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Posts Tagged ‘God’

Me Of Little Faith: The Not-So-Great Escape

April 11th, 2009 No comments

On a recent trip to Borders, I was surprised to find Escape from Hell, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s newly published sequel to their 1976 novel Inferno. I had greatly enjoyed the original when I read it back in ’86 during my tumultuous year in Hollywood. I was taken with the tale of a science-fiction writer who found himself in a Hell patterned after the one described in Dante’s Divine Comedy

The notion of Hell has always fascinated me. At first it was something I feared, due in no small part to watching too many Twilight Zone episodes. Later I was obsessed with the dissonance of a loving, fatherly God meting out eternal punishment. I came to believe that no earthly sin, no matter how heinous, justified torture for all time. Yes, that includes Hitler.

Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno came to a similar conclusion, as its narrator encountered souls suffering horrible and cruelly ironic fates for what, in some cases, were relatively minor “sins”: for example, an FDA attorney doomed to an eternity of immobile obesity because she banned a sugar substitute. It was she who spoke the line echoed in Escape from Hell, “We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism.” Ultimately, Inferno suggested that Hell must be only temporary, and that even the worst of humanity could be redeemed. Indeed, at the conclusion of that novel, the protagonist watched a reformed Benito Mussolini climb his way out of the pit.

Escape from Hell seemed to promise that it might address some of the remaining questions from Inferno regarding the purpose and nature of Hell*, but opts instead for posing those questions a second time. In fact, it struck me as less sequel and more remake, with its hero being blown all the way back to the beginning and having to make the perilous journey a second time. In a recent interview Pournelle says that the reason he and Niven revisited the setting after so many years was that they “had a story.” I’m not entirely convinced of that. While there are hints of changes in Hell wrought not only by Mussolini’s escape but by real-world events such as the Vatican II council, these never quite boil into a full-fledged expansion of the plot.

What it does allow is for Niven and Pournelle to toss a whole new batch of sinners into the pitch, including Ken Lay, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Carl Sagan. I was disappointed by the book’s handling of Sagan. In the above-linked interview, Pournelle claims a relationship with the astronomer, so I won’t dispute the authors’ reasons for consigning him to the Inferno. I just felt that, pragmatist or not, Sagan came off as too quickly accepting of a Biblical Hell, and too willing to cooperate with its masters.

It also gets a bit talky at times, with the characters frequently digressing into philosophical discussions. Natural enough, I suppose, but I didn’t feel like they were saying much that hadn’t been covered in the first book. Plus, the authors presume that I have as much interest as they do in the life and work of Sylvia Plath. (The poet is a major character in the sequel.) I can assure them that I don’t.

That said, there were some clever bits in Escape from Hell. One of the most striking images is of a post-9/11 Ground Zero in which an endless series of proposed replacements for the Twin Towers rise, each in turn proving insubstantial and collapsing due to a lack of commitment. In moments such as those, Escape from Hell demonstrates that while it’s far from a necessary sequel, it at least has something new to say.

*In our own world, Hell appears to serve several purposes. The threat of eternal damnation is an inducement for “good” behavior. It’s one method by which religious leaders exert control over their flocks and influence over the rest of us. But I suspect that its most important purpose is to allow us some measure of satisfaction over the rampant injustice we see. We know damned well that–despite aphorisms such as “crime never pays”–horrible people do prosper, and all too often they are never held accountable. Hell allows us to believe that even those who go to their death on a pile of money and whores will meet their just punishment in the afterlife.

Feed Me, Bike King

April 3rd, 2009 No comments

I am not the first nor will I be the last to blog about the trailer for the film The Bike King & the Ten Commandments. Still, I can’t resist taking a couple of pokes at it.

Take a look at it yourself, and be sure to stay to the end.

First off, I am totally digging the python and his modulated, ’70s-exorcism-film Voice of Evil. Not every snake would be willing to laugh directly into the camera. And, while one infirmity would clearly have been enough to prove God’s love, he made Johnny both blind and lame! Now that’s what I call a Prince of Darkness!

