Thursday, January 19, 2006

Going on Sabbatical

FYI to loyal Eagle and Child readers:
I'm going on a sabbatical for a couple of weeks -- until the first week of February. Have some other projects that we're working on here, and need to take a break from regular writing -- I'll be back in early february to work with Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar (among other things). Until then, for you avid readers, you can check out the early archives -- see what we were writing about -- or go over to writer's read (see yesterday's post for the link). See you in February.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Off the Shelf: Uglies -- a dystopia

Hurrah, Hurrah -- this post marks my 100th post at the Eagle and Child. And to commemorate this milestone, I'll tell you about the all new weblog "Writers Read" -- Its a weblog of writers from a Christian worldview offering their reviews of books from all across the spectrum. This review of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is my latest post on the weblog, but you'll want to check out the other reviews too -- Fiction, Sociology, Leadership. It's all covered there.

Now, for the book under consideration:

Imagine, if you will, a post-apocalyptic world. Cities have become tightly controlled autonomous units, insular islands unto themselves. A new social order has emerged, purportedly to eliminate war, competition and strife. The state claims children 11-16 as their own, raising them up in a loosely controlled boarding school. Everything changes, however, when those children turn 16.

Everyone receives "the operation" on their 16th birthday -- the operation that changes them into "Pretties". The operation whitens teeth, strengthens muscles, makes skin flawless, and brings all features in conformity with pre-determined standards of beauty. The operation evens the field - eliminating the root of competition, jealousy, and strife. When everyone becomes Pretty, then no-one is ugly.

All the pre-op children are "Uglies". They live in the dormotories of Uglyville -- but Pretties live in New Pretty Town, where all the newly made Pretties party like it's 1999, so to speak. New Pretty city provides its residents a carnival of non-stop pleasure and indulgence, seemingly free of charge. After several years, the pretties receive the second operation to become "Middle Pretties" where they take on jobs, they raise children, and they appear wise, all knowing, and comforting. And in old age, they receive yet another operation to be a "late pretty" and live out your waning years in pretty retirement. This utopian culture creates bliss.

But things are not what they seem. The world of Uglies hides a dark secret. And our heroine, Tally, has this secret thrust upon her. Tally longs to be a pretty so she can be reunited with her best friend Peris, who mysteriously has cut her off completely after his operation. He never visits or calls. And when she sneaks into New Pretty City to seek him out, he appears to have changed. Soon Tally meets Shay, another pre-operative ugly, who talks about people who live in the wild outside the city -- people who run away before getting the operation -- people who reject the life of the city to live life on their own terms. The week before their 16th birthday (for they were both born on the same day), Shay disappears, and the action picks up pace. The revelation of the dark secret changes Tally's perspective on her world.

I won't spoil the rest of the plot, but it is worth knowing that Westerfeld has crafted an all-nighter read. The subject matter is not new territory: exposing the unfulfilling nature of hedonistic utopias has been well covered by Farenheit 451 and Brave New World just to name two. Westerfeld's approach for how society got to this point, however, is novel and frighteningly plausible. Also, in Tally's struggle to understand the wilderness dwellers hints at social commentary about stewardship of the earth. Christians, who are charged with stewardship of all creation, may find these hints interesting, but not terribly overpowering.

Other major themes that will appeal to Christians are the questions about substance vs. appearance, personal choice vs genetic destiny, and centralized control vs individual autonomy. Unfortunately, Westerfeld seems to excise any kind of spiritual component from his world -- simplifying his story in a way, but also missing out on the real root problem: the human sin nature. There is little in the way of Christian edification in this book, but it is a helpful lens on how a secularist dabbles with these issues.

This book is the first part of a trilogy (second part, titled Pretties, to be reviewed in a few weeks, the third part due out this May). Bottom line, this is entertaining mind candy that has just enough complexity to be a good conversation starter. It's not likely to become an enduring classic that you should keep on your shelves for years, but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Rushkoff's Testament -- a different read on Abraham

Buzz had been building for some time: media theorist Douglas Rushkoff was writing a comic book series based around stories from the Bible. This would be an edgy more mature GenX style presentation under DC's Vertigo label -- not what older generations expect from a comic book at all.

Some quick background here -- Rushkoff is a media theorist and cultural analyst. Much of his work explores the implications of current technology on culture. One of his major running themes is the subversion of coercive powers that deny the individual the capacity to make a decision.

And so he weaves his favorite themes into two parallel stories: one a retelling of Abraham taking his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him (however Rushkoff changes the story -- he writes it as though Abraham's old god, Molech, was trying to reassert control over the patriarch -- at the last minute, YHWH intervenes, providing the ram to be sacrificed); the other story takes place in a somewhat futuristic world where all young men are required to have a chip implanted in their bodies, for a quick muster to military service. In this storyline, Alan, a research scientist who helped develop the technology, wrestles with whether to ask his son to have the chip implanted -- he senses sinister forces afoot, and doesn't want to subject his son to them.

