Irrational and Ignorant

Lynn Vincent, the managing editor of World Magazine’s blog, defines propaganda in the context of those who comment on the posts there. One contributor notes:

I’ve found the arguments used here (at Worldmagblog) so poor that I actually have my rhetoric class read the blog to find common fallacies. The most common is definitely Ad Hominem, but the readers here also love the False Dilemma, the False Cause and the Hasty Generalization. I also tell my students (at this Christian school) that they need to realize how ignorant Christians look in the real world of discourse.

Begrudging defense of Columbus

I find myself in an ambivalent position in regard to Christopher Columbus.

As a Viking nut, I have to be a Leif Eriksson supporter. Leif was here nearly 500 years before the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and we’ve got artifacts to prove it (unless you believe that the Viking stuff at L’Anse aux Meadows was planted by the world-wide Norwegian conspiracy, headed by the Sons of Norway. Wait! I said too much!).

By the way, here’s a picture from L’Anse aux Meadows, taken during my visit there in 2004. This is not the site itself, but a reconstruction of some of the original Norse buildings, erected just a few paces away. I was standing in the archaeological site when I took it:

But I feel I have to defend Columbus too, considering the number and nature of his current enemies. One book I recommend on the subject is Columbus and Cortez, Conquerors for Christ, by my friend John Eidsmoe. No doubt Eidsmoe takes positions that are open to dispute, but if you’re going to argue with a defense, you might as well argue with a strong one.

One thing Eidsmoe argues is that Columbus (contrary to current canards) did not make wholesale war on the native inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands in order to enslave them. What he did was take sides. He found two tribes in his original area of discovery—the peaceful Arawaks and the warlike, cannibalistic Caribs. He chose to defend the Arawaks from the Caribs, and felt himself morally justified in enslaving the Caribs, who were themselves enthusiastic slave-hunters. After he was replaced as governor, his successors failed to make the same distinction between the tribes, and that’s a great tragedy. But it’s not Columbus’ fault.

It’s true, however, that Columbus had more luck than wisdom in his original discovery. Washington Irving wrote an influential book which sealed forever in Americans’ memories the falsehood that Columbus set out to prove the world was round. He did no such thing.

Columbus did think the world was round. But his critics thought the world was round too. Everybody with any education already knew the world was round (I have a book in my library called The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian book of advice for a young man written in the 13th Century, which contains a passage employing sophisticated means to demonstrate that the earth is “round like a ball”). The difference between Columbus and his critics was that Columbus thought the earth was small, and his critics thought it was large.

And his critics were right. The calculations Columbus trusted were way, way off.

Fortunately he bumped into America and found alternate career opportunities.

Let’s face it—Leif Eriksson and his relatives came and went, and nothing changed much. Columbus, like him or not, was the cause of big, big changes.

So enjoy what’s left of your Columbus Day.

Simplistic Literary Biographies

The great Terry Teachout addresses literary biographies:

Far too many new biographies—including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year—are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah.

Also, note his list of “first-rate” biographies, none of which he wrote himself.

Buy or Download Piper’s Latest Book

John Piper’s latest book, What Jesus Demands from the World, is available for $12.49 in print through Crossway Books or for free in PDF. In an audio file, Piper explains the need for the book. He says the Lord charges us to teach everyone in the world to observe his commands, not just teach them the commands. We can teach parrots all of Christ’s commands, but they can’t observe them.

So what does it mean to observe the things the Lord instructed us to do? Take up your cross. Always pray without losing heart. Avoid all anxiety. What God has joined together let no man separate. We know the words; do we understand and obey the meaning?

I’m looking forward to it.

Pass on Gory, Here’s Cute and Fluffy

Since we’re writing movie reviews, let me offer a few thoughts on those movies you’ve probably seen in the video store or in the online rental categories and thought to yourself, “Is it time for these movies? Are they any good? Will they hold my daughters’ attention?” Of course, I’m talking about the Barbie Princess animations.

