Christianity and the Ordinary Life on TV

Is The Simpsons the most Christian show in the history of TV?

This question came after I asked fellow Sweet Talker Dave a related one: is The Simpsons the last show to feature a regularly churchgoing family?

To which he responded: can you think of any other popular TV show in the entire history of the medium which did so?

I put the question to Twitter and received a handful of replies. Most, however, involved families or characters that were nominally churchgoing, but the church was kept firmly offstage. In The Cosby Show, for instance, church is a place the Huxtables are occasionally coming home from, and that is it.The more we discussed it, the more bizarre this seemed. Certainly our culture is more secular than ever now, but that was hardly the case from the start of the history of TV. People offered several theories, but I’m going to run with the one I found most interesting:

Stephen is referring to the following:

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I think “reverent portrayals” sums this up nicely.

The bread and butter of TV from the beginning have been portrayals of ordinary American life. By making church purely an object of reverence, it became something bigger than ordinary life. So the center of gravity for shows became work and the home, almost exclusively. The role of church was relegated to special story arcs that required reverence or moral dilemmas or crises of faith, something that would grow tiresome if it were a regular feature of The Andy Griffith Show or Mary Tyler Moore.

The Simpsons, in its irreverence, actually normalized churchgoing—a strange turn of phrase, given how normal churchgoing still is in America! But relative to TV before and since its inception, “normalizing” seems the appropriate word.

Church is a feature of ordinary life in Springfield. People go there every week. Children find it boring. Adults often do, too. Reverend Lovejoy often displays a frustration with his flock expressed with dry and sarcastic wit. The church and even Lovejoy play important roles in episodes specifically about faith or moral dilemmas, but for the most part, it all just fills in the unassuming background for the Simpson family’s ordinary life.

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This One Theory Will Make You Moral

Featured Image is Jonah and the Whale, by Carlos Antonio Tavella

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

-Andrew Fitzandrew, Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

A friend recently said “moral philosophy doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore and neither do I.” Andrew’s post, quoted above, has a similar feel to it.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes.

It’s hard to escape this conclusion, if morality is expected to be a topic akin to astronomy and produce insights of a similar nature. Andrew does not expect that, but he sees this deviation as the source of a problem. I do not expect it either.

What might it mean for moral philosophy to “know what it’s doing,” when we acknowledge we cannot expect the precision of a scientific answer?

Continue reading “This One Theory Will Make You Moral”

The Emperor is No Novelist

Featured image is a meaningless aesthetic experience put down on paper by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The emperor was sitting in his study one day, when he felt the stirring of the unconscious impulse of genius. Wasting no time, he dipped his quill in ink and moved it across the page, moving to a new page when the moment felt right. In short order, he had a stack of papers, filled with the work of his genius.

He called in his top adviser. “What do you make of this?” he asked, gesturing to the papers. His adviser looked through a few of the papers.

“Sir?” He replied, uncertain of what was expected of him.

“I have just completed this novel,” the emperor prompted, “I was wondering if I could get your honest opinion.”

The very last thing the adviser ever wanted to give was his honest opinion, least of all at that moment. “I’m not sure I understand…perhaps you could provide some more context?”

“Context!” The emperor snorted, “Of course you don’t have enough of that to share in my experience of creation. Would you like to go back and enter my mind, at the moment it occurred? Would you like to go through my life story as a whole, so that you can see how it might have resulted in such inspiration? But of course that is impossible.”

“So…”

“But fear not! Your aesthetic experience need not depend on my unconscious creative process whatsoever! Simply gaze at the pages. Do you not feel their beauty?”

“Ah…yes. Yes, I think I see now. Yes, they are truly moving, sir.”

“You’re not just saying so?”

“Have you ever known me to engage in empty flattery, your majesty?”

The emperor showed more and more people his work, and found that their reactions were similar. So, encouraged, he set up an exhibit, in which all of the individuals were displayed encased in glass.

Many came from all over the land the indulge in the aesthetic experience of the emperor’s work.

The exhibit was set up in the throne room, so the emperor could enjoy the sight of his subjects experiencing his work.

