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Book of Nature, Episode 2: Science vs. Scientism

Todd Pedlar

Galileo_facing_the_Roman_InquisitionEpisode 2: Science vs. Scientism

In the second episode, Todd Pedlar hosts a discussion of an important distinction for scientists of any kind, let alone Christians who are active in the disciplines of science.  That is, the distinction between science and scientism. Several major figures in science who have popular appeal promote a kind of “science worship” that many who practice science, both Christian and non-Christian alike, find objectionable. Today we explore some of this territory. A few of the major landmarks for Episode 2 are:

  • Silly banter about weather and Canadian Thanksgiving
  • Dan sets the stage, defining our subject: Science and Scientism
  • Charles lays out the critical distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism
  • The trio pontificates on The Scientific…er…Method
  • Charles ponders the peculiar power of presuppositions: how one’s prior commitments impact the way one practices scientific inquiry, and potentially even the results of one’s studies
  • How Far is Too Far in Science? The threats that scientism represents for Christians in the sciences and for the general population
  • Concluding Thoughts

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #148: The Fisher King

Michial Farmer

the-fisher-king1Mea Culpa: In this episode, I (Michial) say that Amanda Plummer is British. In fact, she is the daughter of Christopher Plummer and is therefore American/Canadian. I still hate her accent in this movie.

* * *

Michial Farmer leads David Grubbs and Nathan Gilmour into the semester’s trilogy of episodes on Robin Williams movies with a conversation about The Fisher King. As the trio digs into a story that’s as much a media ecology as a medieval appropriation, Dante resurfaces (again) as the trio explores the salvation of Jack Lucas.

Christian Humanist Profiles 16: Fairy-Tale Levity

David Grubbs

Victorian preacher and author George MacDonald has, especially among Christian readers, a serious MacDonaldreputation. Both for his seriously meditative fantasy novels, beloved of C.S. Lewis and others, and his seriously moralizing realistic novels, beloved of Oswald Chambers and others, MacDonald has earned a reputation as a high-minded and imaginative Christian thinker. However, Daniel Gabelman argues that all this focus on the serious misses the point, that there is a lightness at the heart of MacDonald’s work that is best seen not in his novels, but in his fairy tales. Today on Christian Humanist Profiles, we’ll be talking with Daniel Gabelman about his book, George MacDonald: Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity.

My Colleague J.R.R. Tolkien: A Review of Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation

Nathan P. Gilmour

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

425 pp. Houghton MIfflin Harcourt. $28.00

There’s a special kind of joy that fills the air when a group of people, who share a certain sort of niche interest, get exciting news about their common niche.  Such are the moments that make me glad that Twitter is around, and they’re the infrequent moments when I might know something big before my students do.

Back in the spring of 2014, just such a moment occurred on a weekend, during a semester when I was teaching Beowulf in the original.  (Yes, I did just dream-class drop there.)  First Twitter lit up, then I checked Houghton Mifflin’s website to make sure it was true.  And sure enough, Christopher Tolkien, who has been releasing nuggets of his father’s work every once in a while to the dragon-loving public, was scheduled to publish his father’s translation of Beowulf.

Spring of 2014 was my first attempt to teach Beowulf in Old English, and Tolkien was already an undeniable presence in the room.  Although we never manufactured rubber bracelets for the occasion, we often wondered what Tolkien would to with particularly difficult passages, with apparent references to other myths, and with the poetic style of the poem in general.  Seamus Heaney was our text-at-hand, with which we contended and disputed, but Tolkien’s Beowulf was the legend against which we measured our own efforts.

Christopher Tolkien had, it seemed, rendered that exercise moot.  I’ve already talked to freshman English majors who know Tolkien’s translation as the standard Beowulf, and I before I read the volume for myself I feard that, even in a field already crowded by Roy Liuzza and Seamus Heaney and the unfortunate Doug Wilson (whose Beowulf hit the shelves mere months before the Tolkien announcement, ruining his chances of being a serious contender to Heaney) and all of their industrious modern-English predecessors, Tolkien’s stands to become the standard, largely on the strength of his renewed, Peter-Jackson-augmented reputation.  Fortunately, the nature of this volume abated that fear rather quickly.

