Raison d’être

It has become fashionable to loathe the Age of Enlightenment, and that’s a normal and right reaction as humans strive to explain a world they don’t understand in a way they will. Philosophies come and go; the ones too ridiculous to maintain reason fade with age. But ultimately, history builds on itself, and the Age of Enlightenment, far from being a temporary glitch in humanity’s normal course of reasoning and rationalizing who they are, was an important building block in their development. And to be a bit circular, everything happens for a reason. This was a main tenet of classical mechanics, but it also dates to Aristotle and teleological thought and the intrinsic purpose of things.

Despite what others might say, the Age of Enlightenment was all about teleology. In fact, the modern day sciences have not managed to dispose of teleological language from their descriptions of the world. They obtusely call this language “metaphor”, which is disingenuous. If purpose and reasons for being aren’t necessary to the understanding of science, scientists ought to develop a language without it. To be fair, Kant’s influence gave the impetus for some to try, albeit not successfully.

Rather than an age that departed from teleology, the Enlightenment was rather an age of experimentation that attempted to prove causes and essential functions. That is, they attempted to prove or disprove teleological functions. Did this create an environment where men could look outside traditions, even accepted truths, for the answers? Yes, it absolutely did, but it also created an environment for peering into an unseen world, both micro and macro. Humans have always desired to do this — they’ve been, for example, gazing into the heavens forever — but it wasn’t until this epoch of human history that seeing the unseeable became possible.

Experimentation being the zeitgeist of the age, it’s no surprise that this was done at the government level, e.g. the French and American Revolutions. The modern antipathy towards the Enlightenment is largely based on our propensity to look back and claim that these Revolutions were failures because we don’t like the results of them in our day-to-day lives. On the other hand, we’re all too happy to accept that the germ theory was a huge human success that helped to save countless lives. We also appreciate, whether we admit it or not, the prosperity we have. Who cares that there a few men who’ve hoarded billions of dollars? The otherwise equalization of wealth in western societies is a boon not to be taken lightly. However, instead of joyous we’re extremely cynical people with far too much wealth and knowledge at our fingertips … thanks to the Enlightenment.

My question is, were these “democratic” revolutions that have made us so cynical actually failures? Let me get more specific: was the American Revolution a mistake? I’m going to be my typical iconoclastic self and say absolutely not. For the sake of time, I’m going to make this as simplistic as I possibly can. (I started out this blog post meaning to make one simple point, not delve into the history of human thought development.)

(And here I go again.) Aristotelean philosophy created one of the biggest shifts in human thought. It’s difficult to imagine a world prior to this; we often paint ancient history with our post-Aristotelean thought processes. Even the New Testament demonstrates the shift in thinking with its emphasis on eye-witness testimonies and debates (see Acts) on how Christians are to live their lives. Therefore, it’s not surprising that, after the churches had more or less formed a cohesive structure under the Bishop of Rome, the Reformation occurred. Debates on how Christians ought to live their lives, down to what they’re to believe, were still occurring, only the cohesive authority structure didn’t accept these debates any longer.

Okay, so Luther gave more of an ultimatum than a debate. That was his personality. But he and others like him didn’t depart from the Aristotelean worldview that had long influenced the western church; rather, their ultimate teleology referred to Jesus and the books of Scripture instead of the Bishop of Rome. It’s really this questioning of teleology that eventually led to what we know of as the Age of Enlightenment.

Humans have a simultaneous desire to be under the thumb of a king and to rebel against the oppressive authority of a king. In a sense, the Bishop of Rome is a king — indeed, he wears a type of crown and robe; Catholics beg to kiss the ring on his hand. And at times in history, the man calling himself Pope has been heretical. Catholics don’t deny this. What they don’t acknowledge is the similarity in the way God scattered the Israelite people due to their king’s heresy and the way the Christian people were scattered due to the Pope’s heresy.

Protestants and Catholics have been intermittently in exile, depending on where they lived, what regime they lived under. This is where I believe the American Revolution wasn’t a mistake. For a long time now, America has given refuge to Christians of all stripes. Including Catholics. This has created an environment where Christians could thrive and spread the gospel around the globe. And as far as I’m concerned, this is a direct result of Enlightenment philosophy, of the willingness to examine what the actual root teleology ought to be.

However, Enlightenment philosophy must have a teleology, an intrinsic purpose. The flip side of the Enlightenment coin, the Counter-Enlightenment, was to ditch objective truth and rationalism for a more organic thought process. To modern man, an “organic” thought process turns to chaos because he’s no longer under a cohesive authority structure. He’s sitting by the river in Babylon weeping, as it were, for what he’s lost. He knows so much, and yet he’s discovered he knows nothing. And the enemies of Christianity are at the gates — no, they’ve entered the gates and are threatening the very refuge he’s managed to create.

