Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Have a Little Faith In Our Kids

I’ve been reading a lot about how children raised in religious households have a harder time discerning fantasy from fiction. That’s the word, at least, from scientists involved in a study published by Cognitive Science magazine this month.

The 66 5- and 6-year-olds in the study were told a series of stories. Some were realistic, like this:

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard. A nearby whale opened its mouth to bite him, but Jonah swam away just in time. Jonah then climbed back onto the boat with the help of his fellow sailors.

Some were religious:

This is Jonah. After disobeying God’s orders, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. Jonah prayed to God for three days, and was spit out by the whale safe and sound. As a result, Jonah promises to obey God’s orders in the future.

And some were fantastical:

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. But Jonah had magical powers, and he was able to jump out of the whale’s mouth and swim all the way to the shore.

The children all thought that the realistic story was, well, real. But once it came to the other two, kids raised in homes without religion were quick to dismiss both the religious and the fantastical story as fiction. The religious children were far more apt to accept the religious story as fact, and some accepted the fantastical one, too.

According to said scientists, young religious kids have a “broader conception” of what reality can encompass, and also have a more difficult time separating fantasy from reality. Some religious critics have naturally used the study as proof that religion is ludicrous and that religious parents are perhaps stunting their children’s grasp of reality. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, “When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit.”

But there’s a bit of an irony, here. Setting aside the Biblical story of Jonah for a moment, the “realistic” story is, technically, just as made up as the fantastical one. Researchers made it up. It feels more likely that it could happen, but that doesn’t mean it did happen. It’s just as much of a lie, and not nearly as good a story.

So technically, the study doesn’t suggest as much that non-religious kids have a better grasp of reality as much as it seems they’re being taught that reality is boring.

Whether you’re religious or not, reality is not boring. Inexplicable, even miraculous, things happen every day. Astronomers tell us that there’s a planet made entirely of diamond. Meteorologists pretty much admit that there’s a rare form of lightning that can go about as fast as a good-paced mosey. Sometimes fish fall from the sky. Sometimes rivers turn the color of blood. These things would be rejected out of hand by more serious-minded kids, I'm sure--and yet, there they are. This universe of ours is a fantastical place. The fact that we’re here at all is a breathtaking miracle.

I’m not arguing to scrap realism or science for the fantastic or religious. I have a deep appreciation for science, and it makes me sad when Christians reject it for religious or political reasons without any critical thought. I’m with Augustine when he said:

“If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

But Augustine, one of the deepest thinkers of his day, obviously still believed in miracles. I think one can embrace scientific reason and also believe in the possibility of a God who can do miracles. I think most of us can have a firm grasp on reason while still keeping the door slightly ajar for the completely unexpected. 

G.K. Chesterton, the great British author, journalist and lay theologian, had the truth of it in his book Orthodoxy, I think:

“Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him to extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion …. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

I loved it when my children asked some deep, even cynical questions about the world around them and the faith I was trying to pass on to them. It’s important to have an active, inquisitive mind. But I’d also like our 5- and 6-year-olds be poets. To be dreamers. To look around the world and feel its full of wonder. Of possibility. Of miraculous beauty.

Because it can be if we let it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy, Eggplants and the Will of God

We can invoke God's name for the worst of reasons.

It's not a new thing. In the New Testament, you read about lots of folks who claimed to be speaking for God. "Watch out for false prophets," Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew. "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Throughout history, people have done some pretty horrific things in God's name—atrocities that have turned people away from God altogether. It's like a variation on that old Bon Jovi song. Sometimes we give God a bad name.

I was thinking about this a little after I left The Purge: Anarchy, a R-rated horror-thriller that shows just how badly God's name can be abused.

In the movie, the Purge is an annual abandonment to society’s darkest urges—a 12-hour period in which most crime (including and especially murder) is legalized. The Purge is pushed as a societal good (the crime rate has plummeted since its introduction) and a patriotic duty. And most critically here, it's also seen as something sacred.

In the first movie, a dying man is kissed on the forehead by his murderer, almost like a priest would kiss a confessor. "Your soul has been cleansed," he says. Participants even seem to pray together: "Blessed be the Purge," they say.

In The Purge: Anarchy, that sense of the Purge being a divine rite only grows. Killers sometimes sport religious symbols: One has a cross marked on his forehead. Another wears a mask with the word "God" scrawled on it. A woman roams the roof of a building, looking for people to gun down for the grievous sin of, I guess, walking down the street. Hollering into a megaphone, she talks about how often God in the Bible brings torment down on His creation: floods and famine and all manner of terrible things. The woman says she's simply doing God's holy work: She's a "one-woman mother---ing plague," worthy of a spot at God's left hand.

It seems like the filmmakers are critiquing how religion can be misused, and they may be swinging a few punches at the Religious Right here: The country's "New Founding Fathers" manipulate both the language of patriotism and religion for their own ends, as some believe happens today.