On the other hand, I’m a little uncomfortable with the trailer’s portrayal of God in the form of Charlie Brown’s Kite-Eating Tree. For one, it depicts God as being too cheap to spring for a slim case for His Almighty Mix CD. He also comes off really needy and insecure, with all His “I Love You, Love You, Love You…” And His voice sounds suspiciously like that of Audrey II. Don’t feed the plants, Johnny!

Unfortunately for us, in the worldly battle between the Laughing Python and the CD Burning Tree, the snakes seem to be winning, as seen in this recent Daily Show segment.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Florida Pythons on the Loose
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They Had A Plan

March 22nd, 2009 No comments

Massive spoilers for the series finale of Battlestar Galactica immediately follow. 

I can’t say that they didn’t warn us. The answer had been in plain view the entire time. Despite all of the speculation and rationalization about the seemingly miraculous events dogging the fleeing Colonials–implanted chips, shared mental projections and unrevealed Cylon/human hybrids–the truth was that it was God all along. (Though we now know that it doesn’t like that name.)

And it’s funny that we expected something else. It’s not like Battlestar Galactica hasn’t worn its spirituality on its sleeve from the start. The ties between the original series and the Mormon faith have been well documented. One of its best-regarded episodes, “War of the Gods,” was not at all coy about injecting literal angels and devils into the space-based shenanigans. Heck, an unproduced script for the Galactica: 1980 follow-up went so far as to have Starbuck assumed into the heavenly domain of the “ship of lights.”

So, really, why were we surprised that “Head Six” wasn’t lying about being God’s messenger? Or that there really was some sort of divine force egging the pudding? 

For myself, it’s at least in part because I reject the idea of an activist God in my own life. I’m willing to concede the possibility of a creator, but I’ve seen nothing in my time on this world that allows me to believe that it takes any interest in our earthbound affairs.

And even though I don’t believe that science and religion are competing teams in a zero-sum game, I come down firmly on the side of science, which doesn’t simply throw up its hands when it encounters a mystery and declare that “God did it.”

Yet, while I was still holding out hope in the final hour for a solid, rational explanation of Starbuck’s seeming death and resurrection, I can’t say that I’m all that bothered by the lack of one. In our world, “God did it” is the ultimate cop-out. But in a fictional world in which inexplicable, miraculous events are a regular occurrence, I find it more palatable. I didn’t complain about the presence of the supernatural in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. so why here?

Besides, the modern Galactica, unlike the original series, remained a tiny bit coy about it. Saying that “it doesn’t like that name” offered a back door to other, semi-rational explanations involving super-evolved aliens and such. Producer Ronald D. Moore’s other major sci-fi series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine posited that the only difference between Captain Sisko’s “wormhole aliens” and the “prophets” of Bajoran spiritualism was a matter of perspective.

So, leaving God-or-It aside for the moment, what about the rest of the finale? I certainly don’t want to overlook the tremendous kick-assitude of the first hour, from the toe-to-toe slugout between the Galactica and the Cylon Colony ship to the brutal brawl of old-school Centurions and their modern counterparts. The sight of the battlestar ramming through the colony’s bulkhead will stick with me, as will the scenes of Galactican marines and Centurions working side by side. Whatever cost-cutting the production might have had to do to save up for this special-effects blow-out, it was worth it.

And while the one big surprise reveal–that the previously-seen, nuclear-ravaged Earth of the Colonials’ quest was not in fact our world–took me a few moments to grasp, I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. The Earth we visited at midseason left too many questions; it appeared to be our own future, yet it was colonized by Cylons who were fully aware of their machine origins. The conceit of the refugees finding our planet and renaming it Earth was fitting. First, it acknowledges that it really didn’t matter whether they ever found the “real” Earth; the only reason that Roslin and Adama brought up the legend in the first place was to give hope to the fleet. Second, it pays off the link between the Galacticans and us that’s inherent in the premise. There’s no point in using the name Earth unless we’re meant to be involved in the story.