***As a short aside, I’m listening to Harry Connick Jr’s She, the album that played constantly in the background when I wrote my first detective novel — the one in which the main protag is a young stoic tapdancing pickpocket named Jael (of course, yes, she does inflict a head wound to the murderer), who teams up with an older male hardboiled detective (he unironically carries around flasks of whisky and seduces every woman but Jael. This album fit the dreary, yet goofy mood of the book. Most beta-readers found the story depressing, and I ditched it and its sequels years ago. When one’s tongue is planted so far in one’s cheek it would take surgery to extract the sense of humor, it becomes obvious one is writing only to amuse oneself.***

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Only Jesus

This is a song by Casting Crowns, and it bothers me on a visceral level every time it comes on the radio. Yet, if I read the lyrics, there is nothing wrong with them. They are truthful. Mostly.

Make it count, leave a mark, build a name for yourself
Dream your dreams, chase your heart, above all else
Make a name the world remembers
But all an empty world can sell is empty dreams
I got lost in the lie that it was up to me
To make a name the world remembers
But Jesus is the only name to remember

[Chorus]
And I-I-I, I don’t want to leave a legacy
I don’t care if they remember me
Only Jesus
And I-I-I, I’ve only got one life to live
I’ll let every second point to Him
Only Jesus

[Verse 2]
All the kingdoms built, all the trophies won
Will crumble into dust when it’s said and done
‘Cause all that really matters
Did I live the truth to the ones I love?
Was my life the proof that there is only One
Whose name will last forever?

It’s this repeated line that subtly shifts the song into banality for me: And I-I-I, I don’t want to leave a legacy. It’s a predictable modern trope, a lie we’ve bought into, that human lives don’t matter. They don’t matter enough to reproduce. They don’t matter enough to build up wealth or property for. We’ve sunk into austerity measures, down-sized, and decreased our “footprints” on this earth. The Christian version of this lie contains a strange duality: humans don’t matter — only Jesus matters. But Jesus was God in the form of a man who sacrificed himself for other men. Why did he die for us if we don’t matter? Surely, his sacrifice wasn’t merely for himself.

It’s a conundrum. But it doesn’t have to be, if we understand how valuable a human legacy can be. We all leave legacies behind us; it’s inevitable unless we’re living on an isolated mountain and doing nothing but surviving. Still, that’s a legacy, isn’t it? Leaving nothing for the future and breaking the chain of descent our parents and grandparents created is an empty type of legacy. Familial descendants of other branches will speak about it, but probably not in a good way.

In contrast to an empty legacy, a broken chain, is a bad legacy. This is the one in which the sins of the fathers are passed down throughout the generations because the children don’t have the wherewithal to step out of the pattern of alcoholism, abuse, poverty, or crime. It’s what they know; it’s the easiest route. And it hurts many, many people unless somebody is willing to make an effort and break the chain. Leaving an empty legacy, by contrast, takes a bit of effort and a steeling of the soul. It’s not that easy to leave family connections behind and survive without other humans. Scrooge is a classic literary example of an empty legacy…until the end of the story, in which he discovers that his life should matter. When he’s presented with the grave, his soul quails at what the spirit of the future is showing him: emptiness. He’s a forgotten man, except by those who despise him.

I talk about Scrooge a lot. I identify with him, I guess. He’s the spirit of nihilism and stinginess wrapped up in a human who doesn’t want to feel because feeling brings pain. Also, by contrast, leaving a positive legacy is the hardest road a man can take. Years ago, I wrote a series of stories about a LifeMap that would highlight steps an individual could take toward their future. There were three paths: the path of least resistance, the middle road, and the high road. A correlation could be made with these three types of legacies: the path of least resistance is the negative legacy; the middle path is the empty, broken legacy; and the arduous road is the positive legacy. There is no exact correlation, obviously. Sometimes, it’s hard work to have children and maintain an impoverished state. Some people work very, very hard at doing all the wrong things in life.

A positive legacy is always going to be difficult, though. This is the one in which people are actively engaged in raising honest children and building up wealth and/or property to pass on to them. For Christians, this would mean also passing on the legacy of the gospel to their children, as well as to those they interact with. When the Bible talks about the wealth of the righteous man, it’s clear by biblical/historical example that it means both worldly wealth and the wealth inherent in the Kingdom of God. I know some will protest at this because there are many missionaries who’ve given up all their worldly possessions to pass on the gospel — also, obviously, not all Christians are wealthy. Some are impoverished due to circumstances outside their control. And don’t forget the words of Jesus, that it’s very, very difficult for a rich man to inherit the most important wealth, the Kingdom of God.