Not the Translation I Feared

Tolkien never set out to publish a translation of the Beowulf, but he did write lecture notes.  The process of putting this volume together, according to the front matter, involved putting together three sets of lecture notes from his Old English Literature courses, putting together a prose translation of the poem based on the passages that he prepared for reading to classes and choosing between lecture-versions where that was appropriate.  The translated poem, then, is a critical text of sorts, stitched together from several notes and never, in its own terms, a unified literary work.  Thus unlike Liuzza’s and Heaney’s and Wilson’s, Tolkien’s translation is in prose, not in alliterative verse.  That alone made me feel better for the Beowulf-translators of the last thirty years: since there is no alliterative Tolkien, none of them will have to compete with an alliterative Tolkien.

Instead, the text that Christopher Tolkien published reads far less like a passage from Lord of the Rings than my own Old English students sometimes produce when translating medieval warrior-poems.  The premium instead is on producing clauses to match the original clauses, even if that means sentences that, in modern-English order, lack some of the driving cadence of the alliterative verse.

Some of Tolkien’s choices, in fact, struck me, as I read, as positively prosaic, a fault if he were writing a poem or a novel but perfectly sensible for a set of lecture notes.  Beowulf is surrounded by “knights” instead of “thanes” in Tolkien’s notes, no doubt an accommodation for students who would think of MacBeth and never go further if they saw the latter.  Likewise, showing some concern to connect the poem to surrounding mythologies, Grendel and his mother are often called “ogre” and “troll,” words that don’t necessarily alliterate well but situate the poem in a very particular historical moment.  Finally, and most noticeably for me, the signature Beowulf-word Wyrd always gets translated as “Fate” in Tolkien’s version, making some of the most famous lines in the poem sound far less like a Gandalf-saying than what I’ve heard my own students produce (always in some variation of Ian McKellan’s delivery) for my classes.

The big picture is this: Tolkien’s version is not meant to stand alone, as Heaney’s or Liuzza’s does so well, so much as it’s there as a sort of friendly guide for students trying to engage with the original Old English text.  For that purpose it’s really quite good, and I’ll likely use it as just such a help next time I teach the poem.

The Beowulf Conversation

The translation isn’t really where the gold is, though: Christopher Tolkien has also published extensive selections from the surrounding lecture notes, providing the sort of conversation-matter that makes translating big texts to interesting.  At every turn Tolkien is the consummate literary scholar: he’s aware of arguments running counter to his own, and he has arguments for why he’s not convinced.  Sometimes he even provides histories of his own mind-changes, but even when he doesn’t, Tolkien’s awareness of the places where language and culture and literature intersect are nothing short of gold, the sort of thing one might expect when one peruses a master professor’s notes.  Rather than deal in generalities or make this post a summary of more than 200 pages of commentary, I’ll offer a sample of three points that especially interested me, with the understanding that other folks will find other bits more central and others less so:

  1. Early in the commentary, Tolkien offers up an argument for why he renders the son of Scyld Scefing “Beow” when the extant text clearly has him named “Beowulf.”  (I wondered, as I read this section, whether the tradition of naming Sceafing’s son “Beow” in modern English translations has some fairly deep roots in Tolkien’s lectures at Oxford.)  After acknowledging that he stands against common translation practice in doing so, ultimately he holds that “Sceaf” and “Beow,” both harvest-terms, seem to fit better with the genealogy-of-providers that leads to Hrothgar, and besides that, there are sources in other medieval legends that make a Beow the son of Sceaf, making a scribal blunder, inserting “Beowulf” where “Beow” should have gone, more likely than an otherwise-unheard-of Beowulf of the Danes (143-44).  I used to leave the name “Beowulf” in my own translations; I’m fairly certain I’ll render it “Beow” in the future.
  2. On a lighter note, Tolkien notes the friendly tone of Beowulf’s greeting to Hrothgar, “wes thu Hrothgar hal” (pardon the lack of thorns in this post) when compared to modern conversational greetings.  I just have to quote directly: “They wished you good health on meeting you; we merely enquire after the symptoms: ‘how do you do?'” (222)  This, O reader, is the sort of joke that I make when teaching old texts.  Heck, I’m already looking forward to using it when I teach this passage in the spring of 2016!
  3. In a section that could have helped me as a grad student and which stands to help my own students, Tolkien offers some strong warnings about the term wyrd as characters and the narrator use them in the poem.  The presence of a word in a poem, Tolkien notes, does not mean that it occupies a central place in the poet’s “theology” (243).  He draws comparisons to modern fortune-sayings as well as noting the tautology (and wyrd-diminishing character) of the most famous wyrd-passages.  In short, where the beginning translator might see such a weird word (how long did you think I could resist that?) and make it the point of the passage, Tolkien reminds the same that one should discover, not impose, the central elements in any poem.

