24 December 2015

Christmas, Coexistence, Compassion

Considering the soft-shelled, easily-offended, politically-correct generation that inhabits our world and frontlines our media, modern treatment of Christmas is an intriguing paradox.  While we are notorious for haranguing explicit religious displays 11 months out of the year, and the crusade against innocent expressions of "Merry Christmas" now has surpassed the two-decade mark, we are somehow still content to suspend the boycott against Christian themes for the sake of December 25th festivities.

Think I'm crazy?  Just turn on the radio and listen carefully to the lyrics of those traditional carols that everyone loves to sing (and by "traditional," I'm not talking about "Baby It's Cold Outside" or "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland").  I'm talking "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "O Holy Night" -- traditional carols that popular artists love to record and a holiday-loving public love to consume.  I'm sure someone (probably many someones) are out there petitioning the networks to pull the plug on some of these holiday songs.  However, I also think the general public is comfortable allowing Jesus Christ into their homes for one day of the year, especially if he partners with Santa to fill their stockings with goodies.  On the whole, they hate our Jesus, but they also love our holiday for its warmth, for the vacation from work, and for the commercialism that has been attached to it over the centuries.

The way the world handles Christmas is indicative of the way they think Christians should approach personal belief.  For example, an atheist can celebrate the holiday "for fun" and maybe even sing along to Sinatra's rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" on the radio, and that's his way of "tolerating" the Christian religion.  He can suspend his 39½-foot-pole approach to Christian tradition and grow nostalgic at the refrain of Silent Night.  The thought of "Radiant beams from Thy holy face / With the dawn of redeeming grace," instead of filling him with worshipful awe, might make him think of holiday time with family, of goodwill and generosity.

"We should all borrow somebody else's holy day," he'll encourage sagaciously.  "Trade shoes and walk a couple miles together."

This line of thinking is incredibly attractive.  It allows individuals to have varying personal beliefs without causing anyone else to be uncomfortable.  It allows for religious exploration without any obligation.  That's the blissful naivety of the coexist bumper stickers: everyone should get along, appreciate everyone's else's different opinions, and be able to live side-by-side without offending or hating anyone.

In a perfect world, this might be possible.  And while I'm certainly an advocate for living at peace with all men (as per Romans 12.18), I also recognize that true coexistence between faiths is impossible.  That sounds bigoted, but there's no other way to put it.  Any fundamentalist of any religion would be forced to agree.  A devout Jew doesn't celebrate Christmas or Ramadan for the same reason that the pillars of his faith make it impossible for him to hold similar theological opinions as a pantheist, a polytheist, or an atheist.  A man who believes in one God existing above nature (as opposed to being part of it) isn't going to find common footing in a transcendentalist crowd.

Furthermore, the issue extends beyond theology and into the realm of morality.  The fundamentalist of any faith is an individual whose beliefs have influenced his life choices, his morals, his attitude, his very persona.  Speaking from my own Christian perspective, someone who has experienced a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is an individual whose life has been radically transformed by that faith.  Therefore, it is impossible to truly coexist in the way the world desires -- that is, to keep faith contained and unoffensive.  For any faith with absolute notions of truth, it is impossible to compartmentalize them.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, I can't so easily divorce my heartfelt appreciation of divine grace from my perspective of the world and the way in which I relate to other people.

Logic dictates that two absolutes cannot coexist if they conflict with one another.  And before you suggest that they don't have to conflict, there's a reason there are distinctly separate faiths in the world.  The absolutes of Islam radically conflict with those of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc.  We all believe very, very different things about God and the human condition, even if our moral practices sometimes align.  Walking a mile in each other's shoes isn't necessarily impossible, because we should all develop an appreciation for the nuances and complexities of different beliefs.  But all the faiths I've mentioned (and all others) are distinct for a reason.  In the end, I'm faced with two alternatives: I must either permanently surrender my shoes or I've got to put them back on.  I can't wear one of both, or both pairs at the same time.

