Friday, January 09, 2009

Seriously, I have to link to this, the passing of Richard John Neuhaus

I admit it, up front, that I'm one of those Protestants who reads First Things and found what Neuhuas wrote to be interesting about half the time. Considering how Protestant I am and how unsteeped I am in a number of things (like Lutheranism) that he was before he converted to Catholicism there's stuff I admit I just didn't always get, or care about.

But what I found fascinating and still find fascinating about First Things is that whether or not I agree with it it is a kind of ecumenical I find interesting. Not the namby pamby ecumenicism that skates over profound confessional and doctrinal differences in substance or formulation but of a stripe that points out that Protestants and Catholics really differ on key things. We can't paper over those differences and shouldn't but we can also debate them. So, sure, I remain Protestant but we don't have an Inquisition going on and I have over the years become just jaded enough about how Protestants venerate relics, venerate saints, often incorporate sacramental ideas about marriage as a sanctifying sacrament without really seeing how it is indebted to earlier traditions within Catholicism, or any number of other debates.

It's not that I have any interest in crossing the Tiber at all, it's that I have grown over a good chunk of my life to have made comparative religion a modesty hobby of mine. I'm not that great at it, really and I admit it has only applied to differences within Christian confessions but those differences are sufficiently legion I could spend the rest of my life learning about them.

And Neuhaus, I must say, was one of the more consistently interesting Catholics for me to read from. I'm going to remember the smart-ass observation that mainline Protestants in America were all enthusiastic post-millenials in the 19th century until World War I happened and then, lo and behold, these churches suddenly become premillenial because they no realize they won't Christianize the world and it's all going to seed. No, really, it was hilarious and I laughed out loud. And I can read about things ten years after Gary North and the Y2K problem and I can still laugh out loud like some green haired, white skinned Batman villain.

And I'm conservative, yes. Moderately conservative, so I don't find First Things "unbearably arrogant to people they don't agree with" as a professor I met once put it. Everyone is like that. I mean, I HAVE read Salon after all. Everyone gets like that at some point. :)

If you're going to be controversial be convervational and also be interesting. There have been conservatives who I think have been better at that than others. Coulter I don't pay attention. Limbaugh is not interesting to me. I'll admit it, Bill Buckley and Neuhaus were the sorts of conservatives I was more interested in keeping track of. By way of aside I'm not surprised Christopher Buckley decided Obama was the better deal. I've been waiting for conservatives to actually follow their so-called platform for the last twenty years and there's no sign that they will. It's like a boyfriend or girlfriend promising they will be true and dating someone else every other weekend.

It's better to say exactly what you are and where you're at up front and let the conflict happen than to skim things and as a Protestant I appreciate that Neuhaus could articulate the differences and also, I think, articulate points of common ground.

Besides, a tribute to Messiaen seems to make more sense in First Things than Christianity Today.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Internet Monk, his wife's Catholic conversion and ruminations on "headship"

If the man is the spiritual authority in his home and is a Baptist and his wife converts to Catholicism does that constitute a failure of his "headship"? Somewhere some very serious Christians must be blogging about this issue and I would rather make an entry that is not very serious becasue any time I attempt to seriously consider it ... I find it perplexing.

I know about the "you and your household" verses. I know about all that covenant stuff. Thing is it's easy to take that stuff too far and it is easy to misread covenantal theology into texts because, hey, you feel like it. I've met guys who seriously argued Adam and God had a covenant. God has to have a covenant with everything. Now covenants are important ... but there has been in some places a fad about covenants that in practice is just another variation of Western contract negotiation. The "covenant" aspect comes along simply because some pastors want to make sure that if they break the rules you still have to keep them. If you break the rules that they may change when they see fit then they can discipline you. There's something somewhere in there about servant leadership but I will leave that alone for now.

Christians I have interacted with over the last eight years might give an emphatic "yes" to that initial question. I'm parsing the potential significance of this because depending on how you slice the apple headship may mean that if your wife or kids leave your denominational affiliation it means you're a failure as "head" or it may mean the definition of "headship" holds you responsible for things that autonomous moral agents also known as sinners have already made decisions about. I'm not considering the whole scenario from the standpoint of "is so and so fit to be a pastor anymore" but "what is the practical outworking of this kind of view?" and "What does 'headship' actually mean if it is applied in a setting to say that a husband is responsible for his household?"