I’m not sure that I’m going to assign this as a textbook to accompany Klaeber’s Beowulf for my Old English students, but even if I don’t, I imagine I’ll be consulting it as we make our way through the poem.

Bonus Features

The end of the volume has a couple extras that Tolkien fans might appreciate.  In addition to his (rather professorly) translation of Beowulf, the volume contains an unpublished version of the Sellic Spell, a prose narrative roughly based on the Grendel and Grendel’s-Mother segments of Beowulf.  (Yes, I too thought that Sellic Spell sounds like the sort of magical help that Gandalf might offer to a young hero trying to grow an especially cool mustache.)  In his tale, which reads far more like the “Tolkien’s Beowulf” that I imagined than Tolkien’s Beowulf actually does, the young hero Bee-Wolf, along with his companions Hand-Shoe and Ash-Wood (what would a Tolkien tale be without traveling companions?) travels to the court of the King of the North to do battle against Grinder, a monster who has been troubling his court.  The prose though here is far more Tolkienish than the Beowulf is, and all in all it’s great fun.

The volume finishes with “The Lay of Beowulf,” a poem in rhymed verse, a nice finishing touch that reminds a reader that Tolkien was a poet and a storyteller as well as a scholar and reminds someone like me that Tolkien stands in the tradition of teaching medieval literature as a well-respected colleague, neither an inspired prophet nor merely “another medievalist” but someone whose choices, when I would make the same and when I wouldn’t, make up a scholarly personality, a friend whose work can stand in relationship with my own as any master teacher’s can with a younger teacher’s.  For all that, I’ll say (in words that don’t echo Tolkien’s Beowulf, it turns out), that was a good professor!

As a closing note, I wish to thank Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy, which came with no guarantee of a positive review, and Kristen Fillipic, the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s press liason, for navigating HMH’s rather labyrinthine communications apparatus to make the request.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #147: H.P. Lovecraft

Michial Farmer

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934David Grubbs gets spooky with Michial Farmer and Nathan Gilmour as the trio discusses the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Conversations range from literary influence to biological racism, with some discussions on artistic imagination thrown in for good measure. The stories at the core of the conversation are “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Arthur Jermyn,” and “Pickman’s Model.”

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode 13: Christian Women and Leaning In

Victoria Farmer

Knowing

  • A quick bio of Sheryl Sandberg
  • The birth and spread of the Lean In brand
  • Media responses

Reading

  • Our experiences of women in authority (with bonus introduction to our newest panelist, Nora!)
  • Does Lean In challenge or reinforce current social norms?
  • Lean In and Christianity
  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/may/who-you-calling-brusque.html?paging=off

Passing On

  • http://books.google.com/books?id=1fIVD8Hf-e4C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • http://banbossy.com/
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwrXC5OXqgc
  • http://leanin.org/book/
  • http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/04/the-confidence-gap/359815/
  • https://www.ted.com/topics/women

Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Section 3: Philosophical Investigations Sections 53-86

Nathan P. Gilmour

Want to read along with us? Get Philosophical Investigations from amazon.com.

Emmanuel College’s Wittgenstein group meets today, which means I’m behind on getting the latest blog post up here.  So it goes.  As with previous posts, numbers refer to section numbers, not page numbers.

The Persistence and Boundaries of Concepts

When something stops existing as its intelligible self (for instance, today’s newspaper might burn in a fire, or the pencil that I found might break in half), folks retain the capacity to talk about that object.  In fact, if a blue piece of paper burns in a fire and stops being blue, folks can still talk about “blue,” even if said piece of paper were the last blue object to which they had ready access.

