"Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning."
"The fingers of your thoughts are molding your face ceaselessly."
"Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere."
"Humility enforces where neither virtue nor strength can prevail, nor reason."
"Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."
Resistance Thinking Culture
Culture is a term used to describe why humans act the way they do. The study of culture attempts to explain why certain behaviours have special significance for some humans, where as for others it is completely meaningless. Culture encompasses everything from watching television and surfing the web, to doing yoga and having pre-arranged marriages.
All of the human behaviours that make up a particular culture are founded on a certain set of ideas. For instance, Islamic women wear a hijab for modesty because of teahcings in the Hadith and many Christians wear a cross around their neck in rememberance of Christ. These are human behaviours that are founded on a very clear set of ideas. Ideas are expressed in human behaviours that make up a certain culture.
In this culture section you will find articles, news and reviews on an extrememly diverse range of topics that relate to culture: the media - TV, news, magazines, movies etc., other religions - Islam, Judaism, New Age, Buddhism, Hinduism etc., philosophy - postmodernism, existentialism, humanism, consumerism etc., popular culture, music, Christian culture - music, moviews etc., and a whole lot more!
Continuing in a series I am writing on dating I thought I'd turn my attention to another serious stumbling block that affects Christian couples - attractiveness. My wife and I are just about to have our 1st anniversary, yet it has not been so long since I was single that I have forgotten how important the attractiveness of a potential date is. And it is to my great shame that I put such weight on the importance of outward appearance (or, to be honest, any weight). Indeed I remember many years ago rejecting the advances of a Christian woman because I wasn't physically attracted to her while at the same time contemplating a relationship with someone who wasn't a Christian because I was. When I look back at my misconceptions I am very disappointed in the way I approached finding somebody to date.
As I write this I can see you, the reader, nodding along. It makes sense that outward appearance doesn't matter. Yet we still continually fall into the trap of using it as a guide. Perhaps we are more prone to hiding it behind the “I don't get a warm, fuzzy feeling about you” line. Basically we end up rating our perspective spouse (knowingly or subconsciously) on the fictitious and dangerous “attractiveness scale”. Scott Croft, at Boundless Webzine, sums my concern up well with his article Brother, You're Like a Six:
“The practical problem with letting "attraction" lead the way in finding a spouse is not profound: It doesn't work. If everyone demanded that their quirky, secular notions of attractiveness or chemistry be perfectly fulfilled before they would agree to marry a person, no one would marry.
I once counseled a Christian brother in his dating relationship with a great woman. She was godly, caring, and bright. She was attractive, but not a supermodel. For weeks I listened to this brother agonize over his refusal to commit and propose to this woman. He said they were able to talk well about a lot of things, but there were a few topics he was interested in that she couldn't really engage with, and sometimes the conversation "dragged."
He also said that, while he found her basically attractive, there was one feature of hers that he "just pictured differently" on the woman he would marry. I would ask about her godliness and character and faith, and he said all those things were stellar (and he was right). Finally, he said, "I guess I'm looking for a '10'."
I could hold back no longer. Without really thinking, I responded, "You're looking for a '10'? But, brother, look at yourself. You're like a 'six.' If you ever find the woman you're looking for, and she has your attitude, what makes you think she would have you?"
Here's something else the world won't tell you. Even if you find your "perfect 10" — however you define "10" — marriage is still hard. When you search for a spouse, you're looking for someone (a sinner, like you) who you will be serving God and living the Christian life with until Christ returns or one of you dies.
In that context, even a really good sense of humor will only get you so far. Physical attractiveness (as defined by the world) fades in 100 percent of people, including you. "Chemistry" as the world defines it ebbs and flows in any relationship. Your spouse can be as fun-loving as he or she can possibly be and there will still be many moments that aren't fun. Your spouse can have the best personality you've ever seen, and he or she will still drive you absolutely batty sometimes if you live with him or her for the rest of your life. You can marry someone who appears to be an omni-competent genius, and there will still be times that neither of you knows what to do next. Knowing that is part of maturing as a person and as a believer, and believe it or not, it's part of what makes marriage wonderful and special.
