A Catholic Daredevil

Having just finished the first season today, I was pleased to find this insightful piece at Slate on Netflix’s new series Marvel’s Daredevil. The article explains, “To really understand Daredevil—both the comic book and the new show—you need to understand his Catholicism.” And they are right. The show “tries to reconcile the lawyer who defends the law with the Daredevil who breaks it. Murdock’s brutal justice is more than his way of taking personal responsibility for the sins of others; it’s his way of atoning for his own. Murdock’s real superpower, and also his biggest foe, is his Catholicism.” The article concludes, “Daredevil is far from the perfect superhero. He makes mistakes. He doesn’t have “an iron suit or a magic hammer.” And his relentless sacrifice night after night, his ability to gain strength from his weaknesses, and his guilt over the terrible things he does to bring justice to Hell’s Kitchen may not make him the perfect Catholic either, but they do make his faith an ever greater superpower than his heightened senses.” While religious convictions or mere leanings tend to show up in passing in film (unless it is portrayed negatively), their is a healthy dose of confession, the priest, and empty, post-Mass churches throughout the first season. There are frank questions about morality and spirituality between Murdock and the priest. And while it may not be earth-shattering, I sense a kind of metaphysical longing and pondering on Murdock’s part throughout the series. The show’s title sequence features a red liquid (wax or even blood?) that creates numerous images, which are linked to the three elements that shape Daredevil: (1) blind justice via the law, (2) his upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen, and (3) his Catholicism.

For me, the appearance of the cross and angel stir my own metaphysical ponderings.

Why I Like Good Guys

2014-09-29 Michael Carpenter

That’s Michael Carpenter. Michael Carpenter is my favorite character in the Dresden Files, which is my favorite series. He’s a Knight of the Cross, which means he’s one of three mortals chosen to wield one of the Swords of the Cross, each of which contains a nail from the Crucifixion. They oppose the Denarians–basically fallen angels–although their main job isn’t to conquer the Denarians, it’s to try and rescue humans that the Denarians trick and enslave to their will. Along the way, however, Michael can and does do battle with vampires, dragons, and any other force of darkness that threatens to harm the innocent.

All of that is pretty cool, but none of it gets to the heart of why I like Michael so much. I like him because he’s a devout Catholic. Because he’s a faithful husband. Because he’s a loving father. Because he doesn’t lie or curse, and because he is, in the end, a humble man who just wants to do the right thing because he sincerely trusts and loves his God and his neighbor. He is, in short, a goody-goody.

This type of hero is very rare. Outside of children’s literature (Narnia, or The Dark is Rising, or Harry Potter) and comic books (Superman or Captain America) this kind of hero is basically non-existent. In fact, the piece to which this post is a followup included a link to an article complaining that Captain America “is only interesting if he’s a prick.” Nice guys finish last in more ways than one, it would seem.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying every hero should be a Boy Scout. Where would the world be without scoundrels and rogues? I’m not arguing against Han Solo and Malcom Reynolds!

Walker also wrote a great followup to my initial post called “Darker, Dearie. Much Darker”: Why I Don’t Like “Nice” Heroes in which he said:

I can connect with those who have fallen. I can root for them to repent, to be reconciled with friends and family, and to be forgiven. I personally connect with those who need redemption more than those who don’t seem to need it at all.

Walker’s absolutely right: the redemption narrative is a powerful one. So this post isn’t meant to contradict Walker’s piece. It’s just an alternative or a supplement. It explains why, for all the allure of the anti-hero in need of redemption or the scoundrel with no interest in being saved, my favorite heroes are the white knights.

2014-09-29 Plot Without ConflictLet me start with a technical note, however. In Western culture, plot is conflict-driven. This is such a deep cultural assumption that it’s one of those assumptions you don’t even know is an assumption until someone comes along and shows you that there are alternative ways of doing things. Does a fish know what “wet” means? Nope, not unless it has survived a stay on dry land and learned by contrast to understand the nature of its own existence. So it is with conflict-centric plot. If you don’t see an alternative, you don’t even know it’s what you’re swimming in.

So, as a comparison, I offer up kishōtenketsu which “describes the structure and development of classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives.” There’s 4-panel comic at left as an example: it has plot, but no conflict.

The connection between conflict-driven plot and white knights is simple: you don’t necessarily need for your hero to make mistakes, but it certainly makes creating and sustaining conflict easier when they do. This means that Western literature is structurally biased against simplistic good guys. They aren’t impossible to work with, but they are–all else equal–a bit harder to handle.

I don’t think that this fully explains the dearth of goody-goody heroes, however. The same argument that suggests we need morally deficient heroes (to make questionable decisions and fuel conflict) suggests that we need intellectually deficient heroes (to make decisions that are questionable in a different sense of the word), and yet we manage to have intelligent heroes more often than white knights.

Rather than speculate on why our society seems to discredit good guys, however, I just want to say a bit about why I like them.

First of all: I can identify with them. Stick with me for a bit, however, because this might not be going in the direction that you think it is.

I’m the kind of person that people look at and generally think of as an annoying goody-goody. I’m deeply religious, I’ve never had alcohol, smoked a cigarette, or done any other drug (other than for surgery). I waited until marriage for sex. I don’t watch porn. And I’m fully aware that the way people react to a list of statements like that is some combination of disgust at my self-righteousness and pity for my repressiveness. In short: I’m unpopular in the same way and for the same reasons that straight-arrow heroes are unpopular.

The important thing is that I identify with the way other people dislike the Boy Scout, but I don’t in any way identify with being morally superior, because I’m acutely aware that I’m not. Sure, I’ve never done drugs, but folks like John Scalzi rarely drink not as a matter of moral principle but because they don’t like to experience a loss of control. That’s not a moral decision one way or the other; it’s a combination of a personal preference and self-preservation. And the reality is that a lot of the vices that I avoided, I avoided for the same reason: personal preference and/or risk avoidance. Sometimes I chose not to do things not because I had such great principles, but because I was scared to do them. That’s not very heroic.

