Friday, December 16, 2011

Shakespeare, The Golden Compass, and a guy named A.C. Bradley

So, a fortunate series of events turned my HS religion class today into a discussion of the brilliance of Hamlet.  It sent me tonight to the hundred-year-old classic of Shakespearean analysis by (dead white male) A.C. Bradley, called Shakespearean Tragedy.  If you like literature, but haven't read this former "given" of college English reading, you should open a tab for or Project Gutenberg right now.  

The insight that struck me when I first read the book three years ago, and did again strongly tonight, comes from Bradley's first lecture.  He talks about how, unlike Greek tragedy, the cause of the tragedy in Shakespeare isn't Fate.  It's not God(s) either.  It's the particular flaw that lives in the hero amidst all his native strengths, and it's always a moral flaw.  Now, Bradley is not a Christian moralist.  But he's a human, and therefore he's a ready-made moralist nonetheless.  He says: the main evil action --the evil that leads to everyone's destruction-- isn't usually the hero's evil.  It belongs to uncle-king Claudius, to Iago, to Goneril, Regan & Edmund, to the Houses of Capulet & Montague.  But the tragic hero's flaw will get him caught up in and ruined by the working out of the battle of evil.  Shakespeare's brilliance is that 1) Yes, evil will eventually lose; the bad guys will be destroyed by their evil, but 2) a whole lot of good --including the hero's own life-- will be destroyed when the truth will out.  It'll cost you your wife, daughter, title, land, and apparently every member of the Danish court.

Don't misunderstand this --and this is key-- Bradley doesn't think Shakespeare has any kind of karma, providence, fate, or kismet.  The Bard is not interested in poetic justice.  Nor does Bradley think he is trying to answer the Problem of Evil.  No, it's just that Shakespeare knows that evil is not self-sustaining.  It will collapse, and when it does, it will take out those whose choices put themselves in the way of it, even if they themselves are the very ones bringing down the evil antagonist (like Hamlet, Othello, Lear).  The perfect image he gives for this eventuality is that of the world retching out the evil.  He speaks of a necessity of nature to fix the problems of great injustice.  He speaks of the play's movement as a "convulsive reaction" and says that "in its efforts to overcome and expel [the main evil] [the world] is agonized with pain, and driven to mutilate its own substance and to lose not only evil, but priceless good."  It's true: all the bad guys do die horribly in King Lear, but then, so does the flawed Lear, and the utterly flawless Cordelia too.  

Which brings me to my modern literature showpieces.  I have no need for my literature to be Christian.  If Lewis makes it Christian explicitly, and Tolkien does it accidentally: fine.  But I need my literature --poets, novels, short stories, movies-- to be human.  To be real.  To follow the rules of this plane and cosmos and metaphysical dispensation.  J.K. Rowling, Euripides, and A.E. Housman are great literature, even without a purposeful Christian viewpoint, because they get us right.  I hate that I can see large chunks of myself is both Hamlet and Iago, but I love that William Shakespeare "sets me up a glass where I may see my inmost part."  I've learned that I've got a weird mix of Neville and Draco in me too.  In the necessarily tragic storytelling of the "epic" fictions which I've discussed before, we see again and again Bradley's Shakespeare-learned lesson.  If you want the eventual defeat of Sauron, the White Witch, the Volturi, and Voldemort, you're going to have to risk losing Boromir, Denethor, Edmund/Aslan, Irina, and countless loved ones of Harry Potter, all because of someone's tragic flaw.  As Alfred says in The Dark Knight: "You have inspired good, but you spat in the faces of Gotham's criminals. Didn't you think there might be some casualties? Things were always gonna get worse before they got better."  Wrongs get righted, but the losses are...well, umm, tragic.  This is good storytelling: following the contours of human nature.

This doesn't just happen in terms of death.  It's shown in how good choices, bad choices, and random chance work themselves out.  As I've mentioned befoere, at least in talks, the beauty of Rowling is that, even if she didn't intend that the one really problematic moral choice made by her good guys failed because it was immoral, at the very least the story logically plays out like that.  It did fail; it did --utterly unnecessarily-- cost at least one hero their life; and "providentially" it turned out to be essential to the side of good in the closing action that it failed.  The last chapter is entitled "The Flaw in the Plan", and the flawed plan is not Voldemort's.  This happens because Rowling organizes her story within the rules of the world --Shakespeare's world, our world-- and is willing to follow it then to its natural conclusions.  She doesn't force it; she doesn't cheat; she doesn't reveal her hand.  

