Saturday, February 7, 2009

Taken review

Jaimie and I saw Taken last night, as part of our celebration of our one-year dating anniversary. We both rather wished we hadn't. It wasn't what we were hoping for, and it certainly didn't meet the expectations we had based on the feedback of others who had seen it. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of much about the movie that I ultimately like.

A brief summary (in which I will thoroughly spoil the plot): Brian Mills is a retired CIA officer - a "preventer," as he tells it - who has moved to California to be close to his turning-17-at-the-beginning-of-the-movie daughter and make up for lost time with her. He shows at her birthday party, feels overshadowed, and is finally browbeaten into letting his daughter go to Paris by his pushy and bitter ex-wife. Kim arrives in Paris, talks to an apparently friendly French guy, who gets their location and then promptly sends the rest of his kidnapping gang their way. Kim calls her dad just in time to see her travel buddy get kidnapped, and is on the phone with him when they take her. Thus, Brian has enough information to track down her kidnappers - a group of sexual slavers - to their location in Paris, where he goes in short order, hunting for Kim. The next hour of the hour-and-a-half long movie consisted almost entirely of briefly interludes of information gathering or quiet thought, punctuating long sequences of killing violence. Because Brian Mills kills everyone he can that's been involved with his daughter's kidnapping. He finds her at the end, after working his way through the boat she's being held on, and kills her purchaser even as the man holds a knife to her throat. Cue crying in dad's arms and a joyful return to America.

I can say this for the movie: it is a picture of the depth of emotion in a parent's heart, and the extremes to which a parent would go, if they could, for their children. The positives end there. For the negatives, I'll start at the least problematic and work upward.

The movie had been compared to the Bourne trilogy by various people we know. If the comparison is meant to indicate a certain similarity in the style in which the film is shot and a comparison of the levels of violence, it's an almost accurate assessment. Almost, because the violence here is at a significantly higher quotient and, where Jason Bourne kills only at the very last resort, Brian Mills has no compunctions about shooting and killing anyone involved with the crime syndicate he is hunting. While I can appreciate the desire for retribution, there is no sense in this that he is an agent of justice. This is hatred and revenge, and nothing more.

This is clear because Mills does nothing for any of the other sex slaves in the movie except one that he can get information from - who he promptly drops (as does the movie) when she's no longer relevant to getting information about Kim. He clearly has the skill set to be able to completely destroy this organization and liberate dozens, if not hundreds, of women subject to sexual slavery and drug abuse, whose lives are being destroyed by men callously taking advantage of them. And he doesn't. The movie ends on an allegedly happy note, with Kim's safe return to the United States and a slight reconciliation between Mills and his ex-wife. Kim has a part of her dream come true in meeting a famous singer and getting voice lessons. And we're supposed to cheer.

Meanwhile, hundreds of women still suffer exactly what Brian Mills killed dozens of people to keep Kim from - and he shows not a bit of concern.

It's at this point that things really start to get ugly. Sexual slavery is one of the greatest ongoing evils of our day. It's on par with genocide, and I don't say that lightly. Genocide may be larger in scale in the world as an ongoing evil - it's difficult to say, given the secrecy with which sexual slavery is practiced and the openness in which genocides must occur. But it is certain that slavery, especially sexual slavery, is at least as horrible an evil as genocide - for in a genocide, there is an end that comes in death. Sexual slavery is a living death that goes on and on, a continuing degradation, devaluation, depersonation. It doesn't get any worse.

And this movie takes it lightly. It takes it as an excuse for another shoot-em-up. It takes it as an excuse to feel good about revenge. And, worst of all, it takes it as an excuse to be sexy. The whole point of the movie is (allegedly) just how evil this sort of thing is. And yet, multiple times, women are shown on screen in very little - up to and including Kim. Admittedly, this isn't played for out and out titillation. But I have to ask: in a film supposedly addressing the issue of sexual slavery, isn't it a bit sick to show the girl kidnapped to be a sexual slave in a negligee, for any reason? And the movie does it twice, and again with other girls.

There is something horrifying in this. The movie had an opportunity to deal seriously with one of the great evils of our day. Instead, it played with it.

The problems with the movie can perhaps be summed up by the contradictions in the music. The movie alternates between quiet contemplations on piano, with occasional strings mixed in, and screaming rock music - with nothing in between and no continuity in between the two. The movie ends with a tender moment on piano between Kim and Brian... and switches immediately to a screaming rock band. And Taken can't make up its mind whether it wants to be just another movie for utter adolescents, with overwhelming violence, glorification of revenge, and overwhelming insensitivity to the actual issues raised, or a thoughtful examination of the trials of a parent's heart and the evils of sexual slavery. Had it gone with the latter, we might have had one of the most worthwhile movies of the year. Instead, we got one of the least - and I can say that confidently in a year that will no doubt be filled with dreck, because most of that dreck never had the potential to do what this could have.

A final point of irony: I find it somewhat horrifyingly ironic that the final preview before the movie began was for Miss March, another in the stream of movies glorifying Playboy. Has Hollywood no sense of decency at all? [I'm certain the answer is no.]