Motivations are complicated things. Sometimes I want to be moral because I want people to trust me and because I want to maintain a favorable self-image. So the moral action can be motivated by selfishness and hedonism. Sometimes I want to avoid destructive addictions because I want my children to have a happy home and stable family. So self-interest can be altruistic as well. I can’t figure out my own motives, so how could I presume to know anyone else’s?

I also realize that I’ve been very lucky. I come from a good, stable home with parents who taught me well and modeled good behavior in their own lives. I didn’t suffer any of the tragedies and hardships that so can damage innocent people and lead them to make bad decisions of their own. I know from research and second-hand experience that these kinds of tragedies are horrifically common. I was just lucky. The safety, training, and support I received came to me through no merit or choice of my own. There’s no credit in that, either.

So when I see a good guy on screen or in a book who colors mostly inside the lines, I empathize with them. I know that they will appear boring, self-righteous, and shallow to a lot of people because that’s how I come across to a lot of people. I also assume that they have complex reasons for their behavior that are not always good reasons. And so I tend to identify with them both as someone the world often thinks is weird and as someone who has their own struggles and failings to deal with, even if they are sometimes more internal.

That’s another technical point, by the way. Characters who struggle a lot internally don’t often convey well on-screen. So the bias against goody-goodies is strongest in television and movies, and a little bit weaker in books that have a chance to get inside the character’s head.

The thing is, everyone who tries to do the right thing struggles. In the Dresden Files the main character is Harry Dresden. He’s an orphan who was abused as a kid and who–partially based on personality and partially based on his experiences–has serious authority issues, unreasonable levels of petty stubbornness, and a predilection for anger and violence. He struggles all the time with his demons, and sometime he loses and the result is kicking off a supernatural war. If you  just glance at Michael Carpenter, he always seems to make the right call. But if you look again you can see that it’s not easy for him. He’s doesn’t mindlessly follow the rules without any quibbles. He has to make his own decision about how to interpret them, how far to bend them, and when to follow them even though it puts him or even his family at risk. He deals with ambiguity and guilt and shame and sacrifice, too.

So part of what I’m getting at is simply this: white knights need redemption, too.

Back when I first started Difficult Run and ran it solo for a while in 2012, I wrote on the “About” page that “I am the prodigal son’s older brother.” He’s the one I identify with the most in that story.  Superficially he’s the good guy because he he didn’t run off and blow his inheritance on booze and hookers and end up starving and eating with the pigs, but if you look deeper he’s the same as his younger brother. The prodigal son’s primary failing was a lack of love and loyalty for his family. He wanted the money (his inheritance) more than he wanted his home, and everything else follows from that. Sure, the elder brother stayed home, but when he sees the party everyone is throwing for the young son, he starts whining and complaining. Those complaints show is that he is also pretty contemptuous of his home and his father’s love.

That’s why the father’s response to his older son is so incredibly tragic: “And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.”

In other words, he’s saying that if you really cared about me, then you would think that the last several years you spent living with me in comfort and peace while your brother was hitting rock bottom were the reward. Did the elder brother stay home because he was loyal, or because he was afraid? Did he love his dad, or did he think he was doing him a favor? Was he interested in doing the right thing for its own sake, or because he thought he’ be rewarded? In the end, the fact that he’s jealous of his younger brother shows that he is essentially the same as his younger brother. Just a little more risk-averse. Like me.

We all need heroes we can relate to. For me, that means white knights. Not because they are better, not because they think they are better, and not because maybe other people think they are better. But because they aren’t.

 

I Am An Object

2014-07-22 Jubal Early

Last week I was carrying my laptop out of my home office to use in another room and I tried to close the door behind me. I was, at the moment, deeply engrossed in some speculation that seemed very important to me at the time, which is I why I completely forgot about the pullup bar that had been hanging there for the last couple of weeks until it crashed down on my head.

I was indignant.

It didn’t really hurt much–and the laptop was unscathed–but it just didn’t seem befitting of my status as an agent which is to say an originator of actions. I make things happen. Things do not happen to me. “There is a God,” says the Book of Mormon, “and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.’ I know which of these I consider myself to be, as a general rule.

But we don’t always get to choose.

My frustration turned to amusement and I chuckled at myself. We think we are agents–and in a sense we are–but we’re also objects. We inhabit physical bodies that are subject to physical laws, and the laws of physics don’t give a whit for concepts like “narrative” or “justice” or “intention.” Because we live comfortable, safe live and are careful to avoid injuring ourselves, most of us manage to forget this most of the time. It takes a pretty horrific event (like a car crash) or a silly frustrating one (like closing a door and making a pullup bar drop on your head) to be reminded that we’re not exempt from the rules. Not even when we think we’re thinking very, very clever and deep thoughts.

Last week I dreamed of car crashes. Or, more specifically, I dreamed of that long endless moment between loss of control and impact. The period where you have just enough time to realize two things: that a collision is coming and that there’s nothing you can do about. The dream always started with a sudden lurch in the pit of my stomach and then the eery lack of sensation as the tires left contact with the road. Then a sense of weightlessness. I was always the passenger, not the driver, and I could never see out of the windshield of the car. I didn’t know how high we were, when we would hit, exactly what the car’s orientation was, or if I would survive. And even if I had known, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Then a momentary flash of impact, and the dream restarted: the wheels no longer touching the road and me helplessly wondering what would come next.

That’s not always how life feels. But I think it’s probably what is always going on. We’re all Jubal Early at the end of the last Firefly episode “Objects in Space.” Adrift, we have freedom of movement, but nothing to push off of. We can flail in whatever way we would like during our indeterminate wait for death.

No, that’s not really how bleak my outlook on life is. But sometimes it feels that way.