One day, he was pleased to see a mother had brought her child. The boy could not have been more than seven or eight years old.

“What is this?” He asked his mother.

“It’s the emperor’s book,” she explained. The boy stared at one particular page for a very long time. The emperor’s heart swelled with pride at the sight of a child working so hard to appreciate his creation.

“No it isn’t,” the boy finally said.

“What’s that?” his mother stammered, casting a nervous glance towards the emperor.

“It isn’t a book at all,” he said, “it’s just scribbles.” Silence filled the room. Everyone was half-staring, half-attempting to appear nonchalant.

“I told you it was a book, and it’s a book,” his mother whispered sternly.

“But there aren’t any words at all! You can’t read it!” he shouted.

“Be. Quiet!” she hissed. She looked up and saw the emperor staring down at them. “I apologize for his rudeness, your majesty,” she stammered, “perhaps he is simply too young to appreciate anything more demanding than vulgar storytelling.”

“Yes…perhaps so,” the emperor replied quietly. “That must be it,” he said to himself, long after everyone had left, and he was alone.

Won’t You Be Our Savior Against the Forces of Stupidity?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the purest specimens of midcentury rationalism ever produced. Anyone who wishes to understand the narratives of progress and liberation, that hold so much sway over so many, owes it to themselves to watch this movie.

The basic elements are all there: an alien from a superior civilization. Human beings who let fear become their guiding principle, and who are hopelessly unable to overcome their internal divisions. A lot of conflict and intrigue leading up to a didactic speech for the finale.

The ideology that went into the making of this movie was most apparent, to me, in the early interactions between the alien Klaatu and a man simply introduced as Harley, the “Secretary to the President.”

Klaatu demands a meeting, not with the president or even with the UN, but with leaders from all of the nations in the world. When Harvey attempts to explain the politics that make such a thing unlikely, Klaatu shows nothing but contempt.

My mission here is not to solve your  petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature who lives on Earth.

When the attempt to gather all of Earth’s leaders fails, Klaatu is equally as understanding.

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Calling political problems complex is merely an excuse for stupidity, which a superior being has no patience for. Meanwhile, Klaatu is incapable of compromising—he will not meet with some or even most of the world’s leaders, and broadcast to everyone else. No, it’s either everyone, or the annihilation of life on Earth. Complexity or compromise are for the stupid.

After watching this scifi classic recently, I could not help but think of two contemporary figures who, while undoubtedly rationalists of a sort, have more self-awareness of this tendency.

One was Scott Alexander. In this post, which is in the form of a dialogue, the following exchange occurs:

Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

Emphasis added by me.

The second comes from Neal Stephenson’s most recent book, Seveneves:

Luisa chuckled. “I hear you, sugar. I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. But I have to warn you that this is the word—‘ politics’— that nerds use whenever they feel impatient about the human realities of an organization.”

Alexander and Stephenson acknowledge that the “human realities” of politics and group action, and even of acquiring knowledge, are legitimate problems. Not “petty squabbles,” not merely a matter of clearing “stupidity” out of the way.

Yet both largely end up taking more subtle and nuanced paths to similar ends. Alexander concludes his post by arguing that the effective altruism movement is capable of eradicating global poverty. Stephenson’s novel continues to be framed as a struggle between technocrat-engineers who just want to roll up their sleeves and solve problems, and politicians who use their influence over the more numerous non-engineers to obtain power at the risk of compromising the whole mission.

I am not going to offer up a critique of this framework here. Greater minds than mine have done so, many times. And greater minds than mine have defended it.

I will, however, end with Klaatu’s didactic speech, the payoff of the whole movie. Those who wish to avoid spoilers can skip it. But I was amused by the tepid, almost bureaucratic character of the speech. This was no idealistic or romantic call to rise above ourselves. This was a cheap Leviathan with a defense of it that lacked heart.

In any case, this is the speech:

Your ancestors knew this when they  made laws to govern themselves — and hired policemen to enforce them.