That we can imagine such scenarios, Wittgenstein suggests, means that “blue” has some kind of intelligible role in our language that doesn’t fit a simplistic “correspondence” theory, in which words name things, and words that don’t name things are simply nonsense (56).  Memory can’t be the measure of a concept’s validity either, as a bit of thought can conjure a scenario, one in which the blue paper is the last blue thing anyone sees for a generation, in which “blue” as a concept stops functioning within a language (57).  Instead, to say that blue exists as a concept is not necessarily to posit some metaphysical extra-linguistic existence for “blue” but merely to say that if we say that “blue” exists, “then it is not a sentence which treats of X, but a sentence about our use of language, that is, about the use of the word X” (58).  There’s little surprise, reading this section, that Lyotard considers Wittgenstein one of the precursors of the postmodern condition: Wittgenstein does not assert that there is nothing beyond the linguistic (that would be presumptuous) but simply notes that, as long as we’re communicating, the medium is always part of the picture.

The same holds for our concepts of simple and complex realities, a question that arose earlier and gets even more treatment in this section.  Wittgenstein’s paradigm sentence for this exploration is “My broom is in the corner” (60).  What if, Wittgenstein muses, someone would replace that assertion with “A stick and a brush, arranged just so, are in the corner,” or even better, “Wood-bark particles, the products of eukaryotic cells of a certain order, stand in a certain geometrically apprehendable order next to two drywall planes, supported in space by several hundred straws, each of whose properties I will now recite”?  A certain view of language says that each step of analysis in that series is inherently contained “within” the first and that each step of analysis will disclose more about the reality than the one before.  But the more analyzed such a statement becomes, the more removed it gets from the lived contexts in which brooms actually exist as brooms (60–I recognize that I’m shading into Heidegger here).  Ultimately Wittgenstein suggests, without pronouncing propositionally, that an analyzed statement, one paying attention to the atomized elements, loses some of its sense even as it gains another sense (63).  So once more Wittgenstein insists on holding onto two truths, each of which seems to contradict the other: on one hand, treating assertions as infinitely susceptible to analysis loses out on some of the holism inherent in the ways that language actually operates.  On the other, analysis does allow for language to do jobs that un-analyzed, everyday speech doesn’t do.

Family Reunions, Philosophy-Style

Philosophical Investigations turns next to categorical propositions, statements that might be true or false about this or that entity.  Wittgenstein admits that his examinations, up to this point, have resisted the urge to assert one proposition or even one set of propositions that would establish a singular, systematic way to think of what language is (65).  As he proceeds, he proposes an alternative, namely that philosophy does better work not when it asserts theses about reality, then explains how reality fits those theses, but rather reverses the process, looking closely at the ways that category-words actually work (66).  His prime example here is the category “game.”  Board-games share certain things in common but lack other stretches of common ground that ball-games share, and competitive games share common ground that a game of telephone doesn’t.  Yet, in everyday language, folks talk about all of the above things as “games” without much balking.

Instead of a single, global proposition saying what a game is and what a game is not, Wittgenstein suggests the image of “family resemblances” (67) as a tool to think about such things.  Just as, with a rope, no single fiber constitutes the whole thing, but a rope comes into recognizable form when several fibers overlap and twist together and such, so games do not submit to a single categorical explanation but instead relate to each other in ways that language maps with a network of connections.

Within this model, rules still stand important, even if they’re not universal matters; after all, tennis as a game has definite rules, even if there’s no rule (inherent to the game itself–there might be unstated expectations about showing off) governing how high one tosses the ball when one serves (68).  Likewise, unless the question “what is a game?” or “what is language” comes up, few people have any urge to draw boundaries around the set called “games,” even if we’re quite capable of doing so if a given situation calls for such a thing (69).  Finally, Wittgenstein insists that definitions themselves are tools that become useful only in moments of abstraction, not as a matter of prior groundwork before language can be useful (70).  Once again, Wittgenstein neither lapses into an overarching relativism (“There are no definitions!”) nor into a newly-formulated notion of language as a rules-system.  Instead, he grants that philosophical and grammatical rules have their place, and he tries to pay close attention precisely to those moments when they do become helpful.

Knowing, Saying, and Ball-Games

The last section we read for last meeting (we go in 15-page segments, so sometimes the subject matter gets a bit jumbled) has to do with relationships between theorizing about language and how language works when we’re not theorizing.  In  another brief but thought-provoking bit, he notes that “to know” only corresponds with “to say” in some, not all, valid uses of “to know.”  So he provides these three ways that folks “know”:

how many metres [sic.] high Mount Blanc is

how the word “game” is used

how a clarinet sounds (78)

The third one assumes that knowing something and being able to speak or write that knowledge fits very nicely with the first and not at all with the third.  (Not untypically, he doesn’t really say with regards to the middle one.)  Thus constructing theories about relationships between knowing and saying works quite well with segments of language and not at all with others.  Such is the ongoing project of Wittgenstein, to note that neither rule-abolition nor rule-refinement will encompass the ways that language actually happens; the ongoing project is to look and see and to pay attention.  And with that, I leave you, O reader, with a wee excerpt from Philosophical Investigations, section 85:

A rule stands there like a signpost. — Does the signpost leave no doubt about the way I have to go?  Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it, whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country?  But where does it say which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (for example) in the opposite one? [...] So I can say that the signpost does after all leave room for doubt.  Or rather, it sometimes leaves room for doubt, and sometimes not.