James F. McGrath on Science Fiction and Religion

What does science fiction have in common with the Bible? More than we might expect. Both grapple with profundities. Both ask, among other key questions: How did we come to be? Where are we headed? How should we conduct ourselves? Where do we put our faith? The answers are not necessarily agreed upon…Thus, science-fiction fandom, with its canons, debates, and conundrums, has intriguing and instructive overlaps with the domain of religion.

So says biblical scholar James F. McGrath in an interesting article in the Spring 2014 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum. I’d actually considered writing a post on this topic given my more recent choice of entertainment, including The Dresden Files and Doctor Who.McGrath discusses TV shows like Lost, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, making for a fun read. In the end, he concludes, “Bottom line, science fiction is less about the future or past and more about our reflections on them. This type of speculation can be fascinating and meaningful, not merely diverting or academic…[S]cience fiction is a wonderful window into how humans perceive religion in the present.”

Check it out.

 

“Darker, Dearie. Much Darker”: Why I Don’t Like “Nice” Heroes

Nathaniel has a thoughtful post on the morality of entertainment and art, focusing specifically on Game of Thrones and even Captain America. One particular point struck me:

I was also struck by an article(again, from Vulture) called Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He’s a Prick. The article just elaborates on the headline: Captain America is devoid of artistic merit when he’s a good guy.

In 2014, of what artistic good is a flawlessly nice soldier? Can’t we get at least a little rough and dirty with this 75-year-old warhorse?

On one level, this (and the popularity of anti-heroes in general) is just a furtherance of “a silly idea” C. S. Lewis had already noted in his lifetime:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is… A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.

So I just don’t buy this argument that only if we have characters who revel in immoral behavior can we have a meaningful conversation about morality.

This is an excellent insight with a portion of Mere Christianity I had long forgotten. And I think there is much to the argument for a moral hero. “Moral art does not have to be saccharine, optimistic, or “nice,”” writes Nathaniel, “any more than the actual creation made by God Himself is saccharine, optimistic, or “nice.”” However, we shouldn’t confuse (and I’m not claiming Nathaniel does) an aversion toward seemingly stale heroes for a “nihilistic” lack of moral clarity rooted in our “reptilian brains.” Since I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I’ll use examples from a show I’m currently watching.

When Once Upon a Time first came out, I wasn’t much of a fan. For one, I missed the first couple episodes (which are actually quite good). The early episodes I did see struck me as cheesy and forgettable. It wasn’t until I began watching Doctor Who and reading The Dresden Files that the idea of fairy tales as different realms became appealing once more. But I think my original disinterest in the show was largely due to the first episodes I saw being centered on Snow White and Prince Charming. As I’ve ventured into the 3rd season, I’ve understood more clearly why this was the case: they are boring characters. They shouldn’t be, but they are. If I take my cue from the The Vulture article referenced by Nathaniel, they are the Captain Americas of Once Upon a Time: annoyingly optimistic, always worried about doing the “right thing” even though their decisions tend to get more people killed,become bedridden from guilt after a single use of dark magic while protecting people from a murderous, power-hungry witch, etc. Charming is especially irritating as he self-righteously condemns anyone who disagrees with him or doesn’t fit into his mold of “goodness.” Perhaps this isn’t an entirely fair assessment, but it generally captures my feelings as a viewer.

Who are my favorite characters then? They are—surprise, surprise—Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin (“The Dark One”) and Regina (“The Evil Queen”). Why are the self-described villains my favorites? First, I should expose my biases. Mr. Gold is portrayed by Robert Carlyle, who rocked it in the hilarious British comedy The Full Monty. But even more important (for me, anyway), he was the pain-immune terrorist Renard in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. If an actor/actress was in a Bond film, no matter how terrible (and TWINE was not one of the best), they receive an honorary status in my book. Recognizing him in Once Upon a Time played a role in me rewatching the series.

Robert Carlyle as Renard in 'The World Is Not Enough'
Robert Carlyle as Renard in ‘The World Is Not Enough’

As for Regina, Lana Parrilla is hot. When it comes to “the fairest one of all,” the Evil Queen blows Snow White out of the water. And that’s all I have to say about that (and I can because my wife thinks Hook is hot, so there).

But what is it about their characters? True, there is a certain sense of badassery that they embody. Gold walks with a cane in a dark suit, condescendingly calls people “dearie” (especially those who try to threaten him), is always one step ahead of virtually everyone, makes people offers they can’t refuse, rips hearts out (including his cheating wife’s), etc. Regina also rips out hearts (lots of them…her mother was the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland…), cuts through whining and diplomacy with magical fire, and cursed the Enchanted Forest by transferring its inhabitants to an entirely different realm with brand new memories for 20+ years. There is a morbid kind of glee when I see a cool, snarky character exerting their power over others. It gratifies probably some of the baser parts of my nature. However, these traits aren’t what make them interesting. The reason I connect with them the most is because they are in need of and are seeking redemption.

once upon a time mr. gold darker dearie much darkerRumpelstiltskin’s transformation into the Dark One–the most powerful and feared entity in the Enchanted Forest–grew out of a desire to protect his only son, first from the Ogre Wars and then personal enemies. His wife had abandoned them both to sail with the pirate Killian Jones (Captain Hook). Furthermore, Rumpelstiltskin’s own father (who had a reputation as a coward and scoundrel) had abandoned him as a child in order to remain in Neverland and become Peter Pan. Rumpelstiltskin had even injured himself to avoid war because a magical Seer had prophesied that his actions on the battlefield would leave his newborn son fatherless. The entire reason he creates the Dark Curse (the plot of the first season) for the Evil Queen is so that he can be reunited with his son Baelfire, who was transported to this realm alone after a panicked Rumpelstiltskin refused to follow him into a portal between worlds. Many deaths, betrayals, and battles later, not only is Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold reunited with his son, but he has even found love in the form of Belle (he was her “Beast”) and discovered he has a grandson. Rumpelstiltskin struggled with his “nasty habit” of self-preservation and his darker ways all the way up to the end. This is what made his sacrifice to save his friends and family so moving. Everything, good and bad, had been for his son.

