Words for Good and Evil, Part II

Continued from yesterday

“Why is it possible,” asked Richard Feynman a year before he won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, “for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”

Feynman fretted that people cannot embrace wonder if they do not imbibe science. In my church there is a young man who cannot speak; he can only point and hoot. He claps his hands during the liturgy; he waves recklessly at people he recognizes. His mother keeps a grip on his belt loop, lest he knock over candles, or wander into the choir. Sometimes he points at the ceiling, gesturing wildly for the rest of us to look, and in those moments I am certain he sees angels.

Knowledge is no precursor to wonder. Science is no guarantor of joy.

Yesterday I mentioned a low-IQ man who will soon be sterilized, and a retarded child who will die because she isn’t allowed access to the kidney transplant queue. We have lost the language, I said, necessary to talk about these decisions in terms of their morality. [Read more...]

Words for Good and Evil, Part I

In the months to come, England’s National Health Service will sterilize a young man with a very low IQ. In Philadelphia, a three-year-old who will soon die without a new kidney is barred from entering the organ transplant waiting list because she is mentally disabled. I suspect most of us have lost the moral language necessary to talk about either. We don’t know how to discuss these facts any more than we know how to discuss God or the soul or beauty or art, and if you want to understand the slow dissolution of human communities you can begin with the disintegration of moral imagination, and with it a language for good and evil.

Our lack of moral language should not be mistaken for lack of moralizing. In fact, the opposite relationship holds true—our rhetoric about what is moral yearly escalates because volume triumphs where authority has gone missing. Likewise for our words about God; heresies large and small proliferate in near-exact proportion to the growth in blogs opining about what God thinks about what we imagine he must be thinking about, which almost certainly must be the things most important to those of us who have blogs.

Everyone is too busy composing his memoirs, meanwhile, for there to be much conversation about what is art, other than to say that surely it is that which I like. [Read more...]

The Preacher’s Kid Returns

My sister my brother and I are right now, from three separate states, trying to put together a reception for our parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.  In addition to the normal stress these things bring, we are feeling a dark ambivalence about the whole affair. It’s not the celebration itself that gives us pause. It’s where we are compelled to hold it.

We will be going back to the church of our childhood.

I think of the movie Junebug, in which our hapless protagonist, simply home for a visit, is called out to sing a hymn for everyone. The fact that we are the preacher’s kids, and expected to be involved every time we return is only part of the problem. That would be easy enough to deal with if there weren’t so many conflicted emotions going on under the surface.

We will go of course. And we will stand and sing. Church members will smile at us, tell us it’s good to see us, and wonder why the last time they saw us was seven years ago, at dad’s retirement from the pastorate there.

There are two related reasons. We were part of this family of hundreds of people who met three times a week, none of whom we knew intimately.

Dad took this church when I was one, my sister was three, and our little brother was just an infant. He stayed at that same ministry until his retirement, thirty-eight years later—something anyone familiar with fundamentalist Baptists knows is quite a feat. [Read more...]

“Phineas and Ferb” versus “SpongeBob Squarepants”

“Aren’t you a little young to save the universe?”

“Yes. Yes I am.”

Phineas Flynn gets questioned about his age a lot, which is to be expected when you are a three-foot wunderkind with a triangle head and expertise at building, with your silent half-brother, time-travel machines and antigravity devices.

Phineas and Ferb, a Disney Channel cartoon entering its fourth season, may be the smartest thing on television.

Stuck in perpetual summer, the show’s eponymous stars devise elaborate machines to entertain themselves and their friends, or to solve problems, like a shortage of the exotic berries their mother uses to bake pies. Their entertainment takes the form of city-spanning rollercoasters and floating trampolines, while their solution to the berry shortage includes a trebuchet and a device for contracting physical space. [Read more...]

Wrestling The Master

I found myself in this strange conversation this week….

Interviewer: Do you recommend The Master?

Jeffrey Overstreet: Not yet. I need time to reflect on a film as challenging as this one. I need discussion. I need to see it again.

Reviewing movies is a tricky business. It’s like recommending a pair of shoes to an audience. The shoes may be well-made, but people may dislike their style or misunderstand their purpose. Even the best shoes will only fit certain people.

Interviewer: First impressions?

JO: Difficult, but often riveting. Cinematography, music, editing . . . the artistry often reminded me of Kubrick, Malick, even Welles. Joaquin Phoenix was astonishing. The fragmented narrative demanded hard work. Some scenes amazed me. Others… [Read more...]


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