As you seek someone with whom to serve God in marriage, build on something more than what might make for a few fun dates or an impressive "catch" in the world's eyes.”
Croft rightly points out that physical attractiveness/chemistry/humour/funness are all aspects of a person that have little bearing upon their ability to be a good spouse to you (which is something as a single Christian you should be concerned about when you consider someone to date). We need to clarify the important aspects of a date:
“[I]mmerse yourself in a counter-cultural understanding of beauty. I stand by what I said at the beginning: Beauty is culturally determined, and we cannot escape our culture. If you are surrounded by people and media that say beauty is merely a matter of body shape and color, then you will find it almost impossible to be attracted to anything else. But if you are in regular conversation with people who think otherwise; if you are listening to messages that say otherwise; if you witness passionate, intimate marriages that prove otherwise, then your definition of beauty and your sense of attraction will be changed by that culture.”
If you are continuously falling into the trap of rating women (or men) in regards to their physical appearance you need to snap out of it. If you are presented with a potential date who is a godly person, who seeks His will for their life and their romance, who displays unselfish traits and a desire to interact with Scripture but you turn them down because you don't feel an overwhelming spark towards them then you have sacrificed a relationship that would likely have been a vast encouragement to something that really matters and exchanged it for the Hollywood pipe dream. Incidentally the concept of a “spark” probably has a lot to do with the high divorce rate. Not to say one should date a person without feeling any romantic notions towards them. However, in the level of priorities there are many more important aspects to consider. We must stop letting Hollywood run the show.
Dating is a simple process that has been made difficult by concepts such as attractiveness/spark/sexual compatibility. It is as simple as looking at your priorities, what you really hold in esteem, and looking at the other person's priorities, what they value (shown in their fruits), and if you both have God as center you can rest assured that the other aspects will fall into line. Inevitably relationships become convoluted because we are all sinful. However, if we continue to hold God at the center of our priorities, including who we date, we will have far more profitable marriages than if we put any weight upon the transient feelings of butterflies in our stomachs.
Les Misérables is the undisputed king of Broadway. The musical was created in 1980 in French and five years later it was transformed into the powerful English Broadway hit that is still going strong today. We have Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil to thank for the outstanding music and adaptation from the Victor Hugo novels which were written in 1862.
Of course this novel hasn't just been used to spur a successful musical. It has, at times, been adapted for the big screen. For instance, the 1998 film starring Liam Neeson and Geoffery Rush can only be described as excellent. While not holding true to the musical it is nonetheless a powerful movie which simplifies many of the complex stories to make Jean Valjean (Neeson's character) the driving protagonist (which he both is and isn't). As a result the story is strong but ignores many of the varied characters that are fleshed out in the musical.
It was only a matter of time before the musical itself would be adapted for cinema viewing. All it required was a directer with a vision and backbone. Half-Australian (his words) Tom Hooker, off the back of critical acclaim for King's Speech decided to take the challenge of transferring the intensity of the musical to film. He was given a significant budget (over US$60 million) and received a rather impressive cast line up with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway in leading (and singing) roles.
The film plays out without much deviation from the musical. Jackman plays quasi-protagonist Jean Valjean a convict who changes his stripes after he is spared from a lifetime in prison from a Bishop who charges him to change his ways and look to God, instead of his own hate. As a godly man he sees the need of Fantine (Hathaway) and her child Cosette and sets about looking after this orphan child. At the same time he is pursued by self-righteous lawman Javert (Crowe) who believes that no man can change who they are.
This is a very simplified version of the plot as, at times, other characters are given the limelight and tangents that build on the themes of Hugo's book and given their own musical number. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the musical, the varied characters that require very talented cast members to do their musical numbers justice. Perhaps the biggest example of this is girl of the streets Éponine. While it is Cosette who is the lynchpin of the whole story it is Éponine who epitomises the title Les Misérables (the miserables). She is a more fleshed out character (who, I recall, does not appear in the 1998 movie) and has the stronger musical numbers to fulfill. In this movie 22 year old Samantha Barks has been given the opportunity to portray Éponine fresh off her two years of singing that role at the West End. Barks is a breath of fresh air in this movie and perhaps we will see her in more Hollywood productions after this performance.