Regina has a similar tale. Her dark path didn’t begin until after her emotionally abusive and manipulative mother Cora arranged (through a series of events) Regina’s engagement to Snow White’s father. Being in love with a stable boy, Regina planned to run away with him, while trusting the young Snow White with the information. After coaxing the information out of Snow, Cora murdered Regina’s love. Feeling betrayed by Snow, Regina’s anger boiled over the years. She began taking magic lessons from the Dark One, ridding herself of her mother and eventually plotting against Snow White. Devoured by grief and anger, trapped in a loveless marriage, and hated by the commoners, Regina’s heart grew colder. She consistently sought love and affection throughout the chaos she caused to no avail. Even after succeeding in the Dark Curse, she realized how alone she truly was. She adopted a baby (who ends up being the grandson of Snow White and Prince Charming) with hopes of filling the hole in her heart. She later struggled to win the affection of her mother once she returned to the picture. Her constant search for love leads to much destruction, but she is slowly turned by her love for her adopted son. Ultimately, she ends up being willing to sacrifice herself for her son on numerous occasions.

My point is not that these characters should have made their bad choices. My complaint isn’t even that the story of Snow White and Prince Charming are bland compared to that of Gold and Regina. Far from it. But I can connect with those who have fallen. I can root for them to repent, to be reconciled with friends and family, and to be forgiven. I personally connect with those who need redemption more than those who don’t seem to need it at all. I prefer these characters because, in some small way, I see a little of myself in them. And I need redemption as much as anyone else.

There’s nothing nihilistic about that.

Game of Thrones, The Matrix, and Constructed Realities

I want to write a post about that controversial rape scene from last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, about why I don’t watch Game of Thrones, and about the ethics of creating and consuming entertainment and art, but first I need to explain the structure of reality.

Naïve Realism

Realism is the idea that the external world is objectively there, whether we observe it or not. There are lots of different kinds of realism, but the default view (especially among folks who don’t go out of their way to study this) is naïve realism. That’s the idea that the world is out there and that we perceive it directly (and more or less reliably) through our senses. According to this view, objective reality exists, and we all live in it.

Subjectivism

The alternative to realism is idealism. These days, and throughout much of history, idealism has been a minority view but an important one. Descartes kicked off modern Western philosophy with his Meditations, the most famous line of which is cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” That’s a fundamentally idealist perspective, because it starts with the mind first, independent of any observation about the external, physical world.

The best way to think about the relationship between idealism and realism is this. According to realism we can all be sure of the fact that we have brains, but the question of whether or not we have minds is an open one. According to idealism, we can all be sure of the fact that we have minds, but the question of whether or not we have brains is an open one.

Subjectivism is a particularly extreme form of idealism that, as far as I can tell, is the most popular alternative to naïve realism among non-philosophers. Subjectivism is the idea that all truth depends on our perception. In that view, there is no objective reality. We all live in our own little subjective realities where things are true for us that might not be true for anyone else.

Problems with Naïve Realism and Subjectivism

The simplest argument for realism is stubbing your toe. No matter how much you didn’t perceive that the doorframe was going to hit your foot right there, it did. And then it hurts. Clearly objective, physical reality doesn’t really wait around for you to perceive it before it imposes consequences on your perception.

So there is strong argument for objectivity, but naïve realism is more than just objectivity. It also asserts that we directly perceive the world around us through our senses.

The counterexample to that is the existence of optical illusions. It’s not the simple fact that our senses can be mistaken that causes the problem for naïve realism, however, it’s the way that optical illusions hijack the unconscious processes that we use to construct an internal reality from raw sense data. This proves that there isn’t a simple, direct correspondence between what’s out there, what we perceive as sense data, and what we then perceive as being out there.

Grey Square Illusion
Believe it or not, the squares labeled A and B are the exact same shade of gray.

The situation is worse when it comes to subjectivism because the concept is obviously incoherent. For a full treatment, I recommend Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word, but here’s one quick example of why subjectivism makes no sense. Subjectivism says that no claims about reality can be objectively true or false, but subjectivism itself is an objective claim about reality. That doesn’t prove it’s false. It just proves that it’s incoherent. No sane person can rationally believe subjectivism.

So why is it popular? Well some things (like taste) really are subjective. More importantly, however, subjectivism is what some people run to because it seems like the only alternative that captures the idea that perspective really matters. You and I may look at the same situation and come to different conclusions, and we might both be right. This doesn’t actually require subjectivism (you can have different viewpoints and conditional / provisional truth claims within an objective framework), but it’s close enough to confuse lots of folks.

Enactivism

Every now and then I come up with some theory or other, and I tinker with it more and more over the months and years and when I know that it’s a really good, solid theory that’s when I can be confident that it already exists on Wikipedia. Enactivism is one of those concepts. From the entry:

Enactivism argues that cognition depends on a dynamic interaction between the cognitive agent and its environment: “Organisms do not passively receive information from their environments, which they then translate into internal representations. Natural cognitive systems…participate in the generation of meaning …engaging in transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world.”

In this sense, enactivism is a fusion of naïve realism and subjectivism. It starts with the idea that objective reality is really out there. But we don’t perceive it directly. Instead, we take the sense data that is there as raw material, and we use that raw material to build our own private, internal models of the world. Because we’re all starting with the same objective reality, our individual constructed realities have lots of points of contact. This is one reason why communication is possible: because we’re often talking about the same basic reality.

Reality Comparisons

Welcome to Your Matrix

Part of our constructed reality is a model of objective reality. Here, I’m thinking about everything relating to physics. We use our senses to identify objects, how far away they are, how big they are, what direction they’re moving in, etc. Part of our constructed reality appears to consist of patterns of organization that just are. Like math. 2+2 =4 for everyone, even though the number two is not a physical thing. In this sense our constructed realities are less than objective reality, which is the real thing. We only see some of what is out there, we sometimes misidentify what we do see, and we imperfectly apply rules of logic and math.

