Let Noah (2014) Speak for Itself

This post contains some spoilers for the movie Noah.

Noah movie poster.

Source: Wikipedia. Copyright Paramount Pictures, 2014.

I will admit this outright: The only reason I wanted to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was because of the evangelical backlash. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn’t interested. There was just something about Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins as ancient Near Easterners that didn’t sit well with me. If God speaks King James English, then his devoted followers must obviously speak BBC English. And given Russell Crowe’s c.v., I assumed Noah would have more in common with Gladiator or Robin Hood than anything remotely historical. But then . . . Ken Ham.

In his review for Time magazine, Ham called Noah an atheistic treatment of the biblical story. He challenges the movie, accusing it of lacking any basis in “the historical account of Noah and the flood” and “barely any hint of biblical fidelity.” On some level, Ham is correct; Noah does not strictly follow the Genesis account. According to Naomi Pfefferman in “Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale,” Aronofsky and writing partner Ari Handel drew inspiration not only from Genesis, but from the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees as well as stories from Jewish mythology. And why shouldn’t they? Genesis was originally a text written to Jews not 21st century evangelicals. But even here, artistic license was taken, and despite expecting variation, I had a few moments of difficulty acclimatizing to the film. But after a Facebook news feed full of decriers of the movie, I was determined to let the film have its voice. It is easy to lose the story and themes while nitpicking the details. I fought to let the story play on its own merits.

Amidst this tale of stone-encased fallen angels (The Watchers), proto-industrial descendants of Cain, apocalyptic landscapes, and miraculous events is a story of an angry God who is also a redemptive God. When discussing the impending flood with his grandfather Methuselah, Noah says “fire consumes all; water cleanses.” The flood is a horrific act by which the Creator wishes to redeem his creation. He is angry that evil was brought into his world but he wants to set things right without completely destroying what he created. Thus, God is angry at the injustice and evil, but ultimately pained and full of sorrow. This struggle of emotions is seen strikingly in the character of Noah (Russell Crowe), who acts as the emotional icon for the Creator. God never visibly appears in the movie, but his character and essence is seen through Noah, who bears God’s image. Noah is angry and shaken by the lives of his fellow humans. He comes to understand that there is no justice, that there is only greed and evil. He also recognizes that same evil within himself and his family (which is played out strikingly when Noah allows an innocent to die). Noah’s struggle is to reconcile the potential for evil with the potential for good. Horrified at the prospects of evil (indeed, seeing nothing BUT evil), Noah proclaims that the human race must end with his family, something which is possible until his daughter-in-law becomes pregnant. Noah is prepared to do what must be done to ensure humanity’s destruction. But throughout the movie, at key points we are given glimpses of God’s mercy (I was near tears when the Watchers found redemption), and after the horrors of the destroying flood, Noah cannot allow more death. Ultimately, Noah finds mercy.

By this point it is easy to see the departures from the biblical account. Indeed, there are many more. But all of them service the themes of the film especially human choice in light of God’s silence. God speaks to Noah in visions, but other times He does not speak at all. Instead, characters are put to the test to follow God or not, to work toward God’s will or not. In a pivotal moment, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of Cain’s descendants, cries out for guidance from the Creator. There is silence, so he embarks on his violent plan. The Watchers, having been cast out of heaven and encase in stone must choose between living in bitter exile or helping Noah who is clearly doing the Creator’s will. In both of these instances the characters have a choice, and one leads to destruction, the other leads to redemption. There are many more tests like this in the movie, and I suggest it is one of the movies more subtle yet powerful ideas: What do you do when God is silent? In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis (writing as the fictional, demonic tempter Screwtape) states that the cause of evil is never in more danger when a human looks at a universe devoid of any glimpse of God, feels that God has forsaken him, and still obeys. This choice appears again and again in the movie, and it is a very real, painful choice that we must all face when we follow God.

