Saturday, 30 July 2011

Jack Chick, Tommy Wiseau: Unintentional Genius

For those who don’t know, Jack Chick is the creator of a series of pocket-size comics that seek to convert the unsaved – according to him, a spectacularly broad category of people, covering everything from atheists to devout Catholics – to his brand of Christianity.  They are designed to be handed out in public places, left on the seats of trains, given in a restaurant in place of a tip, or any other place that they might reach their intended audience.  Each comic contains a brief guide to becoming a Christian, consisting mainly of the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’: a stock couple of sentences that Chick argues will automatically reserve a place in heaven for the person praying them.

Chick tracts fall well into the mainstream of fundamentalist American Protestantism, complete with unquestioning reverence for the King James Bible, an extremist ‘faith, not works’ doctrine, emphasis on the importance of evangelizing, and a complete disregard of other religious traditions.  In The Death Cookie, Chick explains how Catholicism was founded by Satan – literally – to deceive the unwary.  In Allah Had No Son we hear how Muslims really worship a ‘moon god’.  The Visitors tells us that Mormonism is a ‘modern-day version of Baal worship’.  His treatment of race and gender issues is no better, ranging from hilariously unsubtle to outrageously offensive.

However, despite the content of these tracts, Chick succeeds at making them a pleasure to read.  The art looks endearingly like a young Charles Schultz’s attempts to channel Hieronymus Bosch.  The stock characters are familiar: the devout, handsome Christian man; the stunted figure of the villain-of-the-week; the convert-ee, who invariably combines worldly cynicism with a willingness to instantly believe any evangelist that comes within earshot.  There’s a certain absurdity to the regularity of the plots, and every tract would work almost without revision as a parody of evangelical Christianity.

What Chick tracts remind me of most is Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room.  Called the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”, The Room is a spectacularly unsubtle drama about a love triangle between Johnny, his fiancĂ© and his best friend.  Like Chick tracts, its flaws make it endearing: wooden acting, bad scripting, and a total disregard for consistency or continuity of plot.  Like Jack Chick, it’s unclear how seriously Tommy Wiseau takes himself; the possibility exists that both of them imagine themselves as geniuses, enjoyed sincerely by legions of fans.  That, at the heart of it, is what makes Chick tracts and The Room so much fun to watch: the image of the creator, working furiously at his art, unaware that his creation is so abysmally, amazingly awful.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion

Some days ago I wrote an article for WeekendNotes (sort of like an online guide for cities) about ways to take your date out in Melbourne when you're broke.  If you're interested - or if you feel like doing me a favour and getting my pageviews up - here it is:

