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What Would People Think?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

It Was Good (Or At Least Interesting) While It Lasted

Well, my brush with fame is over. For those who don't know.....for 2 days I was part of the team assigned to defend alleged courthouse shooter Brian Nichols. It was all part of my internship at the Georgia Capital Defender.

But then he dumped us. (Link's probably dated.)

Well, I'll have to chalk it up as another of my many brushes with controversy. It would have been an interesting case.

As for the circumstances leading up to him dumping us, Official Office of Capital Defender Response: No Comment.

Therefore, Official Ben Stark Response: No Comment.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Deal and the Danger

Well, the moderates of both parties have reached a compromise avoiding a showdown in the Senate. For an optimistic, in-depth analysis of the deal, click here.

I suppose it's a good sign that Pharisees like James Dobson are angry, and that groups like the People for the American Way are cautiously optimistic.

On the plus side, the deal expressly rejects Frist's interpretation of the Constitution as outlawing the filibuster.

But I'm deeply concerned. The fine print scares me. The deal only allows for filibusters under "extraordinary circumstances." Yes, that is interpreted by each individual senator. But already at least one Republican is saying they back out on the deal if they think a filibuster is being done under less-than-extraordinary circumstances.

The problem is that the standard for "extraordinary" is being set incredibly high because the nominees that are now being allowed a vote are the most extreme of the bunch: William Pryor, Priscilla Owen, and Janice Rogers Brown, all proponents to some extent of the dangerous Constitution in Exile philosophy.....which would reinstate pre-New Deal jurisprudence and strike down the federal minimum wage, workplace safety laws, environmental protection laws and - if taken to its logical extreme - the Civil Rights Act.

If radicals such as Brown don't count as an "extraordinary circumstance"...what does? If Brown is the standard, then nothing is an extraordinary circumstance.

The aftermath of this bargain remains to be seen and there is some consensus in the blogosphere that Frist and the right-wing Republicans lost, but I'm afraid this compromise is meaningless or even a Pyrrhic victory.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

I Refuse to Say "Yee Haw", But.....

[Another in what will doubtlessly be an ongoing series....Ben Gives His Unsolicited Expert Advice on What Movies You Should See. I've already done silent films, and now......]

2 lone figures stand across from each other on an empty street in an Old Western town. Townspeople either hide inside their homes or watch with a mixture of fear and morbid fascination. Both men reach for their pistols. In a flash, one man is dead and one is left standing.

Ah, the Western! This iconic moment has been played so many times it's seeped into the popular consciousness. I had seen a dozen scenes like that before I had ever seen a Western (i.e. from commercials or cartoons riffing on the theme).

Westerns are a particularly American genre, Sergio Leone's "spaghetti Westerns" notwithstanding. Made long after the last frontier town became a tourist attraction, Westerns capture something in the American imagination: a sense of simpler times, when people lived on the edge but the hardship brought out the true virtues (and vices) of people. Surrounded by a starkly beautiful American landscape and dangerous Indians and outlaws, Western characters constantly re-enacted the process of creating civilization where none existed before.

Only later did people come to realize the dark side of the Old West....and that's when the movies really got good. That's when people came to realize the "civilization" that was formed came at the expense of genocide of Native Americans. Latter-day Westerns built upon this realization, and the subsequent ambivalence it creates about the characters (even in situations not involving Native-Americans....just White-on-White violence) to create some of the greatest Westerns of all time. These are films that stick in your head long after the closing credits. John Wayne did tons of movies like Stagecoach, wherein he defends the inhabitants of a stagecoach from marauding Indians and then, for good measure, shoots 3 outlaws in one of those iconic street fights I mentioned. He could do those roles sleepwalking. But I will forever remember Wayne for his fascinating portrayal of the brave, fanatically determined, and disgustingly racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

Today, the genre is pretty much dead, although a few good ones crop up every now and then...and a few horrible ones (Wild Wild West comes to mind....not even providing a link to that.) That's too bad....it was just getting good near the end.

The Westerns that you must see for the sake of your cultural knowledge.....and more importantly your enjoyment....are:

The Searchers (link above)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Open Range (2003...a recent one)
The Wild Bunch
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

honorable mention goes to Deadwood, an HBO TV series that tops all of the above for violence and profanity (whether or not that's a good thing)....and matches them for compelling vision. Deadwood is what sent me off on this rant in the first place.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Musical Baton

Aaaaaaand it's time to get less serious.

The illustrious Jacob Grier has passed me a meme called The Musical Baton. By the sacred rules of blogging, it appears I am required to post my opinion about music. You can see how much this dismays me. (Hint: Yipee!)

Total volume of music files on my computer

About 4 GB. And I don't even download, unless you count that time Barzelay sent me that Shins album. And I wasn't the direct downloader there. But I do rip a lot of music off my CDs for mix-CD making purposes.

The last CD I bought

The Forgotten Arm by Aimee Mann. Mann is just the best at beautiful, sad singer-songwriter stuff. And now she's got a concept album telling the story of a drug-addicted boxer and his relationship with an equally depressing girlfriend. Aimee Mann characters seriously need a hug...and perhaps some Prozac. But her songs are just so pretty.

Song I'm playing right now

Well, I'm not playing any music right now, but the last song I listened to was "Plenty of Paper" from Eisley's Room Noises.

Five Songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me

"Chance" from DC Talk's Intermission: The Greatest Hits. ("Every day we live there's a chance to give / every time we speak, there's a chance for peace.")

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Nirvana's Nevermind. (Hey, why neglect the classics?)

"Never Fades Away" from SpencerAcuff's Chasing Windmills. (It's kind of arbitrary which song I picked off that album. I love that album.)

"Civil War" from Guns N' Roses's Use Your Illusion II. (Ok, actually I got it off their Greatest Hits album. I had to pick an anti-war song, and I might as well go epic. This one's really, really good.)

"Lead of Love" from Caedmon's Call's self-titled debut album. (This song has carried me through many a dark time.)

Five people to whom I'm passing the baton.

Like Jacob, I may have to cheat on this one. Certainly I'll pass it on to Jeff, who loves talking about music, even if he hates memes. I'll also send it to Meredith and Bradley and....I can't think of anyone else. Hopefully, for the sake of the meme, these people have more friends.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"Kingdom of Heaven" and the Kingdom of Heaven

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

— Brennan Manning

I just saw Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom and a bunch of really good actors like Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Edward Norton. I was a bit underwhelmed. Some would kill me for saying this, but I actually liked Bloom's other epic, Troy, which did a better job of character development with a lot more characters. I actually liked Troy, although I may be the only one in America who did. With Kingdom, the characters generally fell flat. It didn't help that Bloom's character, whom we are supposed to identify with, begins the film in shock after his wife's death and generally keeps his own counsel (read: has few lines) for the first 40 minutes or so. Not much of an emotional hook.

The battle scenes were amazing though. True Ridley Scott style. (Though, again, he did just as well in Gladiator, and that was a more engaging film.) And Bloom acquits himself well once he actually starts talking. What I'm trying to say is the film got better. It's worth renting and watching on a big TV. I'm a sucker for a sword-fight, and I got my fix.

I wanted to comment on one theme in the film. On both the European and Arab sides, there are Christian and Muslim extremists who clamor for war (calling it "God's will" and proclaiming with absolute certainty that they will win) as moderates, while willing to fight, make some effort to avoid it. Clearly, Scott is preaching a message of tolerance. It kind of annoyed me, though, that he did so by going for the old Hollywood cliche: the more religious a character, the more he/she is a hypocrite or worse. The noble characters preach agnosticism at most. But the way Christians act, sometimes I can understand why your typical Hollywood writer sees Christians in this light (not that it doesn't still annoy me).

I am reminded of the following quote by Jim Wallis:

Several weeks ago, Episcopal priest and former Republican Senator John Danforth began an op-ed in the New York Times by writing: "By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians." And, I would add, some Religious Right leaders are trying to transform the church into the religious arm of conservative Republicans.

[emphasis mine]

Whether they call it a Crusade or "Justice Sunday", history is full of people who have made naked power grabs, cloaked it in the name of Christ (or Yaweh or Allah....but my biggest concern is with the perversion of my own faith), and fooled people into following them. In the aftermath, atrocities often follow and the name of God is always smeared.

The problem isn't that Christianity is taking too much control of the world. (That has never actually happened, even in allegedly "Christian" countries. I cannot find a time in history where a society has ever lived according to the sacrificial, loving values of the Sermon on the Mount or truly sought Jesus. In other words, where a society has lived like Christ.) It's that Christians are allowing the world and its power-mad values to take control of them. In the process, the people of the world see a brand of Christianity that looks exactly like the greed and lust for power that has dominated history....only with more "Amens."

If you're wondering what the REAL Kingdom of Heaven is like, and how contrary it is to the world's values.....the values of the power-mongers behind The Crusades and their modern counterparts.....well, Jesus said it best....

Matthew 19
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

What Would Aslan Do?

Check out the trailer for the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'm drooling.

It's like this. Lately, many of the great book series have been transformed into good-to-awesome movies and each time the book series' fans have had the joy/agony of seeing their beloved work transferred to the silver screen. It's happened with The Lord of the Rings trilogy (cinematic achievement of our lifetime), the Harry Potter series, and recently The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I have each time, watched from the outside...enjoying the movies but wondering what the fuss was all about from all the obsessive fans.

Now it's MY chance to geek out. I read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series twice before I was 13. Even now, 11 years later, the stories stay in my head. While a bit more aimed at children than LOTR, the Chronicles are so....freakin....awesome! At least they have attained that status to me over the years. I have many a fond memory sitting in some corner reading them. I didn't get the Christian allegory at first (hey, I was 10 when I started reading it!), but I think the story operates on multiple levels.

Dude, have you watched the trailer yet! Its creatures are being designed by the geniuses who made the creatures in LOTR! And it's got Tilda Swinton as the White Witch! I am swooning!

Ok, back to cleaning my apartment so I can head to graduation tomorrow.

(Note: Hell of a "teaser trailer" that is. It gives away too much for a teaser trailer. How much more can the theatrical trailer include? Will it be the length of the movie? Perhaps it will tell us a bit about Prince Caspian or Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Geez, people.)

(Another note: I gotta re-read the series. I'll throw that in there with Brothers Karamazov and God's Politics on my summer reading list.)

About "Crash" Before I Crash

Well, I suppose it's inevitable that I would be blogging about movies a lot. But first....

I'm done! I have just completed a 2nd year of law school by turning in my Poverty Law paper! Hooray for me!

And hear this: I HATE the Bluebook. For those of you sane enough to not be in law school, the Bluebook is the system for citations that we law people use. Think of it as the MLA handbook....or the way the MLA handbook would be if it was re-written by Satan to torment us.

But I write not to make quasi-sacrilegious references to grammar, but to tell you of a new movie that you should see before it disappears from theaters like a flash. As the title indicates, I speak of the movie Crash.

Crash is Magnolia-esque in that it is an ensemble piece set in L.A. It's about race relations, the assumptions we all make about people who are "different" from us. A Persian family is called terrorists because people think they are Arabs. A racist cop terrorizes a Black couple he pulls over...only to encounter one of them again in circumstances neither of them would ever have foreseen. A White wife of a District Attorney lives in terror and isolation in their massive home after her car is stolen. Among the people she insults is a bald, tough looking Hispanic man...who goes home and plays with his 5-year-old daughter. It's an insightful and emotionally exhausting film about the stereotypes we all walk around with in our heads...and how they separate us from each other. I was most intrigued by an idealistic young cop played by Ryan Phillipe (a.k.a. Mr. Reese Witherspoon). He's the character we most identify with, disgusted by the bigotry he sees around him and trying to do the right thing. But even he isn't above unconscious racism.

I came out of it both hopeful and depressed.

This film won't be around long.....for all the stars and recognizable character actors in it (Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillipe, Brendan Frasier, Matt Dillon....even a cameo by Tony Danza) it doesn't have much commercial appeal or A-list stars to bring in the big audiences. Catch it before it disappears.

And while you're watching stuff...see the TV show Deadwood. I gotta do a post about Westerns sometime.

[Funny thing. The spellcheck for this blog does not recognize the word "blog."]

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Movies You Should Watch (Not Hear)

Roger Ebert writes today about Faust, a 1926 film by the great silent film director F.W. Murnau. It seems Faust is another in the line of surrealistic silent films that capture the imagination like few films do today. I love these old films, with their bizarre imagery, their obviously artificial effects, and their willingness to go for broke with scenes that seem like something out of a half-formed nightmare you just woke up from.

Visually speaking, so many of today's films are boring. They're just about people standing around talking. In the early years of film, directors were still drunk on the excitement of making IMAGES! Sure, this sometimes came at the expense of a coherent plot, but frankly (and I know I'm hypocritical for saying this considering how much I complain about modern films with bad plots) I just don't care. The images from these movies stick in my mind long after any plot problems fade into oblivion.

These days (with the exception of the occasional Dark City) films don't try to plumb the depths of visual imagination to create new pictures for the pop culture. They're usually just about people standing around talking. (Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of good films about people standing around talking.)

So, in honor of the imagination, before sound and studios came to crush it in the name of the almighty dollar, I encourage you to check out the following silent movies (I've linked them to either an Ebert essay or their IMDB page).

The Phantom of the Opera
Sunrise (The only one to get creative even in its use of subtitles!)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

While you're at it, go see anything with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. You'll then understand how physical comedy is done....and see the precursor to modern physical comedians like Jackie Chan.

I'm open for more suggestions of visually impressive films (silent or not).


I already explained this in my comment but, on the off chance that I'll have more than 1 reader, the paragraph on abortion below is unfinished. I was going to say that I might write about abortion at some point, but right now I'm too lazy, so instead I'll post something I've already written.

And so that's what I did.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

And So It Begins....

Well, this promises to be the most infrequently updated blog ever. For all I've bugged Jeff and Mike about not updating their blogs, I will now hypocritically make no promises about keeping this one up to date. (Yes, yes...plank's in my eye, speck's in yours.)

I once thought about starting this blog by trying to anger as many of my friends as possible with an entry about abortion. (Ok, trying to anger my liberal friends. But honestly, I'll mostly be coming at things from a liberal point of view anyway.)

So, I figured I'd begin my blog with an open letter addressed to my fellow Christians...one which I've sent to a number of my friends already. I've been working on it for a while, but have only made minor changes to it since last December. It's as good a beginning as any to my blog, seeing as it expresses much of my philosophy, simplistic though it may be.

So, without further ado here is....

An Open Letter to My Fellow Christians

Something is seriously wrong with American Christianity.

I say this not as a secularist lobbing yet another critique at Christianity, but as a Born-Again Evangelical Christian. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama attending a Southern Baptist church. Much as I disagree with the Religious Right on many issues, I cannot hold them in contempt like my fellow liberals. They are still my Christian brothers and sisters.

That said, I fear that in its actions the American church – specifically the Evangelical church of which I count myself a member – has gone far astray. It has bought into the American obsession with wealth, let itself be co-opted, and failed in its duties to the poor.

We approach the world with what one Duke Divinity student calls an “amputated Gospel.” We do very well with evangelism. We’ve got mission trips, seminars, and Christian music all helping to spread the Gospel of salvation through grace by faith. One of my best friends from college is a missionary risking arrest in a country without religious freedom. This is all important and good work; it should not be neglected.

But that’s only half of the Gospel. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” – James 2:17. If we only focus on the eternal, without taking action in this world, we are not acting as Christians. But we have taken action and had influence on a few issues (i.e. abortion, Ten Commandments displays, the Pledge). Having done that, we conclude we have done God’s work in the public realm and go about our lives.

Jesus’s command in Mark 12:31 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) shows us precisely what is wrong with that. Christ’s own example on the Cross shows us that love is a radical, self-sacrificial act. The Bible contains over 550 verses specifically commanding us to help the poor. My favorite is Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25 where he concludes “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” As Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright put it, “caring for the poor is part of the Great Commission.”

How does the American Evangelical church, operating in the public realm, fare on this test of love, sacrifice, and serving the “least of these”? Very poorly indeed.

We tend to apply Christianity to only a select few issues, most notably abortion and gay marriage – issues which demand remarkably little sacrifice on our part. From our comfortable homes we preach that sinners should live better lives, and then we return without a thought to our lives of unbelievable luxury while others waste away in the cycle of poverty. [As of December 28, 2004, there is no mention of poverty in Jerry Falwell’s website (falwell.com), but there is an advertisement to join him on a 13-day cruise including a visit to London. The Christian Coalition lists among its goals “strengthening the family” and “protecting innocent human life” (all worthy goals), but similarly never mentions expressing God’s love by fighting for the poor.] This complacency is the sin of the American church.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Charles Sumner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other Christian abolitionists applied their faith to action and helped destroy the great national evil of slavery. Martin Luther King’s faith led him to helm a great Civil Rights crusade, bringing in a new wave of justice and opportunity for African Americans. (Much work remains to be done on this front.)

What happened? A number of things probably went wrong, but I’ll go out on a limb with one suggestion: Christianity was co-opted by extremist capitalism.

Now take a moment before you start calling me a communist. I’m not arguing for a Marxist revolution. What I am saying is that capitalism is a concession to human greed and selfishness. Adam Smith sought to design a system that harnesses that selfishness for mankind’s greater good. In this fallen world, perhaps that’s the best we can do. But that doesn’t make the market a positive moral good.

Christianity calls for love…for radical self-sacrifice. Capitalism, in its most extreme forms, teaches us to look out for Number One and doggedly pursue material gain. Simply put, these two philosophies are, at their core, fundamentally at odds. “How will this affect my 401(k)?” should never be the first question to enter a Christian’s mind.

Starting in the 1970s, and coming full tilt in the 1980s, business interests having no interest in the Gospel sought an alliance with Evangelical Christianity. With an eye to nothing more than their own enrichment, these interests sought to harness the passion and organization of activist Christians to launch themselves into power. At the same time, they sought to rein Christianity in…to give Christian activists their outlet in issues that won’t affect their prosperity. And we went along with it.

[This isn’t the only time that the powers-that-be have sought to co-opt Christianity to their own ends. See, for example, the Crusades or the post-Reformation religious wars. A more American example is Manifest Destiny.]

What am I trying to do with this letter? I’m trying to spark a discussion. To get Christians (including myself) to think seriously about their faith and how they will apply it. To show that we are collectively headed in a dangerously wrong direction and help us change paths.

I ask only that you, my fellow Christians, pray and consider this letter.