But part of our constructed reality is more than objective reality. The most essential concept here is narrative. Objective reality is just stuff that happens. There isn’t, outside of the rules of physics, a why. There isn’t meaning or purpose. That stuff exists in our constructed reality. Now, maybe it also exists in objective reality (because God says so, or for some other reason), but we can’t really be sure of that.

Shared Reality

There’s one last twist that I’ll put on enactivism before I get back to Game of Thrones (no, I hadn’t forgotten). That’s the idea of shared constructed realities.

Reality Comparisons - Individual vs Social

Because we’re constantly interacting with each other, our individual realities are permeable. We have our own narratives, in which we are always the hero of our own story, but we share these narratives with other folks who agree or disagree with them. In addition, when we create things we are always cooperating in the creation of a shared, constructed reality. This is true even for individuals who do their creative work alone. Think about J. K. Rowling, writing her stories before anybody else had read them. At that point, they were strictly within her own reality. But once the world read them, then we became participants with J. K. Rowling in creating this shared reality.

Did the deaths of Sirius, or of Dumbledore, or of Dobby affect you? They affected me. Dobby’s, in particular, brought me to tears. That doesn’t mean that I was confused and thought that Dobby was out there in objective reality or that magic was real, but it does mean that there was as a sense in which at a deep, subconscious level, J. K. Rowling’s creation had become real to me.

For me it’s an open question if some narratives are objectively true. It may be possible that the shared, constructed reality is just our attempt to recreate objective reality, and that we can be right or wrong about narratives in the same way that we can be right or wrong about guessing size or distance or speed. But, practically speaking, there is a difference between objective reality (which can be quantified and objectively evaluated) and our shared, constructed realities (which cannot).

The Ethics of Sub-Creation

According to what I’ve read about J. R. R. Tolkien, he referred to world-building as “sub-creation.”

‘Sub-creation’ was also used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer the to process of world-building and creating myths. In this context, a human author is a ‘little maker’ creating his own world as a sub-set within God’s primary creation. Like the beings of Middle-earth, Tolkien saw his works as mere emulation of the true creation performed by God.(Tolkien Gateway)

This is an extremely powerful for me, because I’ve always believed in a kind of grand universal theory of everything (only for metaphysics, rather than physics) that would somehow unify the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. On a more practical level, it provides a window into the ethics of sub-creation, which is the ethics of artistic creativity.

I know I’m going to lose a ton of people who bridle at the idea of imposing laws or commands on artistic expression (on the one hand) and who are horrified by the history of attempts to subvert artistic expression to propaganda for someone’s idea of right and wrong (on the other). These are serious concerns, but I do not think they apply to what I have in mind.

First, when it comes to rules and laws, I think we can all appreciate that a greater understanding of physical laws allows us to be more creative rather than less. This applies not only to what our engineers can build, but also to what our scientists and philosophers can imagine. I am not by any means suggesting that I could come up with the “right” rules for how to do art, or some objective metric for deciding what piece of art has more merit than another. It is not only foolish but vulgar to attempt to rank the Beauty of Mozart’s Requiem vs. that of Allegri’s Miserere, in my mind. But it isn’t vulgar or futile to wonder if there aren’t common principles—like symmetry and transcendence and struggle—which might animate both and help make each great.

Second, the grand unifying theory of everything is outside our grasp so, if we are appropriately humble, the danger of propagandizing is low. Propaganda is for people who already know what they want others to think, but someone who is searching for truth out there has no such agenda to sate and no pretext of certainty with which to sate it.

What I have in mind, by contrast, is a kind of unification of three activities that people might not ordinarily see as connected: faith, artistic creation, and artistic consumption.

Let me start out by illustrating that, because we have a wide range of freedom in constructing our realities, there is room for this to be a meaningfully moral activity. We cannot choose facts, obviously, but we still have great freedom. We can choose to look for light or to wallow in darkness. We can choose to find meaning or we can choose to see none.  We can choose to be motivated towards a thing by love, or repelled away from something else by fear. What we desire is reflected in the world we create to live in, not in the banal sense of wish-fulfillment, but in a deep reflection of our truest desires.

Now let me make one simple comment: if our constructed reality determines our course of action, then it is in the truest and most accurate sense of the world what we believe. After all, beliefs are not about what we think is true, or even what we think we think is true (it’s possible to get that wrong), but rather about the things that must be true based on our actions. Therefore, another expression for constructing our reality is simply “having faith”. This need not be faith in a religious sense, secular humanists have ideals in which they have faith as firm and unwavering as any of the devout followers of religion, but it is absolutely faith.

Let me go farther and say that creating art is essentially the same thing as creating our own reality. There is a kind of symmetry between sub-creation as the creation of art and sub-creation as the creation of meaning in our day-to-day lives. I don’t think there is such a vast difference between Tolkien’s work creating Elven dialects vs. a parent’s work in feeding their child. To me: creation of meaning is creation of meaning. Faith, therefore, is not only about the construction of our beliefs, but also about the construction of art.

Lastly, let me bring back the concept of shared, constructed reality like the world of Harry Potter. When we read a book, watch a movie, listen to a poem, or hear a song we are not passively receiving information (like the failed theory of naïve realism), but are actively participating with the creator in constructing a shared reality. The audience, the performers, and the authors are all playing different parts, but in the very same activity.

In the end: The rules for what we should believe are related to the rules for what art we should create which are related to the rules for what art we should choose to participate in as the audience. And they amount, I think, to simply this: always strive for something truer, better, and more beautiful.