Running alongside (or "outside the frames") of both stories, we see the perspective of the deities -- Molech and Asarte converse about their frustration with YHWH's intervention in both story lines. And Asarte delivers the powerful closing line "They're just boys yet. They know nothing of the war that awaits them."

The art is pretty rich -- especially the depictions of Molech and Asarte. It has a bit of a classic mid to late 80's feel that plays into the mythic power of the story.

Here's what I like about this project -- Rushkoff takes scripture seriously. In an interview with newsarama
he says: “I’m really sick and tired of the Bible being used by fundamentalists as a way to shut down thinking and inquiry. It just stinks, and it goes against the very premise of the Bible—which is about weird revolutionaries who fight for autonomy against all sorts of oppression. I can’t help but think if any of these people actually read the Bible, they’d rise up against their ministers and smite them on the spot.

“So my big slap in the face to these fundies is to say ‘hey, the Bible isn’t so important because it happened at some moment in history. The Bible is a big deal because it’s happening now. In every moment.’ Every day, I am Cain, discouraged by the way someone else—some Abel—gets credit and attention for doing the same thing I did. We are still living in a world where the monetary system invented by Joseph and Pharaoh enslaves us in lifetimes of debt, where we lose track of our most core desires and disconnect from our compassion."

Look past his gross misunderstanding of "fundies" to the thrust of what he's saying. He's shouting out "The Bible is relevant -- it's real -- the stories apply to the reality that I live now" and I believe that by implication he's saying that God does intervene in our lives! Now this is big -- he's not rejecting faith -- he's rejecting religion that seems to have lost its power. He's rejecting pontifical figures who moralize but lack authority. But he's not rejecting God. Here we see a hungering for a faith that is participatory -- a faith that calls us to the adventure of living.

This yearning is spelled out later in the interview: "The underlying message and concern in all my work is that people come to recognize that we are creating reality, together. The world we live in is not a creation of some God—some pre-existing condition. It is a living thing. Meaning emerges through our interactions. So it’s basic ‘reality hacking,’ with a bias towards empowering people to take up their pens or brushes or computers and begin co-authoring our world."

Now here's the problem -- Rushkoff's understanding of the world is essentially dualistic -- a good and evil locked in a life and death struggle for all of eternity and we need to hop in and participate because it depends upon us. In raising great reminders, he misses some basic points -- like the point of grace -- like the point of depravity -- like the point of God's sovereignty. Rushkoff seems to think that fundamentalists (or as I prefer, "evangelicals") don't think about the mystery, don't wrestle with the bloody and naughty bits of the Bible -- and that has been an error we've fallen into. But by the same measure, Rushkoff misses out on some clear teaching of scripture that challenge the predominant cultural zeitgeist (of which he is a part): human beings are corrupted and in need of grace; God doesn't need us for anything.

Contra to common assumptions -- evangelicals love mystery and paradox -- and Rushkoff misses this. We believe in human depravity but also in human dignity (made in the image of God). We believe that God doesn't need us, but he delights in our actions of faithfulness. We beleive that God is fully sovereign, but that humans are free agents who are responsible for their actions. We believe that evil must be opposed and resisted, but that God's ultimate victory is secure.

So even though I think the theology is way off, I'll be reading Rushkoff's series with interest -- probably with a wry smile. It'll be an interesting sci-fi story, if nothing else. It'll probably engender scads of misunderstandings about scripture that I'll have to deal with. But it will also challenge people to take the living God seriously. And fot that reason alone, it will be worth following.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Weblog Awards -- Christians, get active in the web sphere

OK this is your chance -- do this and act now!

Nominations for the 2006 Bloggie Weblog awards are being accepted -- this is an opportunity for Christians to say "We care about quality content on the web too"

Go to the site and look at the categories for the awards and then nominate some of your favorite blogs. Please don't take this as a shameless act of begging for a nomination -- I really don't think that my stuff is published nearly often enough nor do I edit and design well enough to truly qualify:

But there are great Christian blogs that do:
Check out JollyBlogger
or the Evangelical Outpost
or Tall Skinny Kiwi
or A Practice in Belief
or Blogs 4 God

These are some of the blogs that are on my "must read" list -- I subscribe via Bloglines and read the updated feeds all together in one place.

Now this is in keeping with my earlier post about Web 2.0 -- encouraging Christians to engage the culture in a friendly way by standing up and say "Hi there, we're here and we're not demons trying to bite your heads off". In some ways, each of us needs to be an apologist to the culture -- for they think we're narrow minded bigots, rather than people of conviction who long to live lives of faithfulness. So let's show them some of our best stuff, and see where the chips fall!