In this regard, the world particularly objects to the notion of evangelizing -- or "converting," as they'd term it.  "Keep your shoes to yourself," they'd say.  "I'll ask for them if I want them."  By their evaluation, proclaiming to possess the knowledge of unique, saving faith is to be intolerant of other religions which boast similar claims.  And in fact, all major religions teach that theirs is the correct path to enlightenment.  And why would they teach otherwise?  A faith that says, "Hey we think we have a good idea going here, but it may or may not be the correct idea in the grand scheme, so you can try it if you'd like," isn't exactly authoritative, nor does it supply any sense of real hope.  While radical honesty and open-handed (as opposed to dogmatic) belief are qualities that our culture deems appealing, no one is actually committed to a faith that doesn't have concrete doctrine, because there's nothing in which to put their trust.

As it pertains to Christianity, the sharing of the gospel is less an opinionated assertion than it is an earnest proclamation of what Christ has done for us -- for me.  It's not about getting recruits, fulfilling an obligation, or proving somebody else wrong.  It's about the fact that the truth I hold has radically changed my life and proven itself to be accurate.

I'm sharing my shoes because they've been so good to me.

However, my very personal faith is also fundamentally opposed to every other philosophy the world values -- such that it cannot coexist with any of them.  But even this notion is not necessarily being intolerant.  It's simply stating what I believe to be the truth.

Let me clarify.

Coexistence in terms of peaceful, side-by-side living is desirable and pertinent.  I strive for peace, love, and kindness with my neighbors, whether they are Muslims, atheists, or recovering Catholics.  But coexistence is impossible in the sense it is intended by proponents of moral relativism.  According to this worldview, all faiths are equally viable, what works for one individual might not work for another, and there shouldn't be any kind of cross-pollination.  Unless that works for someone, of course.  Then it's all good, man.

This perspective in particular is what demonizes the Christian worldview, because -- again -- Christian belief is fundamentally opposed to the notion of multiple paths to enlightenment.  Christian theology is exclusive.  The Bible insists upon one way of salvation through one Savior.  Even the Old Testament books altogether point to one coming messiah who would remove the curse of sin and make all things new.  That concept in and of itself is an exclusive universal truth.  No other theory of man's condition and God's plan can exist in conjunction with it.  If there is one messiah for all the world, then any other religion which promotes its own savior, holy man, or religious method of personal renewal is in conflict.  Only one of these exclusive beliefs can actually be correct.

Logically, what is true and what is not true cannot both be true.

However, while Christian theology is exclusive, Christianity is not the high-privilege celebrity club that many self-proclaimed members portray it to be.  The concept of grace is an equalizer: we all stand on the same spiritual footing, and we all have the same need.  None who recognize their hopeless situation and humble themselves to call upon the name of Jesus Christ for salvation are rejected.  Regardless of culture, heritage, economic status, or their laundry list of sinful misdeeds, any and all peoples may hear and respond to the gospel of Christ.  God's grace is big enough and rich enough to satisfy His own just demands of holiness.  And again, Christian evangelism -- though admittedly utilized improperly by countless individuals over the ages -- is not a tool to assimilate the masses.  It's not a hive-minded collective or an agenda-based platform.  Properly understood, it's a means of communicating what is real.  I'm not interested in converting you to my opinion.  I'm only interested in sharing with you my experience of grace and forgiveness, which I believe only Jesus Christ can offer and fulfill.

In other words, if the world were flooding and you had a life-raft stashed away, wouldn't you want to let other people know about it?

I believe that's compassion, not sanctimoniousness.  Everything that I think, say, and do is influenced by what Jesus Christ has done for me.  This is not intolerance, it is my identity.

As Christians, we certainly need to do a better job of expressing this.  I don't want to be a salesman.  I want to be a testimonial.  My responsibility is the peaceful and earnest proclamation of God's goodness.  Furthermore, we can attempt to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes.  Understanding where people come from is all-important in understanding how the gospel uniquely communicates to their situation.  That's not a tactic.  That's being sympathetic and conscious of someone's need.  God absolutely meets people where they are, and we have the wonderful opportunity to usher them into the throne room.

