike through the mask!  To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy, man.  I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Why does Starbuck suggest that such anger at “dumb brute” is “madness” and possibly blasphemous?  As for its irrationality, that is likely because he recognizes that animals, even highly intelligent ones such as whales, are not moral agents and thus vengeance, as typically understood, is inappropriately aimed at them.  Vengeance only makes sense when one’s target is somehow to blame for something (not that vengeance is ever morally justified; but sometimes it does make sense from a psychological standpoint, if not from a moral point of view).

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

But then why suggest that Ahab’s anger is blasphemous?  This is where things get really interesting, in terms of the contrasting worldviews of Ahab and Starbuck.  The latter seems to assume that since animals cannot reason, their actions, especially their interactions with people, are best construed as the indirect activity of God.  So to curse, resent, despise, or seek vengeance against an animal is indirectly to behave so toward God.  Ahab tacitly denies this, calling all “visible objects,” including whales, “pasteboard masks” which hide something “inscrutable,” the mysterious beyond which is precisely what Ahab hates, because whatever it is, it has defied him and not only that but seriously injured and permanently handicapped him.  He says, “that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.”  So he hates what he doesn’t understand.  But more than this, he hates it because he doesn’t understand it.  He resents the mysterious and unfathomable.

All of this is a powerful image of a man despising the mystery of the divine precisely because God defies our comprehension as well as our desire to fully control our lives.  The whale only appears to be Ahab’s nemesis, when in fact the real object of the captain’s anger and vengeance is God.  And when that is the nature of one’s wrath, then literally anything that gets in the way is a potential target, as Ahab himself expresses when he says, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”  Absurd, of course.  But it’s an apt image of the absurdity of hatred directed at God.  It is also portentous, as the reader at this point in the book—only about a third of the way in—gets the feeling that this is not going to end well.  And, of course, it doesn’t.  Both for Ahab and his crew.  Such, too, is the way of human wrath.  It only brings destruction.