Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'The Tree of Life', Surfaces, Truth, Job and God

The Tree of Life is largely -- if not wholly -- a film about surfaces, details and particularities, which points to no deeper or hidden 'truth' than that of its surface. In this sense, Malick's method is not only foreign to most modern filmmakers but antithetical to modernity itself. The ethos of modernity is largely reductionist. It attempts to abstract 'essences' out of surfaces and particularities; to 'solve' ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions and distill the diverse specifics of the particular into self-evident truths. This is a futile exercise as the truth of Being is most fully contained in the surface, in the interrelatedness of all its aspects, in the form of the particular. Malick, it seems, understands this. Life -- Creation -- is a gift, with all of its contours, and you need to embrace the gift for what it is, in all of its particularity and specificity.

If you understand this, then Malick's extreme attention to detail in this film makes sense. With his subject being no less than Creation itself (with Man occupying a special place therein), the details need to be universal in nature. Malick achieves this universality-of-the-particular spectacularly. If there is any abstraction to be done by the audience, it is in abstracting from the details of this family's life to the lives of all humans, including that of the viewer. But because the particulars and details are so vivid, evocative and universal, Malick makes this an easy task for the audience. And in eschewing the inherent finitude of a typical three-act drama, Malick frees the particulars of the film from confinement to this narrative, allowing them to become the particulars that represent all particulars.

Since I've stated in my initial review that the film is propelled by a dialogue with God, some might ask "aren't you abstracting some deeper meaning or truth not present in the simple details of the surface of the film?" Not really. The dialogue with God is almost as explicit as any element of the film. Some of the questions that are posited as voiceovers are often addressed to 'you' rather than any specific person. This fact combined with the the fact that some of the voiceover questions and statements are seemingly addressed at other people -- such as 'mother', 'father' or 'son' -- might obscure the fact that the vast majority of the voiceovers only make sense as addresses to a personal God --or as contemplation before Him -- rather than toward human individuals or anthropomorphized entities, such as 'the universe', 'nature', 'fate', etc.

Just as important as the searching questions of the humans in the film (primarily Jack), is the fact that God is actually answering the questions posed. The answers from God, of course, come in the form of the events that occur in the film, the responses from the characters, the significance within the whole of the narrative, character's realizations and so forth. And all of God's responses in the film are somewhat colored by God's response to another group of interlocutors, Job and Elihu. A couple of verses from Job 38 open the film. In the verses God is speaking -- addressing Job whose friend Elihu had been speaking with him about God's wisdom -- and saying "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?" The statement by God is not solely meant as a display of His own authority or of Job's insignificance to him (as many reviewers unfamiliar with Job, and reading the quote out of context, seem to take it to mean); on the contrary, Job was God's beloved follower.

The purpose of God's response to Job and indirectly to Job's friends, including Elihu -- who was ostensibly claiming that God, in his wisdom, allows people suffer to set them on the right path, and that suffering was evidence of unrepentant sin -- was to point out how little Elihu actually understands (due to his unfortunate condition of being finite and human), not only as a display of God's own might, knowledge and authority, but to point out that Elihu's (and Job's other friends) attempting to distill God's infinite wisdom to nice charts of debt and credit, punishment and reward, is futile and misguided. Which is not to necessarily contradict the councils of Elihu, or to show him to be speaking falsehoods, but to show that those councils are incomplete and that God's wisdom is ultimately inscrutable by finite beings.

The questioning done by Job, as well as the 'wisdom' of his friends, is echoed in the voiceovers of the characters in this film, also wondering why it is they suffer as they do.  To which God's reply always carries the same connotation and intonation of his reply to Elihu and Job: I'm in control; stop trying to reduce my ways to an economy that you can grasp; you're in no position to understand precisely how it is I toll out justice; accept the gift of life as it is, and rejoice in all of its particularity; love each other and show one another grace just as I have shown infinite love and grace in calling you forth from nothing to participate in Creation.

If you take the cues from the Bible quote and the rest of the narrative, all of this is present in the most surface, superficial reading of the film (superficial being a positive thing in this context, given what Malick is going for), so I'm delving no deeper than the surface. I'd argue that others are too quickly looking past the surface, if anything.