The problem is there is no either/or. Both the poverty gospel and the prosperity gospel are true. We don’t have ultimate control of outcomes, however. We only have control over what we do with the assets and talents that God has given us. He wants us to work hard and strive for greatness. He is not a mediocre God; he spews the lukewarm from his mouth. He chastises those who bury their talents instead of investing them. We will be judged by our actions and by how we raise the next generation. When we encourage our children to win trophies, it’s because we understand that hard work and “running the race before us” is vital to the soul. That trophy is an image of the spiritual life, as well as an object that our children can be proud of and pass on to their children and say, “See? Look at what we can achieve when we work hard!”

I absolutely do want to leave a legacy. That’s what my life’s work is — raising children and investing in property and creating products that can be sold. My life’s work is also passing on the name of Jesus to others. That’s why this song bugs me; it deflates me when I’m trying to keep my energy up. It’s one of those songs that’s almost true, but not quite. It would be a lot easier to follow the advice of the song than to do what I’m doing. Honestly.

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Gentlemen Broncos

You’d think this Hess film would be a passing fad in my life, but instead it’s become the film that I must watch once a year. From the beginning credits, you’ll see what the Hesses appreciate: traditional sci fi … or at the very least, pulp sci fi covers. There is a glorious rolling out of these covers as the credits roll, set against the Zager and Evans’ song “In the Year 2525”.

The first scene in the film sets up the hopeful heart of a geek: Benjamin Purvis is a homeschooled teenager, whose father died at some point in his youth. His father is the image of masculinity, a Forest Service ranger with a bushy beard. In his honor, Benjamin has written a completed sci fi novel, which he is ready to turn into a contest at the Cletus Fest, adjudicated by a famous sci fi novelist whom Benjamin admires.

From there, it dawns on the audience that the entire world is set against a young man with a masculine vision succeeding in the world. His mother, played by Jennifer Coolidge, is well-meaning, but doesn’t understand her son. The homeschool group is populated by domineering girls and sexually obscure boys (represented by the characters Tabatha and Lonnie respectively). The famous sci fi novelist Benjamin admires turns out to be a creepy washed-out writer with an overbearing ego (Dr. Ronald Chevalier, played by Jemaine Clement). As Benjamin’s novel gets out into the world, it’s corrupted by a couple of amateur filmmakers (also Tabatha and Lonnie) and plagiarized by Chevalier.

While Tabatha and Lonnie are busy sexualizing the story by means of Lonnie dressed up in drag, Chevalier has flipped Benjie’s main character from a masculine guy like his father, complete with beard, into a trannie with Marilyn Monroe blond hair and a pink outfit. The film is studded with B-movie sci-fi scenes, which serve to demonstrate the destruction of Benjamin’s innocent and hopeful vision.

Benjamin is, of course, vindicated and his vision restored in the end, but it’s only after he gets angry enough to go rogue, defending his mom against a perv and confronting Chevalier face-to-face. In other words, he has to wake up from his innocent childhood where his single mom has always protected him and become a man — a masculine man, like his father.

There are a few really gross scenes in this film, with characters vomiting, etc. It has the same kind of zany adolescent-boy style humor you’ll find in all Hess films. Some people can’t handle that. Some can’t handle the absurdity of the B-movie scenes. But if you can handle all that, I recommend this film. It’s heart-warming to see a boy whose vision has been completely skewed and misunderstood stick to his principles anyway and become a bestselling author. You can see why this film might be crack for me, despite that I’m a female author not exactly fighting for my masculine vision. Rather, it appeals to my desire to be understood and successful while maintaining my standards.

In addition to all of the above — the geek sci-fi homeschool and writing world, the great comedians (I mentioned Jennifer Coolidge and Jemaine Clement, but it also has Mike White and Sam Rockwell) — the soundtrack is amazing. No, it really is. It has songs by Ray Lynch, Scorpions, Buck Owens, etc. There’s no scene quite as amazing to me as the one when Benjamin steps out of the bank after he realizes the check the filmmakers cut for him is dated for a distant point in the future, and he catches the film parade of the cross-dressing Lonnie slapping a fake deer rump in slow motion to Wind of Change. Now you’re beginning to understand why I like it so much. The only video I could find of said scene is posted below (there are two spots where there’s German overdubbing, oh well):

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Don Verdean

Sometimes I’m surprised at what audiences discard as unworthy. I don’t understand people. There, I admitted it. I don’t connect well with other human beings, and this includes my taste in films. This film is unusual, but not in the outlandish way of, say, Nacho Libre. But like other Hess films, its humor is good-hearted and entirely lacks postmodern cynicism.

At first, it appears to be a film mocking evangelical Christians, of the variety that believes wholeheartedly in dubious archaeological biblical artefacts because they need to see or feel physical evidence. They’ve been bitten by the empirical bug, and like their classic lefty counterparts, will go as far as trumping up the evidence — if need be — because the end justifies the means. And often somewhere in the process, they forget that the evidence was trumped up in the first place and begin to believe in their own stories.