Thus, I disagree with Ham on his second point. The themes of this movie are extremely faithful to the Bible and to the character of God. I think this faithfulness is lost in adherence to a systematic nitpicking fueled by literalist fervor. I find it fascinating that many evangelicals can find Christian themes in movies like The Matix (which also has Daoist themes and Buddhist themes) and The Book of Eli, but the themes in Noah are missed because of the baggage of the sacred text. If this movie had been called Utnapishtim, in addition to being horrible branding, it would have been evaluated differently. If this movie had changed the names, distanced itself from overt references to the Noah story, and been set in a science fiction setting about impending destruction and one man’s attempt to save his family, it would have been evaluated differently. But those versions were not what Aronofsky made. He engaged in the age-old practice of storytelling, reinterpretation, and commentary through art. He told the story of Noah analogically. It is not a film of either/or propositional statements of doctrine. It tells the story in symbols and metaphors. And it should. It is film, after all.

But Noah beautifully and artistically wrestles with justice and mercy in a story that has been too-often tamed by our telling of the story to children. It is a movie that is aware of evil in the world and that evil may demand a reckoning, thus antediluvian Earth bears more than a little resemblance to a post-apocalyptic society. Noah is a movie that questions whether or not we have learned anything and wonders if we are marching toward yet another judgment, but it meditates on a merciful God who, regardless of how it looks at the moment when we are cloaked in our own, dark prisons, longing for the light of the Creator, wants us to return to him.

I would urge evangelicals to go in to this movie with an open mind and here’s why: This movie is art and art touches people’s emotions. Art changes the way people think and perceive the world. And powerful art is internalized and becomes a part of us. Noah is powerful art that will move people and spark longing. By dismissing this movie as heresy, with “no biblical fidelity,” “unbiblical,” and not presenting “the true God of the Bible,” (Ham) we tell people who love this movie that the Christian faith is no place for them; we don’t want you here.

Works Cited

Ham, Ken. “Ken Ham: The Unbiblical Noah Is a Fable of a Film.” Rev. of Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky. Time. 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Pfefferman, Naomi. “Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale.” Rev. of Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky. Jewish Journal. 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Nightmarathon

For the last few years some friends have thrown an Oscar party.  I enjoy attending, but I have rarely seen the movies up for best picture.  Income is limited and I can’t watch as many movies as I would like.  This year, with the Oscars airing on Sunday, I decided to engage in a Nightmarathon, where I would attempt to see as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, barring those I had already watched.  Thus, Toy Story 3, True Grit, and Inception are removed from the list.  Of the ten films nominated for best picture, that leaves seven.  I want to include as many of the other films as possible, including those for animation, documentary, short films, etc.  But I know I won’t succeed.  So, Friday night I kicked off the Nightmarathon with The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech – This is the film I’m rooting for.  First, it is British.  Second, it is inspiring.  The movie takes place in the 1930s as Hitler is beginning to move in Gemany.  Colin Firth plays The Duke of York, a man who has a severe stutter.   With radio becoming a more prominent media, the royal family has found need to give speeches not only in person, but on the radio.  This is not a fun proposition.  After a few unsuccessful attempts with doctors, the duchess urges the Duke to try working with a man named Lionel Logue, who has had breakthrough with unorthodox methods that focus less on the mechanics and more on the psychological reasons why the stutter exists in the first place.  He attempts to empower The Duke.  Lionel is played wonderfully by Geoffrey Rusch.  The Duke’s life grows more complicated when The King dies and The Duke’s brother takes the throne, a position he never takes seriously.  With possible war looming, England needs a strong monarch to speak for the people.  The new King can speak, but is more interested in his mistress and parties.  The Duke is a strong man, but cannot speak clearly.  This is a wonderful film, beautifully shot and performed.  Colin Firth brings a great deal of subtlety and sympathy to The Duke.  While the central conflict of a speech impediment seems less epic than some other struggles, I believe it is quite relatable and very human.  You leave this film feeling good about life and empowered to raise above any difficulties you face.