Of course, in another sense, what I've described here is necessarily an act of interpretation and distillation. My words certainly are not printed on the celluloid of the film itself. And The Tree of Life has much more to say than only that which I've vaguely approximated here (and it says it better and with much greater beauty). I would only urge you to appreciate, not necessarily the inexhaustible depth of the film, but rather its (seemingly) inexhaustible surface, which is in turn an approximation of God's inexhaustible gift, in all its glorious particularity.

David B. Hart Wins Michael Ramsay Prize for 'Atheist Delusions'

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, awarded the Michael Ramsay Prize (which is given for excellence in theological writing) to the inimitable David Bentley Hart for his book Atheist Delusions over the Memorial Day weekend. Atheist Delusions really is a phenomenal book (you can find my review of it here) and I'm glad it's getting deserved recognition.
In the book, Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the "Age of Reason" was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason's authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

That's a very good synopsis of the book, and probably more helpful than anything in my review. In any case, I definitely echo the high recommendation of the estimable Archbishop.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tree of Life - Review

[One or two small spoilers are contained herein]

The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick is such a titanic cinematic achievement that it's difficult to write about. Part of me wants to write nothing, or maybe a one sentence review (since no words will do it justice). Another parts of me wants to write a massive essay. I'm going to see if I can say everything I want to say (but not more than needs to be said) in a normal length review.

I suppose the best way to rein in my initial review of the film is by narrowing my focus to those things that surprised me about the film. I was expecting a gorgeous visual feast, I was expecting a soul-stirring experience, I was expecting to be shown the creation of the cosmos, I was expecting a highly personal film focusing on childhood family life in 1950s Texas which draws heavily on Malick's personal experience, I was expecting Heidegerrian philosophizing, and I was expecting Malick to skillfully draw those strands together to form a magesterial tapestry. I got all of that in spades. There were a few things I wasn't expecting, though. 

The first thing that struck me about the film is its bold narrative choice that occurs within the first 5 minutes. Very early on, before there has been any character development, the main family in the story experiences a tragic loss. One of their sons has died suddently at the age of 19, leaving the family grief-stricken and questioning the meaning of life. This was a daring move as it risks alienating casual viewers of the film right off the bat. Earnestly showing a grieving family, mourning the loss of a character we essentially don't yet know anything about, breaks the traditional rules of emotional engagement with the audience. How we are supposed to feel something for someone we don't know? Malick is willing to trust that the audience will be able to map their own experiences with loss and grief into the fabric of what they're viewing. Few directors would have the audacity or courage to do that, as it is a lot to ask of an audience. It's also a lot to ask of his actors, and they do him well. Jessica Chastain's performance is devastating and Brad Pitt is highly affecting  in these early moments as they struggle with the loss of a child. With the way that the film plays out, it seems it would almost have to be done this way, but it's an interesting, unique approach that ends up working marvelously. 

The second thing that was somewhat surprising to me was the largely linear nature of the narrative. Being a fan of Terrence Malick, I was prepared for some unconventional storytelling; he never really has played by the rules. Reading many reviews, though, I was expecting something even more experimental than his usual fare. Strangely, I felt the film played out in an intelligible, sequential order and it was not quite as elliptical or obtuse as I had been lead to believe that it was. Many reviewers seemed to understand the film primarily as an impressionistic flood of images, sounds and existential questions on family, nature and spirituality, and only that. If the film is understood as a dialogue between the main character -- the oldest child in the family, played as an adult by Sean Penn -- and God, the narrative becomes quite coherent and linear. Penn's character asks questions and God answers them. Within those questions and answers are explorations of nature and Grace, love and loss, memory and experience, childhood and maturity, faith and family, but all of it is enfolded into a call-and-response interaction between God and humanity. 

Another surprise is that the character development -- mostly that of Pitt and Penn's characters -- is substantial and deeply affecting, though it is a particularly Malickian treatment of character. Even as the characters sometimes double as ciphers for some larger concern, they remain recognizable human beings, as real and alive as any that I've seen on the screen in quite some time. 