I don't plant my stake in the ground on the "Merry Christmas" issue.  I couldn't care less what words or symbols various banners, ads, and products use to proclaim the holidays.  However, I do draw the line at compromising principles of my faith.  Maybe that's "offensive" to you, but I'm okay with that.  I'm not trying to assert my rightness over your wrongness or insist on my right to self-expression.  Jesus Christ's love and grace are simply wonderful realities to me, and that is why I share them.

Because this world is sinking.  And I do have a life-raft to offer.

18 December 2015

The Force Awakens: The Good, The Bad, and The Lack of Anything Ugly

Though my heart still beats for the Expanded Universe and is crushed by the knowledge that my favorite story arcs and characters are no longer canonical, I -- along with all other lifelong Star Wars fanboys -- got tickets to The Force Awakens and saw it at midnight opening night.  The experience was surreal, largely because I never expected to see more film installments, and furthermore, the last time I stood in line to see a Star Wars movie, I was 16.  A decade removed from that, a bigger fan now than ever before, I have much higher expectations than did my wide-eyed teenage self.  But I also went into it with far more excitement than trepidation.

With that in mind -- if you haven't seen the movie yet (you should also stop reading pretty soon, by the way) -- it should warm the cockles of your heart to know that (in my humble opinion) The Force Awakens was... excellent.  Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  But excellent.  The movie's high level of quality owes itself to a number of things, not the least of which is its creators'  dedication to continuing the story of the original trilogy; its solid and believable acting; and its clever, actually funny comic relief (as opposed to the slapstick, second-grade-mentality nonsense that permeated the prequels).  Now, I've certainly got complaints about the film, but I think The Force Awaken's good far outweighs its bad -- even if the latter list is longer.

I will admit up front that a number of these complaints will possibly be rectified in later films and novels.  And I'm being exceptionally picky on purpose.  Because when you love something a lot, you want it to be the best it can be.

So here's my laundry list.

By Legion of Potatoes

The Bad

Another super weapon.  Another very Death Star-esque, planet-destroying, genocidal super weapon which the rest of the galaxy apparently ignored during its construction.  Seriously, using those kind of resources is going to draw attention.  The EU had its share of these as well, like the Darksaber and the Sun Crusher, and I'd be lying if I said I missed those elements of the Expanded Universe.  To further the comparison between this new super weapon and the Death Stars, this monstrosity's interior boasts similar architecture to its predecessors, features a weakness exploitable by internal sabotage and torpedo strafing, and its timely destruction even includes a brief trench run over the space of 15 tense, in-movie minutes.  The differences this time around are small but notable: a). the weapon is also a planet with its own ecosystem and geological strata, and b). it literally eats stars to fuel its weapon system.  These are cool variables, but really Starkiller Base is still a Death Star.  A bigger Death Star with a makeover.  You'd think that, thirty years after two predecessors had been destroyed by small snubfighters, the designers would have integrated their diabolical creations with better defense systems.  The Millennium Falcon literally comes out of hyperspace in the thing's atmosphere to get past its defensive shield, because it apparently can only stop vehicles moving at sublight speeds.  In making this thing bigger and badder than the Death Stars, they apparently downgraded its defensive capabilities.  Totally a Death Star.

Another evil Empire-esque....  Wait.  Wait, no wait.  It's pretty much just the Empire again with a different name and a different icon emblazoned on its banners.  And with that, another evil Emperor-esque character.  This time, taller and with a lousy surname.  While I appreciate the prototypical black-and-white Star Wars themes, I also wish the universe would mature a bit in terms of its villains and their philosophies.  Coming from an EU perspective, it would be so delightful to see a Thrawn or a Pallaeon in a Star Wars film -- i.e. a heroic kind of villain, possessing tactical ingenuity, fueled by honor and devotion instead of craving power.  That or a cruel, purpose-driven Palpatine devotee like Ysanne Isard whose brutality is coldly, pragmatically calculated -- not the result of a burning need for revenge.  I'd favor either of these options over another power-hungry Sith, simply so that the story moving forward can remain new and refreshing.  There's nothing worse than baddies with no credibility who never learn from their predecessors' mistakes.