I’m not entirely sure that I bought the notion of the Colonials abandoning their technology (even medicine?) to go native. Furthermore, having them settle down in Earth’s prehistory drew an unfortunate parallel to the hapless Golgafrinchams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and made me wonder whether the real villain was in fact a giant, mutant star-goat. Yet it too paid off a core concept from the original series’ opening narration:

There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. That they may have been the architects of the great pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens…

In the “reimagined” Galactica, Admiral Adama may not have built the pyramids or sunk beneath the waves with Atlantis, but it’s fun to think that the Colonials’ legends became part of our own collective consciousness. If you really want to get silly about it, perhaps they informed a certain cheesy ’70s TV show.*

All of this talk about the grand plot arc has made me overlook the most important part of the series: the characters. And while the finale may have gone on for fifteen minutes too long, it did allow us–as with the film version of Return of the King–to take our time winding down and to find out where the paths of the people with whom we spent the last five years took them. Whatever I may feel about certain aspects of the storyline, I felt that in the end the characters were believable: human in their foibles, yet capable of great strength. Here too there were a bunch of good moments, including Tyrol’s enraged attack on Tory, Adama and Roslin’s final Raptor flight and pretty much everything involving Baltar.

I’m glad that everything turned out more or less okay for the surviving Colonials. They finally had one good day, even if they never made it to the Puppy Planet.

Though it’s gonna suck when they realize they’re out of toilet paper.

*For a time, I began to think that the cycle of civilizations being slaughtered by their own creations (“all this has happened before; all this will happen again”) might imply that the original series itself was part of the same continuity. I also thought that Dirk Benedict would turn out to be Starbuck’s dad. So I guess I’m not so clever.

Me Of Little Faith: Expert Witness

March 20th, 2009 No comments

Back in 2007, I made an abortive attempt at a mini-series of navel-gazing blog posts regarding religion. I managed to log only one entry before becoming terminally distracted by a Metroid invasion. It’s something I’d long intended to revisit, but I’d been looking for something to spark my interest in the topic.

This past week, I’ve been reading I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams. Yes, I’m as amazed as you are; I’m reading a real book, not a TV tie-in or collection of ’60s comics. It may be far from my usual bathroom fare, but I was intrigued by the cover featuring a happy, little girl standing beneath an umbrella in an idyllic circle while the rest of civilization around her perishes in a rain of hellfire.

What’s it like to grow up knowing that the world will end within your lifetime, and that everyone who fails to share your one true faith is doomed, doomed, doomed? It turns out that you wind up boggled by normal social interactions and completely incurious about the world, because what’s the point of getting an education and making something of yourself if an earthly paradise is right around the corner? Granted that Kyria’s problems seem to spring as much from a panoply of mental disorders and a stunning self-centeredness as they do from her sheltered, cultish upbringing.

The book starts out hilarious, dealing with such earthly perils as Smurfs and demon-infested yard sale items, but becomes rather sad as Kyria grows up and flails about in a series of bad choices and loveless relationships. Judging by her blog, she seems to have turned herself around in the end, and I’m glad to know that. 

My interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses goes back to my own childhood. My Great Aunt Vera was one, and while I don’t recall her attempting to send me home with a stack of Watchtower magazines, I do remember that even back then I could tell that something about her world view didn’t quite add up. Great Aunt Vera gave me my first exposure to apocalyptic end-time prophecy over a casual dinner at a local eatery on the west side of Hobart. It didn’t make much sense to me: something about having sixes tattooed on my head and the evils of a one-world government. I’m not sure quite when this conversation occurred, but as someone who grew up under the shadow of the Vietnam War, having a single government sounded like a pretty good idea at the time.

What really got me about the Jehovah’s Witness faith, as explained by Great Aunt Vera, was that it only allowed for 144,000 of its own followers to ascend to Heaven. Okay, sure, the rest got to live in an earthly paradise. Still, it seemed like a bum deal. According to my own vague, generic notions of Christianity, Heaven was for everyone, including pets. But here was an orthodoxy that preached that even if you did everything right there was still a much-better-than-even chance you wouldn’t get to hobnob with the Big G. (Er…Big J.) I mean, even then I realized that 144,000 was a pretty small number, especially if it was drawn not only from current-as-of-Armageddon Witnesses, but those who’d died prior to The End. What, was Heaven running out of room? Couldn’t an omnipotent God whip up a few more clouds for his chosen people to sit upon?

Right then, I thought, “Wow, that religion blows.” And that was before I found out about the not-celebrating-birthdays thing.