Soderbergh On Cinema

Finally got around to reading this little rant from director Steven Soderbergh on the declining state of cinema as opposed to mere movies. You’ll have to read his (fairly long) essay, but the gist of it is that cinema, as an art form, is simply a movie with purpose. “Cinema is a specificity of vision,” says he, and you don’t get that from much of the profits-driven dreck that floods theaters nowadays. This was actually my favorite part of the essay, because he points out that part of the human condition is a desire, nay, longing for meaning, for a story to “make sense out of all this chaos.” Thus, says Steven, we have art like cinema. When an artist (in this case a director) does his or her craft well,

“you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being—literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone.”

And this is why I come back to movies again and again, and why I feel compelled to write about the experience now and again. It’s powerful stuff. Anyway, take a moment to read the essay.

Beauty Is Tough Stuff

One of the reasons why this blog concerns itself with media like movies, books, and the like is because art and literature often delves into what we might call the “numinous,” the parts of ourselves that defy naturalistic explanation like joy or beauty. It is the experience of these things that point to an existence that is beyond mere existence, but includes another realm that we intuitively know is there, that is, the soul. In short (*deep breath*), joy and beauty are true phenomenon which we often experience through artistic mediums such as movies and books, hinting at the existence of the souls, which altogether provides ample fodder for someone spiritually minded like myself to ruminate on. *Phew*

Which is why this article about two scientists’ attempts to quantify beauty as merely the result of neurons firing caught my eye. You don’t have to read the article to get the point: they fail. And fail spectacularly,  to the point where they are not sure it can ever be explained materialistically. Yoiks.  But that’s not terribly surprising. Naturalism does a great job explaining mechanistic features of our universe, but fails miserably when trying to answer basic questions like, “Why does the world exist?” Or, “How does life come from non-life?” Joy and beauty provide negligible evolutionary benefits, but they are nevertheless part of our experience as human beings. And I’m glad they are part of that experience. The great scandal of materialism is the most honest answer to its claims is nihilism, which few “new atheists” are willing to truly pursue. Ultimately, materialism means that things like movies and fiction books are meaningless, just things that excite a random blob of neurons that pops into existence for a few short years. But if there is a soul then the pursuit of joy and beauty takes on meaning and purpose. That sounds pretty good to me.

Irrational Truth

It’s amusing to see the occasional scientific article come across concerning some aspect of human behavior that is incredibly “illogical” when it concerns ethics or religious beliefs. I pointed this out months ago with an article on teleologic statements (statements that say there is purpose to creation) that found people tend to subconsciously believe there is purpose in creation, regardless of their stated beliefs otherwise.

The latest is this article from Ars Technica that talks about a behavioral experiment set up to determine how rational people would be about money. From the article:

The basic rules of the Ultimatum Game are simple. One person is given a stack of cash, and told to divide it between themselves and a second party. That second party is then given the chance to accept or reject the offer; if it’s rejected, neither of them get any money. Clearly, any of this free money should be better than nothing, so under assumptions of strictly rational behavior, you might expect all offers to be accepted.

They’re not. Things in the neighborhood of a 50/50 split are accepted, but as the proportions shift to where the person issuing the ultimatum tries to keep seventy percent of the total, rejections increase. By the time they hit an 80/20 split, nearly 70 percent of the offers are rejected, even though that 20 percent of the total cash would leave the recipient better off than where they started.

The authors of the experiment went on to refine the experiment to ensure that people could make more rational decisions about the money, but at least 40% of the time they rejected any offers they considered “unfair”.

Initially, they try to pin it down as a form of “primate behavior” centered on ensuring “cooperative behavior in small groups” but even that explanation was rejected because they found that even if the only consequence was guilt for accepting an unfair offer, it was still rejected a significant portion of the time.

So, once again, a behavior experiment has teased out the notion that we all have an innate idea of what is right and wrong. Particularly in this experiment, an idea of what is “fair” and what causes guilt. I wonder where that came from?

Anyway, sorry if my exposition of the experiment isn’t that clear, the original article is much more in depth. Enjoy.

Fear and the Muslim “Threat”

I’ve been asked to post my response to an e-mail I received recently concerning a video on Youtube that’s been circulating recently concerning Islam. So here goes.