I have four daughters. One has yet to be delivered, but she’s here nonetheless. All of them love the movies they’ve seen, which for the ones out of the womb is all of the movies. I have seen all but one, and in short they aren’t bad.

Last night, we watched the most recent fairy tale, Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses. Of course, it barely resembles the original story of twelve dancing princesses who use a magic drink to enslave men in their nighttime enchantment so that they want nothing but to dance with the women all night, every night. That’s a pretty interesting story, and the illustrations in my Portland House collection are beautifully intricate, if a bit weird. The story doesn’t have that gap in cultural understanding which many traditional or foreign fairy tales present to me, that moment in the story when something is explained or done which seems unnatural to me or maybe just gruesome, like when a man stops to help a woman and kills her after a few minutes. He goes on to live happily ever after. Nonsense.

The Barbie version has a pleasant musical theme, which becomes a pop song during the closing credits. It’s one of those catchy melodies which needs to go with a more complicated composition to make it really good, but Barbie has an audience of young girls who don’t care about that. Apparently, they do care about talking animals, because every movie has more-or-less irritating pets who usually talk to other animals and occasionally talk to the people. In Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses, there’s a cat, monkey, and parrot—cute, annoying, and funny respectively. (My sweet wife doesn’t give them that much credit.)

Positive messages, classic music, and dancing patterned after live ballet dancers are the strengths of these movies; occasionally lame dialogue, mediocre animation, overuse of magic are the weaknesses. I say lame dialogue instead of depictions of popular childishness which kids are supposed to relate too. The mean, selfish, whiney daughter of the villain in Barbie in Swan Lake was the very type of character my eldest daughter didn’t need to see in action. At the beginning of The Magic of Pegasus, the story looks as if it will go in a bad direction with a handful of pop references, but it ends well. All of them end pretty well, I suppose.

The 12 Dancing Princesses focuses on a family sticking together to protect their father, noting that everyone in the family has something to contribute. There’s a lot of dancing too. Swan Lake deals with inspiring individual aspirations and certain ballet moves. The Magic of Pegasus is about second chances and ice skating. This one shows Barbie disobeying her parents in the beginning and repenting without excuses in the end. The Nutcracker focuses on Tchaikovsky’s music and ballet. I forget the message–courage, maybe.

The best one is the only musical. The Princess and the Pauper is about twins separated at birth—stop me if you’ve heard this one. At the beginning, the two women sing about wanting their freedom from social obligations or poverty, but they end the song with words on their duty to their families, not the usual follow-your-heart line. The music is good, and the talking cats, dog, and horse don’t ruin the story.

Another plus overall: Barbie doesn’t marry whatever man shows up at the end of every story. There is occasional talk on the man’s cuteness, but I manage to stomach it.

Forgive me if you still can’t believe I’m blogging long on Barbie movies, but the best may be yet to come. I hear the next animation will be Barbie and The Merry Wives of Winsor. They may even tackle Romeo and Juliet. That way they can sell Barbie-sized coffins. Maybe the talking pets will draw first blood.

Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel

(At last I’ve got my desktop back, and substantially operational. Now I can post the movie review I promised last weekend.)

I’ve been waiting for Beowulf and Grendel for some time. There was an official website, where they posted photos and production information, but as is the case with so many movies, there were problems in the distribution phase. I had high hopes for it. The costumes, in particular, looked to be far more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a Viking movie to date. (Technically it’s not really a Viking movie, since it takes place in the 6th Century, and the Viking period didn’t officially start until the 8th Century. But I doubt if a Northman living in those times would have seen any important difference.)

The film never did get meaningful release. It played in a handful of theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and now has gone to DVD. This is unfortunate in many ways, since it’s a well-acted, visually fascinating piece of work.

But I don’t like it much.

It was great to look at. The costumes, as I said, were outstanding. The armor and weapons were (thankfully) done with exacting care, barring some not-unthinkable improvisations (in contrast to the ones used in The Thirteenth Warrior, apparently the result of a scavenger hunt through the props department). The Icelandic locations were grimly beautiful as only Iceland can be–though a little disorienting, since the story is expressly set in Denmark, and Denmark has never–now or then–looked much like Iceland (it was heavily wooded in Beowulf’s time).