Contrariwise, I just read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (the trilogy containing the The Golden Compass) over the weekend, and, to put it bluntly: Pullman doesn't get this.  Now, I'll need to take some time soon and give a full evaluation of HDM, including why I read them, but I can't right now.  Part of the wait is because I want to cool off a bit first and try to give a hopefully fair discussion.  But it'll be hard because of the human, natural standards I've explained above.  I don't really care if Pullman has Christian sympathies --or any religious leanings-- the problem is that he's flawed as a writer and atrocious as a philosopher.  Heck, Eminem is about as far from Christian music as you can get, but if you listen to him, there is something honestly human and accurate in his lyrics.  Pullman lacks that.  I know that HDM is the atheist's/agnostic's answer to Narnia, but that doesn't mean he gets to skip out on the nature of humans, both as characters in his books or as his readers.  

I have many sins to accuse Pullman of, and none of them are religious.  But let's leave aside his sleight of hand, his bait-and-switches, his poor pacing, and his three anti-climatic climaxes (in one book).  Let's just compare him with the authors above.  No HDM character is self-identifiable for the average person.  They are all either too heroic or too corrupt, or just too shallow.  Nobody, good or evil, could be considered a tragic hero.  If a trait in a good character may appear initially as a flaw, it'll either get re-evaluated by the reader in light of future events (though, not matured in the character, mind you) or be subsumed into a greater trait that they always had, but which some event will bring to the surface.  If there's a flaw in a bad character, it's just part of their awful nature.  The closest thing to a really complex character is Mrs. Coulter.  Don't get me wrong: I loved Lyra, the protagonist, but while she's rounded, she's not complex.  She never has a truly hard decision; she has no major, in-world moral flaw; and she has no internal doubts.  

In HDM, there are some tragedies, but they're not real tragedies like in Shakespeare, Tolkien, or Rowling.  Oftentimes people seem to die just to add to the pain of the main characters' lives or to show the evilness of the bad guys responsible for their deaths.  A few sacrifices are brought about because of a choice or a positive character trait --one quite beautifully, actually, in Book Two-- but there are no tragic climaxes.  Not one character has to seriously pay for their personal moral choices.  Justice is served according to the political/religious stance you take.  In Shakespeare's and Rowling's canons, the sole moral codes are --just like in Pullman's-- simple, unspoken, Natural Law "right and wrong" systems.  And like those two, Pullman's world abhors the evil in itself, but unlike the first two, his world doesn't convulse and mutilate itself to expel the evil, and/or the tragic good characters along with it.  The irony is that the first two and a half HDM books prophesy a rather specific cosmic overthrow and shakedown of good and evil, justice and tyranny, freedom and bondage....but it doesn't happen, at least not as anyone would imagine.  The "greatest and last clash" between free thought/love and Authority, has next to no personal investment by most characters, it sees the presumed ultimate duel traded in for a vulture attack, the battle doesn't really "do" anything other than create cover for the kids to attain their next micro-goal, and while the main protagonists have to do hard things, they never make a real choice of forsaking one good option in order to accept a painful, but more virtuous, one.  Maybe that's why Pullman has to dump lots of unearned despair and pain in whenever he can, even at the last pages of the book, so it seems like it wasn't too easy.  The road wasn't easy, but the decisions generally were.  Oh, did I mention that while they "destroy" God and guilt, they still don't get to live happily ever after?

Someone may protest that since Pullman disbelieves in a higher power than there should no sufficient reason within his world to make it retch out the wrong.  Leaving aside comparisons to the equally divinity-less but still "morally demanding worlds" of Rowling and the Bard, I still call Pullman a cheater because in his world there are prophecies, fate, rules of metaphysical governance, and, oh yeah, a gizmo that will always tell you the truth.  Sorry Phil, that's a way more supernaturally rigorous place than Othello's universe.  The reason I feel sorry for the kids who say "His Dark Materials were my Narnia growing up" is that in HDM they never learn that you have to change behaviors, there are no personal flaws to be fearful of, there won't be peace and happiness in the end anyway, and worst of all, there's never a place where a person has to decide between two great goods and know that they're closing off a lot of stuff forever in the process and that this choice could fill their life with regret.  Summary: Philip Pullman may want to kill God, but he doesn't even have real humans with which to replace Him.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Outline from "Theology on Tap" talk

Most people, we'll call them "amateurs", write a detailed outline before they give a talk.  I find this preposterous.  If you try to write it before, how do you know what good stuff is gonna be in the talk?!  No, the truly initiated know that it's best to give the talk, let some time pass, and then come back and write down what the heck it apparently all turned out to really be about.  Or, at least that's what me and my procrastination do.  

Bluster aside, the one good thing about doing this is it lets you figure out what you didn't remember to cover/get to in the talk.  I suppose it also lets people decide if there's any good reason to listen to your crap.

So here's an Outline with some of the didn't-get-theres in [square brackets].  I'll post again afterward with the other topics I think should be discussed regarding these authors.  Then I'll spend the next 7 to 250 days developing those ideas here.  Hey, if you got a blog, you may as well feel like it matters to do something with it!