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Grief Observed review

Tonight I finished reading A Grief Observed, a compilation of C. S. Lewis' journals following the death of his wife, Joy Gresham. The book was first published (interestingly, under a pseudonym) in 1961. It is a short book, only 76 pages of actual text and another twenty of foreword and introduction. But it is a profound, and while not without its problems, an immensely valuable book. Lewis deals as thoroughly as one can with the topic of grieving. His intent was not to write a book on grief - for he had already done that, in The Problem of Pain, some years earlier, and these were but journal entries - but rather to give himself an outlet in which to vent some of the emotion and thought that so overcame him in that difficult period.

Lewis began his journals in the midst of deep grief and with considerable anger at God, questioning quite deeply the goodness of God and fundamentals of our relationship with Him. He ends the book in quite a different place, a very great journey to have occurred only in his heart. (In some sense, I think all the greatest journeys are within our hearts.) Each chapter marks a distinct stage in his grieving. The distinctions between individual entries in his journal are rarely clear; when they are it is because he notes that he wrote the above section an evening before or something similar. In that regard, the writing flows surprisingly well; there is immense continuity throughout the text despite the breaks in his writing.

A good deal of that must be laid at the feet of Lewis' superb prose. As elsewhere in his writing, Lewis demonstrates here - even in his journals - a masterful command of the English language, and not merely of word but of phrase and thought and metaphor. The language he employed often surprised me with its depths of insight and analogy. A few of the more prominent metaphors resonate deeply with me and continue to stir up thought and imagery even having laid the book aside. As I noted above, there is a distinct sense of continuity to the book, and a very clear narrative of Lewis' emotional and spiritual progress throughout the book.

Lewis' spiritual journey here is one to follow and learn from. He began in a very dark place indeed - questioning if God is no more than the Cosmic Sadist (his words) and lashing out in fierce anger at Him. The book's pages open with a deep self-centered-ness. His first reaction to Joy Gresham's passing was - as it would be for most of us, I suspect - not any sort of joy or contentment for her, but deep bereavement and a deep desire to have her back. For a man so deeply passionate about delighting in and enjoying God, this is a striking fact. That he then slowly moves through his pain, dealing with the passion and the intellectual problems and returning more and more to love - of her and of God - is a mark of how deep and securely rooted his faith was.

That he questioned his faith and indeed considered it no more than a house of cards marks how deep his understanding of God's work was and was becoming. For so indeed our faith is: a house of cards, built on the air, until God knocks it down and calls us to build a real house on a real foundation. As Lewis notes, so God does over and over again until we are really built on Christ.

It is worth noting three caveats on my otherwise thoroughgoing endorsement of the book. First, and this may only pertain to my edition of the text, there is a foreword by Madeleine L'Engle. Despite her considerable literary talents - I have thoroughly enjoyed much of her fiction over the years - she is hardly an orthodox Christian. Her introduction, short though it is, is filled with considerable nonsense of the postmodern variety. This is readily enough dismissed or skipped, but I thought it worth mentioning nonetheless.

Second, and more important, is the fact that Lewis himself was not perfectly orthodox. There are hints here, as elsewhere, of his struggle with a sort of universalism. And in a more general sense, as a practicing Anglican, he fell on a rather different view of various questions than we Protestants do. In particular, Lewis' thoughts on purgatory are rather pronounced throughout the book, and though they are never the point, he does spend a fair amount of time reflecting on his reasons for believing purgatory not only to exist but also to be necessary.

Finally, this is a book that requires considerable discernment and conviction. I also believe it may well be an excellent book for people questioning their faith. Lewis grappled very seriously with very difficult questions about the Christian view of the world and of God, and the early chapters are at times difficult to read. His formidable intellect was, for that brief period of time, set in very deep anger at God, and it shows. However, the final state he came to is as encouraging as the early material is discouraging. He thoroughly embraced his faith in Jesus Christ, and speaks clearly and profoundly of the glorious mystery that is belief.

I heartily recommend the book. Go read it. (Just do it discerningly!)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How Christianity Changed the World review

At long last, another book review. This afternoon, after starting it some four months ago, I finished reading Alvin Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World. The book was published in 2001 under the title Under the Influence and republished in 2004 under its current title. It sets out to document the many ways in which Jesus Christ and the religion founded in His name have changed the world. In the sense that the book chronicles almost every area impacted by Christianity, it succeeds. As a readable book, however, it fails, as I will detail.

The text is just over 400 pages long in the trade paperback edition I have - a fairly lengthy book, as befits a book attempting to deal with the topic at hand. The book is written in an attempt at a balance between an educated and conversational style. The text is neatly organized, and while there is not much coherence between chapters or even sections, they are neatly organized for reference. He moves systematically through areas that Christianity has influenced, covering people transformed, sanctity of human life, sexual morality, women's rights, charity and compassion, hospitals and health care, education, labor and economics, science, democracy, the abolition of slavery, art, music, literature, and additional influence in the form of holidays, words, symbols, and expressions. In each of these categories - covered in a chapter - Schmidt moves through the topic's history, from the advent of Christianity or just before our earliest records of Christian influence, and compiles a list of the contributions of Christianity in that particular topic.