The Social Network – A movie about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook?  Seriously?  Well, it is actually quite good.  The story follows Zuckerberg as he arrives at the concept of Facebook and follows him through to its success.  There is a framing device for the narrative.  Zuckerberg is being sued by two parties, one is his best friend and co-founder of Facebook and the other are three Harvard grads who say he stole the idea from them.  It is an interesting way of exploring the events of the film and I think it works quite well.   Zuckerberg is not portrayed as completely sympathetic, but neither is he portrayed as villainous.  There is some ambiguity over certain events and the reasons why they happened.  However, my primary complaint over the movie is that, while the creation of Facebook has some great drama to it, Zuckerberg is quite young and events that were set in motion over the course of this film may not be resolved yet.  The movie, by necessity needs to have some type of resolution, and director David Fincher and the screenwriters have done a good job of providing a type of resolution, but a movie about the creation of Facebook is inextricably tied to Zuckerberg as a man, and his life is ongoing and any growth he may have as an individual is most-certainly incomplete.  But the creation of a Facebook movie while the founder is still alive is certainly understandable because, as the movie recognizes, internet trends revolve around a certain amount of urgency while they are cool.  So far, Facebook has not proven to be a flash-in-the pan, but the general trend of the internet is for the old thing to be killed by the next-great-thing.  Thus, for a movie about Facebook to be received with any success, it must be released while Facebook is still popular and in the news.  When Zuckerberg is in his 50s and his life may show more resolution (not a guarantee, but it is possible), no one may care about Facebook anymore.  A movie about a fad that existed 50 years ago?  Probably not.

For the above restrictions, The Social Network is a success, but I don’t know if it has longevity or if it can really speak to your life.  It certainly surpasses mere entertainment, it humanizes individuals behind a social trend, but I don’t know if I walk away from it a better person.  That said, it deserves the nomination.

Winter’s Bone – My favorite thing about this movie was that I recognized Laura Palmer.  Small-town murder victim turned Ozarkian WT.

Dread permeates this film.  I’ve been studying the works of H.P. Lovecraft recently, and while this film has no similarities to his work, it reminded me of him.  The horror is all human and circumstantial, and I think that’s because on some level I recognize this film thoroughly.  I grew up near (in) places similar to this, but if the darkness that permeates this film existed in my childhood, then I was either unaware of it or my parents sheltered me from it.  Aspects of this film were incredibly familiar, from visuals to mentalities, but the tribal nature of the people seemed much darker than I remembered.  And yet, I suspect circumstances like this are entirely plausible.  But back to Lovecraft.  One recurring element in his fiction was that of cursed family lines.  I couldn’t help but adopt this lens when hearing about “blood” in this movie.  One large part of “country folk” is the idea of kin, of blood.  Family is important for help, but it can also be a curse.  Poverty is almost hereditary in instances like this due to the failures of one generation setting up the next for failure.  In this case, a family that cooked meth cursing the next generation to have to survive without a father.  And while family offers aid, it likewise doesn’t tolerate intrusion.  Ree’s father became a snitch, which hurt the family and ticked off a local “crime syndicate”, which is a bit of a misnomer, but the only word I can describe for it.

The sociology of this film is what most intrigues me.  Part mafia, part tribal mentality, the people in this film defer to established leaders, represented in this film by Thump.  The scene where Ree Dolly, after appealing to Thump for information on her father (appealing to the king and being refused) returns to demand the withheld information.  She is beaten into unconsciousness.  Upon waking, she is surrounded by women and men, part of Thump’s “tribe”.  Thump appears, dressed in leather vest with patches and medals, cowboy had and silver chains and stands over Ree like a judge, ready to pass verdict.  In the end, Teardrop appears and demands Thump hand Ree over to him.  He vouches for her and takes responsibility for her.  The mechanics behind the sociology in this scene fascinate me.  They also horrify me.

Are there no happy poor people?  Those in poverty are never portrayed as happy.  Don’t get me wrong, parts of the Ozarks are like this, yet you never seem to see happy poor Ozarkians.  Maybe this isn’t good drama, but I can’t help but wonder if this is the only way Hollywood sees us.  If you are poor and live in the backwoods, you are obviously struggling through life, unhappy, tough, drug or alcohol-addicted, and regularly engaging in criminal behavior.  Again, parts of this ring true.  You keep to yourself, not getting involved in other peoples’ business.  You don’t bring others into your business.  You don’t ask for help and you are very particular about the help you accept.  You get on with life and you get by.  But to the best of my knowledge, I didn’t grow up around backwoods criminal conspiracies.