Faith, Fantasy, & Modern Literature

I. Intro
  A. Going be disagreements
     1. I'm putting my own intellect & prudence in
     2. gotta make own decisions
  B. 2 Unrelated books
     1. examples of literature forming heart & mind
  C. Church Fathers commend Iliad, Odyssey, etc.

II. G.K. Chesterton
  A. fairy tales tell you about self, your home, and your enemy
  B. "Let them be born in wonder!"
      [why the Elves look to the stars]
  C. The Ethics of Elfland 
     1. re-appreciate the wonder of the world
  D. Catharsis - get it out the right way
  E. Josef Pieper's Leisure: the Basis of Culture
     1. Love and Death can break us out of the work-a-day world
     [hmm... Potter is about death; Twilight is about love.]
  F. Bad main characters
     1. "if the characters are not wicked, the book is" -GKC
     2. the good guys aren't *good characters* unless they change

III. J.R.R. Tolkien
  A. Utterly devout Catholic 
  B. Wrote Lord of the Rings so he could play at language & myth
     1. his "throwaway" story is considered 20th century's greatest
     2. in category with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare
  C. Not a "Christian author" strictly
     1. writes from that worldview, but not an allegory

IV. C.S. Lewis 
  A. Converts C.S. Lewis to myth and to Christianity
     1. explains Incarnation using the idea of self-expression in myth
     2. Christ is Father's true myth -- writing in our "human lexicon"
     [misspoke I think: LotR = change-in-time; Space Trilogy = change-in-place]
  B. Chronicles of Narnia are much more blatant & allegorical than LotR 
     1. 1st book=Gospel; 6th=Genesis; others are chapters out of Mere Christianity or Screwtape Letters
  C. Tolkien can trust himself a few more step farther from the Gospel
     1. #1 difference b/tw Cath. & Prot. is "How much do you trust man?"
     2. Annunciation, intercession, free will, a Magisterium, prayer, Inspiration?
  D. Christ-figures.  Aslan is definite.
     1. Tolkien?  No.  Gandalf~prophetic.  Aragorn~kingly.  Frodo~sacrificial

V. Major Objections to Potter & Twilight
  A. Sorcery, witchcraft, divination
  B. Emotional chastity
  C. Blending of the real world and the "secondary worlds"
  D. Vampires, etc. are "evil by nature"
  E. Immortal creatures throw off Christian story
     1. interestingly, so do the Elves in LotR
     [never got back around to that]

VI. J.K. Rowling
  A. "A profound, 2,000 page reflection on mystery of death"
    1. written in her grieving her mother's death at age 50
  B. "The best pre-evangelization for today's world"
    1. Church Fathers saw Homer as preparing for the Gospel
    2. people today push away the Gospel when see it coming
    3. not a Christian message; a human message to prepare for Christ's
  C. Death
    1. death confounds all human beings if they're honest
    2. if we skip that, we can't appreciate what being "Victor of Death" means
    3. her meditations on death mature because Harry matures
  D. Spells and real witchcraft
    1. I'm calling Matthew Arnold's bluff -- show me specifically what's New Age/Wicca
    2. more like technology or natural abilities -- Michael Jordan; Stephen Hawking
    3. these are morally neutral like all skills & technologies 
    [Rowling chuckles at the traditional things: cauldrons are chemistry lab equipment; brooms are skateboards, etc.]
  E. The "Deeper Magics"
     1. what this is: Where no spell or technÄ“ magic is cast
     2. these are utterly clear as being morally good or bad, and condemned if bad
     3. otherwise, magic is morally neutral
         a. treat neutrals as all things: look at the object, motive, circumstances
  F. Divination, sorcery, witchcraft
    1. legit fear: GKC on demons can deliver, but demand payment 
    2. but in Potter, magic is never done by request, conjure, dealing, or converse
    3. the "Divination class" is a literal joke of the book  -- it never works
    4. I'm more worried about John Q., Million Dollar Baby, and 7 Pounds
    5. The emotional manipulation of girl in 7 Pounds overwhelms Twilight's flaws
    6. Hogwarts doesn't "teach magic" per se, it teaches responsibility of it
  G. Plenty of New Age tagging along to Tolkien 
    1. we know better, but others saw Earth-worship
    2. I worry about the subtle, "personal" magics
    3. I trust Tolkien, but would otherwise fear most Gandalf in Moria
  H. Do kids want these powers?  Heck yeah!
    1. but you get over it like failed Jedi in 1985
    2. Potter has a clearer sense of "you're no wizard" kid
    3. **discussion of Devil as father of lies
    4. but I also fear a kid thinking to ask Devil for things when prayer "fails"
    5. actually these sell well because the rules of magic are self-consistent
    [I think Philip Pullman would have to cheat or "show his hand" if breaks Natural Law]
  I. Kids lie and cheat
    1. GKC's 2 points
    [Merry and Pippin]
    2.**One great moral error by a good character...but it didn't work!
    [last chapter's called "The Flaw in the Plan".  Spoiler: the flaw wasn't the bad guys'!]
  J. Did Cardinal Ratzinger condemn Harry Potter?
    1.  No.