Living in a Nightmare

Which brings me back to Game of Thrones. The first pebble that started the avalanche that has become this article was a post from The Vulture called Seitz on Game of Thrones Season 4: TV’s Most Exhilarating Nightmare. The piece begins:

Game of Thrones is not the deepest, most subtle, or most innovative drama on TV. It is an example of what used to be called “meat-and-potatoes” storytelling: an R-rated yet classically styled epic. It’s mainly concerned with riveting the viewer from moment to moment, often through sex, violence, or intrigue, while keeping a vast fictional world, a complex plot, and a preposterously overpopulated cast straight in the viewer’s mind.

Does this sound like the kind of constructed reality in which you would like to exist? Not me. It’s not even the sex or violence per se that are the problem, but the fact that they are used as short-term goads to keep us interested. To the extent that these goads are linked directly into our “reptilian brains” (see next quote) they are essentially nihilistic. The next paragraph goes on:

Along with Hannibal, this is the most joyous, at times exhilarating nightmare on TV. Considering how unrelentingly bleak this world is — a State of Nature in which most characters are ruled by their reptilian brains, and those who show kindness or mercy tend to suffer for it — there’s no reason why it should be anything but off-putting.

But of course, there is a reason why it’s not off-putting: spectacle. Which brings me to a more recent piece on Game of Thrones called Rape of Thrones. The article ponders why it is that the HBO show has felt the need to deviate from the text of the books in the particular way that it does. Obviously it has to make changes (for length if nothing else), but why has the show chosen not once but twice to render a consensual sexual encounter (in the books) into rape (in the show)?

It seems more likely that Game Of Thrones is falling into the same trap that so much television does—exploitation for shock value. And, in particular, the exploitation of women’s bodies. This is a show that inspired the term “sexposition,” and a show that may have created a character who is a prostitute so as to set as many scenes as possible in brothels.

So you have to ask yourself, what kind of a person voluntarily inhabits a world where women are being degraded purely to sate his animal interest? Who willingly goes along with that? Who wants to help create that world?

That’s not the only problem, however, and Game of Thrones is not my only target. I was also struck by an article(again, from Vulture) called Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He’s a Prick. The article just elaborates on the headline: Captain America is devoid of artistic merit when he’s a good guy.

In 2014, of what artistic good is a flawlessly nice soldier? Can’t we get at least a little rough and dirty with this 75-year-old warhorse?

On one level, this (and the popularity of anti-heroes in general) is just a furtherance of “a silly idea” C. S. Lewis had already noted in his lifetime:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is… A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.

So I just don’t buy this argument that only if we have characters who revel in immoral behavior can we have a meaningful conversation about morality.

This topic is more than I can handle conclusively in a single post, but here’s where I’d like to wrap things up for now.

Moral art does not have to be saccharine, optimistic, or “nice” any more than the actual creation made by God Himself is saccharine, optimistic, or “nice”. The two greatest arguments against God, in my mind, are the Problem of Evil and the hidden god. Why, if God is so good, is there so much suffering? And why, if God wants us to know Him, does he not make Himself obviously present? If the greatest creation of all can cause such incredible pain and confusion, then obviously we have absolutely no reason to suspect that our sub-creations ought to be relentlessly, oppressively cheerful.

Bearing that in mind, however, art is creation, and it is therefore morally significant in ways that are complex and open to interpretation and exploration. My point is not so much “no one should watch Game of Thrones“ as it is that we should all realize that what we watch literally contributes to the creation of the world we inhabit. That’s a big deal. It’s something to think about seriously.

I don’t think that the answer is to try and wall ourselves off from anything that challenges us or makes us sad, but I do think that we ought to avoid deliberate exploitation of sex and violence to hook viewers (because it is nihilistic) and also that we ought to seek out art that reaffirms the validity of moral striving. This will mean different things to different people. I’m not suggesting any kind of top-down censorship. I’m talking about bottom-up self-control in what we choose to participate in.

I don’t know all the answers. I just think, based on my theories of constructed reality, that the problem is more important than most folks realize. I believe there is deep significance to what we choose to consume as mere entertainment, and that it is worth thinking about.

“Welcome to Good Burger, Home of the Good Burger…”

all that

I totally watched All That growing up. This was back in elementary school days when I was really too young to be out very late on Saturday nights (plus, I had Mormon parents). And, of course, I couldn’t drive. SNICK @ Nite was the kid equivalent of shows like SNL. Every 90s kid has characters like Pierre Escargot, Repairman (Man, Man, Man…), Ed from “Good Burger,” and Ashley from the “Ask Ashley” segment etched in their memories. Hence, my joy and nostalgia over an article at The Atlantic titled “The Quiet Radicalism of All That,” which looks at just how different All That was compared to other kid shows (especially the teen nonsense on The WB).

A fun read. Check it out.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t Firefly 2.0

As any Browncoat knows, you can’t stop the signal. You can, however, try to hijack it. Before the end of the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I realized that that was exactly what was going on. I’m definitely not the first person to notice the strong parallels between Agents and Firefly. This excellent piece at ScreenRant dives right into the similarities… and why they don’t work. I largely agree with everything Andrew Dyce says in it, but I want to hone in on just the characters themselves, rather than also talking about plot, setting, and theme.

The ensemble cast (9 stars!) was the heart and soul of Firefly, but it was also the show’s Achilles’ heel, because having a lot of characters makes it harder for the audience to invest in the characters. This is partially because each individual character gets less time-per-episode, but there’s more to it than that.

In a show like Firefly, the audience gets to know the characters through their interactions with each other. To really know the group, we have to know how every member of that group relates to every single other member. Which means that it’s not characters that we have to worry about, it’s relationships. And the number of relationships in a group grows much faster than the number of individuals in the group.

This is a basic finding from network theory, but we can skip the theory and go straight to the pictures. In this illustration, taken from Wikipedia, imagine that every dot is a character, and every line connecting two dots is a relationship.