 

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #146.1: Listener Feedback

Nathan P. Gilmour

David and Nathan answer your listener emails today while Michial assesses outcomes for woman-reading-a-letter-woman-in-blue-reading-a-letter-300x300his college.

[04:11] Let your sins be strong?
[10:21] Robert Louis Stevenson
[13:41] Some episode suggestions from Australia
[19:25] Suburban corrections
[23:53] Thomas and the Ontological Argument
[32:35] Thomas and the Cosmological Argument
[38:44] Christian Humanist pilgrimages
[44:00] Neil Postman and the value of the academic essay
[48:15] Amusing Ourselves to Death cartoon
[50:48] A recent iTunes review

God’s Not Dead: Some Untimely Thoughts

Nathan P. Gilmour

It’s a pity to waste a sloppy story.

That’s what I couldn’t stop thinking after finishing up God’s Not Dead, a recent film that’s made some waves among Christians on the Internet.  As with most movies that I see, I saw this one much later than the real Internet pundits, who seem to have disposable income and affordable night-time child care in place to allow for viewing new movies.  Instead, I picked up a DVD copy yesterday at a local Red Box kiosk and watched it, in 20-minute segments (it really is a bad movie, and besides that, I had work to do, so I watched the movie when I got tired of real work), and returned it this morning.

I’ll pause here and say that Red Box makes me sad the same way that iTunes does: one of my own rites of passage as a teenager involved getting comfortable enough with myself to go into record stores (Karma Music in Avon, Indiana) and video stores (there were several in my hometown) and announce myself as someone who watched and listened to this rather than that.  Such self-announcement used to be part of the process of being a pop-culture consumer then in ways that it’s just not any more.  Seems to me that removing those minimum-wage, early-twenties gatekeepers from the process has deprived folks younger than me of one small monster to slay.  But I should get back to my essay here.

Coyle Neal has already written a better review of the film than I could hope to do, one that mentions Michial Farmer’s rant about the corresponding song, but I do think I might have something to add because of sheer contingency (which suits me just fine, of course.)  The good luck of watching this movie on my schedule rather than the movie theater’s is that I saw the movie just as my upper-division literature students reached the midpoint of Goethe’s Faust A student of mine (not in this semester’s course) recently wrote a paper arguing that Goethe’s artistry in Faust is precisely to take every tenet of neoclassicism and violate it, one after the other, for the enjoyment of those reading and watching the play.  I think he might be right.  And even beyond that, the strange side-scenes, whether we’re talking about the Walpurgisnacht masque or the talking monkeys in the witch’s kitchen or the prologue in the theater or the over-long tavern scene in Leipzig or any of the other lovely digressions, give the play chances to explore questions that are tangential to the main Faust-plot as well as simply to give Goethe chances to try out weird scenes.  All in all, Faust has me convinced that a sloppy story has its own excellence, the exploration of side-threads, just as an energetic and unified story, the sort that an eighteenth-century Classicist would praise, has its own kind of excellence. One is not a deficient version of the other; they’re different species, each with its own potential to be really good storytelling and each with the potential not to do much.

And so, when I watched God’s Not Dead, I didn’t take as deficient artistic editing the micro-narratives of the Muslim girl with the racial-stereotypically violent father, the atheist stock broker who treats women as Newt Gingrich might, the tale of Willy Robertson and the liberal blogger, and the adventures of the magical African and his White buddy with good youth minister hair.    Instead, I lamented them as wasted opportunities, chances gone by to do some serious reflection on each other and on the main storyline, namely the clash of the plucky evangelical college freshman (played by Shane Harper) and the atheist college professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) who doesn’t seem to talk to fellow adults about anything but plucky evangelical college freshmen.  But first, let’s get the spoiler-alert out of the way, just in case there’s anyone who hasn’t been over to the Red Box yet.