We of the other planets have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression. A sort of United Nations on the Planetary level…

The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots–Their function is to patrol the  planets — in space ships like this one — and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us.

At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war — free to pursue more profitable enterprises.

We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works.

I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.

This is the best the superior being, who looked down his nose at our “petty squabbles,” had to offer? “We do have a system—and it works.”

You know who else had a system? I hear it even made the trains run on time.

One wonders if the writers of The Day the Earth Stood Still truly believed that some analogue of completely trustworthy peacekeeper robots are or will be available to the human race. I worry that too many may think so, even today. Even when our rationalists show a modicum of self-awareness.

Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

In a way, my previous post was about the existence of existence. This post might be about the existence of truth. Or, perhaps it is about the illusion of its absence.

Atonal Music

Unlike most music fans, I love serial compositions. They’re not for everyone, but the reason I like them is because they use our implicit knowledge of traditional Western harmony against us. Even if you don’t think you know anything about music, you do. Your mere cultural exposure to music has ingrained you with the understanding of certain rudimentary concepts, certain expectations of harmonic and melodic sequences, even if you aren’t expressly aware of them.

What makes atonal music like Schoenberg’s so much fun for me is that, because they lack the same kind of musical structure traditional music has, my mind races in to fill the void. I’ll hear two notes played at random, and my mind subconsciously creates a harmonic link between them. Then a third “random” note appears, and my mind stretches to create a harmonic link that reconciles all three notes. On and on it goes until my mind can no longer link all the notes together, and I have to start again.

This very process is what makes other people hate serial compositions. Rather than compelling, they find the process stressful. Well, different strokes for different folks – but what’s interesting here is that even if you hate serial music, you can’t stop your brain from attempting to form patterns in the music. Love it or hate it, the music switches on a particular attribute of human thinking: pattern recognition.

If I play all the notes corresponding to, “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” and suddenly stop, then your brain will automatically think, “…star.” To people who spend a lot of time listening to music, like me, all you’d have to do is play, “Twinkle, twink…” – just three notes – and our musical brains would automatically think, “..kle little star.”

If you really want to confuse someone, then try whistling the notes that correspond to: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / Fa la la la la, La la la la!” But if you really want to make them made, make sure the first part is in a different key signature than the second part.

Many great composers have utilized similar tricks to play the listener’s ear against itself, but the serial composers took this fact of human psychology to a whole new level, in the pursuit of new “outside sounds.” The genius of atonal music is that it makes us see patterns even where none exist, i.e. even when the notes arranged, essentially, nonsensically.

Atonal Logic

A few years back, in a post entitled “The Paradox Paradox,” I wrote:

The interesting thing about paradoxes is that they are both a problem of definition and of perception. The definition can never be true, and their existence is in fact only a matter of perception.

A paradox is defined to be a statement that is “seemingly” or “apparently” self-contradictory. But their main problem is that they don’t really exist. No statement can be both true and false at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.

Paradoxes capitalize on the fact that language is more flexible than logic. The “trick” is that self-contradictory sentences can be constructed whose logical or physical properties are impossible, in the same sense that imaginary creatures can be described in books even though their physical existence is otherwise impossible. I can construct the sentence “This statement is false,” but I cannot make it mean anything. While such statements dazzled the ancient Greeks for a time, in the end they are simply nonsense.

Like atonal music, paradoxes adhere to a consistent internal logic, namely, valid linguistic syntax. Also like atonal music, the value of paradoxes is that they are simply entertaining. And, like atonal music, paradoxes contain no outward meaning beyond their internal structure; the composition is the statement, but there is no meaning to be extracted beyond its structure.

Paradoxes aren’t the only statements that work this way. I can also construct a sentence like, “My fertile eyeglasses eat nimble compassion,” which has all its parts of speech in the correct locations, but which conveys no real information. Eyeglasses aren’t fertile and they cannot eat anything; compassion isn’t nimble and it cannot be eaten.

Here, though, our sense of pattern-recognition might kick in and wonder whether there might be a sense in which that statement might be true. Can eyeglasses be fertile in a manner of speaking? Can compassion be allegorically nimble?