Top 5 Dates For When You're Broke

Monday, 25 July 2011

G is for ‘Goblin’: Video Games and the Power of Imagination

Let’s start with something simple: video games are escapism.  The computer screen is a magic door, a jumble of fur coats at the back of a wardrobe, a gap between two boulders on a barren heath – what literature critters like to call a ‘liminal boundary’.  On the other side is a different world, more exciting and usually more violent than our own.  More importantly, there’s a story: one in which we are unmistakably the protagonist, fated to meet and overcome great obstacles and do deeds worthy of legend.
So far, so good.  But a good game, like a good story, needs to be convincing.  It needs to stay close to reality.  I’m not talking about mimicking the day-to-day grind of reality – after all, that’s what video games are supposed to provide some escape from – nor am I talking about unbelievably detailed graphics.  Here’s the problem: two recent games I’ve played have been Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup and Dwarf Fortress, neither of which contain any graphics more complicated than an ASCII character.  Both games, however, drew me in for more hours than I’d feel comfortable admitting publicly.  They managed to convince me of their reality and, judging by the enthusiasm of the online communities, it’s not just me.  What’s going on here?
Let’s look at another place stories are told: books.  Good books, the kind that are read and re-read, draw the reader into their world.  As a reader it’s possible to travel with Frodo and Sam into Mordor, suffocate on country life with Emma Bovary, and feel the pangs of conscience disguised as toothache with Nikolai Rubashov.  By some magic the characters’ lives, complete with fears and pains, become our own.  What does Darkness at Noon have in common with Dwarf Fortress?  My answer, and the reason I enjoyed both stories: they give just enough detail to kindle the imagination.
In a game with excellent graphics – Crysis, say – detail is supplied in bulk.  Blades of grass sway in the wind.  During the brief seconds between an enemy appearing and being summarily dispatched, it’s possible to discern individual eyelashes in his furrowed brows.  (Maybe I’m exaggerating a little.)  Imagination, once the primary faculty of enjoyment in video games, isn’t necessary.  I came away from Crysis admiring the graphics designers, but without any real desire to come back.  It was cool; that was it.  On the other hand, games with imperfect graphics are fertile ground for imagining.  Playing Doom, years ago, I wondered what the hordes of demons I faced were like up close.  Was their skin dripping with slime?  Was it disturbingly smooth?  I imagined the rank scent of the Cyberdemon: machine oil and cordite mingling with the smell of sweat and matted fur.   
This, by the way, is one reason why Henry James and HP Lovecraft were so good at writing horror.  A good video game is like a scary story.  When you finally see the ghost, your imagination shuts down and everything becomes much less terrifying.  Knowing this, Lovecraft kept insisting that his monsters, with their eldritch tentacles and writhing pseudopodia, were beyond human ability to describe.  In his best horror story, Turn of the Screw, James never tells us the nature of the haunting his book is seemingly about – or if there even is a haunting at all.  What we don’t see is usually more interesting than what we see in detail.
In ASCII-based games, ‘realistic’ graphics are dispensed with altogether.  Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup represents the player – the protagonist, by definition the most important character in the game’s story – with a ‘&’.  Goblins are ‘g’ and orcs a swarm of ‘o’s; more dangerous enemies usually take the form of capital letters.  Reading this kind of display takes practice. First-time players often compare it to the gibberish displays in The Matrix.  However, after an hour of playing, I blinked and realised that I wasn’t seeing letters and numbers anymore.  Like Cypher, the code of the world I was looking at had resolved itself into clear images: “blonde, brunette, redhead” for him, kobolds and trolls for me – lumbering around corners, lurking in shadows, ready to ambush.  An hour with a game that arguably lacks graphics of any kind drew me in more than the days I had wasted playing newer, more ‘realistic’ games. What it reminded me of most was playing with sticks as a child: acting out stories on a patch of dirt, sometimes scratching away happily for hours.   Until trying ASCII games, I thought I’d lost the capacity to imagine such vivid stories with so little help.
I’m not saying that graphics are bad, or even that graphics are irrelevant to how fun a game is.  Done right, detailed graphics can build a rich world, just like detailed description in a novel.  Examples are almost too easy to find: Fallout 3 and both Half-Life games, for instance.  The trick is not to go overboard, to leave enough unsaid so that the player’s imagination has room to work in.  There’s an old saying – or rather several old sayings – that God and the Devil are in the details.  Whichever your game (or movie, or novel) is interested in, it’s best to know where to look.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Alien God

“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the ... appalling ... strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock

Jesus loves me.  I have been reliably informed that he is simultaneously my copilot, homeboy, brother, friend, judge, guardian, and can probably fix my plumbing as well.  God – the Creator of all things, shaper of galaxies and star systems, lord of hurricanes and tsunamis, Will and Power all concentrated in a single being – is the kind of guy who would crack a few beers with me on the couch.  The idea of a ‘personal God’ has gained incredible traction partially because it’s so comforting to ascribe a familiar, friendly will to the inscrutable workings of the universe.  This comfort tends to obscure the ridiculousness of the whole concept: that an Almighty Creator would even deign to notice one tiny race of mammals on one tiny planet, let alone involve himself in their affairs.

Fundamentalist Christians often deal with this problem by asserting that the universe began at the same time we did.  Aside from the flagrant disregard of empirical reality, this is a pretty good tactic for answering why God would involve himself now, rather than at any other point in the last several billion years.  However, the vastness of the universe – why here – is just as serious a problem.  Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard made the inventive argument that this seeming absurdity was what made Christianity so attractive – that the sheer effort of passion needed to have faith was admirable.  Despite these responses, I would like to explore the idea that God is actually ineffable and alien, rather than, as the fundamentalists would have it, ineffable and alien only when bad things happen to good people.