Relationships

Small groups have very few relationships. You have to get up to three people in a group before you have three relationships to keep track of. But from that point on, the number of relationships grows much faster than the number of people being added to the group. Agents has six characters, so there are 15 relationships to keep track of. Firefly, on the other hand, had nine characters, which means there are 36 relationships to keep track of. This means that the cast of Firefly is more than twice as hard to get to know than the cast of Agents.

This isn’t just some random mathematical excursion, either. Social dynamics are a fundamental part of what makes us human. Some evolutionary biologists believe that one of the defining characteristics of the human brain is the ability to keep track of larger social groups than other primates. This is called the social brain hypothesis, and it was first promoted by Robin Dunbar. He argued that humans can only track a finite number of total, real-life relationships (most modern estimates say about 150), and this number became known as Dunbar’s number. In the real world, Dunbar’s number meant that our ancestors could congregate in much larger groups than chimpanzees, which allowed them to specialize and survive and (according to the hypothesis) could have created a feedback loop of increasing  intelligence that led to modern humanity. The point is that we’re social animals, and there’s no reason to think that this doesn’t also apply to art.

This means that narrative with a lot of characters has the potential to be particularly engaging for us, but that it’s also harder to pull off. The story has to be good enough to keep people engaged long enough to have a chance to learn the relationships, and it also has to actually depict all the important relationships.

This isn’t a comprehensive theory of narrative, or anything. There’s a lot more to the story. Harry Potter is an incredibly engrossing narrative, and it only has 3 core relationships (between Harry, Ron, and Hermione) but a lot of the depth there comes from how those relationships change over time. (It’s partially a coming-of-age story, after all.) Game of Thrones has literally dozens and dozens of important characters, and there’s no way the books (let alone show) could hope to describe how every single person relates to every single other person, but that’s fine. The characters in Game of Throne are divided into factions and separated by geography, so it makes sense to have a very incomplete graph: not all the dots are going to have lines between them. But Firefly is a show about 9 people who all live together, and in that context we’re going to want to know how everyone relates to everyone else. Similarly, Agents has 6 people all living together, and so we can do a sort of apples-to-apples comparison between those two shows, even if we can’t generalize the analysis to every other book, movie, or TV show in existence.

So the point is that Firefly had a lot of relationships, and if you watch the shows in order that’s awesome because the story is good enough to keep you hooked, and then the episodes flesh out all the relationships. Which is great, right up until Fox decides to show the episodes out of order and to not even bother airing the premier.

Now, the lesson we Browncoats took from this is simple: air the episodes in the order they were written! TV execs probably saw things differently, however. Rather than fuss with shows that are highly sensitive to viewing-order, you’d want to try and re-engineer the show to be less sensitive. With or without my fancy network diagrams, it’s not really rocket science to realize that the simplest way to do that is to have fewer characters.

Which brings us to Agents as Firefly Lite: they basically took the exact same characters and downsized them from nine to just five Here’s how they did it:

Mal vs. Agent Coulson

01 Mal vs. Agent Coulson

This one is pretty obvious: older, white, father figure who was mysteriously and powerfully changed by some violent, traumatic event in his past. He loves his crew, but maintains a degree of emotional distance and detachment, attributes that serve him well as the unquestioned and unrivaled leader.

Zoe vs. The Cavalry

02 Zoe vs. The Cavalry

Next up we have the captain’s right-hand woman. She is staunchly loyal to the captain and they have a military history together, but there is absolutely no spark of romance whatsoever. Competent and resolute, she is the consummate professional fighter, but deep down she also bears the scars of loss and injury.

Kaylee vs. Fitz & Simmons

03 Fitz & Simmons vs. Kaylee

This is the most likeable and relatable character in the crew. We have a scientifically brilliant character who’s skills are without parallel and who has the technical know-how to save the crew on more than one occasion, but also a person who is in no way suited for combat and tends to wilt under threat of violence.

And yes, I am treating Fitz and Simmons as one character. This is because the thing that matters the most for this analysis is the relationship between characters, and the sibling relationship is so well-known that it doesn’t need to be explored or explained.

Jayne vs. Agent Ward

04 Jayne vs. Agent Ward

Here we have the muscle of the team. With nothing like the professional technique of the leader’s right-hand woman, the muscle is more an avatar of brute aggression and male assertiveness. Sexually avaricious, self-centered and emotionally stunted, the muscle can be relied on to rescue the team when needed, but usually grudgingly.

River & Simon vs. Skye

05 Simon and River vs Skye

Here we have the most recent edition to the crew. This character is viewed with suspicion and a little resentment by everyone else because they arrived late, brought an unknown past, display a troubled personality, and still have murky ties to a mysterious organization that could threaten the whole crew. On the other hand, the character is vulnerable and needs their help and also possess a rare and highly specialized skill. Technical wizardry is great, but it sort of comes with the territory. Your very own top-tier trauma surgeon / hacker? That’s not something that comes standard for a group like this.

You’ll also note that, once again, I’m treating siblings like a single character because from the standpoint of intra-group relationships, the sibling relationship is more of a surplus to be tapped than a vacuum waiting to be filled.

MIA: Book, Inara, and Wash

So let’s talk about the crew of the Firefly that didn’t make the cut: Book, Inara, and Wash. Without doubt, these three characters were the most peripheral. After all, entire episodes took place with literally no input from Book and Inara, and when Serenity opens neither one of them is even onboard the ship anymore. Wash, for his part, ends up gutted on the end of a giant Reaver harpoon-type-thing, so none of them are actually present for the entire show.

They also, at times, fill overlapping roles. Book serves as the conscience of the crew sometimes, but Whedon often preferred to have the religious character ironically rudderless.  In those cases, or when the Shepherd was off-camera, either Wash or Inara could also step up to fill that role.