Perhaps this epitomises the movie in both a good way and a bad way. The strongest and most impressive performances belong to those people who have been recruited straight from Broadway. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras; Killian Donnelly as Combeferre; George Blagden as Grantaire (all these part of the “schoolboys” revolution) are all hits in their relatively minor (though not insignificant) roles. Yet perhaps above all of these roles it is Daniel Huttlestone as street urchan Gavroche who takes the crown as most memorable character. After impressive in the same role at the West End Huttlestone was given the opportunity to portray him again in Hooper's movie and had a massive impact. It seems to show that the limited amount of acting these Broadway singers needed to be taught is easier to navigate than teaching actors how to sing some of the really tough songs. Granted Jackman deserves credit for a fleshed out Valjean but his singing holds nothing to his Broadway counterparts.
Hooper decided to use a revolutionary (though completely sensible – read, why haven't other directors tried it before?) new way to tackle musical movies. Instead of using the regular lip-syncing technique of recording the singing in studio and dubbing over the footage each actor/actress actually sang on set along to a piano track playing in their ear. This allowed for close-ups and a more interactive and emotional experience. For the most part this is employed superbly. Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed A Dream is the clear stand-out of this technique and her rendition rightly sees her in Oscar calculations.
However, there are some instances where this backfires badly. The weakest person (and the one most viewers won't buy into) in this movie is actually Russell Crowe. While he has some singing background it did not translate into giving the antagonist Javert power. Instead there were people chuckling at Crowe's renditions of Broadway songs (and it was a little bit funny). The only time Crowe showed any capability of singing appropriately to his role was in his solo Stars. Unfortunately this rendition was impressive only because his previous songs had been so poor. Now Crowe is not a bad singer but he was poorly cast because of his singing style for the role of Javert. Having said that his onscreen presence is huge and the handful of lines that he growls out bring spine-tingles and suggest how good he would've been in a role similar to Rush's in the 1998 movie (and unsung adaption). Infact there is one scene where Valjean is supposed to knock Javert out in the hospital but it seemed implausible to the viewer (and I assume Hooper too) because of Crowe's screen presence. Instead Hooper gets Valjean to merely escape.
The miscasting of Russell Crowe aside this movie is a valiant attempt to recreate the stage production into a cinema experience. There are other annoyances (like Seyfried's auto-tune whistle singing) but as a whole this is a well-produced film that is perhaps not as enjoyable as it is spectacular. There is something that I wish to discuss before I finish this review and that is the theology that permeates through-out the storyline.
The transformation of Valjean from criminal to town mayor and child saviour is on the back of grace from a godly man. It is a rarity to see such a reason given any time in Hollywood so this grace (which is directly mentioned to be from God) is a breath of fresh air. As is the transformation that occurs in Valjean's life. He realises that his life is no longer his own but it is God's. It is not a nominal faith but a powerful and convicting faith that translates to all aspects of his life. By contrast Javert is the very epitome of a Pharisee. He sees self-righteousness and following the rules as the only way to salvation. In the midst of his pursuit of Valjean it becomes apparent to the viewer (and him) that he is wrong and has always been wrong. That grace dictates that a man is not defined by his actions but by the actions of Christ. This is a powerful and compelling message.
However, there is also theology that smacks of Catholicism and other concepts that need to be warned against. There is a scene where one character (deceased) intercedes for another (about to die) to God. This may not be blatant Catholicism but intercession has no place in Christian doctrine. One also has to question why the Bishop gave Valjean the extra silver items. If it was an act of pure grace then that is encouraging. However, from a Catholic perspective, there is a requirement for a believer to continue to earn their salvation. That grace is necessary but not sufficient. Good works are also required. Obviously this is reading into a situation when there is little indication that this is why the Bishop did what he did but because of his Catholic faith it does raise such questions.