Weak politics.  The major conflict revolves around the First Order versus the Resistance, an underground military group which opposes the Order with the support of the Republic.  But the Republic is... where?  This interplanetary government does what when the First Order super weapon blows up an entire system of planets?  And if the Republic is the ruling governmental structure in the galaxy, why is the First Order so powerful and how are they able to accumulate the necessary resources to construct said super weapon?  And if the Republic supports the Resistance, why are they just a faction of said government?  I'm sure these constructs will be more fully fleshed out in subsequent movies and novels, but Episode VII does little to establish the feeling of a sound political order.  Of all the issues I have with this film, I'm hoping that this one in particular will be addressed.

EDIT: After a second viewing of TFA, I can now appreciate a little more the galactic political situation.  Additionally, this article lends some further clarity.  I appreciate the conscious decision to not dwell on the politics in the movie, but I still would have liked just a little more information embedded in dialogue or something.  The relationship between the Resistance and the Republic is still tenuous at best: it seems to me that the former is a misnomer for what is essentially an anti-complacency campaign.  The name would make more sense if the First Order had risen to power and destroyed the Hosnian system, and THEN the Resistance had formed.

Not enough focus on snubfighters.  I'll concede that this is probably just my preference, but I still get chills watching the Death Star attack at the end of A New Hope, and so I had hoped for more of the same in TFA.  There were plenty of X-Wing sequences, undeniably, but they were all in support of what was happening on the ground.  I suppose I'll have to wait for Rogue One for a true fighter squadron fix (maybe -- I hear it might feature more on-the-ground kind of conflict as opposed to dogfights).

EDIT: After a second viewing of TFA, I think the balance between aerial and on-the-ground sequences was actually pretty good.  However, I would have liked the in-cockpit dialogue to be a little more in the "official" vein as it was in A New Hope -- Poe, as squadron leader, issuing more orders, 

Rushed pacing.  We travel from planet to planet fast in this movie.  Long hyperspace journeys are boring, so all the Star Wars movies have moved quickly from location to location, simply to move the plot forward.  However, there's some questionably fast arrivals in this one: the First Order appears out of nowhere to destroy the Resistance hovel and capture Rey; subsequently, the Resistance is on top of the super weapon within minutes when it threatens their base.  This doesn't ruin the overall credibility of the movie's plot, but its long-distance space travel does feel somewhat less believable than the original trilogy's did.

The background cultures aren't terribly immersive.  This complaint is given somewhat hesitantly, because much of the rich lore of the original trilogy arose courtesy of the EU.  There's no explanation or backstory of every character in the Mos Eisley cantina in the films: all of this depth ultimately came from novels and games.  So when I look at all these new aliens, extras, and places in TFA and feel disconnected from them, it's largely because they don't yet have that same kind of extra-dimensional life that the EU provided for the earlier films.  So I am confident that later material will rectify this dearth and fill in some of the gaps I felt watching this movie.

The galaxy far, far away is apparently home to people from... earth?  Obviously, the snippy British personas of the First Order are appropriate, if only to continue the representation of stiff Imperial grunts that began in A New Hope.  However, the Chinese and Scottish accents -- decidedly in-your-face, earth-based accents -- exhibited by the smugglers who attack Solo and Chewie to collect their dues were decidedly out of place.  This is Star Wars, JJ, not Star Trek.

Captain Phasma.  Seriously, what an inconsequential blip on the radar.  Why even bother with such a character except to place a woman in shiny stormtrooper armor?  Furthermore, she wasn't even the only female stormtrooper: one of the grunts who reported to Kylo Ren during the hunt for Rey had a distinctly female voice.  The character of Phasma was so publicized and merchandized prior to TFA's release that her lack of any true plot-related significance made her feel -- forgive my bluntness -- like a total feminist gimmick.