The way I have heard it described is that Eve sinned first but God came looking for Adam. Fair enough, I get that. But I have also seen people declare, almost without batting an eyelash, that if Samson turned out as badly as he did it is because his parents dropped the ball, no ifs ands or buts. Child of the covenant stuff and all that, I guess. Thing is, if you are a Protestant and you raise your kids up to be Protestants and then they jump ship and become Orthodox or Catholic does that mean you failed as a parent? Really? Doctrinal litmus tests become the measure of your parenting skills? If my parents raising me in a Pentecostal background about half the days of my youth was supposed to have gotten me to be a Pentecostal Republican then, sure, I'd have to say they "failed" because I have become a Calvinist with Anglican and Lutheran sympathies while retaining aspects of charismatic/pentecostal thought and some sympathies to Presbyterianism. And I happen to be an often politically apathetic moderate real conservative as opposed to a neo-conservative and I am deeply skeptical about Christian attempts to sanctify the public sphere for their own benefit while professing a love of country and God.

But the thing is my parents didn't raise me to be a particular KIND of Christian. They raised me to be a Christian. My differing with them on any number of doctrinal or political issues is not and should not be taken as a sign that they failed. If my family who are Orthodox one day discover that one of their kids becomes a Methodist that won't mean they will have failed as parents.

Would such a change indicate that perhaps a pastor had not, so far as outsiders observed, done a good job of keeping his house in order for the sake of satisfying a Baptist or Catholic or Presbyterian hiearchy? Well, sure, I get that. But what I am contemplating here is the nature of the parent-child relationship. At the risk of pointing out the obvious the conundrum of training your kid to think for himself is that he will and then he's likely to think you have some bad ideas. I have personally been skeptical of parents who want to raise kids to think for themselves from the earliest age. Kids aren't that smart by nature, they aren't that autonomous,and it's foolhardy to impose on them a level of emotional, intellectual, and cultural responsibility they are developmentally incapable of.

So, no, were I to be a parent Iwould not be that kind of "enlightened" parent. I would insist on raising my kids to be Christians who learn about Christ, the Father, and Spirit and learn the Bible. What I'm not sure I would do is raise them to think that other confessional tradtiions within Christendom are a priori wrong. That doesn't mean I'd be so ecumenical as to let everything go by the board a la Unitarianism, it means that I take seriously the proverb that says that if you train up a child in the way that he should go then when he is old he won't depart from it.

But I know from my own life and what I learned of the life of my parents is that this is no insurance clause that the kid won't veer wildly from the path when young. As Michael Spenser once put it, the proverb says that when he is OLD he won't depart from it. He might for a while in his hot-blooded youth. I know a few people whose rebellious years were full of hedonism and turning away from the faith and they stayed away for good. Others came back to the faith. My rebellion and asserting my own identity in my late teens and early twenties was to become a Calvinist and to become more moderate in my politics. It didn't make things easy for my parents, I guess I'll just leave it at that. Anyone can imagine how that might have looked.

I'm certainly not married but what struck me about Spenser sharing his frustration about his wife's conversion to Catholcicism is the gnawing sense that came from in his writings that maybe it was his fault. Married people must have some aspect of themselves so inextricably tied to the other person that it would look, frankly, like a really co-dependent identity. Like you're not really you unless the other person is there. I have no real comprehension of that and I admit it. What things I can infer from what Spenser has shared in different settings is that no matter how one flesh you may be when it comes to Christ the two of you are NOT one and that in the age to come you won't be married. Who knkows whether the breath of man rises to God or the breath of the animal descends to the earth. Koholeth asks the question as if he didn't know. Do we have immortal souls? Not likely since only God is eternal, but more pertinent is the observation that we cannot be so certain of what we ourselves are.

I have heard that one of the beauties and trials of marriage is that you can wake up every morning and ask yourself, "Who is this person beside me?" Marriage is the trial or joy or whatever it is of waking up each morning with a quest, if I am observing things with any accuracy (and I'm probably not) and that quest is to know Christ but also to know and be known by this other person. I have heard it said that a husband or wife is the one who will sin against you and be sinned against by you more than anyone on earth. If that's true then parents can rest easy because it means there's finally someone else their kid can be upset with and blame for ruining their lives. ;)

Christians and paranoia past, first rule, never say you're sorry

The Y2K bug was a beautiful if unimportant thing if for no other reason than it played a small yet beautiful part in the Mike Judge classic Office Space.

When the looming threat of the economic meltdown of the free world (however free it really was is now moot) was building up I had what some might have called a resigned, disinterested train of thought. There was nothing that was going to happen that was going to be as bad as people anticipated. Since our currency is fiat based anyway what would people do with money they could still get because it was backed by the word of the United States government? I lived close by to family and friends and IF anything happened I could adapt but odds were pretty good nothing would happen. And nothing did happen.