Now on one hand, I'd argue that faith is inherently politically active. Both church and state, after all, are built on a sense of shared morality and values. Religion can't help but enter into the conversation.

But the movie does hint at a real danger of religious activism: Nothing kills dialogue as quickly as to declare that "God wills" something. As soon as someone stands on those two words, the conversation has nowhere left to go.

Now, I do believe that God does want us to do certain things. I believe that our lives are, on some level, a learning exercise—where we're educated all the time about how to align ourselves more closely with God's will. When I had kids in the house, most of our household rules aligned with what I believed was the will of God—what to value, how to act and how to treat people. Even most of our secular laws are predicated on the idea of a broadly accepted sense of what's "right" and "wrong," which to me at least partly presupposes a greater power that defines what "right" and "wrong" are.

But I do think we've got to be really careful when we throw around that phrase.

It's like this: Say you've got a friend who loves, I dunno, eggplants. "I think eggplants are God's favorite vegetable," he might say. Or, "I'd imagine that, every day in heaven, we'll be eating eggplants." Now, I'm none too fond of eggplants. And if I was talking with this someone, I'd argue that eggplants were really just a joke of God's—a not-so-subtle spoof on the otherwise sublime world of veggies. I'd declare that, if God wanted us to eat eggplant, he would not have colored it purple. To which he might respond that purple is the color of royalty, and on it would go.

But if this friend said, seriously, that it's God's will that we all eat eggplants—that it's a sin if we don't eat them—we find ourselves in a very different conversation. Suddenly, my distaste of eggplants becomes a moral failing. My dislike of the vegetable puts me, in the view of my friend, in opposition to the Almighty. And by extension, I'm in opposition to my friend. We're on the verge of a holy war over eggplants.

Some true-to-life holy wars have been started over issues just about as consequential.

When you declare something to be God's will, you draw up sides. Either you're on God's side or you're not. Well-meaning people who want to be on God's side may be drawn into something that might not be God's will at all. Others might turn their backs on God: If that really is God's will, I want no part of it, they might say. And when you tie the words "God's will" with the words "the Purge," you've got yourself a real problem.  

When Jesus talked about false prophets, He told us that we would know them by their fruits. "Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?" He said.

The Purge seems like a no-brainer: That's a thistle all the way. As an activist in The Purge: Anarchy argues, it's pretty clear killing innocent people isn't something that God would condone. "We no longer worship at the altar of Christ, of Mohammed, of Yahweh," he says, covering his bases. "We worship at the altar of Smith & Wesson." It's also, I think, easier to see God's will after the fact, and through the lens of history.

But sometimes in the moment, before the figs and thistles have a chance to grow, it can be more difficult.

I'm a skeptical person by nature, and I think whenever someone says they speak for God or know definitively what He wants or wills, I find myself going into heightened alert status. And I try to weigh what they say is “God's will” with what I know and have been taught about God: His love for us. His desire to see us all drawn closer to Him. I believe that God wills us to always hone our character, to be more the people He designed us to be. But, at least in how we saw in Jesus, He does so with kindness and grace and love.

It’d be nice if it was always as easy to see the fruits of a false prophet, as we see in The Purge. But it’s not always so simple.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Begin Again, Born Again

It was a lazy weekend at the Cineplex. The biggest movie was Transformers: Age of Extinction, but it hasn’t been nearly the profit juggernaut of its predecessors. Melissa McCarthy’s R-rated Tammy did OK. The faith-flavored frightflick Deliver Us From Evil kinda bombed. Historically, the Fourth of July holiday has meant some seriously big business for Hollywood, but this Independence Day, most folks didn’t see much that interested in what was playing.

Maybe if they’d heard about Begin Again—a tiny indie movie playing in just 175 theaters—they might’ve had a change of heart.

Part of me would like to think so, anyway. Weird of me, a Plugged In reviewer, to say that about an R-rated romantic dramedy, I suppose. But outside the f-words and whatnot, this flick was pretty sweet—a moving, well-told story about the beauty of family and friendship and music.

And it even had a hint of faith, too. Let me explain.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a down-on-his-luck music producer—a one-time Grammy-winning dynamo who’s about two bars away from his coda. His marriage has crumbled. He barely knows his teenage daughter. He spends his time and cash on booze, and he’s rapidly running out of all three. And one dark night, after losing his job in the record company he helped create, he’s ready to get drunk and die. 

On what might be his last subway ride, smashed out of his pumpkin, he sees and hears an annoying evangelist, handing out pamphlets and encouraging wary riders to seek God. "God may not be on our time," he tells the passengers in that sincere, clueless way you’d expect, "but He's always on time." Dan takes a pamphlet and grins a drunken grin, mostly in mockery. "I'm gonna have a little talk with God,  tonight, all right," Dan says, sloshing off the train. He turns back to the closing doors. "But what if He doesn't answer? What if He doesn’t answer?” The train speeds away, not acknowledging Dan’s question.

He staggers into a bar and slumps down, just as a woman named Greta (Kiera Knightley) begins to sing. She’s suffered her own miserable day: She just learned her long-time boyfriend has been cheating on her, with both another woman and the mistress called fame. She’s ready to go home to England and put her life back together, but a friend of hers dragged her to the bar. Now, he called her up on stage to sing—the last thing she wants to do. But sing she does. And her song includes the words, “Don’t pray to God ‘cause He won’t talk back.”

There, in the lowest of lows, the two bemoan, in startlingly similar ways, how God has forsaken them. It reminds me of one of the most famous angry laments in all the Bible, Psalm 22, verses 1 and 2:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

And yet, maybe God does answer. For in that moment of anguish, these two lost souls find each other.

“I was ready to kill myself until I heard your song,” Dan admits. He admits to her how washed up he is, but Dan … a little miraculously, still wants to sign her to a music contract. And Greta, perhaps even more miraculously, decides that she wants to be signed.

The Psalm goes on, of course. The lament turns into a cry of faith. Check out verses 23 and 24:

You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

We don’t hear about God for the rest of the movie. Both Dan and Greta do some things that aren’t all that pious. And yet, you can’t tell me that these cries to the Almighty were accidents. There’s intentionality on the part of the moviemakers, here. A nod to God. Two lost souls are found again through amazing grace, and through a sweet sound to boot.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Few Films for the Forth

To commemorate Independence Day for Plugged In, I talked a little about how important movies have been to the American story. They’re about as American as you can get, really: The United States was a big player in its invention and development, and now they pretty much dominate if not the art of movie-making, at least the business. Right alongside food and technology, movies are one of our biggest exports. So it’s a big deal.

I suggested that, if you wanted to do something quintessentially American today, you could do worse than watch a movie.

But what movie?

Well, let me make a few suggestions and give you an old movie from each decade in the 20th century, between 1930 and 2000—a movie that, while perhaps lacking literal fireworks, say something about who we Americans are, who we’d like to be and why we kinda make a big deal about every July 4. Not all these movies are family-friendly, by the way ... some are pretty harsh. but I still think they're worth seeing.

Stagecoach (1939): Doesn’t seem you could go wrong picking a Fourth of July movie from 1939, what with Gone With the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington released the same year. But if you’re going to talk about quintessentially American movies, you gotta stick a John Wayne flick in there, and his performance here as Ringo Kid made the tough-talking cowboy a star. The flick is about a stagecoach rumbling through Apache territory and carrying a cadre of wildly divergent passengers (sort of like MTV’s The Real World under Indian attack) and is considered one of the best Westerns ever.

Casablanca (1942): Given that the United States was fighting World War II for nearly half of the decade, no surprise that patriotic movies would’ve been in their heyday here. 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biographical musical starring James Cagney, has rightly  landed on other patriotic lists, as has 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives—the bittersweet story of American G.I.’s coming home. But for me, you can’t beat the sappy but incredibly effective story of Rick and Ilsa, caught up in a world where their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.

High Noon (1952): Another Western, this one stars Gary Cooper as a marshal facing certain death as he gets set to square off against a slew of criminals determined to kill him. My kids couldn’t stand the song that constantly nattered away in the background (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’”), but besides that, this is almost the perfect Western. When I think about what a true hero looks like, I think of Gary Cooper’s Will Kane.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Or maybe a true American hero looks more like attorney Atticus Finch.  Played by Gregory Peck (who won an Academy Award for his work here), Finch really does believe that all men are created equal—something that runs counter to the thinking of most of his neighbors in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. When he’s asked to defend an African-American who’s been unjustly accused of raping a white teen, he takes the case and defends the man eloquently—only to have the verdict snatched away by circumstance. This is a beautiful, poignant story that lauds America’s ideals while acknowledging how far we fall short of them at times.

All the President’s Men (1976): Speaking of ideals gone awry, this movie delves into Watergate—specifically the two journalists who broke the story wide open. With reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played by two of America’s coolest actors, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively, All the President’s Men is a riveting piece of cinema. And if you don’t think that the exposure of a massive political scandal feels particularly patriotic … well, I, as a journalist, would disagree. There’s nothing more American than the Fourth Estate doing its job.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Harrison Ford in his fedora and carrying his bullwhip? Dude, movie heroes don’t feel more American than that. A callback to the days of the Saturday afternoon serial, Raiders is pure movie magic, from the minute that boulder starts rolling to when people’s faces start to melt.

Saving Private Ryan (1998): Ranking as one of the best war movies ever, Saving Private Ryan tells the story of Captain John Miller and a squad of soldiers who are tasked with finding Private James Francis Ryan so he can go back home. The movie is full of heroism and heartache, with soldiers making tremendous sacrifices along the way. In the end, the dying captain tells Ryan, “James … earn this. Earn it.” It’s a great reminder of how precious life, and by extension freedom, are. How much has been sacrificed for it. And we should never take it for granted.