What does it mean to live in a universe ruled by a literally incomprehensible deity?  For one, it would mean no Pascal’s Wager-type deals, as Alien God would be no more likely to reward you for faith than Cthulhu.  Religions based on this God would have very small creeds: I believe in God, the Creator of all things – then what?  Philosophers of ethics would have to do without a divinely-ordained morality; the teleological underpinning of many other bodies of thought would have to be discarded.

Regardless of whether Alien God exists, it remains a powerful image.  It allows for an entirely different perspective on the world around us. We probe at the ineffable as if it were a loose tooth.  Those things in life we find impossible to understand – death, say, or love – are strangely compelling.  What defies understanding more than the Thing which made everything; which is everything?  Alone at night, on a jetty extending over dark water, one can feel it stirring.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Poems I Like #1: Dirge Without Music

By Edna St. Vincent Millay
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, --- but the best is lost.
The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

It’s only suitable that the first poem I talk about on this site should be the one I went to for my title – Indiscriminate Dust.  Dirge Without Music has been a long favourite of mine, as much for the evident skill that went into crafting it as for the raw emotion within.  The subject matter is nothing less than Death; a weighty topic for any poet to pick up.  Millay manages to come up with a perspective that’s both interesting and fresh.  

I know that good people – the best people – die, she writes.  I know that it’s never going to change.  Nevertheless, despite the total irrelevance of my opinion, I will give it:  I do not approve.

Take a look at the first line.  It seems unnaturally long for a poem, weighing in at nineteen syllables.  There’s no  consistent meter to give it balance; it lurches from dactyl to iamb to two anapaests to two more iambs, finising with a pyrrhic foot and a spondee.  By all accounts it shouldn’t work, and yet it does.  Why is that?  For one, it’s a clear statement of the idea of the poem in plain, easy-to-understand language.  It also contains three simple ideas: ‘shutting away’, ‘loving hearts’ and ‘hard ground’ that combine to form a powerful image.  

What makes this line really work, however, is the interaction of the sound of the language with its meaning.  ‘Shutting away’ is bounded by two strong syllables, as is ‘loving hearts’. Finally, the two short beats – ‘in the’ – warm up for the incredibly strong ‘hard ground’.  The strength comes partially from the two open vowels after each other, ‘a’ and ‘o’.  Try saying ‘hard ground’ fast; it’s difficult because the mouth has to open and close around each vowel.  ‘In the’, by comparison, trips off the tongue.  Moreover, the ‘a’ and ‘o’ of the last two words are prefigured by the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ of ‘loving hearts’, creating an unconscious symmetry when read aloud.

I could do this with every line: point out the wonderful rhyme of ‘crowned’/ground’, the assonance of ‘the best is lost’, the symmetry of beginning and ending the poem with ‘I am not resigned’ – but I’d rather talk about the anguish that hangs on each word.  Each repetition of  “I know”, of “I do not approve” builds the emotional tension until it’s eventually released.  “More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world” is the cry of a broken voice.  In a lesser poem it would come off as melodramatic; here it rings true.

Throughout the last verse each repetition adds to the tension, stating the bleak truth of mortality.  Millay’s final sentence gathers together the threads of the poem to weave them into a comment – “I know.  But I do not approve.” – and a final judgement that carries within it all the emotional strength of the poem.  “I am not resigned,” she writes, and in her hopeless defiance we see the heroic: a soldier, facing a battle he knows she has no chance of winning, determined nonetheless to fight because that is the kind of person she is.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