On further reflection, however, I may have been close to it.  I may have been pulled out of such circumstances at a young age.  I can’t help but wonder. And I can’t help but notice that watching The Social Network and Winter’s Bone back to back was quite the surreal experience.  Yet, both involve very different social networks and methods of gathering and disseminating information.

Films Already Seen
Regular movie-viewing can be an expensive undertaking.  As such, my wife and I typically watch movies if the trailers make them look interesting to us.  I realize that trailers are marketing tools designed to make movies look better than they may be, thus a trailer is merely an impression, not a guarantee, but if the trailer fails to snag us (perhaps we are the wrong audience or just not interested in the subject), then we will skip the movie.  The three following movies did appeal to us, however, and the Academy was gracious enough to nominate them for an Oscar.  Thus, going in to Oscar season, we came out more ahead than usual.

Toy Story 3 – Pixar is rarely a bad choice.  I had small misgivings going in to this movie.  Toy Story 2 dealt a bit with the idea of Andy growing up and the worrying about what was next for the toys.  Is this retreading the same ground?  Thankfully, no.  While this theme is certainly present, the film views growing up as a way to pass things on.  In truth, this is one  purpose of growing and becoming an adult, to impact the next generation with your experiences, and if that involves passing on cool toys, so be it.  Hording is rarely a positive option.

This movie had me in tears, I’ll admit it.  And it won’t win best picture.  See, it is nominated in two categories: Best Picture and Best Animated Film.  The very fact it is nominated in both categories makes it unlikely to win the big one.  It will get its due and this will allow another film a chance at the big award.

Inception – One of the more over-rated sci-fi films of the year, but also good in its own right.  This movie just didn’t gel for me.  Yes, it is good.  Yes, I understand it.  It is well-crafted, but it isn’t a tight story and it isn’t a perfect film.  The secondary characters are largely unmemorable and underdeveloped.  It really seems that characters were inserted into slots as dictated by the concept, not any necessity for them existing in the story.  Thus, we have the guy who provides the kick, the girl who does the architect stuff, the kid from Third Rock from the Sun, and so on.  Possibly the character with the most depth (for me) was Cillian Murphy’s character.  Also, this movie used a cheat on the ending.  It is like director Christopher Nolan is saying “He is home with his family.  Or is he!!?! Mwahahaha!  I’m clever!”

True Grit – First thing’s first, I’ve never seen the original.  That shouldn’t matter, however, as this is an evaluation of the 2010 version.  I loved it.  It is funny, the direction and cinematography are great (Westerns can live or die on the latter).  Hailee Steinfeld makes this movie a joy.  I was expecting something dark and moody, but it was fun and humorous.  This really shows my ignorance, I know.  In the end, True Grit was a lot of fun and, closing song aside, nearly flawless in its execution.  I don’t really have much more to say about it than that.

A Review of “The Black Dahlia”

The Black Dahlia
Novel by James Ellroy
Movie Written by Josh Friedman and Directed by Brian De Palma

Lately I seem to be watching movies before reading the book.  When I was in high school, this never happened.  Even if a movie novelization was released, I would read that before watching the movie.  At this point in my life, however, it seems easier to just spend the two hours on the film than a few days on a book.  Case in point, it took me almost three weeks to read this book, and it is the first book I finished this year.  No, I don’t typically read that slow, but I just haven’t had the time.  A self-imposed writing schedule, chores around the house, and the responsibilities to the book shop demand more time than I can often give to books.  I miss them.