But Beowulf and Grendel is a preachy movie, and what’s worse, it’s a sort of preaching I don’t like.

If you read the Beowulf poem, you read the story of a heroic young man (played by Gerard Butler in the movie) who kills a mighty monster in order to protect the people of a family friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. It’s a black-and-white story. Grendel, the monster, kills because he’s bloodthirsty and evil. Beowulf kills him (and later his fearsome mother) because he’s brave and strong and good.

The movie turns all this on its head. The new slant isn’t really revolutionary, because we’ve heard it all before, time and time again. It merely spoils the story. Grendel is now the heroic social outcast. He’s the utterly innocent victim of racial prejudice. He never kills anyone except those who’ve injured him (he’s able to pick those precise ones out through his superhuman sense of smell). It’s the Danes (typical imperialist, bigoted Europeans!) who have killed his father for sport.

I have no objection to humanizing villains. It’s something I take pains to do in my novels. A villain is more effective, more believable and more morally useful when the reader can sense our common, perilous humanity and recognize once again Solzhenitsyn’s profound dictum that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”

But it can be overdone. The filmmakers (director Sturla Gunnarson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins), instead of offering insight into human complexity, have essentially switched sides. Now it’s the Danes who are mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, and Grendel who is the pure and unsullied Ideal.

Aside from being a cliché, this approach makes the movie a lot duller than it might have been. Beowulf, pretty much the only Dane with a lick of decency or compassion, fights without enthusiasm, and his victory is a hollow one. Suddenly The Thirteenth Warrior (which was based on the same story) looks better as a movie. At least there was serious fighting with important stakes in that movie, not to mention a hero who cared about what he was doing.

The whole thing is summed up in a line at the end, where one of Beowulf’s men, listening to a friend composing the first draft of the epic poem, says, “[His] story is sh*t.” That’s what this movie all boils down to. It’s a movie about Beowulf done by people who despise Beowulf.

It’s rated R and deserves it. Lavish use is made of the “F” word, and there’s some gore (though not as much as there might have been) and sexual situations. An Irish priest (unimaginatively named Brendan) shows up in order to demonstrate how impotent and misleading Christianity is. The real voice of wisdom in the film (again, predictably) is a witch played with offputting smugness by Sarah Polley (who was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

I’d planned to buy this movie. I’m glad now I rented it first.

Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

TELL me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!—

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

Read the rest of this by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Bitter? Moi?

Haven’t got much to tell tonight. I’ve delayed coming online in order to keep my phone free so the repairman may call me and tell me my desktop (home of my high-speed connection) is fixed. Of course there’s been no such call.

The only thing I’ve got to report is a call that did come in—at work—from the friend I call Chip (for blogging purposes, not personal conversations).

I don’t think I’ve told you what Chip does for a living. He drives a limousine. It’s a perfect job for him. He likes to drive and he likes to talk to people. When I think of a guy finding his niche, Chip leaps (or rolls) to mind.

Anyway, he called me at my office number and said, “I’m driving a guy named Neil Gaiman around today. You ever heard of him?”

I said yes, I’d read one of his novels.

Chip had to hang up then, because Gaiman and his handlers were at that moment piling back into the limo to be transported from Minnesota Public Radio to some bookstore. Or something.

He called back later to tell me where Gaiman would be speaking and signing books this evening, in case I wanted to come.

I chose not to. I had a computer repair call to wait for. And frankly I’m still somewhat miffed that in a world where there’s probably only room for one big novel about Odin trying to set up shop in modern America, it was Gaiman’s book that found that particular niche and not my own Wolf Time.

If Gaiman wants to meet me, let him ask me to lunch. That’s what I say.

The phone continues silent.