First, the question:

Larry, I know you have done a lot of study on the growth of Islam. How accurate is this video?

Then, the video:

From my e-mail response:

Well, a couple notes about this video.

First, I’m a little put off by the tone of fear from the video. We forget that God is sovereign and is well aware that Muslims are growing as a people group. He doesn’t need us to “wake up and take action” to complete His plans. Also, the video creates the picture that there is a vast conspiracy afoot, perpetrated by Muslim leaders, to overrun the worlds population by breeding. In truth, Muslim culture considers child-rearing differently(PDF link) than our secular western cultures (i.e. as a good thing) and really, Muslims move to the U.S. and Europe because they’re like anybody else: they want a better place to live. So let’s tone down the hysterics first.

Second, it’s true that Europe, especially, has been in decline as a culture and as a people group. They’re well aware of it, too. In Spain, (and likely in other European states), you can earn a government stipend just for having children. Yes, they pay you to have children because they recognize their population is shrinking. But that happened because God was kicked out of Europe. A cultural shift occurred sometime last century and we now see the results. Muslims are moving in because there are job opportunities and a higher quality of life available to them, not because they want to take over the world. A similar kind of Europeanization and decline is occurring in the states, though it will certainly look different however it pans out.

Third, the narrator throws out a comment at the end of the video about how Christianity is being eclipsed by Muslims currently in terms of numbers. Coincidentally, I was looking into these numbersjust last night so I can shine some light into what this really means. Currently there are about 2 billion professing Christians in the world. Only approx. 680 million would consider themselves to be “born again” though, so, for the sake of conversation, we’ll consider there to really only be about 1 billion “real” Christians, give or take. Well, we’ve already lost the numbers game then, because there are about 1.3 billion adherents to Islam. But that’s not the whole story. Let’s talk about growth rates. Currently, Islam is growing at a rate of about 2.9% a year. Christianity (or those who would call themselves Christians) are only growing at about 2.3% a year. But then look at these growth rates:

– Pentecostals: 8.1%
– Evangelicals: 5.4%
– All Protestants: 3.3%
– Roman Catholics and Others: 1.3%

So what we really see is that nominal Christianity (what I would consider most Roman Catholics to be, and a fair number of Protestants too) is dying, as we would expect. However, the Church is alive and growing much faster than Islam. Are we outnumbered? When have we never been?

The truth is that the Gospel continues to conquer throughout the world, whether we know it or not. On the other hand, America as a nation and a culture is on it’s way out (whether we like it or not) and other nations are taking the lead in spreading God’s word. Sure, we need to be obedient to God and ministering at home and abroad, but if we weren’t doing that already, I’m not sure a video on Youtube is going to make us do that.

One last thing I’d mention. I think Americans don’t realize how young our nation is, and how promptly the world changes. Americans are not students of history as a rule, and when change looks like it’s coming we tend to panic. The truth is, our nation or culture is not guaranteed to last forever. I’m not saying I’m not unsettled by what’s happening in our world. But am I surprised? Would I be surprised to find that the world my children grow up in will be vastly different, perhaps even hostile? Not at all, even though I’m certainly not comfortable with it.

In times like this we need not put our hope in awareness campaigns, programs to increase child-bearing, or even in our nation. We need to look to the God’s Word and understand that the Church and the Gospel is eternal, will survive the fall and rise of many nations and religions, and that our hope rests not in this world.

Anyway, I hope that’s not too bleak for you. But those are my thoughts.

And some post-thoughts:

It is unfortunate today that people have so much information available to them, but most don’t take the time to analyze that information. There are a number of assumptions from the video (such as, all Muslims are the same, believe the same thing, have the same agenda, that what’s true of Europe is true of the U.S., and so on) that I imagine many viewers will take at face value. The only good assumption one should make when watching videos like these is this: things are never as simple as they seem.

The unfortunately corollary to the lack of analysis is that misunderstanding breeds fear. I doubt that the vast majority of American Christians watching this video have ever talked with a Muslim, but most of them have preconceptions about what Muslims are like. Saying those words fills me with sadness, as I realize what a statement that makes about Christians in this nation. God desires that no man should perish, and that we should fear no one, and painting a caricature of Muslims as bogey-men will get us no closer to spreading God’s love among them.