It’s difficult to tell whether the main character, Don Verdean believes in his fake artefacts or even whether he believes they would lead to the greater good of spreading the gospel. Perhaps what he really wants is to be admired, a man of God whom other men follow. Of course, there are also riches at stake: a pastor willing to pay him big bucks to unearth an archaeological treasure bigger than the pillar of salt known as Lot’s wife (which turns out not to be due to…masculine anatomy): Goliath’s skull. Played by Sam Rockwell, Don’s character is too impassive to easily pin down. His sidekick, Jemaine Clement’s Boaz, gives the audience better insight into the kind of soul Don Verdean really has: a skeevy, cheating one. While it’s clear Boaz’s motive is money and Don’s is muddled up in promoting a narrative, they are flipsides to the same coin. The third element to Don’s psychology is the loyal female assistant (Amy Ryan). Her belief in Don and his archaeological finds is unwavering; she is truly gullible, possessing of a pure faith that is, of course, shattered at the end of the film. But Don’s likewise devotion to her gives an indication that Don, himself, had once possessed her type of faith.

It’s obvious by reading some of the negative reviews of this film that the critics hated it for the very reason I liked it — the comedy doesn’t delve into the dark regions it could. In the Hess universe, Clement always plays a thoroughly repulsive bad guy, albeit one where his worst proclivities are offscreen. For example, we see that Verdean is willing to pimp his assistant to Boaz in exchange for his silence on the fake artefact, but their “date” is awkward more than it is revolting.

The comedy is also deadpan, tongue-in-cheek, and softened by good characterization. This is a character-driven movie. Therefore, the audience (or this audience) is able to sympathize with Don as he ultimately faces prison time. Critics can be incredibly world-weary people. They’ve seen everything on screen, and many of them have no love for Christianity. They want obvious laughs and obvious stereotypes of despicable Christians. And that brings me to my favorite part of the film. Don Verdean isn’t completely lost; he isn’t the fool critics prefer. Instead, he finds redemption, and it is beautiful and unexpected. It’s the type of redemption that comes in the form of God “working all things together for good for those that love him and are called to his purpose”.

This is a 2015 film, not new, and I would like to give away the ending, but I’m not going to do that. It’s lovely. Go watch it for yourself. Maybe you’ll like it as much as I did.

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Jared and Jerusha Hess

They’re weird and funny filmmakers. Together, this husband and wife team pulls together the craziest tales with the best actors. I relate to their films. In my fantasy world, I collaborate with them to turn The Minaverse into a hilarious screenplay, complete with funky visual comedy and sympathetic characters. And my chosen actor for Oso would be one they’ve cast repeatedly in their films (lucky): Jemaine Clement. This is, as I said, my fantasy. Another one is to actually have an audience who appreciates my book. But that’s another subject altogether.

From Napoleon Dynamite to Austenland, their weirdness knows no bounds except in the realm of morality. Yes, that’s right. They’re what writer Daniel Eness used to call the good weird. Their weirdness doesn’t rely on nakedness or gross sexuality such as incest, or whatever the current literary “exploration” is these days that wins kudos and awards from the hot-air establishment of films and books. I suppose this is because they’re Mormon by way of religion. I’ve long wondered why certain religious groups encourage a flourishing art community and others don’t; in the case of Mormons, they are generally an intact and monetarily well-off culture, which lends them the freedom to be creative. That’s my best guess, anyway.

Last weekend, I watched Austenland for the first time, which was Jerusha Hess’s directorial project. While it’s ultimately a standard romance plot, the concept of a Jane Austen theme park is bizarre, and it gets points for casting Jennifer Coolidge in a supporting comedic role as a modern-day Mrs. Malaprop. Coolidge plays the role perfectly. But it’s not just that. Jane Austen’s writing was inspired by the comedies of her day, which included plays like The Rivals (Mrs. Malaprop’s origin). The inclusion of a Malaprop character demonstrates the kind of intelligence found in Hess films; this film wasn’t just written by a fan of Mr. Darcy, but by people who understand the life and times of Austen. Before this starts sounding too much like an undergraduate essay, I’m going to cut it short. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film showed up in Jane Austen survey classes for undergrads to analyze. If I taught JA, I’d play it just so I could snigger at Coolidge before I had to listen to the students’ serious interpretations. This is, by the way, why I don’t teach. I don’t take life seriously enough. Because it’s weird. And there are people in the world who would go to a JA theme park. Just like in the film. People are weird, and this movie made me laugh.

Next up: I’m going to write a review of another great Hess film, Don Verdean.

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