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

Alright.  That’s out of the way, and I can comment now on some of the opportunities to explore real complexities of faith that the movie just slid by, despite being nearly two painful hours long:

  • The character Ayisha is a young Muslim woman whose father in the film is the bald, bulky, violent, unforgiving caricature of an Arab Muslim that would make Sam Harris and Bill Maher nod in approval.  Hers is a side story in which she apparently converts to Christianity by listening to audio Bible files and Franklin Graham sermons on her mobile digital device.  Her story line culminates when her father beats her and throws her out of the house for refusing to say that God is not begotten (which one could say of the Father within the confines of Christian theology, to be fair), after which she goes to Pastor Dave (who has good youth minister hair) and then drifts out of the story entirely, to make a cameo at the Newsboys concert at the end of the film.

    The missed opportunity here is to examine the structures of story and that of Josh Wheaton, the plucky evangelical college freshman.  In one case, the character risks rejection on the part of her family because she rejects the religious tradition in which she grew up.  That’s a compelling story.  In Wheaton’s story, the protagonist risks academic disaster for holding to the religious tradition in which he grew up.  Also a compelling story, but where’s the reflection on which childhood traditions are worth keeping and which one must reject if one comes upon new and compelling ideas?Not in this film, I’m afraid.Both characters make potentially (or actually) life-altering decisions with regards to long-running religious communities, but the logo on the jersey seems to be enough for the film-makers.  No more time gets spent on the rather important existential question of how we relate to the communities into which we’re reared.  And perhaps more importantly, the film dedicates none of its 114 minutes to saying what happens to Ayisha after the Newsboys concert.

  • The character Mina, who is a visual double for Ayisha (skinny straight-haired brunette with dark eyes and a perpetual look of longing and disappointment–it took me entirely too long to realize these were different characters, since all the women in this film dress alike), cares for her mother, who has lost her mind to dementia, while her atheist-philosophy-professor boyfriend, Radisson (who’s too busy talking about plucky evangelical college freshmen to care about old people) and her atheist-stock-broker brother (who’s too busy breaking up with girlfriends diagnosed with cancer to care about old people) either refuse to visit or visit only at the end of the film.  When the professor belittles her in front of his colleagues at a philosophy-department dinner party (where the conversation consists entirely of Radisson’s aspirations to become the department chair and–you guessed it–plucky evangelical college freshmen), she leaves him and also ends up at the Newsboys concert, where her story ends.

    Once again, the potential for some real soul-searching scenes lay right in front of the film-makers, but they walked past.  In what ways has her long emotional and sexual relationship with an atheist (I assume they’ve had sex–though the film never gets near that one, she’s supposed to have gotten together with him during her undergraduate years, and if her mother’s age is any indication, they’ve been together for at least a decade) affected her view of other Christians and herself as a woman of faith?  What will she do with her life after apparently being nothing but a trophy girlfriend to a really bad professor for a decade?  (I can only assume that there’s going to be some sort of new-monastic get-together after the roadies pack the band up to head to the next city, and all the characters whose lives have fallen apart, unlike Josh Wheaton’s, will find some organic farm to work together.)

  • The students in Radisson’s philosophy class have their own narrative arc, and it’s not a pretty one.  In a class of roughly eighty, only one student (in a college that’s walking distance from a concert venue that fills up with college-age people for a Newsboys concert) won’t write “God Is Dead” at the beginning of the movie, yet by the end, because of three student-delivered lectures with increasingly slick PowerPoint backgrounds (the last lecture gets up to megachurch-Sunday-service quality, I’m telling you), when they detect that their professor is weak enough to pounce on, they all rise and shout “God’s Not Dead!” at their atheist professor, who exits in shame just a bit before dying in the most spectacular bullet-time, dying-philosophy-professor shot you’ll see in a movie this year.

    As Coyle Neal notes, the demographics of the scenario are nothing short of dizzying, and beyond that, these are apparently students who will make life-or-death switches of allegiance with very little provocation.  Once again, the movie could have taken some time to follow some of these students, say, into the weekend, in which their new commitments come under the real threats to American faith, boredom and vice.  After all, Christian virtue is all about constancy, right?  But no, I imagine they all just got scalped tickets to the Newsboys show and drifted out of the film’s range of concern.