The Best Ice Cream Vote

Let’s discuss something serious for a moment, shall we? What’s your favorite ice cream brand? I buy Edy’s most often, and I prefer it to Breyers. Edy’s vanilla or their cream in general tastes richer, creamer, thicker than Breyers. Is it better or even noticably different than the locally churned Mayfields or Texas-based Blue Bell? I don’t know. I may like those brands equally.

But what about you? Do you prefer the grocery store brands, the high-end ones, or the ones mentioned above?

Language Police in Malaysia

“Malaysia in its bid to preserve and strengthen ‘Bahasa Malaysia’, the national language, will fine the ‘mutated and incorrect’ use of language by people and also on billboards and posters,” reports PTI. That misuse is by mixing the national language with filthy English into what’s called “Manglish.”

I know some English speakers, like, want to soap up their language too, get it all 99.94% pure and stuff. I think that’s so-o passe, like pre-historic 19th Century stuff, you know?

Yoduk Story, A Musical from North Korea

If Les Miserables, the book or musical, described the circumstances of modern people somewhere in the world, how would you respond? A defector from North Korea has done just that with a musical called, Yoduk Story. The producers says, “For two and a half hours, this epic based on true eyewitness testimonies depicts the horrors and desperate love still occurring inside Yoduk Political Prisoners Camp, the living hell on earth.”

A hypocrite’s pretty much like a prude, right?

Today Gene Edward Veith at Cranach blogged on the point (which I’ve brought up myself here) that in our society today all crimes, however vile, are considered preferable to hypocrisy. In theory the modern American thinks that a man who struggles in the privacy of his soul with a besetting sin like drunkenness is a hypocrite, and therefore far more to be condemned than a mass murderer, providing the mass murderer commits his crime in public, before the eyes of all.

In my comment I referenced a poem of Ogden Nash’s, which seemed to me prophetic. I’ll post the poem here. This version comes from the collection Verses From 1929 On, published by Modern Library.


Once upon a time there was a young man named Harold Scrutiny.


Harold had many virtues and practically no vices.


He smoked, to be sure.


Also he drank and swore.


Moreover, he was a pickpocket.


But, for all that, Harold was no prude.


I am no prude, Harold often said.


But Detective Guilfoyle of the Pickpocket Squad is a prude, the old prude, said Harold.


One day Harold went into the subway to pick some pockets.


There was a man on the platform penciling a beard on the lady on the toothpaste placard.


Hey, said Harold.


Hey who, said the man.


Hey you, that’s hey who, said Harold.


Aren’t you going to give her a moustache?


Sure I’m going to give her a moustache, said the man.


What do you think I am?


I think you’re somebody that puts beards on ladies on toothpaste placards before they put on the moustache, said Harold.


Don’t you know enough to put the moustache on first?


You put the moustache on first, why then you can turn it up or turn it down, whichever you want, said Harold.


You try to turn a moustache down after the beard’s on, it runs into the beard, said Harold.


It don’t look like a moustache, only like a beard grows up and down both.


Go on, said the man, go on and pick some pockets.


Harold turned to his work, but his mind was elsewhere.


Suddenly the lady on the toothpaste placard got off the toothpaste placard and arrested him.


It was Detective Guilfoyle of the Pickpocket Squad all the time.


You got a beard grows up and down both, said Harold.


Detective Guilfoyle searched Harold.


He certainly was surprised at what he found.


So was Harold.


Harold hadn’t picked any pockets at all because his mind was elsewhere.


He had picked a peck of pickled peppers.


Detective Guilfoyle wanted to call Harold a name, but he couldn’t because he was a prude.


Harold picked his pocket and later became the smokingest swearingest, drinkingest Assistant District Attorney the county ever had.


Don’t be a prude.

Meditation on the News from a Pennsylvania Schoolhouse

With the ugly news coming from a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, schoolhouse, people tend to throw out reserved phrases to describe their view of God’s role in the killing of several little girls and a milkman.