The last thing that surprised me about the film is the explicitly Christian themes, imagery, language and metaphysics that run throughout, which I've already hinted at. These aren't subtle undertones, mind you, but extremely overt and inherent in the fabric of the story, which was a delightful surprise. The film opens with a verse from Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?", and it lays the foundation (so to speak) for much that we will end up seeing in more ways than one. As I've already stated the narrative is moved along by voiceovers of various characters asking questions of God. Some of the questions are 'unanswered', others end up very much answered. But the dialogue with God plays a very central role in driving all of the action.

In response to one such question from a character, the creation of the universe ex nihilo is shown. Later The Fall of man is depicted analogically in a sequence where the main character finds himself rebelling and sinning, and not understanding what has taken hold of him. Resurrection is also hinted at in a couple sequences. In one scene a pastor is giving a sermon on Job, and as the eldest son listens he wonders "is nothing in this world deathless?", as the camera pans up to a stain-glass image of Christ. Later in the film there are eschatological depictions of resurrections of the human dead, though if you blink you might miss them. To add another dimension to all this, there are also hymns that comprise some parts of the score, the film closing with a choral chant of "Amen". 

I've somewhat exhausted the topic of things that surprised me about the film, so let me comment on a few other aspects that require it, and then be done. 

Malick's eye for detail is phenomenal. The cinematography is exquisite, every frame seems delicately crafted, and the subjects for his lens are no less extraordinary; from the microcosmic to macrocosmic, and back our familiar world of "medium-sized objects". Even if the film had nothing of interest to say (which is emphatically not the case), the craft of the film is a wonder in itself. Stunning, sensational cinema. If Lubezki doesn't win the Oscar for cinematography than there will have been an injustice done. 

Though, the details Malick has such a knack for isolating aren't only aesthetic. The subtle character moments and interactions contain a greater depth and are more relatable than most standard drama fare. The specifics of Malick's world are often kept from being nailed-down to any immediate context (though within the context of the film they are precisely positioned), and thus are free to become more universal in scope. So despite the obviously highly personal nature of the material -- many of the details of the film mirror details from Malick's own childhood -- it never feels like it's an internalized contemplation, with contours of story only accessible to himself, but rather a gift for all to participate in, open enough to be universal but specific and localized enough to be real. 

I imagine I'll write many more words on this film in the future as my sense is that it is infinitely inexhaustible film, but these are my immediate reactions. The Tree of Life is an ode to all of Creation, the creatures that inhabit it and He that calls us forth from nothing to participate in it. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Trinitarian Dogmatics and Church Unity

As I continue to work my way through David Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite (The Aesthetics of Christian Truth), which is primarily a work of trinitarian dogmatics, it has further awakened my mind to the idea of creation being an expression of the Trinitarian God and all the consequences of that fact. In particular, when I happened to read John 17:22 in another context -- which is Christ's prayer to the Father that "they [the Church] may be one even as we are one" -- the phrase 'as we are one' stood out to me in a way that it never had before. How, exactly, is the Son one with the Father?

Hart's primary object of study in the Beauty of the Infinite is being itself, or creation, rather than individual objects and aspects within it, such as the Church specifically. He argues that the truth of being, the truth of creation, is that being is necessarily a true analogical expression of God's nature, and since God is Trinitarian in nature, being (or creation) exhibits an internal dynamism, life, interplay, grace, interdependency and dialogue that is reflective of that which exists in the nature of the Trinity and which is made manifest in Christ. Hart wants to contrast this conception of being to a 'univocal expression' of being, which is how non-Trinitarian traditions might conceive of God and therefore conceive of being. This is, admittedly, a very poor distillation of Hart's master work into a few sentences, and it is only one aspect of his multifaceted argument, but for my purposes it will have to suffice as a coarse summary.