I had wanted to watch The Black Dahlia for a while.  I’ve never really be in to film noir, mainly because I hadn’t got around to watching it.  I’ve always loved the look of it, however.  This movie seemed promising, so I checked it out of the library for “guy’s night”.  It isn’t a bad movie, but it certainly suffers in the second half because it starts to get too convoluted and confusing.  Imagine my surprise when the novel is much more complicated, yet pulls things together more successfully.  In the film’s defense, I’ve read that an hour of footage was cut at the studio’s request.  This may account for the failure of the second half.  If they ever restore the footage, I will certainly watch it again.

As for the novel, it is based on The Black Dahlia murder in 1947.  The novel is narrated by Buck Bleichart, an ex-boxer turned cop.  The novel starts with his background and how he met Lee Blanchard and how both of them became golden boys in the warrants division.  Life was looking rather good for the two men until Elizabeth Short’s body was found, carefully posed, in an empty lot.  The Dahlia murder was gruesome, almost fitting serial-killing artistry, yet it seems to have been a one-off.  The murderer was never caught.  This novel takes many of the facts behind the investigation and weaves a coherent narrative and provides a solution to the case, albeit one that is entirely fictional.  You won’t read this novel and know what happened.  To the best of my knowledge, the killer in this novel didn’t exist in real-life.  Ellroy has woven fact and fiction quite brilliantly.

As wonderful and masterful as the mystery is plotted, the journey of the characters make this novel a fascinating read.  Elizabeth Short almost becomes a patron saint for Bleichart, she affects the lives of those investigating her death, and those involved with the investigators.  It is an interesting examination of how, despite being dead, someone can still hold a great pull over another person’s life.  Given that Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was a child, this theme is understandable and brilliantly explored.

I’m not sure I could recommend this novel to everyone.  Given the details of the real-life murder, the story must descend into some very dark territory.  It is gruesome, horrific, and chilling.  There is corruption on the police force as people seek to cover details of personal knowledge of Short’s missing days.  Many characters are very flawed individuals, brutal, racist, perverse.  Noir has never been noted for a light touch, and this being a novel rather than a movie from 1940 (which would be required to follow the code), it has the ability to portray whatever human depravity is necessary to speculate on the murder.  Yet, Ellroy somehow manages to end the novel with a ray of hope in the lives of Bleichart and his wife Kay.  If you are a fan of neo-noir, this book will be right up your alley.  If you love well-crafted mysteries and don’t have a problem with gruesome content, you’ll probably like this book.  Otherwise, you may want to avoid it.  It can be quite disturbing.

Steven King vs. The Talking Gods of Magic

Perhaps this will strike you as an odd statement, but often I feel that there isn’t enough magic in my life.  Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.

Last week I watched an excellent documentary on writer Grant Morrison.  The doco was called Talking With Gods, and it featured interviews with and about Morrison, his writing, and his life.  Morrison has had an odd life, with odd experiences.  He would, as a child, sneak in to top secret military facilities with his father.  He claims to have been abducted by alien intelligences which opened him up to an altered view of reality.  He regularly practices magic, primarily in the form of sigils.  There was a bit of disappointment when, during the course of the documentary, Morrison explained how to perform a sigil.  It seemed to involve, as one of my friends put it, “masturbating over word games.”  But while this seemed a bit more mundane, it was also intensely practical.  In fact, that describes Morrison’s view of magic, according to the documentary.  He feels that magic should be practical.  Do this, and you get this.  There was something very odd, to me, of this marriage of mysticism and utilitarianism.  However, it does seem to work for Morrison, and anyone who has read his work cannot say he isn’t clever, brilliant, or insightful.  Or weird.

Upon finishing the documentary, I spiraled into a depression.  This was due in part to lack of sleep the night before, but the documentary spurred it along a bit.  Here was a man who worked hard to get where he was, but he also had a lot of unusual experiences, and not all of them were drug-induced.  He created an avatar of himself in his comic series The Invisibles, a character named King Mob, and in order to more fully write this character, Morrison dressed like King Mob and began populating the locations and meeting the people King Mob would encounter.  Possibly the most unusual experience was when Morrison wrote that King Mob got a necrotizing virus.  Soon after writing this, Morrison became very ill and even had some skin abrasions (or something like that).  Morrison is a proponent of using his art to manifest change in the real world, and it seems that this happened in a horrific way in The Invisibles.

