Why the Bible Should be R-Rated

J.D. Walters’ explains why we should be grateful the Bible is like an R-rated movie:

“Skeptics’ reaction to the Bible very often… resembles very much the reaction Christian ratings groups have to ‘unwholesome’ movies. How can the Bible be the sublime Word of God, they ask, when it has such unwholesome content as adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague?… The Bible features such content because it is God’s message to a fallen world. The only reason it is relevant to so many people is that it rings true to our experience. A G-rated Bible is a Bible that cannot speak to fallen man where he is. No one could take it seriously if it laid out a drama in which nothing bad ever happens to good people, everyone always makes the right choices and God never has to judge those who disobey Him. Like the best movies with explicit content, the Bible tells the truth about the world, but thankfully it also offers hope for a better one even as it takes this one absolutely seriously.”

Walters’ perspective is Christian, granted, but it’s also literary. As a skeptic I’m puzzled by other skeptics’ hostility to the bible for its aversive content. It’s probably my love for searingly dramatic conflict and deeply flawed protagonists that makes me want sacred texts and their heroes & deities to have the same.

Isn’t that what’s so precious about, say, The Iliad? It’s exceedingly violent and full of wrath, involving shameless deception by the gods. Homer paints a world of bloody anguish, but with enough glimpses of beauty to suggest better things for those who can grasp the heroic ideal. The story is ultimately about the restoration of humanity’s civilized values through an act of mercy (Achilles giving the corpse of his enemy Hector to Priam). Ditto for The Passion of the Christ, which many people disliked for its heavy R-rated content and gruesome things it suggests about the Judeo-Christian God. But why be threatened by this? Gibson’s film takes us into the eye of that same paradox where wrath and mercy, retribution and forgiveness, become as one. Again we get savagery tied to an act of mercy, a brutally shameful death underscoring the dignity of life tenfold. Secularists can be moved by such themes without endorsing the Christian and pagan myths themselves. But G-Rated (even most PG-Rated) dramas are ill-equipped to mine this stuff.

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Zeichmann Reviews Crossley

Be sure to check out Chris Zeichmann’s review of Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Terror. I wrote one last month for the Nashua Public Library, and Leonard Ridge had a few things to say on this blog. Incidentally, as of today, the U.S. release of this book has been pushed back to June 15 — at least according to Title Source. So if you want to read it soon, order from the U.K.

UPDATE: See Crossley’s detailed response to Zeichmann’s review, as well as his comment under my review for the Nashua Public Library.

The Best Films of 2008

It’s that time of year again, but I can’t come up with my usual ten without being liberal. Only seven are so worthy. The top three are masterpieces.

1. Doubt. 5 stars. The film of the year is tightly directed, flawlessly acted, relentlessly ambiguous… it’s hard to heap too many accolades on something that earns its keep in every sentence. Based on the Broadway play by the same name, about a liberal priest in the ’60s who is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys. The harrowing scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller is already a classic, and for my money one of the best film scenes of the decade. Reviewed here.

2. The Dark Knight. 5 stars. The Godfather of superhero films (even superhero-haters like me love it), using Batman as a mythical icon to show how heroes escalate terror in the name of combating it. And if you thought no one could rival Jack Nicholson’s act as the Joker, think again. Nicholson is campy next to Ledger’s cold-blooded serial killer. What more really needs to be said at this point? If you haven’t seen the movie by now, you don’t have your priorities straight. Reviewed here.

3. Let the Right One In. 5 stars. It’s hard to do right by the vampire, but leave it to the Swedes. Here we have a vampire girl who bonds with a 12-year old boy bullied by his classmates, a love story at heart, and the opposite in every way of the atrocious Twilight. Ironic that both came out at the same time. I still say that Near Dark is the best vampire film of all time, but this one isn’t far behind.

4. Eden Lake. 4 ½ stars. Just when you’d given up on horror, out comes this piece of terror harking back to the ’70s. A couple camping in the countryside get tortured and killed by a pack of 12-year olds. I was so unprepared to get slammed by something this authentic that I had trouble picking myself out of my chair when it was over. Nihilistic and thought-provoking, it has a miserably unhappy (but perfect) ending; no third acts of cheap righteous payback.

5. Prince Caspian. 4 ½ stars. Superior to the first film, and probably for that reason so unsuccessful at the box office. (Never underestimate the dangers of quality film making.) It’s too bad Adamson won’t continue helming the series given how much he’s grown, and let’s hope the third and fourth films don’t suffer too much for his departure. Reviewed here.

6. Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. 4 stars. I almost never watch teen comedies, let alone enjoy them, but this one’s an exceptional gem. While on a hunt across New York for an indie rock concert, two kids unwittingly fall in love. Great music, fabulous night shots of the city, and some quirky humor to watch for: “The 12 Gays of Christmas” performed by men in drag, and an omnipresent piece of bubble-gum shared by four characters — even after being vomited by an endearing drunk.