Also, this is a great opportunity to share your favorite blogs with your friends. I just shared five of my favorites with you. Why not pick 5 of your favorite people and email them to tell them about 5 of your favorite blogs (and this is where I hope the Eagle and Child might make the cut :) ). Let's spread the word about good stuff that is going on out there in the Christian blogosphere.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

Lust! Sex! Adultery and illicit carnal desire. Now that I have your attention, Please understand that I'm gearing up for the next Gospel According to Shakespeare class on Jan 18. I've been chewing on Antony and Cleopatra for about a month, and now I'm going back through it one more time to get some ideas down. And the big idea for today is: Lust.

The basic story goes as follows -- following their victory, Octavius Casar, Mark Antony, and Lepidus divide the world among themselves. Antony chooses Egypt and the East, where he falls for the seductive and wily Cleopatra. Antony begins to shirk his duties as a Roman ruler -- and when war breaks out, he is recalled from Egypt by Octavius. The three rulers unite again to defeat a rebellion, but seeds are sown for the three to be cut down to one. Octavius takes on Lepidus and wins. Then conflict arises between Octavius and Antony, resulting in the war that results in Antony's death and Cleopatra's suicide.

Sounds like a military story, right? True -- and we'll get to some of the themes of power another time. But lust is what drives Antony's action (and inaction) Act I pretty well establishes that Antony's relationship with Cleopatra has sapped his strength -- even from the first speech, given by one of Antony's soldiers:

"Nay but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters fo the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's lust. Look where they come.
Take but good note, and you shall see him
The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet's fool...." (1.1.1-14)

Again in scene 4 we find Ceasar in an extended complaint about Antony's behavior, concluding that he has become "...A man who is th' abstract of all faults/ That all men follow." (1.4.10-11). He's wasting away -- all for the love of Cleopatra.

Now romantic critics have charged that Shakespeare's intent is to show that the adulterous love affair with Cleopatra is but Antony and Cleopatra being true to themselves. The stern, sterile Roman way is often contrasted with the sensual and seductive Egyptian way -- and romantic critics almost always come down on the side of Egypt. They claim that Cleopatra has a mystic power of reinvention of reality. And they back it up with some nifty stuff.

However, this first act pretty well sets the tone. Cleopatra comes off more like a whiny and overprotective cheerleader who's trying to steal someone else's boyfriend. Her first line is "If it be love indeed, tell me how much." Please -- these "I love you more" games aren't the stuff of love -- they're the stuff of childish infatuation. Then, even as she entreats Antony to do his job and receive the ambassadors from Rome, she insults Antony's wife, Fulvia and "scarce-bearded Ceasar". Later we see her playing mind games with Antony just for fun: "See where he is, who's with him, what he does....If you find him sad, Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report that I am sudden sick." This is not exactly the height of maturity.

Believe me, I'm not against games and professions of love. They have their place in a healthy relationship based on deep committment -- indeed they are vital expressions of something deeply held within. However the common error is to suppose that the expressions are the thing itself. I suggest that Cleopatra is simply playing at love because she doesn't really understand the depth of what it actually is. Instead, she's more like the temptress of Proverbs 5: "For the lips of an adulturess drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave. She give no thought to the way of life; her paths are crooked, but she knows it not...Keep to a path far from her....lest you give your best strength to others and your years to one who is cruel....At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and your body are spent. You will say 'How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned correction!....'" And Antony seems to recognize this as he consults with his right hand man Enobarbus "I must from this enchanting queen break off. Ten thousand harms more than the ills I know my idleness doth hatch."

On top of this, Shakespeare gives us, in scene two of the first act, a comic scene with a soothsayer predicting death and doom for Cleopatra and Antony. Shakespeare is almost setting us up to have a visual parable of Proverbs 5.

Shakespeare's genius, however, is in making Cleopatra sound so good. It's well known that a part of Shakespeare's background was in viewing the medeival morality plays that portrayed an individual caught between Vice personified and Virtue personified. Shakespeare is famous for taking the stock chracters of these medeival morality plays and putting flesh on them and making them real people who are seductive and compelling (his villans are often more compelling than his heroes). Here he's done the same -- taken the personifcation of Lust and made her a real person who is funny and playful, affectionate, able to be hurt. We get seduced by her too -- we know she's bad for us, but we can't help but like her in a way. There's his genius -- he's not preaching a sermon, he's writing a story about very flawed characters who operate in a moral universe where there are consequences for actions.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Shakespeare talk lights your fire, you might also be interested in my Squidoo Lens on Shakespeare and Christian Themes