Again, my depression.  Morrison has had unusual experiences, amazing travels, and he is a great writer.  His life seemed filled with magic, no matter how you define the word.  At first I was unaware of what exactly caused my depression.  My wife was who finally figured it was linked to the magic of Morrison’s life.  I have often lamented about the mundanity of modern life (and by “modern life”, I typically mean “my life”).  Sure, I have learned a lot about how to cope with where I am, but I often crave something more.  Oscar Wilde once said that we are all in the gutter, but some of us reach for the stars (or something like that).  The Brit-pop band Blur posits that modern life is rubbish.  The lessons I have been learning in life seem to indicate that the world around us will move with great indifference to us and the most we can do is adjust our attitude and possibly exhibit something more positive.  This is an aspect of the teachings that Christ gave his disciples.  This also mirrors something one of Morrison’s friends said, that for Morrison the universe is cold, dark, indifferent, and that the ultimate act of rebellion is to be happy.

****

Last night I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and found myself saying, “Why doesn’t this happen in real life?”  For those not up on pop culture, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie based on a comic book of the same name.  It involves a young slacker named (obviously) Scott Pilgrim, who has relationship issues and falls in love with a girl named Ramona.  He sets out to get her despite already having a girlfriend.  There is a catch, however.  Scott must defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes, people she had dated in the past.  The fights take a variety of forms, from outright combat to a contest of bass playing, to a literal battle of the bands.  The movie is really the most-perfect adaptation of a video game, only there was no video game to adapt.  What I find great fun about this film is the message that Scott is really a self-centered jerk who must learn about self-respect and being respectful of others in order to defeat the final ex Gideon.  There is a moment where Scott admits his love for Ramona, which gives him the Sword of Love and great powers, but this is not enough to defeat Gideon.  When Scott finally learns that he has been a jerk and owns up to this, he gets the Sword of Self-Respect, which is much more powerful than The Sword of Love.  This also prompts those around him, including those he wronged, to join him in battle.  We see Scott Pilgrim do all these things, fighting Ramona’s exes, which are physical representations of her emotional baggage, the ghosts of past relationships that we must all deal with in our lives.  Yes, in the movie the exes are real, but they are a metaphor as well, giving Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a certain magical quality in its analysis of modern courting rituals and the human experience of relationships.

Did you see that word again?  Magical?  Yeah, this movie made me feel similar, although no where near as bad, as Talking with Gods.  So the question remains for me:  Why do I have this craving for magic?

****

I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction.  Even more so, I watched it on television and played it in video games.  My formative years (and in turn my storytelling influences) include The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The X-Files, Doctor Who, the imagery of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and in more recent years the writing of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the ideas behind H.P. Lovecraft.  It is obvious from this list that I have an interest in works of imagination and world-building.  But what also strikes me as I type this is that there is only one Christian work on this list, and that work is not an overt one.  Behind all of this, there are writings of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, both of which are more overtly Christian, but it strikes me as interesting that many of the formative stories from my past are not Christian.  This wouldn’t make any difference if I wasn’t a Christian.  I am.  Yet, I don’t find much refuge in the writings of my fellow believers when I am looking for magic.  Why is that?

I have started to believe we are killing our sense of wonder in Western Society.  Perhaps it has come about due to our devotion to science and the scientific method.  Yes, people like Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins say (or have said in the case of Adams) that just because we can explain something, doesn’t mean we can’t look at it with wonder, and while I can understand that to a point, I think I still crave mystery, and mystery often carries with it the possibility of not knowing.  What has been the most joyous experience with Lost?  It certainly wasn’t in the conclusion of the show, but in trying to figure out the mystery.  God is a mystery, a magical force if you will allow me this description.  He cannot be fully understood.  However, we have gone a long way to trying to define him, while insisting he cannot be defined.  Begin studying theology, especially reformed theology, and you will start to see the concepts, terms, and rules that people believe govern existence as created by God.  With the rise of the battle between naturalism and creation science, things seem to have gotten worse and for someone to make the admission “I just don’t know” seems unacceptable because it will cause ground to be lost in the debate between who is right and who is wrong.  I think this is partly why the magic and wonder of the Christian faith has been eroding, because we want to be seen as the ones who are right, and therefore win the cultural war.  Sometimes when you prove someone wrong, they hate you even more, and won’t listen no matter how right you are.