So, then, how is the Son one with the Father? They are not one in the sense of being a univocal, monistic expression; they are one in the Trinitarian sense; the Father, Son and Spirit are One while containing an internal dynamic of love and grace. Understood in this way, Christ's prayer for unity seems to be a call not for the Church to consciously congeal into a visible unit of univocal expression -- a la ecumenism -- but rather a prayer for the Church to grow spiritually in Christ and, in so doing, become one as the Trinitarian God is One. Which is to say, to become united in many senses (essentials), but for each of the members of the whole to maintain their distinctive qualities, idiosyncracies, practices, traditions etc. so long as these 'differences' are not heretical or otherwise detrimental to the health of the Body as a whole, and so long as the member's internal dynamic is one of pure love and grace. Just as the Trinity has an internal life and dynamic, so too should the church, and the distinctiveness of the members need not be dissolved into utter univocity; indeed, to attempt to do so could actually serve to mute the expression of their truth.

FOOTNOTE: Keep in mind this may not at all be an original thought. I'm not very well read on the subject of ecumenism, or the arguments in favor of a more 'spiritual', less univocal Church unity, and it's entirely probable that my reflection on this matter is something others have already argued. And certainly there are many other passages of Scripture and lines of argument that are relevant to the discussion. I don't intend for this to be much of an 'argument' at all, only a reflection on this particular verse.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blue Sky Black Death and Hip-Hop's Horizon

Hip-hop is the only music that I've ever had a passionate inclination towards, though as it relates to music being released today, I don't have a passionate inclination towards any genre of music. Many enthusiasts of the genre have adopted the refrain that "Hip-hop is dead", and I can sympathize with these critics, but I wouldn't go that far.

The rap music that exists from the 90s and early 2000s still exists and will never die. If I only have that to listen to for the rest of my life, then I've got plenty to listen to. Not to mention that there are still hip-hop artists that put out brilliant material. Admittedly, they are few and far between, but they do exist and will continue to exist. So much of what is currently released is either -- in the case of mainstream hip-hop -- a cheap, commercial product made for mass consumption or -- in the case of the underground -- a watered down version of something that someone else has already done better. This doesn't mean that hip-hop has exhausted its creative boundaries, only that there is a lack of will to push them, for whatever reason. These are the broad-stroke trends anyway, as I have just mentioned, there are exceptions. 

One of those exceptions is the production duo Blue Sky Black Death (BSBD). They recently released Noir, the brilliant follow-up to their classic Late Night Cinema. These are works of instrumental hip-hop and this very fact in itself opens up a massive creative horizon, as instrumental hip-hop is largely a terra incognita. You have your DJ Shadows, your RJD2s, but for the most part instrumental hip-hop has never been very popular amongst artists or fans, which means that if you do choose to explore the genre's boundaries there is a near infinite space available to work with. This is true not only because few others have ventured into the terrain, but because of the inherent limitless possibilities of instrumental hip-hop. 

To an extent, traditional hip-hop (i.e. beat plus rapper) doesn't exactly have the same infinite horizon of creative potential because that form of hip-hop confines itself to a 4-bar rhythm structure. Rapping can take on a few variations in patterns and rhythms but is limited by the bar structure of the raps. Still, even within the confines of the bar structure, there is plenty of room for innovation lyrically, flow-wise, in terms of changes of tempos or intensity within a verse (see Nas on One Mic for an under-utilized instance of this) etc., so standard hip-hop music has no excuse for being static and lacking imagination. The key point here, though, is that instrumental hip-hop has no such constraints. It doesn't have to stay in a particular pattern so that a rapper can rap to it, it's utterly free to be as dynamic as it wants to be, and BSBD takes full advantage of this.

On Late Night Cinema, the duo established itself as a towering force in the eyes of hip-hop aficionados. The polyphonic soundscapes crafted by the team were breathtaking. Combining sampling with original instrumentation they created a sound that is really only possible within the genre of hip-hop, and they utilize it to startling effect. Noir seems to continue this trend generally, and has many moments of brilliance (Fire for Light and Farewell to the Former World among them), though perhaps fewer than Late Night Cinema had. I'm still digesting it and this isn't a review of Noir, but Noir has inspired me to break out and revisit BSBD's other work, specifically their production for rappers. 