 

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7. Appaloosa. 3 ½ stars. Two marshals are hired by the officials of a New Mexico town (in 1882) being terrorized by a renegade rancher. The marshals lose; their moral compasses can’t prevail against a tyrant who happens to be friends with the 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur, who pardons the rancher after being convicted in court to hang. It deteriorates to the point of tragedy when the rancher sets up business in town and actually becomes friends with the city officials who first hired the marshals to bring him to justice. It’s a solid story with impressive gun fights and just enough spin on the classic Western.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)

The Unmerciful King (Revisited)

Klyne Snodgrass gives The Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) pride of place in his new comprehensive book on the parables, claiming it to be “the most revealing and compelling” story which illustrates “the nature of the parables and the essence of Jesus’ kingdom message” more than others (p 61). That message is one of grace and responsibility, according to Snodgrass, a rather traditional reading which dodges some hard questions.

I gave my own take on The Unmerciful Servant in “What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?”, following William Herzog’s argument that the parable is really about an unmerciful king. The story is a critique of messiahship, suggesting that while messiahs can start out benign, they quickly and inevitably become captives of their own kingship. Let’s see if we now have to give up this reading in light of Snodgrass’ critique.

(1) Regarding the behavior of the king. Against Herzog, Snodgrass objects that if the king is a ruthless figure, why should he even care if the second servant is mistreated (p 70)? The answer is obvious: because it makes him look like a fool. The behavior of subordinates always reflect on superiors, and public perception is everything. The point is that though the messiah has initiated a reign of unlimited forgiveness, it’s canceled right away by the cutthroat tactics a typical bureaucratic retainer, which in turn causes the king, backed into a corner, to revert to “ruthlessness as usual”.

(2) Regarding the criterion of coherence. Snodgrass repeatedly reminds us — and rightly so — that “if you cannot validate the teaching you think is in the parable from nonparabolic material elsewhere in the Gospels, you are almost certainly wrong” (p 30). That’s important, because parables have been made to say almost anything interpreters want on account of their open-ended nature. But in this case, Herzog’s reading squares with plenty of gospel data, and not just synoptic. Think about Jn 6:15 and all the places where Jesus implicitly avoids roles of (political) kingship, not to mention turning the cheek in the face of violence. I like to imagine that he had this parable in reserve for those who would have made him another Saul or David. If John had been a friend of the parable genre, the story would have been much better placed after his 6:15 than Matthew’s 18:21-22. Speaking of which…

(3) Regarding the tension between Mt 18:21-22 and 18:23-35. Let me preface this one by agreeing with Snodgrass that there’s nothing incredible about the standard Jewish belief that God punishes as much as he forgives — or even the general dictum of Mt 6:14-15 which says that God forgives people only on the condition that they forgive each other. But there is something seriously wrong with a parable that tries to illustrate limitless forgiveness (Mt 18:21-22) with a God that punishes so vengefully after a single screw-up. Snodgrass sort of acknowledges this: the story doesn’t illustrate limitless forgiveness as Matthew wants it to (p 67), but it nonetheless illustrates limitless grace, though in conjunction with limitless demand (p 72). But that’s a greasy apologetic, because the imagery remains too harsh. God doesn’t use torturers (as Snodgrass admits, p 73), and while parables aren’t strict equations (p 71), their imagery has to be reasonable. Hyperbole has its own bounds. And this isn’t about modern political correctness — to his credit, Snodgrass avoids that accusation and points out that even medievalists had a hard time wrapping their heads around the king’s behavior (p 70) — just a realization that the king’s retaliative measures don’t fit the character of the Jewish God in a context of either limitless forgiveness or grace.

So I think Herzog remains on solid ground. The Unmerciful Servant is really about an unmerciful king who was not a cipher for God. This wasn’t a kingdom parable from the lips of Jesus. It was about the futility of armed revolts and popular kingship, a message which fully coheres with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere. Herzog may be wrong in claiming that Jesus made no claims to messiahship at all (and I think he probably is), but he at least has the right idea. Whatever messianic role Jesus ultimately accepted, it wasn’t the kind for Judas of Galilee, Simon of Perea, or Athronges of Judea — and when people tried thrusting the role on him, he shunned it (Jn 6:15). This parable may well have been held in reserve for such occasions.

Single-Minded Jesus

In his colossal work on the parables, Stories With Intent, Klyne Snodgrass distinguishes between double indirect narratives, which operate on more than one level, and single indirect narratives, which are about exactly what they narrate and no more. Double indirects are really about God and/or the kingdom, while single indirects (usually called “example stories”) are moralistic and show people how to live.