So, I want God to by a mystery.  This isn’t a bad thing, and this type of “magic” is probably good.  However, there may be a darker craving at work here.

People bring in thousands of books each week for us to look through at the Christian book shop where I work.  We reject a good deal of them because we have rather strict guidelines for content, but last weekend someone brought us two books by Anton LeVay, The Satanic Bible and a book on Satanic Rituals.  While I know that this form of Satanism doesn’t deal with Satan as viewed in a Christian worldview, but Satan as a force of nature and desire, there is still no place for the book in our store.  Even if we put it in the world religion or cult section, there would be complaints.  People throw a fit if we put a Seventh Day Adventist childrens’ book in with the other kids books.  So, the book buyer threw the books in the dumpster.  When we didn’t buy them, the customer decided to donate them, and none of the organizations we donate to would have taken the books either.  So, dumpster.  The buyer told me about the books on Monday.  My reaction?  I was instantly at the dumpster looking for the books.  I found them and flipped through them, interested.  However, I didn’t learn much more than I already knew from a few of the religion classes I had in college, so I returned them to the trash.

In his book Surprised by Joy (Harcourt and Brace. Pages 59-60), C.S. Lewis gives the following admission of his time in a preparatory school:

“No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health.  She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known.  We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.  Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life.  Guides were ever rarer then than now.  She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition.  Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.  I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men.  I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf had only flashed on my mind for a moment…..But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my simple theology.  And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since–the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult.  Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean.  I once tried to describe it in a novel.  It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.”

These truly are cravings, the cravings for some form of knowledge, some formula by which the world works, a formula which society at large has not discovered.  There are certainly aspects of that in the Christian religion, especially as practiced early on.  However, we have centuries of tradition to mold the expression of Christianity in the West to a form that is more manageable and quantifiable.  We measure our success in church attendance and offerings.  But Western society in general likes to measure and quantify and be generally less mystic about things.  This is a breeding ground for cravings of an occult nature and indeed neo-paganism is rising.  At the same time, the center of The Church’s population seems to be moving from America to China or even Africa.  This is due in part to persecution (how counter-intuitive is that?) and in part due to the decadence and comfort of the West which has a tendency to dilute The Gospel.  But there is a soul ache in myself for something more, something magical.  The final question is whether or not that rests in Christ or in something else.  What I find particularly interesting is that as these cravings and desires (at times, even lusts) have increased, I have learned more about Christian tradition, First Century Christianity, Judaism, and read passages of The Bible with different eyes of interpretation.  The faith I had in high school and college would have been destroyed by these cravings.  The faith I have now, while seeming uncertain and even more fragile, is still malleable and I believe that these answers may indeed lie in the truth of who Christ is, not the perception of who he is based on what I have been told.

To wit, there may indeed be magic in Christianity.  We may have just neutered it in The West.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

What’s it about? In another reality, Lex Luther is a good, but he is being chased by The Crime Syndicate, which is made up of evil versions of the DC heroes we know and love.  Luther finds a way to “our” Earth and enlists the aid of The Justice League to defeat The Crime Syndicate.

Kevin Conroy. The primary problem with any DC Universe animated film is the

Similarly, I am not Mark Hamill

question of Batman.  Two questions, really.  First, is Batman in the film.  Second, does Kevin Conroy do the voice?   If the answer to this second question is no, then the film will automatically suffer.  There is no other Batman but Conroy.  This is a fact.