In addition to their purely instrumental work BSBD produced entire albums for Holocaust and Hell Razah, who are both Wu-affiliates. BSBD's style seems to have been influenced, at least somewhat, by Wu-Tang's (mostly RZA's) production sound, so it seems appropriate that they would do production for members of the Wu family. 

Holocaust (a rapper) debuted in the late nineties as a member of Black Knights of the North Star, a West coast Wu-Tang affiliate. After dropping verses on The Swarm compilation, a Killarmy album and the Bobby Digital album there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding Holocaust's future work. His verses were lyrically vibrant, his voice was ominous and his flow was breathless. At this point he didn't release anything for a while and when he did resurface it was in a drastically altered form. His once-flawless-flow was now replaced with arrhythmic rambling. His lyrics were still interesting and unique, but the rhymes were no longer nice, and the raps weren't structured well. What happened to him? Some speculate about drug use or a nervous breakdown of some kind. In any case, I lost interest in him as an artist at that point. Until I heard that BSBD produced an entire album for him. 

To return back to a point earlier I made about bar structure, Holocaust's flow and structure of his rhymes, after his change in style, largely ignore proper bar structure. This allows BSBD's production on the album to be almost as dynamic as their purely instrumental work, because Holocaust isn't abiding by bars anyway. The result is interesting, but Holocaust's rhymes don't do much but detract from BSBD's instrumentation. The actual content of the rhymes are intriguing, but they're so aesthetically displeasing that I'd much prefer to just listen to the instrumentals. I'm not sure whether an instrumental version of this album exists, but if it does I will seek it out and dispense of the version with the rapping.

Hell Razah is a member of the group Sunz of Man which is a subsidiary group of Wu-Tang clan consisting of Hell Razah, Killah Priest (one of my favorite rappers) Prodigal Sun, 60 Second Assassin, and Shabazz. I enjoyed the groups first album The Last Shall Be First, primarily because of the beats, Killah Priest and Hell Razah. In a sense I always thought of Razah as a poor man's Killah Priest, and I still feel that judgment is largely justified. His flow and his rhymes aren't anything special, though his lyrics are at times. 

In any case, BSBD also produced Hell Razah's debut solo album Razah's Ladder, which I would have otherwise not been very interested in. The result is a much more satisfying rap product than the Holocaust album. BSBD's production is as rich as usual, but is subject to the somewhat more traditional confines of rap beats, though they excel in this setting as well. Written in Blood is a good example of their ability to create an traditional, ill rap banger, while still displaying their signature sound. At other times, such as on Halos (which features the inimitable Crooked I) the rhythm section remains fairly static so as to accommodate the rapping, but the rest of the soundscape is just as dynamic as any of their evolving instrumental works. 

Hip-hop at large may be catatonic, it may persist in a vegetative stake, but the spark of life that animates the body is still present. Art is vibrant and indefatigable, and as long as humans aspire to transcend the boundaries  of their everyday circumstances and conditions through creative expression, art can't die. Which means that hip-hop can't die any more than painting, music, or film can 'die'. I'm grateful to the likes of Blue Sky Black Death for keeping hip-hop alive, not just for the sake of hip-hop at large, but for my own ability to continue to enjoy it. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Malick's 'Tree of Life' Premieres at Cannes

Terrence Malick's long awaited film The Tree of Life premiered at Cannes this weekend, with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain accompanying the film, while Malick was conspicuously (though predictably) absent. The film received mix reactions from the audience garnering both applause and boos. Though the early written review consensus on Rottentomatoes is overwhelmingly positive, so far. In any case, the boos aren't worrisome to me, especially coming from the crowd at Cannes. Malick's film, from all appearances, looks to be highly philosophical, contemplative, metaphysical and is -- according to all reports -- not driven by narrative. Even if a film of this nature were to be sublimely brilliant one would still expect a smattering of boos from the crowd at Cannes. Though it's of course possible that the film just doesn't live up to the hype. That remains to be seen.

As a Christian I'm particularly interested to see how Malick depicts the creatio ex nihilo event and the subsequent development of life and the cosmos, as well as how he explores the not-un-Christian themes of Nature and Grace and their interplay. Add this to the fact that the film will quite obviously be a dazzling visual spectacle along with Malick's brilliant track record and this is by far my most anticipated film in quite a long time.