It sounds interesting for a moment, but we soon realize that the sentence really is nonsense, and then we move on.

Atonal Knowledge

I thought about my old post on the nonsense of paradoxes when Adam posed his questions the other day.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

If my statement is true, then in what sense does Germany border China?

I think it’s possible to listen to that Schoenberg piece I embedded above and to genuinely believe that it has a tonal center, even though it was deliberately written not to have one. I also think it’s possible to genuinely believe that compassion can be nimble. The problem with beliefs is that they can be – and quite often are – simply wrong.

This fact is unpleasant. We don’t like to judge others, and in particular we don’t feel good about judging others’ beliefs. But atonal music is genuinely atonal, and skepticism of consciousness is genuinely impossible. We don’t have to be jerks about it, but when someone claims to reject the existence of consciousness, we can safely discard their statement as a wrong thing, a logical and physical impossibility, that they only think they believe.

This shouldn’t stop us from analyzing the matter. For one thing, just because a particular truth exists doesn’t mean we already possess that knowledge. For another thing, we might only realize our mistaken beliefs after close consideration of the matter.

And, thirdly, thinking about such things is entertaining, just like paradoxes and atonal music.

Get Thee To a Nunnery

On the descent into madness

The contest for the greatest play in the English language comes down to one of two Shakespeare plays: Hamlet and Macbeth. Both of these plays delve deeply into the psyche of ordinary men and women who enter the realm of madness. The plays themselves and the characters therein resonate deeply, crossing boundaries temporal and cultural. In our contemporary culture, the descent into madness is the theme of two of the most popular record albums ever recorded, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The former used to rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller for worldwide sales, and is still the second most selling record of all time. I’m sure that as soon as either David Gilmore or Roger Waters dies (Rick Wright, RIP) many new fans will restore the rivalry at the top of the all-time charts

Shakespeare draws a picture for us: Hamlet, young Hamlet, possessed by the ghost of his father to avenge his death, has been veritably banished by his uncle to England, whereupon he will be murdered, as everybody knows. By some twist of fate and the adventuring spirit of young Hamlet, he escapes, making his way back to Elsinore. Upon his arrival at the outskirts, he stumbles across an open grave. Holding up the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, and a favorite person from his childhood, he says, “I knew him.”

Linear perspective insists that all parallel lines converge upon the horizon. Well, here at the open grave, the horizon been brought dramatically forward, and Hamlet experiences the confrontation which is a response to his melodramatic soliloquy: what dreams may come after we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

Hamlet 1948 réal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier  Collection Christophel
Hamlet 1948: Laurence Olivier

Not for long, for the grave is not passive; it is active, yawning, galloping, devouring. In a brilliant interpretation of the subtlest kind, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, when he hears the approaching funeral procession, tosses the skull of Yorick back into the grave, just in time for old Yorick to receive the recently deceased and politically important Ophelia.

All the powers of the earth are here converging, with love, politics, royalty, vengeance, and that always-pressing anxiety intersecting over a grave. War is ever on the horizon, hemming everyone within easy reach of the same.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun

But it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again

Banquo’s ghost won’t rest, either, charging up from the grave to confront, wordlessly, the ambitious Macbeth.

Here’s a curious aside: Richard Burton, an actor of some note, refused to play Macbeth because, as he says, he cannot be dominated by a woman in that way. The irony is captivating once you come to the understanding that he drove himself to drink over his treacherous divorce in order to win for himself the great prize, Elizabeth Taylor, who dominated him.

The descent into madness, and its appeal to popular and literary culture, is not limited to obsessive thoughts concerning the grave. “This is the end. There is an end to me. Life has no purpose, no meaning.” No, that’s maudlin stuff. Pap. Child’s play. The descent into madness is the lonely individual coping with the active, ongoing confrontation of the grave, that all our evil deeds and the evil deeds of many others manage to wriggle free from death’s strong bonds in an effort to possess us ahead of time.