1. The sanctimonious person who believes he knows the mind of God, especially in judgment cases, will say God has reserved a special place in hell for milkman turned gunman who apparently wanted to do something sexual to the school girls before or after shooting them. This person probably speaks with the same motivation John and James spoke when they asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who refused them hospitality (Luke 9). What the sanctimonious fail to see is the Lord’s incomprehensible mercy. He forgives evil men on his own terms, which has nothing to do the acts of the men forgiven. In God’s bizarre mercy on mankind, he has saved many evil men from eternal judgment and reserved that special place in hell for relatively decent people because no one can recommend himself to the Lord. The Lord gives his mercy to whomever he wishes.

I admit there is comfort in knowing an murderer will be judged perfectly according to his deeds, but the sanctimonious person sees only his own justice, not his own position under God. If the romantic rouge of Shelly’s poetry right, believing he has sinned too much to receive any eternal mercy, then we are all in trouble. God’s mercy must extend even to horrible criminals like the milkman. And the sanctimonious among us forget just how close to the milkman they are. They give themselves a pass.

2. The sentimental person will say that God wanted those little girls in heaven with him. They were such sweet flowers he had to have them close to him. Somehow that twisted idea is meant to fill the grieving with warmth. If God really thinks this way, he should create his own flowers and give the daughters of Eve long lives of faith and hope.

But the Lord does number our days, and he gives us all only a few of them to trust him before bringing us home or resigning us to exist in isolation forever. Life is a vapor during which he gives all joy and all heartache for drawing us to himself, the source of indescribable peace and genuine strength.

3. That may not comfort the one who readily, understandably, will ask where God was during the murder Monday morning. How could he allow this to happen? I know that some Christians will suggest God isn’t behind this because he does not do evil things. The devil does things like this, so it’s his fault, not God’s. That’s a sorry answer, in my opinion. If God didn’t do it, he could have stopped it, and we return to the original question. Where was the God Almighty, capable of saving the murderer from himself before he executed innocent children?

Right in the middle of it.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, an anarchist charges God with judgmental isolationism, sitting on his ivory pillar to condemn the world by his whim and avoid getting his hands dirty. The anarchist says God knows nothing of the daily pain of life or the suffering of his creation. God replies by quoting Jesus. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”

Unlike any other god of the world’s religions, the Lord has suffered greatly on our behalf. He entered the world we broke, the one we ruined through our selfishness, and suffered at our hands in order to give us eternal mercy and lasting peace. When the innocent suffer, the Lord suffers with them.

4. Why would God suffer like a weakling instead of stopping the murderer? Why did the milkman see a vision and repent or drop dead on his way to the school? Who cares if he suffered with the children; he should have saved them from it? Why didn’t he?

For the person who feels desperate pain asking these questions, don’t worry that God will be offended. He can handle any question you have. He will not reject you for asking hard questions or speaking from your pain. The problem for us, speaking in human terms, is that God rarely answers these questions specifically. I’m sorry. It seems the Lord responds to these situations almost always by urging you to seek him for comfort and strength.

But since we are removed from the intimate pain in Lancaster County, we can talk about these questions a bit more openly. Why didn’t the Lord do something? There’s an ocean full of evil in the world. At what point do you want the Lord to step in and stop it? Just before it gets too ugly for your taste?

When we ask where God is when horrible things happen, we fail to see that the horrible things occur within a large context. It’s easy for you and me to talk about evil in the world at large and charge God with the task of doing something about it, but if he answered us by meddling with the seeds of evil in our lives, we would complain, wouldn’t we? This milkman didn’t wake up in the bed of evil and act on new impulses. He acted on the wickedness he nurtured within his heart for years. When do you think the Lord should have stepped in and arrested him?

The person who prefers to trust himself rather than the Lord has difficulty understanding that the Lord stepped in to arrest death and evil and bring eternal life when he was born in Bethlehem as an infant. He lived in his creation, taught, suffered greatly, died, and rose from the grave in order to save milkmen, congressmen, and angry students from the evil within them. That’s when mankind was offered peace and good will, but we reject it because we’re more comfortable living with ourselves than with our creator. Why he doesn’t force it on us for our own good I have no idea.

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