According to Snodgrass, the vast bulk of Jesus’ parables fall into the former category (which he subdivides into other categories), and only five are single indirect stories:

The Good Samaritan
The Rich Fool
The Rich Man and Lazarus
The Dishonest Steward
The Pharisee and Toll Collector

But I maintain there are more single indirects than just these, a total of at least a dozen noteworthy parables which were not originally focused on God or the kingdom per se. And I would distinguish further between “example stories” and — as I like to think of them — “indictment stories”, as follows:

Single Indirect “Example Stories”:

The Good Samaritan
The Friend at Midnight
The Rich Fool
The Prodigal Son
The Dishonest Steward
The Unjust Judge
The Pharisee and Toll Collector

Single Indirect “Indictment Stories”:

The Wicked Tenants
The Unmerciful Servant
The Laborers in the Vineyard
The Talents
The Rich Man and Lazarus

I have already analyzed two from each group in my own parables series — The Prodigal Son, The Dishonest Steward, The Unmerciful Servant, and The Talents — and explained why in none of these stories is the father, master, king, or absentee landowner a cipher for God. They are about exactly what they narrate, prophetically critical, hinting about implications of the coming apocalypse, but not directly about the kingdom. This is in contrast to the parables which Snodgrass calls “similitudes” — The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Mustard Seed, The Leaven, The Treasure, and The Pearl — all of which, I agree, are double indirect illustrations of the kingdom itself (and analyzed The Mustard Seed accordingly).

Snodgrass dodges some hard questions in his magnum opus, and I agree with most of what Ernest van Eck says in his RBL review (save the bit about the Gospel of Thomas; I’m with Snodgrass that Thomas is largely derivative and later than the synoptics). The principle fault of parable scholarship rests in the common assumption that most stories are double indirects which allegorize God and the kingdom. But Jesus probably spoke face-value more frequently than we give him credit for.

On Wings to Mordor

On Facebook Stephen Carlson posted an amusing youtube clip, How The Lord of the Rings Should Have Ended, which suggests a safer and swifter way to Mount Doom than the route taken by Frodo and Sam. The idea, of course, is as old as the book itself. In light of the eagle-rescue at the end, why didn’t they just fly the hobbits to Mordor to begin with? Surely Gandalf would have thought of that?

One answer is that there would have been no story, and so perhaps we shouldn’t look closely at these things. But Tolkien was better than that. He had rules in place for almost everything in Middle-Earth, and he was quite particular about how the Eagles could be used. A revealing letter is #210, written in the late ’50s to Forrest Ackerman, who along with scriptwriter Morton Zimmerman, was preparing a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (which thankfully never came to be). Tolkien tore Zimmerman a new one in this letter — for just about everything, but not least for his liberal (mis)use of the Eagles. Tolkien wrote:

“I think [the Eagles] are a major mistake of Zimmerman, and without warrant. The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness. The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of Gandalf by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape. One of Zimmerman’s chief faults is his tendency to anticipate scenes or devices used later, thereby flattening the tale out.”

But not only did Tolkien object to gratuitous changes for aesthetic reasons, he had clear ideas about the role of the Eagles, at least by the time of writing Lord of the Rings. As servants of the Valar, they (like Gandalf) couldn’t just bail out the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth by doing their leg-work or fighting battles for them. They couldn’t be used as “taxis”. Their primary duty was to watch and report to Manwe (the chief Vala) the world’s tidings, and seldom interfere.

Gandalf, himself a servant of Manwe, made use of the Eagles, but mostly for last-ditch rescue operations. For instance, Gwahir rescued him from imprisonment in Saruman’s tower, and also after his fight with the Balrog. In the apocalyptic battle at the Black Gate — when everyone, including Gandalf, thought Sauron had the Ring and the world was about to end — the Eagles showed up to show their solidarity (an “eschatological” moment if there is one in Lord of the Rings). When the Ring was suddenly destroyed, they were then sent (at Gandalf’s behest) to rescue Frodo and Sam for saving Middle-Earth. In Lord of the Rings the Eagles play a consistently limited role, and in line with their creator’s intention.

Unfortunately, that can’t be said for The Hobbit. I’m not talking about Bilbo and the dwarves being flown away from the orcs in the Misty Mountains (which is, after all, a rescue operation commandeered by Gandalf), but the unacceptable participation in the Battle of Five Armies — fought, of all things, over the question of how a dragon’s treasure should be allocated. That strongly violates the rule of non-interference, and while apologists have tried justifying the Eagles’ involvement here sixty ways to Sunday, I’ve found none of them convincing. It’s just a matter of realizing that ideas were still gestating in the early stage of Tolkien’s writing.

But it’s a fun video anyway: