Powers that Cannot Be Harnessed

Thought y’all might like to see my comments on Mary and the Witch’s Flower over at JPGB:

Those who remain morally awake, who don’t lose their heads under the influence of grand ideologies, are those who combine a love of adventure and a love of ordinary life. Paradoxical as it seems, this is actually a very normal and logical combination. The dream of total control kills both the awe of an uncontrollable world that is the essence of adventure, and the unselfconscious, purely natural domestic affections. Adventure and comfort must both be spontaneous and unplanned. And of course it is the contrast with being at home that makes the road romantic. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, the boy at the center of the fairy tale must be ordinary for the tale to be extraordinary; Jack must be small for the giant to be gigantic.

See it on the big screen – it’s worth it!

MLK on Your Life’s Blueprint

My new series at TGR is on Martin Luther King’s address to junior high students six months before he was murdered, entitled “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” In the first post, I cover the important influence of Christian personalism on MLK’s address, and what it means for the faith and work movement:

Of course, King’s purpose is not to encourage narcissism. Today, our movement has to spend a lot of its time resisting narcissism – an inflated sense of somebodiness – because it serves a lot of highly advantaged people who have been told too much about how they are somebody and not enough about how they are responsible to others.

For King, it was all the other way around. His audience had been told all their lives that they existed to serve others. They were treated as mere instruments for others’ ends. King had to work hard to restore their sense of somebodiness.

Be a somebody and let me know what you think!

Our Century of Culture Wars

Today, Christianity Today carries my review of the new book Moral Combat, a history of culture wars over sex in the 20th century:

Sex is at the center of the culture wars because sex is essential to religion and also (as the basis of the family) to politics. Conflicting approaches to sexuality, caused by different religious views, create political conflict because they produce different understandings of the family. The family is the institution that connects individuals to the wider social world, so any major change in the life of families implies some kind of major political change as a result—and vice versa. We see this today in debates about the definition of marriage, but it was just as true in debates about birth control laws in the 1920s or sex education in schools in the 1960s.

I’m especially proud of this sentence:

She bends over backward to rescue Margaret Sanger and her movement from their creepy enthusiasm for eugenics; Griffith delicately remarks that they were “caught up in the eugenic ideas then common among the white middle and upper classes,” which is a little like saying Al Capone was caught up in the glamorization of organized crime then common in Chicago.

I argue that one major underlying cause of culture wars is our inability to build social organization on the family as the basic unit of society rather than the individual since we adopted women’s suffrage – which we were right to do, but which we did without an adequate plan for how to adjust our polity to preserve the family’s social role under the new regime:

Thankfully, we are no longer willing to deny women the equal political rights to which they are entitled. But we no longer know how to build our social order on the family rather than on autonomous individuals, and that is a potentially fatal flaw.

Let me know what you think!

The Conversations We Need to Have

Today I’m honored to be included in a Breakpoint symposium on challenges facing the church in 2018. Among the contributions, I don’t see any apologies for Trump or for giving up on the culture, but I do see a healthy tension between the imperatives to restore our credibility and seek reconciliation and the imperatives to stand up for truth and justice, mindful of the creeping totalitarianism that is the culture of death. It’s not a debate per se, but it’s also not simply harmonious. The peacemaker cannot say to the prophet “I have no need of you.”

My own contribution focuses on recovering a sense that religious freedom is a long, hard road that requires painful sacrifice:

Will we be humble enough to seek solutions to this dilemma whose ultimate aim is peaceful coexistence with those of other beliefs, even if that involves hard sacrifices and not getting our own way all the time? Or will we listen to the charlatans who whisper that our problems are all someone else’s fault, and we can make everything right again – without painful sacrifices on our part – if only we can defeat our enemies in political battle?

Also includes a shout-out to my man Whittaker Chambers – if you’re in the Grand Rapids area, I’ll be speaking about him at a lunch event on February 22 at the Acton Institute.

It’s great to see the conversations we need to be having are being had!

The Past Jedi

Spoilers ahoy.

In my review of The Force Awakens two years ago, the following propositions were asserted:

  1. Dualistic Fatalism: The plot similarities between TFA and A New Hope were not a defect, but a natural extension of the franchise’s Zoroasterism; good and evil locked in an eternally recurring battle. Some of Maz’s dialogue at least suggested this was intentional.
  2. Cultural Barometer: As a pagan franchise, Star Wars provides as good a window as any into the state of our increasingly pagan culture.
  3. Boomer Regrets: Where the point of Darth Vader was that Boomers were afraid their parents were evil, the point of Kylo Ren is that Boomers are afraid their children are evil – and that it’s their fault, for breaking up the family.
  4. The Family Awakens: TFA was part of a broader cultural movement in which the dominant forces of feminism were/are retrenching their positions to accommodate the family.

In the review of The Last Jedi below, the following propositions are asserted:

  1. Control-G on All Counts!

This is actually two movies. One movie is called The Trials of Rey, Jedi Knight. The other movie is called Eat Arby’s.