VII. Stephenie Meyer
  A. Stephen King and others bust on as bad literature
    1. realize: she's not making worlds like Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling
    2. she's looking to tell a love story  (remember, "Love & Death"?)
  B. "Vampires are evil by nature"
    1. no, vampires are fake
    2. fake Chesterton quote: fear real evil; go along with fictional evil creations 
    3. yes, we can know a nature for non-exisiting things, like unicorns & vampires
    4. so, does Dracula have free will?
    5. if no, then he's dangerous, but not morally evil.  if yes, then vampires can be good
    [the importance and difficult of writing believable bad guys and their struggles]
  C. Natural Law seen in Twilight
    1. nature of the victim, not of the predator, determines the morality of the using
  D. Metaphor of blood lust for just plain lust 
    1. few pieces of media show the right way to deal with lust like these
    2. Theology of the Body for Teens analogy of Eskimo wolf self-destruction
  E. Books deal with question of "what can I do with my broken, fallen disposition?"
    1. lost gem is Midnight Sun, the web-only book from Edward's POV
    2. 1st chapter is perfect depiction of (male) lust.  maybe women's too
  F. Does require caution, but that could be great teaching tool
    1. you can't assume that because chaste Edward stays in Bella's room your BF can!
    2. A few vamps don't kill ppl; Cullens are safest; only Edward could ever snuggle 
    3. translation: you boyfriend isn't 1-in-a-million Edward; he's loving-but-weak Jasper
  G. 2 Great quotes to end with
    1. Honeymoon quote: "how do you do this without commitment?!"
    2. "Love for Edward alone grows to fit him and the baby instantly" quote
    3. Scott Hahn and Raniero Cantalamessa have similar quotes, but no teen reads them.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Audio from FOCUS Greek- Theology of the Body talk

Last night I gave a talk to the University of Nebraska's FOCUS Greek group on John Paul II's Theology of the Body.  It was a  rough conglomerate of the ToB and Natural Law, with emphasis on chastity, marriage, and the famous Trampoline analogy.

Here's a link that should allow to stream or download.  Either follow the "listen to audio" on the left side, or just click the 32.4 MB hyperlink. at the bottom.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Better, yet....Try this...

Ok.  I think this'll work.  It'll take you to my stuff on a non-profit media causes webpage called ""

Give it a second and it'll pop up a grey streaming audio bar near the top.  This lets you listen to the talk while it's streaming it.  It can take awhile to load. 

If you want to download the file (it's 44 MB, 1.5 hours listening), a little ways down on the page you can click on "download original file" which sends you to its source page.  At the bottom of that page, you'll see a line like right below here.  That's the whole file.   Right click on the 47.3 MB, and choose "Save Target As..." and choose some place to save this for future use or for putting on a mp3 player etc.  Don't click the link on this blog post will download and play the whole thing (not streaming) and you'll tie up your computer for a half hour or so.

20111122194925.m4a 43.7 MB

Finally! I hope...

<embed src=" Lossless Audio/Tolkien_Potter_etc./20111122194925.m4a" pluginspage="" width="480" height="15" autoplay="false" controller="true" enablejavascript="true"></embed>

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Slow As Molasses

I really am trying to get the talk on modern fantasy literature (Tolkien, Lewis, Harry Potter, etc.) up and available. I'm trying to do this on the cheap and on the easy. Apparently these are opposite and inversely related principles in the world of digital media. So far, I've had to join a blog, get an RSS feed, sign up for an Internet archiving site to store my MBs of data, and contemplate getting a website (no). And the digital archiver I'm using is free....but is therefore not necessarily the quickest, most reliable system. But, like I said, this isn't my life goal, so if I can avoid putting a dime into it, then it's worthwhile.

That being said, if you know anything about podcasts, media on blogs, or any other great advice (or are close with someone who is), send them my way...and soon!

—Hopeful in Hastings

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A great (and, almost certainly, stupid) leap!

1) I blame Jeff Schinstock and Logan Burda for this. Jeff made me present; Logan used the words podcast & blog. It would seem like wisdom, except for the warning in my heart.

2) Scott Rieker predicted this years ago by referring to me once by the title "Mr. Have Opinion, Will Travel".

3) For years I've applauded Mark Shea, and considered his blog to have the most perfect, most accurate title: "So No Thought Of Mine, No Matter How Stupid, Should Ever Go Unpublished Again". Now, I'm living out that self-deprecating sentiment, without nearly a clear enough sense of my own depreciation.

4) Don't expect much out of this. It's really only cuz it's necessary to publish a podcast, of which all I have planned right now is 1 installment.