But that didn't stop people from anticipating doom and gloom. And so a trip down memory lane has been in order because there have been Christians who have blown the trumpet in Zion to sound the alarm to God's holy army about this stuff, stuff that now can be looked back upon:

Ths didn't lead to the funkier doctrinal tiers of Adventism or the Watchtower Society but the history of Christian in the West is peppered with freak-out moments hinged on predictions that go south not North. Maybe being a postmillenial theonomist/Christian reconstructionist means never having to say you're sorry. :)

Postmillenialism is to me a curious thing. It is supposedly optimistic but the postmillenialist I have read seem most exercised about the godlessness of culture in ways the premillenialists must half savor half dread. As an amillenialist I guess the smart-ass reply is that I don't care. Koholeth's great declaration, "Do not ask yourself where are the old days that were better than these because it is foolish to ask that question." has been my motto. I have little use for nostalgia or supposing that we have some decline of western civilization. Scripture cannot be broken so while in the last days men will go from bad to worse it is no less true that it is foolish to pine for the days of sinners past. It was in the past that God obliterated all of humanity except for Noah. So put that in your pipe and smoke it for a while. The last time a flood wiped out everything except a few people was a long time ago.

My main concern observing postmillenialists is that when they tilt toward things like reconstructionism they think they are being optimistic. They set themselves up for failure both at a cultural level and a moral level if they aren't careful. They set themselves up for cultural failure because clearly we are not seeing the kind of society that theonomists would like. They set themselves up for failure by failing to see clearly how the Social Gospel gave us a grab bag of legacies that led to the elimination of child labor laws, prohibition, public education, all things Christians pressed for because they believed it was a mandate of the Gospel to press for "good law". And so they did and the result was a culture of decadence and the rise of the teenager in the roaring 20s through the 30s that the world had not seen in a while ("ever" if we want to be hyperbolic about it).

There is no better ammunition you can give the devil than to suppose you are doing God's work for Him. In this respect few groups in modern Christendom seem to be so eager to pass the ammunition. How Christians of this stripe can condemn Rome for the Inquisition or consider the excesses of the Crusades (which many likely don't) or side with the Confederacy without considering how their own goals essentially appropriate the State in essentially the same way is hard for me to grasp. It's not that I think there is no sense in which ASPECTS of postmillenialism make sense ... it's that the temptation to some kind of Corinthian over-realized eschatology executed by a bunch of losers who are pining for an age that has passed them by or never existed is hard for me to ignore.

The Religious Right is so busy attempting to implement the failures of the Religious Left I'm not sure when they will step back long enough to figure out that if God providentially didn't let it work for the old religious left it's not postmillenially certain God will let it work for anyone else either. I don't think it's without any historically sobering cause that the group God allowed to have this level of revolutionary power were the communists. Don't think you or your fellow believers are so sanctified you couldn't do that, too.

Besides, if a decade later you're called out by a fellow Christian for not coming back and saying you had rocks in your head the rest of the world won't be more generous.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

thoughts before the tenth anniversary release of The Powerpuff Girls on DVD

I like cartoons. Did I mention somewhere that I like cartoons? If the comment on the masthead didn't indicate so then I indicate it now.

We are coming upon a not-very solemn occasion my friends on the internet. We are coming along to a decade with the Powerpuff Girls. When I was a kid I saw Hanna Barbara cartoons and most of them, after an initial age 5-7 fascination with Scooby Doo and The Flintstones wore off and I turned to Transformers, G. I. Joe, and Star Blazers, seemed to me cheap knock-off cartoons that lacked in characterization or plot. Yes, it sounds incredibly snobby but I was an incredibly snobby kid about cartoons, especially by the age of about 10-12. I found it ANNOYING that Optimus Prime won all the time and was so flawless he never made any real mistakes. By that time I had completely left Hanna Barbara cartoons behind, though there was a certain drive-by-the-car-wreck fascination I had with the excreble Space Ghost.

But in the 1990s Hanna Barbara capitalized on its trashy past and brought Space Ghost back in Cartoon Planet and the weird but often strangely satisfying Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. It was a sort of cartoon playing out of the equally cartoonish but puppet-based Mystery Science Theater 3000. I could get all meta and talk about how both MST3K and SG:C2C present worlds in which evil is reduced to the banal, the petty, the pathetic and use that as a cultural measure of a certain moral failure in society in the West to properly address or consider the actual magnitude of evil in our world. But that would be so obviously both petty and extravagantly silly that I leave jokes too dry but for the eggiest of eggheads with genre fascinations to pretend that I actually wrote that. Some essays are better left as ideas and not essayed. Here I am making dumb puns ... as though there were other kinds.