After I saw TLJ the second time, I found myself waiting for my daughter to come out of the bathroom. I was sitting next to one of those big cardboard standup movie promotions. This one had an enormous (larger than life-sized) image of Dwayne Johnson’s face. As I watched, a gaggle of little kids came up and, giggling like maniacs, stuck their fingers into the image of The Rock’s nostrils.

I thought: This is both more intelligent and more entertaining than 50% of The Last Jedi.

There’s not much point reviewing the insulting stupidity of literally everything – plot, dialogue, characterization, continuity – in the Eat Arby’s movie. One point does feel worth dwelling on, however.

A heroic self-sacrificial death for Finn would simultaneously have been a perfect conclusion of his character arc, provided this half of the movie with the earned gravitas it desperately needed, and represented a real risk-taking break with expectations as opposed to a faux one. It would have been immensely powerful. Someone has said it would have been up there with Han going into the carbonite as an iconic moment.

But apparently self-sacrifice is only heroic when feminists with purple hair do it.

The cop-out about how Finn shouldn’t die in battle to save those he loves because that’s not saving what we love, or whatever, instantly reminded me of this line from G.K. Chesterton: “Sham love ends in compromise and common philosophy; but real love has always ended in bloodshed.”

I will also say this. Finn was the only character in TFA whose backstory was really new. And it’s not just any backstory. He is an escaped slave played by a black man. How he’s handled is important for reasons that go beyond Star Wars. There is a greater responsibility to do right by this character. Remember that moment when Maz totally has Finn’s number and is trying to shame him, and Finn leans over the table and says “you don’t know me, you don’t know who I am, what I’ve seen.” Remember that? That moment is there for a reason, people.

As I left the theater after TLJ, I wondered how many black people are bothered that Anglo progressives exploit their ancestors’ suffering to promote ideas and causes that are not only unrelated to, but (as here) often inimical to, black advancement. But that’s none of my business.

So let’s talk about The Trials of Rey, Jedi Knight.

As in TFA, the obvious and very extensive plot recycling from the original trilogy in TLJ is a feature, not a bug. It represents the eternally recurring fate of light and dark. As before, dialogue (Snoke’s this time) suggests the filmmakers know what they’re doing in this regard.

I also don’t think Rey’s surprisingly fast power-up is that big a deal. It’s part of the point of the movie. As Yoda says to Luke, “we are the ones they surpass.” Rey is some kind of prodigy from nowhere whose power will remake everything. Yes, maybe they overdid it, exposing them to some legit “Master the Force in Three Easy Lessons!” gags. But it’s not a huge problem if you realize the full significance of the fact that Rey isn’t just another Skywalker in line for the family lineage.

Where TFA was about the family, TLJ is about the past. We need the wisdom of the past, but the corruption of the past threatens to destroy us.

Luke wants to destroy the past in sorrow, because he fears his own failures. But Kylo Ren also wants to “destroy the past,” and he shows where that path always leads. The attempt to become the self-creating Nietzschean superman only produces monsters. We cannot, in fact, make ourselves. We cannot be anything other than what the past has made us. “I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed/The woven figure cannot undo its thread.” (Louis MacNeice, “Valediction”)

In both movies, feminism is retrenched to permit the real human needs that legacy feminism had denied us. Vice Admiral Purple Hair can’t bear to pass up the opportunity to humiliate a male subordinate, so as a direct result of her poor leadership, thousands are slaughtered. No, I don’t think that’s the lesson the filmmakers intended us to take, but the film does work well if we thus interpret. (As someone has pointed out, humiliating Poe once would have been fine; doing it a second time manifests a desire to humiliate not him, but us, the audience.)

By contrast, Rey comes to Luke needing a teacher. He won’t teach her because the past is unworthy. So what does she do? She steals the Jedi library! She will not be denied the wisdom she needs simply because it comes from the corrupt male-dominated past. Girl power!

Rey acts with such audacity because she is, as I have said, the prodigy who will change everything. It’s not a good idea for just anyone to overturn the tables in the temple, but it’s a good idea to do it if you’re Jesus.

I thought the scene in the dark side cave also made this point. Rey penetrates the essential self-referential emptiness of evil, which nullifies the meaning of things by removing transcendent frames of reference (that, I take it, is the point of the trans-temporal cause-effect chain of Reys, and of seeing herself in the stone at the end) and walks away relatively unscathed. Rey doesn’t struggle with inner demons the way Luke did.

And Yoda confirms Rey’s mandate to overturn the tables in the Jedi temple by burning the temple down. This is the implication of Luke’s first lesson for Rey, the vanity of thinking that the elemental powers of good and evil in the universe depend on our institutions and structures. The Jedi can indeed be burned down, and good will endure.

Yoda’s lesson for Luke, in turn, is that the failures of the old provide the greatest lessons for the new, and thus the old have much to pass on to the young regardless of their failures. When the old is merely destroyed and no more than that, the result is Kylo Ren. The determination of legacy feminism, and the other radical ideologies that rule our culture, to simply burn down the past without taking the books, is the cause of all our Kylo Rens.

But when the old do not merely abandon their posts, when they depart in such a way as to pass on their wisdom to the young, as Luke does on the salt planet (watch the ground under his feet!), the old provide the seed of the new – and, in so doing, they do not actually pass away at all.

They become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.