Same old story.  Ultimately, the plot of TFA is virtually the same as the plot of A New Hope -- perhaps intentionally so in some ways -- but I was hoping for a more quest-based movie.  I'd envisioned a dedicated search for Luke while dodging the First Order, and discovering what had happened to drive him into isolation in the process.  Instead, TFA was very much an updated retelling of A New Hope with new characters: a droid escapes with important plans vital to the survival of an underground faction's survival against a tyrannical power, attaches itself to an orphaned major character, a climactic fight with the villain ensues which causes said central character to lean into blossoming Force abilities (admittedly, A New Hope's version of this battle was aerial), and a conflict surrounding a gigantic super weapon ensues, involving a hinged ground-and-air assault that ultimately cripples and destroys the technological terror.  The end.

But wait!  There's more!  The final, prolonged reveal of Luke Skywalker -- after the moment that felt like it should have been the movie's natural conclusion -- almost felt like the scene that would have followed the credits in any Marvel movie.  These latter moments of TFA were essentially an in-movie teaser for Episode VIII, largely hinging on R2-D2's timely awakening (THAT'S what the movie should have been called!) in order to reveal Skywalker's final location.  Contrived?  Maybe not.  Convenient?  Definitely.

By Patrick Seymour

The Good

Lots and lots of questions.  It's infuriating to think that we have to wait another two years for more answers.  IN A GOOD WAY.  It's simply good story-writing to drop viewers in the middle of the action and keep them hooked so they're desperate to know why things and characters are the way they are.  For this reason, I think a fair number of the complaints I listed above will find resolution in episodes VIII and IX, and probably in the Anthology films as well.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Episode VIII opens with flashbacks to post-Return of the Jedi events in order to fill in some gaps and launch the new story with Luke Skywalker.  Sort of the way Peter Jackson went back in time to Smeagol finding the ring and becoming Gollum at the beginning of The Return of the King, before focusing heavily on that character's role in the final installment of The Lord of the Rings saga.  Leaving the theater with a lot to talk about and ponder is a good thing -- it means the next movie will build on the foundation of this installment, and points to the probability that the story arc will span the next two installments of the trilogy, rather than simply focusing on one movie at a time.

Natural arcs in character development.  I thought this was well done.  The appearances of old faces didn't feel contrived to pacify a hungry audience: key characters appeared at important moments in the plot and maintained their former personas well.  Carrie Fisher even held up as a war-weary Leia, despite her inability to smile (or make many facial expressions at all for that matter).  In the same vein, the new faces introduced are full of life, potential, and believable chemistry.  I love Poe's sarcastic, bold, perfectly flyboy kind of character.  I love Fin's disillusionment with the First Order, which inspires intrigue into the First Order's methodology of taking children and indoctrinating them at a young age to be stormtroopers (which, ironically, is not unlike the Old Republic's Jedi Order's modus operandi).  I love Rey's gradual awakening to her Force abilities -- a trickle at first, and then a waterfall as raw necessity drives her to act on instinct, just as Kenobi instructed Luke to do decades prior.  Finally, the elimination of a certain key character (I won't mention any names juuuuust in case), shocking though it may have been, ultimately felt natural for ushering in the new generation of heroes: creating a palpable void for the up-and-coming characters to fill.

EDIT: Fin/Rey roles.  One of my favorite elements of this movie, now even more after a second viewing, is that the plot largely focuses on Fin for the first half, albeit with an elongated sequence devoted to Rey's life on Jakku.  However, the progression of events -- from Fin's conscience-driven break from the First Order, to his jailbreak with Poe, to his escape from Jakku on the Falcon with Rey, to accepting Luke's lightsaber when Rey refuses it and being the first to activate it, to his rescue/espionage mission with Han and Chewie, to the final confrontation on Starkiller Base when he duels with Kylo Ren... Episode VII altogether tricks you into thinking Fin is going to become the central character of the new saga.  However, it gradually transitions to focus on Rey's awakening to her own powerful Force awareness and ultimately concludes with her completing the quest to find Luke Skywalker.  I absolutely love the nuances of this patient bait-and-switch, and I'm eager to see whether or not she has any connections to characters from any of the previous films, or if her backstory will be entirely new.