In Defense of the Irrational

There’s an argument floating around that Christians – at least those crazy fundamentalists – are Christians because they don’t understand logic.  The more rational a person is, the closer they come to an enlightened atheism.  The ultimate atheist would be totally rational, freed from the crippling bonds of bias and fallacy.  I’m going to argue that this ideal is harmful, and in fact encourages the irrationality it seeks to avoid. 
On the well-known fundamentalist Jack Chick’s website is an essay by Robert Morey, a long-time Christian apologist: Common Logical Fallacies Made By Muslims. Morey’s essay attempts to dismantle the arguments in favour of Islam.  Surprisingly, he writes clearly and logically about the awful arguments Muslim apologists use.  Without the references to Jesus, his essay would have been perfectly at home on an atheist site.  However, almost every one of Morey’s arguments applies just as well to the Bible as to the Qu’ran. Take his second point, a concise explanation of how proofs based on a holy book are circular:
Arguing in a circle: If you have already assumed in your premise what you are going to state in your conclusion, then you have ended where you began and proven nothing.
Examples: Proving Islam by the Qur'an and then proving the Qur'an by Islam.
How wonderful would it be if Christian apologists stopped trying to prove the Bible’s infallibility with Bible verses!  Later on, Morey writes:
…he [the Muslim] is assuming that if he can refute the Bible, then the Qur'an wins by default. If he can refute the Trinity, then Allah wins by default. But this is logically erroneous. You cannot prove your position by refuting someone else's position. The Bible and the Qur'an could both be wrong. Muslims must prove their own book.

This is the exact same argument that defenders of evolution use against creationists: arguments against evolution do not justify creationism; intelligent design does not win by default if scientists are unable to explain abiogenesis.

How can someone display this level of critical thinking about Islam and then totally fail to view one’s own belief in the same light?  The buzzword which springs to mind is ‘cognitive dissonance’, and I believe it’s appropriate in this case.  However, this case shows that cognitive dissonance isn’t just found among people who scorn rationality – like Morey, it’s possible to be capable of reasoned argument and unquestioning faith at the same time.  Even atheists, often self-proclaimed rationalists, have beliefs that are totally resistant to evidence. 

Questioning someone’s cognitive dissonance provokes an offended response, as it’s possible to see in arguments with fundamentalist believers.  When have atheists displayed such a kneejerk response to questioning an issue?  Without giving direct examples, it’s not hard to find instances of irrationality in the discussion of, say, politics (or eating meat)

Like Greta Christina, I don’t think human beings are capable of total rationality.  We didn’t evolve for abstract thought and it’s arrogant to believe that we can objectively evaluate every aspect of our lives.  Ironically, a belief that one lacks any cognitive bias is the perfect environment for bias to thrive in: if I see myself as a being of pure reason, why would I bother examining my own positions?  After all, they must be rational if I came up with them

Reason is a tremendously useful tool.  To use it effectively – and maintain our credibility as rationalists – we need to admit that we’re not rational all the time; that in some areas it may even be preferable to be irrational.  We need to learn to live with the part of ourselves that justifies the unreasonable.  Otherwise we run the risk of becoming like Robert Morey: crusaders for logic, keen analytical minds bent on exposing all irrationality – except, of course, our own.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

An Atheist’s Favourite Bible Verses: #1

Why would an atheist enjoy reading the Bible?  I’m not talking about the kind of smirking enjoyment some people seem to get by cataloguing the verses where God commands his followers to do awful things.  Those kind of lists are useful, I suppose, but in anything other than a theological debate they miss the point: the Bible is first and foremost a story.  Like any story it has its moments of blood and violence, darkness and hopelessness, love and death.  It is interesting; it is beautiful; it is, on occasion, even true.  The King James Version especially is written incredibly well, and it is from that that I wish to draw a verse that is both poetical and insightful.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9:11
This is, coincidentally, the verse that George Orwell – famously agnostic – cited as an example of excellent writing.  In his essay Politics and the English Language he renders that verse in ‘modern English’.  I believe that the best way to appreciate a skilfully-crafted sentence is to see it in contrast with a sentence of worse quality, so I will reproduce Orwell’s rewording here:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must be taken into account.
There may, of course, be someone who considers this second version better, but I would not wish to discuss poetry with them.  Some of the merits of the original verse – directness of language, clarity of expression, richness of examples – should now be clear. 
Let’s look at the cadence or rhythm of the verse. Each middle clause has two distinct areas of emphasis – and saw under the sun | that the race is not to the swift – which are linked together by meaning.  The first clause – I returned – can be read as a kind of warm-up to the beat of the next six clauses.  After the sixth we have the final clause, separated from the rest of the sentence by a semi-colon.  Rhythmically, I would read it as two iambs, a dactyl and an anapaest:
           but time and chance happeneth to them all.
The sound of it somehow brings a satisfying end to such a long sentence.  Try tapping the strong and weak beats out on a hard surface; it’s almost like a concluding drumroll.
What about the meaning of the verse?  Coming from the most existential chapter of the Bible – the chapter that brought us “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” – it’s a statement about the unreliability of everything.  Spend years building up your strength?  You still might not win the battle.  Study your whole life?  There’s still a significant chance you’ll end up poor and alone.  The verse gives no indication that God will protect the sufficiently devout. “Time and chance” are uncontrollable forces that can, in one stroke, ruin your hopes.
It’s a sobering message, expressed beautifully, and that’s why it’s my favourite Bible verse.  Even though I’m an atheist.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Love Letters in the Digital Age