That said, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, henceforth abbreviated as JLCoTE, already has one strike against it.  I’m not sure why Conroy wasn’t in the film.  Perhaps he wasn’t available.  Seeing as this film was produced by Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, two of the minds behind Batman: The Animated Series, it would have made perfect sense for the voice continuity.  As it stands, William Baldwin provides the voice.  While he does a passable job, it just isn’t Conroy.  No offense to Baldwin, I rather like him as Jayne in Firefly, but he does not bring the nuance of emotion to Batman that Kevin Conroy provides.

The Negative. Voices are my main concern with this film.  Superman is performed by Mark Harmon, a performance which works in some scenes but not in others.  Possibly the two standout performances are Jonathan Adams as J’onn J’onzz and James Woods as Owlman.  But these are the two characters who get the most emotional depth and attention.  J’onn has a character arc where he grows close to Rose Wilson.  These scenes are handled rather well and are an unexpected highlight of the film.  Owlman is cold and emotionless.  Being the evil version of Batman, he has the same temperment and emotional temptations.  However, in this world he became evil.  As Batman says at the climax of the film, “We both looked into the abyss, but you blinked.”  Owlman is the ultimate Nihilist, he believes everything is pointless, including reality.  This is why he wants to destroy it.  Woods conveys a straight, near emotionless delivery that effectively aids the characterization.

Yes, Owlman wants to destroy reality.  This is problem number two with the story.  I can’t quite get behind villains who want to destroy all of reality, which also means they wish to destroy themselves.   Part of the logic of the film is that every decision we make creates an alternate Earth where we made the opposite decision.  This multiverse, however, has a point of origin: Earth Prime.  It is the first Earth, the one all Earths are connected to.  Thus, if it is destroyed, all of reality is destroyed.  Therefore, the only decision of any consequence is the decision to destroy Earth Prime.  It is the only action that has any meaning.  I think this story just about gets away with this as a motivation.  It is thought out and Owlman is portrayed this way to the very end, his last words before his plan fails and he dies being, “It doesn’t matter.”

Next problem, the Mafia.  The Crime Syndicate is portrayed as a Mafia-like organization where the U.S. is divided into territories and trusted lieutenants become “made-men”, meaning they are given superpowers.   This is an interesting concept, but the Mafia influence also translates to over-the-top Italian dialogue and accents.  It seems strange to listen to Ultraman (the evil version of Superman) threaten Lex Luther with an Italian accent.

The Positive. Enough of the gripes.  What works?  The fun of the film, for me, was trying

President Slade makes me smile.

to identify the characters.  There are a lot of cameos in this one, my particular favorite being the Supers who bore a slight resemblance to The Marvel Family.  Even though they were evil, they instantly became my favorite characters.  I’ve hardly read any comics starring The Marvel Family, but I love them all the same.  I can’t figure out why.

The most impressive part of this film?  The fights!  Seriously, these are some amazing, well-choreographed fights.   You see the characters move into different positions and footing, reflecting actual fighting styles.  These aren’t just blind punches and kicks, they are nuanced maneuvers.  I especially loved when The Flash was fighting Johnny Quick and despite fighting each other at super speed, The Flash would also throw out quick punches at whatever villain he passed just to give his teammates a bit of help.  Great care was given to analyze fighting styles for the different characters and utilize them in whatever way suited their powers.  I give them high marks for this.

Batman. Batman is my favorite of the DC characters.  Truly, my favorite super-hero.  I usually think of him more as a mystery man since he has no super powers.  He is just a man who is well-trained.  The Batman in this film is inconsistently portrayed.  At times, he has humor, at other times he is harsh and cold.  It really seems as if two different takes on Batman were being presented, and I don’t think they meshed.  This is a Batman who stole The Flash’s pretzel at the beginning of the film, and tricked Johnny Quick to sacrifice his life at the end.  I can come up with all kinds of ways to justify these differences, but it would be just that: justification.

Overall, this was not one of my favorite DC animated stories.  However, it is still quite good even if I wasn’t a big fan of it.  Besides, DC Animated cannot hit perfection every time.  And even though I didn’t care as much for this one, I am eager to see others.  There was so much potential in this story, I’d love to see more.

So long as Kevin Conroy is Batman.