Contra Christian Pacifism

Not to beat a dead horse but, if you recall, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death and the subsequent outbreak of celebration, I took umbrage with those who were quick to denounce any celebrations of the events as necessarily unchristian. Though there is much room for humility on this point as the question of how a Christian ought to to respond to death, even one that represents a defeat of a particularly malignant and murderous evil, is not a simple one.

More troubling than Christians wrestling with the issue of response is the distinctly European reaction that questions whether the act of the U.S. killing Osama bin Laden was itself justified. Thankfully my fellow Americans, even those on the left, don't seem to think this is even an issue worth discussing (though I imagine if it was one George W. Bush who did the killing rather than Obama, the question would quickly transform from a non-issue to a hotly contested issue).

In any case, I'm currently working my way through David Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite. The vast majority of that text has little direct application to the issue at hand, but in the section I just read Hart does discuss how Christians should view their roles as civic beings, given the revolutionary reality of the resurrected Christ. He argues that Christians can't be entirely complicit with the powers of the world as Christ's kingdom is one that must ultimately, not only transcend those powers, but displace them. Having argued this, he goes on to caution against the other extreme:

There is small room in theology for that passive collaboration with evil that often only flatters itself with the name "pacifism". ... The self-adoring inaction of those who would meet the reality of, say, black smoke billowing from the chimneys of death camps with songs of protest is simply violence by other means, and does not speak of God's kingdom, and does not grant its practitioners the privilege of viewing themselves as more faithful members of Christ's body than those who struggle against evil in the world of flesh and blood where evil works.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Republican Machine vs. Common (the rapper)

I'm torn. One of my top 2-3 favorite rappers from the 90s (not so much from the 00s) is in the news and is being disparaged by my fellow Republicans. Whose side to take?!

If you haven't heard Common has been invited to the White House by Michelle Obama to participate in a poetry forum, or some such event. Common, as far as popular rappers go, is a relatively unconstroversial figure and, if anything, is something of a posterboy for soft, positive, 'conscious' rap. Still, even rappers of this archetype can't avoid the occasional use of violent, homophobic or misogynistic rhetoric, if only employed metaphorically.

Larry Elder posted a link to an appearance on Def Poetry Jam by Common in which he referenced carrying a gun and cop killing on multiple occasions within a single verse, and there isn't much room to interpret him metaphorically. Add the instances of such lyrics to the fact that he has voiced support of Mumia Abdul-Jamal and attended Reverend Jeremiah Wright's church and you can see why conservative commentators would consider the man to be an absolute menace. Ideologically, I actually share their concerns. I've always enjoyed Common as an artist (especially from 1994-1997) but don't necessarily share much common ground with him in terms of ideology. For me his most offensive work is probably his (non-violent, 'positive') song "G.O.D." in which he pronounces faith in a kind of Unitarian, new-agey, 'spiritual' God (the first line that springs to mind is: "Curiosity killed the cat-echism / understandin' and wisdom became the rhythm / that I played to". Yuck.), though that's admittedly a matter of theological difference and not something that should count against him being invited to the White House.

As far as mainstream hip-hop goes, Common is about as non-violent, positive and uncontroversial as they come. Yet, I have to concede, he is still somewhat violent in his lyrics and a bit controversial in some of his social stances. Hip-hop is a rebellious, urban culture though, so this is hardly surprising that even their most benign are still considered to be dangerous and controversial by conservative America. Does this mean conservative America needs to lighten up, perhaps come out of their protective shell a bit? Or is it a sad testament to the fact that even hip-hop's best are still not very good? Probably a little bit of both.

In any case, I have to side with my Republican comrades on this one, in the end, simply because this is an ideological issue, not an aesthetic one.

You Don't Reserve the Right

I'm sure that you've seen those signs that often hang in restaurants which read "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone". When you think about what the sign is saying it seems reasonable and unobjectionable. Private businesses should have the right to refuse service to anyone. Business transactions are voluntary participation in commerce between two willing parties, so if one of the parties is unwilling to enter into the transaction, for whatever reason, there is no business to be done. But do private businesses truly reserve that right?