At once intimate and detached, passionate and calculated, love letters have been for centuries a key weapon in the arsenal of lovers.  In The Seducer’s Diary, Soren Kierkegaard draws a distinction between the ‘living word’ of speech and the ‘dead word’ of a letter, arguing that both are vital in creating the perfect romance.  In a letter, he writes, one can throw oneself at a woman’s feet without shame, while in real life such an act would only provoke laughter.  Moreover, the distance of a letter allows the idealization of the lover to remain intact: love letters are free of the physical imperfections that can break the spell in a face-to-face conversation.  A love letter can be folded and kept in a breast pocket or treasured in a hidden drawer.  It provides tangible, enduring evidence of an often all-too-fleeting emotion.

Today, unless I am dating entirely the wrong kind of people, the art of the love letter has fallen into disuse.  It seems anachronistic – why take the time to write on paper how you feel when it takes mere seconds to call up the object of your affections?  For those who find it difficult to open up in person, instant messaging and email are electronic alternatives.  But in the service of convenience lovers have sacrificed so much of what makes romance beautiful: the anxiety of waiting, the authenticity of personal communication and above all the aesthetic impact of an actual letter.

Restricting written declarations of love to an electronic medium means that they are read by the dead light of a screen, in the same font and in the same place that your lover deals with the most mundane daily tasks. There is something romantically unsatisfying about a heartfelt email; the term itself seems contradictory.  How much more beautiful would the same words be on actual paper, dappled with shadow from an overhanging tree, or read by torchlight underneath a blanket?

This is not to say that technology can offer nothing to romance.  Electronic messages provide useful shades between Kierkegaard’s ‘living’ and ‘dead’ forms of communication.  Instant messaging is as immediate as speech yet as detached as a letter.  Emails, like letters, can be composed with care, and unlike letters they are convenient for casual conversations. 
However, consider that the object of your affections might appreciate a physical letter from time to time.  I know I would.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Why Cyclists Shouldn't Break Road Rules

I believe that bikes are important.  I believe this because cars are bad.  Cars are bad mainly because they fill the air with exhaust fumes.  They are also terribly convenient, and this is why we need to ride bikes: to show people who drive cars that bikes are pretty convenient too.  I am using simple words and short sentences because I want the man on the road bike who ran five red lights in a row in front of me tonight to understand how much of an irredeemable fuck he is. 
Every cyclist, deliberately or not, is raising public awareness for other cyclists just by riding their bike in traffic.  You can all be proud of yourselves.  But if you break the road rules in front of cars; if you endanger other people’s lives by not waiting at the lights; if you have the fucking temerity to think that getting home thirty seconds earlier is worth tarnishing the public image of every other cyclist who you share the road with, worth undoing all the good us other cyclists do to show drivers that cycling is a viable option, then fuck you. 
You have no right to be proud that you ride a bike.  You have no right to act like riding a bike frees you from some environmental karmic debt.  We’d all be better off if you gave away your bike and drove round in a four-wheel-drive.
(Of course, if that guy was rushing to his wife in labor or suchlike, I’m totally off base and arrogant.  But I doubt it.)