And yet, they also each brought their own, irreplaceable element to the story. Book and Inara served to really flesh out Mal’s character, which is important because otherwise his relationship with the rest of the crew was a little formal and strained. Inara, as the love interest, and Book, as the mentor, showed a vulnerable and relatable side of Mal that made him much, much more compelling and relatable as a character. Wash, filled a similar role for Zoe, adding unexpected depth to her otherwise stoic façade. More than that, however, he served as the source of fun and humor for the crew. Not for the audience, mind you, but for the actual crew. It was Wash, more than anyone else, who could diffuse tension and act as a sort of mediator for some of the other relationships.

In a lot of ways, it was these supporting characters who really made the chemistry happen. They could drop off camera for a scene or even an episode, but they were anything but dispensable. These weren’t the only characters that Agents tried to get away without, however. There’s one more.

Serenity vs. The Bus

06 Bus v Serenity External

 

Outwardly there’s nothing subtle about this comparison. Serenity is a big, flying ship that is home to the entire crew. The Bus is a big, flying ship that is home to the entire crew. They perform pretty much exactly the same function, they look sort of similar, and they even both feature prominent engines that can rotate for vertical take-off and landing.

Other than function, however, they couldn’t be more different. The name Serenity comes from the Battle of Serenity Valley, which was the pivotal event in the war the defined the entire ‘Verse. It’s a deeply personal name for Mal, but it means something to every single person on the ship. The Bus, on the other hand, is about as impersonal as it gets. The Bus gets you from Point A to Point B. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what your relationship is to it. It’s just a means to an end. Agent Coulson named one of his cars with a personal name, but not the plane they all live. It isn’t really a home, and therefore they don’t have that family dynamic.

There’s nothing impersonal about Serenity. Every character on board had his or her own unique relationship to the ship, which is why it makes sense to talk about her as a character. She represents Mal’s stubborn refusal to let go of the past even as he struggles to confront the future, a symbol of the tattered shreds of his idealism and hope. She’s like a giant, beloved children’s toy or safety blanket for Wash, and she’s a confidant and companion to Kaylee. She’s a refuge for Inara, a rare example of a relationship that gives to the Companion without asking for anything in return. She’s like a forest for the Shepherd, providing both the shelter of shade and the confusion of shadow. She’s a bunk for Jayne, but also so much more. On Serenity, Jayne gets his own bunk, and so she represents his fragile self-esteem and acceptance in a that hates him (the feeling is mutual). Even Jayne loves Serenity because everyone loves their mom. Simon might have the most tenuous relationship to Serenity, but his sister River loves the ship so much she becomes incorporeal and merges her identity with it!

River and Simon Tam

Although she doesn’t often make a big deal of if, however, it might be Zoe who has the most invested in Serenity, even if we don’t see it until after the loss of her husband at her helm.

Zoe and SerenityGetting Agents off the Ground

Lots of folks have tried to call Agents something like Firefly 2.0, but it clearly doesn’t deserve that title. A 2.0 version is supposed to be a big step forward. It’s supposed to build on the lessons of the prior iteration and offer more and better. But Agents has struggled to find its own voice while living off of borrowed magic from Firefly, and it borrowed that magic poorly. It’s not a version 2.0. It’s much more like a lite version. It took the essential heart of Firefly–a band of misfits forged into a family—and then it tried to get away with a simplified, dumbed-down version. Fewer characters and simpler group dynamics might make the show easier to understand, but it also just means that there’s a lot less to love.

With the announcing of the semi-rebranding of Agents to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Uprising, the show clearly has aspirations of finally lumbering off the ground on its own right. Some folks are pretty excited about what this means. Others are more skeptical.

I certainly wish the show the best, and I hope it succeeds in finding its own identity. I sort of doubt it will, however. Trying to launch a stripped down version of an earlier success is the definition of playing it safe, and safety is hardly ever the path to greatness.

 

The Homeric Values of “Breaking Bad”

“Now, say my name…You’re Heisenberg…You’re g-damn right.”

After the finale of Breaking Bad, I wrote a brief post at The Slow Hunch entitled “‘Pride Goeth Before Destruction’: Or, Why I Wouldn’t Hesitate to Use “Breaking Bad” in a Sacrament Talk.” I explained the role of pride in Mormon theology and how Walter White’s “spiritual and moral transformation should give us pause.” After reading from Christian author and historian John Dickson’s book Humilitas about Christianity’s influence on the West’s transformation from an honor-shame society to one that sees humility as a virtue, I was pleased to find Alex Knapp at Forbes writing on “The Epic of Heisenberg: Breaking Bad’s Homeric Values.” Definitely worth the read.

Warning: Spoilers.

Digital Drama: The Way to Keep Mormon Theatre Relevant?

I believe that keeping the flame of Mormon drama alive is important. Especially at my faith tradition’s still early stage of development as a religion and a culture, we already have a rich heritage of dramatic literature filled with a wide range of excellent plays.

As an effort to preserve and publicize that heritage, Zarahemla Books published Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, which includes theatrical works by some of Mormonism’s best dramatists. Michael Perry has recently been collecting a lot of Mormon plays under the umbrella of his Zion Theatricals, which licenses performance rights for Mormon themed drama to theatre companies and community groups. Angie Staheli has been encouraging production of LDS drama on the stake level at her blog LDS Plays. In the realm of higher education, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University continue to produce works by Mormon student playwrights, while independent theatre companies such as the Echo Theatre, Leilani Productions, and my own Zion Theatre Company continue to include Mormon drama in their seasons. There are many individuals and organizations who are striving to continue to vibrant tradition of creating theatre that is informed by the spirituality and beauty of our faith tradition, even when it isn’t explicit in its religiousness.

Yet despite these exciting developments, it sometimes feels like we lose as much ground as we gain, and that we are more often than not treading water. So I’ve been trying to analyze and figure out ways of making Mormon drama not only relevant, but also exciting and profitable, so that it can continue onward. As I’ve mentioned before,  I believe the relatively new trend of digital theatre seems to be an effective and exciting route for Mormon Drama to take.

Read moreDigital Drama: The Way to Keep Mormon Theatre Relevant?