Title II of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination and segregation illegal in places of "public accommodations", such as motels, movie theaters and restaurants. It would seem, then, that the signs that hang in those restaurants are mistaken. Restaurant owners and operators do not reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, or at least not for any reason. But shouldn't they have that right?

The knee-jerk, emotional, liberal reaction to such a question is that the legitimacy of any piece of civil rights legislation can not be called into question without racist intentions. Desegregation and being anti-discrimination are good things, therefore there is no argument that can be made against them. Nevermind that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has eleven different title sections, and the only Title that anyone ever questions is Title II. Meaning that 90% of the Act everyone agrees is an appropriate, good law. The only question is whether there is Constitutional warrant for the federal government to dictate to private businesses -- absurdly denominated 'public accommodations' in the Act -- who they must enter into business transactions with. The answer is that there clearly is no such Constitutional provision and, just as clearly, such a provision is expressly forbidden by the Constitution. Title II doesn't represent an expansion or recognition of anyone's duly owed Constitutional rights, but a restriction thereof.

Private business owners have the right to determine who they wish to do business with; patrons of businesses do not have the right to force businesses to do business with them; and the federal government does not have Constitutional authority to pass laws that would restrict the rights of businesses in such a way, as that falls outside the purview of the federal government, and would fall under the jurisdiction of the states per the 10th amendment.

So how did the law pass if it's unconstitutional? This happens often, and as is often the case in the past 50 years, it's due to the Commerce Clause and the absurdly broad interpretation of that clause in the courts. The 'logic' (if you can call it that) goes: Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce, those businesses are engaged in interstate commerce, therefore Congress can impose moral standards on private business owners. This same absurd reading of the Commerce Clause has resulted in the conclusion that a man growing a crop on his private farm -- which he intends to use solely for his own consumption -- falls under the regulations of the federal government because his growing-and-not-selling the crop affects supply and demand, which in turn affects interstate commerce and therefore falls under the authority of Congress to regulate.

It's difficult to make a passionate argument whose practical application is pretty limited. There are not many businesses in the world today that really have a problem with the Civil Rights Act, and actually have strong economic incentives not to refuse service to people on the basis of race anyway. Still, this is a creeping tyranny. I don't believe that every slope is necessarily a slippery one and I'm not an alarmist. But the Constitution is the foundation of our Republic and this is just one of many ways its being trampled on by every branch of government.

Restaurant owners should reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. They should reserve the right to be racist. And we should reserve the right to boycott them and take our business elsewhere.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Devil News

In the last few days I've read a few bits of news regarding Satan and his minions -- or at least regarding fictional portrayals of them. David Bentley Hart's piece in First Things today is about the various ways that the Devil is typically portrayed in literature and how it is often romanticized, whereas he imagines the real devil would more likely be a droll, banal, and dull character. Within that article Hart links to a novella by his brother Addison Hart called Confessions of the Antichrist, which features a fictional portrayal of Satan. Hart also mentions in passing that he has a novella set to be released later this year that features a portrayal of a (not the) devil, which is fantastic news. Lastly, X-men film producer Ralph Winter did an interview regarding his most recent project which is a film adaptation of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, which he said should be made and released within the next year or two.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Osama and Death Celebration

Many of the Christian blogs and posts on social media sites that I've been reading over the last few days have shared a common theme; either one of struggling with the proper response to the news of Osama's death, or simply renouncing the celebration of his death that many Americans are participating in, while citing scriptural reasons for this (Ezekiel 33:11, Ezekiel 18:23, Prov. 24:17 etc.). I'm not sure that I fall into either of these camps.

In my mind, there's a distinction to be made between enemies of yours, as an individual, and how the Bible says you are to treat them -- turning the other cheek when they wrong you (Matt. 5:39), loving them (Matt. 5:44), clothing and feeding them (Rom 12:20, Prov. 25:21), not wishing death upon them etc. -- and how governments should respond to their enemies. The Bible teaches that the governments of Earth are ordained by God and wield the sword as an instrument of God's authority and judgment on Earth (Rom. 13:1). The commandments to us, as individuals, about how to treat our enemies don't apply to enemies of the government in the same fashion.