But by the time the Powerpuff Girls hit the TV I began to see that Hanna Barbara might do something I never thought possible, get behind an actually original idea (as opposed to a neutered or kiddified Looney Toons knock-off or a rip off of the Honeymooners in space or in the stone age) for the first time since ... say 1965 or so. The Powerpuff Girls were doubtless not the only original series concept HB got behind but it was the one that, when I saw it, I didn't regret seeing! Other shows that got launched like Sealab 2021 or Space Ghost's reboot were obviously indebted to earlier creations and that's not getting to the Brak show. Mind you I'm not saying ANYTHING bad about the Brak show! I'm not that inspired to say much about Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I enjoy it in small doses but the show that for me single-handedly rehabilitated Hanna Barbara's decades of suck was basically the show affectionately abbreviated to PPG.

Why? Simple, it was a funny show. It was a show that was geared not just toward kids but toward adults. There was nothing about Femme Fatale that kids would necessarily get in terms of jokes but the character herself was altogether a joke. The characters were all types but types of the sincerely played out kind. McCracken and Tartakovsky and company only winked through the camera lens a handful of times and played things relatively straight. By that I mean we got a HB cartoon that didn't have some canned laugh track as happened in earlier epochs. The show simply had to be funny in order to survive and was on late enough that it couldn't afford to pander either just to kids or adults. Saving the world before bedtime was an apt sales pitch.

I have read comments from any number of people with delusional nostalgia who miss the days of the 1980s Saturday morning cartoons as though those were the be all and end all of actually good cartoons. No, dude, seriously, they WEREN'T that good. I've got a passage from Ecclesiastes for you folks, don't ask yourself "where are the old days that were better than these?" because it is not from wisdom you ask that question. Do you really want Saturday morning cartoons where Optimus Prime and the Autobots cross the Atlantic ocean on water skis? Really? How were all these multi-ton vehicles supposed to FLOAT on water enough to mvoe forward? Russian accents in G. I. Joe anyone? Lion-O's sword? And at the risk of inviting some back-talk for using this colloquialism, even at the age of 11 we all knew that He-Man was totally gay.

And when guys in their thirties (and isn't it ALWAYS usually guys in their thirties) complain about how cartoons were all better in the 1980s I bet they aren't really talking about the Snorks, My Little Pony, Jem, Rubik the Amazing Cube, the Mr. T. Show, the Gary Coleman Show, Laverne & Shirley (the cartoon, not the live action series), the Private benjamin cartoon, Turbo Teen, or Pole Position! Naw, they're thinking of stuff like Thundercats, G. I. Joe, Transformers, MAYBE Silverhawks. Some more obscure folks might name drop Thundarr the Barbarian and more could point to some landmark imports like Star Blazers or maybe point to Robotech. Stuff like Tranzor Z or Speed Racer from earlier periods might come up, too.

All that is to say that if you really go back and WATCH most of these shows you'll see that the people who complain about how bad shows like Teen Titans or The Batman are don't know the suckitude of the cartoons they are actually defending by way of comparison. Transformers G1 wasn't THAT good. Beast Wars, after a weak season 11 first half, got pretty interesting. The Transformers movie that is often beloved by fans, crap. No, it is NOT better than the Michael Bay film. Michael Bay's film is at the same level and has a less obtrusive soundtrack. I don't care if you think Optimus Prime's death signalled the end of your childhood. The movie just wasn't too good. The kinds of continuity errors that fanboys forgive to consider TF a decent movie within the context of the show is, well, peculiar.

All that is to say that my fondness for PPG is not based on a childhood nostalgia. I was an adult and in the work force by the time the show came out. I wouldn't say the 1990s were a new golden age of cartoons by any means. I'd say it's more like a silver age. We didn't have Disney or Looney Toons or the Fleischers and the truth is no one is likely to "beat" those artistic achievements but we had Batman: the animated series, we had an influx of anime that people began to have more appreciation for, we had the DC animated universe as a whole, Miyazaki's work gained currency and Pixar enabled Disney to get behind the release and distribution of cartoons that didn't suck.