Kylo Ren is tempted by the Light.  THIS was a unique twist on the mythos of the Force, and creates the kind of tension I think more Star Wars villains need to have: a tortured, driven, darkly sympathetic aspect.  Vader possessed this quality in Empire and ROTJ: the father who had made his choice long ago and could no longer tread the path of the light -- that is, until his final moments when his son drew out the latent good in him one last time.  In the prequels, however, he became an immature wuss in the misrepresentation of Anakin Skywalker and ultimately lost this appeal.  Kylo Ren, on the other hand, springs from the right vein: youthful, passionate, conflicted, subservient to a power he believes in, but tempted by the Light -- perhaps out of guilt or pain or longing for his family.  And, supposing he survived the destruction of the First Order's super weapon (as did Vader before him), Ren stands poised to be even more driven and twisted in Episode VIII.

EDIT: Kylo Ren is simply a raw supernova encased in a human body.  His emotions are as radical and unsteady as the symbolic lightsaber he carries.  Contrast this fear, anger, and emotional instability to Rey's purity of character and purpose: she is hopeful (waiting for her family), he is fearful (anxious that he cannot complete his mission); she is self-controlled and calm, he is reckless.  Yet, they are both full of raw potential, desperately in need of refining.  Both characters stand to grow significantly in their abilities in later chapters.

NO MIDICHLORIANS ANYWHERE.  I can't drive a stake into the ground based on just one point, but this was absolutely huge for me.  TFA presents the Force as it should always have been: an energy field that surrounds, penetrates, and binds all living things together, accessible to anyone with the devotion and the penchant.  Pure, unadulterated philosophy.

An appropriate blend of models, puppets, and CGI.  Everything in this movie looks as good as a huge-budget movie should.  And in comparison to the CGI overload of the prequels, it also manages to feel much more natural, visceral, dimensionally appropriate, and -- ultimately -- believable.  The Force Awakens blends the feel and vision of the original Star Wars trilogy with modern technology and creates a stunning visual presentation of the galaxy: alien creatures that look real; lightsabers with vibrant colors that cast significant back-glow and behave as energy weapons would; rich explosions that aren't merely for the sake of action scenes; realistic spaceship movement with physical properties.  All of this was supremely well-done, and every shot in TFA was both well-framed and positively gorgeous.

Appropriate, character-based humor.  I mentioned this earlier.  But there are no goofy, bumbling Jar Jar Binks characters.  There are no moronic battle droids.  There is no forced humor between lousy actors.  There is only the best kind of wry, situational humor: Han/Chewie banter; one-liners; C-3P0's rude interruptions; Fin's amusing, self-created predicament.  The onscreen chemistry between new actors and old was wonderful, and inspired genuine laughter and emotional response.

Chewie didn't die.  Ever since Vector Prime, I've missed the character of Chewbacca -- even if his death was noble and appropriate for re-establishing the mortality of the key characters.  EU authors did a fantastic job of taking Han and other characters through the grieving process in the aftermath, and permanently imprinted the loss on the cast even decades later in the storyline.  Certain speculations I read online prior to seeing TFA had pointed toward another heart-wrenching Wookiee death scene.  But the choice to keep the character alive and well was, in my opinion, a good one.

You might find it hard to believe that I loved The Force Awakens after reading this.  My criticism certainly outweighs my praise on paper (you know what I mean).  However, I truly see this movie as the foundation for what will be powerful, plot-driven sequels that do this enduring saga the due justice that the prequel films failed to deliver.  Actually, I don't even like the word sequels for these new installments, because the story was definitively written to be a multi-film epic with one huge climax across all episodes.  Big-picture focus is the kind of focus this new Star Wars needs to keep its integrity -- not just emphasis on churning out new, exciting films for a new generation of fans.

So far so good.

The wait for Episode VIII will be excruciating.  But I trust the payoff will once again be phenomenal.