    By the way, and I have to mention this, rain is pouring down during the beginning of the death-of-the-professor scene, but a couple cuts back and forth to the Newsboys-concert sequence later, the rain has stopped, and Pastor Dave, who has just taken Radisson’s death-bed (or death-street, if you insist on being literal) confession, once more has good youth-minister hair.  This is a movie that features many miracles, people!

  • Amy, the liberal blogger and one-time girlfriend of Marc Shelley, the atheist stock broker whose love life resembles Newt Gingrich’s, reveals in two separate scenes that she can only write interview questions pulled from the fantasies of evangelical apologetics-conference leaders (“Do you really think Jesus is God?”  “Are you really going to sing songs about the Bible?”) but undergoes a moment of crisis in between her interviews with Willie Robertson and with Michael Tait when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Although this seems like a stereotypical slasher-movie trope, namely punishing the immoral girl, this one gets the closest to a moment of reflection when Amy’s brother Marc (the atheist stock broker played by Dean Cain, which means that Hercules and Superman are the two major atheists in this movie), late in the movie, talks to his mother, the one who has lost her mind, and tells her that if there’s a God, that being doesn’t think twice about giving righteous old women dementia while their immoral atheist sons get promoted to lucrative jobs, pile up cash, and dump young girlfriends when they get cancer.  I’ll admit that, as this scene rolled on, I was going to write the review of this film defending its theological depth, that they’d worked in a genuine Job-scene in the midst of all of the praise-song theology.

    Then the scene kept rolling.

    At the close of the scene, the mother has a sudden moment of lucidity and tells Marc that sometimes the devil lets people enjoy success so that they never feel the need to turn to God.  The wicked might prosper, but it’s not God who gives good things but Satan.  (By this point in the film, I was numb enough not to care that Satan was dispensing good things.)  So no, there won’t be a Job moment here.  Sorry, Bible-readers.

    But wait, I thought, we’ve already watched a scene in which Willie Robertson admits to being wildly successful and filthy rich.  Perhaps we’ll get a meditation on the difficulty for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, right?  Since Robertson is also rolling in cash, and since the movie went out of its way to point that out, there’s going to be a meditation on God and Mammon at some point, right?

    No, not so much.

    Instead we get one last cameo of Robertson, appearing from the ribs up on a jumbotron behind Michael Tait (and yes, judge me if you must, but it reminded me of the “Cult of Personality” video from Living Colour), congratulating young Josh Wheaton on his defense of the faith in his introduction to philosophy class.  In a fairly straight-forward visual sense, he’s the larger-than-life voice from the digital heavens, congratulating a faithful servant on a job well done.By this point in the movie, in case you’re wondering, the writers seem to have given up on plot, as a concept, entirely: somehow not only the Newsboys but also the cast of Duck Dynasty knew what was going on in local college classrooms, and all of the Christian characters from all of the subplots, except for Pastor Dave, who has good youth minister hair, had converged on the Newsboys concert and were within two rows of each other, in all of their Dickensian genealogy-linked goodness.  At that point I was ready to accept all of this.

I won’t pretend at this point that I’m not having fun pointing out the bad plotting, bad character development, and the occasional bout of outright bigotry at the heart of this film.  It really was the worst movie I watched for some time, and I genuinely fear the day that someone makes a movie with these sorts of messages but does so with the cinematic acumen of a Kubrick or a Tarantino.  But I also want to maintain that the very sloppiness of the movie is what makes it especially disappointing.  The raw materials for some genuinely interesting meditations on faith, culture, the consequences of human beings’ choices were there, but the film-makers were too busy trying to drive home one particular vision of the world to explore them.  It’s a pity, really–they had a really sloppy story going there.

File Migration on 9 October: A Little Patience, Please

Nathan P. Gilmour

Howdy, all.

If you’re having trouble downloading episodes of The Christian Humanist Podcast this morning, that’s because we’re waiting for all of our distribution vehicles (FeedBurner, iTunes, Stitcher, and such) to re-populate after a file migration.  We wanted to tidy up our file system (which was fine back when we had one show, but four or five make things more complicated) for the benefit of everyone who works on the project, and so we have.

I’ve tested the root xml file, and it links to episodes properly.  Full accessibility should be back by this afternoon, if not sooner.

Thank you for your patience, and I’ll suggest that you check out one of our other fine shows while you wait!

NPG