I didn't consider Osama bin Laden a personal enemy of mine to begin with. Did you? I never met the man nor had I ever met any of his victims. I always only considered him an enemy of my country and an enemy of civilization at large, and as such I saw that it was important to stop him if we could. Not as a matter of vengeance, which the Bible teaches belongs to God alone (Rom. 12:19), but as a matter of justice and as a matter of protecting the citizens of our nation (and others) from this person's murderous reign of terror.

Is it improper, then, to root for my government to wield the sword wisely and carry out justice? Is it only acceptable to do so before they succeed at it? The instant that they succeed, must I then become sorrowful that they did in fact succeed? If I am holding my attitude for the right reasons, if I'm not delighting in my heart at the demise of a human being, then I see no reason I should not celebrate the success of my nation acting as the duly appointed administer of divine justice that it is.

This, admittedly, is a fine line. At what point does my celebration of the achievements of the brave men and women who defend this nation become a matter of unearned personal pride in my heart? Am I really only celebrating the act of justice, the achievements of the heroes, the relief at a threat to civilization being defeated, or do I harbor a personal satisfaction in another human's death? Certainly it's difficult to keep the matters properly separated in our hearts and minds. Because of this I think it's appropriate for Christians to either make quite clear exactly what it is that they are celebrating -- and that it isn't someone's death, but the bravery of the troops, the relief for families, the increased security of the nation, the lives ultimately that will be saved etc. -- or to simply not celebrate at all.

The only reason I felt compelled to address the issue is in response to those who condemn the act of celebrations as necessarily entailing the celebration or delight in the death of a fellow fallen human, which doesn't follow necessarily. There are many things in this news and its implications worth celebrating, the death of a human being just isn't one of them. The death of Hitler entailed that many fewer human beings in Germany would be mercilessly slaughtered because of their ethnic and religious heritage. I would argue that if you don't celebrate this consequence of the death of this particular human being -- though not the death itself -- that this refusal to celebrate would itself be a quite grave sin.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

O_ama and Politics

I seem to remember a very strong anti-war contingent that was largely responsible for getting Obama elected. Many people are anti-war generally, but this particular crowd was especially anti-war-on-terror. This was not a small percentage of Obama's core constituency when he was running; they accounted for a significant percentage of his followers. You would think that in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden this would accord them a chance to speak about their despondency. What a perfect opportunity to voice their disappointment in Obama's decision to prosecute of the War on Terror. Yet, oddly, the silence is deafening.

Nay, not silence. Amongst the very voices that vehemently opposed the War on Terror when George W. Bush was pursuing it, there seems to be a great deal of triumphalism in response to Osama's death, and much credit being given to Obama for accomplishing it. I don't have catalogues of data on statements made by liberals, but I will bet that some of the more keen, hard working right-wing bloggers and radio-hosts are scouring the annals for instances of just this kind of hypocrisy right now. I expect them to find an absolute wealth of material.

I also happen to think that the credit being given to Obama is well deserved. Obama could have called off the War on Terror all together, or at least scaled it back significantly, but he largely stayed on course with only some strategical fine-tuning adjustments. Which is something a liberal president very easily might not have done. But why does the left want to give him credit for accomplishing something which they -- mostly -- didn't think should be pursued in the first place?

To be fair, some on the left didn't have a problem with going after Osama or Al-qaeda per se, but only with the strategy and the priorities of the Bush administration. If you are one of those people, then this post doesn't pertain to you. It pertains to the large percentage of liberals who had a problem with the War on Terror in principle (or so they said) when Bush was pursuing it, and have now either gone silent, or have begun celebrating the fact that their guy 'finished the job'.

 If these liberals have simply come around to the side of sanity, then I applaud their shift in position. Now, kindly give credit to the one who had the vision and courage to start the War on Terror in the first place, if you find great satisfaction in its continued prosecution and one of its major positive outcomes. Though I won't hold my breath.