Perhaps the single biggest innovation was simply The Simpsons demonstrating that a prime time cartoon geared toward adults and not just children could work. Beavis and Butthead laid the groundwork for other shows like King of the Hill and to some degree South Parh. The 1990s didn't equal, in most respects, the level of artistic innovation of the golden age, but it consolidated the reality for cartoons that is true elsewhere but wasn't so true here, that cartoons could appeal to a wide audience but also diversity out to more adult stuff.

Where the Powerpuff Girls fit into that, for me, is that it was simply a fun show that works at multiple levels. Take anyone element of the show or the writing or the characters and you'll see that it doesn't "look" like a particularly special show. But the show was fortunately often quite a bit more than the sum of its, on the face of it, ordinary parts. The blonde, redhead, brunnete breakout of character designs bespoke covering all the bases of girlyness. The Professor served as not just a father figure but as someone the girls could rescue. McCracken once said, I think, that he wanted to create a show in which girl power and feminist ideas could be presented in a way that was fun and accessible for anyone.

As a cultural manifestation of would be feminist agitprop, if you want to put the worst possible spin on the motive (which I think would be extremely unfair but I say this to make a rhetorical point), I would say The Powerpuff Girls succeed by taking the high road of taking the low road. Aim to please, first of all.

C. S. Lewis famously opined that the best way to tell stories to children it to tell a fun, pleasing story and prefer that moral lessons are learned along the way. The WRONG way to approach things would be to begin with the moral lesson children ought to learn and then go about fashioning a story that gets the job done. The Powerpuff Girls, right up to the name (or down to the name) demonstrated that the committment to first make sure it's fun goes a long way. Even if McCracken conceived of the series as a way to promote a social view you won't see that played out in so blatantly a didactic fashion that you "have" to deal with the subtext/metatheme to even get drawn into the show.

I suppose if I were to arbitrarily select two cartoons that for me bookended the 1990s that had signal agendas they wanted to promote you could go one of two ways. At the start of the 1990s there would be Captain Planet and at the end of the 1990s there would be the Powerpuff Girls. Which of these cartoons even got to the point of having a tenth anniversary release of the entire run of the series?

Particularly in terms of how Christians with conservative theology and politics might see things, the social agenda PPG was designed to help promote is so sweet, charming, and in many respects benign where speechifying goes it would be easy to see virtues in the show. If Christians wanted to freak out into culture war mode they would have been better off freaking out about The Powerpuff Girls rather than Pokemon or Captain Planet. Captain Planet's didactism was so off-putting that that might be the single simplest reason there's not some tenth anniversary box set of the entire run of Captain Planet. I think those Christians would need to chill out but that's not really why I'm writing.

I'm writing to share some of my enthusiasm for a very cute show. Tara Strong and E. G. Daily do some of their most memorable work here and Cathy Cavadini is great as Blossom. I have a soft spot for Strong's voice-over work. I liked her as Batgirl, liked her as Bubbles a great deal, liked her work as Raven on Teen Titans. Even her tiny role in the dub of Spirited Away was fun for what a small part it was. And, yes, I even know that she did work under her maiden name as Tara Charendoff. Yes, I am that much of a cartoon nerd that I recognize voice actors. Roger Jackson gave us one of the landmark voices of the late 1990s with the wonderful voice of Mojo Jojo, easily one of the greatest ineffectual blowhard villains in cartoons in the last ten years. What's not to like about a genius level monkey who can't get his plans to work because he's a monkey and he's fighting three little toddlers with powers that get into pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman level? Answer? Nothing.

So my suggestion to 1980s cartoon nostalgists is to rethink your loyalties. There are very few cartoons from the 1980s I would want my now 7-year-old and 4-year old nieces to watch from that period. That cartoon with Bill Cosby as a bad guy and the hourglass full of thistles? You remember that one? The Care Bears movies 1 and 2? Trust me, that age of "good" cartoons you're remembering from the 1980s had a lot of crap. If you think Michael Bay was wrong to make a Transformers cartoon that desecrated your childhood, well, you didn't have to watch that thing, did you? And the truth is that the only thing I really remember for Transformers are a few voices--Chris Latta as Starscream, Frank Welker as Megatron, and Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, and Scatman Cruthers as Jazz, of course. But, really, I never thought of Jazz as Jazz, I always thought of him as Hong Kong Phooey (a show that was in some ways more fun as a concept than execution but another HB cartoon that I admit I remember fondly, seeing episodes on reruns in the mid 1980s that really came out in mid 1970s).

So, in short, forget the 1980s if you're a nostalgia type and if you were a fan of Powerpuff Girls you can be content knowing this series is finally getting what looks like a decent release package.