At the climax of this film all the characters killed (except for a conspicuously absent Javert) through-out the movie are shown to be standing on the barricade singing the epilogue version of Do You Hear the People Sing?. As powerful as this song is one must wonder whether there is a message about the afterlife in this scene.
After all the lines of the song are:
“Do you hear the people sing Lost in the valley of the night? It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. They will walk behind the ploughshare; they will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? Do you hear the people sing? Say, do you hear the distant drums? It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!”
These are indeed compelling words. In fact, they seem to have strong eternal implications. Which begs the question - are all the characters killed in Les Misérables, of which there are a lot, going to be taken into the Lord's presence? It is possible but it does point towards a universalistic perspective which is unbiblical. Having said that this is reading into a scene that could imply any number of things, but I feel that it is worth mentioning.
Les Misérables is a movie that is as good as Hooper's previous work in terms of the cinematography used. Although I feel that the in-your-face style of camera work could be dialed down a notch or two. The storyline is more natural than the stage production and despite the incredible length of the movie not a moment is wasted. The movie is greater than the sum of its parts (of which some are rather weak). When comparing the singing items to their Broadway counterparts there are few that can compare. The only two that come to mind are Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream and Bark's On My Own. Other classics like Bring Him Home, Who Am I and Stars are woefully inadequate and one should consult the stage production to understand how they should've been sung. Yet the weaknesses are forgivable in a valiant attempt by Tom Hooker to bring this gem to life.
Sexual compatibility. Perhaps Matthew McConaughey is the one to blame for the popularisation of such a concept. Though maybe it was an inevitable creation of the sexual revolution. Whatever the reason for the genesis of such a perception our society has taken it and run with it.
When Emma and I announced our engagement there were friends and family who responded in shock because we weren't living together and presumably hadn't slept together (these presumptions were correct). Hence some people raised with Emma their concerns about how ignorant we would be about our sexual compatibility (they never seem to raise these issues with me for some reason).
I stumbled across an article today by sex therapist Matty Silver who outlined her thoughts on couples who have “mismatch[ing] libidos”. The idea that both parties should have equal “sex drive” is at the heart of this idea of sexual compatibility. Silver's solution to unequal “sex drive” is good communication. And she is right, to an extent. However, her work with couples in regards to sexuality presupposes that love is merely “neurotransmitter phenylethylamine….. combined with dopamine and norepinephrine” to create “pleasingly positive feelings towards each other” (Click here to read this article). We must be aware of our preconceived notions of what love is. It is neither defined by science nor should it be relegated to gushy feelings. Both strip love of its power.
In fact the Bible paints a completely different picture. Wives are to be “submissive” to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) and husbands are to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25). These are doing concepts rather than feeling and don't fit within romantic or scientific notions of being “in love”. If we then move the blowtorch to the idea of sexual compatibility it is clear that the worldly perspective falls a long way short of defining how relationships should be approached in reality. We must be active in doing love not merely hoping to feel love.
Not only is sexual compatibility a myth but sexual attraction is also a dead end. Consider this quote from Stanley Hauerwas:
“Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become "whole" and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.
We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”
There are people who legitimately believe that it is important for couples to be sexually compatible. That sex must be dabbled in before the marriage night just to make sure that you are chaining yourself to the right person. We need to be rid of such immature thought-processes. A marriage commitment does not require sexual compatibility or fornication. In fact, possibly the worst thing you can do for your future marriage is to live together before you tie the knot.
We need to stop giving opinions like Silver's any credence. The world suggests many lies and we are not filtering properly. Instead we continue to play church while believing that it is important to ascertain whether we are sexually compatible with our future spouse. News flash, sexual compatibility is the mouth wash of relationships. Its invention has derailed marriage which, despite the naysayers, is an institution that is very good.
Might I then present to you something radically different. Sex outside of marriage rather than helping you in your pursuit of sexual compatibility actually sets you up to fail in regards to commitment. We are being set up to fail. Our sexual desires, if we take our ques from society, will be unfulfilled. We will not get what we seek. And so, people throw their relationship under the bus if the other person in the relationship does not satisfy what cannot be satisfied. Perhaps it is worth turning the disappointment around and looking at our perceptions and how they may well be the part of the cause of the problem. Yet we cannot hope to drag our preconceived notions of sexuality out of the mire without the help of somebody uncorrupted by society. But there is no solutions available except the one who created sexuality in the first place.
You see, you may believe that you can keep God away from your sex life, or indeed any part of life you may wish but it simply doesn't work that way. If we divorce our relationship from the intentional plans of God, from His created intent, we are cheapening, abusing and condemning the relationship. We are using the other person, putting them on a pedestal, and when they fail (as they always do) we may call it quits or grow to resent them. Needless to say the introduction of sexual compatibility for the finding of a “soulmate” is a toxic concoction that has proved to be indigestible. We must throw off this charade, and encourage our friends to do so, if we want to live relationships that glorify God.
I’ve heard it many times. Last week was only the most recent. A pundit on the radio opined that opposing gay marriage is “Neanderthal” because he believes, “people should be able to marry whoever they want.” This was a well known talking head giving voice to a sentiment shared all across this fruited plain. On college campuses, around dining room tables, and in not a few of our churches, gay marriage marches on by the simple logic that says: what business do we have telling people who they can or can’t marry?
As impressive as the argument sounds–barreling down at us with the strong force of moral superiority and the implicit charge of intolerance–the logic is less than meets the eye.
Let’s think about what is not at stake in our culture’s debate over gay marriage.
The state is not threatening to criminalize homosexual behavior. Though many Americans believe the behavior is wrong (and until fairly recently homosexual acts were against the law in some states), the debate at present is not about whether homosexuality is legal or not. No one questions that it is.
The state is not going to prohibit homosexuals from committing themselves to each other in public ceremonies or religious celebrations.
The state is not going to legislate whether two adults can live together or profess love for one another.
The issue is not about controlling “what people do in their bedrooms” or “who they can love.” The issue is about what sort of union the state will recognize as “marriage” and confer all the benefits thereof. The state doesn’t tell us who we can be friends with or who we can live with. You can have one friend or three friends or a hundred. You can live with your sister, your mother, your dog, or your buddy from work. You can celebrate your relationship with your grandma or your college roommate however you want. But none of these relationships–no matter how special–are marriages. The state’s refusal to recognize these relationships as “marriage” does not keep us from pursuing them, enjoying them, or counting them as significant.
The debate is often cast as freedom (those who support anyone marrying anyone) versus oppression (those who want to tell you who you can marry). Conservatives are losing the debate because that’s the narrative being told in a thousand television episodes, in a thousand songs, and by an increasing number of politicians and educators. But in the long run, the triumph of gay marriage (should it triumph as a cultural and legal reality) will mean the restriction of freedoms for millions of Americans.
This will happen in obvious ways at first–by ostracizing those who disagree, by bullying with political correctness, and by trampling on religious liberty. Surely, Christians must realize that no matter how many caveats we issue, not matter how much we nuance our stance, no matter how much we encourage or show compassion for homosexuals, it will not be enough to ward off the charges of hatred and homophobia. We will have many opportunities in the years ahead to walk in the steps of Jesus who when reviled, did not revile in return, and when he suffered, did not threaten but continued to entrust himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).
But gay marriage will challenge our freedoms in others way too. It’s not just Evangelicals, traditional Catholics, and Mormons who will be threatened. Once the government gains new powers, it rarely relinquishes them. There will be a soft tyranny that grows as the power of the state increases, a growth that is intrinsic to the notion of gay marriage itself.
Marriage a Pre-Political Institution
In the traditional view, marriage is what it is. It’s the union of one man and one woman. That’s what marriage is, before the state calls it as such or confers any benefits on it. Marriage, in the traditional view, is a pre-political institution. The state doesn’t determine what defines marriage; it only recognizes marriage and privileges it in certain ways. So “gay marriage” is actually “so-called marriage” because the state does not have the authority to redefine a pre-political reality.
In the revisionist view, by contrast, there is no is to marriage. To be fair, some advocates of gay marriage would say monogamy is still essential to marriage. That is, the one person-one person relationship, for some revisionists, still constitutes the essence of marriage. But many supporters would not make this claim. In fact, many are open that their end goal to abolish all bourgeois marriage. Even the ones that do promote monogamy find it hard to maintain logical consistency. If monogamy is what marriage is, then can a brother and sister be married? What about an acquaintance you meet on the internet with no intention of ever meeting in person? Can these two be married? Surely, the revisionist won’t want to say sexual intimacy is what makes marriage marriage. For then they too would be in the business of telling adults who they can and can’t marry. If your love isn’t sexual it doesn’t count.
And by what logic should marriage be restricted to two persons? Already in California a three-parent law is in the works. Multiple-person marriages will not be far behind. Why can’t three people be married? Or four or fifteen? And why should exclusivity have anything to do with it? Surely, we don’t want to stop adults from being married to whomever they want, even if they want to be married to six people at the same time.
This may sound like extreme reductio ad absurdum, but the premise behind these examples is already well on its way to being established. Once you argue that we have no right to refuse marriage to those who want their relationships to be defined as marriage, you’ve sold the definitional farm. You’ve effectively denied that marriage has any essence of its own. Marriage is whatever the state wants it to be.
What an irony: the many young people (and a growing number of young Christians) who support gay marriage on libertarian grounds are actually ceding to the state a vast amount of heretofore unknown power. No longer is marriage recognized as a pre-political entity which exists independent of the state. Now the state defines marriage and authorizes its existence.
Divine Design and the Common Good
One of the reasons gay marriage enjoys increasing support is because it doesn’t appear to harm anyone. The only threat, is seems, comes from those who defend traditional marriage and wish to force their morality on others. Our culture is fickle. It says “live and let live” when it comes to the most powerful human bonds and the most enduring institutions, but it insists on protecting the “other” with fundamentalist zeal when it comes to trans fat, cigarettes, and carbon emissions.
The unspoken secret, however, is that homosexual behavior is not harmless. Homosexuals are at a far greater risk for diseases like syphilis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, gonorrhea, HPV, and gay bowel syndrome. The high rate of these diseases is due both to widespread promiscuity in the gay community and the nature of anal and oral intercourse itself. Homosexual relationships are usually portrayed as a slight variation on the traditional “norm” of husband-wife monogamy. But monogamy is much less common among homosexual relationships, and even for those who value monogamy the definition of fidelity is much looser.
Gay marriage will also be harmful for our society. We must consider why the state has, for all these years, bothered to recognize marriage in the first place. What’s the big deal? Why not let people have whatever relationships they choose and call it whatever they want? Why go to the trouble of sanctioning a specific relationship and giving it a unique legal standing? The reason is because the state has an interest in promoting the familial arrangement which has a mother and a father raising the children that came from their union. The state has been in the marriage business for the common good and for the well-being of the society it is supposed to protect. Kids do better with a mom and a dad. Communities do better when husbands and wives stay together. Hundreds of studies confirm both of these statements (though we all can think of individual exceptions I’m sure). Gay marriage assumes that marriage is re-definable and the moving parts replaceable.
By recognizing gay unions as marriage, just like the husband-wife relationship we’ve always called marriage, the state is engaging in (or at least codifying) a massive re-engineering of our social life. It assumes the indistinguishability of gender in parenting, the relative unimportance of procreation in marriage, and the near infinite flexibility as to what sorts of structures and habits lead to human flourishing.
It may seem Neanderthal to think the state should not confer the rights and privileges of “marriage” upon whomever it chooses by whatever definition it pleases, but give it time. Experiments in sexual freedom have a tendency to blow up in the laboratory of real life. Would anyone say the family is stronger today because of the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce laws? Human nature and divine design are not set aside as easily as our laws and traditions.