Ordinary people have a fascination with the exploration of the descent of ordinary people into madness. A playwright or musician will set the scene in extraordinary circumstances, by my reckoning, to sell tickets on the entertainment value. The literary value, i.e., its meaningfulness to the paying ordinary public, is its deep-seated commonality, the themes which grasp a deep-seated anxiety, an anxiety which many people would declare possesses us all. Some of us, for various reasons, cope better with that anxiety than others.

The meaning of life, in other words, is a question of how to maintain meaningful behavior even while under possession of the grave.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet gestures toward Ophelia’s womb, saying, “Get thee to a nunnery.”

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The Spooky School

Glasgow at the turn of the 20th Century was bohemian, and if it weren’t for early 19th Century Parisian bohemians, turn of the century Glaswegian culture would define the term. More to the point, Glaswegian culture, by means of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, defines architecture to this very day. If you live in or around a city in Europe or North America which grew up before World War II, you see Charles Rennie Mackintosh everywhere, both in architectural design and in architectural embellishment, particularly the Mackintosh rose. You’ve seen that stylized rose everywhere, so much so that you probably don’t know you’re seeing it.

G112-1MackintoshRoseWhere did it come from, and how did it get such a wide distribution? This design, along with many of his design ideas, exploded into the arts and architecture world, as you might imagine happened if you study this specimen more closely, and perhaps if you study other specimens of the rose which he designed. All of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when that tension was released, and the relationship brought to bear by this explosion continued for twenty years, before Mackintosh succumbed to depression and tongue cancer in 1927.

Architectural design throughout the western world had become sclerotic and quite formalistic, suppressing artistic expression and craftsmanship. There were signs of growth and creativity, with such notable patrons as William Morris, but those who were trying to create new schools of architectural design were confined to certain pockets, quite literally confined, bound by physical walls within which individual creative thinking might be encouraged, but, aside from certain trade magazines, such thinking was all moot. In these terms, the political bound the individual so that he could not express. If he expresses as he is compelled to express from within himself, he can expect to lose his ability to eat.

Nevertheless, the Celtic revival movement was percolating, along with the English Arts and Crafts movement, but there was as yet no spearhead to bring the incredible talents into the larger professional world. Plenty of these artisans, however, were quite aware of their predicament, and they reacted quite predictably: they formed schools within schools.

In 1889, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was introduced to one of these schools within a school while he was working as an assistant for an architectural firm. They were a group of young women attending art school who called themselves the Immortals. Frances and Margaret Macdonald were among this group, and they struck up quite a relationship with Charles and his colleague Herbert McNair. The four of them began to collaborate, becoming known to the outside world as The Four, and the outside world began to take notice.

At first, their work was mocked and ridiculed, but, as they say in sports, “They don’t boo nobodies.” Something about their work had struck a chord and a nerve, so they were encouraged by the response. They received positive response to their work as well, from these other pockets of architectural bohemianism, particularly in Germany and Vienna. Being sensitive artist-types, however, they withdrew into a world of their own making, creating in their expressions a symbolic world whose interpretation is known only to the four of them. Soon, professional journals began to offer professional critique of their work, and they began to win prizes for submissions to open exhibitions. They gained no small notoriety throughout the architectural world as the principal representatives of the Glasgow School.

They relied so heavily on distorted female figures, flowers, and tears that outsiders began to call the Glasgow School the “Spooky School.” The Four had triumphed, but, as a foursome, they had reached their zenith; individual expression was still subverted to the political, albeit only four of them. Moreover, Herbert married Frances and moved away, leaving Charles and Margaret to look at each other, shrug, and marry. Their collaboration was remarkable.

It was the rose, however, Charles’ Glasgow Rose, which he made his own, that revolutionized the architectural world. Mackintosh had found freedom within this little school within a school within a school, developing a language to communicate with them and only them so that only those whom he trusted most could advise, criticize, and encourage him. Within that conclave he gestated, and from that conclave he was born with a brand new rose in hand.

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Part Seen, Imagined Part (1896)

For this post I leaned heavily on my repeated readings of John McKean’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Architect, Artist, Icon, and also Fanny Blake’s Essential Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Page numbers by request.