The book's primary merit is that it demonstrates many of the ways that Christ's life has impacted the world. In particular, the early chapters do an excellent job of showing how the gospel transforms lives and thereby impacts the culture in which those lives are set.

The books demerits are as follows:

First, Schmidt's style. As noted above, the language seemed to be an attempt at mixing conversational speech with a more academic vocabulary. He would likely have been better off simply going for a conversational or an academic tone, because the actual style is rather frustrating: it's conversational in tone but overly flowery in its prose. I'm certainly no critic of flowery prose, so long as it's being put to good use. Here, it wasn't, and it simply ended up feeling over-the-top.

Annoyingly, Schmidt repeats his thesis in some way at the end of nearly every section - and the sections are often mere paragraphs long. Obviously the reason he is positing this example or that is that he feels they support his claim; repeating ad nauseum that such-and-such a thing, person, event, etc. clearly reflects Christian influence was both Rather than helping his writing's cogency, however, this simply made it feel choppy. I expected from the book an historical analysis of the ways Christianity shaped culture and history and thus the lasting impact Christ's life has had. I expected from this a demonstration of the transforming power of the gospel. What I found instead was essentially a collection of facts and conjectures about how this person or that thing might have been influenced by Christianity. A few of his points I simply disagreed with - they were stretching, and without any good reason to do so; grasping at straws doesn't help one's case here.

Next, the lack of coherence is extremely frustrating. One might be tempted to think that the repetition would help the coherence of the book, and while it does reiterate the overall theme, the actual problem here is that the sections don't flow together effectively. The main difficulty is Schmidt's sectional approach: rather than looking historically and observing how Christianity grew and flowered over the span of the last 2 millenia, he covers the same spans of history over and over again. This leads to a breakdown in cogency and some not insignificant repetition (he covers Kepler's New Astronomy and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin twice, for example).

The book also struggles to affirm the good work of Christ in parts of the church Schmidt differs with theologically. He criticizes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Calvinists throughout the book, making half-hearted apologies on their behalf at times and at others simply attacking them as wrong. While I certainly have my points of difference with different groups of Christians, I have no problem acknowledging that the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions have, by and large, done a better job with the arts than their Protestant brothers. While I certainly have no problem in dealing with those theological points of difference, there is a place and a time for them; a catalog of the ways Christianity has changed the world probably isn't it.

This struck me as particularly ironic given his own criticisms of various ways in which Christians are seeking to contribute, particularly in the arts. For example, he outright dismisses all "hard" rock as automatically anti-Christian. While I certainly share his appreciation for classical art and hymnody, making some sort of distinction - as he does - between "hard" and "soft" rock is simply silly. He quotes a virulent anti-jazz author from the 1930's, comments that he may have overreacted slightly to jazz, and then proceeds to argue that the comments are certainly applicable to all of rock music. I'm not a fan of rock. I also believe that medium impacts message. But to outright declare that a given form of music (or art, for that matter) is inherently anti-Christian strikes me as not only incorrect (which I believe it is) but also pointless.

These preceding two points can be summed up by my ultimate major criticism of the book: rather than being an informative work on the historical and sociological import of Christianity, How Christianity Changed the World ends up being primarily polemical. In nearly every chapter, Schmidt takes the opportunity to criticize this or that modern trend against Christianity. In particular, he seems thoroughly affronted by the postmodernization of America and its slow release of Christian morality. While I share his sorrow over this point, and think it will only bring the nation harm to walk away from a Christian morality, I find this troubles me for two reasons.

First, I don't think it serves the book itself terribly well: the pages would be put to better use simply showing how Christianity has changed and continues to change the world, rather than polemicizing. Second, and more importantly, I think it reflects a sad state of affairs among evangelical circles: that we are more concerned about losing our influence in the public square and about the possibility of some minor degree of persecution than we are faith-filled that God is moving and capable of bringing redemption no matter how terrible the circumstances. I do not believe it coincidence that the church in Europe has all but died, the church in America is dying, and the church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia - all places of difficulty at best and fierce opposition at worst - is growing marvelously.

In short, this is not a book I recommend. I've no doubt that Schmidt is an extremely knowledgeable and competent man. It certainly took immense time to compile the information presented here, and his background as a sociologist shows through. Unfortunately, though, that's part of the problem: this book became more a compilation of interesting sociological insights than a tracing of the impact of Christ's work in the world. How Christianity Changed the World has considerable pertinent information in it - but it also has a good deal of extraneous information and grasping at straws in it (the last chapter, on holidays and words, being a particular example of the former, and a number of agnostics who sort of reflect Christianity's impact being good examples of the latter). Christianity is stronger than that, and the deep desire to hold onto political capital reflected in this and other similar books saddens me immensely. I would much prefer that we were consumed with the ability of the gospel to change hearts than with the ability of the office to change laws. If people wish to lie about Christ, His good news, and His church, we ought not be affronted. After all, He told us as much would come to be. Rather, we ought to proclaim the truth in love and boldness, not ourselves thinking we need to somehow rescue the faith from its persecutors.